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Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero


Don’t rush at Ground Zero — whether in New York or in Revelation 12, the chapter at the hub of the wheel in Revelation. Consensus is hard to find on most things in Revelation, but there is near-unanimity about the centrality of chapter 12. Adela Yarbro Collins’ comment is not atypical, “Here, at the structural midpoint, it becomes explicit ‘for the first time that the combat myth is the conceptual framework which underlies the book as a whole.’”

Let my homemade illustration (above) suggest three things. First, go slow in chapter 12. This is the best and possibly the last opportunity to get a handle on the key issue(s) in the cosmic conflict.

Second, the influence of chapter 12 extends equally to the chapters preceding it as to the chapters following. This challenge can only be resolved by becoming a re-reader. How could a first-time reader possibly know that he or she should have Revelation 12 in mind while reading about the seals and the trumpet — and all before reading it! On this point, we have to say to ourselves: we’ll do better next time. Next time, we will not miss the cosmic conflict theme in the seven seals and the seven trumpets.

Third, from Revelation 12 the story marches on toward chapter 20 in a way that resembles narrative conventions in modern literature. And yet most scholars, as I hope to show some weeks from now, arrive almost empty-handed in chapter 20. In that chapter, Satan is bound, which is just fine with most readers (Revelation 20:1-3). It is about time! But then he is released (20:7-9)! Indeed, the narrator says that “he must be released” (20:3). At that point, most readers are confounded. They have been dismissive of Satan in the first place, and they have had periods of inattention. As a result, the binding and release of Satan in chapter 20 generates some of the wildest comments on the book. We could make this an assignment from chapter 12 onward: Why must Satan be released after the thousand years (20:3)?

Who Started the Conflict and How?

Revelation knows who, using strange Greek to say it. “Michael and his angels had to wage war [tou polemēsai] with the Dragon” (12:7). This is odd in Greek, but it is precise for the way it captures the causal relations. Who, then, was the instigator when “war burst forth in heaven”? It was not “Michael and his angels.” They were the responders, drawn into a war started by “the Dragon.” The formulation assigns blame to Satan. An emergency arose to which Michael’s response became a matter of necessity. The opponent in the conflict is described as “the Ancient Serpent, who is called the Mudslinger and Satan, the Deceiver [ho planōn] of the whole world” (12:9). The piling up of synonyms suggests that John is “consciously attempting to expose the real role of this antagonist of God throughout cosmic and human history” (Aune).

Wars start in this world on the flimsiest of pretexts. World War I was a war in the flimsy category: everyone knew that there would be war, but no one knew why. What was the pretext (or “cause”) when “war burst forth in heaven” (12:7)? Our text abounds in subtlety, but we must work with what we have. First, then, why does Revelation describe it as a conflict between the Dragon and “Michael and his angels”? Who is Michael? Many scholars agree that this is an example of “angel Christology.” Michael is Jesus. When victory is declared, it is ascribed to “the Messiah” and to “the Lamb” (12:9-12). Michael is not mentioned, but we should not be fooled. “Michael” is Jesus, and it is Michael-as-Jesus who has won. “Angel Christology” is considered risky for those who think that it compromises the dignity of Jesus. Perhaps he was a created being after all? Perhaps he was, ontologically speaking, only “the Highest Angel”? (Ontology is the discipline that describes categories of being.) The most important ontological divide is the distinction between Creator and creature. On which side of this divide is Michael?

If he is on the Creator side of the divide, why is he represented as an angel? I have written at length on this subject in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, in a chapter entitled, “What God Did Not Say and Jesus Did Not Do — and Why It Matters.” Revelation is not the only place that has “angel Christology.” If the pre-incarnate Jesus, although a sharer in the divine identity, was in the habit of “emptying himself” (Philippians 2:5-11) — if “emptying oneself” is intrinsic to God’s disposition — how was Jesus seen by the angels?

The ontological divide between the Creator and created beings should be vast and insurmountable. One of my mentors, the late Carsten Johnsen, had a handout of fifty pages that he used to distribute to his students. It had the headline, “How could Lucifer conceive of a rivalry with Jesus Christ?” Again, no matter how glorious a being, the ontological divide should be immense and impassable between God and “the Shining One” (Isaiah 14:12-15). And it was. But it did not look that way, in part because Jesus was in the habit of being Michael. God’s disposition in Jesus made the ontological divide look smaller; God’s disposition, fully as much as God’s power, captures the difference between God and created beings. In God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, I used the following imperfect analogy from medical school for God’s disposition.

I was once a medical student at the university where I am now teaching. Before my time, the university had a legendary professor of anatomy whose name was Samuel Crooks. Anatomy is a foundational subject in medicine, appropriately placed at the head of the curriculum and taught at a time when the students are in the most intimidated state of mind. I was told by reliable sources that professor Crooks, the head of the Department of Anatomy, would start the course every year dressed in blue overalls. He would first meet the students for orientation in the lab where the dissections take place and then face them in the auditorium for the opening lecture.

One year as the new students were getting familiar with cadavers and the smell of formaldehyde in the lab on the first day of school, a student accidentally bumped into a glass jar that contained an anatomical specimen. The specimen fell to the concrete floor, broke, and spilled its content of a human body part and foul-smelling formaldehyde. Flustered, the student spotted a man in blue overalls in the lab. Assuming that he must be the janitor, he walked over to him and explained his predicament. Would he be willing to clean up the mess on the floor? The man in blue overalls nodded in agreement. Fetching a bucket and the appropriate cleaning materials, he cleansed the floor of the formaldehyde and swept up the broken glass. Moments later, when the students assembled in the auditorium for the first lecture, the man in blue overalls, no longer self-evidently the janitor, walked to the lectern. The shock and embarrassment of that student on his first day of school does not need to be explained. Professor Crooks wished to make a statement about the dignity of labor so as to disabuse budding physicians of the idea that janitors in blue overalls are of lesser value than physicians in white coats.

If we think similarly about God’s disposition in Jesus, we should not think of it as though God “wished to make a statement” or as an example of humility. I have often heard it said that worship is due God because God is the Creator. That is too simplistic. What kind of Creator is God? What is God’s disposition, aside from the fact that he is the all-powerful Creator? When Revelation says that it was “Michael and his angels” who responded to the Dragon, Michael is a cipher for God’s disposition.

Second, the instigator of the conflict is in Revelation 12 and 20 called “the Ancient Serpent” (12:9; 20:2). Again, it is time to go slow. The allusion to Genesis 3:1 will not be missed, but we may not linger long enough to get the meaning. The Ancient Serpent found a flaw in God, that is, he found a pretext in God’s command that he exploited to the hilt (Genesis 3:1).

God’s command had emphasized freedom (Genesis 2:16-17): you may freely eat. The serpent, however, represented the command as an all-out prohibition (Genesis 3:1). Even though the woman corrected the serpent’s misrepresentation, a residue of suspicion lingers: God is more interested in restriction than in freedom. Gone from the horizon are other possible meanings of the strange Tree of Knowledge, such as permission, promotion, and protection. There is now a cloud of restriction in the human condition; there is a freedom-deficit in God.   

Third, “the Dragon waged war and his angels, but they were not strong enough, neither was a place found for them in heaven” (12:7–8). Not being “strong enough” is not a metaphor that measures the two sides by muscle or might. That is too simplistic. A battle of ideas is the best proposition, in which case not being “strong enough” proves the Dragon to have a weak case. “Not strong enough” and not finding “a place in heaven” will then be two sides of the same coin, neither a matter of physical strength. We have, at Ground Zero in Revelation (12:7-12), a case of “irreconcilable differences.” When we telescope the story of the war in heaven, seeing “loss of innocence” at the point of origin and “loss of influence” at the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we get to know which side had the stronger case. 


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019

Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Alexander Nachev on Unsplash


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