Revelation 12:1-17

With the pronouncement of that God, in God’s great power has taken over and begun to reign, we see what looks like a great point to end the story. God won, right? Well yes, but God’s not quite finished yet. It is best for us to think of Revelation 12 as the beginning of Act 2. God has heard the cries of the people being martyred, has heard the prays of the faithful Christians rising up to heaven (8:1-5), and has sent his judgment to the Earth. God has given us insight into John’s mission (Chapter 10) and we see how God’s judgment alone was not enough to change the hearts of the people. It’s God’s judgment combined with the witness of the church that shakes the people out of apathy and into repentance (Chapter 11). Now the curtain rises again, Act 2 is beginning.

The conflict between good and evil, God and Satan, Christ and the counterfeit Christ intensifies in chapters 12-13. Before digging into this chapter, I want to give you a brief introduction to an important Greek story. Stories of the battle between the forces of good and evil help to win the audience’s loyalties to the side of good and to alienate them from evil. One such story that circulated in John’s time, the antagonist was a fierce dragon named Python and the protagonist was a women named Leto, who was the mother of the God Apollo. When Leto became pregnant by the god Zeus, the dragon pursued her in order to kill her and her child. The north wind rescued Leto by carrying her away so that she eventually found refuge on the island of Delos, which lay in the Aegean Sea. There the woman gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. Four days later, Apollo set off in pursuit of the dragon, soon slaying the creature to avenge his mother.

Roman emperors were able to put this take to good use by associating themselves with Apollo, whose defeat of the evil dragon was said to have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity. Citizens of the empire could be expected to identify the women in the story with the goddess Roma, who overcame the forces of evil and chaos so that light and peace could flood the world. Caesar Augustus was hailed as a new Apollo, for his reign was said to mark the beginning of a new golden age. The emperor Nero liked to present himself in the guise of Apollo, his image on coins bearing the radiant beams form his head that were Apollo’s trademark.

When John tells about a pregnant women and a dragon in Revelation 12, Christians in the seven churches would have heard echoes of the familiar story of Leto, but they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual implications of the take, so that in in his version the women in labor is not a pagan goddess, but the people of God; the child is not the emperor, but Christ; and the dragon represents the forces that oppose Christ and threaten his church. In the end, a story that was used to celebrate the popular culture is now transformed in a way that helps readers resist being assimilated to that culture. Another long introduction, but let’s dig into it.

12:1 A great portent 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 pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

The women and the dragon are linked by the word portent, which is a sign that points beyond itself to something of deeper significance. The women is a great portent while the dragon is given lesser status in the story. The woman’s garments characterize her inner traits, she is clothed with the sun, has the moon at her feet, and wears a crown of twelve stars. Her heavenly garments contrast with the women from Babylon, who wears earthly clothing of purple and scarlet (18:7). We will learn more about her next week. The woman of Revelation 12 has a crown made of twelve stars, the significant number of completeness associated with the Israel of God. If you remember I chapter 7 the twelve tribes represented the complete number of God’s people (7:4-8). Twelves will also be found all over the New Jerusalem to denote its perfection (21:12).

Although the woman rules the heavens, her home is on earth. She lives in the wilderness, where she is protected for three and a half years. Two different points of view are coming together here. From a heavenly perspective, if we have our 3D glasses on, she is a transcendent queen of splendor who rules the cosmos, but from an earthly or below point of view she lives at the margins of society, the wilderness, and is vulnerable to the dragon’s destructive designs.

In verse 2 she cries out in birth pangs, a metaphor for the distress of the messianic age (Isaiah 26:17-18; 66:7-8). The same word for her “torment” at the birth of judgment (9:5; 14:10) The new age, inaugurated with the birth of the male child (12:2,4), is a time of travail and agony for those who follow the way of the Lamb, rather than the way of the beast.

But, this brings us to the question, who is the woman? I answered this question, already so I know you already know the answer. Some have argued that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus; or some sort of celestial goddess (I’m honestly not sure where this comes from, but I’ve seen it mentioned a few times), or the persecuted people of God from whom the messiah comes. However, the clearest identification as to who the woman is can be found in 12:17, when the dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, that is, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” The women is an image of the church persecuted by the dragon and subject to the distress and travail of the messianic age yet protected by God. The church, like the woman, is victorious through Christ, with a home in heaven. Yet it lives in the wilderness and faces suffering during the significant three and a half year period, which if you remember is that symbolic in between time between the start of God’s victory and his decisive end, we also like to describe that as the tension between the already (the coming of Christ) and the not yet (that final victory of Christ).

So we got the woman down, BUT! Who is this dragon? The antagonist and most formidable opponent of Revelation appears in verse 3. In contrast to the splendid appearance of the woman of the heavens, the dragon is the color of blood. Evil characters are often clothed in red. The second horseman rides a red horse (6:4), the woman of Babylon is clothed in scarlet (17:3,4). The best is the same color as well. Moreover, he is described as great. And we can take that to mean he is anything but. The woman of Babylon, the great city, and Babylon are all described as great, so we can take this to mean that those things are all of the same genus. And while they may be great from an earthly perspective, they are not from the perspective of heaven. He has seven heads with seven diadems (a jeweled crown worn like a headband) and ten horns that indicate he is a ruler, though far different from the mother. Seven is a number of completeness and ten suggest totality. But, the dragon’s rule is one of usurpation. The monster parodies God’s authority and power (seven horns 5:6) or Christ’s many diadems (19:12). The dragon’s power undermines God’s way of ordering the cosmos. His tail, a weapon of destruction that appears only on animals associated with evil (cf 9:10), brings down a third of the stars and bringing darkness (12:4). While he swept away some of the stars, revealing to us his intention of bringing chaos, his success was only partial: two-thirds of the stars remain in the sky. He then attempts to devour the woman’s child, but the son is given safe passage to God’s throne (12:5).

Now, let me show you something about how a boring subject can be really interesting. Greek Grammar, when you look at a Greek verb there are five things you need to know (Tense, Voice, Mood, Person, and Number). They key here is voice and there are three voices: Active (I wash the car), Middle (I wash myself), and Passive (The baby was washed). So the phrase in 12:5 “Snatched away” is in the passive voice meaning the child was snatched and there is an implicit subject or person who is doing the snatching. So the passive voice, here, indicates that it is God doing the snatching as the ‘hidden actor’. This circumlocution is John’s way of showing that although God seems absent from the scene he is actively present in day-to-day events. God places limits of evil’s rage and gives protection to the churches and for the woman.

Lastly, the woman’s time in the wilderness is 1,260 days, which is identical to “time, and times, and half a time” and the forty-two months of the beast’s rule. The period of domination by chaos and evil corresponds to God’s protection and succor for believers. The equal period of time is a symbolic way of showing that there is no imbalance between persecution and protection. Evil does not have the upper hand despite appearances.

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 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.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power

    and the kingdom of our God

    and the authority of his Messiah,

for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,

    who accuses them day and night before our God.

11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb

    and by the word of their testimony,

for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

12 Rejoice then, you heavens

    and those who dwell in them!

But woe to the earth and the sea,

    for the devil has come down to you

with great wrath,

    because he knows that his time is short!”

 The story, abruptly shifts to heaven. This time John, and therefore all of us, is not transported back up to heaven, rather we are informed of the events that have transpired there. Christ’s enthronement does not usher in a period of peace and tranquility, but becomes the catalyst for an epic battle in heaven. Christ is the one who will rule all nations, as verse 5 tells us, but that rule doesn’t come unchallenged. The angelic figure Michael mounts a massive attack on the dragon that sought to destroy Christ. Michael is the angelic “prince” who defeats the powers that oppose Israel (Daniel 10:13, 21); he is the heavenly “protector” of God’s people (Daniel 12:1); and opponent of the Devil (Jude 9). The bible doesn’t give us much information about Michael, most information comes from sources outside the bible. But really, the important part to get here is that Michael fights on behalf of God’s people, those who understand themselves to be people of God can assume that Michael fights on their behalf.

Michael’s assult defeats the dragon, who is now explicitly identified as the Devil and Satan, and this defeat dramatically limits the arena which Satan can operate. Instead of being able to work in Heaven, denouncing the saints before God (12:10), Satan is banished from heaven so that he must restrict his operations to earth. Although we as modern readers have assumed this passage refers to Satan’s fall fro heaven at the dawn of time that isn’t the case. Revelation 12 depicts a battle that takes place as a consequence of Christ’s resurrection and enthronement (12:5,11) Michael’s triumph over Satan doesn’t mean that he is sent from heaven to earth for the first time, for Satan’s business is about deceiving and accusing the faithful people of God long before this battle with Michael (12:9). Rather as a result of this battle, Satan loses a massive amount of territory as a result of the war, for he no longer has access to heaven.

This scene is important for three reasons. First, Satan’s expulsion from heaven means that he no longer is in a position to denounce the saints before God (12:10). In the Old Testament Satan is always the accuser, accusing people of their sin. Think of Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6) or Zechariah (Zechariah 3:1-5). Revelation announces that all the people of God are priests who have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, so that they can be clothed in white garments (1:5-6; 5:9-10; 7:9-14). By portraying Christ as the slaughtered Lamb, Revelation reinforces the idea that Christ’s death is the sacrifice that purifies people from sin. Satan’s expulsion from heaven shows that Christ’s blood effectively “conquers the Devil (12:11), because it means that he no longer has any business denouncing the saints whom Christ has cleansed (cf. Romans 8:33-34).

Second, the heavenly voices seek to reverse ordinary perceptions of the faithful who suffer on earth. If you remember in the seven letters, John speaks of the “forces of Satan” who threaten the church, imprison believers, and kill the faithful (2:10,13). From this, Christians might think that the deaths of their Christian brothers and sisters are victories for Satan. BUT! All over Revelation, true conquering and true victory are accomplished through faith. Those who remain faithful, even to death, and who refuse to give up their commitments “conquer” Satan, because they do not submit to his will (12:11).

Lastly, the story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven offers readers incentive to persevere, despite the ongoing threat of evil. Someone a few weeks backed remarked that Revelation seems a bit like a state of the union address to Christians suffering in Rome. And I think that image is really helpful to us here. Because from an earthly perspective, evil can seem so pervasive as to be unstoppable. Where the wicked prosper the righteous suffer, and the Devil seems to reign. But, from a heavenly perspective, however, evil rages on earth not because it is so powerful, but because it is so vulnerable. John is trying to depict Satan not as an unstoppable force or an immovable object, but rather an animal, a dragon maybe, who has been pushed into a corner and sees his own, self-centered world crumbling around him, Satan is going down, but he is still trying to get a last few punches in. Those who think that Satan rages because he is that unstoppable force will give up in despair, but those who recognize that Satan rages on earth because he has already lost heaven and is now desperate have reason to resist him, confident that God will prevail.

13 So 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. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

 We now return back to the story of the woman and the dragon. The conflict between good and evil intensifies on earth. This part of the story gives us, again, a significant amount of Exodus imagery. The women is given two wings of the great eagle so she could fly from the dragon, now described in the language of a serpent. The Israelites in Exodus are said to escape on Eagles wings to flee the perusing Pharaoh. The Israelites were nourished with manna, quail, and water in the wilderness, and the woman is nourished in her sanctuary for “a time, and times, and half a time.” Again we see that broken seven symbolizing the almost, but not yet. And if you remember this time period is becoming synonymous with suffering.

The Earth now enters the story, personified as a character. The earth comes to the aid of the woman and swallows the water, this is another exodus allusion, though not as obvious. If you remember to the Exodus Pharaoh’s armies pursued the fleeing Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea, the earth came to their aid. Moses parted the sea and the earth formed a dry channel for safe passage to the other side. The earth then swallowed the pursuing Egyptians (Exodus 15:12). Since the dragon’s plot to snatch the male-child of the woman (Christ) has failed. He turns his attention to the offspring of the women, those who keep the commandments of God (the church)

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