This chapter provides “deep background” for the material that follows and also for much of the Bible, especially the New Testament. It depicts the “dragon”—or devil—as hostile toward God and His people and especially against Jesus. It sets the stage for the horrific hostility of the last days. It also creates questions that are not easily answered.
Analysis: In 12:1, John sees a sign. His vision is powerful in itself, but it serves to point to a greater and deeper truth. He sees a woman “in heaven.” Later, this woman is on earth, so that raises the question of why she first appears in heaven. I think that perhaps the sign appears in heaven to emphasize the greatness and crucial importance of the woman and her child. It as though her giving birth (verse 12:5) has heavenly—as well as earthly—importance. The woman is “clothed with the sun.” She has the moon at her feet and twelve stars in her crown. In Genesis 37:9-10, Joseph had a dream in which the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed before him. Jacob interpreted Joseph’s dream to mean that he (Jacob) and Joseph’s mother (Rachael) and the eleven other brothers would bow before Joseph. The vision of the woman would seem to echo, but not quite mimic, Joseph’s dream. Being clothed with the sun would seem to me to be a symbol that this woman is in the light (see I John 1:5-7), which represents God’s person, which is filled with light. The moon is under the woman’s feet. One explanation would be that this accentuates the vision as heavenly. From these few words—“clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet”—we have a startling image of a woman high in the sky, standing on the moon and a robe of shimmering sunlight wrapped around her. Another possibility is that the moon represents the night. The woman stands victorious over the darkness of the night. She is wearing a crown (stephanos) with twelve stars in it. The twelve stars might represent the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles. Although the “stephanos” crown is often symbolic of victory, the victory of this woman is not evident at this point. However, victory is achieved in this chapter, so the use of “stephanos” here (compared to diadems later on the dragon) may be significant.
Rist: understands the material that starts at 12:1 to begin a depiction of a period that precedes the reign of God—3 1/2 years—during which “Satan and his minions are to be allowed…to rule.” (Rist, 452). He understands that period is depicted in chapters 12 and 13, and that it is divided into “seven episodes” or visions, which he calls “Seven Visions of the Dragon’s Kingdom.” (Rist 452ff) It is interesting that Rist sees this seven-fold division in these two chapters, whereas Morris sees “seven significant signs” that are described in three chapters, 12-14. (Morris, 155ff) I do not point this out in order to belittle these two intelligent commentators. These chapters in Revelation present a puzzle for interpreters because they do not follow the seven-fold pattern that was followed in chapters 6-11 and that is taken up again in chapter 15. So, it is natural to look for such a seven-fold arrangement in chapters 12-14.
Rist considers that the first vision is described in 12:1-6, and he calls this the vision of the “Heavenly Mother and Birth of Heavenly Messiah (12:1-6).” He considers it “one of the most puzzling episodes in Revelation.” He does not believe that this vision is based on Jewish sources, but is based on a “widespread myth of the divine child whose destruction is sought by those whose power he threatens.” (Rist, 452) He describes specifically the story of the birth of Apollo, who kills Python the dragon. He also describes and Egyptian myth of Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus, who vanquishes the red crocodile, Set-Typhon. These all have corresponding constellations, and so Rist believes they correspond closer to the “astral motif” of the woman and the dragon. Rist describes “astral thinking” as believing that “everything occurring on earth has previously happened in heaven…” therefore John’s account “relates the birth of the heavenly Messiah to a celestial mother before creation began.” (Rist, 452-453) “The woman is not only the mother of the Messiah, but she is also, by one of those characteristic shifts in symbolism, the church…” (Rist, 453) He also cites what he believes are evidences of the “astral motif” in Matthew’s account of the Magi and in the writings of Iganatius. (Rist, 453)
The “sign” of the woman means (for Rist) that she communicates to Christians undergoing persecution. He considers that this “astral” scene depicts what John believed happened in the past—“possibly before creation.” However, he depicts it as happening in the present. The woman is not of the earth, but is a “celestial being, a veritable Queen of Heaven.” He compares her to Isis. Rist interprets the 12 stars in her crown to be the 12 zodiac signs. (Rist, 453)
In reacting to Rist’s comments, I note that he approaches the passage in patterns similar to all of higher criticism. He first looks for “sources.” He rejects any Jewish sources (though the Joseph story has similarities; see my comments above). Instead he cites various pagan stories that do have some similarities to chapter 12. However, he seems to ignore the role of the woman as representing the nation of Israel. This is despite the fact that the 12 stars could refer to the 12 tribes and the fact that Jesus was born a descendant of the Patriarchs, an Israelite. He does note the woman’s relationship to the persecuted church in the short run. However, I think he misses the fact that this is a way of communicating a “big picture” view. By making the woman a celestial figure, in the same realm as the dragon, the angels, and Michael, this vision proclaims the truth of the age-old enmity between the righteous remnant of the human race and the devil.
Morris, as Rist does, sees a series of “seven” starting in chapter 12. However, as I pointed out, his list varies from Rist’s. Rist’s “seven” are found in chapters 12 and 13. Morris lists “Seven Significant Signs” in chapters 12-14. (Morris, 155ff) This has the advantage of carrying the reader from the end of the seven trumpets to the beginning of the seven bowls.
Morris acknowledges that there are parallels in chapter 12 (and beyond) to various pagan myths. However, he emphasizes, first, that the imagery in Revelation is unique and is consistent with the contents and message of the book. For example, the heavenly woman may have some parallels to the Greek goddess Leto. However, it is more significant that she contrasts sharply with another woman of Revelation—the great whore Babylon. (Morris, 155-156) Moreover, Morris asserts (and I totally agree) as follows: “John is an artist in words with a divinely-given message. We must not degrade him to the level of a copyist of ill-digested pagan myths. Moreover, it is plain from his whole book that he abominated paganism. It is thus most unlikely that he would borrow significantly from that source, or that pagan religion will give us the key to his ideas. We must let his own usage be our guide.” (Morris, 156) Well said, Leon Morris!
Morris believes that the “sign” in verse 1 refers to the person more than an event. (Whereas “signs” in John’s gospel refer to miraculous events.) Morris (in contrast to Rist) understands the action that is described takes place on earth, “but he sees the actors in the sky first of all.” He understands the description of the woman to communicate “Israel, the chosen people of God.” He quotes Torrance, who understands the woman’s standing on the moon to represent the reflected light of the Old Testament and her being clothed with the sun to represent the New Testament revelation that shines as the sun. Morris understands the 12 stars to be the 12 patriarchs and the 12 tribes of Israel. He refers to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9. He says, “In view of this Old Testament symbolism, it is unnecessary to see a reference to pagan mythology.” (Morris, 156)
In Ladd’s organization of Revelation, the material in chapters 12-14 is considered an interlude between the seven trumpets and the seven bowls. He does not attempt to see a set of “seven” in this material. (Ladd, 15-17) Chapter 12 is preliminary to the description of the Beast/Antichrist in chapter 13. Chapter 12 “parts the curtain” so that we see the spiritual warfare: “The experience of the church in suffering tribulation on earth is the manifestation in history of a spiritual battle. Behind the beast is the dragon—the devil, Satan—whose aim it is to frustrate the rule of God through his Messiah and destroy God’s people. Chapter 12 describes in mythological terms this heavenly warfare.” He believes that the woman represents the “ideal people of God—the church.” Ladd does not consider the vision of chapter 12 to be a depiction of a particular event, but rather a depiction of the heavenly warfare and “its counterpart in history in the conflict between the church and demonic evil.” Therefore, the vision “completely transcends the usual categories of time and space.” The events of chapter 12 are the “background for the final eschatological persecution of the church by the Antichrist…the Tribulation…” (Ladd, 166)
Ladd notes that the woman is the mother of the Messiah and of the church (verse 12:17). Thus, she is not exactly Mary or Israel. Rather, he considers her to be the “ideal Zion, the heavenly representative of the people of God…” He refers to Galatians 4:26, which mentions the heavenly Jerusalem, our “mother.” As Ladd proceeds, he actually comes close to the “astral thinking” that Rist describes (see elsewhere in this article). Whereas Rist is in the role of the disinterested critic who is describing John’s belief system, Ladd actually seems to buy into a form of this thinking, as he states the following: “It is not at all clear that the birth of the Messiah (vs. 2) is meant to represent the birth of the historical Jesus, or that his catching up to heaven is his ascension. The picture seems to be altogether symbolic of a great spiritual struggle in heaven which in turn has consequences for the earthly experience of the church.” (Ladd, 167) Quite frankly, I am shocked by this assertion from a commentator whose thinking I admire greatly. The problem with this is that it bifurcates the physical/historical from the spiritual in a way that can have serious theological consequences. We can never get away from the reality of the incarnate Jesus and the historical cross and resurrection. The book of I John hammers at the idea that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (I John 4:1-3). To go beyond historical events and to begin to understand a set of spiritual events that are behind the physical events is a form of gnosticism.
Ladd comments on the woman’s appearance. He understands the references to the sun and the moon simply as a way of describing her glory. He surmises that the 12 stars in her crown might represent the 12 patriarchs and the 12 tribes of Israel. (Ladd 168)
Metzger considers that, beginning at chapter 12, Revelation “begins all over again.” That is, chapter 11 is an appropriate end to the book, but there is more to be revealed, so there is the need to begin again. Chapter 12 is a “flashback” to the birth of Jesus and the opposition of Herod and so forth. He states that “striking parallels [to the narrative in chapter 12] have been found in Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, and in astrological lore.” (Metzger, 72) However, he believes that what is important is how John uses this material. He believes that the woman is a “personification of the ideal community of God’s people, first in its Jewish form, in which Mary gave birth to Jesus…and then in its Christian form…” (Metzger, 74)
Analysis: The woman is pregnant and crying out in her birth pains. The dramatic style is quite evident in the ordering of events in these few opening verses. This statement gives us important background for the action that takes place in 12:4b-5.
Morris understands the woman in the travail of childbirth to represent Israel “about to give birth to the Messiah.” (Morris, 157) He refers to Isaiah 26:17-18 as an example of Israel represented as a woman in childbirth, which is a theme that is found several times in the Old Testament. (Morris 156-157)
Analysis: Now our attention is turned to another person. This person is also deemed a sign. The person is a dragon. The dragon is referred to in the masculine. He is colored red. The visual image is made more vivid than otherwise with such a color. The word can connote “fiery red.” What is translated “dragon” in the Old Testament sometimes could mean a “sea serpent.” The dragon has 7 heads, which might suggest the Hydra of Greek mythology. The dragon has seven crowns on his heads—so each head had a crown. Each of these crowns is a “diadem.” Generally, the diadem is a symbol of royalty or high rank, whereas “stephanos” is a symbol of reward, though this distinction may not always hold (Arndt and Gingrich). The dragon also has 10 horns. Obviously, this arrangement leaves us scratching our heads. Do some of the heads have 2 horns and others only one? Generally, 7 and 10 are perfect numbers. It seems strange that the dragon would have these symbols of perfection. However, notice that we are repelled by the mental image of a dragon with 7 heads and 10 horns, because the image is of something hideous, unnatural, and frightening. In this respect, this dragon is “perfectly” hideous, unnatural, and frightening.
Rist’s comments on verse 12:3 are limited to two themes. First, he lists a number of ancient peoples who had similar images for an arch-villain. These include the Greeks, who had Python and Hydra; the Egyptians, who had a giant red crocodile; the Persians, who had a three-headed monster; the Canaanites, who had a seven-headed serpent; and the Accadians, who also had a seven-headed serpent (this image is from 2500 years before Christ). Second, he acknowledges that the dragon is “of course” Satan. (Rist, 453-454)
Morris refers to the Old Testament as precedent for this dragon. Pharaoh is called a dragon in Ezekiel 29:3 (NIV has “monster”). There are references to Leviathan, another representation of evil. Morris explains that the ten horns convey the idea of enormous strength and that the crowns are crowns of royalty or sovereignty. This is the foe of the people of God. (Morris, 157-158)
Ladd gives a number of Old Testament references to various kinds of monsters each of which is the “mythological embodiment of evil.” These references are Psalms 74:14, 89:10; Isaiah 27:1, 51:9; Job 40:15, 7:12; Ezekiel 32:2; Amos 9:3. These references are to Leviathan, Rahab, Behemoth, and the serpent. (Ladd, 168) Ladd explains that the seven heads, seven crowns, and seven horns are not meant to confuse us in trying to envision such a monster, but are meant to communicate the dragon’s power and authority as the “god of this age.” (Ladd, 168-169) (II Corinthians 4:4) The picture of the demon also prepares us for the description of the Antichrist/Beast in chapter 13.
Analysis: The tail of the dragon sweeps a third of the stars from heaven and casts them to the earth. Stars represent all sorts of things. They are representative of the “angels” of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). They are part of the images of disasters that come about when the third and fifth trumpets were blown (Revelation 8:10, 9:1). In the case of the fifth trumpet, the star that fell turns into an angel-like person (Revelation 9:1). Jesus associated many stars falling with His Second Coming (Matthew 24:29, see Isaiah 13:10, where the darkening of the stars is associated with the Day of the Lord). In verse 12:7 the dragon is said to have “his angels.” Although in 12:4, the stars are thrown to earth and in 12:7 the angels of the dragon fight in heaven, it is probably reasonable to assume that the stars of 12:4 represent the angels who are associated with the dragon in 12:7.
Rist compares the stars being swept down to a passage in Daniel 8 (though his reference is inaccurately to Daniel 7) in which a “little horn” pulls down some of the stars to the ground and tramples on them. The interpretation of this passage, if one follows the interpretative section in Daniel 8:15ff, is that this little horn is Antiochus Epiphanes. Rist understands the “stars” to be the persecution of the righteous Jews of that time. He speculates that the dragon’s sweeping down the stars in Revelation 12:4a is either a depiction of persecution of the righteous or depiction of fallen angels in league with Satan. (Rist, 454)
Morris devotes little time to the dragon’s sweeping down the stars. He only comments that “the activities of the evil one in other spheres yet have their repercussions here on earth.” (Morris, 158)
Ladd believes that there is “no need to see in these words anything more than the fearful appearance of this monster. There “is no hint…of a primeval war in heaven…” He believes the message is that the ultimate purpose of Satan is “to frustrate the work of Christ…” (Ladd, 169)
Metzger considers that bringing a third of the stars down with “a flick of his tail” is a means of describing the dragon’s huge size. (Metzger, 73)
Analysis: The second part of verse 12:4 is, I believe, a very significant statement: “And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” Here we see the deep motivation of all the machinations of the devil. (I skip ahead in identifying the dragon with the devil.) This intent of the dragon—to destroy the offspring of the woman—creates the backdrop for much of the rest of the book. At this point we should step back and consider the time element in chapter 12. One way of saying it is that there is no time element. To say it somewhat more precisely than that, this chapter is not constrained by chronology or time. So, when did the dragon sweep a third of the “stars” to earth? When is the woman in the wilderness (12:14)? Although we can make identifications between some of the events of chapter 12 with events in last-day chronology, we recognize that this chapter is more about cosmological principles (such as the motivations of the dragon) than about chronology. I think this principle is helpful in interpreting the woman as well as what the dragon is all about. I write this with caution, because the issues of interpretation in this chapter are precarious.
Morris considers the dragon’s sweep of the stars only “a preliminary flexing of his muscles.” His chief interest is in devouring the woman’s child. Morris says that Satan “was hostile to Jesus from the very beginning (cf. Herod’s attempt to slay the Christ child…).” He considers the question of why the dragon did not simply devour the woman. His answer: “…John is setting forth spiritual truth in pictorial form, not giving us a chapter in the natural history of the dragon.” (Morris, 158-159)
Metzger notes that the other two characters—besides the woman—are easily identified: the dragon is Satan, and the child is Christ. The hatred of Satan for Christ “explains the violent opposition that Jesus met during his earthly ministry.” (Metzger, 73)
Analysis: The events are rushing on with quick explanations that open up subjects that are deep and broad. The woman has a male child. He is described in a cryptic—yet obvious—manner: he has a destiny, to rule the nations with an iron “rod” (ESV) or “scepter” (NIV). Although “scepter” is an acceptable translation, “rod” is better because this clause is based on Psalm 2:9: “You [the Lord’s son, the Messiah] shall break them [the nations] with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” The ESV introduces the next clause with a “but,” which is a possible translation; however, the word is the very common “and.” Obviously, ESV has in mind the threat of the dragon to devour the child. That threat is frustrated by the fact that the child is “caught up” (NIV has “snatched up”) to God. “Caught up” is the same word that is used in I Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” One might want to make “Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory hay” out of this. Compare also II Corinthians 12:2 and 4, where Paul’s experience of entering the “third heaven” is described using this verb. However, the verb is used in other contexts also. For example, Philip was taken away from the presence of the Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 8:39) Also, Paul was taken away from the mob in the Temple area by the Roman soldiers in Acts 23:10. Thus, the main thrust of the word is that of taking something out the middle of its present surroundings. So we will be “caught up” out of our present surroundings and join with the righteous dead who are being resurrected to meet Jesus in the air. In the present context, the male child was taken up out of His earthly surrounding to be with God and sit on God’s throne. Certainly, this event will remove Him from the threat of being devoured by the dragon.
At this point, a person with rudimentary knowledge of the Scriptures will probably come to the conclusion that the male child of the woman is Jesus Christ. That is made clear by the reference to Psalm 2:9. This leads to the conclusion that the description of being caught up to God and to His throne is equivalent to the ascension. The surprise in this verse is the contraction of the narrative of Christ—moving from His birth directly to His ascension. If one thinks about the entire narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry, this brief statement does not seem to do justice to the issue of the opposition of the devil to Christ. On the surface, it implies that Jesus is rescued from the devil by the ascension. However, that inference, I believe, is not to be made. Rather, one must keep in mind that the ascension of Jesus is really the culmination of the Passion narrative or, in broader terms, the entire career of Christ. Throughout His ministry, Jesus is in conflict with the devil. When Jesus finally comes to His “hour”—the time for Him to offer Himself up to God for the sins of the world, He takes on the devil in full force. The outcome is that Jesus refuses to turn aside from His mission and, to the consternation of the devil, He goes to the cross. The third day He rises from the dead. He can never be touched again by sin or death. After 40 days, He ascends back to the Father. Many people misunderstand John 14:1-4. In those verses, Jesus is not talking about going to heaven—at least directly. He is talking about going, first, to the cross, then, to the grave, and then, into resurrection life, and, then, to the Father. The “place” that Jesus told the disciples He was going to prepare was prepared through His powerful work of redemption. So, when Revelation 12:5 says that He was “caught up to God and to His throne,” it is saying that He completed His great work of redemption and, in the process, defeated the devil, and then assumed His place upon the throne at the right hand of the Father. (Psalm 110) So, with a great economy of words, this verse summarizes the powerful work of the male child of the woman.
Rist has a very different understanding of verses 12:4b-5. He understands the depiction of the woman in the heavens to convey the idea that these are events taking place in heaven. Thus, he states that “The term caught up is not a prediction of the ascension of Jesus into heaven, as some have thought, since the birth itself took place in heaven and the child was already there. Instead, he was taken from one place in heaven to the presence of God and was there enthroned…” This is a depiction of “the pre-existent heavenly Messiah. This scene is the archetype of the earthly history of Christ…” Keep in mind that Rist betrays himself consistently to be a moderately skeptical critic. So, his interpretation is a statement of what John is conveying, not a statement of what he (Rist) believes to be true.
It is ironic that Rist takes this passage more literally than I do. He grabs onto the “astral” depiction of the woman and decides that John wants to describe events in heaven. So, he decides that John is displaying “astral thinking” (Rist, 452), which considers that earthly events have been preceded by heavenly events. First of all, John was a Jew, and the Jews had been warned throughout their history against participating in astrology (the “astral thinking” that Rist refers to is a form of astrology). See Deuteronomy 4:19. Second, the chapter ends with events definitely on earth. Third, the depiction of the child’s being caught up (12:5b) to God is difficult to rectify with a movement from one side of heaven to another. Finally, we should consider why this woman is depicted as a “great sign.” I think it is because the spotlight is being turned upon the people of God. The close alliance between the people of God and the Messiah is shown. I shall develop a fuller understanding of this concept later in this article. I think Rist’s critical instincts have denigrated this passage and its importance.
Morris notes that the method of how the Son is caught up is not described; rather, the fact that the sovereign God protects the woman’s son is the point. He considers the fact that nothing about the life of the child from birth to ascension is mentioned. He notes that some commentators believe this is evidence that John is simply following a pagan myth. Morris, however, believes that John’s style is to focus on one thing at a time. For example, he does not mention the Lamb in his description of heaven in chapter 4, but the Lamb is central to chapter 5. In chapter 12, the emphasis, Morris believes, is the church. The central fact of the first 5 verses is that the dragon is unable to destroy the woman’s child because of God’s protection, just as God will protect the church from destruction by the dragon. So, the career of Christ would be extraneous material. (Morris, 159)
Ladd makes clear that the information that identifies the woman’s child is specific to Jesus Christ. He cites Scriptures that are reflected in the description of one who will rule with a rod of iron. These Scriptures are Psalm 2:9 and Revelation 2:27 and 19:15. Then Ladd declares that we “are not to seek some specific event in the birth of the child.” The verse, he says, is not referring to Jesus’ being born of Mary. Nor, he says, is this verse about the pre-existent Christ. Rather, “all is symbolism portraying the hostility of Satan to God’s anointed one.” He insists that the scene is not “intended to represent actual history.” To defend his statement, he makes the point that it should have included the crucifixion, an event in which Satan appeared to have won. (Ladd, 169) Ladd further denies that the description of the child being caught up to God is a reference to the ascension, since the woman is not on earth. Further, Ladd maintains that the “rapture” (his word) of the Lord (meaning His ascension) “did not have the purpose of escaping Satan’s hostility.” Instead, Ladd maintains that the description of verse 5 “is John’s vivid way of asserting the victory of God’s anointed over every satanic effort to destroy him.” (Ladd, 169-170)
It strikes me that one can recognize the symbolism without denying the narrative that is the mechanism of the symbolism. Thus, the narrative of the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is represented in a highly compressed manner. Any reader who has a basic knowledge about Jesus will recognize the narrative. The fact is that the dragon sought to destroy the child, but the woman’s son gained the victory over the dragon through His redemptive work that culminated in His ascension. Certainly the few words of verse 5 refer to the entire career of Christ and His victory. The implied contrast between verse 12.4b and 12:5b need not be a contrast between threat and escape. In fact, it is a contrast between threat and victory. The ascension of Christ and His enthronement is His victory and these verses do not contradict that understanding.
Metzger considers that this verse is “the gospel story surprisingly condensed, but enough is said to accomplish John’s purpose.” (Metzger, 73) The verse is a statement of the “deadly enmity of the Adversary, his defeat, and the exaltation of Christ to the place of supreme and universal power.” (Metzger, 73) I think Metzger has recognized the import of this verse. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, the victory of Christ over the dragon is what is communicated, rather than escape. The child is snatched up to God and to His throne.
Analysis: The next verse brings the woman back into the center of the narrative for a brief moment. Notice the structure of the narrative of the chapter in the following table:
VERSE(S) THE WOMAN & CONFLICT WITH THE DRAGON: HIS
HER OFFSPRING THE DRAGON POSITION & POWER
12:1-2 Her appearance,
pregnancy, birth pains
12:3-4a His appearance and power
over 1/3 of the angels
12:4b His threat to devour
12:5 Her child--His birth
12:6 Her flight to the desert
12:7-12 His defeat and ejection
12:13-16 The dragon's war on
12:17 His war on her offspring
HER OFFSPRING THE DRAGON POSITION & POWER
12:1-2 Her appearance,
pregnancy, birth pains
12:3-4a His appearance and power
over 1/3 of the angels
12:4b His threat to devour
12:5 Her child--His birth
12:6 Her flight to the desert
12:7-12 His defeat and ejection
12:13-16 The dragon's war on
12:17 His war on her offspring
Once her son’s career on earth is completed, the woman flees into the wilderness to a place God has for her. There she is to be “nourished” (ESV). NIV translates the word as “taken care of.” Generally, the word means “to feed,” but it also may have the more general meaning of “sustain” or “support.” (Newman) She is to be sustained there for 1,260 days. If we skip ahead in the chapter, we find that verse 12:14 has almost exactly the same information with some expansion. In fact verse 12:13 refers back to the birth of the male child of verse 12:5 and adds the information that the dragon began to pursue (the word can mean “persecute”) the woman. The intervening material, verses 12:7-12, describes the heavenly defeat of the dragon.
Surveying the whole chapter and its layout, we accumulate considerable information and insight into what is being conveyed.
The woman is defined by her pregnancy and the birth of her son. The son, obviously is Jesus Christ. One could jump to the conclusion that the woman is Mary. However, the woman is depicted as a cosmic figure, much as the pagans would describe their gods. The 12 stars in her crown remind us of the 12 tribes of Israel. This leads us to a tentative conclusion that is a partial answer, but I think that she represents something more. I believe we should understand her to represent the people of God. I draw that conclusion on the basis of verse 12:17, which mentions “the rest of her offspring.”
Notice the dramatic representation of this woman. She is pregnant and feels the sharp birth pains. Standing before her is the dragon, ready to devour her child. When her son is born, He escapes the dragon through His obedience to death on the cross and the subsequent death and resurrection and ascension to reign on the throne of God. The woman then escapes to the wilderness. In this drama the threat of the dragon ever lurks. We see that this is a “great” dragon—great in size and power and ambition. He sweeps a third of the stars from the sky. He is definitely a threat to be reckoned with. However, he is ever frustrated. He is frustrated because the woman’s son is destined to reign and assumes His heavenly throne, no longer in danger. The woman escapes to the wilderness to be cared for during the 1,260 days. Nothing can touch her because her place was prepared by God. In the middle part of the chapter (12:7-12), we gain more information about the dragon and his conflicts. This forms the backdrop for the final assault of the dragon on the woman and the “rest of her offspring.”
Let us again consider the identity of the woman. In this drama, she is contrasted with the dragon. Eventually, she becomes the one who is pursued by the dragon. However, the centerpiece of the drama is the dragon’s opposition to her child, Jesus Christ. If then we consider this woman to represent the people of God, we see that the dragon has ever opposed them and their chief representatives. He killed Abel, whose blood still cries out to God, but Seth was born to take his place. In the midst of the hum-drum narrative of the earliest people, Enoch is found to have triumphed through God to such a degree that he is translated to heaven. Satan wrecked the human race to the point that they were all destroyed by the flood, except for Noah. He again seduced humanity at Babel. In that same region, in Ur, was born Abraham—raised among pagans. Yet somehow God encountered him and called him out of the mass of humanity. And thus Abraham experienced God’s grace. His descendants would ultimately be the people of God. Yet, they were beaten down and subjugated in Egypt. Eventually, genocide was attempted against them, but in the midst of that genocide, Moses was born and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. He eventually led the Israelites through the Red Sea into the wilderness, away from the Egyptians and their gods which were inspired by the dragon. At Sinai, they became a unique nation on the face of the earth, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Again and again, the dragon sought to destroy that nation. He raised up empire after empire. He also worked his tempting power to destroy them from within. Eventually, this combination worked: their city and Temple were destroyed and they were taken into captivity. However, even this devastation did not wholly destroy them. A remnant survived and eventually the captivity was ended. Although they now would live in a world dominated by the dragon’s successive empires, they were assured by the prophet Daniel that eventually God’s Kingdom will fill the whole earth.
Two of the kingdoms and empires that dominated the scene for the people of God were, first, the Syrians and, then, the Romans. Both of these had been prophesied in Daniel to have characteristics inspired by the dragon and to prefigure the ultimate draconian empire—the kingdom of the Beast/Antichrist. The Syrian Antiochus Epiphanes displayed the spiritual characteristics of the Beast, and the Romans displayed the political and military characteristics.
The people of God always had representatives throughout history, a remnant that could never be destroyed by the dragon. So it was that a teenage peasant girl, engaged to craftsman of humble means, was visited by an archangel. She would take up the cause of the people of God by bearing within her virgin body the Savior of the world. And of course the dragon lurked. His minion this time was the evil King Herod, who did his best to kill the baby, but without success. The child grew to manhood and, as He began His ministry, He lived in an environment dominated by Jewish leaders who were corrupted by the dragon. Thus, the dragon’s strategy of destroy from within was evident once again. Again and again, Jesus escaped their attempts to kill Him. His death would be at the right time and not before.
In a sense, Jesus was now the chief representative of the people of God. The spotlight of God was focused upon Him, for He was to be God’s means of defeating the dragon and saving the human race. (Compare the Servant in Isaiah, which at times refers to Israel and at times refers to the Messiah, who is idealized Israel.) The dragon had waited, but failed to devour the Son. When the Son died, He died under the will of God and for the salvation of humanity. His death was not the dragon’s victory, though he was the inspiration behind the enemies who carried out the crucifixion. Rather, the dragon was “cast out” (John 12:31). So, Jesus was raised from the dead, triumphant, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Now, the people of God carried on. We see them in Acts as they developed into the church. That church begins as a sect of the Jews but eventually becomes largely Gentile in origin. Nevertheless, these Gentiles continue the role of the people of God, “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). It is important to state that I am not advocating what some call “replacement” of Israel by the church. I believe that the Bible teaches a unity of the people of God. So, this woman is certainly Israel, but she is also the church—still serving God and still opposed by the dragon (both from without and from within).
The center of the history of the people of God is the birth of the woman’s Son and His ascension (and all that that implies). The great red dragon has opposed, persecuted, slandered, and corrupted the people of God from the earliest history recorded in the Bible. But God has preserved them and ultimately they will share fully in the victory of the Son.
The flight of the woman into the wilderness is repeated in verse 12:14 in language that is parallel to 12:6b. The 1,260 days corresponds to the “time, times, and dividing of times” (interpreted by most as 3 1/2 years). Note that this time frame is also given in 11:2 (42 months) and 11:3 (1,260 days). I shall discuss the fact of the woman’s shelter in the wilderness and the war on the other offspring of the woman (12:17) in another article.
The implication of verses 12:5-6 is that the dragon’s opposition to the woman and her Son have been and will be totally frustrated. The Son ascends to heaven and the woman finds shelter in the wilderness.
Rist notes “one of those quick shifts in symbolism” in which the woman in verse 12:6 now is the “heavenly personification of the church.” He cites other references to the church as a woman in II Esdras and Hermas. He also refers to Galatians 4:26, which considers the heavenly Jerusalem as our mother. Rist then refers to Revelation 12:17, where Christians are the offspring of the woman. This, he says, supports the idea that “the heavenly mother of the pre-existent Messiah is also the heavenly mother of the Christians, i.e., she is the pre-existent church…” (Rist, 455) He rejects other interpretations of verse 12:6, such as allusions to the wilderness wanderings of Israel or the escape of Christians to Pella from the siege of Jerusalem. He rejects these ideas because “none of these takes into consideration the very evident astral theology which is so conspicuous in this chapter.”
I believe that Rist intertwines two interpretative frameworks in his remarks on this verse. He refers to the “symbolism” of the woman being changed to the personification of the church (see above) and also to the “metaphor” of the church as the bride of Christ. Yet, he declares that he is guided by an understanding that “astral theology” is behind chapter 12. His description of astral theology is not a matter of symbolism. It is a belief system—closely akin to traditional astrology—that “everything occurring on earth has previously happened in heaven…” (Rist, 452) He is adamant that the woman’s giving birth is “not an allegorical depiction of the earthly birth of Jesus to Mary.” (Rist, 452) Yet, he is willing to note the fluid change of symbolism (which commentators note throughout Revelation) as the woman becomes the church. But then he back pedals and calls her the mother of the church. (Rist, 455) The fact is that Rist’s observant eye has noted some shifts in the role of the woman. In fact this shift, I believe is another reason to reject the “astral theology” idea that Rist tries to impose on this passage. I also believe that careful reading should reveal that the woman never quite becomes the New Testament church, strictly speaking. I believe it is more accurate to call her by a more general term, the “people of God.” I believe this applies to her in her role of giving birth as well as in her later flight into the desert.
Morris notes that other commentators refer to the flight of the Christians to Pella during the siege of Jerusalem. He regards that incident as an example of God’s protection, but believes this verse has a “much wider application.” (Morris, 159-160) The point of the verse, for Morris, is that, just as the Son was protected by God from the dragon, so the woman will be protected, though in a different way. He notes that the period of 1,260 days is given in exactly the same way as it is in verse 11:3, which states the period of the ministry of the two witnesses. Therefore, “It is not unlikely that we should link the two. God protects his church during the time of her witness.” (Morris, 159-160)
Ladd has committed himself down a blind alley, and he continues that journey in his commentary on 12:6. “The scene is still heaven…” he maintains. He understands the whole narrative as a symbolic story without reference to historical events. The purpose of the narrative is to depict hostility of the dragon—first to the woman’s child (whom Ladd calls the “Messiah”) and then to the woman. He denies that there is any reference to the escape to Pella. His basis for this denial is that this narrative has no reference to any historical events, including the escape to Pella. The narrative does convey the idea that God protected and preserved the woman as He had her Son. So, the narrative is symbolic and intended to convey protection from Satan. The period of 1,260 days is symbolic of the “period of evil during which Satan tries to frustrate the purposes of God, but particularly the last days of this period…” Ladd had commented in that the woman represents the nation of Israel. I think similar fashion on the mention in verse 11:3 of the same time period. The preservation of the woman is a promise of the preservation of the church even during the worst period of Satanic harassment. (Ladd, 170) I note that Ladd’s observation of a specific time frame (the last days) contradicts his avoidance of a specific reference. That is, the protection of the woman is promised during the last days—the Tribulation period. I think that 12:6 is a preview of the events at the end of the chapter and I shall deal with that material in another article.
Metzger describes the woman as representing the Jewish people of God as well as the Christian people of God. The latter were “persecuted by a political power as evil as the dragon (12:6).” (Metzger, 74) Metzger’s understanding is that the political power is Rome. (Metzger, 75ff) Metzger’s insights into 12:1-6 are helpful in two ways. First, he is able to receive the symbolic images of a woman and dragon in the skies without getting distracted by the fact that they are in the skies. This one feature seems to throw both Rist and Ladd (two commentators with very different perspectives) into speculating about either “astral thinking” (Rist) (a form of astrology) or a sort of gnosticism (Ladd). Second, Metzger recognizes that the condensation of the earthly career of Jesus in verse 12:5 is intended to convey the victory of Jesus over the dragon through His redemptive work and His subsequent ascension to the throne of God. A significant omission by Metzger is the time period of 1,260 days. Of the four commentators only Ladd “gets it” concerning this time period, since he understands the connection of this period to the Tribulation.
SUMMARY OF VERSES 12:1-6
Revelation 12 provides the background for the events that will follow in chapter 13. Various commentators organize the material that begins in chapter 12 in different ways. Some see a new series of seven, but they differ in how to organize the material into such a series. Metzger understands that chapter 12 is the beginning of a restart of the book and that chapter 12 represents a reach back to beginnings to provide background.
The woman of verse 12:1 is seen in the sky, “larger than life.” I understand that this is dramatic imagery that underscores the importance of the woman and the people she symbolizes. It draws on Joseph’s dream and possibly some pagan imagery. Some commentators have exaggerated the dependence on pagan imagery as well as the fact that the woman is depicted as a sign in the sky. Rist understands this passage to represent a form of astrology that he calls “astral thinking.” Ladd considers the depiction of heavenly events to be a parallel spiritual history that has earthly consequences. I consider his line of thinking to border on gnosticism. Morris points out, first, that the woman is an important symbol that contrasts with the great whore, Babylon. Thus, the depiction of the woman is consistent within the context of the book. Second, he points out that the book is thoroughly anti-pagan and that heavy dependence on pagan myths is unlikely.
In verse 12:2 the woman is pregnant and crying out in her birth pains. This statement gives us important background for the action that takes place in 12:4b-5
Morris understands the woman in the travail of childbirth to represent Israel “about to give birth to the Messiah.”
The dragon of verse 3 is frightening because of his size—which his fiery red color accentuates—and his bizarre, unnatural appearance—with seven heads and ten horns. The horns are emblems of his strength. On each of his heads there is a diadem, the crown of royalty. These crowns represent his authority. His features—heads, crowns, and horns—are described with perfect numbers (seven and ten) to remind us that this horrifying being has perfected evil and the hideous. Rist refers to the myths of the ancient world that described similar arch villains, including Hydra of the Greeks and the giant red crocodile of the Egyptians. Morris and Ladd refer to the Old Testament monsters, such as Leviathan, Rahab, and the serpent. Ladd explains that the multiple heads, crowns, and horns communicate the power and authority of the “god of this age” and prepare us for the description of the Antichrist/Beast.
In verse 4a the dragon sweeps a third of the stars from heaven with his tail. I believe that this represents the fall of angels from their original loyalty to God to become associated with the dragon. This is related to description of the warfare in verses 12:7ff.
Rist relates this event to the description of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in Daniel 8. Thus, the pulling down of the stars is, he believes, either a depiction of persecution or of fallen angels in league with Satan. Ladd and Metzger believe that this sweep of a third of the stars out of heaven is simply an expression of the enormous power of the dragon.
The dragon, in verse 4b, stands before the woman, ready to devour her baby as soon as he is born. This scene describes the central motivation of the dragon—to destroy Christ and to undermine His redemptive mission. This motivation explains much that happens in Revelation. Morris considers that this depiction of the hostility of the dragon reminds us that Satan was hostile toward Christ from the beginning. Metzger states that this hatred explains the opposition to Jesus throughout His ministry.
The woman gives birth to a male child in verse 12:5. He is described as the One who is to rule the nations. This description discloses that He is Jesus Christ. He is immediately taken up to the throne of God. This very contracted description of Jesus’ career can be misunderstood as simply depicting His escape from the dragon. On the contrary, I believe it is a statement of Christ’s triumphant defeat of the dragon through His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the throne of God. He does not merely escape the dragon; He defeats him. The commentators vary considerably in their interpretations of this verse and what precedes it. Rist consistently understands that this passage betrays “astral thinking.” Therefore, the verse is, for him, not referring to the earthly life of Jesus, but to a heavenly Messiah, who is born among the stars and transported from one part of heaven to another to escape the dragon. Morris explains the peculiar contraction of the events of Christ’s life as John’s way of keeping the focus on the church, which he believes is the central issue. Thus, the fact that the woman’s Son is protected is evidence that God will also protect the church from the dragon. Ladd denies that the events of 12:4-5 are reflections or symbols of the actual events of Christ’s life. Rather, they are simply symbolic depictions of Christ’s triumph over Satan. Incidentally, this contradicts other statements by Ladd concerning the passage. Metzger’s analysis is very close to my own: he believes that 12:5 condenses the narrative of the triumph of Christ over Satan.
In 12:6, the woman fled into the wilderness to be taken care of. Just as the Son triumphed over the dragon, the woman escaped his reach. The time frame is 1,260 days, which is a time frame that is mentioned several times throughout Revelation and which refers to passages in Daniel. This period, with its characteristic length that is given in days, months, or years, is to be identified with the last days. The escape of the woman is anticipatory of the narrative at the end of the chapter in verses 12:13-17.
When I consider the hints to the identity of the woman throughout the chapter, I conclude that this woman represents the People of God in an ideal sense. The People of God have representatives throughout the Old Testament, including Abel, Seth, Enoch, and Noah. They were especially identified as the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. It was to these people that Jesus Christ was born—symbolized by the birth of the male child to the woman. However, even after the triumph of Christ and His elevation to the throne of God, the woman remains in focus in chapter 12. This focus carries through to verse 17, where her other offspring are described in Christian terms. Because the people of God are not limited to the Hebrew race in this chapter, it seems reasonable to broaden the concept to include all the people of God, including the church. This is not a “replacement theology,” but a concept of the unity of the people of God. Rist’s interpretation of the woman, as she is depicted in 12:6 and in 12:13-17, is a confused mixture of his insistence that “astral thinking” is guiding John plus sound observation of the woman’s role as Israel, as the mother of the church, and as the church itself. The latter movement of identity is due to what he calls “fluid” symbolism. Morris believes that verse 12:6 is a statement of God’s protection of the church. He refers to other commentators who believe that the escape is a reference to the escape of Christians to Pella during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. However, he believes that the verse is referring to the general principle of God’s protection of the church. He connects the 1,260 days of this verse to the same terminology in 11:3, and he concludes that this time frame terminology is symbolic of the church’s witness. Therefore, God protects the church in her time of witness. Ladd is reluctant to tie the narrative of 12:6 to any specific historical (or future historical) event, including the escape to Pella. Instead the escape of the woman is symbolic of the hostility of the dragon. The 1,260 days represents the very worst period of Satan’s hostility. So, the church can be assured of God’s protection from Satan during the Tribulation period. Ladd’s aversion to interpreting the narrative in chapter 12 to specifics, either in the past or the future, lead him into interpretative traps.
The commentators’ remarks on these verses display a variety of interpretations. Rist understands this passage to come out of “astral thinking,” which is a form of astrology that believes things happen in heaven before they happen on earth. Although he uses the term “astral” in his commentary on the verses, he uses “astrology” in his introduction. (Rist, 358) Morris approaches these verses in a way that is consistent with his approach to the whole book. He recognizes the various approaches to Revelation that have been used through the centuries and acknowledges that elements of more than one viewpoint is needed. He believes that one must always keep in mind the churches to which the book is addressed. (Morris, 18) In general, he recognizes that this is a book inspired by the Holy Spirit that relates actual visions that John experienced. Ladd departs somewhat from his usual careful exegesis in his comments on this passage. His interpretation is similar to that of Rist without labeling it “astral” or “astrological.” Nevertheless, he understands this heavenly drama is a “representation of the struggle in the spiritual world which lies behind history.” (Ladd,166) I do not totally disagree with him—the passage that follows, verses 12:7-12, does describe spiritual warfare. My concern is that one can be carried away with this approach to the point of neglecting the real-world events that, I believe, are being referred to in verses 12:1-6. Metzger considers that the “heavenly tableau” of these verses is a “flashback” that John employs as he “begins [the book] all over again.” He does this in order to introduce additional material beyond what is in the first eleven chapters. Metzger recognizes that John may have used sources from various pagan mythologies and astrologies, but has used them for his own purpose to communicate to the church of his day. (Metzger, 72)
The first six verses of Revelation 12 describe two “great signs.” One is a woman who is about to give birth. She is, I believe, a symbol of the people of God—both in their Old Testament and New Testament manifestations, especially Israel and the church. The other sign is a great red dragon who is obviously Satan. Satan stands ready to devour the woman’s child. The child is born and rises triumphantly to the throne of God. This is a very compact description of the career of Jesus Christ, who was victorious over Satan through His death on the cross and now reigns supreme on the heavenly throne of His Father. The woman flees into the desert to be cared for and protected from Satan. This final narrative anticipates the action of the end of the chapter. The entire passage describes the hatred and bitter opposition of Satan to the people of God and to their chief leader and Lord, Jesus Christ. Despite his efforts, Satan is ever frustrated in his attempts to destroy Christ and the people of God.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code. Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 20. R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed.
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Newman, Barclay M., Jr. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies,
Rist, Martin. “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII. Nolan B. Harmon, Ed.
New York: Abingdon Press, 1957.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 2002
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