The Woman, the Child, and the Dragon

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.

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 (The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem) thinks that this passage alludes to the astronomical events associated with Jesus’ birth.  The notes that follow are based on Nicholl’s work.

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’.

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.

We understand the ‘woman’ to be ‘Israel with the face of Mary’.  It is in Mic 5:2f (the text that the Jewish scholars pointed to as indicating the place of the Messiah’s birth) that Israel is portrayed as giving birth to 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.

The moon under her feet – In the years 7-2 BC, says Nicholl, the moon passed through this part of the sky.

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.

The woman is Israel, although, as Nichol puts it, with ‘the face of Mary’. Mic 5:2f 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.

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 Nichol, 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.

Dragon – the devil, the enemy of God and of the people of God.  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.

His tail – The constellation of Hydra has a region identified as the tail.

A third of the stars – The devil is powerful, but not all-powerful.

In astronomical terms, this looks like a great meteor storm, with its radiant in the tail of the constellation of Hydra.

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.

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 2:1-12).

As Nichol 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.

Who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter – There is an allusion here to Psa 2:9; see also Num 24:17; Rev 19:15.  Astronomically, we may link this with the development of the long tail of the comet.  It appeared on, and horizontal to, the western horizon (in the direction of Israel).

Her child was snatched up to God and to his throne – Here is the triumphant deliverance of the Messiah, first from the murderous scheme of Herod, and then from death itself, in his resurrection and ascension.

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.

The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of – 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.

War in Heaven

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. 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!”

And there was war 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.

The great dragon was hurled down – See Lk 10:18; Jn 12:31.

The word of their testimony
According to Revelation 12:10,11, a loud voice from heaven announces that the ‘accusor 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).

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)

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.

“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.