Triumph of good over evil

Michael and All Angels – 2013 

Revelation 12:7-12a

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals to us far more than we can understand and yet is as familiar as a breath. Amen.

The first time I was taken to see a Shakespearean play, my father gave me a synopsis to read so that I would be sure to understand it. Shakespeare’s English and time are sufficiently different from ours that my father thought that I would be lost without some guidance. It is still the case, that for some productions at least, the programme provides an outline of the story so that the attendee does not get lost. It is a shame that some such guidance is not provided for modern readers of the book of Revelation which was written for a time vastly different from our own and in a form and language that many of us find difficult, if not impossible to understand.

From the beginning the book of Revelation was controversial. Until the fourth century many did not even include it among the books of the New Testament. Revelation is a colourful, even lurid description of what will happen at the end of time to those who oppose God and persecute those who believe in Jesus. It can be a difficult book to understand because it is full of symbolism which we no longer use or understand. In parts it reads like a collection of Old Testament quotes simply cobbled together. In other places there are descriptions of heaven and elsewhere there are fantastical stories, like the story of the woman giving birth and the red dragon which has seven heads and ten horns and a tail that can sweep the stars out of the sky.

Some of the symbolism is lost to us, but some can be interpreted. We know for example that numbers are significant in Judaism. Seven is the number of perfection, twelve represents comprehensiveness and four refers to the four corners of the earth. We know too that letters were used as numbers in both Hebrew and Greek – so for example the letters in the name David added up to 14 which is significant for Matthew’s genealogy. This information helps us to determine that 666 (the number of the beast in Revelation) is almost certainly the numerical value of the name Nero – a particularly violent Emperor, who by the time of the writing of Revelation was dead, but was also rumoured to have returned to life. Colours also have some significance for the readers of this type of literature. The four horses of the apocalypse are coloured – red (for war), green (for death), black (for famine) and white (for the crown, the conqueror).

Without a code breaker, Revelation is almost impossible to understand. Without an understanding of its background and purpose, it is easily misinterpreted. It can become to the uninitiated a book of judgment when it is intended as a book of comfort and grace.

As the introduction implies, Revelation is directed at seven churches in Asia Minor. Members of these churches were experiencing some form of persecution or social exclusion and isolation. Having become Christians they could not participate in the worship of idols nor could they be involved in the Emperor cult. This in turn would have excluded them from the social, ritual and business life of their society. If they could not worship idols, they could not belong to the trade guilds and their ability to earn a living would have been severely reduced. Added to that was the fact that after the Jewish war they had lost the protection of the synagogue and the respect that was afforded to the Jews throughout the Empire. They were vulnerable and not recognised by the state as a religion.

What these people needed then was encouragement to keep the faith and an assurance that they would be rewarded for their steadfastness – if not in the present then at least in some future life. They needed to believe too that those who opposed them would get their just desserts. The book was not written as a prediction of cataclysmic events in a distant future. It was written to address a particular situation sometime towards the end of the first century. It cannot be used to interpret our present, but rather as a tool to try to understand an aspect of the past.

Scholars approach the book differently, but one way to read the book is to see it as a drama which consists of seven scenes.[i]. Five of the scenes are bordered by descriptions of heaven and four of the scenes contain a group of seven – there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. Before the seventh seal and seventh trumpet there are interludes or digressions which introduce a different theme one of which includes the brief account of Michael the archangel, who with his angels, throws Satan, with his angels, out of heaven. The heavenly drama is described in only one verse. If we read on, it appears that any victory over God’s opponents has been won as much by believers on earth as it has by the heavenly hosts and that the battle in heaven is a vivid and dramatic way of describing the actual situation on earth.

Satan is not necessarily a being, but is personalized here to make a point about the battle between good and evil, chaos and order, law and lawlessness. The context tells us that Satan in this account is not the tempter of Genesis but the accuser, the devil’s advocate of the book of Job. We deduce this from verse 10, which suggests that one of the forms of persecution experienced by Christians is that their fellow citizens have been accusing them before Rome (12:10) – possibly informing the authorities of their refusal to take part in the Emperor cult. However, even at the risk of their own lives, the believers have remained firm. In this way the believers themselves have exposed how ineffectual Satan really is. Perhaps more importantly, there is no longer anything for which believers can be accused – they have remained faithful. This means that there is no longer a role for Satan (the accuser) in heaven.

Believers are thus assured that while the present may be filled with difficulty and the threat of persecution, their steadfastness in the face of opposition is essential to the triumph of heaven, the victory of good over evil. How comforting those words must have been then and how much they must mean to the Christians experiencing hostility and violence in places such as Pakistan and Nigeria today. Not only are they assured that their steadfastness will be rewarded, they are also being reminded that their very faithfulness will contribute to the triumph of good in the world.

Our experience, in 21st century Hamilton, is vastly different from those for whom the book of Revelation was written. That said, we still live in a world in which there is a great deal that is outside of our control, in which bad things happen to good people and in which no one can escape grief and suffering. For all its complexities, the Book of Revelation is a reminder that no matter how bleak our situation or our disastrous the outlook for the future, we can believe that God is on our side, that good will triumph over evil and that at the end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4).


[i] Fallon provides the following breakdown of the book.

a. Introduction                                                 1:1-3

b. Opening liturgical dialogue                     1:4-8

c. Prophetic commission                              1:9-11

Heaven

Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches             2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                   4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                       6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                   7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets            8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil      12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                 15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                            16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory          19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth     21:1-22:5

a. Guarantee of prophecy              22:6-7

b. Concluding liturgical dialogue    22:8-17

c. Conclusion                                                22:18-21

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