Wineskins Archive

January 8, 2014

Christmas According to the Apocalypse (Nov 1992)

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by Rubel Shelly
November, 1992

7The Christmas Story is in the final book of the Bible? While everyone correctly associates the incarnation with the Gospels, it may strike you as odd that we call you to the book of Revelation to round out the message of this issue.

As a matter of fact, practically every great theme of the Bible comes to its crescendo in the Apocalypse. It is the great book of fulfillment to Christian faith. It assures believers that evil cannot triumph over good, error over truth, Satan over Christ. And part of that assurance relates directly to Bethlehem, as well as to Jerusalem, Rome, and your home city.

The first half of Revelation (chapters 1-11) gives a general overview of the conflict between the church and Rome; it assures beleaguered saints that God is securely enthroned in heaven and has not forgotten his struggling people. The second half (chapters 12-22) focuses attention on the devastation to be visited against persecuting Rome; it reveals the contents of the little scroll John was required to take and eat at Revelation 10:9-11.

If you will pause at this point to read chapter 12 in its entirety, you cannot fail to be caught up in its dramatic imagery.

The radiant woman about to give birth is Old Testament Israel, who, in the person of the virgin Mary, gave birth to the Christ. The Old Testament impression of Israel being “with child” and laboring to bring the messiah-redeemer into the world (cf. Isaiah 26:17-18) became reality in the stable at Bethlehem.

The red dragon anxious to destroy the child at birth is identified at verse nine as Satan. Yet, since Satan typically works thorugh his evil agents, he is Herod the Great, the devil in the wilderness, rabbis trying to trap jesus in his speech, Caiaphas, the mob with its chants of “Crucify him!”, cowardly Pilate, and mockers at the crucifixion scene all rolled into one sickening visage of evil. The purpose of this scene in the Apocalypse is neither to give a detailed account of the birth and ministry of Christ nor to itemize all his encounters with Satan. Thus it moves immediately from his imperiled birth to his glorious ascension.

As the Christ child is caught up to heaven for his own protection, a frustrated and angry Satan attempts to pursue him right into heaven itself. There he is met by Michael and his angels, defeated, and cast down to earth. This is not, of course, either a literal recounting of events or, as some may have supposed, a reference to the origin of the devil. It is a dramatic account of the sovereignty of God and his power to become victorious over Satan and his host.

When heaven’s inhabitants see this struggle and its outcome, they burst into praise. At verse 11, their praise is offered to the blood of the Lamb and to the gospel: “They overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony …” Salvation is credited to grace, not to the strategy or daring of Christ’s followers.

Unable to destroy the child at birth or by storming heaven, the dragon next turns on the woman who gave birth to the child. Israel, now surely the “true Israel” or church redeemed by Christ’s blood, will be harassed and hounded by him. This reminds us that the persecution of God’s people is never a coincidence of history but is always due to the opposition of Satan.

Against the flood of evil that comes against the church during the “time, times, and half a time” (i.e., the recurring three and one-half years the Lamb’s enemies are in control of things, cf. Revelation 11:2), God causes the earth to open its mouth and absorb its waters. Whether against the corporate church of history or against individual believers (i.e., “the rest of [the woman’s] seed”), Satan’s attacks are vicious and constant. Yet God’s presence as the faithful deliverer of his people is also constant.

Isn’t this a critical part of the Christmas story? Christmas is the faith story of a frightened but submissive girl who is willing to be “the Lord’s servant.” It is the account of shepherds bowing reverently to the Good Shepherd of Yahweh’s flock and Magi offering their gifts and homage to the child born to be Israel’s king. It is Joseph, Simeon and Anna, the flight into Egypt, families together, gifts exchanged – it is all these ancient and modern things blended into the wonderful event called Christmas. Above all else, it is the affirmation of God still with us.

In all our times of difficulty, the Lord delivers his people in one way or another. One way may be deliverance in space and time; another may be victory over the sting and power of death. But no one who trusts him will be put to shame.

You cannot have forgotten the horrible event of only four years ago when Pam Am Flight 103 exploded over Scotland. A revolting terrorist attack disintegrated the plane and killed everyone aboard. And it was Christmastime!

When Susan Cohen learned that her only child, Theodora, had been among the victims, she was overwhelmed by grief. On the way to the airport after receiving the news, she twice tried to throw herself from the car onto the highway. She wanted to die. Her husband, Daniel, restrained her and said he could not live without her.

The next wave of anguish struck when the two of them returned to their Port Jervis, New York, home to confront a barren Christmas and Theodora’s room that would always be empty. According to a story in the New York Times, it was at that point that something promising happened. Friends, neighbors, and strangers appeared to support the Cohens.

Some of Theodora’s friends, fellow students with her at Syracuse University, slept on the living room floor so the Cohens would not have to be alone. “In the middle of this ghastly evil, there is a beautiful side to people,” said Mrs. Cohen. “And it has come out.”

Yes, in the middle of the first-century church’s “ghastly evil,” the Apocalypse reaffirmed that those saints would not have to be alone. The human writer of the story had earlier presented Jesus as the Eternal Word come in the flesh and “dwelling among us” (John 1:1-14). Now he was being called to offer the same truth to harrassed and unhappy people whose lives were falling apart under persecution.

That God is with us remains the assurance of scripture this Christmas. Unemployed persons, families in crisis, lives entangled in sin, hearts breaking under a load too great for them – God has come among us to enter your pain, forgive your sin, and empower your existence. That Satan cannot defeat him means that you are assured of victory in your own struggles with evil.

Stand with the Lamb, and, mystery of mysteries, the dragon looking to destroy you is powerless. Stand at the cross, and death is transformed into life. Kneel beside his cradle, and sense that you are not alone.Wineskins Magazine

Rubel Shelly

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