The two parties engaged in the battle
Revelation 12:1-6 speaks of a fiery red dragon seeking to destroy a woman, first while she is pregnant and then after she has given birth. Prof B Holwerda, in a sermon on these verses, shows how the dragon represents Satan and the nations while the woman represents the church. During the Old Testament, that church is ‘pregnant’. The unborn baby is the Lord Jesus Christ, the object of Satan’s hatred. But after the baby Jesus is born, grows up and Christ is taken up to heaven, Satan is enraged and focusses on destroying the woman, Christ’s church. Although the world news often focuses on rivalry amongst the nations, a rivalry that dates back to when God separated the people at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), the real warfare, the ultimate conflict, harks back to the mother-promise of Genesis 3:15. That’s the point of Revelation 12. There the apostle John gives a summary of world history. And the Word of God shows that there are two parties at war in history: the world powers on the one hand and the kingdom of God on the other.
Now, the great news is that the kingdom of God will prevail. Yes, at the end of time, when the 7th trumpet has sounded, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” This is reason for great joy, but this thankfulness can only be pure and deep when you see how terrible the kingdoms of the world have fought; how they have been infused by the devil to hate God and His Anointed. That is the panorama of world history we get in Revelation12. And this panorama shows that the clash is not between civilizations or world powers but that the kernel of world history is the clash, the struggle, between the church and the world. These two powers, explains Holwerda, dominate history.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Who sees in the turmoil of society that little church! And if you go right back to the Old Testament: Which countries esteemed that little dwarf-state Israel? Who in this New Testament era, in the great international events, who has regards for the church—so small and insignificant? The media doesn’t, nor do the nations or political big-wigs. But John, directed by the Holy Spirit, says the church is the major player. You see, history is not governed by Genesis 11 (tower of Babel and the divisions cause by different languages) but Genesis 3 (the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent).
Sure, you get the beginning of international conflicts in Genesis 11 (Babel). But Genesis 3 (antithesis and mother promise) precedes it. That is where the great struggle begins. In the Old Testament, the great issue was not the conflict between Babylon and Egypt, nor later between Greece and Rome, nor in the 20th century between Germany and England, or America and Russia. That’s what the media tells us. But the Bible tells us that those world powers are only disunited to a certain extent. In essence they are united. Also today, the mother-promise is the main motif of history.
You see, when all’s said and done, says Holwerda, the world powers form the many-headed dragon with its struggle to control the sea and air and economy. It’s the dragon, Revelation shows, who swipes away a third of the stars of heaven, who dims the light on the earth, who brings darkness on earth. And over against that dragon, that embodiment of world powers that darken life, there stands only the church, which bears the light of the world.
That doesn’t make things easy for the church. Just look at the history of the Old Testament. It is a history of suffering, a yearning for Christ, for the Redeemer, for Him who will usher in the Kingdom of God. It is a great cry for the Messiah and his kingdom of peace. But how much mustn’t the church suffer in the meantime. And how great isn’t the power that resists the coming Christ. Revelation 12 shows how the dragon stands before the woman because it knows that the Child to be born will crush his head. That’s why he tries to destroy the pregnant woman. The world powers continually oppressed the church-nation Israel. Often it seems as though the church was destroyed, as though Christ couldn’t come, and that therefore the kingdom of peace could not arrive.
The purpose of the battle
Yes, the whole struggle of the church is a struggle for the coming of the Christ and hence the establishing of His kingdom, the kingdom of God. And the world, with all its struggle for power, and its wars and conflicts, is also concerned with one thing: hindering, preventing, the kingdom of Christ. The world powers are prepared to do anything, patch up their conflicts, bury their animosity, but there is one thing they don’t want: that Christ should be King, that His gospel and law should govern life.
Now you know why the church is the Kingdom of light. It proclaims the Word of God, the Truth, the Light of the world. Admittedly, the church has her sins and struggles and needs. And we can’t and don’t ignore that. But this is her light: that she serves the revelation of the kingdom of Christ. That is her great longing, her struggle. And that is why the world power is darkness, and the dragon swipes a third of the stars of heaven: the kingdom of Christ, as far as the dragon is concerned, must not be seen.
Will we finally learn the lesson of history, says Holwerda, and see the real issue? Will we cling to the light and cause it to shine in this dark world?
I know people say – look at all those divisions in the church. Another liberation, another church, another dispute. I understand it and see sins and shortcomings on every side. But how fortunate it is that the church is still willing to fight about the issues of faithfulness to Scripture and confession and church order. It would be a sad day if the church no longer paid attention to such issues. Because when the church struggles about matters such as the covenant and church orderliness, etc., it is struggling about the kingship of Christ, about whether Christ’s Word and authority will prevail. The issue invariably revolves around whether the Word of God will be devalued, and His promises made powerless; whether the church will doze or be caught up in a false unity struggle – a unity of power wherein God’s rights are watered down and trodden underfoot. That is why it is so terrible when many ignore the issues and others won’t decide.
When is the church clothed with the sun, with the moon under het feet and on her head a crown of 12 stars? Not when she maintains a unity while negating the will of Christ the King, but when she seeks Christ’s kingdom and offers everything for her. If you don’t struggle for the kingship of Christ in the church, you won’t do it in politics and in social issues either. If you think everything is okay in church because it is peaceful, you’ve lost the plot. You can’t proclaim the kingship of Christ in politics and elsewhere when you ignore His kingship in church.
Where was the church (the woman) when it gave birth to Christ? The woman was not Israel under the leadership of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. And the dragon wasn’t Rome and Pilate. But the woman was the small group – Zachariah, Anna, Elisabeth, Simeon, etc., awaiting the Messiah. Whilst the Sanhedrin – under Annas and Caiaphas – along with Herod and Pilate and the Romans were part of the seven-headed dragon.
Some say that today the woman is all the Christian churches and right-wing politics, and that the dragon is all that is non-churched and left-wing. But if the church denies the kingship of Christ, what’s the use of a broad unity? The church is then not the woman clothed with the sun, but she belongs to the dragon that swipes the stars from heaven. The same applies in politics: if we unite with others to form a large protestant party, a strong right-wing movement, yet where the will of Christ is not really taken seriously, then you have one of the heads of the dragon. Because although it appears to wield power and influence, it opposes Christ.
Isolation for the church
There’s one more thing Holwerda points out: Revelation 12 shows that when the Child is caught up into heaven to God and His throne, the Kingdom of God has come for Christ sits on the throne. That is something wonderful. But it also means hardships for the woman, Christ’s church. Now that the child has escaped the clutches of the dragon, he is enraged and makes war against the saints. Revelation 12 shows that the church is forced to flee into the desert – just as Israel escaped Egypt by going into the desert with all its hardships.
The desert signifies isolation for the church. After Christ’s ascension, the church will increasingly find herself isolated from having an influential role in social, political and other areas of life. Her voice won’t be counted. Although she is in the world, her views are ignored. She will only remain in existence because God keeps her alive for 1260 days—the entire time during which the antichrist rages.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should withdraw ourselves from social life in the world. A church that says this is no church anymore and will not be hated by the world. How would such a ‘woman’ be a problem for the dragon? No, the woman is driven away because she confesses Christ’s kingship over all of life. She wants to be a voice in the world, but the world won’t tolerate her; not if she speaks the will of Christ openly acknowledging His kingship.
The result is that the church is excluded from political and social life. It’s not that we don’t want to and are not interested. No, we confess the kingdom of Christ also in politics and social life. But it’s precisely because we acknowledge His kingship, His rights, His norms also in these areas that we are excluded.
The same applies in a church that has outgrown the right way of doing things. When we acknowledge His rights in a church that goes astray, we are excluded as schismatics. Church history is replete with such examples. We are Christ’s wherever we are and must serve Him in every area of life. But confessing Him and His rights leads to expulsion.
We see the compromises all around us but want to hold on to the truth of the Bible. We don’t want to go into the desert; we want to participate. But when we do, we’re forced to relinquish the kingship of Christ. When will we finally learn that the world doesn’t want us? The church will only truly be church if she confesses the kingship of Christ and the inevitable exclusion.
Isn’t that what is revealed to us. The Child has been caught up to God and His throne. Whoever holds on to that, not just with words, but also with heart and deeds, will find himself in the wilderness “where she has a place prepared by God” outside social life, outside positions of influence, outside the culture, outside the sparkling joys of vibrant society.
Is that terrible? No, for who arrives in Canaan other than via the desert? Who receives the future city other than by offering up the ‘cities’ here below? We need to stop kidding ourselves that we can participate and be counted. The antichrist is coming, and all who belong to Christ—old and young (yes, truly, the young folk too)—have a place in the desert prepared by God.
And I can accept that in faith because I know that hereafter a place is prepared for me in my Father’s house with its many dwellings.
This article is based on a (Dutch) sermon by the late Prof B Holwerda held 30th September 1945, part of a series of his sermons titled Een Levende Hoop (A Living Hope) published in the Netherlands in 1953.