Issue #193 -------
June 3, 2005
The most successful tyranny is not the one
that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one
that removes the awareness of other possibilities.
Allan Bloom (1930-1992)
"The Closing of the American Mind"
I guess I'm a hopeless romantic at heart, for I'm a sucker for a rousing tale of dragons and damsels in distress. The fair maiden, heavy with child, compelling in her innocence, brings out the Sir Galahad in us as we see the giant fire-breathing dragon preparing to dine on this "tasty morsel." We cheer as she and the child are rescued by the hero astride his great white steed, and as the dreaded dragon is slain with the knight's mighty sword. Such legends have intrigued men, women and young people for centuries, and entire sections of bookstores and libraries are devoted to this rather unique genre of literature. It might surprise some folks to learn, therefore, that these great passionate dramas may be found within the pages of God's inspired Scriptures also. One such account is discovered in the twelfth chapter of the book of Revelation. This powerful cosmic struggle will be the focus of this current reflection into one of God's great eternal "mysteries" -- The Legend of the Lady in Labor, the Little Lad, and the Large Lizard.
As the vision in Revelation 12 unfolds before our wondering eyes, we behold "a woman who stands having been clothed with the sun, and with the moon underneath her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; and she is pregnant; and she, who is travailing and who is being severely pained to bring forth, is crying out" (vs. 1-2 ... all quotes from this chapter are taken from my own translation of the Greek text of Revelation, which I did years ago as part of a project while in graduate school at the university I attended. You will note that some of the wording seeks to better reflect the sometimes subtle nuances of the Greek verb forms -- for example, "who stands having been clothed" reflects the perfect passive participle far better than just the word "clothed" alone).
One question immediately leaps to the forefront of our minds: Who IS this woman? As one might well imagine, there are about as many theories as there are theorists. It would take a massive amount of space to analyze them all, so, out of sensitivity to the readers, I shall refrain from such an exercise, fascinating though it might prove to many. The most common and popular views are that this woman is a symbol of the virgin Mary, the people of Israel, or the church. My own conviction is that it is much too limiting to select only one; in point of fact, this woman is all three, a fact clearly perceived as one examines the development of the account in Rev. 12. Thus, she is a triune representation of all the redeemed under both old and new covenants; the faithful of all time; physical as well as spiritual Israel.
There is much peripheral symbolism associated with this woman, much of which finds its basis for meaning within the pages of the Old Covenant writings. Although the book of Revelation does not contain a single OT quotation, it nevertheless contains over 400 allusions back to those inspired documents. Those who have no knowledge of the teaching of the OT are doomed never to truly grasp the teaching of this final book in the NT canon. For example, she is "clothed with the sun," which represents the brilliance, radiance and glory of those who are "wrapped about" with an intimate relationship with deity. This was seen in the shining face of Moses as he came down the mountain from his audience with God (Ex. 34:29-35). The moon under her feet as a footstool represents dominion. She wears the crown of victory; the 12 stars perhaps representing both the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles, thus the victorious of both dispensations. As a whole, it is a vision of majesty, splendor and glory, which certainly applies to the faithful of all ages.
Later, we see several additional symbols associated with this woman. "And the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, in order that she might fly into the desert unto her place" (Rev. 12:14). The wings of the eagle again take us back to OT imagery. "You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself" (Ex. 19:4). The symbols of the desert and eagles' wings and God's protective gathering of His people are again seen dramatically in Deut. 32:9-11. The wings of eagles are strong, and thus can easily bear one away from danger. God promises this strength, like unto the wings of an eagle, to His people (Is. 40:31).
While in the wilderness wanderings of this present Christian dispensation, the church is continually pursued by the great red dragon (Rev. 12:13). Although the woman is taken on the wings of a great eagle to a place of safety "away from the face of the serpent" (vs. 14), nevertheless "the serpent cast from out of his mouth water like unto a river after the woman, in order that he might cause her to be carried away by the torrent. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river which the dragon cast from out of his mouth" (vs. 15-16). "The dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan" (Rev. 20:2) makes attempt after attempt to sweep the church away during this present dispensation, but he is destined to fail each time. He spews forth floods of deception and falsehood which pour upon the earth. The earth, however, drinks it up like a sponge. The world about us soaks up such godless deception, but the church is not "tossed here and there by waves" of deception (Eph. 4:14). David tells us that the godly, who take refuge in the Lord, will not be swept away by such floods of evil deception -- "Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him" (Ps. 32:6).
The child depicted in this chapter, of course, is the Messiah -- Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the descendant of the tribe of Judah, the firstborn of Mary, the Bridegroom of the church. The entire incarnation is depicted in verse 5, from conception to ascension. "And she brought forth a son, a male, who is about to shepherd all the nations with a rod made of iron. And her child was snatched away to God and to His throne." That this passage clearly is Messianic in nature can be seen from the OT passage to which it alludes -- "He said to Me, 'Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron" (Ps. 2:7-9). Refer also to: Rev. 2:27 and Rev. 19:15.
The Great Red Dragon
We are introduced to quite a horrific creature in vs. 3 -- "Behold, a great fiery-red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads are seven diadems." Certainly not a pleasant sight; this is the material of nightmares. As to the identity of this beast, we are not left to wonder -- it is "the ancient serpent who was being called Devil and Satan, the one who is leading astray the inhabitants of the entire earth" (vs. 9). It is "the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan" (Rev. 20:2). The words drakon ("dragon") and ophis ("serpent") are largely synonymous in Greek. Indeed, the two words "dragon" and "serpent" are used interchangeably several times with reference to Satan (Rev. 12:9, 15-16; 20:2). The former word, however, usually represented something larger and fiercer than a mere serpent. A dragon was more of a monster serpent. This figure was made even more horrific by the addition of the adjective "great." There are several symbols associated with this great dragon of which we should take special note:
We are additionally informed that "his tail draws a third of the stars of heaven, and it cast them unto the earth" (vs. 4). This gives us some indication of the great power possessed and exercised by this dragon. The "stars" refer to the "heavenly host" -- i.e., the angels. This depicts the deception and ruin of some of the angels. When Satan was cast from the presence of God, so were those angels who had pledged their loyalty to the great dragon. "God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into Tartarus and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment" (2 Pet. 2:4). "And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6). "And the dragon waged war, and his angels, but he did not prevail, nor was their place found any longer in heaven. And the great dragon was cast, the ancient serpent who was being called Devil and Satan, the one who is leading astray the inhabitants of the entire earth -- he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were cast with him" (Rev. 12:7-9). The tail sweeping them away is a symbol that the power of the dragon lies in its tail. The tail represents the deceptive power of Satan. "The prophet who teaches falsehood is the tail" (Is. 9:15).
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this vision of the great red dragon, especially with respect to its relation to the woman with child, is found in the latter part of verse 5 -- "And the dragon stands having stood before the woman who is about to bring forth, in order that whenever she should bring forth her child, he might devour it." The coming of the Messiah is viewed in this vision as imminent. The dragon stands before the woman with the sole purpose in mind of devouring her child when it is born. In other words, his purpose is to kill the Messiah. Again, notice the use in the Greek of the perfect tense here -- "the dragon stands having stood before the woman." The perfect tense indicates the reality that the dragon not only stood before the woman as she prepared to give birth, but that he had been standing there all along. From the time that the promise was made that the Messiah would come through this woman (Israel), Satan stood before her for the purpose of seeking to terminate that pregnancy. Now, as the time for her to deliver has arrived, having failed to terminate the pregnancy, he prepares to devour the child. From the beginning, this murderous dragon has sought to end the life of this child.
This vision is the KEY to the interpretation of the entire OT history and writings. This is the cosmic battle that was waged from the very beginning --- God preserving the line through whom the Messiah would come, and Satan seeking to end it. Why this compelling need to stop the birth of the Messiah, or to kill Him upon His arrival? "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel" (Gen. 3:15). The "seed of woman" is the Messiah, who would "bruise the head" of (destroy) Satan (the serpent, dragon). Thus, Satan's only hope is to destroy the "seed of woman" before this child comes to fulfill His mission of destroying him. The struggle is seen throughout the OT history and writings. Notice some of the creative efforts, as recorded in the OT, of the dragon attempting to terminate the pregnancy of the woman, thus killing her "seed," and notice God's protection of the woman and her seed so that the Messiah would continue to have a line from which to descend:
Revelation 12 is a fascinating chapter; one which easily stirs the imagination of the reader. It is filled with intrigue and mystery; cosmic battles; dragons and damsels in distress. But more than just being a "great read," perplexing though it may be to many, it is far more! This chapter is actually a mini-replay, steeped in symbolism, of the eternal battle between good and evil, God and Satan. It is the story of a promised Messiah, and a godless deceiver and murderer who seeks, through any means possible, to prevent the coming of mankind's Redeemer. It is also a tale of winners and losers. Put simply: the woman wins, the dragon does not. It is a vision of the church in its wilderness experience, betrothed and beloved; it is also a clear expectation of the church triumphant. The whole message of Revelation can be summed up in just two words -- We Win!!
From a Southern Baptist Pastor in Texas:
Al, I continue to enjoy your Reflections. Regarding the growth of your list of subscribers, it is no real surprise at all what God has done through your obedience! On this issue of fellowship, as per your article Divine Barrier Busting, I recently drove from St. Louis, MO to Fort Worth, TX. In almost every town there was a sign announcing the presence of a Church of Christ in that town. I mused to myself, "Would they really 'welcome' someone to worship with them?" ... especially given their specific restrictions regarding fellowship?! If congregations of Churches of Christ within a city can't even fellowship each other, it just seemed unlikely that a traveler, like me, would find fellowship.
From a Minister in Mississippi:
First, thanks for today's Reflections. You've nailed another one. Second, I thought I'd tell you about something we're doing here in our small Southern town. I'm meeting weekly with a group of local ministers. This is not only a broad selection of churches in our town, but also a purposely "black/white" group. We've been meeting together, eating together, and working on developing a serious, meaningful relationship with each other. We've shared our ministries, our struggles, our preconceptions about each other, laughed a lot, and discovered that we're closer on some things than we thought and about as distant as we suspected on others. It's not an effort to out-argue each other, it's an effort to understand, to know each other's heart. Last week, one of the black ministers said something interesting to me. Actually, it was a question. "Is there something happening in Churches of Christ?!" What he's seeing is a willingness to engage. He neither expects me to abandon my beliefs, nor is he interested in throwing away his own. He is more interested in the fact that he sees a different attitude. We will be hosting a dinner for the preachers of our community and their wives in the near future at our church building. This will be the second year we've done that. We have decided to love people and treat them right, to respect their faith journey even if it's different from ours. People in our community are seeing this as a refreshing change among the people they know as the Church of Christ.
I can tell you that, as a practical matter, I have been given a far greater influence in this community than in any other where I've ministered. Whether it is through civic involvement, invitations to speak or otherwise participate in some things happening at other churches, being given a voice in the local newspaper and radio station, local political events, and other things, these doors have opened because our congregation is developing an openness, an acceptance of others, and a desire to truly love people. Perhaps others might make greater progress for God's kingdom if their basic approach would change from hostility, rejection and isolation, to simply loving people and treating them the same way we'd like to be treated. Praise God for grace and mercy found in Jesus. Love you, brother!
From a Reader in Nevada:
Bro. Al, Thank you for your Reflections article "What God Hath Joined Together." You have made such a confusing subject so simple. I have never believed the sin of divorce and remarriage was soul-damning without the possibility of forgiveness. But you have explained it in a way I have never heard, and as I read and reread your explanation I see you are explaining it just as Jesus intended it to be understood. Thank you.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Al, Thank you for your latest Reflections concerning the ideal of God for marriage. I was unaware of some of the historical context surrounding King Herod Antipas and how it may have related to the questions Jesus received about divorce. Your article brought to mind a question that I have wrestled with for many years, and I have not come to a satisfactory conclusion yet. What does repentance look like after a completely unjustifiable divorce and remarriage? I know some among my own extended family and my friends who have experienced multiple failed marriages (sometimes because they have been unfaithful). For the sake of people in difficult circumstances, I would like to be able to give them good advice about what repentance would involve. I know that peace of mind is difficult when one does not even know what the "fruit of repentance" should be.
From a Reader in Florida:
Al, Thank you for your good work. Your dedication and knowledge is very much appreciated, and we look forward each week to your sensible approach to God's Word.
From a Minister in Florida:
Bro. Al, your Reflections article "What God Hath Joined Together" was a very good and very much needed lesson within our brotherhood. Though our brotherhood does not follow as dogmatically now, as they did a few decades past, the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church on divorce and remarriage -- namely that a couple cannot divorce for any reason, and if they do, they must remain unmarried and celibate for the remainder of their lives -- it is nevertheless a very strong false doctrine that still exists among our brotherhood. Quite a few years back, I came to the same conclusions that you have. I really believe that your reasoning and illustrations in this article are excellent tools to use in discussing this subject with others.
From a Reader in Texas:
I really enjoyed reading your recent Reflections article on marriage. Having been raised in an ultra-conservative Church of Christ, I know their thoughts about divorce are based on Matthew's account concerning adultery. But, I do agree that their type of thinking is very divisive. That thinking is also found in their positions concerning worship. Even though I go to a very progressive Church of Christ, there are still some here who believe that if a woman passed the communion trays she'd be usurping authority over man. Right now the men are still doing everything, but I don't think that is for long. This is a very big subject at our congregation. For one hour on Sunday morning letting men do everything just gives me a rest. I don't have a problem with it. But, for some of the young women here, it's a different story.
From a Minister in Washington:
It has been a while since I have written, Al. I thought I would let you know I am still out here reading your Reflections every week. I enjoyed reading your Reflections article on the role of elders in Issue #186. We have been discussing our various roles in the church and I passed your article along to all our leaders. As for your review of the published "Christian Affirmation 2005" (Issue #190), our leadership was also having a discussion (as many are) on that published Affirmation the very day your Reflections on it came in my email ... so, I passed that one along too. We kind of joked about the "24 Cardinals," as we termed those who signed that document. But, this is no joke!! You are correct when you wrote -- "It will likely be viewed as yet another sectarian statement that promotes a narrow perspective; one that additionally implies all those who do not embrace the convictions of this Affirmation are thereby in sinful opposition to the 'original design' of the early church and to the 'divine design' for the One Body of Christ." Many of us felt like the document reflects a divisive spirit. Keep teaching, brother!! P.S.: I'm enjoying reading the "Adventures of Warrior Willie: Marstown's Party Pup on Patrol." Funny!
From an Elder in Missouri:
Al, It seems that many seem to make distinctions about this passage (Matthew 19) depending on whether one or both of the parties are Christians. I believe that the Lord's reference to "the beginning" takes it out of such covenant contexts and makes the language universally binding on all who enter into marriage. I too have had difficulty with the "logic" of many who say the divorced are still married "in God's sight" -- a phrase lacking in Scriptural authenticity or support. Jesus spoke of divorce, then of marriage, in the same context and with the full understanding that God recognized that second marriage as a marriage. By the way, we got the Reflections CD's in the mail today. Thanks! This will make my review of your work much easier.
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