The devil is not a mad fool. He certainly is a fool, and he also is mad. But he is not a mad fool in this sense that he does things that have nothing to do with the plan of God Almighty. And you may depend on it, if the woman after she has brought forth the man child was of no account any more, the devil would not trouble himself about her. He has but one purpose, and he lives from but one principle. It is the purpose and the principle of opposition against God Almighty. This principle he never denies. And whatever has nothing to do with that principle he leaves severely alone. That is already plain in the individual lives of the people of God on earth and in the church. If you are of no account to the coming of God’s kingdom and are in no way related to the glory of God, the devil does not trouble his head about you. It is only when he begins to surmise that you also are one of the followers of Christ and that you confess him that he begins his action against you. Thus it is also with the woman. The very fact that the dragon in raving madness indeed turns against the woman, to persecute her, already causes us to surmise that she is still of great importance to the kingdom of God and the fulfillment of His plans.
Nor need we search very long to find the answer to this question. What is the motive of the devil in persecuting the woman even after she has brought forth the man child? This woman, as we have had occasion to notice before, is the church, the visible church as she exists on earth. In the former passage we noticed how she appeared as the mother of the Savior, of the King in the kingdom. The church brings forth the Christ. Christ is the great seed of the woman. He is the Son of Mary, out of the house of David, of the tribe of Judah, born from Israel, out of the loins of Abraham, in the line of Shem and Seth, and finally born from Eve as the spiritual mother of the holy seed. But this is not all. The church as she exists in the present dispensation is not only the mother of Christ, the great seed. But she is also the mother of us all. She is the mother of the true, spiritual children of God. As such it may be said that the church visible, as a visible institution on earth brings forth the church invisible, the true believers, from age to age. The church is the mother of the true children of the kingdom. These are born from her, are baptized by her, are nourished through her, receive their strength and life and all the blessings of God’s covenant in her bosom. And it is as such that evidently the church appears in the words that we are now discussing. For as we have maintained already, the passage makes mention of the rest of her seed, of her spiritual children. She is the mother of all the true children of God, of all the subjects in the kingdom that is to be established in the future. That is her great importance.
Now the devil knows this. He knew from the beginning that the great seed which this woman is to bring forth is the all-important factor in the entire war which he wages. If he can prevent His coming or devour Him as soon as He is born, he does not have to trouble himself about the rest of her seed. And therefore all his efforts are directed toward that end in the old dispensation. And because he is so certain that he will succeed in that battle against the woman and surely prevent the birth of the great seed, he also thinks it strange and without justice that all the saints that are born and die before the coming of Christ go into glory. But he has failed. And now he knows too that the church still exists. He knows that even as that same woman has not only brought forth the great seed, but was also the mother of Abel and Enoch and Noah and the patriarchs and Moses and all the prophets and all the faithful believers of the old dispensation, so she will continue to bring forth seed in the new dispensation. Also in the New Testament day she will have children. She will bring forth children of the kingdom that will fight the battle of the kingdom here below and that will enter into the glorious kingdom hereafter. And since he cannot fight directly against the King of the kingdom anymore, Who is caught up to the throne of God, and since he cannot go to heaven any more to dispute about the right of the glorified saints, he will persecute the woman and try to destroy her at all events before she has brought forth many more children that will serve as subjects of the kingdom that is to be established. And therefore he goes and persecutes her.
Now the text tells us that when the dragon comes to persecute the woman, two wings of an eagle are given to her, in order that she might fly into the wilderness. The question as to the meaning of the eagle’s wings, as if they could be interpreted to mean work and prayer, or anything else, is certainly irrelevant. The figure has perhaps been obtained from Exodus 19:4, where we read that Jehovah says: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” And the idea is evidently that God Himself provides the church with means to escape the fury of the devil. Different, however, it is with the idea of the wilderness. Also this has been obtained from the episode of the people of Israel’s history in the desert. Even as there God delivered His people from the fury of the world-power in Egypt by bringing them into the wilderness, so also now He brings His people into the wilderness to escape the rage of the devil. But the difference is that in Israel’s case it was a real wilderness into which they were led, while evidently in this case the figure is employed to represent something different. And the question is: what is the meaning of this wilderness into which God enables the church to fly in the new dispensation in order that she might escape the wrath and persecution of the devil. It has been said that the wilderness is here used to the want and deprivation of the people of God, so that they must suffer in the world. They are the despised of the world; and there are not many noble and mighty among them. They must suffer all kinds of persecutions and deprivations in the world. And therefore that world is a real wilderness to them. And, of course, this is true in itself. But it is not the meaning of the text. For, in the first place, the church is driven into this wilderness after the birth of Christ and after His exaltation. But it cannot be said that the being subjected to want and deprivation of all kinds is peculiar of the people of God in the new dispensation only. Also the long list of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 11 could tell you of them. And therefore, this cannot be meant. In the second place, it is difficult to see how this could possibly be a means of hiding them from the face of the devil, so that he could not attack them. Yet this is evidently the purpose of it all. The woman received these wings to fly into the wilderness in order that she might be able to escape the wrath of the devil, and so be safe. And in the third place, the wilderness is a place prepared for her by God, where she does not suffer want and deprivation, but is nourished by God for a time, and times, and half a time, or twelve hundred sixty days. And therefore, that cannot be the meaning of the term wilderness in our present passage.
We would rather adhere to the symbolism, and derive the meaning from the representation itself. In the literal and natural sense of the word the wilderness, or desert, is a place in the world, but not of the world. It may lie right in the midst of the world, yet it is absolutely separated from the life of the world. There is no plant life, no vegetation to speak of, no animal life, no human life; there are no houses, no cities, no rivers and streams. It is a place in the midst of the world, yet separated from the world. If one, is in the wilderness, he is separated from the life of the world. If we adhere to this meaning, the explanation of the symbolism cannot be difficult. It reminds us of the words of the Savior, “In the world, yet not of the world.” And it tells us that the visible church in the new dispensation is an institution separate in every respect from the world-power as such. It exists indeed in the world, but it exists as a separate institution. That is not true of her children individually. They live right in the midst of the world, and they live the life of the world, even though they are spiritually separated from that life, and live it from the principle of the kingdom of God. But that is true of the church. The church as such is a separate institution in the world. She has her own King. And as an institution it does not recognize any other ruler. No earthly king has any dominion over her. There is no worldly ruler to be king or president or dictator that can exercise dominion over the church as the mother of her spiritual children. Only Christ is King. From this it follows that the church has its own laws. There may be laws established and ordained by the worldly ruler regarding the existence of the church in this world, regarding her buildings and property, etcetera; but the church in this world, in regard to her real existence and life, acknowledges no other power, no other sovereignty, than that of Christ. No worldpower, no emperor, or king, or president, can formulate her creed. She does so herself, in obedience to Christ her King. No world-power. can regulate her worship, can compose her hymns and her forms, can dictate how she must pray and what she must preach. No world-power can tell her how and when and why she must censure her members and exercise discipline over them. The church as an institute is a separate institution. She has her own King, her own laws, her own life. She does not mingle in politics as such. She may instruct her children how to behave in regard to the powers that be; but she herself does not mingle in the politics of the world. She has no armies. She does not fight with the sword. Again, she may instruct her children that even in regard to the battles of the world they must be subject to the authorities, and obedient; but she herself, as an institute and as the mother of her spiritual children, does not take part in the battles of the world. She lives in separation. Even as the children of Israel in the desert lived in separation from the world-power in Egypt, and even as they received their own laws from their own King in that wilderness, so also the church of the New Testament is in the wilderness with regard to the world and its power and its life. The church does not do business. The church does not mingle with the affairs of this world. She owns no property for its own sake. She has no factories. She has no army and navy. She fights her own battles and does her own work. The church as an institution is separate from the life of the world. She has received a God-prepared place in the wilderness.
Only in this sense can we see, in the first place, that this condition commenced actually in the new dispensation and with the exaltation of Christ. In the old dispensation among Israel church and state were intertwined in the theocracy. Israel was the people of God. Israel was the church. They were not identical, but they were inseparably combined. For that reason the people of God also could have an earthly king, could fight the battles of Jehovah with bow and sword, could have an earthly country of their own, could have possessions and do business as a people of God. With the new dispensation this is changed. The church does no more live in a certain land, but is spread all over the world and among all nations. One and the same church, with the same King, with essentially the same faith, with the same life, now exists among all the nations of the earth. And as the most general confession has it, “I believe an holy catholic church.” But at the same time, and for that very reason, the church is now in the wilderness. It is separated from the world-power. It does not acknowledge any other authority for her life as such than the authority of Jesus Christ. But, in the second place, it is also very plain that this is exactly her safety in the present dispensation. The world-power is and remains on the earth, earthy. It has a temporal purpose, and ultimately shall unite, as we shall see, to make war against the Christ and His kingdom. If the church did not live as a separate institution, living her own life, acknowledging her own King, regulating her own affairs, making her own laws, establishing her own forms of belief, and controlling her own worship, she will be gone, and ultimately unite with the power that rises against the Christ and His kingdom. No matter whether this would realize itself in one or in the other, whether the church would have dominion over the powers of the world and over the affairs of the world, as the Romish Church would have it, or whether the power of the world would exercise authority over the church of Christ as an institution in the midst of the world, the same result would necessarily follow, namely, the destruction of the church as the mother of the faithful subjects of the kingdom of Christ. The church is in the wilderness of this world, separated from the power of the world, and must needs be in that wilderness for her own safety.
The measure of time here indicated need not detain us very long. It is plain from the context that time, times and half a time is the same period as the twelve hundred sixty days mentioned in the first portion of this chapter. This leads us to the conclusion that time, times, and half a time indicates three and one-half symbolic years. One symbolic year, and two symbolic years, and half a symbolic year. One symbolic year is calculated to be three hundred sixty days, which, multiplied by three and one-half, gives us the twelve hundred sixty days. And again, this is evidently the same period as the forty-two months of the two witnesses. For, taking a symbolic month to contain thirty days, forty and two months would again give us twelve hundred sixty days, or three and one-half years. All these indications of time refer, therefore, to the time of the new dispensation, from the exaltation of Christ to the very end, as has become plain before. Only, the three and a half times indicate this period, in the first place, from the point of view that the history of the world is divided, as it were, into two halves, because of the coming of Christ. If seven is the symbolic number indicating the completion of all that God does in time, and therefore also indicating the complete period of the history of the present world, both before and after Christ, then it is plain that three and one-half must indicate the period of one dispensation, in this case that of the dispensation after the coming and exaltation of Christ Jesus. And in the second place, this number also indicates that the period of the church being in the wilderness shall be cut short. The days shall be shortened for the elects’ sake. But whatever this number, which also occurs in Daniel, may indicate, certain it is from a comparison of the different places in which it occurs, that it points to the entire period of the new dispensation, even to the end. In this entire period the church has to suffer from the attacks of the dragon. In this entire period God has prepared her a place in the wilderness in separation from the powers of the world, and that too, to her own safety.
That this is actually so is also plain if we study for a moment the manner in which the dragon attacks this woman in the wilderness, and how he fails. Symbolically the text indicates it by saying that the dragon, when he saw that he could not pursue her into the wilderness, cast a stream of water after the woman, in order that she might be carried away with the flood. Evidently this does not mean that the devil makes an attempt directly to destroy the woman while she is in the wilderness. On the contrary, especially the original gives us reason to believe that the purpose is different. He knows that he cannot approach the woman in her isolation in the desert. He cannot touch her. She must remain there. He must leave her alone. And hence, he casts a stream of water after her that she might be borne up by that flood and be carried out of the wilderness. Especially the word used here in the original gives us that very idea. He does not mean to drown her: that would be impossible. But he means to lift her from her isolation. And therefore he casts a stream after her, in order that she might be carried away by the stream, and thus be borne into the world from the which she fled.
And understood in that sense the meaning is not difficult to grasp. The devil realizes that in the isolation of the church as an institution from the powers of this world lies her strength, and that as long as the church remains in this state of separation he cannot do anything against her. And therefore he makes the attempt to establish an alliance, to unite the church and the world. He tries to carry the church into the world and either offer her the dominion over the powers that be or subject her to the powers of the world. Then he may be sure that her strength is gone. Then he is certain that she will also bring up her spiritual children as subjects of the kingdom of the world, which is his kingdom. Then he is certain that the kingdom of the Christ shall at least be deprived of its subjects of the new dispensation. Clearly you may see this attempt. Now the devil tries to subject the church as an institution to the powers of the world, and establish a state church, as in various countries of Europe has been and still is the case. In that case the worldly rulers are at the same time the rulers of the church, and they establish its creeds and forms of worship and confessions. The church is ruled by the worldly power. Now he tries to gain his point along the way of offering the church dominion over the powers of the world, as in the time of Constantine the Great, and ever since, in the Romish Church. But the devil always failed. That does not mean that he never saw results. He surely did. Church after church was affected by this stream of water he spits after the woman. Now the church is actually subject to the state; now she has absolute sway over the powers of the world. And every time she lost her true character. But it never succeeded completely. The woman always remained in her isolation. And even today, although the tendency is once more to bring the church into the service and the subjection of the worldly power, and although the church has a hard fight to remain in her God-appointed place in the wilderness, nevertheless in many places the church stands as a separate institution, and also in our own land the separation of church and state is still constitutionally established. And therefore, the devil fails in principle. And our text tells us that he will fail. Surely, also in the future many a church will be carried away, and her- subjection and unification with the worldly power will be one of the factors in her apostasy. But nevertheless, the church shall always stand, shall always remain ,as an institution and as a separate institution, shall always bring forth and nourish her spiritual children, till the last one of God’s elect shall have been gathered into the glory of the kingdom.
If we have understood the text correctly thus far, it is not difficult to understand the last verse of this passage, where we read that the dragon, being enraged with the woman and yet realizing his impotency to destroy her as such, goes to make war with the rest of her seed, that keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. At first sight we may think that this is a somewhat strange expression. Is the church after all not the sum-total of all her seed? And how then must we conceive of this idea that the devil, after he has failed to destroy the church as such, can still turn to her children, to the rest of her seed? This is not difficult to understand, however. The woman represents the church as such, the church as a visible institution in the world. And as such she is the mother of the true spiritual children of God. At first the devil makes the attempt to destroy the church as an institution by making her part of his own kingdom and by uniting her with the power of the world. But when this fails, he turns to the individual believers, in order that he may persecute and destroy them and bring them to apostasy. These individual members move about in the world. In every sphere of life they claim that they must live according to the principles of the Word of God, that they must keep His commandments, and that they must proclaim that Jesus Christ is King over all. And so they attempt to realize these principles in the midst of the world. They have been brought up in the commandments of God by their mother, the church. And they have learned to embrace and keep the testimony of Jesus. And therefore, in every sphere of life, in the home and in society and in the state, wherever they go and whatever they do, they keep these commandments and refuse to live from the principles of the world. They come into contact with the world, and therefore the devil can approach them. He can employ that world to make life hard for them, in order that by his persecution he may bring them to destruction. It is not told us how the devil attempts to accomplish this in this chapter. The following chapter pictures to us this tremendous attempt in detail, for there we have the description of the power of the Antichrist.
Let us now close this particular passage with the application of the text. In the first place, the church is in the wilderness. Neither must she attempt to rule over the powers of the world or to mingle with the affairs of the world, nor must she subject herself to these powers. Christ is King, and no other beside Him, over the church. There are many rulers in the world; there is but one King in the church. In the second place, love the church as your spiritual mother. More than once we find this presentation of the church in relation to her members. She exists for your spiritual care and nourishment, that through her you might be strengthened with the bread of life, and that too, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. In the third place, walk as her faithful children in the midst of the world. Keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. And finally, be assured that all the attempts of the devil shall surely fail. He shall fail in his attempts to destroy the church as such. She shall remain, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. And if you must experience the wrath of the great red dragon as her individual children, never you fear: Christ has overcome the world!
H . H .