John identifies the dragon repeatedly (v. 9) as the ancient serpent,the devil (compare 2:10) and Satan (compare 2:9, 13, 24; 3:9). He is further described by the evil he does: "leading the whole world astray" (v. 9) and "accusing" the people of God (v. 10). The dragon's remote past is defined by the term ancient serpent, which links him to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1, 14-15). The assumption that the serpent in the garden is the devil in disguise is common today in popular Christianity, but was by no means self-evident in John's time. Like the serpent in Genesis, the dragon in Revelation is seen as the enemy of the woman. The story told in this chapter and the next reads like an interpretation of God's curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."
This enmity was present already in verse 4, where the dragon confronted the woman to devour her child the moment it was born. Although the child was snatched from danger (v. 5), John left the impression in verse 6 that the conflict was far from over, and in fact he will return to it soon in more detail. First, however, comes a graphic description of the dragon's more recent past (vv. 7-9): And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down. . . . He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Such language raises the question of whether or not John has in mind a specific event of the recent past, perhaps the same event to which Jesus referred when he told his disciples, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Lk 10:18). It is possible, but not likely. Rather, the account of war in heaven rests on a conclusion drawn from John's own experience and from the vision just recorded. From experience John knew that Satan was very much in evidence on earth (compare 2:9-10, 13, 24; see also 1 Pet 5:8), and he attributes this to his recent expulsion from heaven. In the vision, the dragon's tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth (v. 4). That stars can mean angels was established already in the interpretation of an earlier vision (1:20). From this John could infer the downfall of the dragon and his angels.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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