Rescuing Eagles and Baby-Eating Dragons: An Apocalyptic Christmas Story

Epic battles, a dragon, scrolls and bowls, rescuing eagles, a king’s wedding—perhaps no book of the Bible is as bizarre as the “Apocalypse,” more commonly known as the book of Revelation. Full of the cataclysmic, supernatural, and eschatological—all elements we associate with the “apocalyptic”—Revelation can seem detached from the rest of Scripture. But in fact, not only does Revelation draw heavily from the rest of Scripture, but also its apocalyptic story spills beyond its borders into the whole Bible: an apocalyptic thread is woven throughout all of salvation history, even through the Christmas story.

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The book of Revelation rolls forward as a series of visions full of exhortation, judgment, and finally the beauty of the New Jerusalem. In the midst of the book, chapter 12, John is confronted with the vision of a heavenly woman who, despite her shining glory, is burdened with labor pains (Rev 12:1–2). A dragon waits to eat her offspring, who is prophesied to “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:5),1The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, 2016), on Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com. All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV. but the male child is rescued, being swept up into heaven, and the woman flees into the desert (Rev 12:3–6). There follows the battle of Michael and his angels against the dragon and his angels; the defeat of the dragon; his continued attack on the woman; and the ultimate (though not yet fully realized) triumph of the woman’s offspring, a triumph won because they are smeared with the blood of a Lamb (Rev 12:7–17).

What are we to make of these images? Some readers have sought to identify a one-to-one correspondence between the details of Revelation and real historical events and figures, where each image is viewed as having a single meaning.2I draw here from the discussion of “decoding” vs. “actualizing” interpretations of Revelation found in Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, Revelation, Blackwell Bible Commentaries (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 8–12. Alternatively—and, I would argue, appropriately—we might read this passage “christologically,” that is, as pointing to or speaking of Christ. So, we could see the woman of Revelation 12 as Mary (or Israel), from whom comes the child, Jesus.3Joseph Mangina says expansively that the woman “is Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, the church, the whole creation groaning in apocalyptic agony.” Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), 150. The child’s birth and rescue, Joseph Mangina suggests, is a picture of Christ’s death and later ascension,4Mangina, Revelation, 152. which defeats the dragon, Satan (Rev 12:9).5C.f. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 659. After all, Revelation is really “The revelation [Greek: apokalypsis] of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1), suggesting in itself that more is going on in Revelation than simply a flurry of end times images.

Such a christological reading, while perhaps helpful and informative, somehow seems isolated from the rich corpus of Scripture. More is going on here. Far from standing alone, Revelation 12 engages a vast series of Scriptural images and allusions that span the whole gamut of the Bible from creation to consummation. We turn now to identify some of these intertextual links—that is, links between different texts or books of the Bible.

Scripture in the ‘Apocalypse’

Links between Revelation 12 and the rest of Scripture appear as early as the beginning of Genesis. The first woman is told she will suffer pain in childbirth (Gen 3:16), and thus the woman in labor in Revelation 12 can remind us of Eve.6C.f. Jacques Ellul (Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation), qtd. in Mangina, Revelation, 150. God also speaks a curse over the serpent: its head will be bruised by the woman’s offspring (Gen 3:15). Christian exegesis has often located the fulfilment of this promise in Christ’s defeat of Satan by the cross, a defeat which reminds us of Revelation 12 and the defeat of the serpent (another name in Rev 12:9 for the dragon). Later in Genesis, Joseph dreams of the sun, moon, and twelve stars (echoed in the description of the woman in Rev 12:1); the twelve stars of the dream point to the children of Israel (Gen 37:9–10).7C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 627. Thus we can see in the woman of Revelation 12 echoes not simply of Eve but also of Israel.

The connections continue through the next biblical book, Exodus. Most obviously, God sends plagues in both Exodus (Exod 7–10) and Revelation (Rev 8-9, 16). In Exodus, God delivers His chosen people out of Egypt from Pharaoh, whom Ezekiel refers to as “the great dragon” (Ezek 29:3). Just so, in Revelation He delivers His chosen people—whether viewed as Israel, the Church, or both—from the dragon. In Exodus, God describes His act of deliverance by saying, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4)—reminding us of God’s deliverance of the woman in Revelation 12:14 by providing her with eagles’ wings. Both Israel, fleeing the dragon of Egypt, and the woman, fleeing the dragon of Revelation 12, take refuge in the desert.8C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 643.

Revelation 12 is also linked with the prophetic books. For example, in both Daniel 8:10 and Revelation 12:4, a terrifying figure hurls stars out of heaven. In Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9, God defeats a dragon.9I owe these and other intertextual connections to David Robinson, “The Church’s Conflict and Comfort: Warfare and Wayfaring in the Wilderness (Revelation 12.7–12),” The Book of Revelation (Bible study, Westminster Chapel at High Park, Toronto, ON, August 14, 2013).

These and other intertextual links suggest that Revelation 12 is woven together in a whole constellation of Scriptural images, allusions, and pictures of Christ. It transports us through creation; curse; Israel; Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection; church history; the final consummation. Far from operating on its own, isolated “apocalyptic” terms, the “Apocalypse” is made up of salvation history.

The “Apocalypse” in the Christmas Story

But equally, salvation history is interspersed with apocalypse—with cataclysmic, eschatological, revelatory events. Here, I want to turn specifically to identify the apocalyptic thread woven through the nativity story of Luke 1. The connection may seem odd, but Hanns Lilje, strangely enough, describes Revelation 12 as “a Christmas scene.”10Hanns Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible: The Meaning of the Revelation of St. John (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 171. Lilje is speaking specifically here of the birth of the child, “about whom all the messianic prophecies gather in fulfillment.” (Perhaps we should add another verse to “Silent Night”?)

In Luke 1, we meet Zachariah and Elizabeth, whose struggle to birth a child connects not just backwards to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 11:30ff) but also forwards to the woman’s labours in Revelation 12. Luke 1 recounts two visitations of the angel Gabriel, whose presence reminds us of the angelic involvement of Michael in Revelation 12. Gabriel’s words to Zachariah contain eschatological prophecies drawn from Malachi.11Compare Luke 1:17 and Mal 4:5–6. Gabriel’s prophecy that Mary’s child will rule on the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32-33) harkens not just backwards to David but also forwards to Revelation 12, where we are told that the woman’s child will rule the nations. Moreover, just as Revelation is “profoundly Jewish,”12Mangina, Revelation, 21. so is Luke 1, with its echoes of Samson and the book of Numbers.13Compare Luke 1:13-15 with Judgs 13:3–5 and Num 6:1–21.

Moving beyond the borders of Luke 1 to the full Christmas story, other links appear: as the dragon in Revelation 12 seeks to kill the woman’s child, echoing the dragon Pharaoh drowning babies in the Nile,14C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 673. so also Herod kills the babies of Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the child who threatens his ruling power.15Connections with Rachel in the book of Genesis could also be made: see Mt 2:18, and also compare Elizabeth’s words in Lk 1:25 to Rachel’s words in Gn 30:23. The Scofield Study Bible cross-references called my attention to this and other intertextual connections. The Scofield Study Bible, New King James Version, ed. C. I. Scofield (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002). Just as the woman in Revelation 12 and the Israelites in Exodus fled to the desert, so Jesus and his parents must also take flight (Matt 2:15).16C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 643.

Thus, Luke 1 (and the nativity story in general) is yet another instance of the intertextuality and inseparability of the apocalyptic from the rest of salvation history. Even more, the incarnation and birth of Christ is in some ways the apocalyptic event—the moment when heaven and earth, natural and supernatural most substantially intersect. The incarnation of Christ launches the cosmic conquest in time: “God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”17C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 53. In the incarnation, God is “revealed” (apokalypsis) in human flesh.

Thus, Christ grounds the fantastical, figurative chaos of Revelation in real history. For while Michael fights in heaven, Christ fights on earth18C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 652.—fights with the weapon of weak human flesh and conquers the dragon through the defeat of the cross. Christ breaks into a broken world: the real world of war and weariness, barrenness and blindness, debilitating addiction and demonic assault. The supernatural intersects with the natural, and this is the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) that Christmas proclaims. By being “Immanuel,” “God with us” (Matt 1:23), Christ triumphs for us: as Luther says, “we see here in [Revelation], that through and beyond all plagues, beasts, and evil angels Christ is nonetheless with his saints, and wins the final victory.”19Martin Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John [II],” in Word and Sacrament I, Vol. 35 of Luther’s Works, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 411.

The Triumph of the Baby Dragon-Slayer

Thus, the Christmas story is an apocalypse and the Apocalypse a Christmas story. In some sense, all of Scripture is a series of wild intersections between Israel and Church and past and future and natural and supernatural and God and man. Revelation 12 images the birth of the Christ Child, offspring of Mary and Eve and Israel, who enters the Jewish people’s history (which somehow also becomes ours) to enact a cosmic conquest by His death and resurrection, which secure an ultimate but not yet consummate victory. 

The visions of Revelation opened the way for early Christians—and for us—to locate ourselves in the movement of Israel’s history and beyond, to see our suffering within the cyclical yet steadily progressing movement of God’s gratuitous involvement in time.20Mangina, drawing from Douglas Harink (Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity), affirms that Revelation “lays primary stress on God’s action in Christ rather than on human response.” Humanity must be saved by “an agency beyond this world.” Mangina, Revelation, 25. The story of the good news that was preached in Genesis, with the promise that the woman’s seed would crush the serpent, and that was actualized in the world with the birth of Christ, concludes in Revelation with the consummating, ultimate victory of Christ, tying up the apocalyptic thread in triumph.21C.f. Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible, 174; Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John [II],” 409, 411. Revelation does not admit simple resolution, but neither does it admit despair. It tells each new generation of Christ-followers that our faith will be attacked; our weapons are “the blood of the Lamb and . . . the word of [our] testimony” (Rev 12:11); and our victory is already won.

“There’s a dragon in my nativity,” writes Glen Scrivener, “Dreadful and immense.”22Glen Scrivener, “There’s a Dragon in My Nativity,” SpeakLife, YouTube video, “There IS a dragon at Christmas — John Lewis/Waitrose response,” November 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyC5RHKNBm4. But though the dragon may continue to rage, the nativity story reminds us that the infinite God has entered our finite world and has secured the final victory:

And so at this nativity, Arose another player.
The baby wrapped in swaddling cloths—
He was a dragon slayer.23Scrivener, “There’s a Dragon in My Nativity.”

End notes

1. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, 2016), on Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com. All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV.

2. I draw here from the discussion of “decoding” vs. “actualizing” interpretations of Revelation found in Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, Revelation, Blackwell Bible Commentaries (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 8–12.

3. Joseph Mangina says expansively that the woman “is Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, the church, the whole creation groaning in apocalyptic agony.” Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), 150.

4. Mangina, Revelation, 152.

5. C.f. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 659.

6. C.f. Jacques Ellul (Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation), qtd. in Mangina, Revelation, 150.

7. C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 627.

8. C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 643.

9. I owe these and other intertextual connections to David Robinson, “The Church’s Conflict and Comfort: Warfare and Wayfaring in the Wilderness (Revelation 12.7–12),” The Book of Revelation (Bible study, Westminster Chapel at High Park, Toronto, ON, August 14, 2013).

10. Hanns Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible: The Meaning of the Revelation of St. John (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 171. Lilje is speaking specifically here of the birth of the child, “about whom all the messianic prophecies gather in fulfillment.”

11. Compare Luke 1:17 and Mal 4:5–6.

12. Mangina, Revelation, 21.

13. Compare Luke 1:13-15 with Judgs 13:3–5 and Num 6:1–21.

14. C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 673.

15. Connections with Rachel in the book of Genesis could also be made: see Mt 2:18, and also compare Elizabeth’s words in Lk 1:25 to Rachel’s words in Gn 30:23. The Scofield Study Bible cross-references called my attention to this and other intertextual connections. The Scofield Study Bible, New King James Version, ed. C. I. Scofield (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).

16. C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 643.

17. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 53.

18. C.f. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 652.

19. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John [II],” in Word and Sacrament I, Vol. 35 of Luther’s Works, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 411.

20. Mangina, drawing from Douglas Harink (Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity), affirms that Revelation “lays primary stress on God’s action in Christ rather than on human response.” Humanity must be saved by “an agency beyond this world.” Mangina, Revelation, 25.

21. C.f. Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible, 174; Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John [II],” 409, 411.

22. Glen Scrivener, “There’s a Dragon in My Nativity,” SpeakLife, YouTube video, “There IS a dragon at Christmas — John Lewis/Waitrose response,” November 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyC5RHKNBm4.

23. Scrivener, “There’s a Dragon in My Nativity.”

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