What is Michael doing with his angels in Revelation 12?

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is from Rev 12.7–12 in celebration of the feast of Michael and All Angels. Although the festival focusses on Michael, everything about this passages actually focusses away from Michael and points us to the victory of God and the lamb—even Michael’s name! This is what I wrote in my Tyndale Commentary, as an introduction to chapter 12, comments on the particular verses, and a theological conclusion to the whole chapter.


We now come to what commentators universally agree is the central and pivotal chapter in the book. Although this chapter is not styled as an interlude to a series in way chapters 7 and 10–11 are, it stands out as distinctive in style and language. A decisive break with the previous narrative is marked by the opening comment, not ‘And I saw…’ but ‘And a great sign appeared in heaven…’

The shape of this chapter and the one that follows are also distinctive. Together, Rev. 12–13 form the longest continuous narrative within the whole book. But Rev. 12 itself has perhaps the clearest structure of any section, following into four interconnected parts:

  1. opening narrative about the woman, the child and the dragon (vv. 1–6)
  2. short narrative about war in heaven (vv. 7–9)
  3. poetic hymn of praise (vv. 10–12)
  4. resumption of the opening narrative of woman, child and dragon (vv. 13–17)

As we shall see, sections 2 and 3 are epexegetical of each preceding section, that is, they function to explain what has gone before, until  the original narrative is resumed after the hymn has made clear what this whole episode is about. And explanation is needed because of the unusual nature of the main narrative in 1–6 and 13–17, which contains many ideas that are not found in the Old Testament nor earlier in Revelation. We can recognize the characters easily enough – the woman as the people of God awaiting deliverance, the dragon as ‘that ancient serpent called the devil’, the child who is the anointed king in Psalm 2, Michael the great angelic prince of Israel – but the plot is strange to us.

However, it would not have been strange to John nor to his audience. It has clear connections to a myth that was widely circulated from the third century BC to the second century AD in a variety of forms, the best known being the story of Leto, Python and Apollo. Python, a huge dragon, was warned by an oracle that he would be destroyed by one of Leto’s children. Leto was a lover of Zeus who was married to Hera. When Hera learned that Leto was pregnant, she banished her; Leto gave birth to her twins, Artemis and Apollo, on the island of Delos (about 40 miles (70 km) due West of Patmos). Python pursued her in order to destroy her offspring, but she was carried away by Aquilo (Latin for the north wind) and protected by Poseidon with waves. When four days old, Apollo hunted down Python and killed him with arrows (both Apollo and Artemis were archers). [This is a summary of the version recorded by the Latin author Hyginus in his collection of mythology Fabulae (no. 140). Hyginus (ca. 64 BC to AD 17) was a freedman of Augustus and the superintendent of the library on the Palatine.] This story was used as imperial propaganda, particularly by Domitian, to portray the emperor as Apollo, the son of the gods and defeater of the chaos monster.

John has previously blended Old Testament ideas with elements of the emperor cult, particularly in the vision of worship in Rev. 4. Here, though, is a particular way of bringing the two together – by taking the characters from one narrative (the biblical story) and inserting them into the plotline from another narrative (the Leto myth). This is a device we continue to see today in many forms of political cartoon. To make sense of it, we need to recognize both the characters (which come from one context, the scriptures of the Old Testament) and the plot (which comes from another context, the world of Greco-Roman mythology, particularly as appropriated in imperial propaganda). In doing this, John’s vision report inverts the story, displacing imperial power from the role of Apollo by the Davidic messiah, and instead associating the empire with the chaos monster, the dragon.


Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!


War in heaven (12:7–9)

 Comment

7. The register of language now changes, and John’s vision report switches from drawing on the Python/Leto myth to drawing on Jewish images of angelic combat. [In a related myth, Typhon, another dragon monster, fights Zeus and is cast down to Tartarus by him. Though John’s audience might have been familiar with this story, the shape of it does not appear to have been a major influence on the text.] The war in heaven is initiated with the enthronement of the male son, which implies a clash of authorities, even though the presence of Satan in heaven has not been previously mentioned (in contrast to the scene described in Job 1:6–8).  The advent of angelic warfare was taken by Jews and pagans as a sign that human warfare was about to break out, though here the heavenly conflict actually leads to conflict on earth when Satan is cast down.

Michael was one of the four or seven ruling angels (‘archangel’; Jude 9) and presumably one of those who blew the trumpets (see comment on 8:2). His name (mi-cha-el) in Hebrew means ‘Who is like God?’, a question parodied in the later question ‘Who is like the beast?’ in 13:4. Though some Jewish literature gives Michael a primordial role in confronting Satan in the creation, his main function is eschatological. He is described in Dan. 10:13, 21;12:1 as the ‘chief of princes’ who assists other angels in their warfare against other angelic powers, and as ‘the great prince who protects your people’, thus linking him with the woman as an image of God’s people. Within the narrative, it is notable that it is not the enthroned male son who fights against the dragon, but one of his angels. His authority has been delegated, and victory is certain; the struggle between the forces of good and evil is in no sense a clash of equals.

8. ‘Might’ or ‘strength’ is a quality ascribed to God (7:12) and various angels (10:1; 18:21) as well as something claimed by Babylon (18:10); Revelation could therefore be characterised as depicting an (unequal) power struggle in which (contrary to appearance) the power of the dragon (which is behind the power of human empires) is not strong enough to overcome the apparent weakness of the child or the slain lamb. The phrase translated they lost their place in heaven is grammatically very odd, literally reading ‘nor was their place found any longer in heaven’. The loss of a ‘place’ contrasts with the ‘place’ prepared for the woman for her protection. But more importantly, the same phrase is found in one Greek version (Theodotion) of Dan. 2:35, describing the destruction of the statue which represents human empires by the stone ‘not made by human hands’ which symbolises the coming kingdom of God. It is also found in the Greek of Ps. 37:36, about the wicked who ‘soon passed away and were no more’. Though the psalm reads like a reflection on the wicked in general, in Qumran it was interpreted as predicting the eschatological overthrow of the Wicked Priest who opposed the Teacher of Righteousness. Michael is here enacting the rule of the promised king, now enthroned with God, whose kingdom displaces all human empires and whose rule brings wickedness to an end.

9. John here draws together the various traditions in the Old Testament about the primeval opponent of God. In the Greek Old Testament, the word for ‘dragon’ or ‘sea monster’ and ‘serpent’ are often the same, so this identification is natural enough, and it draws the chaotic monsters of the deep who were tamed by the ordering of God alongside the agent of evil who stands against the goodness of God. The serpent in the garden of Eden is not identified with Satan in the Genesis narrative, but by the first century this identification was common, for example in Paul’s encouragement that ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom. 16:20), an allusion to Gen. 3:15. Devil (diabolos) meaning ‘slanderer’ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Satan meaning ‘accuser’, and the two terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament. ‘Satan’ could refer to a human accuser (as in Ps. 71:13) but came to mean the spiritual being who was the accuser of God’s people (as in Job 1:6–8). The devil was particularly associated with demons (who were understood as his malevolent angels) and in this capacity was called Beelzebub (‘Lord of the flies’, Matt. 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15) a name derived from a Philistine god (2 Kings 1:2–3). He is the ‘evil one’ from whom we pray for deliverance (Matt. 6:13) and is also Belial or Beliar, meaning ‘worthless one’ (2 Cor. 6:15). The devil is often depicted as deceiving people by luring them into temptation, as in Jesus temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). In the Johannine tradition he is ‘the father of lies’ (John 8:44) and Paul highlights his deceptive disguise (2 Cor. 11:14).

When did Satan’s fall occur, when he was thrown down? The account of the fall of the ‘morning star’ (Latin Lucifer) in Isa. 14:12–14 appears to refer to the king of Babylon but has later been read as a description of Satan’s primordial fall and corruption – though there is no clear connection made in this passage. When the seventy-two return from their ministry of proclamation, healing and exorcism Jesus declares ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18) – but this must be understood as an anticipation of Jesus’ victory over evil in his cross and resurrection rather than the attainment of it. In John’s gospel, the ‘hour’ of ‘judgement on this world’ in which ‘Satan, the ruler of this world cast out’ (John 12:31) is the moment when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, that is, his crucifixion. In the narrative here in Revelation, Satan’s fall follows Jesus’ exaltation to the throne, but we are soon told that ‘the accuser’ has been thrown down and victory won in the first instance ‘by the blood of the lamb’ (v. 11). So there is a twin focus on Jesus’ death and his exaltation, expressed earlier by the presence of the slain lamb on the throne in Rev. 5.

Though Satan no longer has a place in heaven, he does continue to exercise power on the earth. John is recasting the temporal paradox of the Christian life into a spatial one. The time that the followers live in is one of testimony and victory yet at the same time one in which they experience suffering and apparent defeat. In spatial terms, they are heaven-dwellers who are before the throne in heaven and constitute the temple of God, and so are protected from the power of Satan who has no place there. And yet they continue as members of many tribes, languages, peoples and nations, living in their various cities on earth where Satan, for a short time (12:12), wields his limited power.


The hymn of praise (12:10–12)

Comment

10. In the second major change of style within this chapter, John hears the authoritative declaration of a loud voice from heaven. In the now we have reached the central point of the central chapter of the book – the pivot around which the whole narrative turns. John has been speaking the words of the exalted Jesus to the particular situation of the Christian communities in the province of Asia. He has shared with them his vision of worship in heaven and of the slain lamb who shares the throne. He has depicted the chaos and evil unleashed on the world under the permissive authority of God. And the repeated implicit and explicit question has been ‘How long will this last? What will God do about it?’. The preliminary answers have been offered in the two interludes – that he has formed a people for himself from every nation, that he has called John and others to exercise a ministry of prophetic witness. But now the fullest answer comes to the question, the one which his people and their testimony point to: that in Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation the kingdom of God and with it the authority of his Messiah or Christ have now come. If the first half of the book has been building up to the revelation of this, not least through it frequent anticipations of it, then the second half of the book depicts its working out, not least in the judgement that comes to all other rival kingdoms (empires).

Salvation has been acclaimed as belonging to God by the uncountable multitude in 7:10, and will be acclaimed again at the fall of Babylon in 19:1. It represents a direct counter-claim to that of the Roman emperor, who claimed to bring salvation by subduing the empire’s enemies and bringing peace and prosperity. Power is mentioned 12 times in the text, and (like the language of strength in v. 8 above) expresses the rival claims of God and his spiritual opponents (cf. 13:2; 17:13). In the past, Satan’s accusations of God’s people could be countered (Job 1:8) or forgiven (Zech. 3:1–4) by God, but now the accuser himself has been expelled, and no more accusations will be heard. ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1).

11. The language of triumph (nikaō) connects this central passage to the exhortations in the messages to the seven assemblies in Rev. 2–3. Although it is the lamb who has triumphed, the victory belongs too to God’s people, since they now enjoy freedom from the fear of accusation and participate in the kingdom and power that has been made available to them. The victory has two parts to it, one which is de jure which establishes the victory, and the other which is de facto, in that it makes the victory real and visible. The first is the blood of the lamb which is a metonym for his death, and the second is the word of their testimony, that is, their faithful witness to the truth and transformative power of the death of the lamb. Without the first, there is no basis for victory over Satan and the power that he exercises; without the second, there is no reality in it. And the two are bound closely together, since true testimony means that the witnesses do not shrink from death which is precisely following the pattern of Jesus, the faithful witness, who ‘loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood’. To follow the crucified one means to live the cruciform live (Mark 8:34; Phil 3:10). This kind of conquest, which involves suffering from violent oppression, is in sharp and constant contrast with the conquest of the beasts who inflict violence. This does not mean either that only the martyrs are saved, or that all God’s people will die a martyrs death, but simply that this is emblematic of the kind of faith and its ‘patient endurance’ (1:9) to which the whole community is called.

12. The victory of the lamb is both good news and bad news – good news for those who dwell in the heavens, but bad news for the earth and the sea. This corresponds to John’s experience of eating the scroll, which is both sweet and bitter (10:10) since his prophetic message is given both to those who receive the message of salvation and those who reject it. The spatial distinction between heaven and earth is again about distinctions in spiritual reality, since those following the lamb are the ones who ‘dwell in heaven’ (13:6) while those who follow the beast are described as ‘inhabitants of the earth’ (13:8). The earth here is bracketed with the sea, which in the Old Testament is the source of chaos and opposition to God. The devil’s time (kairos) is short, not in terms of days and years so much as being limited in extent by the authority of God.

Although it is not numbered by John, this is the next proclamation of woe following the two which corresponded to the fifth and sixth trumpets (in 9:12 and 11:14). The declaration that ‘the third woe is coming soon’ (11:14) is followed immediately by this narrative and this warning of woe, which suggests that John understands the present era, between Jesus’ exaltation and his return, as the third ‘woe’. The first two woes constitute the threats from the north and the east to the empire itself, and any other kind of threat to human peace and well-being; but the third woe is the threat that the empire itself presents as an instrument of the dragon in the oppression of the people of God. From the story of cosmic conflict in Rev. 12, we turn in Rev. 13 to the specific expression of that manifested in Roman imperial power in the province of Asia.


Theology

Even though the figure of Jesus (depicted in person or in an image) is not as central here as he is in chapters 1 and 5, in this pivotal chapter the claims of Jesus are brought most sharply into focus as rival claims to that of the Roman empire. In the literary equivalent of a political cartoon, John’s vision report takes a piece of imperial propaganda and inverts its effect. Rome is no longer the strong hero Apollo who vanquishes the chaos monster, but is in fact allied with the chaos monster and so is threatened with defeat. Jesus is not a marginal figure who is the inspiration for an insignificant religious movement, but is the Apollo figure who is the true bringer of victory and peace. The effect of this on John’s audience is to push them to a crisis of decision; they have in different ways been affirmed and challenged in their loyalty in the seven messages, and the seals and trumpets have confronted them with the true source of uncertainty and the real answer to it. Now the crisis deepens: to ally oneself with the empire is to ally oneself with the spiritual adversary to both God and his people.

John’s use of Old Testament traditions, particular those of Daniel, paints this crisis of decision on a wide historical canvas. Although the particular challenge faces John’s audience is one particular system of empire, his coalescing of the description of the beasts in Daniel 7 portrays their situation as one among the many that humanity faces from one era to the next. Inasmuch as they are the claims that only God can make, all such human empires ultimately derive their power from the enemy of God. Jesus’s victory by his death is not only the denial of the claims of empire, it is also the answer to the aspirations of the people of God down the ages to live in peace and worship God in freedom (Luke 1:69–75).

This narrative also confirms what John has already suggested about the times we live in. The followers of the lamb live in the in-between time which was inaugurated with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and will be consummated with his return as depicted in Rev. 1922. This is the age of the ‘third woe’, when Satan is at large in this world even though he has no authority in the heavenly realm. Therefore God’s people will continue to experience the presence and protection of God (because Jesus’ death has silenced the accuser and the (seven) Spirit(s) of God are abroad in the world) but they will also experience suffering (tribulation) and opposition, because Satan continues to be at large for a ‘short time’ until he is finally locked up and then destroyed in the final judgement. This paradoxical pattern of suffering and victory for Jesus’ followers is the same thing that Jesus himself experienced; the hardships of being a disciple are not a mistake, nor a sign of the failure of God, but are part and parcel of what it means to be a faithful witness.

The chapters that follow now unfold this situation. We read in detail of the trials of John’s audience living under the empire and its allies in Asia in the next chapter. We then read in stark contrast of the security and victory of the faithful and the certainty of God’s judgement (Rev. 14). We read of the final plagues that are to come on the earth (Rev. 16), and the full disclosure of the nature of the empire (Rev. 17) before leading into the unfolding significance of the return of Jesus – the certainty of the end of evil (Rev. 18 and 19) and vindication of the saints (Rev. 20), and the sparkling vision of hope for eternity (Rev. 21).


For commentary on the whole of chapter 12, you can buy the commentary direct from IVP or from other online retailers.


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4 thoughts on “What is Michael doing with his angels in Revelation 12?”

  1. Very good, Ian. Thank you.

    The whole thing is ironic, and a critique of human empire.

    Who indeed is like God, Roman Emperor?

    A similar question could be asked today.

    Although Paul exhorts Christians to obey those in authority, at a cosmic level our faith draws us into spiritual warfare, against all principalities and powers, whether human, elemental, or dark supernatural.

    Revelation is a barely hidden statement of resistance, because if we are living in God we cannot simply comply with tyrannies and injustice.

    The coming of the sovereign rule of God is a defiance of secular oppression of the poor. It is not just about singing ‘Kumbayah’ in a sitting room with a bunch of Christian friends.

    Anyone who has been involved in deliverance ministry will understand that this sovereign rule (I mean ‘kingdom’ but dislike the gender slant) is an overwhelming power and victory.

    In a context of persecution, this reassertion must have been (and must still be) hugely reassuring.

    Yes, the empire is to be defied, but it is to be defied with truth and faith and grace and love. And tyrants fear that profoundly. The text is deeply prophetic.

    Reader, are we defiant, or are we complicit and luke warm in our collaboration with unjust status quos?

    Ian, I think your detailed drawing out of text here is superb, and your vocation and God-given gift shimmers with clear intelligence through it. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Ian,

    this is fascinating and very helpful – not a part of Revelation I feel familiar with. Also a joy to read the result of your clear thinking, and very generous of you to share a whole chapter of your commentary. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Interesting. I’d always assumed that the book of Enoch was a more obvious precursor for the war in heaven. Since Michael is named as the one who attacks the serpent, this seems like a much nearer parallel, and since it’s quoted elsewhere in the NT (notably in Jude) it’s presumably familiar to the early church.

    Reply

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