Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 12
The Woman Clothed with the Sun
The source of the story below of the woman, her baby, and the dragon is clearly rooted in pagan mythology. Almost universally ancient cultures of this region contained stories of a woman giving birth to a son who would fight dragon that had either disposed or killed the ruling god. Greece had Leto, Apollo, and Python; Babylonia had Marduk and Tiamat; in Egypt there were Isis, Horus, and Typhon. The striking similarities with all these stories show that John was intentionally drawing on this material and one may assume that his original audience knew this. John uses these myths to teach about Christ. Christ becomes the fulfillment of accepted universal truths, the archetype of all myths. This chapter also undermines Domitian’s claim that he was the incarnation of Apollo, i.e., the fulfillment of the myth. Christ alone has the power to triumph and therefore he alone is worthy of our praise and worship.
- 1And there appeared a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.
Commentary: Many have speculated as to the identity of this women, but her precise identity is unknown because John does not name her. Many scholars have understood the woman to be a symbolic representation of Israel, from whom the messiah is born (see v. 5). Others, particularly the Roman Catholic scholars, have suggested that the woman is actually Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The problem with thinking of the woman as Mary is that in versus 17 we will hear "...the rest of her offspring..." Still others propose that the woman represents the Church. The woman symbolizing the church would be a logical guess if "the rest of her offspring" is referring to believers. The sun with which she is clothed could represent God, while the moon could represent the people of God. The twelve stars may refer to the twelve tribes of Israel or the constellations (more specifically, the 12 signs of the zodiac). It is interesting to note that numerous elements of her description are characteristic of several ancient goddesses.The woman could be a symbol for the destiny of the whole world, if you conclude the notion that star's control our fate.
The Greek word "ouranos" is translated here as "heaven," but it can also be understood as "sky." Scholars have debated as to which interpretation is more fitting.
- 2And she being with child cried out, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
Commentary: If the woman represents Israel, the child represents the Church, which was the offspring of Israel. (This will become clearer as the chapter progresses.) Christianity began as a Jewish sect until it came of age, so to speak, and established itself as a separate religion, as described in the Book of Acts. There are a number of other passages in Revelation that describe or refer to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, which was in many ways still emerging. For example, in Revelation 7 there are the 144,000 that come from the twelve tribes of Israel that are joined by an innumerable multitude, which symbolizes Christianity being extended out beyond Judaism, which is an exclusive religion. That Christianity is shown here as the child of Judaism shows that although Christianity was coming into its independence, it still felt a very strong connection to Judaism. In fact, at the time of the writing of Revelation, many Christians of Jewish origin would still think of themselves as Jewish, not Christian. That distinction did not occur immediately, but happened over the first hundred years of Christianity.
- 3And there appeared another wonder in heaven: a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
Commentary: The "dragon" is identified in Verse 9 as Satan. The dragon, the beast from the sea of chapter 13 (generally identified with the Antichrist), and the Babylon of chapter 17 are all described as having seven heads and ten horns, which implies that the three are connected. It may be that Satan is the spiritual driving force, the Antichrist is the emperor, and Babylon is the political-religious empire over which he has power.
- 4And his tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth to devour her child as soon as it was born.
Commentary: The tail drawing 1/3 of the stars of heaven demonstrates the supernatural power of the dragon. "A third of the stars of heaven" may be those angels who followed Satan in his rebellion against God. Having been expelled from heaven, they have made their home on Earth. The dragon (Satan) stands before the woman who is giving birth (Israel) to destroy her child (the Church). As the Church was going through the stages of birth and growth on its way to eventual independence from its mother (Israel), the forces of evil sought to destroy it, as recorded in the Gospels and Acts. The reason to kill this child is not stated. Why is he waiting until the child is given life on earth? Why does the dragon just want the child? There is a parallel with Herod the Great's attempt to destroy Christ at his coming by having all the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered (Mt 2). Perhaps this is alluding to the dragon (Satan) seeking to destroy the seed of the woman who will eventually destroy him (Gen 3: 15 & Rom. 16:20).The dragon in chapter 12 represents the devil. In verse 4 the dragon is waiting for the woman (who represents the Church of Zion) to have her child, so he may kill it. This being said, means that even Christians are not free from the evil acts of the devil. They will be tortured, but the devil cannot stop them from having eternal salvation through Christ. The Lord protects His church.
- 5And she brought forth a male child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron, and her child was caught up to God and to his throne. 6And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there 1,260 days.
Commentary: The male child, who is Jesus Christ, is to rule all of the nations as mentioned in the verse, showing that he is the Messiah. He is to rule with a rod of iron, which suggest strict rule with no room for acting out. The Christian countries of the world did, in fact, eventually rule most of the globe "with a rod of iron" during the European colonial period. Israel's escape to the wilderness for 1,260 days (3½ years) may be in response to a terrible persecution which takes place after the “rapture” of the Church, which is “caught up to God and to his throne.” The place that is prepared by God for the woman who fled could potentially symbolize Jesus Christ taking rule over the people. With regard to the 1,260 day time period (3½ years), see note on 13:4-6 .
This passage is used in support of a midtribulation rapture because the woman's child is "caught up to God and to his throne" at this point, immediately after the seventh trumpet. Earlier in the New Testament, Paul writes:
- “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52).
If we equate Paul’s “last trumpet” with the last trumpet of Revelation, then the resurrection and the rapture would be in the middle of the tribulation, after the seal and trumpet judgments, but before the bowl judgments. Nevertheless, there are also arguments for a pretribulation rapture and a posttribulation rapture.
There is a limited parallel, begun in the previous verse, with Herod’s efforts to kill the infant Christ and the escape of Joseph and Mary to Egypt with him (Mt 2). The child being caught up could be referring to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He is going from his earthly figure to the Son of God with even more incredible power.
Satan Is Cast Down to the Earth
- 7And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought, 8but prevailed not, nor was their place found anymore in heaven.
Commentary: Although angels play a highly visible part throughout Revelation, Michael is the only one mentioned by name (12:7). He is given the considerable responsibility of expelling Satan and his demonic armies from heaven. He is first mentioned in the Bible in a vision of Daniel, where another angel refers to him as “one of the chief princes” (Dan 10:13). Even then, he was involved in the battle against the forces of evil in the heavenly realms, for the other angel tells of how Michael came to his aid against the angels of Persia and Greece, saying, “No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince” (Dan 10:21). In a further mention of Michael in Daniel, we find out that he is the protector of Israel, for in a passage about the end times, the angel tells Daniel, “At that time, Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise” (Dan 12:1). We hear of him again in the New Testament epistle of Jude, which shows that he was active in Moses’ time also. Jude writes, “Even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (Jude 9).
- 9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world. He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
Commentary: This is another representation of Satan as the Fallen One and the Great Deceiver and its hosts. This is also the beginning of the fall of Satan, which starts here with Satan falling from heaven to earth, then from earth to the abyss (20.2), and from the abyss into the lake of fire (20.10). This can also be seen as a mirror of Christ rising to heaven after his death. Since Christ relieved the people of the world from sin, it is logical that Satan would no longer have a place in heaven since he was an accuser of the people of God of sin. On the other hand, Satan's expulsion from Heaven, and his banishment to earth, could also be indicative of the beginning of the God's judgment, through trials and tests of his people.
- 10And I heard a loud voice in heaven saying, “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ, for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, who accused them before our God day and night.”
Commentary: Without the divisive energies of Satan and his angels, heaven gains in strength and unity. This transfer from heaven to Earth is the first of three downward steps for Satan. The second is into the Abyss (Rev 20:1-3). The third is into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:10).
In this verse "our bretheren" may refer to the martyrs already killed. The accuser, of course, represents Satan. Witherington places then the casting down of Satan to earth at the point of Christ's death, when his full power was revealed. Koester imagines Satan now as a creature on the run, banished from heaven and corralled on earth to vent and rage. Satan's rampage on earth, then, can be perceived as his last hurrah and a signal that he is near defeat.
- 11And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives to the death.
Commentary: By giving his life as an atoning sacrifice, Christ has foiled Satan's attempt to lead the people of the Earth to their destruction. Their faith in Christ and their love for truth have saved them. A loud voice comes from Heaven announcing that it is time for the power of the Kingdom of God. This passage says that those who overcame Satan did so because Jesus shed his own blood for the sake of man. The people who overcame Satan died for their faith in Jesus, which cost them their natural lives. Thus, they are modern martyrs
- 12Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea, for the devil is come down to you having great wrath, because he knows that he has but a short time.
Commentary: Satan is angry at his defeat by the powers of heaven. This is bad news for the Earth, which will suffer the brunt of his anger, but we may take comfort in the fact that his days are numbered. Satan will use his dark angels to destroy all of mankind left on earth. He will do this even though he knows that Jesus will return to earth with his Angels. This verse really shows the darkness of Revelation and how terrifying the final judgement days will be.
Satan Persecutes the Woman
- 13And when the dragon saw that he was cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the male child.
Commentary:The dragon being put on earth shows that Satan was cast out of heaven. The woman could represent Israel, Virgin Mary, or the church. As the woman is the first of Satan’s persecution, this mirrors that the woman is the first of creation to fall into sin in the Garden of Eden.
An alternative view is that Satan is persecuting the woman (Israel) so that God's people will be exterminated and His promise to the descendants of Abraham will not be fulfilled.
It could be a fulfillment of a prophesy in Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between you and the woman..." Because prophesized the woman and the serpent to have an enmity between them and their offsprings...
- 14And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
Commentary: Once again, we see the flight into the wilderness. The "two wings of a great eagle" may be a first-century description of modern aircraft. The "place where she is nourished" may be a country that offers her a safe haven. The time period described in v5-7 above as 1,260 days is here called a "time" (one year), and times (two years), and half a time (six months), but is still the same three-and-a-half year period.
The two wings could also be viewed as two prophets sent to carry Israel and her people away in a great Exodus.
- 15And the serpent cast water out of his mouth as a flood after the woman, so that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood, 16but the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
Commentary: This mysterious flood is probably symbolic, though of what is hard to say. It is possibly a huge military force. Regardless, natural phenomena prevent the "flood" from destroying Israel.
There is a parallel here with the flight of the Israelites from Egypt (Ex 14), where "Satan" (acting through Pharaoh) sends a "flood" (military force) in pursuit of the "woman" (Israel), but the Earth "swallowed up the flood" (the military force was engulfed by the Red Sea).
The sea, in Babylonian and Canaanite traditions, embodied the original chaos of the world. The sea monster, called in the Jewish tradition Leviathan, can be associated here with Satan, as he harnesses the power of the sea to attack the woman.
- 17And the dragon was angry with the woman and went to make war against the rest of her offspring, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Commentary: The dragon’s anger with the women shows the response the dragon had to the women’s escape and his loss of an army. The dragon went off to make war shows that the dragon was not able to persecute the woman (Virgin Mary, Israel, the Church), which provides some light of hope. However, the dragon focuses his aggression to her children which comes from the Greek term for “her seed”, which is a term usually assigned to a man, not a woman. Galatians 3:16 refers to Christ as the seed of the woman. See also Genesis 3:15, Revelation 14:12, and I John 5:3.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge press, 2003.