Nativity sets come in all shapes and sizes. Some contain only a few figures. Others look like small-scale petting zoos, minus the pleasant aroma.
Usually the characters in a Nativity set come from Luke 2 (shepherds, angels, and animals), Matthew 2 (wise men), or both (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), and occasionally Nativity-makers get ambitious and throw in a cast of non-biblical extras: Roman soldiers, the innkeeper’s wife, a little drummer boy, or even Santa Claus (just bizarre). All of these figures are interesting characters to talk about with our kids.
But the one figure they always leave out is the seven-headed dragon.
A Manger Full of Dragon Drool
While Luke gives an historical account of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew briefly mentions it, it is John who was given a revelation of Christmas from a cosmic perspective:
“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.” (Revelation 12:1-5)
What are we to make of this mysterious text? There are many interpretations of the last book of the Bible, and the theological debates can be dizzying—as G.K. Chesterton said, “St. John saw many strange things in his Revelation, but nothing as strange as his interpreters.”
Nonetheless, the book of Revelation interprets two of the characters for us. Most commentators agree that the male child is Jesus. He is called “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5). This expression is borrowed from Psalm 2:9, a messianic prophecy. Several chapters later John identifies this person as the Word of God, the King of kings, Jesus Christ (19:15). In this text, John briefly mentions Jesus’ birth but then quickly fast-forwards through 30+ years of His life—skipping over His childhood, life in Nazareth, preaching, miracles, death, and resurrection—to the moment of His ascension.
The figure that dominates the text is the seven-headed dragon, Satan: “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9), and he is poised to strike the baby king the moment he is born. The image is deliberately grotesque as we’re meant to picture a woman in groaning in pains of childbirth and this foul creature looming over her ready to devour her baby.
This is the picture of Christmas from the perspective of the heavenly realms. On Christmas cards and in Nativity sets we see the tranquility and simplicity of Jesus’ birth. But in John’s Revelation, all is not calm and bright: the heavens themselves are shaken as Satan summons up his forces for war to destroy the royal baby.
Why Satan Matters at Christmas
While I don’t know anyone who sells ceramic seven-headed red dragons to add to our nativity sets, we should make a point to remember him at Christmas—and talk about him with our children.
1. Satan reminds us who the baby in the manger really is.
Any child will tell you: in fairy tales, dragons don’t summon heavenly armies to attack a mere peasant born in a stable. When the powers of darkness muster all their strength, it can only be that the baby being born is powerful enough to bring them all down.
This little Lord Jesus, laying down his sweet head, will one day be crowned with many crowns. This holy infant, so tender and mild, will one day have eyes that blaze with fire and will have his linen robe dipped in blood. This little babe, the son of Mary, will one day summon fire from heaven and hurl the great dragon into the lake of fire and sulfur to burn for all eternity.
Don’t let the soft skin and tender smile fool you. This holy child is dangerous.
2. Satan reminds us that Christmas was a heavenly invasion into enemy territory.
Since the Fall of mankind, Satan has been the great rebel force behind the evils of this world. Jesus calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30). The apostle John writes, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). The apostle Paul calls Satan “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) who blinds the world from seeing the glory of Christ. This world is under the sway of Satan’s power.
But when Christ came, He came invading Satan’s domain. During Christ’s ministry, He cast demons out of people with startling authority (Mark 1:27). Christ likened Himself to someone who had bound “the strong man” and plundered his house (Matthew 12:28-29)—each dramatic deliverance from demonic power was a sign to everyone that the kingdom of God had arrived. He commissioned the 12 disciples and then 72 others to deliver people from demonic oppression, and everywhere they went, they displayed Christ’s power (Matthew 10:8; Luke 10:17).
This was the reason Satan was poised to kill Jesus. This little boy asleep on the hay held the power to overthrow the devil’s kingdom. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
3. Satan reminds us that all the attacks on Christ’s life were coordinated strikes.
The song, “What Child is This?” calls earthly kings to enthrone Christ in their hearts. But when King Herod the Great heard of the birth of the Messiah, he stopped at nothing to kill Him, even if it meant slaughtering countless children (Matthew 2:16).
People in His own hometown tried to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). On two occasions He was threatened by crowds who intended to stone Him to death (John 8:59; 10:31). On multiple occasions Jewish leaders secretly met, devising plots to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6; John 5:16; 7:30-32, 40-44; 11:47). His own people verbally derided Him as a poor, uneducated bastard son from the wrong neighborhood (Mark 6:3; John 7:14-15, 52; 8:19). Worse yet, he was called a false prophet, a liar, insane, demon possessed, and a blasphemer (Mark 3:22; John 7:10-13, 50-52; 10:20, 31-33).
Revelation reminds us that behind all these attacks was the god of this age, Satan himself. Satan entered Judas to entice him to hand Jesus over to the authorities (Luke 22:3; John 13:27), but in reality Satan is the spirit at work in all the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2). Satan was out to bring Christ down.
3. Satan reminds us that Christ came to pardons our sins.
After Christ ascended to heaven, Revelation tells us that a great war arose between the armies of the archangel Michael and the armies of Satan. At the climax of the war, Michael ejects Satan from the heavenly realms (Revelation 12:7-12).
The critical question is: Why does Christ’s life on earth bring about Satan’s downfall in heaven?
The meaning of Satan’s name is “accuser.” Revelation 12 states he is “accuser of our brothers” (12:10), standing before God day and night recounting our sins. In the Old Testament (Job 1 and Zechariah 3), we find Satan standing before God as a prosecuting attorney: he slanders us before God, appealing to God’s law and condemning us as guilty.
But Paul says that through the cross, Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities,” and he did this “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:14-15). Satan’s only ammunition against us before God was our guilt, but now that guilt is gone. We have a perfect defense attorney: “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
Glory to God in the Lowest
We often echo the words of the angels over the fields of Bethlehem at Christmas: Gloria in excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest.” We hope to catch a bit of their joy in our songs and carols.
But when we read about Christmas from Satan’s point of view, we see the flip side of the coin: the utter terror the baby Jesus struck in the heart of the devil’s heart.
Reflecting on Revelation’s vision of Christmas, Philip Yancey writes,
“As a Christian I believe that we live in parallel worlds. One world consists of hills and lakes and barns and politicians and shepherds watching their flocks by night. The other consists of angels and sinister forces and somewhere out there places called heaven and hell. One night in the cold, in the dark, among the wrinkled hills of Bethlehem, those two worlds came together at a dramatic point of intersection. God, who knows no before or after, entered time and space. God, who knows no boundaries took on the shocking confines of a baby’s skin, the ominous constrains of mortality…Little wonder a choir or angels broke out in spontaneous song, disturbing not only a few shepherds but the entire universe.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p.44-45)
Why Satan Matters at Christmas
Learn more about this text in Revelation 12. This is a sermon I preached at my church to explain it.