We are now prepared to get into the twelfth chapter of Revelation, so let’s dive right in:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
Now that we realize John is consistently and constantly placing Text into context, we want to think of the Hebrew Scriptures and ask the pressing question, Who is this woman? The answers to this question don’t tend to be quite as futuristic and far-fetched. Most Christian interpretation will sit solidly on this being a direct reference to Jesus. I don’t believe that is incorrect, but let’s make sure we are keeping the larger picture in mind and exhausting the possibilities; as we’ve seen, this will help us catch more of the depth of John’s point.
The woman could be a reference to Mary and Jesus. There appears to be an element of this meant to employ a more literal picture in the apocalyptic imagery. She gives birth to a child who is snatched up to heaven and to his throne. Then she escapes into the wilderness. At that point, the image seems to break down if we continue to hold to Mary as a more literal character in this story.
The woman could be the nation of Israel. As we’ve noted before, Israel is very often referred to as a bride. The people of God will be the ones who give birth to the Messiah. We might think of that famous passage about a branch coming from Jesse’s stump. This would make more sense in that she wears a crown of twelve stars and gives brith to a child who will shepherd the goyim (Gentiles).
The woman could, in a very similar fashion, be the early Church (both Jew and Gentile). This would also make sense with the reference of twelve stars, and both this and the previous option would make much more sense in regards to fleeing into the wilderness. This particular option is not as clean of a connection when it comes to giving birth to the child.
There are other options, as well — even the idea that the woman is Eve. This would also make great sense; the picture becomes more and more metaphorical, but it seems to allude to Genesis 3 and the declaration that the woman’s seed will defeat the serpent. Of course, this prophecy would be in the mind of Jews for all of the aforementioned options.
Next, who is the dragon? If we stay true to our hermeneutic, this is an easy question. Our hermeneutic (the only one I believe makes sense) says these are not vague references to the unknown future, but instead — in keeping with the apocalyptic genre — well known images that help communicate the point into the current context. The dragon represents the empire of Rome. Or, to go back to our earlier language, the dragon represents Empire.
Finally, the woman is on the run and in hiding for a season. This is the same reference to 1,260 we saw before — an apocalyptic way of saying a significant amount of time, but it won’t last forever.
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Now, some may say, “Ah ha! The dragon is Satan! Why are you picking on Rome?” But as we’ve seen in our study of Pergamum, John has no problem connecting and equating the devil and the empire of Rome. John understands that Rome (in general) is the personification of evil and the main agent doing the work of what they would call “Satan.” This is not unique to Revelation and can be found in many other apocalyptic writings in the period of Roman oppression.
It should also be noted that these references continue to be full of links to the Hebrew prophets. The reference to the dragon being thrown down to earth would make any Jewish reader think of Isaiah and Ezekiel, who prophesied about the king of Tyre and Babylon, two other world powers of their day that relied on their pride and arrogance. These would be fitting connections to make to Rome. Again, we have Text to context.
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
We see more Text to context in that the woman is given two wings of an eagle (“Remember how I carried you on eagles’ wings,” in reference to their deliverance from Egypt [another world power]) and flown into the desert (God said through Jeremiah that He remembers how Israel “followed me through the desert like a bride”). When the dragon pours forth a river like a flood, what do we think of? Noah? The Exodus? Both?
And as the dragon goes to make war against her “offspring,” one cannot help but remember the same passage in Genesis 3 and the declaration that we know how this story is going to end. The chapter (in Revelation) ends right in the middle of the contest between the dragon and God’s people, but the message from Pastor John is clear: “We are in a great spiritual battle. We must stand our ground and continue to walk in righteousness. We’ve been here before and we know how this story ends! Persevere. Overcome.”