The book of Revelation is one we don’t tend to dwell on very often. The vision given to John on Patmos seems more like what we might expect in a fantasy novel rather than Scripture. Angels pouring out bowls of wrath, sounding trumpets, inciting war. A cursory read of Revelation would indicate to us that its contents are symbolic – though, the exact meaning of that symbolism has been a source of contention and debate among biblical scholars for centuries. Regardless of where one falls on the interpretive spectrum, it is certainly agreed that however literal (or not-literal) we take the symbolism, the contents of John’s vision are meant to point to a reality behind its telling. In this sense, the entire Revelation given to John at Patmos exposes the reality of, and connection between, the seen and unseen of creation. The trials and tribulations of a persecuted church were, or are, the earthly manifestations of the heavenly battles between God and the powers and principalities that try to usurp God’s place as sovereign of creation.
It is, perhaps, obvious why this passage from Revelation is included in the readings for the feast of St Michael and All Angels. In a short but vivid story, we hear a strange tale of Michael and his angelic comrades waging war against a dragon, whom they defeat and cast out of heaven. The significance of the victory is explained by an unidentified “voice from heaven,” who suggests that the dragon’s downfall indicates that the time of God’s salvation has come.
This short episode is part of a larger vision that situates the cosmic battle in the context of salvation history. The dragon is first introduced alongside a woman who is clothed in the sun and under whose feet is the moon, and whose crown is bejeweled by twelve stars. She bears within her a Son, who will rule the nations. The dragon knows that the One she bears threatens his power and so he devises a plan to devour the Child as soon as he is born. The dragon’s plans are thwarted, however, and just as the woman gives birth to her Son, he is snatched away and taken to the throne of God and the woman escapes into the wilderness under God’s protection. Leaving the woman behind, the dragon pursues the child only to be met by Michael and his angels. The dragon summons his own angels and a battle ensues, but he is no match for Michael and his army, who cast the dragon out of heaven and down to the earth. This elicits a joyous anthem proclaiming the time of God’s salvation and God’s reign is now at hand, but there is also a tinge of warning is the celebratory hymn – the earth and the sea must beware for they are now the realm in which the dragon resides.
Relegated to earth, the dragon revives his pursuit of the woman – if he cannot have the child, he will seek her destruction instead. But his plans once again fail. The woman is given eagles’ wings, which she uses to fly into the wilderness, to the place God has prepared for her where she will find rest, nourishment, and security. In a last-ditch effort to destroy the woman, the dragon spews a river of rushing water in the hopes that the flood will sweep the woman away. But the earth itself rebels against the forces of the dragon and protects the woman from the dragon’s wrath by swallowing up the waters of destruction. Having failed once again, the rage-filled dragon grasps at whatever control he can and seeks out the woman’s other children to destroy them. To do so, the dragon raises a beast from the sea who is called Anti-Christ and another from the earth who is the false prophet. The beast from the sea is given all the power and authority that the dragon has and the beast from the earth is commanded to exercise that power and authority in signs, wonders, and deeds meant to deceive the peoples of the earth – the aim of all of this is to divert the peoples’ attention and faith away from the One True God and to instead command the worship of the first beast, the beast from the sea who is the Anti-Christ. Though the two beasts of the dragon manage to persuade and influence the great multitudes of the earth, they ultimately meet their demise and God proves to be victorious. The final plan of the dragon fails, and he and his minions are thrown into a lake of sulfur in judgment for their violent deception and plot to reign supreme as heavenly beings.
What are we, today in the 21st-century, to do with this story? What significance does Michael’s celestial victory have for us in our world today? To get at this, we need to understand a little about the time in which the Revelation was written. It seems most likely that John penned this work toward the end of the first century. It had been at least a couple of decades since Rome was burned and Jerusalem was sacked. The political atmosphere was charged with conflict between the Judeans and the Christians, between the Christians and Judeans and the occupying forces of Rome. Christians were being tortured and executed for not renouncing their conviction that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. The Judeans accused the Christians of adding fuel to an already out of control fire, inciting more and more violent rebellions. The uncertainty of life and death was around every corner; threats of life and limb could not be avoided; martyrdom was the context in which John saw this Revelation. What, considering these circumstances, ought the elders of the early churches say to encourage perseverance in the believers’ faith and conviction in their testimony of Jesus Christ?
The vision revealed to John on Patmos was not given to alert believers to a specified sequence of events that would happen in some undisclosed future. Rather, it was written to encourage and comfort believers whose lives bore the mark of suffering and violence because they refused to acquiesce to the violently evil powers of the world. John’s vision of the dragon and its beasts’ defeat was not an apocalyptic fairy tale but a commentary on the finite and limited power of evil itself. Just as the dragon and its beasts were ultimately thwarted in their plans to rule the world indefinitely, so too the dominance of evil that manifests in violently oppressive systems and institutions is finite and will come to an end. It will not prove victorious – and if this is true of “Satan” (the personification of the source of evil) in the heavenly realm, how much truer will it be for the manifestations of evil in our world! The faithful inhabitants of the earth will receive liberation from the oppressive rule of evil that falsely promises life and prosperity only to deliver death and destruction. The time of this world’s ruler is short, and the reign of God is unfolding even now!
It would be easy to come to the conclusion that the vision John recounts to us is out of place in our context. We exist in a time and place where it is not criminal to be a Christian. What encouragement or comfort might we, who live in the most affluent and powerful nation in the world, glean from this Revelation? As I think about this question, I’m reminded of a sermon Mark Taylor gave a few weeks back in which he recalled Howard Thurman’s insistence that the Gospel was written specifically for the masses of folks in the world who live with their backs constantly against the wall. Many of us here today have never had to contend with that kind of existence and so the comfort and encouragement that John offers in the Revelation seem inconsequential.
And yet, this is perhaps exactly why we, most of all, need to pay attention to what John sees. Couched in John’s assurance that the trials and tribulations of this world are not unnoticed by God and that God, and in turn the saints, will prove to be victorious, is a warning to all those who might be lured by the seductive offer of power, privilege, and security. Our world is full of things that are anti- Christ, things and policies and institutions and ingrained human behavior that distort the teaching and image of Christ, that produce fruit which is contrary to the vision of God’s reign embodied in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And our world is full of false prophets, people and institutions who point to the false image of power and privilege and security with the promise that that image is worthy of our devotion.
But we must not be seduced by the world’s concepts of power and privilege. As we celebrate Michael and his angels’ victory over the dragon today, I wonder what areas of your life still need liberation from the oppressive deception of the evil that still holds influence in our world? What alliances with the false power of the dragon still need to be broken and offered to God for healing and restoration? Where might you look for the angels of God to help and defend you as you seek to live faithful lives?