Monday, December 7, 2009

Cosmic Christmas: The Dragon is the Key

The key! I've got the key! The key to unlocking the meaning of images in Revelation.

The dragon is the key! Have you ever seen The Christmas Story? If you haven't, just tune in to TBS around Christmas time, I believe they play the movie about 144,000 times.

In the movie, Ralphie's favorite radio show is Little Orphan Annie. At the end of every broadcast the announcer gives out a secret coded message. Only those who have sent away and received the special decoder ring can figure out what the message says. For months Ralphie waits for his decoder ring to come in the mail. When it finally comes, he is so excited. He rushes into the bathroom to uncover his first secret message. Once he has uncovered the message he becomes severely disappointed, because it turns out to be just a commercial for Ovaltine.

Well, here in Revelation 12 I believe we have have the official decoder ring for John's Apocalypse. John introduces us to one of the most vivid images in his work, and then he interprets that image about as clearly as you can. The identity of the dragon cannot be debated, because John tells us exactly who he is. When we first meet him, John gives us several clues about his indentity and nature:

1. He is a monster (dragon)
2. He is large (great)
3. He is red
4. He has seven heads
5. He has ten horns
6. He has seven crowns
7. With his tail he swept away a third of the stars
8. He wants to harm the woman and eat her child

If we only had these clues, we might be able to identify the dragon, but I am sure that there would be a great deal of debate. John stopped all of that debate, by telling us exactly who this dragon is. The answer is in verse 9, "so the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him." We've found our decoder ring!

Can you get any clearer than that? I don't think so! Here is the key. John is not seeing things how they are, he is seeing things in figures or images that represent something else. We are given a hermenuetical guide as to how the image and the referent correspond. The description that we are given is not a physical appearance, but each physical characteristic is a clue that tells us something about the figure. For example, the dragon is red because Satan has a murderous intent, not because Satan is actually red.

Ancient mythology is filled with images of dragons, including some that make their way into our Old Testament. For instance the Leviathan was a great monster of the deep from Canaanite legend and Rahab was the female monster of chaos. These images were brought into our Old Testament mainly to speak of the enemies of God and his people. In Ps. 74:14 the nation of Egypt is called Leviathan. In Isaiah 27:1 both Assyria and Babylon are called Leviathan. The Pharaoh of Egypt is likened to a great monster (Ezek 29:3). The Old Testament is replete with instances of God's enemies being likened to a monster. That phenomenon is what we have here. That is the background for John's use of a dragon to represent the arch-enemy of God and his people, the Devil.

The red character symbolizes Satan's murderous intentions, as we see him lying in wait to eat the child as soon as it is born. In Egyptian myth Set-Typon is depicted as a red crocodile, also symbolizing his evil designs. Jesus tells us that Satan has been a murderer from the beginning. (John 8:44). The two clues that are even remotely debated are what the seven heads and crowns refer to, and what the stars are that Satan casts to the ground. Which leads us to a large hermeneutical divide between students of the Apocalypse; how to interpret numbers. Are they as a rule literal or symbolic. This is an issue that we will have to tackle, but I don't have the strength or the time at the moment.

Even though there is agreement about the general picture of who the dragon is. Many disagree over how he manifests himself in history at this point. The historicist identifies the dragon with Imperial Rome, which persecutes the child who is the church. The enemy is indeed Satan, but he is animating the opponents of God. Most preterists view the dragon as the Satanic culmination of all four beasts from Daniel. So, here the dragon represents Satan's attempts through all of these pagan empires to persecute God's people, culminating in Rome's destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD under Titus. The idealist sees the dragon as Satan and his attack on the woman and the child as Satan's continual struggle to best God and destroy the church. The dispensational futurist sees the dragon as Satan animating the revived Roman empire in the end-times, against the Jewish people. Finally, the non-dispensational futurist, sees the dragon as Satan trying to stop Christ from accomplishing his work on the cross, and then trying to destroy the people of God and individual Christians.

We should look more at these individual views of Revelation, but we will do that at a later time. All of this to show, that just because we agree on the referent of the image (Satan), does not mean that we agree on how this image infiltrates history.

What do you think about the dragon and how he worms his way into history?

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