1 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. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 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. 5 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, 6 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. [ESV]
Image above : The Woman Clothed with the Sun Fleeth from the Persecution of the Dragon, for William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, by Benjamin West, American, c. 1797, oil on paper on wood – Princeton University Art Museum; public domain.
The Context of the Chapter
The basic plot of the story was a familiar one in the myths of the ancient world. A usurper doomed to be killed by a yet unborn prince plots to succeed the throne by killing the royal seed at birth. The prince is miraculously snatched from his clutches and hidden away, until he is old enough to kill the usurper and claim his kingdom.” (see Johnson, A. F., below)
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is in a Spiritual Battle in which Satan and his allies are striking out at them since Satan cannot strike out directly at God.
We are beginning new cycles of judgments with a pause for explanations at the beginning. This is in keeping with the interpretation of progressive parallelism. We are not seeing any kind of chronological development. We are seeing in-depth explanation of the same period of time covered by the letters to the seven churches, seals, and trumpets. But we are seeing a clearer focus on the very end.
There is a danger of seeing the two opponents — God and the dragon — as equals on the battlefield of history. The heresy of Manicheanism taught this.
The most striking principle of Manichean theology is its dualism, a theme gleaned from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Mani postulated two natures that existed from the beginning: light and darkness. The realm of light lived in peace, while the realm of darkness was in constant conflict with itself. The universe is the temporary result of an attack of the realm of darkness on the realm of light, and was created by the Living Spirit, an emanation of the light realm, out of the mixture of light and darkness. (see Manicheanism, below.)
Gustave Dore etching public domain
God is Almighty, Omnipotent and enforces His will on all who oppose Him. Now let’s see what verses 1-6 teach us about our spiritual battle.
Verse 1 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.
There are three signs (sēmeion) in this chapter — the woman, her child, and the dragon. They are signs in the sense of being portents — unusual persons that are significant in the drama.
Remember that symbols morph quickly in apocalyptic literature. The woman is obviously more than a symbol of the mother of our Lord. She is clearly symbolic of the godly remnant. She begins as a symbol of the believing remnant in Israel of old in vs. 1-6. In 7-17, she is obviously symbolic of the new Israel.
I. John is taking us behind the scenes of life in this world to show us why things are so difficult for us.
He is describing spiritual warfare in which we are engaged. Satan, our archenemy is set to thwart the plan of God at every point. The twelve stars, for some commentators, are symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel (see Gen. 37:9 for a comparison with Joseph’s dream). However, Josephus uses these items, i.e. the sun, moon, and stars, to describe the priestly vestments. This could be a way of stressing the priestly character of the church. In any case, the woman is more than just Mary the mother of Jesus because her persona fills the whole stage of this scene at the beginning. She is pictured as being beautiful beyond imagination. The woman’s crown is the stephanos, the victor’s crown.
Verse 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.
This is the birth of Messiah. However, it probably refers to more than just the birth in Bethlehem. It stresses the travail of the people of God prior to Christ’s birth.
Verse 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.
The “heaven” referred to here is the spiritual realm, and not the place where God manifest His presence (cf. Eph. 2:1-3; 6:10-12). It is the place where spiritual conflict takes place. The action occurs on earth, but John sees the characters in the spiritual realm before the action starts on the earth. The dragon is the serpent, Satan. He has a real dominion as illustrated by the crowns. The crowns are diadēmata — kingly crowns. He is powerful as illustrated by the 10 horns. (Medieval Tapestry of the Dragon pictured right above.)
Verse 4 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.
The casting of the stars to the earth may be just a way of saying that Satan flexes his muscles in the spiritual realm and the repercussions are felt on the earth (see Morris, p. 158, below) . It also may be an allusion to the fall of the angels in the ministry of Jesus and His disciples. Stars are frequently used to represent angels (see post on Rev. 1) . The third part is a significant minority. The dragon standing in front of the woman in a hostile position speaks of Satan’s attempt to thwart God’s plans all through history before Messiah’s birth. It began with Adam’s fall and culminated with the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. Just as Jesus was an intended victim of Satan, we also as those who are God’s children will be as well.
Verse 5 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 …
Jacopo Tintoretto, Massacre of the Innocents
Only two events are given in this narrative concerning Jesus’ earthly life — his birth and ascension. These two events are the beginning and the ending of his personal conflict with Satan. The emphasis is upon a male (arsen) child. “Will rule” is mellō (‘about to” — used here to indicate the future time) plus poimain (“to shepherd”. “Snatched up to God” is pros ton theon indicating that the risen Christ is in the very presence of God the Father. A. T. Robertson, the great Greek scholar of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that pros is the “face-to-face preposition.” Jesus is in a face-to-face relationship with the Father in heaven.
Verse 6 … 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.
The desert is a figure taken from the OT to describe the Lord’s ability to shelter his people during her tribulation just like he did when his ancient people were in the wilderness.
There is also a warning in this promise.
The word “place” (where she had a place prepared by God; cf. also v. 14), Greek topos, is synonymous elsewhere in the NT with “temple” (e.g., Matt. 24:15) and was often used in the LXX (about forty times) for the “sanctuary.” The place prepared by God is an invisible geographical area of cultic security like the temple of 11:1-2. The church at Ephesus is warned that an unrepentant spirit in the future will result in Christ removing their lampstand “out of its place (topos)” in His heavenly temple (2:5). This means that they will not have the benefit of spiritual protection provided by that temple. (see Beale, p. 250, below.)
Those who are not faithful to the Lord in trial may have His protection removed. This does not mean that all who suffer in persecution were unfaithful to the Lord. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” says Tertullian (c. AD 155 – c. 240).
The Time period chart from Chapter 11
Here we encounter the term 1,260 days again. It is the length of time the witnesses are to testify according to chapter 11. It seems best to consider it as the same time frame as the 42 months, the 3½ yrs., and the time, times, and half a time. It is roughly the time of Jesus’ earthly witness as Messiah. It stands in the Revelation for the time between Christ’s Resurrection-Ascension and His Return for His people — the Last Days.
Next time we will move on to the next section of Chapter 12.
(Commentaries on which I rely without direct quotation)
Beale, G. K. (2015). Revelation: a Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
ESV. (2001). Accessed 24 June 2020 from https://www.biblegateway.com
Hendriksen, William. More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (p. 125).
Johnson, A. F. (1982). Revelation in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Johnson, D. E. (2001). Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Kenner, C. (2000). The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.
Manicheanism. Accessed 14 September 2020 from https://www.theopedia.com/manicheanism
Morris, Leon. (1987). Revelation in Tyndale New Testament Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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