Teaching Teenagers The Battle of Christmas in Revelation 12
Consider your favorite old-school war movie – the moment right before the big charge. There’s often a rousing speech that steels the hearts of soldiers as they consider that this might be their final moment on earth, but their cause is worth more than their fear. There are shouts – of intimidation, of determination, of the anticipation of victory. Couple that with the payoff of great fight choreography and a soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and you have the makings of an awesome cinematic moment.
Now compare this to your students’ perceptions of the Christmas story.
As a student who had grown up in the Bible belt and gone to church my whole life, I had played numerous characters in Christmas pageants, had sung all the old Christmas carols and hymns countless times, and could practically quote the gospels regarding Christmas (thank you, ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’!). The ‘true meaning of Christmas’ was stale. I continue to see this trend among many of my students. Arguably, they are often more moved by Christmas values, family, and Buddy the Elf when December rolls around, even when they are committed lovers of Jesus. There simply isn’t enough gravitas in the birth of Jesus to move them.
Because of this, a few years ago I decided against teaching the Christmas story out of the gospels. We looked at the Old Testament but avoided any text they could see on a Hallmark card. On our final week, I explained that there was another account of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament besides Matthew and Luke. The confusion in the air was palpable – that couldn’t be true (or else they would have had another text to base their Christmas pageants on!).
Then I asked them to turn to Revelation 12.
Revelation can be a confusing book, awash in biblical symbolism and prophetic retellings of Old Testament imagery. For some of us (and our leaders and parents) who came to faith in the 80s and 90s, it still carries with it the sting of churches and ministries that didn’t steward its apocalyptic messages well, often using it for shock value or culture wars instead of building up God’s people. But that’s exactly why we have it, and our students are worse off if we neglect it.
Here’s an overview of the chapter: A woman with a crown of 12 stars gives birth., symbolizing God’s people, Israel, (made up of 12 tribes), and God’s Messiah coming from his people. A dragon of evil pursues them, but they are saved by God, and the Messiah is exalted over all. His followers are also viciously attacked, and they repel the dragon too, even though they suffer heavy casualties. It’s a story of Christmas from a different, cosmic perspective, one where the birth of Jesus is just as important (and contested) as his death and resurrection in the final victory over sin and Satan. Here’s what I teach, and why:
What I Teach
- Christmas is not a side-story to the epic, grand narrative of history, but crucial to it. I explain to them that much of the imagery in Revelation is from the Old Testament, and that the original hearers would not have been confused/weirded out as much by it as we often are. This is similar to how in America we intuitively understand things like political cartoons with elephants, donkeys, eagles, etc. – we have a shared cultural symbolic language. John’s original audience would have recognized things like: 12 ‘somethings’ with suns and moons drawing us back to Joseph’s dreams (Genesis 37:9); the image of the dragon antagonizing God’s people, which pops up in places like Isaiah 27:1 and Daniel 7:6; a grand heavenly battle hinted at in 2 Peter 2 and Jude 6; and the wilderness as a place where God’s people have found his provision (Exodus 16, 1 Kings 17:6). John uses this imagery to show that Scripture and history have always been describing this ultimate battle – everything in the OT has been leading up to this moment.
- It’s worth hearing stories over and over, and also seeing them from new perspectives. We don’t want to dis Matthew or Luke just because we want to teach a ‘new’ Christmas passage. Repetition from different angles is actually a very biblical way of emphasizing something extremely important. Even in Revelation 12, the story of the dragon’s defeat and the protection of the woman and child is told twice. By zooming out and seeing the grand picture, we can zoom back in and connect it to details in the ‘traditional’ Christmas passages that might stick out in new ways. Students may also benefit from seeing the ways in which the stories differ greatly. Jesus’ birth in a small Middle Eastern town appears to be of little consequence to world events, but it is actually the site of a monumental cosmic battle.
- This isn’t squeezing the ‘cross into Christmas’. Another ‘groaning moment’ for some teens is the way some try and point to Jesus’ death and resurrection out of the Christmas story. It often either belittles Christmas by teasing Easter early, or sounds very cheesy (Christmas trees transforming into crosses, “Mary, Did You Know”, etc.). But Revelation 12 connects Christmas (specifically in the announcement of the opposition to God’s people and the birth of the Messiah) to the beginning of the ‘grand battle’ by referencing the very first passage about the Messiah at all, Genesis 3:15. There, God tells Adam and Eve about Satan’s downfall at the hands of the coming Savior of man and suggests Messiah’s death as well, which is echoed in Revelation 12:11.
- We all play a part in this. Again, Christmas isn’t the Hallmark movie of the Bible. The triumph of God and his Messiah over evil is a story we are involved in, as we resist evil in the world and Satan’s accusations of our own failure. This is both passive resistance (we can rest, knowing Jesus is resisting on our behalf – we won’t lose to Satan!) and active resistance through our own reflection on Jesus’ story and his transforming work in our lives.
Why I Teach This
In an individualized and increasingly isolating culture, students are starving to be a part of something bigger than their own small story. By showing how Scripture has a grand narrative, and how ‘overly familiar’ things like Christmas are actually rehearsals of that narrative, we get them to look past themselves. Discussing resistance against sin and evil in cosmic and ‘on the ground’ terms helps us articulate concepts like justice, mercy, and conservation in ways that aren’t married to a political moment. While we need to be careful about drumming up emotion and the negative implications of ‘warrior Jesus’ culture, emphasizing the cosmic conflict of Scripture can help students connect to the work of Christ in ways that aren’t overtly romantic (like many modern worship songs) or solely focused on a get-to-heaven mechanic. And for many students who have little experience with the book of Revelation, teaching from it in small doses gives you the opportunity to introduce and model concepts like numerical symbolism and OT imagery, the real purposes of apocalyptic literature and prophecy in the Bible, and the history of the early church.
So, along with Matthew and Luke, consider charging into the fray with Revelation this Christmas, and encourage your students that their reflections this season are far more important that they could ever imagine.