John W. Mahaffy
Young King Tirian, the final king of Narnia in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, is engaged in the conflict reflected in the title of the book. The enemies of Narnia force him into a stable, but as he enters through the door, he finds himself, not in a dingy shed, but in a wonderful, sunshine-filled country. There he meets the kings and queens of Narnia, who are English schoolchildren who have been pulled into Narnia to rule over that land. Tirian, puzzling over the mysterious door connecting the world he has left with the better world he has just entered (friends of Narnia know about those doors between worlds), concludes that the stable he has entered is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
“Yes,” says Queen Lucy, speaking for the first time in the book. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world” (pp. 140–41). Without adopting the Platonism that sometimes has too much influence on Lewis, grasp the sense of awe he reflects, pointing you to a reality that is far bigger and far more mysterious than you could ever imagine. The magical world of Narnia comes to an end, but Aslan replaces it with a better country.
Early in the book of Revelation, the apostle John similarly sees a door open in heaven. (Have you ever wondered where Lewis got the idea?) There he encounters the Lion-Lamb, who takes the scroll from the Father and carries out God’s plan for the perfection of his creation. A series of visions portray God’s work of redemption from various perspectives. You are familiar with the accounts of the birth of Christ found in Matthew and Luke. Revelation 12 provides a third account. It gives a breathtakingly compressed view of what leads up to the incarnation and then of the conflict flowing out of it—but with the assurance that the Lamb triumphs!
In Revelation 12:1, John describes “a great sign” in heaven: a regally clothed woman, about to give birth. Promptly another sign appears: a powerful, cunning, grotesque dragon, seeking to devour the woman’s child at birth. The symbolism of the woman points, not just to Mary, but to the entire people of God (see the prophet’s description in Isaiah 54:1–8), through whom the promised Messiah would come. The conflict between the offspring of the woman and the dragon (identified in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan”) reaches all the way back to the garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15. Although the serpent would bruise the heel of the promised Savior, the offspring of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent.
John provides a snapshot of the greatest events in history (Rev. 12:5): “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne,” thus escaping the devouring dragon. The reference to ruling the nations identifies the child as the promised Messiah. Into a single verse John has compressed what the incarnation involves: the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, and final, triumphant kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The incarnation means that the eternal Son of God, coequal with the Father and the Spirit, has, at a particular point in world history, taken upon himself our human nature and has become the God-man. John’s focus is not just on who he is, but especially on what he does. The blood of the Lamb is the crucial element in the defeat of Satan. Christ conquers, precisely in his time of apparent weakness and defeat. The birth of Christ has his suffering and death on the cross in view—as well as his resurrection, exaltation, and coming again. The completion of his work on earth means that the accuser of God’s people is now thrown down. Satan is a defeated enemy.
The frustrated dragon then turns his fury against the woman and her other children. This is John’s way of describing the persecution and suffering of the church. The dragon uses both deceit (false teaching) spewing out of his mouth and, when that fails, open persecution as his weapons.
Remember that John is writing the book of Revelation to churches that are suffering persecution and even martyrdom. He is telling them that their weakness and suffering do not mean that their King is helpless or frustrated.
That reminder needs to be heard by the church today. Christians in a number of countries are suffering in ways similar to the suffering of first-century believers. Even in cultures such as ours, which in earlier days were profoundly influenced by Christianity, the spirit of the age demands, not just that Christians tolerate positions opposed to God and his Word, but that they embrace them. Refusal, whether by the church or by individual believers, becomes increasingly costly.
In a sense, the church today is caught between two worlds. She is united to her Lord and shares in his triumph. But, because the last battle has not yet come, her union with the Lord involves suffering during this present evil age. Still, there is a note of victory, even in those struggles. G. K. Beale observes:
The one heavenly church being persecuted on earth cannot be destroyed because it is heavenly and ultimately inviolable spiritually, but the many who individually compose the church can suffer physically from earthly dangers. And whenever persecution, deception, and compromise are resisted, the devil is seen as continuing to be defeated. (A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 220)
The saints, though suffering on earth, do share in the triumph of Christ. His overcoming of the dragon by his blood is their victory over Satan as well (Rev. 12:11). Even in the face of life-threatening and, for some of them, life-taking, persecution, their testimony to the Lamb and their trust in him stands firm.
How big, then, is what happened in Bethlehem? Bigger than our whole world, bigger than the universe, more than you can imagine. Paul writes:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15–20)
Our minds are finite, limited. We can and must believe what the Bible tells us about the incarnation, but, since we are not God, we cannot fully understand it. John Murray reminds us never to lose a sense of mystery and awe at what God has done in becoming man:
The infinite became the finite, the eternal and supratemporal entered time and became subject to its conditions, the immutable became the mutable, the invisible became the visible, the Creator became the created, the sustainer of all became dependent, the Almighty infirm. All is summed up in the proposition, God became man. (John Murray, “The Person of Christ,” in Collected Writings, 2:132)
You live in a world in which the dragon continues to try to deceive and corrupt the church, a world in which he tries to harm God’s people. How do you survive? You, a child of God, belonging to the age to come, live in a world that suffers from the curse and all the limitations and suffering that are present in a fallen creation. When you face illness and the loss of loved ones, where do you find the strength to go on?
As you read further in the book of Revelation, the Word of God assures you that the Son, snatched so quickly from the devouring dragon, has not abandoned his suffering people. He reappears in chapter 19, riding on a white horse and defeating his and our enemies. His name is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” His victory is not a temporary one. The dragon will be utterly defeated, crushed under your feet because your Lord has crushed the serpent’s head. Revelation 21 and 22 describe the new heaven and new earth, which your King will inaugurate as he comes again.
Do you grasp how sweeping the work of the Lion-Lamb is? The Son of God did not become incarnate just to provide a sacrifice for the sins of all who trust him (but thank God he did!). His work will not be complete until he brings in his new creation.
Your world will not just be restored to Eden, where our first parents could, and indeed did, succumb to temptation. Rather, you belong to his new creation. You who trust the Savior born in Bethlehem will enter this garden-city, a country filled with glory. You will be changed, never to have any corruption of sin or possibility of falling!
How big is what happened in a stable in our world? Big enough to contain God becoming man. Big enough to bring in a whole new creation! Imagine that—and praise your Savior.
The author is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Newberg, Ore. New Horizons, December 2016.