The Perseverance of the Saints (Rev. 12:13-17)
God created everything and gave man dominion over it, but also the responsibility to “work and keep” the garden. When Adam neglected to guard the garden, the serpent deceived Eve tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit. Then she gave some to Adam. Prior to the fall, “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).
After eating the fruit, “they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). They immediately felt shame. They hid themselves from God and one another. God punished the serpent for deceiving the woman, but along with the curse, he included the first promise of the gospel: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
Revelation 12 is about the fulfillment and culmination of that first gospel promise. It is about how the seed of the woman crushed the head of the serpent. Verses 1-6 introduced us to the characters: the woman, the dragon, and the child. Verses 7-12 revealed what happened in heaven as Satan was defeated and he along with his angels were cast down to earth. That passage concluded with a woe upon those who dwell on the earth (v.12). Verses 13-17 provide further insight into the dragon’s ongoing attack upon the woman and her offspring. But we also see God’s steadfast preservation of his covenant people.
Last week we focused on the fact that Satan has been cast out of heaven so that his accusations are no longer heard by God. The problem is that we still have a hard time silencing his accusations in our heads. God no longer listens, but we still do. And Satan takes full advantage of our weakness. He pursues us with relentless commitment. But every spiritual attack is ultimately thwarted by God.
God provides the Church with everything she needs to survive the fiercest drought and storm.
Read Rev. 12:13-17
I. The Church Nourished (13-14)
Now that the child is untouchable, enthroned enthroned in heaven, the dragon turns his attack upon the woman directly. The dragon pursues her (13), but she is given wings to fly into the wilderness where she is nourished for a long time (14).
We read something similar when God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt. Before Moses went up Mt. Sinai, God reminded the people how he brought them to himself “on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). Isaiah prophesied that “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). The wings of an eagle convey strength and speed. The woman was faster than the dragon so that she was able to escape his pursuit.
She flies to the wilderness in order to get away from the serpent’s attack. The wilderness had become a place associated with trial and provision. Before his death, Moses encouraged the Israelites, saying, “In the wilderness…you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son” (Deut. 1:31). Moses compares the Lord to an eagle who encircled Jacob, caring for him and keeping him “as the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10-12). In Hosea, God promised his adulterous bride that he would lure her into the wilderness where he would speak tenderly to her (Hos. 2:14). Under the new covenant, just like the old covenant, the church repeatedly finds rescue in the wilderness from a faithful God.
This nourishing takes place for a “time, times, and half a time” (14; Dan. 7:25; 12:7). We have seen that this language refers to the same length of time as 42 months and 1,260 days.
We can point to another significant parallel to the relevance of three and a half years. This was the same period of time that God’s people were persecuted by the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel (1 Kgs 18:10, 13). God’s Word was powerfully displayed when Elijah prophesied of a drought (1 Kgs 17:1), and his people were miraculously nourished (1 Kgs 17:4, 9ff).
Three and a half years was also the rough timeframe for the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (167-164 BC). It was a period of severe persecution upon the Church, but God preserved them through it. In each of these examples, Satan’s persecution is cut short by God. Satan’s frequent attempts to kill the Church will never prevail!
This would literally be three and a half years, but — as is common in apocalyptic literature —it seems more likely to refer to a long but indefinite period of time. Various things are taking place during this time:
- The holy city is trampled for 42 months (11:2).
- The two witnesses have authority to prophesy for 1,260 days (11:3).
- The woman is nourished in the wilderness for 1,260 days (12:6).
- The woman is nourished in the wilderness for a time, times, and half a time (12:14).
- The beast blasphemes for 42 months (13:5).
This present age is defined by the Church’s proclamation of God’s preservation of his covenant people in the midst of the dragon’s persecution.
The woman flies to the wilderness in order to escape the dragon. The new covenant community experienced an exodus of her own as she escaped this present darkness. But the wilderness is the opposite of the Promised Land. Instead of an abundance of agricultural resources, she finds a barren landscape. She is a safe distance from the dragon, but now she suffers from the threat of starvation. She is completely dependent upon God for nourishment.
But this too, is something Christ promised to provide. In John 6:31-58, Jesus refers to himself is our true manna nourishing us with his presence and teaching.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst…I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
The wilderness generation was provided manna, and it sustained them for a time, but they still died. However, when we are nourished by the true manna, we have eternal life. The Church is nourished and preserved in the context of corporate worship as we feed upon Christ in his word and sacrament. If that is true, then isolation from the people of God—isolation from the context of nourishment—is equivalent to starvation.
Despite her safe distance from the dragon, the woman is still susceptible to his attack.
II. The Church Protected (15-16)
The wilderness is nowhere near the sea, which is the dragon’s evil realm. But the serpent still attempts to sweep her away with a river poured from his mouth (15). The serpent sends forth a flood of evil upon the woman.
A flooding river is often used metaphorically in the Old Testament. Greg Beale points to numerous examples of flood language describing military conquest. The army spreads out across the land like water covering the ground. It is also used to describe God’s judgment more generally. And finally, it can refer to the persecution of God’s people. It is this last sense that John especially has in mind.
The transition to “serpent” immediately takes us to the garden. Once again, the serpent is attempting to deceive the woman into compromise with sin. Wave upon wave of evil smashes against the church, but God’s promise holds true: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you” (Isa. 43:2).
Here in Revelation, the earth swallowed the river (16). Here we have another allusion to the exodus. After escaping Egypt, the Israelites found themselves on the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army swiftly approaching. Ezekiel refers to Pharaoh as a red dragon making this connection even more clear. The dragon was in hot pursuit of the woman, but God provided a way of escape.
The Israelites passed through the sea on dry ground. But when Pharaoh followed with his army, the waters enclosed upon them. Safe on the other side, Moses led them singing, “You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them” (Exod. 15:12).
Satan continues to come up with creative forms of sweeping away the Church with evil. He has never slowed his attack. His goal remains to lead the church into compromise. That might come through cultural or political compromise. Unfortunately, the Church routinely succumbs to these social pressures. We experience Satan’s influence at all levels of education. And, soon enough, you will even see the impact of a worldly agenda upon the cereal aisle. Google “Kellogg’s” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Despite the flood of evil and chaos that threatens to sink the Church, God provides superior protection. His strength is mightier than the dragon. Even though we anticipate entering turbulent waters, we know our ship will never capsize. Our faith is unsinkable, not because of its quality, but because of its object! It is in Christ alone that we find our strength to stand firm through the fiercest drought and storm. When the storm arrives, cling to Christ as your refuge. The same wings that rescued you will enclose around you like an impenetrable shield.
But, once again, don’t lose sight of the context in which you are protected. It is the corporate body that receives God’s care. When individuals are persecuted they find support from the community. When a member suffers, the whole body responds as the hands and feet of Christ. Gathering together to sing the psalms is one of the primary means God has provided for us to encourage one another. David frequently sought the Lord’s help from the flood of persecution (Psa. 18:4, 16-19; 32:6-7; 144:7-8).
We find support in the context of community.
III. The Church Attacked (17)
Although Satan has indeed been defeated in heaven and on earth, he is still actively seeking to bring harm upon the people of God. He is furious that the child was able to escape all of his traps. So he attacks the Church with every ounce of strength he has. And when the gates of hell do not prevail against the Church, he turns his sights upon individual believers. We get the impression that Satan is relentless in his attack.
The dragon pursues the rest of woman’s offspring, Christ’s true brothers and sisters. The saints who war with the dragon are all true believers, “who keep the commandments of god and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” We see similar language later on (14:12). This is a picture of the perseverance of the saints.
As we walk by faith in obedience to Christ’s commands, we take part in the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15. Paul makes the same point in Romans 16:17-20. God does the crushing, but it happens underneath the feet of the saints! As we resist the devil’s temptation to divide the Church with false teaching, and as we guard against his attempts to isolate individuals with deception, we contribute to the crushing of the serpent’s head.
That is the promise of Revelation 12.
The woman was brought to the wilderness where she was nourished (13-14). When the dragon attempted to sweep her away, the Lord brought the protection of the earth to swallow up the threat (15-16). Then the dragon brought his attack upon the woman’s offspring (17).
The structure suggests that we will receive nourishment and protection in the context of corporate worship where we feed upon Christ and his Word. Even though Satan pursues us individually and seeks to isolate us from the flock, we receive our help as we gather together holding one another accountable, speaking the truth in love, and singing praise to the Lord Who is our firm foundation!