After reading the triumphant announcement of the last section in which the kingdom of God is declared to have come at last, it is a bit jarring, to say the least, to enter into this next narrative. The triumphant which is announced is immediately contradicted, at least in appearance, by an ensuing struggle between God and Satan. It begins with the image of a great dragon poised to prey on the newborn infant of promise, an image familiar to Christians familiar with the stories of Moses and Jesus. While the latter is almost certainly who John intends to portray, there is a sense in which it is the principle and not the identity of the unborn child that is important. This is a child for whom God has a definite purpose in the working out of His will. The dragon’s menacing purpose is a direct attempt to contravene God’s will. In predictable triumph, God spirits the newborn into the throne room and guides the woman into a prepared safe haven. As for Satan, God sends his soldiers out to meet him and, inevitably, they triumph.
Cast from heaven, and frustrated in his attempts to find the woman, Satan turns his wrath on the rest of her offspring (which, interestingly, yields an interesting parallel to the Pauline image of Christ as the new Adam with Mary as the new Even…but I digress). Thwarted time and again, suddenly Satan meets with tremendous success on earth, something heaven was aware would happen: “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” First a beast rises out of the sea, tempting humanity until “all who dwell on earth will worship it.” Then a second beast rises out of the earth and persecutes anyone who does not worship the first beast.
This apparent victory would resonate with John’s audience. It is hard to imagine that John isn’t intentionally describing the practices of the Roman government with regard to the imperial cult. Christians were under tremendous social and political (even capital) pressure to worship the genius of the emperor. In the syncretistic culture of the early empire, one could be any religion he pleased provided that it didn’t conflict with the state religion. Most didn’t. Christians, however, worship only one king of kings, and their refusal to burn incense to Caesar would be the impetus for persecution for centuries to come.
What John makes clear and what it is ultimately critical even today is that the victory of Satan on earth is only apparent. Reading chapter thirteen in isolation would lead any intelligent person to believe that Satan has the upper hand and that God and His people are left to look on in horror as the mighty power of the beasts wins the many and destroys those who resist. John makes clear for his readers, however, that the fact that Satan is even wreaking havoc on earth is a product of his constant frustration at the hands of God. God stopped him from devouring the baby; God prevented him from finding the woman; God cast him down out of heaven. Satan stands in a position of perpetual defeat, even before he begins to work his deceit on an unsuspecting humanity. Every time a Christian gets the impression that Satan is triumphing, John commands us to remember that he is only here “winning” because he has already lost.
And, what’s more, he has a lot more losing left in him. Chapter fourteen opens with a return to the triumphant imagery of chapter eleven. Jesus is depicted standing gloriously atop Mount Zion as if to say, in simplified English, “…98-99-100. Ready or not, Satan, here I come!” When he does come, it is with power, as the following passage contains some of the book’s most gruesome imagery. The sinful peoples of the earth are “reaped” like grapes with a sickle, dropped into a winepress, and crushed so that their blood created a flood as high as a man’s shoulder covering an area a little larger than the distance between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. If the “great winepress of God’s wrath” weren’t enough, there are seven bowls of His wrath as well, which are poured out with consequences vaguely reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt: rivers into blood, hail, boils, darkness, and more.
The point is not, however, the particulars of God’s victory of Satan and his beasts but the finality of it. With the pouring out of the seventh bowl of wrath, the angel says, “It is done” and, in fact, it is. When we next encounter Satan some time later, he is bound, and, when he is released, it is only for a perfunctory final skirmish before he is forever cast into hell. With this, John offers comfort and strength to an audience that ultimately is deceived by appearances (a favorite trick of the devil’s). Everywhere around them they are confronted by overwhelming evidence that God is absent and the devil triumphant, but these illusions are nothing more than fleeting artifices for a defeated enemy. The great battle narrative of Revelation reminds us that Satan stood defeated before he ever set about his program of leading the world astray. He is not winning now; he is certain not to claim victory in the future.
For a full list of “Re-reading Revelation” posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.