One of the ancient mythology stories is that of the evil usurper who is doomed to be slain by a royal prince yet to be born. The version of this story that would have been most familiar to John’s readers concerned Apollo's birth. When his mother, Leto, became pregnant, Python, the dragon, sought to slay her to keep Zeus's son from being born. Zeus, the chief god, carried Leto on winds to a secret island to hide the expectant mother. Finally, Apollo was born, and four days later, he slew the evil dragon.
The apostle John would have known this popular story of a war in heaven as he wrote the twelfth chapter of Revelation. Some scholars suggest that John was copying from mythology. John’s perspective is that the history of Christ is the true story of our world. Pagan mythology partly consists of Satan’s counterfeit of the true story of Christ to pervert the gospel for his purposes. Satan, John says, is the real dragon whose defeat is assured by God’s promised Son. The dragon then attempts to stop the Messiah’s birth and then persecute the Messiah’s people.
Chapter 12 begins the second half of Revelation and with it, great detail of a war in heaven. The first half provided general overviews of history. Here, we see the world’s opposition to the gospel, Christ’s judgments on the wicked nations, and our calling to persevere in faith. The second half of Revelation homes in on the chief characters in the spiritual warfare occurring behind the scenes and a literal war in heaven. The primary enemy is Satan, the dragon. He is aided by two beasts, the harlot Babylon, and the people who bear the mark of the beast. These figures are introduced in chapters 12–15, and one by one their defeat and judgment are shown in chapters 16–20.
Located as it is in the book's center, Revelation 12 is considered by many scholars as the central and key vision of the war in heaven. It depicts the decisive conflict between the church, the devil, and the royal child, Jesus Christ.
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War in Heaven and a Dragon
Revelation 12 presents what may be regarded as history’s primary explanation, a great spiritual war raging behind the scenes. Verse 3 presents a mighty and terrible monster at war with Christ. Beneath all the action on the surface of history is a great spiritual enemy seeking to destroy the church. John identifies him in verse 9 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.”
Many people today dismiss the devil as a fantasy or myth. But you cannot take the Bible seriously without believing in this personal and powerful spirit, the fallen archangel who is the enemy of Christ and his church. Nor can you make real sense of the world as it is without accounting for him.
The devil first appears in the Bible as the serpent who deceived and tempted Adam and Eve into breaking God’s command, plunging our race into sin (Gen. 3:1–6). In cursing him, God promised warfare between Satan’s servants and the woman's children (Genesis 3:15). The woman’s offspring was primarily Christ, but in him, it includes the entire church of the Old and New covenants. The rest of history features the conflict between the devil and God’s covenant people, centered on his opposition to Christ himself.
John’s description of Satan as a great dragon connects back to the serpent of the Garden. It incorporates the mythological dragon imagery that symbolized chaos and evil throughout the ancient world. The Old Testament often personified evil as a dragon or sea monster. Isaiah looked back on God’s defeat of Pharaoh in the exodus in these terms (Isa. 51:9). He spoke of God’s judgment on Assyria, saying that “he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).
Behind the mythical dragons of the ancient world is the real dragon, the devil. Here is the true monster who lurks in history, whom Peter described as “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
John sees Satan as a great red dragon, the color standing for bloodshed and murder. Jesus said, “He was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). The dragon is further seen “with seven heads and ten horns and on his heads seven diadems” (Rev. 12:3). In ancient mythology, the many-headed dragon seemed impossible to defeat. Likewise, Satan has heads and fangs in many worldly influences, and he acts with shocking dexterity.
Along with the seven heads are “ten horns.” In the Bible, horns symbolize strength, and the ten horns speak of the strength of evil in this world under the devil’s power. Daniel’s fourth and most terrible beast had ten horns (Dan. 7:7, 24), and that connection associates these horns with earthly kingdoms under Satan’s control. Reinforcing this idea are “seven diadems” on his heads (Rev. 12:3). These are not like the laurel crown of victory worn by the woman but are crowns of his usurped earthly dominion. Paul thus described Satan as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2).
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What Does the Dragon Do?
Satan does not serve, but only rules. His crowns are the iron crowns of tyranny. Satan longs to hear the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns” sung to his glory rather than to Christ’s.
John is told that the dragon’s “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth” (Rev. 12:4). Many readers jump to the conclusion that this refers to Satan’s leading a host of angels into heaven in rebellion against God. However, it is more likely that this vision symbolizes the arrogant aims of his warfare on earth against the church. This same language was used in Daniel 8:10 of Antiochus Epiphanes, the great persecutor of the Jews. Satan intends for his malicious actions on earth to do damage in heaven. Only a vast monster could swing his tail and knock stars from the sky.
The dragon especially remembers God’s promise that the child of the woman would crush his head (Gen. 3:15). Therefore, the vision paints the gruesome picture of the mother about to give birth, and there with her is the dragon with his seven heads, lurking to attack the child when he is born (Rev. 12:4).
This, too, is the story of the Old Testament. After receiving the curse of enmity with the woman and her child, Satan sought to cut off the line. First, he incited Cain to kill his godly brother Abel (Gen. 4:8). Later, when Israel went into Egypt, Satan led Pharaoh to order that all the male sons would be killed as soon as they left the womb (Ex. 1:8–16). Satan entered King Saul's heart with murderous designs for David, through whom the true King would be born. In Babylon, Satan conspired through evil Haman to wipe out the Israelite community (Esth. 3:15), only to be thwarted through the resourcefulness of Queen Esther, whom God had placed near the Persian king. Finally, when the wise men came to King Herod, asking about the royal child who had been born, Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to slay every male child up to two years old (Matt. 2:16).
All through biblical history, Satan has raged with a murderous passion focused on one object: to destroy the promised Savior before the Savior could put an end to Satan’s dominion of evil.
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What Is the War in Heaven?
John will elaborate further details of the holy war in heaven as the chapter continues, but the opening vision connects with us now by telling what happens to the woman after her child was born and taken up safely to God’s throne. John concludes: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days” (Rev. 12:6).
This final verse makes three vital applications for us today. The first is that Christians must not think of this present world as home, for now is the time of our wilderness journey. This life is a time of testing in preparation for our true home when Christ returns. The world under the devil’s power is hostile to faithful Christians.
Christians must be spiritually strong and biblically wary, for behind earthly opposition and moral perversity stand spiritual forces of evil, led by Satan himself. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul wrote, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Knowing this, we should not wage war in an earthly manner, relying on things such as wealth, power, or political influence. Our spiritual warfare depends on the spiritual resources of prayer, God’s Word, and holy lives (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
In such a conflict, our calling from God is not to overthrow the spiritual powers of darkness, for we are not the slayers of the dragon. Rather, we are to stand against him. We are “to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13). Everything in the world that is contrary to God and his Word—whether sexual immorality, secularist ideology, or consumer idolatry—is a weapon forged by Satan to afflict mankind and oppose Christ and his church. When pressed to conform to worldly ways, we should see the devil’s hand at work and resolutely refuse to aid and abet the enemy of our King.
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God’s wilderness is a place not only of safety but also of his provision. God sent ravens to feed Elijah during his three-and-a-half-year exile at the brook (1 Kings 17:6), and Israel was fed in the desert by the manna that God sent from heaven (Ex. 16). God now feeds the church with his Word, making faith grow strong even in affliction (Deut. 8:3). It is his design that the wilderness would be a place where his covenant people would draw near to him in love, learning to rely on him completely for provision and protection.
Finally, we are to remember that our enemy is a defeated foe. The child of the woman has come. He has conquered sin and Satan on the cross and risen to heaven with his Father. He has promised to return and end the war in total victory. There are still battles, some of them bloody and painful, that God’s people must fight. You and I must take hard stands that may prove costly. But we stand for Jesus, not only grateful for his love but certain of his victory in the end!
How inspiring it is in this life's trials, failures, and sorrows to be shown the glorious vision of how God sees the church, clothed in glory and crowned with stars! How wondrous it is to realize that history consists of the child's struggle to be born and his victory over the terrible dragon! And how solemn it is to recognize that we have a place in this titanic struggle. John explains our contribution in Revelation 12:11. Christ, the Lamb, has conquered by his blood. What significance we find for our lives if we stand firm in faith and bear our testimony to the glory of his kingdom!
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Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.