X Close Menu

War in Heaven, War on Earth: A Study in Revelation 12 - Part I

Having described the seven trumpet judgments, but before explaining the seven bowls, John inserts three parenthetical chapters (12-14). The purpose of chapter 12 is to provide us with a deeper perspective on the spiritual conflict between the world and the church. It develops, interprets, and expands on a number of the principles already articulated in chapters 1-11. At the heart of its message is that, although Satan is the principal source of the persecution of God’s people, he has been decisively defeated by Christ, a victory in which we now share even in the midst of suffering and martyrdom.

The chapter consists of three scenes: vv. 1-6, vv. 7-12, and vv. 13-17. The first and third of these each portrays the conflict between Satan and God’s people together with the sovereign spiritual protection of the latter. The middle section “provides the central interpretation and theological underpinning of the first and third” (Beale, 624).

Chapter 12 also introduces a new series of visions which end at 15:4. Many commentators have discerned seven sections within these chapters by noting the repeated introductory vision formula “and I saw” or “and behold”. The seven sections are:

(1)the conflict of the dragon/serpent (Satan) with the Woman and her seed (12:1-17);

(2)persecution of the church by the sea-beast (13:1-10);

(3)persecution of the church by the land-beast (13:11-18);

(4)the 144,000 standing with the Lamb on Mt. Zion (14:1-5);

(5)the proclamation of the gospel and of judgment by three angels (14:6-13);

(6)the Son of Man’s great harvest of the earth (14:14-20);

(7)the victory of the saints over the beast and the song of Moses (15:2-4).

A.The Woman, her Child, and the Dragon (12:1-6)

There are numerous accounts in ancient literature of a usurper appointed to die at the hand of a yet unborn prince who plots to gain control of the throne by killing the child at birth. One of the more famous myths concerns the birth of Apollo (son of Zeus). As his mother, the goddess Leto, reached the time of delivery, the dragon Python sought to kill them both. With the aid of winds sent by Zeus, Leto fled to the island of Delos where she safely gave birth to Apollo who only four days later found Python at Parnassus and killed him. A similar myth emerged in Egypt concerning “Set the dragon who pursues Isis, the pregnant mother of Horus. When the child is grown, he too kills the dragon” (Johnson, 116). These stories, notes Johnson, “were living myths in the first century and were probably known to both John and his Asian readers” (116). However, this is not to suggest that John drew from them to tell the story of the conflict between Satan and the Christ child.

vv. 1-2

A “sign” (cf. 12:3; 15:1 for semeion in the singular; 13:13,14; 16:14; 19:20 in the plural, all the latter in reference to false miracles performed by the beast, the false prophet, or demonic spirits) appears to John in the same “heaven” he had been viewing in 11:19, “which is the otherworldly dimension in which he receives all of his visions” (Beale, 625). The task before us is to determine who the “woman” is who constitutes the focus of this chapter.

(1) A few have argued that the woman is Eve, whose offspring was to be the serpent’s great enemy (Gen. 3:15).

(2) Roman Catholic commentators, as expected, have generally argued that the woman symbolizes Mary, the literal birth mother of Jesus. This view did not arise until well into the 6th century a.d. Not all contemporary RC scholars embrace this view. As Keener notes, “one may also doubt that Mary was specifically persecuted after Christ’s enthronement, requiring protection for 1,260 days” (314).

(3) Various cults have claimed that the woman is one of their own number (the Christian Scientists insist that the woman is Mary Baker Eddy, the child = her unique doctrinal teachings, and the dragon = the modern mind that disdains and seeks to destroy her influence!).

(4) Some have identified her with the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem of Rev. 19:7-8; 21:9-10.

(5) Others have said she is exclusively OT Israel (see Walvoord, p. 188).

(6) Still others argue that she is exclusively the NT Church.

(7) The most probable interpretation is that the woman symbolizes what we might call the believing messianic community: both OT Israel and NT Church. Later in the chapter we read that when the woman is persecuted she flees into the wilderness and has other children who are described as faithful Christians. In other words, the woman is both the community of faith that produced the Messiah and the community of faith that subsequently follows and obeys him. John clearly envisioned an organic and spiritual continuity between OT Israel and the Church. They are one body of believers.

  In the OT a woman often represents Israel (see Isa. 52:2; 54:1-6; 61:10; 62:1-5,11; 66:7-13). This imagery is also used of the Church in the NT (see 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:31-32; 2 John 1; cf. Rev. 21:2,9; 22:17). The imagery of a woman in the pains of childbirth is also a common one in the Bible, and is used often of Israel in distress. See Isa. 21:3; 26:17-18; 37:3; 51:2-3; 54:1-3; 65:9,23; cf. 66:10 and 22; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; Micah 4:9). Isa. 66:7 is especially vivid, for there we find the metaphor of Israel bearing a child to indicate the arrival of the period of salvation and restoration.

Some have pointed to the fact that in certain Jewish writings the 12 signs of the zodiac represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps this was to suggest that Israel on earth had a heavenly identity of some sort. Aune points out that “the zodiac appears on a number of mosaic floors of Jewish synagogues in late antiquity” (2:681). Others contend that the “sun”, “moon” and crown of “twelve stars” appear to be an echo of Jacob, his wife, and the eleven tribes of Israel who bow down to Joseph, the twelfth, as found in the latter’s dream in Gen. 37:9. In other ancient Jewish writings Abraham, Sarah, and their progeny are symbolized by the sun, moon, and stars respectively. At minimum, the 12 stars would seem to stand both for the 12 tribes of Israel and the reconstitution and continuation of true Israel in the 12 apostles of the church.

The woman is pregnant and suffering birth pangs. On the one hand, this represents the longing expectation and anticipation of the Messiah’s birth on the part of those in the OT community of faith (cf. Luke 2:25-38). But it is also a symbolic reference to the persecution of the covenant community and the messianic line during the period of the OT leading up to Christ’s coming.

That persecution is in view is evident from the word translated “in pain” (basanizo). This term is used in the NT of suffering, punishment, trial, and persecution (Matthew 8:6,29; 14:24; Mark 5:7; 6:48; Luke 8:28; 2 Peter 2:8) and in Revelation of torment inflicted by demons (9:5) or by God (11:10; 14:10; 20:10). As Beale points out, “the idea of persecution is also highlighted by the fact that basanizo is not attested anywhere in biblical or extra-biblical literature with reference to a woman suffering birth pains” (629). Caird brings together both ideas when he says that “the agony of her labour is the suffering endured by the loyal people of God as they waited for their anointed king” (149).

v. 3

John then sees yet another “sign” in heaven: a great red dragon with seven heads, seven diadems, and ten horns. The word “dragon” (drakon
) is used in the OT (LXX) for the evil sea monster that symbolizes kingdoms that oppose and oppress Israel (especially Egypt and Pharaoh). See especially Pss. 74:13-14; 89:10; Isa. 30:7; 51:9; Ezek. 29:3 (where Pharaoh is called “the great dragon”); 32:2-3; Hab. 3:8-15.

But the “dragon” in Rev. 12 is more than an evil kingdom(s). It also stands for Satan, the one who both represents and energizes all individual and corporate opposition to the kingdom and persecution of the people of God (see 12:9; 20:2,10).

More has been said about the 7 heads and 7 diadems and 10 horns in my studies of chapters 13 and 17. Be it noted, however, that the sea-beast in chp. 13 also has seven heads and ten horns, only his diadems are on the latter rather than the former. At minimum this indicates “that the devil performs his oppressive will against the church and world through his kingly representatives on earth” (Beale, 634). That there are “7” heads and “10” horns probably should not be pressed (after all, how do you distribute 10 horns onto only 7 heads?), except to indicate and emphasize the fullness of his oppressive power. The diadems or crowns probably point to the earthly kings and rulers through whom the devil works. Although it may be tempting to find specific meaning and historical referents for each head, horn, and crown, Alan Johnson is probably correct in saying that this is simply “a picture of the fullness of evil in all its hideous strength” (119).

v. 4

The picture of the dragon sweeping away one-third of the stars of heaven is probably taken from Daniel 8:10. There we read of a “little horn” that “grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, and it trampled them down.”

The “little horn” is clearly a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes IV, eighth ruler in the Seleucid line, 175-164 b.c. (he died in 163).

The best description of the rule of Antiochus and his oppression and persecution of the Jews is provided in the apocryphal work of 1 and 2 Maccabees (esp. the former; see the Preface, 1:10-15,20-24,29-35,41-50,54-64 (cf. 2 Macc. 6:1-6 and all of 7); 4:36-59; 6:5-16.

In view of the statement in Daniel 8:24, most likely the reference to the “host” and the “stars” in 8:10 is a symbolic allusion to the people of God as shining lights or glorious ones. Some contend that only the priesthood is in view. In any case, “an attack on the Jerusalem temple, the people of Israel, and the priesthood is presupposed to be implicitly an attack on the God worshiped there and on his supernatural associates who identify with Israel [in particular, Michael and his angelic hosts]” (Goldingay, 210). Antiochus’s persecution of the Jews began in 171 b.c. with the assassination of the high priest Onias III and ended in 163 b.c. with the death of Antiochus himself. The “prince” of v. 11 (“commander” in NASB) has been taken as a reference either to Onias or, more likely, God. In 167 b.c. Antiochus ordered that all ceremonial observances to Yahweh were forbidden. The “place of His sanctuary” may refer to Jerusalem, but more likely is the temple itself.

The phrase “on account of transgression” (or, “because of rebellion”) in Daniel 8:12 has been taken in one of two ways. Some say it refers to the sins of the Jewish people themselves who abandoned God for the ways of their Greek captors and thus incurred divine judgment (cf. 1 Macc. 1:11-15,43). Others insist it refers to the sins committed by Antiochus against the Jews.

The point of this is that the “stars of heaven” in Rev. 12:4 which Satan throws to the earth are probably not those in the angelic host who fall with him in a primordial rebellion and subsequently constitute the demonic hosts of which we read in both the OT and NT. Thus the “stars” of v. 4 are not to be identified with the dragon’s “angels” in vv. 7-8. Rev. 12:4 is probably describing the persecution by Satan of God’s people, perhaps even their martyrdom.

In addition to the background in Dan. 8:10, two other facts support the view that Rev. 12:4 is not talking about the rebellion of formerly holy angels. First, the time of 12:4 is immediately before the birth of Jesus, whereas most believe that the angelic rebellion occurred prior to creation, or at least no later than the events of Genesis 6. Second, Beale makes this important point:

“The observation that the ‘tails’ of Satan’s demons afflict people on earth in Rev. 9:10 and 9:19 also points to the idea that the tail of the dragon here is afflicting people and not merely or primarily angels. This is confirmed further by the close relation of 12:4 to 12:1. The portrayal of the stars in v. 4 must have a close relationship with the ‘twelve stars’ only three verses earlier. The falling stars must symbolize an attack on Israel, since the twelve stars in v. 1 represent the heavenly identification of the true Israel . . . . Though ultimately protected . . . genuine Israel, nevertheless, will still suffer Satanic attack” (637)

That a “third” of the stars are thrown down reminds us of the earlier references to a “third” of earth, trees, the sea and its creatures, the rivers, and the heavenly luminaries being affected by divine judgment. In each case it refers to a relative fraction of the total or a significant minority, always short of complete destruction.

I should also briefly mention another interpretation of the “stars” in v. 4. Some have suggested the “falling” of these “stars” refers to the deceived in Israel who apostatize from the faith and were therefore never fully identified with the 12 stars of v. 1.

The second half of 12:4 points to Satan’s determination to kill Jesus upon his birth. Although Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Matthew 2:1-18 is surely in view, so too are the events of Luke 4:28-30 and perhaps the countless times during his earthly ministry that Satan attempted to thwart Jesus’ work. The cross itself is also very much in view (although not explicitly mentioned in Rev. 12:4).

v. 5

Here we have a synopsis or snapshot of Christ’s entire life. Such abbreviations are not uncommon in the NT (cf. John 3:13; 8:14; 13:3; 16:5,28; Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Tim. 3:16; see also Rev. 1:5,17-18; 2:8). The deliverance in v. 5b is not protection from death but resurrection and ascension. The allusion to the prophecy of Ps. 2:7-9 indicates that whereas this will be consummated at the end of the age (see Rev. 19:15), an inaugurated fulfillment has already begun (see Rev. 2:26-28). Jesus has “already” received the authority spoken of in the Psalm but has “not yet” manifested that authority in its fullness.

In the ancient near east, the birthday of a king was not the beginning of his physical existence but the day of his accession to the throne and the taking of regal power. Thus the day on which the “Son” is “begotten” is the resurrection, the day of his glorification and subsequent exaltation to the right hand of the majesty on high (see Acts 13:33)

v. 6

Some, mostly preterists, have taken this as a literal, physical escape of Christians to Pella (modern Tabaqat Fahil, 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee) as they fled the Roman seige of Jerusalem in 66 a.d., a view that is obviously only as good as the argument for a pre-70 a.d. authorship of the book.

Whereas the woman in v. 1 was primarily the covenant community of believers prior to the incarnation of Jesus, the woman in v. 6 is the covenant community of believers subsequent to his resurrection. But it is the same, one people of God, the one olive tree, predominantly Jewish in v. 1 (in its OT manifestation) and a glorious, universal mixture in v. 2 (in its NT manifestation).

Dispensational pretribulational premillennialists, i.e., those who hold to an exclusively futurist interpretation of the book, contend that whereas v. 5 speaks of events in the first century, v. 6 speaks of events at the end of the age. I agree with Beale that “such a temporal hiatus can be read into the text only by a prior end-time scheme that an interpreter brings to the text” (642; emphasis mine).

The imagery of the woman’s flight into the wilderness in both v. 6 and v. 14 is clearly based on and alludes to Israel’s exodus from Egypt in the OT. On this see especially Exod. 16:32; Deut. 2:7; 8:3,15-16; 29:5; 32:10; Joshua 24:7; Neh. 9:19,21; Pss. 78:5,15,19; 136:16; Hosea 13:5. Indeed, “the two wings of the great eagle” (v. 14) clearly alludes to Exod. 19:4 (“I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself”), as well as Deut. 1:31-33 and 32:10-12. The imagery of finding protection beneath God’s “wings” is well-attested in the OT (see Pss. 17:8ff.; 36:7-8; 63:1-2,7; 91:4,11-13; 57:1; 61:4; 55:3,6-8,12-15,21-22. Also see Isa. 40:31 “which predicts that in the future Israel ‘will mount up with wings like eagles’ in the process of returning through ‘the wilderness’ (Isa. 40:3) to their land in the second exodus from Babylon” (Beale, 670).

Steven Gregg mentions Hal Lindsey’s futuristic interpretation of v. 14 and “the two wings of the great eagle.” Says Lindsey: “Some kind of massive airlift will rapidly transport these fleeing Jews across the rugged terrain to their place of protection. Since the eagle is the national symbol of the United States, it’s possible that the airlift will be made available by aircraft from the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean” (179; !!!). Says Keener, “fortunately for both Lindsey and other Americans, Ben Franklin failed in his attempt to make the national bird a turkey” (329)!

In the OT the “wilderness” or “desert” often pointed to an uninhabitable place of evil and judgment (see Lev. 16:10; Isa. 13:20-22; 34:10-15; Jer. 9:10-12; 12:10-12; 50:39-40; Lam. 4:19; Ezek. 6:14; 29:5; etc.). On the other hand, Israel’s end-time restoration is often described in terms of yet another exodus or deliverance out of the sinful conditions and oppression of the world and her pagan enemies and into the protective place in the “wilderness” prepared for her by God where she would be nourished and sustained. See Isa. 32:15; 35:1; 40:3; 41:18; 43:19-20; 51:3; Jer. 31:2; Ezek. 34:25; Hos. 2:14-15.

The point of all this is that the protective deliverance and nourishment provided by God on behalf of his people, the church, during this present age in which Satan seeks her destruction is likened by John unto yet another, indeed, consummate exodus. The protection is not necessarily physical, for many will suffer martyrdom. Rather, like Rev. 11:1-2 it is a spiritual preservation in the midst of terrible trial and tribulation instigated by the dragon/devil and those on earth through whom he works.

For arguments why the “1,260 days” = the entire inter-advent age, and not some chronologically precise 3 ½ year period at the end of history, see the first of the two studies on Revelation 11.

To be continued . . .