One of Jesus’ followers, John wrote this collection of visions while in exile on the island of Patmos. John also wrote three letters and his gospel, in which he refers to himself as the “disciple Jesus loved.” He was one of only three of Jesus’ closest followers and friends, along with Peter and James.
1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. —Revelation 12:1-3 ESV
In John’s first vision, he sees a woman that symbolizes Israel and maybe even Mary, the mother of Jesus, who (like any other woman) cries out in the agony of giving birth. There are typically two takes on Mary: we deify her or we ignore her.
Those who deify her forget that she was human and flawed. Maybe she got impatient and in her anger sinned against Joseph, because he could spend all day working on music—I mean, building an armoire but couldn’t remember to change a light bulb. Maybe she occasionally yelled at Jesus, though I’m not sure why, since he lived a perfect life. She and Joseph were the only parents who could ever rightfully worship their child. (Many parents do this when they allow their kids to dominate the calendar and run the life of the family.)
A lot of us ignore Mary, not realizing the ridicule and ostracizing she would have endured for having a child out of wedlock, something that is very common today. Every young mother already feels the pressure of “am I doing it right?” Much more for this young mother burdened with the overwhelming assignment of raising the Son of God. I struggle at times with favoring one child over another. Could you imagine being forced to compare your other kids with Jesus? “Why can’t you be like your brother Jesus?”
John also sees a “great red dragon,” which is, of course, Satan, who is very powerful, as illustrated by all the heads, horns, and diadems (crowns). I remember the Pentecostal church I grew up in where they liked to claim authority over the devil—calling him out, rebuking him, and reminding him of his fate. Truthfully, we have been given authority, because Jesus has given it to us, but I don’t think Satan is someone we should mess with. Resist him? Yes. Be on guard against him? Yes. Go looking to stir up trouble with a seven-headed, -horned, -diademed dragon? Probably not.
4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. —Revelation 12:4-6 ESV
If you’re unfamiliar with Satan’s story, he used to be known as Lucifer, the highest ranked angel who led the worship of God but rebelled when he wanted some of that glory for himself—a temptation common for every worship leader who craves the spotlight. (See 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Isaiah 14:12–15.) Verse 4 says the dragon swept with his tail a third of the stars of heaven, likely referring to the angels who fell with him.
Satan, who stood before the woman even as she gave birth, used King Herod to try to “devour” Jesus. Though the baby Messiah escaped with his parents to Egypt, many horrified Hebrew families lost their baby boys due to Satan’s working through Herod’s megalomania. (See Matthew 2:16.) It’s ironic that Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt, since Moses (like Jesus) was rescued from the genocidal Pharaoh.
I imagine a nativity scene, one likely set in a cave rather than a stable, not where “shepherds guard and angels sing,” but one where angels guard and shepherds sing. Shepherds would have been no defense against demonic forces. For 33-some years, angels would guard the Messiah until the day he would command his detail to fall out, and they would be forced to watch helplessly as their Commander submitted to the great red dragon (as when Aslan willingly surrendered in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia.)
In this first vision, John says the “child was caught up to God and to his throne,” but he shows in his second vision that Jesus would first have to suffer. We’ll take a look at that second vision in my next post.