“Now war arose in heaven” (Rev. 12:7). What? Can it really be said that heaven is a battlefield? Is heaven not the place where God “makes wars to cease” (Ps. 46:9)? Is it not the place where the soldier’s weapons are laid down and the victor’s crown is finally awarded? Is our hope of heaven not the fact that battles and wars will be a thing of the past, and we will have our dwelling in God’s house, in perfect peace and rest?
Absolutely, and any suggestion that the final destination of the people of God will be troubled by war or unrest of any kind is banished by the eschatology of the Bible. Actually, when John sees a war in heaven, it is not the eschaton — the final, ultimate age — that is being described. This is a highly symbolic picture of what is happening now as the church is being persecuted in the world — what Paul elsewhere describes as a wrestling with “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
In Revelation 12, John is given “a great sign” — a kind of historical theology in a snapshot. He sees a woman give birth to a son, whose birth is anticipated by a dragon. The dragon, in turn, attempts to annihilate the child, who is caught up into heaven, while the woman spends a pre-ordained period in the wilderness. The woman in the image is the church; the son is the king. From the moment he appears, Satan, the enemy of God, tries to extinguish his life, but God protects him and exalts him. So Satan turns his attack on the woman who gave birth to the child.
It is at this point that John sees in his vision a war in heaven in which the archangel Michael, with his good angels, fights against the dragon and his bad angels. To readers familiar with the Old Testament, as John’s first readers would have been, this is familiar stuff. In Daniel 10, for example, the archangel Michael is involved in the conflicts between Israel and other nations. The defeat of Satan in Revelation 12 is a recurring theme in the book of Revelation.
In the course of this particular narrative, Satan is depicted not only as the great rebel against God but the “deceiver of the whole world” and “the accuser of our brothers” (vv. 9–10). In other words, his attack is both on the world, which he attempts to deceive, and on the church, which he attempts to accuse. In both cases he shows his implacable hostility toward the truth — one cannot deceive someone without knowing the truth; nor can one accuse someone falsely without knowing the truth.
But it is the truth that sustains the people of God in this conflict. Knowing that his days are numbered (v. 12) and that God will soon judge him, Satan steps up the attack, pursuing the church from whose womb the king had come (v. 13). This is the only way in which Satan can continue to attack Christ — by attacking His church in the world.
He uses every fiendish and hellish tactic imaginable — John sees Satan spewing out a river of water to try to drown the woman. She, however, is helped by the earth. On the dragon goes, singling out for attack all those who have been faithful to the testimony of their Lord, while the church, in turn, holds on to her profession, “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
This snapshot of the ongoing battle between Satan and Christ, actualized in the experiences of a persecuted church, was, of course, particularly relevant for John. He had been banished to the island of Patmos because of that very persecution. The explanation for this conflict is not to be found only in the personal malice of the persecutors — there is a sinister, spiritual war going on. The picture John saw was of a war in heaven — a cosmic counterpart to, and explanation for, the spiritual battle being waged on earth.
What are the important elements of this picture? First, that for all Satan’s attempts to overthrow and obliterate the church, the blood of the Lamb prevails for the people of God. Their accuser has no case because they are covered by the blood. The blood that saved them is the blood that justifies, protects, and enables the people of God to hold fast what they have. Victory is theirs, because the victory was Christ’s.
Second, to be a follower of Christ is to identify with a suffering, persecuted people. The cross of Christ is not a path to fame and fortune. His way is the way of hostility, enmity, and estrangement. But by faith we can make the choice Moses made, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25), knowing that victory belongs with Jesus Christ. In spite of the dragon’s attempts to overthrow the Messiah, God’s purpose that He would rule all nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 12:5) will not be thwarted.
Third, all of God’s resources are marshalled for the good of His people and of His cause. The earth helps the woman when the dragon attempts to destabilize her. No weapon formed against her will succeed (Isa. 54:17). This note of triumph runs like a refrain through the book of Revelation, and it is what God’s people need to hear time and again: if God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?