Ezekiel 36:25-27 + 1 Peter 4:7-11 + John 15:26-16:4
On this Sunday after the Festival of the Ascension, permit me to read a rather long portion of Revelation 12 to you. There are many figures of speech and images in Revelation that are hard to understand, but there are several images in this section that we can identify with the help of Scripture, including a reference to the ascension of Jesus and the very persecution that Jesus mentioned in the Gospel of His disciples who remain here on earth, who hold to the testimony or the “witness” of Jesus. As I read from the Revelation of St. John, listen for references to “the woman,” that is, the Church, “the Child” that is born to the woman, that is, Jesus, “the dragon”—Satan and His forces.
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. 2 Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. 5 She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. 6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
7 And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. 9 So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. 11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. 12 Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”
13 Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. 14 But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. 15 So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. 16 But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Did you notice how these words from Revelation correspond to Jesus’ words in the Gospel? The devil would persecute the Child of the woman and try to devour Him. That happened throughout the Old Testament as the devil kept leading Israel astray, to keep the Messiah from being born. But He was born. And the devil tried to exterminate Him right away by the hand of King Herod, but the devil failed. The Child would grow up to offer His life as a sacrifice on the cross and so crush the serpent’s head. He would rise from the dead victorious and then would be caught up to God and His throne. So Jesus, after completing His work of redemption, ascended into heaven and is seated on His throne at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. Meanwhile, the woman, the Church, still here below, is fed and nourished during this New Testament era by the very Spirit of God as He feeds us with Word and Sacrament.
Then the war in heaven is described as the devil, the accuser of God’s children, was cast down, no longer able to accuse believers in Christ before God’s judgment seat, because the blood of the Lamb has paid the price for our sins and the Spirit of God has testified to us about Jesus, that He is the Son of God, that He died for us, that He reigns at God’s right hand, that He is the very Throne of Grace where we find forgiveness, where we flee for refuge and are sheltered from the condemnation that we justly deserve.
So the devil, now cast down to the earth, unable to accuse God’s children in heaven’s courtroom, seeks to devour the woman and her offspring—the Church and her members. He seeks to separate us from Christ through temptation, through false doctrine and through persecution. That’s the very persecution that Jesus told His apostles they would face on this earth after He went to the Father.
And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning. “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.
The Apostles would preach. They would bear witness; they would testify to Jesus Christ and His once-for-all sacrifice for sin. They would bear witness of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, and of the coming judgment of mankind. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be condemned. And until Jesus’ return, the testimony of the Apostles will be heard throughout the world and believed by some. Some will keep the testimony of Jesus, and preachers will be sent to preach His saving name until the Day of Judgment arrives.
And where the testimony of Jesus is, there is the Church, the Bride of Christ. But just as the devil hates Christ, so he also hates the Bride of Christ. Where the Church is, there the dragon also will be seeking to devour it. Where the testimony of Jesus is, there will be the cross of persecution.
And notice, it isn’t just persecution from the secular world or from the political realm. Jesus warns His disciples, They will put you out of the synagogues and think they are serving God when they put you to death. He isn’t just talking about the Jewish synagogues here. He’s talking about the false church, the churches that are called “Christian” but that end up persecuting the true Christians and the Christian Gospel. Luther applied this to the papacy and the monks and Roman priests. They appeared to be the true Church, but they raged against the true Gospel and excommunicated Luther and pastors like him who held to the testimony of Jesus Christ.
You know this happens still today. The false Church still persecutes the true Church. The false Church looks big and impressive while the true Church looks battered and weak. The false Church excommunicates and ridicules and suspends those who preach the truth of Christ, and they actually think they are serving God when they do it.
How can that be? Because, Jesus says. These things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. They claim to know the Father. They claim to know Jesus. But if they knew Jesus, they would repent of their persecution and receive the Word of the Apostles in faith. Christ does not persecute Christ. The devil persecutes Christ. The Gospel does not condemn the Gospel. Satan condemns the Gospel.
But then, remember. Jesus told His Church about all this ahead of time. It’s part of His plan, to let the devil do his worst. As the hymn says, “He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done. One little word can fell him.” Take comfort! We have a Savior who has conquered death, has ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God, and our Good Shepherd is not idle. He reigns and He rules. And He sends the Helper into our midst, the Holy Spirit of God! He feeds and nourishes His own with His life-giving Spirit in this Word that you’re hearing, in this Sacrament of the Altar. He sees to it that the devil is still chained, so that the dragon can only go so far. He rescues us out of this world through the sleep that is sometimes referred to as “death.” And just when it seems that the little flock will be exterminated by the false Church, by the world, by the devil himself, then Christ’s kingdom will be revealed.
Now, on this Mother’s Day, when we give thanks to God for His gift of caring moms everywhere, would you consider how God honors motherhood with the words you heard from Revelation 12? God uses a woman to represent the beloved Bride of Christ, His Church. And just as Christ Himself was born of a woman, so we who have been born again by water and the Spirit, are called the woman’s offspring; our mother is the Church. She is battered and beaten and underappreciated in this world. She prays for her children, she rejoices in those who remain faithful and her heart breaks for those who prove faithless. She is persecuted and grows weary as she waits for her Husband to come to her and to gather all her children together. She is weak and powerless, but Christ is strong and will never abandon her. He loved the Church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.
You are offspring of this mother, holy and without blemish, through faith in Christ Jesus. And if you keep reading in the Book of Revelation, you will see that the whole message of the book is this: that the Church on earth will suffer greatly from the dragon’s attacks and will appear to be defeated. But all the while, Christ is working in all things for the good of those who love Him. And in the end, when Christ appears, the dragon will be cast out forever, and the Church will be victorious, through Him who loved us. Amen.