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Christmas and the Dragon
I would guess that when most of us tell the story of the Incarnation it doesn’t include a dragon, but that is exactly what Revelation 12:1-6 tells us:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 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.
Imagine, the newborn child sleeping in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, with mother and father looking lovingly over Him. Ox, donkey, and lamb perhaps somewhere in the background with a terrifying dragon perched above looking for his opportunity to strike.
We often focus on the moment of Christ’s birth through the lens of the Gospels told by Matthew and Luke, how it affected those in the immediate context of the events unfolding. Revelation’s telling of this story, on the other hand, draws our gaze back a bit to look at the event of the Incarnation and the life of Jesus from a cosmic, big picture in history, perspective.
The brief moment in history when Jesus walked this earth is the pivotal event that broke the power of the curse and the reign of the enemy, the dragon, on this earth. It is the guarantee of the future peace and glory for which we so eagerly long. Without it there would be no victory, no peace, and no hope.
As we begin this telling of the Christmas story, we are introduced to a woman. Though it may not be obvious at first glance, John gave us evidence to know that this woman represents something. He isn’t speaking of Mary as we might expect.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Revelation 12:1 (ESV)
We are told this woman was a great sign appearing in heaven. This is a typical signifier of symbolism in apocalyptic literature such as we find in the book of Revelation. She was clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. To understand what this represents we must think back to the visions that God gave to Joseph:
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” Genesis 37:9–10 (ESV)
The combination of the sun and the moon, along with twelve stars (the eleven that Joseph saw plus Joseph himself), represent the line of the patriarchs and the twelve tribes of Israel. And so, this woman represents the faithful covenant people of God – the remnant of believing Israel through the Old Testament and leading up to the arrival of the Son of God. That would include Mary, but it is so much more.
Since the woman includes all the faithful covenant people of God, she also includes those who became part of God’s family through the new covenant - those who were of Abraham’s physical lineage and the spiritual lineage of his faith. Even so, in the time of her birth pains she represents an overwhelmingly Jewish identity, as she escapes into the wilderness and is protected from the murderous intentions of the dragon. She no doubt began to take on a new identity as the nations were welcomed in.
The woman was seen to be in the pains of childbirth and in agony. Judging by the number of children that are seated among us as we gather each week, most of us understand what that means. The pains of carrying a child begin long before those last agonizing hours where the child moves through the birth canal and is born into the world.
She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12:2 (ESV)
There are long months where the woman’s body is reconfigured from its normal state to that which allows for the growth of the child and then ultimately for birth. This is often an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience.
The woman John saw in the vision was crying out in birth pains – at the point of giving birth. Just as a woman’s ordeal in pregnancy begins long before the ordeal of labor, so too did the struggle of God’s people begin long before the arrival of the promised Messiah. We see that play out in the Old Testament.
The great enemies of God have been at war with God’s people from the beginning.
Think of the history of Israel. A long progression of God’s mercy and faithfulness – promising and laboring to bring about the salvation of His people, juxtaposed with the nation continually being led astray and falling into the clutches of nation after nation. Nations that were led by their gods, which we know were in fact demons, the servants of Satan, himself.
Think of the miracle that the woman survived to see the agony of childbirth in the face of all that danger. Falling into the hands of ravaging wolves time and again because of the faithlessness of unbelieving Israel. The faithful suffering the same fate as the faithless. How easily the woman and the child could have been lost in the combined efforts of human frailty and demonic schemes. The woman suffered long to bring the child to term. John makes her adversary clear as he continued.
A woman, struggling in the agony of giving birth, and now a great dragon. A wondrous and terrible sight for John to behold, we can be sure. This is the dragon that was promised in our Christmas story as promised.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. Revelation 12:3 (ESV)
Any evil or malice that can be imagined with the image of this dragon will pale to the reality, but just as the woman represents something more, so too does the dragon. Thankfully, in all the discussion of beasts and creatures in his Revelation, John tells us exactly who the dragon is just a few verses later.
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Revelation 12:9 (ESV)
One commentator noted how the dragon represents Satan and his efforts. He appeared as though a combination of the beasts of Daniel’s visions, and shared the heads of the beast representing Rome a little later. The dragon is a picture of the malice that the people of God had faced throughout the centuries.
The dragon wears that title of ancient serpent as he tempted our first parents in the garden to disbelieve the Word of God. From the point where he brought our race to destruction, he has warred to prevent the fulfilment of God’s promise that the seed of that woman would bruise his head.
Poised to Kill
The dragon – supported by the third of the angelic host that had fallen with him stood over the woman, stalking like the great cats of the jungle, waiting for his chance to strike down and destroy the child who was being born.
His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. Revelation 12:4 (ESV)
Satan had failed to prevent the arrival of God’s Messiah. Though it wasn’t for lack of trying. He and his servants had been at war with the people of God since the beginning hoping to destroy the line of the one promised to come and reign over the earth. The same earth that Satan had enjoyed dominion over since Adam abdicated his created position and our race fell into ruin.
Think of how hard the dragon had worked, how many pains he had caused the representative woman in her long carrying of the child. The rise of several, almost supernatural empires and powers, as seen in apocalyptic vision long ago, pursuing and trying to crush Israel. Think of the work of Satan in the presence of giants in the land that Israel was to claim as her inheritance from God. They stole the people’s confidence in their God and cost them a generation in the wilderness.
All these efforts were meant to prevent the line of the Messiah from holding on until God’s designated time failed, but now the time of the Incarnation had come and the dragon was poised to kill.
The Birth of the King
She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, Revelation 12:5 (ESV)
This verse is perhaps the shortest retelling of the Gospel that you could find. All the beautiful detail that we find in the different Gospel accounts summarized in one brief sentence. The Child who is to rule the nations was born and was caught up to God and to His throne before the dragon could made good on his desire to destroy Him. Of course, since we know the more full story of the Gospel, we know that for a moment the dragon appeared to win, yet his momentary victory secured his final defeat.
There can really be no doubt that the Child is Christ. He is the fruit of God’s faithful covenant people. He is the seed of the woman promised way back in Genesis 3. The ancient serpent, the dragon, striving to prove the Word of God wrong that the Child would bruise his head.
This child is the King who was born, as recognized by the wise men from the East were kingmakers of faraway lands. They recognized the sign that the King of kings had been born, and they traveled far to behold Him and worship at His feet.
This is the Child who, once grown to adulthood, proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand - His Kingdom had come. Those represented by the woman rejoiced to see the day of salvation. Everyone else was warned of the judgment soon to come. No one was left as they had been. The world could never be as it had been. The Kingdom without end or rival was here, is here, will forever more be here.
So, in our Christmas story with a dragon, we must supply the full Gospel story into that brief sentence of the Child’s birth and ascension to His throne. He was born, and He ascended victorious. The dragon’s efforts were foiled.
The Woman Preserved
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. Revelation 12:6 (ESV)
As the Child survived the efforts of the dragon, so too did the woman. She was led safely into the wilderness, to be sustained by the all-sufficient hand of God just as Israel was brought safely out of Egypt and fed and watered in the wilderness in the Exodus.
The woman’s identity had centered around bringing about the King destined to rule, and after His victory, her identity remained tied to Him. Where she had represented those who were trusting in the promise of God for salvation, she came to represent those who had embraced that salvation in Christ.
Scripture is filled with the evidence that God is able to keep His own – to hold on to them, protect them, and cause them to flourish. It should not be hard for us to accept, that even with the great dragon himself bearing down on us, God is able to care for His own.
The Stone Not Cut By Human Hands
If we lose sight of the big, cosmic, picture, we might be tempted to think that God’s Kingdom, declared to be present on the earth at the arrival of her King, was a failure, or at least it remains something we should long for far off in the future.
With all the promises of God for the kingdom of David – of the throne and the reign of his descendants never ending – the Davidic kingdom enjoyed only two generations before it was divided, and then it only knew turmoil until first the northern and then southern kingdoms fell to foreign empires. David’s throne sat empty, and the hopes of the nation seemed crushed.
It truly is a testament to the faithfulness of God that the nation of Israel survived such mighty enemies as Babylon, Persia, and more. God worked for His people in many unseen ways, as well as in ways that were miraculous and timely, such as granting Daniel the vision and interpretation for Nebuchadnezzar so that he and his companions would not be put to death.
Nebuchadnezzar's dream in Danial 2 sheds some light on the larger story unfolding.
You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, kits legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. Daniel 2:31-35 (ESV)
Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon was the present oppressor of God’s people in this timeline, and it was the first kingdom represented by the statue. After Babylon would come three other kingdoms who would have dominion on the earth. Three kingdoms that would each, in turn, come against the people of God. Kingdom after kingdom would try to put down and control God’s chosen nation. They would try to foil any hopes and plans of the nation. So, after the rise and fall of four kingdoms, each in turn oppressing the people of God, something miraculous happened.
A stone not cut by human hands crashed onto the last of the kingdoms causing all the kingdoms to be overcome. If that is all that we heard of the rock not cut by human hands, we might be tempted to think this is speaking of the end of all things when every enemy is eternally destroyed when the King comes again and the eternal age begins. However, something happens with that stone to tell us that this isn’t speaking of the final victory at the beginning of the eternal age. The stone grew into a great mountain and filled the whole earth. What began during the reign of the fourth kingdom would expand and grow until if filled the whole earth. That isn’t language of an immediate global domination, it is speaking of something starting small, and then expanding every outward – building to a crescendo of glory and power.
Do you see how that relates to the birth of the Child destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron? How it shows the pursuit of the woman by the dragon as she struggled through the pain of carrying a child as the pains increased until the agony of birth?
Jesus talks about his kingdom in a similar way:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like aa grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Matthew 13:31-33
The Kingdom of God, as indicated as far back as Daniel’s day, was promised to begin small and then grow to overcome and permeate the whole earth. Jesus told His disciples the same thing as He prepared them for what they would experience after His resurrection and ascension. He certainly did not think His brief time of earth was a failure, nor did He expect the impact and growth of His Kingdom to continue to be a distant hope and longing as it had been for so long in Israel.
What was His message? The Kingdom of God had arrived and her King had all authority in heaven and on earth. After ascending to His throne, He sent another Helper to work within His people to build His Kingdom on this earth. It was supposed to start small and continue to grow.
Listen to Christmas and the Dragon
As you celebrate the Incarnation of Christ at Christmas it is important to remember how this event fits in to the larger context of the spiritual warfare between God and Satan. In Revelation 12 we are given a glimpse of this struggle and are reminded of how Christ is victorious and His people will be sustained by His power.
This sermon was preached by Pastor Caleb Stomberg at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN on December 25, 2022.
The Impact of the Incarnation on Israel
What was the impact of the arrival of the kingdom in the Incarnation on the nation of Israel? Those who were represented by the woman in our Christmas story embraced their King. They witnessed the early days of the Kingdom. They endured hardship and contention with their natural families, yet they were made children of God and given the family of God, present in the body of Christ on this earth – the Church.
Those who joined forces with the dragon to reject, discredit, and ultimately kill the Child born King, had but a generation after His ascension before their promised doom fell on them in glory and fury. The Old Covenant that the ethnic people of Israel had enjoyed as the chosen vessel to bring about the great King of Kings, was by her final idolatry and apostacy cut off. The new age dawned in the arrival of the Kingdom and the revelation of the true Israel of God – made up of faithful Jews, yet also of those chosen from every tongue, tribe, and nation.
The Impact of the Incarnation on Gentiles
What has been the impact on the rest of the world? Has that stone not cut by human hands truly grown? Is it in the process of filling up the whole earth as in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision and the parables of Jesus?
The Christian church began in the first century with twelve Apostles and maybe a few hundred others who could loosely be called disciples. Within a few hundred years, Christianity – the Kingdom of God – had overcome the fourth kingdom in the vision from earlier. Rome itself became a Christian empire – at least by policy. At the least, the message and ethic of God’s Kingdom had moved from being seen as an obscure Jewish cult to having great influence and grip over even the mighty in the Empire.
Even when the church of God became corrupt and lost its focus as it did within the Roman Catholic Church, God brought about a great reformation that recovered the Gospel message of the Kingdom and launched countless missionaries with evangelistic zeal to bring the name and Kingdom of Christ to a great many tribes, and tongues, and lands that had never yet been told of the true God.
Now, there are some 660 million evangelical Christians in the world. Over 1 billion Protestants. And, if we include Catholics as people who at least know of and proclaim the name of Christ, that number more than doubles to over 2 billion people worldwide.
Even understanding that those numbers no doubt include many who are culturally Christian at best, as well as including many we would not feel confident to name as truly Christian, those numbers show the widespread success and influence of Christianity within the world.
Western civilization would not exist as it has been known – nor have known the success or advancement it has – without the presence and influence of Christianity. And make no mistake about it, not all civilizations are equal. Those that have been developed under the influence of the Kingdom message and Law of God are better than those that have not. They have been better off for the flourishing of their citizens.
Consider Christianity’s influence in the West which includes the rise in human rights, the abolishment of slavery, and a sense of justice built upon God’s Law – the protection of the innocent and the downtrodden. This is not to mention the unparalleled rise in the quality of life that people living in those civilizations have enjoyed compared to competing cultures around the world.
In just 2000 or so years since the ascension of Christ to His throne at the right hand of the Father, I would say that the rock has grown quite a bit – the mustard seed has indeed sprouted and is giving shade to many. The leaven is indeed working its way through the dough.
His Kingdom Is Advancing
Truly the birth of Christ the King has changed the world. We must not cheapen what our Lord accomplished on this earth by ignoring the great impact His Kingdom has already had, even as we look to and long for the day when its work is complete – when every knee bows and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The King has come to earth. The promised Child has been born. He has all authority. He rules from heaven. His Kingdom is ever advancing. It will cover the world. It cannot be stopped. That is the good news that the Angels proclaimed so long ago.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:32–33 (ESV)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Luke 2:14 (ESV)
There is no standing against the advancement of Christ's kingdom. Repent of your rebellion and embrace your Lord. Live as citizens of the Kingdom and recipients of hope and peace. No matter what adversity we face, we know that we cannot be overcome. God's people will not be overcome because Christ has already overcome the world.
Listen to "Celebrating Holidays Like a Christian" on the Reformed Faith and Family Podcast
How should a Christian approach holidays? Some Christians choose not to celebrate any holidays. Other Christians choose to go along with the flow and celebrate holidays as they were taught, and often very similarly to how the world celebrates (i.e. Halloween, Santa, Easter Bunny). A growing number of Christians are opting to be more intentional in their approach to holidays, doing their research concerning the roots of certain holidays, and instituting purposeful traditions that point their families to Christ. Of course this is a spectrum and not everyone lands in the same place, and that's okay. Our goal in this podcast is to help Christians think through some of those details and at least start you down a path of intentionality in your celebrations.
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Caleb Stomberg is husband to Lindsey and father to their seven children. He is pastor at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN. Caleb enjoys woodworking, hunting, and anything Tolkien.