When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. (Revelation 12:13, NIV)
You can’t read Revelation – as we’ve been doing as a church this past nine months – without noticing that again and again that it uses very lurid language to describe what’s going on behind the scenes of history.
For example, Satan is pictured in chapter 12 as a dragon, chasing a woman (the church) across the wilderness. In chapter 13 state pressure on the church is portrayed as a seven-headed beast. In the same chapter, we encounter a second beast, later called the false prophet, who deceives people into worshipping the first beast. And then chapter 17 brings us the double image of a great city (Babylon) and a prostitute riding on a scarlet beast, which seems to stand for the alluring power of the culture around us.
Why such graphic imagery?
When you first read it, you might be tempted to think that John just has a very vivid – or even disturbed – imagination. But we are told that these pictures are not from John’s imagination at all, but given by God. Moreover, as one gets to know Revelation one discovers that the book is very carefully structured – hardly stream-of-consciousness stuff. The images are not random but related to, and explained by, earlier passages in the Bible.
Another suggestion is that these images would have resonated with the original hearers, who were experiencing persecution; the lurid pictures show what this must have felt like.
That sounds plausible, but doesn’t work fully, either. Revelation is addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, whom we meet in chapters 2-3. It turns out that of the seven, only three show evidence of being persecuted. (I am grateful to Gwylim Davies, in his new book Application, for this observation.) The others felt as if they were getting on fine.
Except that they weren’t. Thyatira was cheerily tolerating false teaching. Ephesus was plodding on, but had lost its first love (of Jesus, I think). Sardis thought it was doing really well – certainly, it had a reputation of being ‘live’ – but was in fact dead. Laodicea was self-sufficient and pleased with itself, content with lukewarm discipleship.
The best explanation of the vivid imagery is that they all needed a powerful wake-up call. The fallen world is so alluring – did you know you could prostitute yourself to it? Tolerance of wrong teaching is so attractive – but did you know that it is the devil himself who stands behind it? The state can offer us security and prosperity – but did you know that when it tries to assume total authority whose work it’s really doing?
I take it that we need to know this battle rages, too. For many of us in the West, our situation is relatively comfortable. Realising that the church’s situation is like that of a woman (protected ultimately by God) being chased across the wilderness by a dragon may help us be a bit more serious in purpose.
And remember: Revelation also shows us who will win, so we don’t back the losers!
We continue our series in Revelation this Sunday.