Why Is There a War in Heaven in Revelation?
Talk to most people about Revelation, and you'll get weird looks. Christianity.com Brian Hedges put it best: “Revelation is notoriously difficult to understand – so weird, in fact, that most of us just avoid it altogether. And yet, it is still God’s word for the church.” The book of Revelation is one of those sticky books of the Bible that is challenging to read through because it is hard to determine what is literal and what is symbolic in the revelation to the apostle John.
But inside its chapters are a lot of warnings and encouragements for the church and the second coming of Christ. There is even a “war in heaven” mentioned.
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Where Does Revelation Describe a War in Heaven?
“Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil, and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.”
What Does the Dragon Do in the War in Heaven?
The word tannin or dragon appears multiple times in the Old Testament when referring to a great monster, whether in the sea or on land (Exodus 7:9, 7:10, 7:12; 32:33; Psalms 91:13). However, the word dragon only appears in the book of Revelations in the New Testament (12:3, 12:4, 12:7, 12:9, 12:16, 12:17). Each reference to the dragon in Revelations is when communicating something about the Devil and his actions.
While many other symbols in Revelations have multiple interpretations, the dragon in the war in heaven is clearly defined in verse ten. “The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan.”
In the war in heaven, the dragon (Satan) fights against the archangel Michael and his angels. Nothing is mentioned about how long this battle ensues, but it is clear in verse 8 that “the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven.”
Once Satan is expelled from heaven, he turns his attention to the child mentioned in Revelation 12:5, which represents Jesus. But it doesn’t take long for the child (Jesus) to win over the Dragon (Satan). “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony…” (Revelation 12:11).
Once the dragon has found himself defeated by armies of angels and the child, he turns his attention to the woman. But who does this ‘woman’ represent? Hedges expands on this idea saying the woman is “Probably not Mary, but Israel. Verse 2 has clear echoes of Genesis 37, the passage about Joseph’s dream where the twelve stars represented the twelve sons of Jacob. John seems to be identifying this woman with Israel, God’s covenant people.” In The Constable Commentary, Dr. Thomas Constable says that since Satan can no longer accuse the saints (Revelation 12:11-12) or harm Christ, Satan’s attentions turn to the heritage of Jesus: the Jewish people. Satan’s new assault begins the Great Tribulation. The Great Tribulation (a three-and-a-half period where God’s wrath is multiplied) is not to be confused with the seven-year tribulation (at the end of which the Antichrist will be revealed).
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What Does the War in Heaven Represent?
First is a turning point in the end times timeline. Satan’s efforts to slander and accuse the saints before God will end. Satan will no longer have an audience in heaven (Job 1:6, Rev. 12:10). Many theologians, including Charles Swindoll from his book Insights on Revelation, suggest that this war represents the beginning of the seven-year tribulation.
After this war, Satan is now in the endgame, and he’s not happy about it. We are even told how Satan feels in Revelation 12:12b: “He is filled with fury because he knows that his time is short.”
The second theory on this war is that the war in heaven is a parallel reflection of Satan being cast out of heaven at the beginning of time. Annette Griffin suggests that the first five verses of chapter 12 reverence Satan’s original fall, which helps us identify the Dragon as Satan and set the stage for the next verses. While Satan’s fall is not specifically detailed in scripture, it is alluded to in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:13-19. Even Jesus says in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
It is not clear in scripture when this celestial event happened. However, God called everything good at the end of creation in Genesis 1:31, and Job 38:4-7 communicates that angels were made before the earth. We must conclude that Satan cast out of heaven happened between the sixth day of creation and the temptation of Adam and Eve. This interpretation of events in Revelation 12 was the basis for 17th-century poet John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton’s book has been quoted and referenced in music, film, and literature throughout the ages (C.S. Lewis not only wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost but also quotes Paradise Lost in his book The Great Divorce).
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What Can We Learn from the War in Heaven?
Regardless of which interpretation we take of the war in heaven, we can learn something important from it.
The war in heaven reminds us that “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). The battle for our world is bigger than the trials and tribulations that surround us. I believe there is no surprise that we live in a broken world with a lot of confusion and hurt
But this war in heaven also reveals our future hope. In an interview, Brandon Crowe of Wesleyan University says that “the hopeful part of this picture is that the child has overcome the dragon.”
The woman is a representation of God’s people, Israel. As you continue through Revelation 12, you see the dragon (Satan) going after the woman (Israel), but the war is not over. The passage depicts God preparing a place for the woman as she flees. Though much of the book of Revelations speaks of trumpets, bowls, disease, and destruction, there is a gift God gives us in this apocalyptic book.
What we need to remember is that God wins. The dragon will be defeated through all the uncertainty and symbols of Revelations. “Hallelujah, Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Revelation 19:1-2).
Just like the Old Testament spoke to God’s plan of salvation through the Messiah, Revelations reminds us that God has the plan to rescue this broken world and return it to his perfect plan from the beginning. I’m sure even John was confused by what he was being shown. But throughout the book are moments of praise in heaven by the saints, reminding us of the One who knows the end of the story.
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Valerie Fentress is the author of An Easter Bunny’s Tale and Beneath the Hood: a retelling woven with biblical truth. She aims to engage believers, especially kids, in the wonder and identity of who God is and who God made them to be.
You can find out more about Valerie, her books, and her blog at www.valeriefentress.com.