by Roger McCay
16 July 2023
Sermon Passage: Revelation 12:12b-16
Link to Audio Version
The most stolen book in America is the Bible. Such is irony. And for those who read their stolen Bible, they will find irony throughout. For example, repeatedly, in the Scriptures, we find that weakness is strength. And irony finds its peak on the cross of Christ, which G.K. Beale describes as both “retributive” and “restorative” irony. He explains:
The devil is doing all he can to destroy Jesus and he thinks finally he’s come up with the ultimate plan to put him to death on a cross.
And yet … At the cross, Jesus is taking the penalty of sin for sinners who’ve been in captivity to Satan. And he, at his very death, is paying the price for people who are in Satan’s captivity. The very thing that Satan thought would destroy Christ and give Satan the victory—is itself a defeat for Satan.
Beale then goes on to add:
On the other hand, there’s restorative irony—and Christ is the epitome of that. It looks like he’s being cursed but he’s being blessed. It looks like he’s being defeated, but he’s winning a victory. It looks like at the cross he is weak, but indeed he is strong.
The Lord often turns the tables on evil in the Scriptures: Joseph and his brothers. Job. Haman. Judas. The cross. It’s even here in our passage today.
Yet, though the Scriptures clearly testify that the Lord always overcomes the Devil’s schemes and that the Devil has been soundly defeated and bound. Even knowing this, the fear of the Devil can be a struggle, even for Christians. And this is rational. Satan is an immensely powerful and old enemy of God and his people who actively works against us. He is, as Peter describes him, “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). We absolutely know that the Devil and his minions can bring suffering and other unpleasantries our way. And we fear pain. We fear loss. Look at Job. Look at Stephen. Look at the Apostle Paul. Look at the Christians who were burned in Nero’s Garden, as “nightly illumination.” Look at the “360 million” Christians suffering “high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith” today, in 2023. Look at Jesus, who suffered and died.
Looking at Jesus is where we find that we need not fear. Because of Jesus, the Devil can never win against us, the people of God. Regardless of any suffering we might experience, as Christians, we end up coming out stronger for the pain. And sometimes, for his purposes, the Lord just flat out removes the threat. But whether suffering or bliss, the Lord delivers us from the evil one, in one way or another, whether in this life or the next. And death is certainly no threat for a Christian, nor is it victory for the devil. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Indeed the Lord works all things for the good of his people (including anything and everything the devil might bring in attack)—Rom. 8:28.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve studied Rev. 12:7-12 and what the war in Heaven was all about. We considered the identity of Michael (who is Christ Jesus) and his angels, which included both human and heavenly angels. And we saw that “the war in heaven” was played out on earth, against Satan and his demons and human minions.
The language of the war in Heaven is symbolic, with vv. 7-12 expanding on v. 5, speaking to the spiritual warfare involved, from the events around Christ’s first advent, through his life, ministry, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension into heaven to the throne of God. If you have studied the Gospels of the NT, you are intimately familiar with the war. What vv. 7-12 focuses on are the spiritual warfare aspects of the Gospels. In the war, Satan was defeated with Christ’s atoning death on the cross. His resurrection from the dead then sealed his victory. Jesus won the victory, and he didn’t do it alone. The Gospels testify that Jesus led his angels in the war (both human and heavenly), who fought with him, accompanied him, helped him, and so participated in his victory. His disciples’ participation in Satan’s defeat, particularly, was effectual by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (the gospel). They were totally committed to Jesus, faithful to carry out the missions he gave them, and were willing to die for him and the gospel (Mark 8:34-35; Luke 10:17-20). And history testifies that almost all of the twelve died as martyrs.
Satan’s power was thus broken by the ministry of Christ and his angels. Satan was bound, severely curtailing his deception of the nations. As the ruler of the world (Satan) was also deposed (defeated, publicly shamed, and thrown from heaven to the earth along with his angels). Triumphant in the war, Christ Jesus ascended into Heaven, where he took his place at the right hand of the Father, on the very throne of God. Full authority over heaven and earth is his, and his power is absolute, as the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Satan the Accuser no longer can or will go before the throne of God and accuse the brethren. As the Apostle Paul so beautifully stated in Rom. 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” The legal justification of the elect had been established for all time—the penalty for our sin paid for in full by Christ Jesus on the cross. Jesus himself is the advocate for his people. So, as Paul puts it, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Which was a cause of rejoicing in worship in heaven, called for in the first part of Rev. 12:12.
However, while Satan has been defeated and bound, he has not been cast into the lake of fire and sulfur. That will not come until the end (Rev. 20:11). The devil, with his demons and minions, continues to wage war against God’s people. And that fact is the direction the second part of Rev. 12 takes us, with a warning: “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Even though Christ has won the victory and reigns on the throne over heaven and earth, spiritual warfare continues. The Scriptures and the life experience of believers testify to this. Such is the tension of “the already but not yet.” Jesus has come; Jesus will come again; we live in the time between. From the time of the Lord’s ascension and Pentecost, the Lord’s disciples (Christians) have continued to fight, engaging in spiritual warfare against Satan and his minions and demons. And we continue to conquer by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.
The second part of Rev. 12:12 through v. 16 picks up on that theme in a particular way, expanding upon the first-century events of Rev. 12:6. The passage addresses the time of Satan’s persecution of the church from its early beginnings, in Jerusalem, leading up through the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is the “Woe to you, O earth,” as the ESV puts it, (although the term the ESV translates as “earth” seems better translated as “land”—as in the Land of Israel). And as we look ahead, Rev. 12:17 (which is the start of what follows in ch. 13) overlaps the time period represented in vv. 12-16, addressing Satan’s war against God’s people in more of a general sense, expanding it throughout the Gentile nations (symbolically called “the sea”).
So, the devil was thrown down from heaven. He went to war against God’s people on earth—both the land (representing the land of Israel) and the sea (representing the Gentile nations, including the territory of the Roman Empire). Furious at his defeat, he first influenced the Jews to go on the offensive against the Christians, as they were just a few. But as the gospel exploded out of Jerusalem, and the church expanded throughout the world, Satan brought the Roman Empire in on the offensive, with the Jews operating with the Romans, persecuting the Christians—hence the beast rising out of the sea and the subordinate beast rising out of the land, in ch. 13.
But initially (as v. 12b tells us) Satan knew he had a very short time period to try to nip the fledgling church in the bud. He needed to destroy the Jerusalem church quickly, knowing that if he didn’t, the church would indeed expand throughout the world. He knew he was bound, and that his power to deceive the nations had been limited. So, he needed to destroy the church before “the gospel of the kingdom” was “proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). His time was short. So, we read in the first part Acts how he went after the church with a vengeance, with dreadful persecutions and the first martyrs (including the death of James the brother of John). John, speaking of Satan’s efforts, in Rev. 12:13, thus says, “And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued [or “persecuted,” as the KJV puts it] the woman who had given birth to the male child.”
But Satan failed to stop it. Actually and ironically, the very persecutions against the church in Jerusalem forced the Christians to flee, scattering them throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, to which they took the gospel message (Acts 8:1, 4). The persecution by the Jews would follow them (Saul, later called Paul, had even been part of that effort), trying to stamp them out. And, as the gospel spread from there (with the missionaries going forth and travelers bringing the gospel back home with them), the synagogues throughout the nations would take part in the persecution. Even the Roman Empire would eventually engage in the task of stamping out the Christians. And, perhaps, the symbolism of vv. 14-16 brings those things to mind.
However, the scattering in the first part of Acts and the spread of the gospel throughout the world are not what this verse is specifically addressing. Those empire-wide events are more in mind, in v. 17, where we read of “the woman’s offspring.” Rather, v. 14, addressing the woman’s escape, hones in on events that would take place just prior to and during the Jewish War, which lasted from AD 66-70.
This understanding is in line with the overarching theme of Revelation that we discussed back when we were in Rev. 1, which is “The Exalted Christ’s Victorious Judgment and Blessing.” Both judgment and blessing are spoken of in ch. 12, vv. 14-16. Blessing is in the form of the Lord taking care of his people. Judgment is what Jesus brought upon those who “pierced him” (Rev. 1:7).
So, let’s look at this. Verse 14:
14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.
Back when we looked at vv. 1-6, we identified the woman who gave birth (in vv. 1-5), as symbolically pointing to Old Covenant Israel in an idealized form. Verse 6 then modifies and expands upon the woman’s symbolism, saying, “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.” So “the woman,” in v. 6, involves a shift of focus from God’s people in their idealized Old Covenant existence to God’s people in their New Covenant existence. The continuity is that both are one people of God, under his one Covenant of Grace. But the New Covenant people of God (v. 6) are “the woman” of whom John speaks, in v. 14. And notice how v. 6 and v. 14 have identical points of contact: the woman, fleeing to the wilderness, a place there prepared by God where she would be nourished, and a sojourn for a particular amount of time. The mother church of Christianity was, of course, the church in Jerusalem.
When we studied v. 6, we looked at this in detail. To sum it up, John’s vision is saying that the Jerusalem church (from John’s perspective in time—circa. AD 65) would heed the warning Jesus gave, in his prophetic discourse—AKA his “Olivet Discourse” (Matt. 24:15-16; Luke 21:20ff.). Thus at the right time, the Jerusalem Christians escaped from Jerusalem, fleeing to the rough, desert wilderness of Perea (located in the foothills of the Transjordanian Mountains). There, according to the historical record, they found refuge at a place called Pella (although some folks may have found refuge elsewhere, too). But early historians (e.g. Eusebius) focused on the majority of the church fleeing to Pella, which fits quite well with the wilderness sojourn prophesied in Rev. 12:6 and 14. The church’s flight from the city also took place after the Roman General, Cestius Gallus, brought his armies to surround Jerusalem, to then withdraw in the Fall of AD 66. They had seen the signs to which Jesus pointed, in Luke 21:20-21. So, most of the Jerusalem church packed up and fled to safety after Cestius withdrew, perhaps fleeing immediately after (although Jesus warned about travel in the winter – Matt. 24:20), but even as an ongoing exodus moving into early 67. It may have been, too, that after Vespasian surrounded the city with his armies and then withdrew, in June of 69, some of the holdovers finally fled. Then, of course, there were some who refused to flee, as we discussed when we studied the two witnesses, in Rev. 11:3. However, the bulk of the church escaped shortly before Vespasian, the conqueror, began his campaign against the Jews in the Land of Israel, per Nero’s order, in the Spring of AD 67. Thus, having heeded Jesus’ order, the church of Jerusalem had already escaped to God’s providentially prepared place in the wilderness, sojourning safely under his care during the conquest of the nation. There they stayed during the 1260 days spoken of in Rev. 12:6, which is the 42 months mentioned in Rev. 11:2-3, which is the period of time symbolized in Rev. 12:14 (“a time, and times, and half a time”). Thus, the mother church was safe, cared for by the Lord all during the three-and-a-half years of war and conquest taking place in the Land of Israel, that ended with Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction, in AD 70.
Now, in v. 14, John uses imagery hearkening directly back to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. As the Lord tells the Israelites, in Ex. 19:4, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” And then, in Deut. 32:10-12, Moses sings:
“in the howling waste of the wilderness; He [the Lord] encircled him [Israel], he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him.”
In Revelation, John already touched on the Exodus, particularly during the blowing of the seven trumpets, where the plagues that rained down on Egypt were symbolically tied with the ones coming down on Israel. In Rev. 11:8, John even referred to Jerusalem as “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt.” Do you see the irony? Apostate Israel had become like Sodom and Egypt in its spiritual adultery and hostility towards the true people of God. So, John has a vision of another exodus, prophesying (circa. AD 65) that God’s people, the church in Jerusalem, would be led to a place of safety in the wilderness, to be cared for by God. And this exodus began in AD 66.
Notice too, that the Jerusalem church fled from the serpent. You may remember, the fifth trumpet, starting in Rev. 9:1, “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.” Of course, the star fallen from heaven to earth was Satan, having been thrown down from heaven to earth, named in 9:11 as Abaddon (Apollyon), who is the Dragon of Rev. 12. So Satan took the key he was given by God and unleashed the demons upon Israel, all the while under limits placed upon him by God. And, as we considered, when we looked at this passage, the five months mentioned in Rev. 9:5 honed in on the time of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman armies, which lasted for five months (from April to August, AD 70). During that time the demons had their way with the inhabitants of the city. Josephus’ record of what all happened during that time is thus horrifically appalling. The siege was the culmination of the conquest of the Land of Israel by Rome, which General Vespasian entered, in AD 67, at Nero’s command, and which broke Apostate Israel and their corrupt religion, bringing an end to the nation of Israel.
But that was just at the end. Satan had been working this issue for years, bringing Nero into the battle against the Christians, with his brutal persecution that began in Rome, in AD 64. Nero waged this persecution until his death by suicide, in AD 68, with the persecution spreading through the provinces. So, v. 15: “The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood.” Considering Satan’s wrathful war against the church, with his manipulation of Nero and the situation in the Land, this seems to point out the nature of the spiritual reality behind Nero’s order to Vespasian, given in February 67, to conquer Israel and crush the Jewish uprising. The order came just a few months after Cestius Gallus’ failure and defeat in Judea (which, if you remember, Cestius’ surrounding Jerusalem with his armies was a sign for the Jerusalem church to pack up and flee). The influences behind Nero’s orders and all that came about as a result of them were due to Satan’s work in the Land and the Sea (Nero’s state of mind, the political situation, the Jewish revolt, the civil war in Judea and Jerusalem, the conquest of Vespasian and Titus, and so forth). All of that was a result of Satan’s work towards an attack against the mother church. Satan had worked events to such a point that he was bringing an overwhelming force against Jerusalem. The church didn’t have a chance.
However, the Lord was sovereignly in control, working out his own will. Thus, the Lord ironically used Satan’s efforts as a means to fulfill his purpose of bringing judgment down upon Apostate Israel: The Lord’s wrath carried out, his vindication displayed before all, and the final stroke of his divorce from his unfaithful wife (apostate Israel). So, Satan missed his primary target. What he had meant to destroy (the church) failed to come about leaving Israel destroyed as collateral damage. Now, as we studied (Rev. 11:3ff), the Jewish Christians who did not flee and stayed behind in Jerusalem (symbolically called “the two witnesses”) were killed. And John, in 11:7, explained that their death was the result of “the beast that rises from the bottomless pit” (in a word, “Satan”) making war on them and conquering them and killing them. But even successfully killing those witnesses was no true victory for Satan. The witnesses triumphed over death (Rev. 11:11-12). And as for the main bulk of the church, “The woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness.” The Lord rescued and took care of his people.
Verse 16: “But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.” Once again “earth” in the ESV is better translated here as “land.” But notice the irony! The wrath against the church, the destruction, Satan’s hatred poured out (all the behind the scenes maneuvering; deceptions; slander; the manipulations of the emperor; the persecutions; the forces of the Empire deployed, leading to the fire and destruction brought upon the Land of Israel and their city; even the demonic hoards brought against them) … well, Satan missed his primary target. The Promised Land took the brunt of Satan’s wrath, which was the river the dragon had poured from his mouth. The Land of Israel swallowed it up, and the Jews suffered for it, while the mother church of Jewish Christians was safely cared for in the desert by the Lord. As Kenneth Gentry aptly says, “[Verse 16] appears to be saying, ironically, that as the Romans come into Israel (the Promised Land), that the land itself is absorbing the brunt of Satan’s rage so that the Jews and the Temple are destroyed and the Christians actually escape.”
Do you see the pattern? Satan battles, and the Lord wins. Satan schemes, and the Lord delivers. Satan rages, and the Lord accomplishes his will. And throughout, the irony is relentless.
My friends, our enemy is still out there. We will be engaged in spiritual warfare until we join the hosts of God’s people in heaven, or when Jesus comes back, whichever comes first. We see evidence of Satan and his servants’ efforts all around us, even in our own lives. But we need not fear the devil. Secure in Christ, saved by grace through faith, having submitted to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, following after Jesus as his disciple, keeping our eyes on Jesus, even if the Devil brings suffering upon us, the declaration of Paul is ours to claim: “we rejoice in our sufferings (Rom. 5:3). We need not fear. Like Paul told Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” The blessing of 1 Pet. 1:8, is also ours, where “various trials” serve to test and prove the “genuineness” of our faith. And, as Peter encourages the church, “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them [‘those who might harm you’], nor be troubled” (1 Pet. 3:14). The Lord gives us all we could possibly need to overcome the devil, when Satan or his minions come against us, having girded us with the full armor of God. And we stand strong, not in our own strength, but in the strength of the Lord (Eph. 6). When it comes to temptations, the Spirit of God enables us to resist any temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). And even if we do succumb to temptation, the forgiveness of the Lord is ours (Heb. 10:17). So, James assures the faithful, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Js. 4:7). And with David, we say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4).
The Lord is very consistent in how he works in the lives of his people. This is one of the reasons that, when we study how the Lord works in his people’s lives (as revealed in the Scriptures), we learn ways in which he works in our own lives. Sometimes we find ourselves in a wilderness; sometimes we suffer; sometimes the enemy attacks. But when that happens, take a moment and ask,“Has the Lord brought me here, to experience what I’m experiencing, for my good?” The Scriptures tell us the answer. The Great Shepherd guides us and cares for us. So let us not be fearful or timid in our walk with Christ. Let us boldly go forth, following Jesus without fear, sharing the gospel in both word and deed. The victory is the Lord’s, and in our faithfulness, we participate in his victory. Since the Lord takes care of his people, we should be bold in our faith.
 Cf. “You Stole What? 7 Items Thieves Love,” CNN: Money, accessed 15 July 2023, https://money.cnn.com/gallery/pf/2013/06/07/bizarre-stolen-items/index.html. Also, Margo Rabb, “Steal These Books,” New York Times, accessed 15 July 2023, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/books/review/Rabb-t.html.
 G.K. Beale, “The Greatest Examples of Irony in the Bible,” Crossway, accessed 15 July 2023, https://www.crossway.org/articles/the-greatest-example-of-irony-in-the-bible/. Also, cf. Gregory K. Beale, Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 19. He covers redemptive irony in chs. 1-2 and restorative irony in chs. 3-6.
 Tacitus, The Annals and The Histories, ed. Mortimer J. Adler, 2nd ed., vol. 14, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Robert P. Gwinn; Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 168. Tacitus, Annals, 15.44
 Open Doors, “World Watch List 2023, accessed 15 July 2023, https://www.opendoors.org/en-US/persecution/countries/ ; cf. Lisa Zengarini, “Over 360 million Christians suffering persecution in the world,” Vatican News, accessed 15 July 2023, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-01/over-360-million-christians-suffering-persecution-in-the-world.html.
 Cf. F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 382. He states, “Titus began the siege of Jerusalem in April, 70. The defenders held out desperately for five months, but by the end of August the Temple area was occupied and the holy house burned down, and by the end of September all resistance in the city had come to an end.