Revelation 12 Commentary

Background:

“Although the themes of persecution and vindication pick up where they left off in the vision of the two witnesses, the beginning of chap. 12 is one of the most abrupt transitions in Revelation.  Two visions occur in this chapter: a woman pursued by a dragon and the heavenly war between the hosts of the angel Michael and Satan.  This leads to the latter’s ejection from heaven, paving the way for an immediate threat to the world’s inhabitants.”[1]

vv.1-2 “This woman is in labour to bear a child who is undoubtedly the Messiah, Christ, cp. verse 5 where he is said to be destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron.  That is a quotation from Psalm 2:9 and was an accepted description of the Messiah.”[2]

“If the woman is the ‘mother’ of the Messiah, an obvious suggestion is that she should be identified with Mary; but she is so clearly a superhuman figure that she can hardly be identified with any single human being.

“The persecution of the woman by the dragon suggests that she might be identified with the Christian Church.  The objection is that the Christian Church could hardly be called the mother of the Messiah.

“In the Old Testament, the chosen people, the ideal Israel, the community of the people of God, is often called the Bride of God.  ‘Your Maker is your husband’ (Isaiah 54:5).  It is Jeremiah’s sad complaint that Israel has played the harlot in disloyalty to God (Jeremiah 3:6-10).  Hosea hears God say: ‘I will betroth you to me for ever’ (Hosea 2:19, 20).  In the Revelation itself we hear of the marriage feast of the Lamb and the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7; 21:9).  ‘I betrothed you to Christ,’ writes Paul to the Corinthian Church, ‘to present you as a pure bride to her one husband.’ (2 Corinthians 11:2).”[3]

“This will give us a line of approach.  It was from the chosen people that Jesus Christ sprang in his human lineage.  It is for the ideal community of the chosen ones of God that the woman stands.  Out of that community Christ came and it was that community which underwent such terrible suffering at the hands of the hostile world.  We may indeed call this the Church, if we remember that the Church is the community of God’s people in every age.

“From this picture we learn three great things about this community of God.  First, it was out of it that Christ came; and out of it Christ has still to come for those who have never known him.  Second, there are forces of evil, spiritual and human, which are set on the destruction of the community of God.  Third, however strong the opposition against it and however sore its sufferings, the community of God is under the protection of God and, therefore, it can never be ultimately destroyed.”[4]

vv.3-4 “The dragon has seven heads and ten horns.  This signifies its mighty power.  It has seven royal diadems.  This signifies its complete power over the kingdoms of this world as opposed to the kingdom of God.  The picture of the dragon sweeping the stars from the sky with its tail comes from the picture in Daniel of the little horn who cast the stars to the ground and trampled on them (Daniel 8:10).  The picture of the dragon waiting to devour the child comes from Jeremiah, in which it is said of Nebuchadnezzar that ‘he has swallowed me like a monster’ (Jeremiah 51:34).

“H.B. Swete finds in this picture the symbolism of an eternal truth about the human situation.  In the human situation, as Christian history sees it, there are two figures who occupy the centre of the scene.  There is man, fallen, always under attack of the powers of evil but always struggling towards the birth of a higher life.  And there is always the power of evil, watching for its opportunity to frustrate the upward reach of man.  That struggle had its culmination on the Cross.”[5]

v.5 “In this scene that blends two worlds, God’s agent of salvation, the One who shall shepherd all nations with absolute authority, is represented by the innocence and vulnerability of a baby.  As the dragon waits to devour the newborn child, all the forces of evil, in this world and beyond, are concentrated against this saving act of God.  The child is born and taken up to God – so quickly does the story move from the Messiah’s birth to death and resurrection.  There can be no doubt that, although the dragon does not ‘get’ the child, who is safe at God’s throne, the way to God’s presence was not by escaping death.  Precisely by dying, Jesus defeated the dragon and was exalted to God’s right hand.”[6]

v.6 “The woman flees to the desert (‘wilderness,’ NRSV), the place where John will later be taken to see Babylon (17:3).  Just as in chap. 17, where the desert gives John a different perspective, so here, too, the desert should not be seen as a harsh and forbidding place.  It is the place that God has prepared for the woman, where she will be nourished (v. 6).  As the Gospels indicate, the desert is the place where the voice cries out and the Messiah emerges, on the very margins of life (Matt 3:3ff.).  It is unclear who will take care of the woman (if it is angels, then this is a parallel to the care Jesus received during his trial in the desert, according to Mark 1:13).  The period of her nurture is 1,260 days, roughly the same amount of time the nations will ‘trample over the holy city’ in 11:2 (1,260 days are roughly equivalent to 42 months).  The situation of the woman contrasts with that of the dragon, which will have no place in heaven (12:8, 14).  The woman’s flight is reminiscent of that of the parents of Jesus when they fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus (Matt 2:13), to a place ‘prepared’ by God in the prophetic scriptures (Matt 2:15).”[7]

vv.7-9 “Here, however, Michael and his forces cast down Satan’s forces, because Michael and his allies represent the heavenly victory won by Christ on earth. God not only rules the world through events in the heavens; he also fits these events to his acts on earth. John perceives not only the fallen angels but even the activity of Michael through his focus on our Lord’s triumph.

“Satan’s being hurled to the earth ends his position of privilege in God’s court. Ironically, Satan’s loss of ‘place’ (topos, 12:8) contrasts starkly with the ‘place’ (topos) of refuge God provides his own people persecuted by Satan (12:6, 14). The Bible already declared that Satan functioned as an accuser (Zech. 3:1), including directly before God’s throne (Job 1:6; 2:1). Jewish tradition amplified this idea, so that in later texts he was said to accuse Israel day and night, except on the Day of Atonement. Here, however, his accusations against the saints have been silenced, for Christ’s victory is sufficient to silence all objections of the once-heavenly prosecutor (12:10). The opposite of a prosecutor was an advocate, and John’s audience is probably already familiar with the idea that Jesus is our sufficient advocate (1 John 2:1; also John 14:16, where ‘Counselor’ translates ‘advocate’). Satan’s activity here is ‘day and night’; like the torment of his followers (14:11; 20:10), this contrasts with the unceasing role of God’s worshipers in 4:8; 7:15.”[8]

v.10 This anonymous hymn, which interprets the great battle of the preceding verses, has three stanzas: the first (v. 10) focuses on the victorious inauguration of God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingly authority; the second (v. 11) calls attention to the earthly victory of the saints as they confirm the victory of Christ by their own identification with Jesus in his witness and death; the third (v. 12) announces the martyrs’ victory and the final woe to the earth because of the devil’s ejection and impending demise.

“In the first stanza (v. 10), the triumph of Christ is described as the arrival of three divine realities in history: God’s “salvation” or victory (7:10; 19:1), God’s “power,” and God’s “kingdom.” This latter reality is further identified as Christ’s assumption of his ‘authority.’ The historic event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has challenged the dominion of Satan and provoked the crisis of history. At the time of Christ’s death on earth, Satan was being defeated in heaven by Michael. As Caird has said, ‘Michael … is not the field officer who does the actual fighting, but the staff officer in the heavenly room, who is able to remove Satan’s flag from the heavenly map because the real victory has been won on Calvary’ (p. 154).

‘In times past, Satan’s chief role as adversary was directed toward accusing God’s people of disobedience to God. The justice of these accusations was recognized by God, and therefore Satan’s presence in heaven was tolerated. But now the presence of the crucified Savior in God’s presence provides the required satisfaction of God’s justice with reference to our sins (1 John 2:1-2; 4:10). Therefore, Satan’s accusations are no longer valid and he is cast out. What strong consolation this provides for God’s faltering people!”[9]

v.11 This stanza is both a statement and an appeal. It announces that the followers of the Lamb also become victors over the dragon because they participate in the “blood of the Lamb,” the weapon that defeated Satan, and because they have confirmed their loyalty to the Lamb by their witness even to death. The blood of the martyrs, rather than signaling the triumph of Satan, shows instead that they have gained the victory over the dragon by their acceptance of Jesus’ Cross and their obedient suffering with him. This is one of John’s chief themes (1:9; 6:9; 14:12; 20:4).

Verses 12 and 17 lead to the conclusion that only a portion of the martyrs are in view (cf. 6:11). Thus this hymn of victory also becomes an appeal to the rest of the saints to do likewise and confirm their testimony to Christ even if doing so means death. This seems to suggest that in some mysterious sense the sufferings of the people of God are linked to the sufferings of Jesus in his triumph over Satan and evil (John 12:31; Rom 16:20; Col 1:24). Since the martyrs have gotten the victory over the dragon because of the Cross of Jesus (i.e., they can no longer be accused of damning sin, since Jesus has paid sin’s penalty [1:5b]), they are now free even to give up their lives in loyalty to their Redeemer (John 12:25; Rev 15:2).”[10]

v.12 Satan has failed. Therefore, the heavens and all who are in them should be glad. But Satan does not accept defeat without a bitter struggle. His final death throes are directed exclusively toward “the earth and the sea.” Therefore their inhabitants will mourn, for the devil will now redouble his wrathful effort in one last futile attempt to make the most of an opportunity he knows will be brief (three and one-half years; cf. vv. 6, 14).”[11]

vv.13-14 “The narrative is resumed after the flight of the woman into the wilderness (v. 6). Why? Because she is under attack from the defeated but still vicious dragon (vv. 7-12). No longer able to attack the male child who is in heaven or to accuse the saints because of the victory of Jesus on the Cross, and banned from heaven, the devil now pursues the woman, who flees into the desert. The word ‘pursue’ was no doubt carefully chosen by John because it is also the NT word for ‘persecute’ (dioko, Matt 5:10 et al.). Since the woman has already given birth to the child, the time of the pursuit by the dragon follows the earthly career of Jesus.

“The reference to eagle’s wings once again introduces imagery borrowed from the Exodus account where Israel was pursued by the dragon in the person of Pharaoh: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4). As God’s people were delivered from the enemy by their journey into the Sinai desert, so God’s present people will be preserved miraculously from destruction (cf. Deut 32:10-12; Isa 40:31).”[12]

vv.15-16 “The serpent spews a floodlike river of water out of his mouth to engulf and drown the woman. The water imagery seems clear enough. It symbolizes destruction by an enemy (Pss 32:6; 69:1-2; 124:2-5; Nah 1:8) or calamity (Ps 18:4). As the desert earth absorbs the torrent, so the covenant people will be helped by God and preserved from utter destruction (Isa 26:20; 42:15; 43:2; 50:2). The dragon-inspired Egyptians of old were swallowed by the earth: “You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them” (Exod 15:12). In similar fashion, the messianic community will be delivered by God’s power. Whatever specific events were happening to Christians in Asia in John’s day would not exhaust the continuing significance of the passage.”[13]

v.17 “This attack of Satan against ‘the rest’ of the woman’s offspring seems to involve the final attempt to destroy the messianic people of God. Having failed in previous attempts to eliminate them as a whole, the dragon now strikes at individuals who ‘obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ To ‘make war’ (poiesai polemon) is the identical expression used of the beast’s attack on the two witnesses in 11:7 and on the saints in 13:7. Could this possibly correlate the three groups and indicate their common identity under different figures?

Those attacked are called ‘the rest of her [the woman’s] offspring.’ Some identify this group as Gentile Christians in distinction from the Jewish mother church (Glasson). Others who identify the mother as the nation of Israel see the ‘rest’ as the believing remnant in the Jewish nation who turn to Christ (Walvoord)-view that depends on the prior identification of the woman with the whole nation of Israel. Others have suggested that the woman represents the believing community as a whole, the universal or ideal church composed of both Jews and Gentiles, whereas the ‘offspring’ of the woman represent individuals of the community (Jews and Gentiles) who suffer persecution and martyrdom from the dragon in the pattern of Christ (Swete, Caird, Kiddle). The close identification of the seed of the woman as first of all Jesus and then also those who have become his brethren through faith agrees with other NT teaching (Matt 25:40; Heb 2:11-12). While Satan cannot prevail against the Christian community itself, he can wage war on certain of its members who are called on to witness to their Lord by obedience even unto death, i.e., ‘those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus’ (Matt 16:18; Rev 11:7; 13:7, 15). The church, then, is paradoxically both invulnerable (the woman) and vulnerable (her children) (cf. Luke 21:16-18).”[14]


[1] Christopher C. Rowland , “The Book of Revelation”, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998) 648.

[2]William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. II, Daily Study Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PN: Westminster Press, 1976) 75-76.

[3]William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. II, Daily Study Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PN: Westminster Press, 1976) 76.

[4] William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. II, Daily Study Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PN: Westminster Press, 1976) 76.

[5] William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. II, Daily Study Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PN: Westminster Press, 1976) 77-78.

[6] Boring, M. Eugene, Interpretation, Revelation (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1989) 158.

[7] Christopher C. Rowland , “The Book of Revelation”, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998) 649.

[8] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, NIV Application Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

[9] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

[10] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

[11] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

[12] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

[13] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

[14] Alan F. Johnson, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Revelation 12:1-17.

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