Part 6. Conflict between the church and the powers of evil (12:1—14:20)
6.1. The woman, dragon, and male child (12:1-6)
6.2. War in heaven (12:7-12)
6.3. War on earth (12:13-17)
† PICTURE: John is now on the earth. He witnesses 3 visions: (1) Signs appear in the sky: first a pregnant woman about to give birth, second a red dragon, and third a male child who is born and later rises to heaven. (2) In heaven, a war broke out between God’s angels on one side and Satan’s fallen angels on the other. (3) On earth, Satan pursues the woman who is saved by God and Satan turns around and makes war against faithful believers.
12:1 The first vision appearing in the sky is a “sign”, probably referring to its role of representing deeper meaning than what is seen by John. Although the woman gives birth to the Messiah, she is not to be understood as Mary the mother of Jesus (which is the explanation according to the early church fathers) but the messianic community, the Church, the ideal Israel. It is out of faithful Israel that the Messiah will come.
As God covers Himself “in light as with a garment” (Ps 104:2), so the woman is clothed with the sun indicating her belonging to God as a radiant bride. The moon beneath her feet (perhaps used as a footstool) speaks of dominion, and the crown of stars depicts loyalty. The number 12 may signify a relationship with the 12 tribes of Israel or the 12 apostles, or both.
Ladd, a NT theologian interprets this chapter as “a vision in highly imaginative terms of the heavenly warfare between God and Satan, which has its counterpart in history in the conflict between the church and demonic evil.” It is a celestial and nontemporal struggle between God and Satan.
12:2 The woman is about to give birth to a child. She cries out in pain signifying “the true Israel (OT saints) in her pre-messianic agony of expectation.”
12:3 Another sign appears in the sky: an enormous red dragon with 7 heads. In v.9, John clearly identifies the dragon as “the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan.” In the OT, the great monster of the deep was known as Leviathan (Job 3:8; 41:1; Ps 74:14). Another great monster was the Behemoth (Job 40:15). Here the dragon is the arch-enemy of God and His people.
The red colour of the dragon symbolizes the murderous character of Satan (Jn 8:44). As the number 7 denotes completeness, the 7 heads depict the universality of his power. The 10 horns recall the 4th beast in Daniel 7 (Dan 7:7,24). The 7 crowns (diadems) are not wreaths of victory but “crowns of stolen authority” or Satan’s presumptuous claim of royal power.
12:4 The great dragon gathers one-third of the stars with his great tail and hurls them down to the earth. This shows the tremendous size and awesome power of the dragon. The sign is similar to Dan 8:10 where the little horn casts to the ground some stars and tramples them underfoot. Some use this verse to symbolize Satan’s corruption of one-third of the angels, turning them into fallen angels or evil spirits.
The dragon stands ready to destroy the child (the Messiah) at birth. Satan’s attempts included many dangers and temptations that Jesus encountered in His earthly life, beginning with King Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ-child, and culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion.
12:5 The newborn Messiah is destined to rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Ps 2:9). He will strike the nations that oppress and persecute His church. In the end, Christ was “snatched up to God” in His ascension to heaven and “to His (God’s) throne” in His exaltation of sitting on the right hand of God.
12:6 The escape of the woman into the wilderness was explained by some as the escape of the Palestinian church to Pella at the outbreak of the Jewish war in AD66. However, it may have another meaning for end-time events. The wilderness symbolizes a place of spiritual refuge (Hos 2:14). God has prepared for His people a place of spiritual (note: not physical) refuge so that they will be able to stand fast against the devil. The 1,260 days correpond to the period of persecution in 11:2 and 13:5.
12:7 The second vision is a large scale war in heaven. On God’s side is the archangel Michael and his angels. On the other side is Satan and his (fallen) angels. In the OT, Isa 14:12-15 is often interpreted as describing Satan as a corrupt angel who attempted to achieve equality with God.
12:8 Satan and his angels lose the war and must forfeit their place in heaven. Their loss rouses Satan’s great anger against God’s people, the Church.
12:9 The dragon and his angels are hurled down to the earth, just as what Jesus said: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven!” (Lk 10:18)
The dragon is identified as the ancient serpent (Gen 3:1), the one who is called the devil or Satan. The word “satan” (Hebrew) was not originally a proper name. It simply meant “adversary” (Nu 22:22; 1Sa 29:4; 1Ki 5:4; 11:14,23). In time, it became a proper name. Satan is the Adversary, the prosecutor who accuses people before God in the heavenly court (Job 1:6-11; Zec 3:1-10). Satan is also known as the devil, that is, the Slanderer (Gr. ho diabolos). Accusation and slander are similar actions. He is also the deceiver of the whole world. He leads the whole world astray, away from the truth. (Rev 13:11-15)
12:10 The voice praising God is from one of the angels, possibly one of the 24 elders, and not the martyrs. Again, note the term “His” (God’s) Christ, not “our” Christ and also referring to God’s children as “them”. The address “our brothers” is similar to one used by the angel in 19:10 referring to John as “fellow servant”.
Now is the arrival of God’s kingdom, God’s salvation, and God’s power. Satan always accuses believers of sin but by virtue of the death of Christ, Satan is unable to successfully lodge a charge against God’s elect (Ro 8:33-34). With his failure, he is displaced from the position of authority.
12:11 Not only does Satan suffer defeat at the hands of the archangel but he is overcome by faithful believers as well. The primary cause of their victory is the blood of the Lamb. Their victory also comes from the testimony they have faithfully proclaimed and they can even overcome the natural fear of death.
12:12 Those who “tabernacle” in heavens are the angelic beings. They can rejoice because Satan is expelled. But Satan who was hurled down from heaven will do his worst on earth because he is angry and he knows he has only a short time. From this point to the judgment in ch.20 is only a short time because the events happen in quick succession.
12:13 The third vision is a continuation of the action from v.9, after the hymn of praise. Satan, angry that he is hurled down from heaven and angry that he could not destroy the Messiah turns against the mother—the true Israel, the church.
The story of the pursuit of whe woman is similar to Pharaoh’s pursuit of the children of Israel as they fled from Egypt (Ex 14:8). The two wings of a great eagle echo the words of God from Sinai, “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex 19:4). the river of water from the dragon’s mouth may reflect Pharaoh’s charge to drown the mail children of the Israelites in the Nile (Ex 1:22). The opening of the earth recalls the destruction of the men of Korah when they were swallowed up by the earth in the wilderness (Nu 16:31-33).
12:14 The wings of a great eagle symbolize divine deliverance. Those who wait upon the Lord “will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles” (Isa 40:31). The desert is a place of spiritual refuge (see v.6). There, the woman is nourished for three and a half years. This period of time correponds to the 42 months of Jewish oppression under the Syrian tyrant antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 7:25).
12:15 The dragon/serpent opens its mouth and sends forth a great flood to overtake the woman. The flood in OT is a common metaphor for overwhelming evil (“the floods of ungodliness” in Ps 18:4). It is not clear whether this refers to an event in the past or an event in the future. It could refer to the attempt by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to stamp out the early church or it could refer to persecution in the future. But God preserved the church.
Some think that the steam from the dragon’s mouth may symbolize destructive teaching and malicious accusation.
12:16 The opening of the earth to save the woman again symbolizes divine deliverance. Some use the symbol to interpret the story of Paul in which Saul of Tarsus was determined to destroy the church but was suddenly converted to become Paul the Apostle.
12:17 The angry Satan starts to make war against the rest of the woman’s offspring, meaning the believers aside from the Messiah, the faithful believers who are obedient to God and steadfast in faith. The Church as an institution survives but the persecution of the believers by Satan continues.
† While God’s angels are fighting with Satan and his devils, we are fighting the evil forces daily in a spiritual war as well. God’s angels are winning because of God’s power and we are winning too (v.11) because of our two weapons against Satan: the claim of salvation because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and the testimony that we belong to God. With these, we can conquer two main human fears: the fear of guilt (because we have been justified by the blood of Jesus before God) and the fear of death (because we know that God has prepared an eternal life for us).
† Satan is the Slanderer. A Christian must not slander, especially in the church. Otherwise, he is following the way of Satan. That is why slander is a major sin in the Bible.