Understanding Revelation Chapter Twelve

This post is a direct continuation of the previous posts, on Revelation chapters four and five.  For introductory comments on the general nature of Revelation and how to understand it, please see the post on chapter four.

Revelation 12

12A 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. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4His 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. 5And 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; 6and 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 and sixty days.

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

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. 14But 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. 15Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But 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. 17Then 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.

Verse 1:  A woman clothed with the sun.  Although in more recent times often associated with the virgin Mary, John describes her as a “portent.”  The woman is a sign of a bigger reality than just a woman.  The most ancient and consistent interpretation is that she is in fact an image of the faithful church (this is consistent with the way we have been reading the text, as not a historical account, but an unveiling of what is real and relevant now).  However, the association can be rescued if we are willing to see Mary as a representative figure for the church; as long as we’re conscious of that deeper layer to the Marian association.

There is also an association with Israel (in the book of Revelation, the imagery consistently presents unity and continuity between Israel and the church).  Think of Joseph’s dream of sun, moon and stars bowing before him; here is a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with the stars; she is all of Israel summed up in one figure.

Being clothed with the sun points to the hope of the resurrection.  The moon has had a wide variety of interpretations, hotly disputed.  There’s a connection with baptismal waters, since it is through those waters that the woman’s children are born.  (In this view, her child-bearing = baptism).  At the same time, the imagery also has cosmic dimensions; the entire physical universe, and especially the human part of it, is caught up in what is happening.

Verse 3:  The dragon represents the devil.  “Dragon” draws on Old Testament imagery of Leviathan, embodiment of chaos and evil.  That he is red shows the blood in which he is steeped.  He has seven heads, ten horns, seven diadems, which show us his authority, strength, wealth; he has these all in abundance.  In particular, the “Seven heads” show his wider influence; in the thought of the time, “head” stands for the source or origin of something; the dragon gives rise to other forces or personalities who are similarly evil.

Verse 4:  The stars being swept down from heaven are a way of describing those who are misled by heresy.

The dragon’s attempt to devour the child represents our ongoing struggle, temptation and suffering.  The dragon intimidates with the threat of death.  When we encounter the fear of death, we are tempted to back off, to compromise, to accommodate the dragon.  These threats are calculated to make s forget who truly holds our life, and so this threat and fear of death is one of the dynamics of the dragon, and we are here warned to see through it, and avoid getting caught up in it.

Verse 5:  Although on one level the male child is obviously Christ, on another level, the male child is not pointing us to Christ so much as to ourselves.  Remember that this text is unveiling what is deeper meaning in our lives now.  Yes, Christ came and was born and has ascended to heaven; but our lives follow in the same pattern.  Each of us is part of the body of Christ; we are born anew in the church, participate in Christ’s reign, and ultimately find our security in heaven.  (Take it as the product of a patriarchal era, but the maleness of the child is intended to convey strength and virtue).

The rod of iron harks back to Psalm 2, which in the midst of the uproar of the nations, promises a ruler with a rod of iron.  Points us to Christ’s messianic rule, in which we participate.

That the child is taken to God’s throne is a way of showing that the devil is not permitted to destroy those who have been born (again) in the church.  They are under God’s protection and kept safe and faithful to the end.

Verse 6:  The woman in the wilderness shows the experience of the church under persecution.  Yet she is nourished (and this is repeated in v14), an encouragement not to be troubled by the afflictions of this life.  This nourishment has often been later linked with Eucharist.

“1,260 days” – again a parallel to v14, “time, times and half a time.”  Obscure, but it seems to be a way of referring to the whole time of the church’s earthly existence in the current reality.  We are always going to be in the wilderness, and yet nourished.

Verse 7:  War in heaven.  The ultimate war.  The struggle between good and evil.  Between the people of God (under God’s protection), and the personalities/forces which would overcome and destroy them.  Over the last two weeks we’ve seen a vision of heaven which says that the surface struggles of this life are not ultimate reality.  This passage is pointing us to the deeper significance of those surface struggles.  This war in heaven is not somewhere removed from us, but played out in the conflict we see and hear and experience every day.

Michael is a problematic figure; he is described in Daniel as a prince, and a protector of the Jewish people, contending with other “princes.”  He gets a brief passing mention in Jude, where he is described as an archangel contending with the devil about the body of Moses.  Clearly he is in some way to be identified as a powerful figure doing God’s will.  Some have been embarrassed that here he seems to be prominent above Christ and have sought to identify him with either Christ or the Holy Spirit, but that thinking seems to be on shaky ground.

Verse 8:  The dragon is defeated by the cross of Christ.  Defeated.  Victory is a present reality.  Yes, we might be caught up in the mopping up operations, but the outcome is certain.  The dragon is defeated.

Verse 9:  “The ancient serpent,” referring back to the Genesis story of the fall.  How you understand Genesis, and how you make sense of this part of Revelation, will be linked.  A literal Genesis leaves you with a literal evil personality, here.  An allegorical Genesis leaves you with a personification of evil systems, forces and powers.  (Although I would encourage you to consider, that these perspectives are not mutually exclusive).  The Genesis account sets up ongoing enmity between the offspring of the woman, and the serpent, and here we see that enmity played out on a cosmic canvas.

“The deceiver” – deception is one of the dynamics of the dragon, and we are here warned to see through it, and avoid getting caught up in it.

Either way, the great dragon is thrown down.  The verb is literally “bounced.”  Michael bounced the dragon out of his position of power, authority, and wealth.  (I’m quite taken with that; I almost want to see an icon painted of Michael as heaven’s bouncer).

Verse 10:  “The accuser” – this tells us another one of the ways in which we experience the influence of the dragon.  The constant engendering of guilt is a part of this landscape of war.  The Greek word we translate “devil” has the meaning of a slanderer.  Slander, accusation, guilt, the burden of sin (rather than the liberation from it); these are also the dynamics of the dragon, and just like deception, we are here warned to see through them, and avoid getting caught up in them.

Verse 11:  “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb” – the answer to all guilt and sin.  Because yes, we have sinned.  We are fallen, broken, guilty; but that is not the whole story.  Sin is also dealt with; it no longer defines or imprisons us.  The accusations of the dragon are met with the truth of our being washed and set free by the death of Jesus, by the loving self-giving of the one on the throne.

And, “by the word of their testimony.”  We match deceit with truth.  The truth of Christ is set in victory over against every deception.  Honesty, authenticity, integrity; these overcome the untruth which would otherwise ensnare us.

And, “they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”  We also match threat with the gospel.  Death is not the defining factor, the final word.  We know that even in death, we do not lose.

Verse 12:  “the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  This is why the world is stuffed up, why there is evil and suffering.  Because even though it is defeated, the forces of evil are pissed off, and are making the most of the short window of time before they entirely disappear to make everyone else as miserable as possible.  The dragon is on a desperate rampage.  The suffering of the church in the world is not a sign of Satan’s victory; it is the backwash of his death throes.

His time being short is not about time as we experience it, but in the sense that his time of unchallenged control has been ended. Progressively, his influence in human life and history will diminish, until eventually it will be entirely eliminated.

Verse 14: “Time, times and half a time.”  Drawing on Daniel again.  Obscure, but it seems to be a way of referring to the whole time of the church’s earthly existence in the current reality.  We will always be caught up in the war, until the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Verse 15: “Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.”  We’ve already seen, as we’ve picked our way through the text, that the dragon pours out a flood of accusation and deceit and threats.  And we all know, in our own lives, something of what it is to feel guilty, to feel threatened, to be deceived.  This is the opposite of the living water which flows from the throne of God (later in Revelation).  It’s a chaotic, evil flood of death.

Verse 16:  “But the earth came to the help of the woman…”  Creation is not neutral in this battle.  It is on the side of the creator.  (An aside; I would suggest that we see this, for example, in a person’s natural psychological resilience; we are created with a certain inbuilt capacity to withstand fear, threat, guilt.  Not that we ever need external support in that, but we are not created to be unable to withstand some of the pressures of this war).

So there you have it.  I intend to leave Revelation here, for the time being.  But I’d love any comments or discussion from others, particularly on this very challenging text!

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