Since this post will focus on Revelation 12, a few brief words are needed in order to view chapter twelve within the flow and context of the book. Before chapter twelve, the prior context is focused on the opening of the seven seals by the Lamb. These seven seals describe events that signify God’s wrath, God’s avenging and God’s salvation. Following the seven seals, John observes the disasters that are brought about by each blowing of the trumpets by the angels. The seventh trumpet invokes hymns and praises to God for his victory and righteous judgments. It is here that chapter twelve begins with John’s visions concerning a series of significant signs, which focus on the conflict with evil before returning to the seven bowls of wrathful plagues in the chapters that follow.
Commentary on Revelation 12
1-6 John’s vision focuses on a wondrous sign in the sky in which a woman is depicted as royalty (crown of twelve stars) with dominion (moon under her feet) clothed with radiance and splendor (Sun). While the woman gives birth to the messiah, she should not be viewed as Mary the mother of Jesus; but rather, this pregnant woman should be interpreted as the ideal and faithful Israel (and then the church postpartum v.17) with pre-messianic labor pain. The prophets portrayed righteous israel as the mother of the future restored remnant of Israel (i.e. Isa 54:1; 66:7-10; Mic 5:3) (Keener 793). Furthermore, this woman is contrasted with the scarlet prostitute (Babylon) in chapter 17 (Mounce 231-232).
The next sign that appears in the sky is an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. Dragon imagery was common in ancient world and several mesopotamian, canaanite, egyptian, and greek mythology stories included serpents and sea monsters (Keener 793). Thus, this would have been a common imagine that ancient readers would have recognized, but this vision clearly depicts and names the dragon as the devil or satan (v.9). The color red symbolizes his murderous character while the seven heads and seven horns depicts the universality of his enormous power. The seven crowns are bogus authoritative crowns in which Satan is attempting to claim royal power over the universe (Mounce 233). The dragon displays his power by hurling down stars, and he stands before the woman awaiting the birth of her child so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. Robert Mounce comments on the dragon before the woman by writing,
This explains the violent antagonism with which the child of the messianic community was met during the years of his life on earth. It began with the determination of King Herod to murder the Christ-child (Matt 2), continued throughout the dangers and temptations of his earthly, and culminated in the crucifixion. As Nebuchadnezzar devoured Israel (“he has swallowed us and filled his stomach with our delicacies,” Jer 51:34), so Satan has determined to devour the child. He has taken his position and awaits his victim” (234)
The woman gives birth to a male child who will rule the nations with an iron scepter. The greek phrase ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ (rhabō sidēra) which may be translated as rod of iron appears also in 2:27 and 19:15, and in all these occurrences the phrase is syntactically connected to a form of the greek ποιμαίνω (poimainō) which has the meaning of “tend a flock” or “activity that protects, rules, governs, fosters” (Bauer 690). In the Revelation passages the meaning is the activity as shepherd which has destructive results . Thus, the activity of the male child will be that of shepherding and the rod of iron may be referring to a shepherd’s rod that usually had an iron tip (Bauer 690). As a shepherd protected and defended the sheep from the wild prey, so the male child will strike those who attack and persecute his people (Mounce 234). This image is certainly of Christ and the phrase, was snatched up to God and to his throne alludes to Christ’s ascension (cf. Acts 1:9-11; Phil 2:5-11). The woman flees to the wilderness for spiritual refuge with God for 1260 days. The days 1260 and “a time and times, and a half a time” in v. 14 are referring to a symbolic time period where evil would reign free, but the people of God would be protected (Mounce 215).
7-12 According to Jude 9, Michael is classified as an archangel and so is the leader of angels. Daniel 12:1 states, “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.” This is archangel Michael who leads the the war against the dragon and his angels. The phrase that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray is a reference to Gen 3:1ff where the serpent appears in the garden of Eden. After losing the battle to Michael and his angels, this ancient serpent and his angels lost their access to heaven and were cast down to earth.
The battle is followed by a loud voice in heaven declaring victory over the accuser. The voice declares the salvation, power, the kingdom of God and the authority of Christ. Not only was Satan defeated in the heavenly battle, but Christians have also overcome him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony. By Christ’s redeeming act of being crucified and by their witness in the face of pressure, Christians have certain salvation and security. However, the voice gives a caution about Satan further attacking with even greater fury on earth because he has been cast down, and he knows that the time is short.
13-17 After failing to devour the male child and being thrown down from heaven, the dragon attempts to attack the woman. However, the woman was given two wings of a great eagle. This is similar to the description of Israel’s escape from Egypt, Exodus 19:4 states, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Thus, the reference here may also suggest swift and powerful protection (Easley 269). But the dragon does not give up on his attack, but rather spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. There are a few passages in the Hebrew scriptures that use the flood image as metaphoric language for overwhelming evil and tribulation. “The floods of ungodliness” (Ps 18:4 NKJV) and “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa 43:2). Nevertheless, the woman has another ally in the earth because it opens its mouth and swallows the river. This image further describes the extensive means that God is willing to use in order to protect his people. The protect of the woman further infuriates the dragon, and so he tries waging war against other christian believers (Easley 270).
In this passage John is teaching that there has been an age-long conflict between the people of God and Satan, and although Satan always attempts to make war against God’s people, God protects them by providing salvation. Satan is ultimately defeated, and Jesus Christ will forever shepherd with a rod of Iron. Therefore, those who are being persecuted or facing martyrdom should be encouraged and place their hope in Christ.
Bauer, Walter et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Easley, Kendell. Revelation. Holman New Testament Commentary ed. Max Anders. Nashville,TN : Holman Reference, 1998.
Keener, Craig S. IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1977.