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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is Revelation 12:7-12 describing a battle that took place in heaven? Or one that took place on the cross when by His death Christ defeated Satan and his angels?
My reading of the passage leads me to conclude that there is possibly a third alternative.
First, some general remarks. A reading of chapter 12, verses 1-6 and 13-17, could easily suggest that 12:7-12 is parenthetical. Verse 13 picks up the narrative where it was left in verse 6. Yet the transitional sentence “And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth” in verse 13* indicates that 12:7-12 have been nicely integrated into the flow of ideas of the chapter. They are a development of verses 4 and 5, in which the dragon is described as trying to destroy the Messiah at His birth. The idea of a conflict is already present.
Some of the information found in our passage seems to suggest that the battle described here took place at the moment of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what the chronology of events found in the chapter suggests. The dragon is described as waiting for the birth of the Messiah in order to “devour” the child (verse 4). But the child is removed from the sphere of action of the dragon and enthroned as king with God. Then the church is described as in need of divine protection for a period of 1,260 days.
In a kind of flashback the reader is given a more detailed description of the conflict between the dragon and Christ. This is followed by his wrathful attack against the woman (verse 13), showing that the battle took place after the woman gave birth and before the dragon persecuted the woman. We are also told that as a result of Satan’s defeat “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come” (verse 10; cf. Matt 28:18).
The best historical moment for these events to have occurred is at the cross. The idea that at the cross Christ defeated the evil powers is common in the New Testament (e.g., Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). And Christ Himself stated that as a result of His death Satan would be cast out from heaven (Luke 10:18; John 12:31).
However, if we examine the language and images used by John, it becomes clear that he is using, as a point of reference in his description of the war that took place at the cross, the primeval conflict between the preincarnated Christ and Satan.
Scholars generally recognize that John is using images found in Jewish literature describing a conflict that took place in heaven as a result of Satan’s attempt to place his throne where God’s throne is located. The conflict resulted in the defeat of Satan and in a limitation to his access to heaven.
This Jewish belief has its root in the Old Testament, and it is the Old Testament itself that provides the background for our passage.
In Isaiah 14:12-15 a celestial being is cast to the ground after attempting to make himself like God. John uses the same Greek expression found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, suggesting that he may have had that passage in mind. The Scripture further indicates that even after Satan was cast out of heaven, he still had limited access, and that his primary function was to accuse the servants of God (Job 1:6; Zech. 3:1). But in Revelation 12:7-12 we are informed that even that limited access came to an end at the cross.
We must also notice that the passage makes a connection between the dragon and the Garden of Eden by identifying him as “that ancient serpent” (verse 9). After the primeval war in heaven and the casting down of Satan, he attacked the woman (Eve) in the garden. Now after his defeat by Christ, Satan attacks the woman (the church). The parallels are intriguing.
John uses the language and imagery of the primeval war in heaven between Christ and Lucifer to describe their battle at the cross. His purpose is to demonstrate that Christ has always defeated the evil forces, that we also can overcome the dragon through the blood of the Lamb, and that the dragon now has a limited time of activity before he is finally destroyed.
Although the primary reference of the passage is to the conflict on the cross, by describing it in terms of the original war in heaven John provides significant information about the origin of the great controversy.
*Bible references are from the Revised Standard Version.