The (other) Christmas story

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Jesus was born to defeat Satan and that means war

by Gaylord Goertzen

The nativity scenes in our homes illustrate the Christmas story we know from Matthew and Luke. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are in the center of the stable. Around them stand the sheep, shepherds and angels from Luke’s account. Even though the wise men from Matthew’s telling arrive after the shepherds are gone, our nativity scene includes these travelers.

But there is another Christmas story that is quite different. This other narrative is John’s story revealed in the book of Revelation. The central characters in this account, as told in Revelation 12:1-13:1, are a woman, a dragon and a child. It is a violent story of good versus evil.

To understand John’s story, we must first think about signs. One mile east of Hillsboro, Kan., is a sign that says: Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church, four miles south. The sign is not Ebenfeld MB Church; the sign points to Ebenfeld MB Church. A sign is not reality, but it points to something that is.

John writes of two signs in Revelation 12:1-3: “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 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 10 horns and seven crowns on his heads.”

 

Two signs

The woman in John’s story is not Mary, the mother of Jesus. The woman is a sign pointing to something else. The first readers of John’s letter knew that the woman points to Joseph. Not Joseph, the husband of Mary, but Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob. In Genesis 37 we read that Joseph dreams that the sun, moon and 11 stars all bow down to him. The sun in Joseph’s dream is his father, to whom God gave the name Israel. The moon is his mother, Rachel. The 11 stars are his brothers; Joseph is the twelfth star. And so the woman in John’s Christmas story points to the nation of Israel.

The second sign in John’s Christmas story isn’t wondrous; it’s a horrendous sign. John sees an enormous red dragon with seven heads, 10 horns and seven crowns. The red dragon is an awful sign pointing to more than just evil in general. It points to who’s behind evil. The red dragon points to Satan (v. 9).

 

The ruling Shepherd

John’s Christmas story continues as the woman gives birth to a male child. “The dragon stood in front of the woman about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it is 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” (Rev. 12: 4b-5).

Unlike the woman and the dragon, the child is not a sign, pointing beyond himself to another reality. The son is reality! The son is God’s promised Messiah, and he is the center of John’s Christmas story. He will rule with a rod of iron, and John tells us how the Messiah will rule. The Greek word translated “rule” literally means shepherd. Jesus, the Lamb that is slain, will shepherd the nations along paths of righteousness to life.

And that is a reality that Satan, the dragon, cannot accept. Satan wants to lead the nations to death and destruction. In order to prevent Christ from leading, the dragon stands in front of the woman so he can consume the child. But Satan’s plans are thwarted. Just as he’s about to devour the child, God snatches the child up to his throne in heaven.

 

Cosmic battle

This is not the Christmas story we know, and yet it is. In his book, Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson writes: “It is John’s spirit-appointed task to supplement the work of Matthew and Luke so that the nativity cannot be sentimentalized into coziness, domesticated into drabness or commercialized into worldliness. This is not the nativity story we grew up with, but it’s the nativity story just the same. The birth of Jesus excites more than wonder; it excites evil.”

John reminds us that the throne is why Jesus was born. When Jesus was on trial before Pilate, Pilate asks him if he is a king. Jesus says, “You have correctly said that I am a king. For this I have been born” (John 18:37). Jesus wasn’t born just to die. Jesus was born to wear a crown.

But the way to the crown is the way of the cross. Jesus rules by giving his life for others. That’s the Christmas story according to John, and that is why we Christians respond to Jesus’ birth with joy and excitement. We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her king.”

How does evil respond to John’s Christmas story, when the child is born and caught up to heaven? Matthew hints at it in his account when he describes Herod’s response to the birth of Jesus. John fills in the full details. He writes, “And there is a war in heaven” (Rev. 12:7).

The only characters from the nativity scene that appear in John’s account, other than Jesus, are the angels, and they are at war (vv. 7-9). Satan incites one-third of the angels to fight with him and to attack God’s heavenly army of angels. Satan’s goal is to capture God’s throne and reign in God’s place. But Satan and his angels are defeated and literally hurled out of heaven.

Where does the dragon go when he is thrown out of heaven? He comes to earth, and he’s not a happy camper: “The dragon was enraged at the woman and went to make war with the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s command and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). Satan is at war with us, the church. Will Satan win? He didn’t win the war with Jesus or with God’s army of angels, and he won’t win the war with us. John declares: “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (v. 11).

 

The blood of the Lamb

John’s Christmas story announces the good news that those who follow Christ Jesus will defeat Satan. We overcome Satan not because he is weaker than us; he is stronger. We overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb. Satan accuses us of being sinners. And he’s right; we are. But Satan is also wrong, for we are sinners saved by grace. We overcome Satan by claiming the blood of the Lamb.

We also defeat Satan by proclaiming the blood of the Lamb. A young woman in our church and her family prayed for more than a year that the woman’s aunt, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, would come to salvation before she died. When the aunt was given just two weeks to live, the young woman’s father, who had shared his faith with his family over the years, talked to his sister about Jesus. She insisted she wasn’t interested, and he left her bedside discouraged. But he repeatedly heard God say, “Are you giving up on her? What if you have only one more chance?”

The man asked his daughter’s family to pray that their aunt would cry out to Jesus before it was too late. He visited his sister again, telling her that asking Jesus to forgive her sins was the only way to heaven. God answered their prayers; the aunt prayed to receive Jesus and was saved. She died the next morning.

 

Claim and proclaim

Satan is at war with the church—trying to keep people from coming to Jesus. We fight Satan and overcome him by claiming the blood of the Lamb for our sins and by proclaiming the blood of the Lamb for the sins of the world. We fight Satan by caring for and loving people so that they can hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. It wasn’t a stranger who helped the aunt receive Jesus; someone who loved and cared for her brought her to Jesus.

Eugene Peterson sums up John’s Christmas story this way: “The Christmas story in Revelation isn’t there so that we can shut the door to a cold wintry world, curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and sing Christmas carols. The Christmas story is in Revelation so that we can walk out the door of the church and into the world with a song of praise to Jesus on our lips and a sharp two-edged sword in our hands.”

Christmas means war. Satan wants to devour; Jesus longs to save. John’s Christmas story challenges us to battle Satan. To love, care and serve others is to fight Satan and to proclaim victory through the blood of the Lamb.

 

Gaylord Goertzen is pastor of Ebenfeld MB Church of rural Hillsboro, Kan. This article is adapted from a sermon he gave in a series on Revelation.

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