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The red dragon’s war

We all know the stories of Knights and Dragons — the Knight rescues the beautiful maiden from the fire-breathing dragon, and all is well! The Greeks and Egyptians had a myth of beautiful woman, a mother in childbirth, who confronts a hostile dragon. In Egyptian mythology Isis, portrayed with the sun on her head, gave birth to Horus, and the red dragon Typhon tried to slay her, but she escaped to an island and her son Horus overthrew the dragon. In the Greek version, the great dragon Python, warned that he would be killed by Leto’s son, pursued the pregnant Leto, who was hidden by Poseidon on an island, which he then temporarily submerged. After Python left, Leto birthed the god Apollo, who in four days was strong enough to slay the dragon. In pagan religion, serpents (sometimes called “dragons”) were significant, especially the cult of Asclepius who was worshiped in some of the cities to whom the book of Revelation was addressed. In Jewish tradition the serpent Leviathan was believed to have many heads, identified in Canaanite tradition as seven. Many in the ancient world believed giant serpents or dragons existed literally in other parts of the world. In Revelation 12 the apostle John tells us he saw wondrous signs in heaven, a celestial woman and a red dragon. The dragon for John is the “ancient serpent, who led Adam and Eve to death by enticing them to disobey God.

And yet, the scriptures give us a mysteriously mixed review of dragons.

In the scriptures, we often call them “seraphim” –those strange winged dragon-like creatures that circle the altar of God. Creatures of bright light and fire, they serve at the Lord’s pleasure.

In fact, even the “serpent” of the garden of Eden is named as a “seraphim” by most scholars. For the word “seraph” means “burning,” “fiery,” “poison,” “serpent,” or “poisonous serpent.” The “burn” of the serpent of course is in its sting or poison. But it can both hurt or heal. In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, we have numerous usages of the term, either as in the heavenly being, or scorpions, snakes, serpents, and even the “bronze serpent” of Moses! Copper in color, the seraph was the servant of God, who could either harm or heal with its fiery presence. They were the guardian griffins of the sacrificial altar, the mighty and heavenly altar of God, and by their description in the Book of Enoch, they were in fact – dragons!

The Seraphim angels are the angels closest to God. These angels encircle his throne and emit an intense, fiery light representing his light, the loving light of God. Seraphim were considered “fiery serpents,” and the other divine beings weren’t allowed to look upon them. There’re are four Seraphim, and each has four faces and six wings. When Seraphim appear on Earth, they prefer to take the forms of tall, thin, clean-cut human embodiments.

What are we to make this red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads in Revelation 12? Throughout the Old Testament, serpents and sea monsters represented evil forces opposed to God and his people. Satan was the serpent who deceived Adam and Eve. The Pharaoh of Egypt was described as the monster, the “dragon,” who tried to crush Israel. Isaiah prophesied that the LORD would slay the monster of the sea, Leviathan, the Egyptian empire. Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon was also compared to a serpent devouring and spewing out the people of God. Naturally, such figures provide a fitting symbol for Satan, the archenemy of God. The dragon is explicitly identified as the “ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” Satan is not only the deceiver, but also the ultimate persecutor of God’s people, including the Messiah, though his persecution can also be executed by humans who think they’re doing God’s will. Satan is the source of the de-ified, idol-ized human political power.

The color red alludes to the devil’s character of violence and bloodshed. His “crowns” portray real power but not power equal to that of the King of kings. While the Lamb has seven horns , the dragon has ten horns, a symbol of evil’s widespread power and a common trait of other evil forces. The “ten horns” also recall Daniel’s vision of a ten-horned beast.

The dragon naturally tried to destroy Christ, the child in the story. “His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.” Satan’s first act of war involved a rebellion that resulted in the fall of a third of the angels in heaven. “The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth to a child so he might devour her child, because he was to rule all the nations with an iron scepter. Having gathered his army, the dragon turns his fierce wrath against the woman and her child, a child who is none other than Jesus the Messiah. Throughout the New Testament we read of the devil’s attempts (often in collusion with wicked humans) to kill Jesus — at his birth by Herod, throughout his ministry by the Jewish religious leaders, and finally at his crucifixion.

To prevent this the woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. God not only protects Jesus his Son from satanic destruction; he also protects his people, just as he provided spiritual protection for his community with the sealing of the 144,000 and the empowering of the witnesses. After Satan is cast out of heaven, his terror is restricted to earth. Thus, the wilderness is a place of trial for God’s people but also of protection and provision. God’s pattern of protecting his chosen ones can be seen during Israel’s wilderness wanderings and during Jesus’s time in the wilderness. The time of protection is 1,260 days, also the period of witness and trials. The 1,260 days could refer to intense persecution at the end of the age or to the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ. While both options are possible, the latter is preferable because Satan’s banishment must be a past event, and the tribulation seems to follow immediately the death/resurrection/ascension of Christ. Since this pivotal event, we’ve been living in the last days of trial witness, and spiritual protection.

John reveals to us a war that has been going on by the dragon against God’s people. The war has two phases, a heavenly and earthly. The heavenly phase is fought by Michael, the great prince who protects God’s people and his angels. The dragon has many of angels with him in his fall, so he has angels with him to fight with. But he is the loser. Even though God never appears on the scene, He fights through his angels, the victory is secured. Satan loses his access to heaven. When does this happen? Probably at the end of the age, for it happens after Christ is caught up to heaven. Furthermore, there is plenty of Jewish testimony to the idea of Satan’s having access to heaven during world history.

There is also a battle on earth. As humans we cannot always see our foe. Yet we defeat the devil. In fact, the outcome of the war in heaven appears to parallel that on earth, just as Daniel’s prayers in Daniel 10 appear to parallel a battle going on in the spiritual realm, a battle he knows nothing about until he’s informed. In Revelation those who win, win not because of their strength and wisdom, but because of their trust in “the blood of the Lamb” and open confession of their faith in him. They were so firm in this trust and confession that “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12;11). The devil could make martyrs, but each martyr was the devil’s own defeat. The martyr was safe in heaven; the devil’s power over the person had crumbled. In other words, the primary means of spiritual warfare is commitment to God and his redemption in Christ, a commitment so openly confessed and so radical that even death will not shake one from it.

This battle is fought throughout the Christian age, but it’s most intense at the end of the age. In this period of 42 months the devil is fully aware he’s lost, both in heaven and on earth. Now he wishes to “make war” against “those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” The reason John is writing Revelation is so believers everywhere will hold on until martyrdom or the end of the age.

Revelation is not intended to scare us. It portrays some of the characters in an end time battle of epic proportions, but it portrays the limitations of the devil himself, not to mention his angels, and his final end. It also portrays the protection of God over his saints, as well as his eternal victory. This is designed to encourage us to stand fast, whether we’re living in the ongoing struggle of the Christian age, or in the intense struggle of the final phase of that time.

Dragons may be the stuff of fantasy, but in this case the fantasy is real, even if hidden in the spiritual realm, and the stakes are high. Yet the outcome is sure for those who remain firm in their commitment to Christ.

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Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA where he is currently serving in his 28th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.

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