The Woman, the Child, and the Dragon, 1-6
12:1 Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars. 12:2 She was pregnant and was screaming in labor pains, struggling to give birth. 12:3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: a huge red dragon that had seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadem crowns. 12:4 Now the dragon’s tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 12:5 So the woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who is going to rule over all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was suddenly caught up to God and to his throne, 12:6 and she fled into the wilderness where a place had been prepared for her by God, so she could be taken care of for 1,260 days.
Along with other commentators, Ian Paul regards this as ‘the central and pivotal chapter in the book.’
Michaels remarks that the Christmas story is unfolded in various ways in the NT:
- In Luke’s account Mary is told that her child is ‘destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected…and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!’ (Lk 2:34f)
- In Matthew, the infant Jesus has to be taken to Egypt when King Herod ‘sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under’ (Mt 2:16).
- Here in Revelation we have less well-known story which functions as ‘a kind of transformation of the second.’ Michaels adds, ‘Wherever we look, the mystery of Christmas is linked to danger and to the ancient conflict between good and evil.’
Ian Paul remarks that this chapter contains a number of ideas not found either in the OT or earlier in Revelation. Consequently,
We can recognize the characters easily enough—the woman as the people of God awaiting deliverance, the dragon as ‘that ancient snake called the devil’, the child who is the anointed king in Psalm 2, Michael the great angelic prince of Israel—but the plot is strange to us.
Craig Keener, Ian Paul and others think that the plot would have been less strange to John and his first readers, since it draws on the well-known story of Leto, Python and Apollo.
Paul’s appeal to this myth in order to make better sense of the present passage strikes me as less persuasive than Nicholl’s astronomical/astrological approach (The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem). Ian Paul’s commentary (published in 2018) does not reference Nicholl work (published in 2015)
It seems that in vv1-5 a celestial scene is being described. But why is the birth of God’s Messiah described in these unusual terms? Colin Nicholl thinks that this passage alludes to the astronomical events associated with Jesus’ birth.
Sign – According to Nicholl (following Aune, Keener and others), the underlying word can also be translated ‘constellation’. But it also suggests ‘an empirical phenomenon disclosing some theological truth’. Ian Paul agrees that John’s use of this word ‘suggests that what he reports is also visible to others, or is public knowledge, rather than his own experience alone.’
Heaven refers to the sky (see v4, with its reference to the stars of the sky), rather than to God’s dwelling place. (Mounce)
Woman – The only woman among the zodiacal constellations is Virgo. This large constellation consists mainly of faint stars, but does contain the brilliant star Spica. The Sun and the Moon – also mentioned in this passage – also pass along the ecliptic.
Since the Middle Ages, the woman has often been identified as Mary (in Roman Catholic piety, ‘the Queen of Heaven’). But most interpreters understand her to represent faithful Israel, the messianic community, albeit with Mary as a notable member. According to Mounce, in v17 the woman signifies the church, but this is not a problem, given the continuity of God’s people before and after Christ.
Wilson agrees that ‘the woman should be regarded as an ideal symbol of God’s people in both dispensations.’
‘Though the mother of Jesus may be secondarily in mind, the primary focus is not on an individual but on the community of faith, within which the messianic line ultimately yielded a kingly offspring.’ (Beale, Shorter Commentary)
The woman, then, is Israel, although, as Nicholl puts it, with ‘the face of Mary’. Mic 5:2f (the text that the Jewish scholars pointed to as indicating the place of the Messiah’s birth) represents Israel as giving birth to the Messiah. The bondage in Egypt, the wanderings, and the exile were the birth-pangs that preceded the coming of the Messiah.
Clothed with the sun – The constellation of Virgo is emerging from her annual encounter with the sun, and becoming more and more visible above the eastern horizon in the evening.
It is possible (Nicholl says, ‘natural’) to view this opening scene in the drama as a picture of the conception the Messiah, with the Sun playing the part of the Holy Spirit. This would be consistent with what Luke records: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)
God’s people may be despised in the world, but to God himself they are radiant. (Mounce)
Wilson notes ‘the glaring contrast between the heavenly glory of the woman and the earthly glitter of the great harlot (Rev 17:4).’
The moon under her feet – In the years 7-2 BC, says Nicholl, the moon passed through this part of the sky. But only on September 15th, 6 BC was the moon ‘under Virgo’s feet’ at the point when the Sun was ‘clothing her’. the moon must have been a thin crescent, because of its proximity to the Sun.
In the ancient world, the moon was frequently associated with menstruation and with conception.
A crown of twelve stars on her head – Nicholl says that twelve stars, just visible to the naked eye in the unpolluted night sky of ancient Babylon and Jerusalem, can be found in the relevant part of the constellation. They fit the pattern of a tall crown such as was common in the ancient Near East. They symbolise Israel, with its twelve tribes.
Based on the astronomical information he thinks v1 contains, Nicholl thinks that this celestial scene – with the Sun in the centre of the constellation and a thin crescent moon under the ‘feet’ of Virgo – occurred only once during the years 7BC to 4BC (the time frame within which Jesus was born) and can be dated to 15th September, 6 BC. Note that Virgo sets head first. Although, obviously, the constellation could not be observed until well after sunset, the ancients were able to calculate the relative positions of sun, moon, and stars. The crescent moon presumably became visible just after sunset.
The sun, moon and stars are a flashback to Gen 37:9, in which the children of Israel are portrayed by these symbols.
She was pregnant – If the constellation of Virgo represents the woman who is about to give birth, then, according to Nicholl, the child she bears is represented by a comet.
She…cried out in pain – This is consistent, says Nicholl, with the comet descending within Virgo towards the region associated with her legs. Both the increase in the size of the comet’s head, and the period of time taken would have led observers to think that Virgo would have been in intense pain.
‘She is pregnant (using the Greek idiom ‘having in the belly’) and cried out in labour pains, in the agonies of giving birth (AT). The four terms here exactly match those in Isaiah 26:17, where God’s people in distress are likened to a woman giving birth, and similar language is used in Isaiah 66:7–9, where Jerusalem is the woman as a metonym for God’s people.’ (Ian Paul)
‘In Micah 4:8–10, the woman in labour is also characterized as either Zion or Jerusalem, again as a metonym for God’s people, but the context and cause of agony are made more explicit: exile in Babylon. In the following chapter (Mic. 5:3), the woman’s delivery and giving birth are identified with the return from exile of Israel ‘and the rest of his brothers’, an idea alluded to later in the narrative at Revelation 12:17.’ (Ian Paul)
Another sign appeared in heaven – A second, visible, portent in the night sky.
A huge red dragon – The devil, the enemy of God and of the people of God. He is identified as ‘Satan’ in v9. See Job 7:12; 26:13; Ps 74:13–14; 104:26.
Astrologically, this would be Hydra, a constellation directly to the south of Virgo. Hydra is the largest (‘enormous’) of all the constellations, with the exception of Argo Navis.
The red colour (Nicholl suggests) may be attributed to the meteor storm (some meteors are red or orange in colour), as well as to the more general impression that the sky was ‘on fire’.
The dragon had seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadem crowns – There is nothing in the constellation of Hydra that answers to these descriptors. Nicholl suggests that they represent the larger fireballs that formed part of a great meteor storm (see note below).
His tail – The constellation of Hydra has a region identified as the tail.
A third of the stars – In astronomical terms (suggests Nicholl) this suggests great meteor storm with is radiant within the tail of Hydra. Since this part of the constellation would have been about one third of the way between the horizon and the zenith, it would have looked exactly as if a third of the starts were being swept down to earth.
The devil is powerful, but not all-powerful. Cf. Dan 8:10, which references Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and is associated with the ‘abomination of desolation’ which Jesus later connects with the destruction of the Temple, Mt 24:15; Mk 13:14.
Theologically, stars can represent angels, Scripture, Job 38:7; 2 Pet 2:4. A large number (one third) are hurled to the earth.
The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born – For an observer in Babylon, Hydra would appear to be ‘standing’ in the eastern sky just before dawn, with its tail appearing to rest on the ground, in the period just before dawn in September/October. In the Near East, the whole of Hydra and Virgo would be visible, with the former standing beside the latter.
‘The dragon’s eagerness to devour the child explains the violent opposition that Jesus met during his earthly ministry. It began with the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16) and ended on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem.’ (Mounce, What Are We Waiting For?)
There were many attempts to thwart the purpose of God, both before and after the birth of the Messiah. We think especially of the evil plot of Herod Mt 2:16-18. See also Luke 22:3; John 13:27; cf. Matt. 4:1–11.
‘When the wise men mentioned the birth of the “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), he dispatched soldiers to slay the male babies and toddlers of Bethlehem. The vision at least hints at several critical points in Jesus’ life. Satan tried to destroy Jesus at his birth, but the Lord protected him. Later, the Lord protected the Christ child through all subsequent attempts on his life, until Jesus gave it up freely when his hour had come (John 10:14–18; 12:23–27; Rev. 12:4–5).’ (Doriani, The Incarnation in the Gospels)
As Nicholl remarks, the appearance of a meteor storm in Hydra just before the ‘delivery’ of the cometary baby in Virgo would have been a truly remarkable sight.
As Doriani comments, the roots of this spiritual conflict go back to the very beginning:
Gen 3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all the wild beasts
and all the living creatures of the field!
On your belly you will crawl
and dust you will eat all the days of your life.”
And the spiritual warfare is ongoing:
Mt 12:28 “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you.”
Eph 6:12 ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.’
Nicholl’s summary is worth quoting in full:
On the eve of the celestial birth scene, a great meteor storm occurred, radiating from the tail of Hydra, the serpentine dragon. To observers convinced that the cometary phenomenon that was happening in the neighbouring constellation in those days was the announcement of the Messiah’s birth, the meteor storm would have seemed significant. It suggested that a great spiritual conflict was brewing between the forces of Order and the forces of Chaos, a conflict focused on the Messiah and his birth.
Hydra, the celestial representation of the forces of Evil and Disorder, appeared to have seven heads of power and crowns of sovereignty, arrogantly displaying his great royal authority. As the seven heads and ten horns streaked up onto the upper half of Hydra, it must have looked like the serpent was rearing itself up self-assertively and aggressively…At that time the dragon seemed to use its tail to hurl to the earth one-third of the stars of heaven. The celestial developments that night climaxed with the unforgettable image of the woman in the advanced stages of childbirth and the dragon beside her, looking like they were both standing on the western horizon. As the last pre-dawn scene before the cometary baby’s birth, this one set the stage for the climax of the celestial nativity drama, the birth scene, the following day.
The woman gave birth to a son – Jesus.
‘In contrast to Isaiah and Micah, the deliverance of God’s people from the birth pangs of exile does not come by means of a return to the land but by means of the birth of a son, a male.’ (Ian Paul)
Who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter – Here is an allusion to Psa 2:9; cf. Num 24:17; Rev 19:15. See also Heb 2:8–9, Mt 28:18.
Astronomically, we may link this ‘iron sceptre’ with the development of the long tail of the comet. Some great comets have had tails that stretch across the entire sky. This one may have stretched from the eastern to the western horizon – encompassing ‘all the nations’ and pointing toward Israel in the west.
Her child was snatched up to God and to his throne – Astronomically, this might represent the continued descent of the comet towards the Sun (symbolising God, as in v1) and its eventual disappearance in the western sky.
Theologically, this is the triumphant deliverance of the Messiah, first from the murderous scheme of Herod, and then from death itself, in his resurrection and ascension. (If it is thought odd that there should be a reference to Jesus birth, and then his exaltation, without any mention of his intervening ministry, then consider Jn 13:3.)
God’s ‘throne’ is mentioned ‘to emphasize the completeness of Satan’s failure; the Messiah, so far from beng destroyed, is caught up to a share in God’s throne’ (Beckwith, cited by Wilson).
The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of – ‘The wilderness of the forty-year journey was seen as a testing time for God’s people, but also as a time of God’s loving protection and wooing of his people (Hos. 2:14) and of refuge—the place to which Moses (Exod. 2:15), David (1 Sam. 23:25) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:3–4) fled and in which they were provided for by God.’ (Ian Paul)
Here is a description of the situation of the Christian church: in a place of solitude, danger, and privation, yet ‘taken care of’.
1,260 days – This is Elijah’s period again – the period of wilderness privation, and yet of prophetic power.
‘Matthew gives us an example of God’s protective care of Mary and Jesus, of his victory over Satan, when he tells how the angels warned Joseph of Herod’s planned violence and so saved the little family (Matt. 2:19–20).’ (Doriani)
War in Heaven, 7-18
12:7 Then war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 12:8 But the dragon was not strong enough to prevail, so there was no longer any place left in heaven for him and his angels. 12:9 So that huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world—was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him.
Then war broke out in heaven – Bewes warns against taking this chronologically: this is, as he suggests, ‘the video recording of the winning goal all over again – but from a different camera position.’ Represented here, in cosmic proportions, is the mighty warfare against Christ and Antichrist, the invisible conflict which issued in the Cross.
That huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world – As Wilson says, the identity of the dragon is ‘here put beyond all doubt…He is called:
- ‘The ancient serpent’ – ‘whose first act of deceit was to beguile Eve in the garden, Gen 3:1-7.’
- ‘The devil’ – ‘(which means “slanderer”) because he is the calumniator of God’s servants, v10.’
- ‘Satan’ – ‘(which means “adversary”), because he is the great enemy of mankind.’
- ‘The deceiver of the whole world’, ‘which is blinded by his lies (2 Cor 4:4).’
That huge dragon…was thrown down to the earth – See Lk 10:18; Jn 12:31.
12:10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,
“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
has been thrown down.
12:11 But they overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.
12:12 Therefore you heavens rejoice, and all who reside in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea
because the devil has come down to you!
He is filled with terrible anger,
for he knows that he only has a little time!”
The overcame – ‘They – a miserable bunch of accused nonentities in the mighty Roman Empire, driven into the catacombs, thrown into the arena. And whom did they overcome? This chapter describes their superhuman foe in various terms. He is the dragon, v7, therefore very powerful; he is the serpent, v9, therefore very cunning; he is the devil, v9, therefore a ‘”slanderer”; he is Satan, v9, therefore the “adversary” (see Zech 3:1; and he is the accuser, v10, therefore full of deceit.’ (Bewes)
‘Sometimes what looks like defeat is victory, as when brethren die for their faith. Satan has killed them, but they have actually conquered him because of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.’ (Apologetics Study Bible for Students)
By the blood of the Lamb – Christ’s victory, and ours is cosmic, for it is ultimately a spiritual conflict; it is historic, for it is rooted in the accomplishment of Christ upon the cross; and it is dynamic, for it issues in victorious lives.
‘Revelation…reminds us how we became a part of God’s victory. When Satan accuses the brothers “before our God day and night,” the saints “overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev 12:10–11). We overcome the dragon’s accusations when we admit that his primary charge against us is true: we are sinners who are utterly unworthy of heaven (perhaps as unworthy as Satan himself). We admit our need of Christ. We admit that the incarnation was essential for us. We confess that we overcome the dragon not by our merit or labor but “by the blood of the Lamb.” We are ruined and dead apart from the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.’ (Doriani, The Incarnation in the Gospels)
By the word of their testimony – According to Revelation 12:10,11, a loud voice from heaven announces that the ‘accuser of our brothers’ has been ‘hurled down’, and that ‘they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.’
The idea of ‘testimony’ is often taken to mean ‘speaking about what God has done for me in my life.’ A quick internet search will throw up web sites devoted to, for example, ‘publishing testimonies of persons who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, and who have experienced miracles in their lives.’ And doing so under the banner of Rev 12:11.
No doubt personal ‘testimonies’ of this kind can be helpful and appropriate things to do. But this is not what Revelation 12:11 means by ‘testimony’, nor what a lot of other passages in the New Testament mean by that term.
A glance at some of the parallel texts in Revelation should be sufficient to demonstrate this:-
- Revelation 1:2 …who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
- Revelation 1:9 I, John…was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
- Revelation 6:9 …those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
- Revelation 12:17 …those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
- Revelation 17:6 …those who bore testimony to Jesus.
- Revelation 19:10 …your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
- Revelation 20:4 …those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.
It seems clear that ‘testimony’, at least in the Revelation, is not primarily speaking about my subjective experience, but rather it is bearing witness to the objective message of Jesus and the salvation he has wrought (note especially the repeated reference to ‘the testimony of Jesus’).
George Eldon Ladd explains the relevant phrase in Rev 12:11 as follows:-
‘Essentially the testimony is that which Paul described as “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18), and which becomes of power when received in faith (Rom 3:25; 10:17). Confessors of Christ participate in the conquest of the Lamb over the Devil, sin, and death, as the own him as Redeemer and confess him as Lord.’
It is striking that, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter said virtually nothing about the experience that he and his fellow-disciples had just had. Rather, he points immediately from this to Scripture, and to the Jesus (Acts 2:14-36).
“He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” – Satan has already been overthrown; his days are numbered. Meanwhile, he is still a dangerous foe, and he has not yet admitted defeat. Bewes likens his situation to a player in the game of Monopoly, whose opponent owns nearly everything in sight, and yet stubbornly refuses to give in, even though he is doomed.
12:13 Now when the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 12:14 But the woman was given the two wings of a giant eagle so that she could fly out into the wilderness, to the place God prepared for her, where she is taken care of—away from the presence of the serpent—for a time, times, and half a time. 12:15 Then the serpent spouted water like a river out of his mouth after the woman in an attempt to sweep her away by a flood, 12:16 but the earth came to her rescue; the ground opened up and swallowed the river that the dragon had spewed from his mouth. 12:17 So the dragon became enraged at the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep God’s commandments and hold to the testimony about Jesus. 12:18 And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore.
We find ourselves locked in battle, but we are on the winning side. If we resist the devil, he will flee from us, James 4:7. Those who hope in the Lord will have eagles wings, Ex 19:4; cf. Isa 40:31.
A time, times and half a time – It is reasonable to take this as a year, two years, and half a year = three and a half years, the time of Elijah’s sojourn in the wilderness and a symbol of the Christian era.