Whenever we picked up the Bible to read the Christmas story as a family on Christmas Eve, we never flipped it open to Revelation. Sometimes we would stop over in Genesis or Isaiah on our way to Luke 2, but did not think to look at the last book of the Bible. In fact, I rarely read Revelation because, in general, it was a book I avoided.
Revelation was scary, hard to understand, and seemed to require a code to figure out. Its focus on violence and its potential to be used as a blueprint for Jesus’ second coming made it the textbook for escapist Christianity. I didn’t understand the literary implications of this apocalyptic letter, and so I just let it sit for a long time.
As I started studying it, however, I came to realize that the message of Revelation is hopeful, not only as a counter-narrative for those early Christians to whom it was written, but also for us, living and waiting for the return of Christ.
Apocalyptic writing is an uncovering or unveiling of something bigger than what we can see. It’s a literary technique, much like Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience at Christmas. It shows a bigger picture, so for us to understand Revelation, we first need to understand the context of the early church who lived oppressed by a Roman empire that saw their emperor as divine.
Revelation is not about war and despair. It’s a message of transformation and justice, the victory of Jesus, and the failure of Satan and the empire. Jesus is the central figure in the book of Revelation, and in the middle of this letter comes a Christmas story. It’s not like any Christmas story you may have heard. It’s full of imagery and tells the story of Jesus’ birth from a cosmic perspective. It’s a story that shows the extent to which Satan would have loved to destroy Jesus and the gravity by which he failed. Herod didn’t stop Jesus from being born and doing what He came to this earth to do.
I invite you to read and wrestle with this text. Do a bit of research about the imagery if you’re curious. And maybe, just maybe, this Christmas, when you read the story of Jesus’ birth, you might even flip over to Revelation 12 and add this to your Christmas reading.
Revelation 12 (New International Version)
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.