There’s a scene in the film Love Actually where a little girl announces that she’ll be playing “first lobster” in the school nativity play. “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” asks her surprised mum, which leads the girl to sigh in exasperation at such profound levels of parental ignorance. My favourite character in the play is the octopus, who sits between David and Natalie as they drive to school. (You can even buy a Love Actually nativity set if you really want.)
But having unusual creatures in the nativity raises an important biblical and theological question: where is the dragon? He is a central character in a key nativity passage—not from Matthew or Luke, but from Revelation 12:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child nhe might devour it. 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, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Rev 12.1–6, ESV)
This is a fascinating text for several reasons. First, it sits at the heart of Revelation’s narrative, and so makes claim to be an interpretive key to the whole text. Second, all commentators note that there is a decisive literary break at Rev 12.1, where for a whole chapter John abandons his usual ‘and I saw’ formula for ‘there appeared a great sign’ (the TNIV inexplicably as ‘a wondrous’ for no reason). (What other commentators don’t appear to notice is that chapters 11 and 12 are pinned together by the threefold articulation of the time period 42 months = 3.5 years [time, times and half a time] = 1,260 days—which just goes to show that everything in Revelation is more complicated than you realise!).
And the hymn in Rev 12.10–12 makes a statement of central importance, both for understanding Revelation’s theology and its construal of time:
Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down…
So the victory of God has been realised; this is expressed in terms of Christus Victor, where the significance of the atonement is in terms of the defeat in spiritual battle of Satan; the victory has been won by Jesus’ death on the cross (‘by the blood of the lamb’); but this victory is only partially realised at the moment, since the devil has gone down to earth and still has a ‘short’ time.
But, despite the importance of this passage, most ordinary readers find it very difficult to make sense of. There are three mains reasons for this.
First, the chapter is divided up into four sections in terms of its genre and subject, with the first and last sections continuing one narrative, and the two middle sections function as ‘epexegetical’ (explanatory) of this plot.
|vv 1 to 6||The woman, the dragon and the child who is born and snatched to heaven|
|vv 7 to 9||Cosmic battle between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels|
|vv 10 to 12||Hymn of victory of the Messiah, celebrating Satan cast to earth|
|vv 13 to 17||The dragon pursues the woman and her offspring but they are protected by God|
Continuity between the first and fourth sections is effected by re-introduction of the characters of the dragon, the woman, and the male child, the repetition of the wilderness from v 6 in v 14, and the reiteration of the time formula of 1,260 days from v 6 in the equivalent formula of ‘time, times and half a time’ in v 14. It appears that, for those who are unsure of the meaning of the main narrative, the Jewish apocalyptic battle explains it in vv 7 to 9, and for those still unclear, the hymn makes it plain in vv 10 to 12.
But who are the characters, and where does this narrative come from? To answer the first question, you need to know your Old Testament:
Is 26.17: As a pregnant woman about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pain, so were we in your presence, LORD.
Is 66.8: Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.
Micah 4.9–10: Why do you now cry aloud— have you no king? Has your ruler perished, that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labour? Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion, like a woman in labour…
Micah 5.3: Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
Ps 2.9: You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.
Gen 3.13 ‘The serpent deceived me…’
Job 1.6: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan (the adversary, the accuser) also came among them.
Zech 3.1: Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.
In other words, the characters are: the people of God, suffering oppression, and waiting to be delivered by God (pun intended!); the primeval opponent of God, his people, and humanity, their adversary and accuser; and the promised king who would liberate God’s people.
But what of the plot? Modern political cartoonists take characters from one place, and drop them into a narrative from another, in order to make a point about them; here is a very recent example from Peter Brookes of The Times; can you identify the story, and the character? Can you see the way the one is used to interpret the other? And do you notice how difficult this is to interpret if you are not familiar with both?
In the same way, John has dropped these biblical characters into a pagan myth, one that was often used in imperial propaganda:
Python, son of Terra, was a huge dragon. He was accustomed to giving oracles on Mount Parnassus before the time of Apollo. He was informed by an oracle that he would be destroyed by the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus was living with Leto. When [Zeus’ wife] Hera learned of this, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun does not reach.
When Python perceived that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he began to pursue (her) in order to kill her. But, by order of Zeus, the North Wind (Aquilo) lifted Leto up and carried her to Poseidon; Poseidon protected her, but in order not to rescind Hera’s decree, he carried her to the island Ortygia and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find Leto, he returned to Parnassus.
But Poseidon returned the island Ortygia to the upper region, and it was later called the island of Delos. There, holding on to an olive tree, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, to whom Haphaestus gave arrows as a gift. Four days after they were born, Apollo avenged his mother. He went to Parnassus and killed Python with arrows.
Emperors, particularly Domitian, told this story, putting themselves in the role of Apollo, the slayer of the chaos-monster Python, insisting that coming into the fold of the Empire, and doing obeisance to the emperor, was the only way to peace and prosperity. But John inverts this; by associating the beasts, the successive imperial powers from Daniel 7, with the dragon, and the promised ‘male child’ of Jesus with Apollo, he shows how the demands of imperial loyalty usurp the place of God, and raises the stakes for all followers of Jesus.
This is the central message of the Book of Revelation. The world is not as God intended; it is ruled by malevolent forces, and as a result it is beset with all kinds of suffering, from disease and famine to war and disaster. What is God doing about it? He has sent his Son, suffering as a sacrificial lamb who has been slain, but has been raised to life and now standing in the place of power and authority, to redeem not just ethnic Israel but a new Israel from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7.9). The decisive victory has been won by Jesus, but this victory is made real day by day in lives given up to him (Rev 12.11), as his followers share the word of their testimony as faithful witnesses following the example of Jesus. This is God’s plan to win the world!
For an introduction to reading the Book of Revelation, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation.
For an in-depth though applied study of the text, see my IVP Tyndale New Testament Commentary.
For group Bible study in five sessions, see my IVP/LICC study Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times.
What has this to do with Christmas and the nativity? Everything! It is certainly true that the nativity accounts in Luke and Matthew don’t bear any resemblance to the stories of kings born in palaces (though there are themes of kingship). Yet, in contrast to much contemporary preaching, they do not focus on the idea that Jesus came to the poor and marginalised; he was not born in a stable, but a normal home; he was not particularly poor; and those who came to see him were not despised outcasts, but local people going about their daily business, but who respond in obedience and testify to what they have seen.
The primary point of the accounts in both Matthew and Luke is that here is born the long-for deliverer, who will defeat the powers of darkness, and set his people free. Chad Bird draws this out as he connects the nativity with Rev 12:
‘I’m still searching for a Christmas card with a red dragon in the nativity, lurking amidst the cows and lambs, waiting to devour the baby in the manger. None of the Gospels mention this unwelcome visitor to Bethlehem, but the Apocalypse does. John paints a seven-headed, ten-horned red dragon onto the peaceful Christmas canvas. You can read all about it in Revelation 12. It’s the nativity story we don’t talk about. A dragon trying to eat our Lord.
The red dragon was standing “before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” Clearly, more was going on at Christmas than drinking eggnog and kissing under the mistletoe. Or even peace on earth.
Hark the herald angels sing, a dragon waits to eat our king.
December 25 marks the genesis of war. God invading our world. Hell’s foundations quaking as the ancient terrors of demons awake. The dragon spreading his wings and flying into battle, flames bellowing from his lungs of brimstone and fire. Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”
hell and heaven
meet to fight.
Wars have been waged over money, property, honor, power, and oil. But this war—the greatest conflict in human history—is over us. The dragon sports many names—the serpent, the liar, the god of this world—but perhaps his most fitting name is Satan. It means Accuser. That’s what John calls him later in the chapter: “the accuser of our brethren … who accuses them day and night before our God.” He wields the weapon of accusation. And by it he enslaves us in guilt, shame, depravity, and lies. Each evil is a link in the chains that bind us. And each chain the Accuser wraps round and round our souls. His greatest fear is that we will hear that his enemy has come to set us free. So, in the little town of Bethlehem a red dragon swoops in to swallow this child who has come to liberate us from accusation. To make us children of his Father. To shatter every chain that binds us to a life of bondage. He must be stopped. He must silenced. He must be killed.
The Christmas story begins the narrative of violence that marks the life of the Liberator. The dragon misses his opportunity in Bethlehem. So he hounds our Lord down to Egypt. Then back to Galilee. He trails him into the desert with tempting words. And, finally, after 33 years of warfare—and repeated defeats—he finally wins. The dragon who failed to devour the child in the manger swallows the man atop the cross. In so doing, unbeknownst to this beast, he ate poison. For if anything will destroy an accuser, it is taking freedom into his bowels. At the death of Jesus there was a great rattling of chains. The links of evil that bound us snapped in two. A world held in bondage to the dragon was, in the death of the Son of God, immediately and irrevocably freed forever from his captivity.
It all began in Bethlehem. Unseen by human eyes, hell and heaven battled over us. And heaven, in the end, stood on the neck of hell and pressed his foot into the throat that had so long accused us. The accuser of our brethren, John wrote, “has been thrown down.” He was conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.” All the dragon gets for Christmas is a mouthful of shattered teeth, fiery lungs flooded with oceans of divine wrath, and a sword swinging down from above to chop off the head that spouted accusation.
Merry Christmas! The dragon is dead, the baby is alive, and his victory has set you free.’
Do we really find these elements of apocalyptic, eschatological hope in the Christmas story? Yes we do.
In Matt 1.21, the dream-angel tells Joseph that the child she bears will be a second Joshua, leading them to a promised land of salvation from their sin. In the following verse, this child will make real to Israel the powerful presence of God who will save the nation from their enemies and ‘lay waste’ their land (Is 7.16).
The promise from Micah 5.2 that the chief priests and scribes quote to Herod in Matt 2.6, of ‘a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ is immediately followed in Micah 5.3 by the description of Israel as a woman in labour that lies behind the image of the woman in Rev 12.1. And the journey of Jesus from Egypt to Nazareth reminds Matthew of God’s liberation of his people from slavery to the promised land (Matt 2.15).
The theme of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1.46–55, is not mere social change, rearranging the economic furniture, but of radical regime change: the mighty are put down, and the proud are scattered, as God shows ‘the strength of his arm’ as he did in days of old, leading his people in liberation from their enemies. This is fulfilment of the age-old promise to Abraham, which of course is that his offspring would be like the sand of the seashore, and through him all nations will be blessed.
And Zechariah’s matching song, the Benedictus in Luke 1.68–79, brings this out even more strongly. God has raised up a ‘horn of salvation’, or a ‘mighty saviour’, who will defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free to live in peace and without fear. At first this sounds strongly political, until we note that this comes through ‘the forgiveness of all their sins’ and enables them to live in ‘holiness and righteousness’ all the days of their lives. It is the enemy of sin and the power of death which is defeated and this victory brings the light of the hope of life to all who receive it.
In the birth narratives, it is not mere social action that is the focus—that is in fact almost completely absent. Neither is there much focus on the classical theological themes of the incarnation, of God with us in human form as a kind of affirmation of the dignity of humanity. (In fact, to be human is, as far as Paul is concerned, ‘poverty’ in 2 Cor 8.9.)
No, the primary themes are God fulfilling his promise, defeating the enemies of sin and death, and setting his people free to live in peace and testify to his power and grace. Isn’t this what our world desperately needs to hear? Surely this should be the theme of our Christmas preaching—and as Glen Scrivener demonstrates, you can even tell this to the children!