1 And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 And she was pregnant, and she cried out, suffering greatly and in agony to give birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven, and behold a great fiery dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and upon its heads seven diadems, 4 and its tail drags [down] a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, so that when she gives birth, it might devour her child. 5 And she gave birth to a child, a male, who is about to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. And her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has there a place prepared by God, in order that there they might feed her [or “she might be fed”] for 1,260 days.
In chapter 12, John sees a vision of a battle between a woman and her offspring, and a fiery, or red, dragon. In order to unpack this vision, we need to start with some fundamental questions:
- Who is the woman? Is her offspring who is seems to be (i.e., Jesus)? Is she Mary? If so, what’s the significance of the sun, moon, and stars, and the birth pangs? If not, then who else could it be?
- What does the dragon represent?
- What does all this mean in relation to the rest of Revelation?
We began, however, with a reminder about the chronology of Revelation, i.e., there really isn’t one. Sure, we get the idea that the ends of chapter 6 and chapter 11 are at the very end of time, but beyond that, we can’t be certain when anything happens. Nor can we assume that because one vision follows another sequentially, that they also follow each other chronologically. Such is evident by the fact that chapter 11, depicting the Christ’s final return, is followed by chapter 12, where Christ clearly has not yet returned (as we will see).
John describes the woman as being clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and she has a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is also pregnant, about to give birth. This child is male, and will shepherd, or rule, the nations with a rod of iron. Clearly this child is someone the nations ought to fear, and the dragon definitely fears–enough to want the child dead. This “great dragon” is fiery (or “red”), with seven heads and 10 horns. I interpret the seven diadems on the seven heads to mean a diadem on each head, not seven diadems on each head. This dragon swipes down one third of the stars with his tail.
It seems quite obvious by the description of the child that this male offspring is supposed to Jesus. Indeed, the ruling with “a rod of iron” is a direct reference to Psalm 2:7-9, a Messianic psalm. Given who the dragon is (see verse 9, and below), it’s not surprising that he would want to destroy this child as soon as he is born. However, he is snatched up to God and His throne. This is a reference to Christ’s ascension and exaltation (as in Philippians 2:9). Verse 5, therefore, gives us the ministry of Jesus in a single verse, starting with his birth, and ending with his being raised to the Father.
If the child is Jesus, doesn’t that make a strong case for the woman being Mary, his mother? This view is held by the Roman Catholic Church, and while it has the appeal of fitting the physical reality of Jesus’s birth, it doesn’t fit the symbolism. First, she is clothed with the sun, has the moon at her feet, and is crowned with twelve stars. One place in the Old Testament where these symbols all come together is in Genesis 37:9-10, where Joseph dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him (presumably the twelfth star). In Joseph’s dream, the sun and moon are his mother and father, and the twelve stars are the twelve sons, who went on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. If we look back also at Revelation 1:16, Jesus has seven stars in his right hand. Verse 20 explains that these stars are the angels of the seven churches to whom John will write. Those angels represent the churches. If we take these symbols together, they seem to point more to the woman being God’s people, Israel in the Old Testament, and the church (i.e., Old and New Covenant believers) in the New Testament and beyond.
If the woman is the church, or God’s people, in what sense does she “give birth” to Jesus? In the sense that the Messiah was born out of Israel, of David’s line. And the woman’s suffering in childbirth speaks to the suffering of God’s people in the years leading up to the Messiah’s birth, under oppression from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and then Rome (see Micah 5:2-4 for an interesting parallel to what John describes here). The woman’s flight into the wilderness mirrors Israel’s escape into the wilderness in the Exodus, after crossing the Red Sea. In Scripture, the wilderness is a place both of temptation, or testing, and of deliverance. Israel encountered many trials in their wilderness wanderings, but during that time they were fed and protected by God. Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and he was sustained by his Father (Matthew 4:1-11). David escaped to the wilderness when pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 23:15 ff.). Elijah also fled from Jezebel in the wilderness, and the Lord was with him (1 Kings 19:1-8).
What of the “place” prepared by God? The big giveaway here is the number of days the woman is nourished in this place: 1,260. This is the same number of days the witnesses prophesied in chapter 11. We determined from the symbolism surrounding them that the witnesses represented the church, which we had just seen as the temple. The inner court of the temple was “measured” (i.e., protected by God), meaning that the church spiritually is secure, though physically (the unmeasured outer court) the church will suffer–just as the witnesses did. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2-3). This “place” is, therefore, representative of God’s spiritual protection. The dragon wanted to destroy the church spiritually, but God preserves His people, and will continue to preserve them until Christ returns for his bride.
We already noted that the dragon is Satan, Diabolos–or the devil–the “ancient serpent.” We will see the serpent referred to later in the chapter, so it is well to note here that the dragon and the serpent are the same thing: Satan. The dragon has seven heads and wears seven crowns. Seven is the number of completeness, and the diadem is a crown indicating rule and authority. (The head can indicate something similar, which is why I think the heads and the crowns share the same symbolism and should be considered together.) This dragon has complete rule on earth, perhaps mediated through earthly kings or rulers. His red, or fiery coloring puts us in mind of the red horse in 6:4, whose rider takes peace from the earth, setting men against one another. Red is also the color of blood, and symbolic of oppression and violence. There are ten horns on the dragon, which represent power. In his vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God in chapter 5, the Lamb had seven horns (5:6). We also see similar imagery in Daniel 7:7 and 20. This passage in Daniel is important for Revelation 12, and we’ll be coming back to it later.
The dragon’s tail drags down, or sweeps away, one third of the stars. If the stars represent the church, then does this mean one third of the church will become apostate? Is this saying there will be a large number of believers who fall away because of Satan’s influence and power? This seems a very plausible interpretation, however it flies in the face of everything we’ve said about the church in the preceding verses. These “stars” are God’s people, the true church, those who are saved and spiritually protected by Him. If we’re now saying God will fail to protect one third of them, then either our interpretation of verses 1-3, and 5-6 is incorrect, or that’s not what John is saying about that one third of the church. Naturally, I’m inclined to think the interpretation of John’s vision thus far holds together, so there must be another way to see this “swiping down” of one third of the stars.
I think that way is to remember God never promised the church physical protection. While He will preserve His people from ever falling away, there will be many in the church who will suffer physical persecution, even unto death, at the hand of Satan and his proxies on earth. It’s possible the reference here is to the suffering of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah, since Jesus’s birth comes after the swiping of the stars. Daniel 8:10 speaks of a horn that grew to great power such that it threw down some of the stars and trampled on them. That could be seen as a reference to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose persecution of the Jews led to the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC. However, we need not be limited to a specific time frame since this is a vision. Whether speaking of Old Testament or New Testament believers (or both), this is a reference to the suffering of God’s elect, His church, due to persecution and Satanic oppression. We’ve seen “one third” used a couple of times already. One third of the earth and the trees were burned up in the first trumpet (8:7), and a third of mankind was killed by the four angels in 8:15. The point is that the disaster doesn’t fall upon the whole, but upon a large portion of the whole. Likewise, Satan will cause physical harm to a large number of God’s people, but not all.
Yes, there will be those within the church (and even entire churches) that will show themselves to be not truly of the Lord by falling away (1 John 2:19). Some of the churches addressed in the seven letters of chapters 2 and 3 seem to have such people in their midst. And, indeed, we’ve all known people that used to sit beside us in church who are no longer following the Lord. They went out from us because they were not really part of us. But the people John is talking about here in Revelation are those who are truly the Lord’s, and yet suffer for His name’s sake. To those, as to all Christians, are the promises of eternal life, security in Christ, and the glory that is to come.
Lord willing, we’ll continue next time with 12:7-12.