The Church in the Wilderness
Revelation 12–14 opens our eyes to the battle in which we are presently engaged. It is that battle described by the Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Paul uses the first person plural pronoun “we” to indicate our participation in the battle. Revelation 12:6 also indicates our participation in the battle, not by the use of the first person plural pronoun, but by the imagery of the woman.
This woman has already been set before us in verses 1–2, where she was described as “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.” The woman there is the expectant people of God, particularly the saints of the Old Testament, who longed for and eagerly anticipated the birth of the Messiah.
In verse 6, it is still the same woman, but the focus has shifted. In view here are not so much the saints of the Old Testament. In view here are the saints of the New Testament. Why the shift in focus from the Old Testament to the New Testament? Something has happened! Verse 5: “She bore a male Child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.” The shift in focus from verse 1 to verse 6 reflects the shift from the Old Testament to the New. Christ has come, and having completed His work, has been exalted to the throne of God, where He is beyond the reach of the dragon.
Though the focus has shifted, nevertheless the imagery of the woman remains the same, and that is because there is but one church of God in Jesus Christ spanning both the Old and New Testaments—one church from the beginning of the world to its end. It is clear, then, that the woman in Revelation 12:6 is the church of Jesus Christ, specifically the New Testament saints who live between the first coming of Christ and His return.
Notice that the woman has fled into the wilderness. We are given the distinct impression that the woman is in danger. She is at risk; her very existence is threatened. She is being pursued. At the end of the chapter we shall learn that she fled with good reason: she is being pursued by Satan himself, that great, fiery red dragon, who previously sought to devour the Christ!
Throughout the Old Testament Satan sought to cut off the promised Seed of the woman, at times coming very close. When Christ was finally born, he sought to destroy Him. But Christ triumphed over Satan, making a public spectacle of him at the cross. Now, knowing that he cannot defeat Christ, Satan has set his sights on the church. This will be further described in Revelation 12:7: “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” It described still further, and with great vividness, in Revelation 12:13–17: “Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and the swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Though we will examine those passages in greater detail, the message is already clear: Satan has the church in his sights. He wants nothing more than to devour and destroy the church of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit has given us Revelation 12–14 that our eyes might be opened to the battle and that we might be able to withstand the wiles of the devil. The Holy Spirit has given us Revelation 12–14 that we might not be devoured by the great fiery red dragon!
Presently, then, we live in the wilderness. It is here that we have “a place prepared by God” (v. 6). It is fitting that God would prepare a place for us in the wilderness, for the wilderness is the place of trial, the place of testing, the place where we learn to depend fully upon God. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness. Elijah wandered for forty days in the wilderness. Jesus Himself was led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days and forty nights.
It was in the wilderness that Israel was protected and nourished and fed by God. “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:1–3). Moses went on to describe God as the One “who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end . . .” (8:15–16). It was in the wilderness that Israel was humbled, learning to depend fully upon the Lord.
It was in the wilderness that God protected and nourished and fed Elijah. He protected Elijah from the death threats of Queen Jezebel. He nourished him with bread and water from heaven. It was in the wilderness that Elijah was humbled, learning to depend fully upon the Lord.
It was in the wilderness that Jesus Himself was tempted, and where He demonstrated His full dependence upon His Father, even quoting the words of Deuteronomy: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
As it was for Israel, Elijah, and Jesus Christ, so it is for the church: we are protected and nourished and fed by God in the wilderness that we might be humbled, learning to depend entirely upon the Lord. Question and Answer 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Q. What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church? A. I believe that the Son of God through His Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for Himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith, and of this community I am, and always will be a living member.” How does the Son of God gather, protect, and preserve for Himself this community, the church? He does so through His Spirit and Word. He does so through the means of grace, namely, the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. These are the means God has chosen for the gathering and nourishing of His church. Through the preaching of the Word, He gathers His church, snatching them from the clutches of Satan. Through the sacraments, He strengthens His church, that she might be able to withstand the wiles of the devil.
Why these means? Because in them and through them Christ is proclaimed! Our Catechism puts it this way in Question and Answer 65:
“Q. It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his blessings: where then does that faith come from? A. The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments.” The Holy Spirit produces faith in our hearts through the preaching of the gospel, and He confirms and strengthens it through the sacraments. Question and Answer 67 goes on to state: “Q. Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation? A. Right! In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and the holy sacraments he assures us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.”
How necessary are the means of grace! Romans 10 reminds us: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? . . . So then, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:13–14, 17). It is in the preaching of the Word that we hear Christ saying to us: “Come unto Me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” In the preaching of the Word it is Christ that is set before us; it is Christ that addresses us; it is Christ that sets before us all of His merits and all of His beauty. He does this so that when the enemy of our souls seeks to destroy us, we may turn again to His Word where He proclaims to us His blood that flowed to wash us and cleanse us of all our sins and His righteousness with which we now stand clothed.
As if that were not enough, He has also given us the sacraments, the visible Word, for the strengthening and nourishing of our faith. In the waters of baptism we behold the work of our Savior for us, who bore the judgment we deserve, that we might live in Him. At the table of the Lord our dear Savior beckons us and says, “Come, eat of the bread, drink of the cup, and lift up your heart on high to where I am seated in the heavenlies, and know that I have secured your salvation.”
Do you begin to see what transpires as we gather in worship on the Lord’s Day? Our Savior is strengthening us for the battle. He is nourishing our souls unto everlasting life. In his book A Better Way, Michael Horton describes it this way: “Here, we taste of the powers of the age to come, and our hearts are gradually subdued. Our lust for this world and its ‘boasted pomp and show’ yields slowly but surely to the ‘solid joys and lasting treasures’ that none ‘but Zion’s children know.’ While tasting is not the same as feasting face-to-face in our raised and glorified bodies at the Lamb’s wedding reception, it fills us with gratitude and hope. Through these divinely appointed means, the Spirit breaks into our drab, one-dimensional, fearful, plotless world and sweeps us into his kingdom that is even now coming down out of heaven.” Horton goes on to write:
Through the preached Word, the Spirit ushers us into that heavenly celebration that is eternal for God and for all who are brought into His Sabbath ‘time.’ Through Holy Communion we ‘taste the powers of the age to come’ and share Jesus’ own cup as he, both host and victim, grants to us the right to eat from that Tree of Life in the paradise of God that is his body. None of this is so realized that we have nothing to look forward. In fact, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him.’ But the same Spirit who indwells the heavenly city now indwells his church and takes from what is God’s and makes it ours. Not only ‘previews of coming attractions’ but the actual dawn of the new creation itself is what the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead brings through the ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament. What a difference it would make in our worship if people didn’t simply think they were practicing for an eternity what they don’t have use for anyway but rather tasting the food on the table of a world feast that never winds down. Do you see how great our dependence upon the Lord is? Do you see how badly we need such nourishment from week to week? The Catechism reminds us that our sworn enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh, never stop attacking us, and that on our own, we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment (Question & Answer 127). Take away the nourishment we receive from God in the preaching of the Word and the sacrament, and we will most certainly go down to defeat in this spiritual battle. We need the means of grace to strengthen us, to encourage us, to nourish us, to feed us, and to protect us.
What a joy and delight to come each Lord’s Day to be the recipient of the means of grace. More often than not, we come as weary warriors that we may be refreshed and strengthened once more as we reach forth with the “empty hand” of faith to receive the blessings of Christ the King who sits upon the throne. Do we see our need for the Lord’s Day? Do we see our need for the means of grace? Do we see our need for the preaching of the Word and for the sacraments? I dare say that if we caught even one glimpse of our enemy, and the hatred and vehemence with which he seeks to devour us, we would never look at the Lord’s Day in the same way again!
This nourishment in the wilderness continues for 1,260 days (verse 6). What is pictured to us here in terms of 1,260 days is described elsewhere as three-and-a-half years; in other places as a time, times, and half a time; and still in other places as a thousand years. They are all referring to the same thing: the time between Christ’s first coming and His return.
We are reminded here not only that Christ preserves His church against all the rage of hell, but we are reminded as well that the time is short, only 1,260 days. God has determined the time of our wilderness sojourn. Let us not grow weary, then, for while we are presently subject to the attacks of the evil one, we are also reminded that the issue of the battle between Christ and Satan has never been uncertain; it will certainly end in victory for Christ and His church. At the cross Christ crushed the dragon’s head. We now contend with a vanquished foe that has already been overcome. In those times when we feel the serpent at our heels, we may go to our Savior, whose heel was bruised, but who, with that bruised heel, crushed the serpent’s head. And the day is coming when He will crush Satan beneath our feet as well (Romans 16:20).
The day is coming when our wilderness sojourn will be over. The day is coming when we will be forever beyond the attacks of the dragon. The day is coming when we will dwell in the Paradise of God, where we shall never hunger and never thirst. Let this hope sustain us now as we journey to the heavenly city, receiving the nourishment we need from the hand of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The day is coming when our wilderness sojourn will is over and the means of grace are no longer necessary. Then at last we shall sit down at the great wedding banquet of the Lamb, and we shall feast with Christ for all eternity.
1. Horton, Michael. A Better Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 2002. p. 139.
2. Ibid., p. 140
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan