THE CONFLICT IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH
Revelation 12 is a parenthetical section of the book of Revelation, which actually only ends at 14:20. Within this section seven primary characters are introduced: (1) the woman, representing Israel, (2) the dragon, representing Satan, (3) a male child, referring to Christ, (4) Michael, representing the angels, (5) Israel, the remnant of the woman’s seed, (6) the beast out of the sea, the world dictator, and (7) the beast out of the earth, the false prophet and religious leader of the world. Around these main characters swirls the tremendously moving scene of the great tribulation. Chapter 12 is the most symbolic chapter in the Bible’s most symbolic book.
THE WOMAN CLOTHED WITH THE SUN: ISRAEL (12:1–2)
12:1–2 “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”
The first of the seven personages to be introduced in this section is the woman who is described as a great sign in heaven, clearly indicated to be someone of regal splendor. The word “sign” signifies a symbol of important truth rather than merely a wonder. Subsequently, six other signs are mentioned (12:3; 13:13–14; 15:1; 16:14; 19:20). This sign in verse 1 is distinguished by being called “great.” Though the sign is seen in heaven, it apparently portrays a reality on the earth, for the woman pictured is afterward persecuted by Satan in the great tribulation. The woman is pregnant and due to give birth to a son.
Many explanations have been offered for the identity of this woman.
She does not represent Christ, nor the church in general because the church did not give birth to Christ. On the contrary, Christ gave birth to the church. Since the woman’s child is obviously Christ, some have suggested this is Mary—an implausible identification given that this woman is persecuted in the last half of the tribulation. The Roman Catholic Church insists this is Mary, but the church also teaches that Mary gave birth to Christ without pain, a teaching that is contradicted by Revelation 12.
Rather, the woman is Israel as the matrix from which Christ came. By contrast, other representative women mentioned in Revelation are Jezebel (2:20), representative of false religion as a system; the harlot (17:1–7, 15–18), the apostate church of the future; and the bride, the Lamb’s wife (19:7), the church joined to Christ in glory.
The identification of the woman of Revelation 12 as Israel is consistent with Old Testament teaching. There Israel is frequently presented as the wife of Yahweh, often in her character as being unfaithful to her husband (cf. Hosea’s prophecy). Here is the godly remnant of Israel standing true to God in the time of the great tribulation.
The regal description of the woman is an allusion to Genesis 37:9–11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Rachel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.
In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies. This identification of the woman as Israel also seems to be supported by the evidence from this chapter. Israel is obviously the source from which have come many of the blessings of God, including the Bible, Christ, and the apostles. According to Isaiah 9:6, Israel is the source of the Messiah.
As noted above, the persecution of the woman coincides with the persecution of Israel. The woman as the nation of Israel is seen in the pain of childbirth, awaiting delivery of her child. Frequently in Scripture, Israel is pictured in the tribulation time as going through great trial and affliction. Though historically the nation gave birth to Christ through the Virgin Mary, the implication of verse 2 is that the references are to the sufferings of Israel as a nation rather than to the historic birth of Christ. It may refer to the sufferings of the nation in general over its entire history. If strictly interpreted, it may signify the pain of Israel at the time of the first coming of Christ as borne out by verses 3 and 4.
THE GREAT RED DRAGON: SATAN (12:3–4)
12:3–4 “And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.”
The second sign appearing in heaven is a great dragon. From the similar description given in 13:1 and the parallel reference in Daniel 7:7–8, 24, it is clear that the revived Roman Empire is in view. Satan, however, is also called the dragon later in 12:9, and it is clear that the dragon is both the empire and the representation of satanic power. The color red may indicate his murderous characteristics (cf. John 8:44).
The seven heads and ten horns refer to the original ten kingdoms of Daniel 7:7–8, of which three were subdued by the little horn who is to be identified with the world ruler of the great tribulation who reigns over the revived Roman Empire.
The tail of the dragon is declared to draw a third part of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. This seems to refer to the gathering under his power of those who oppose him politically, and also involves his temporary subjugation of a large portion of the earth.
The dragon is seen awaiting the birth of the child with the intent to destroy it as soon as it is born. The allusion here is unmistakably to the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (the dragon referring to the Roman Empire at that time as dominated by Satan) and the attempts of Herod to destroy the baby Jesus (cf. Matt 2:13–15). It is significant that Herod as an Edomite was a descendant of Esau and of the people who were the traditional enemies of Jacob and his descendants. Whether motivated by his family antipathy to the Jews or by political consideration because he did not want competition in his office as king, Herod nevertheless fulfilled historically this reference to the destruction of children in Bethlehem.
THE CHILD: CHRIST (12:5–6)
12:5–6 “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”
The woman identified as Israel gives birth to a child who is destined to rule all nations with an iron rod (a reference to the Messiah from Ps. 2:9), but who for the time being is caught up to God’s throne. A similar expression is found in Revelation 19:15, where it is stated of Christ, “He will rule them with a rod of iron,” to be distinguished from His rule over Israel, which is of more benevolent character (cf. Luke 1:32–33).
While many Bible expositors have agreed that the woman is Israel, there has been considerable difference of opinion on the identity of the child. Some have argued that this is the New Testament church destined to reign with Christ and that the act of being caught up to God is the rapture. But the church is not the “child” of Israel, nor is the church’s mission to rule the nations. In addition, the child is clearly identified as a male, while the church is referred to in the feminine as the bride of Christ (cf. Rev. 19:6–8).
Though the pregnant woman is to be identified with Israel collectively rather than with the Virgin Mary specifically, the interpretation that the child is Christ Himself is far preferable. His catching up to God and to His throne seems to represent His ascension. An alternative view is that the “catching up” refers to the flight to Egypt after Jesus’ birth to protect Him from Herod (cf. Matt. 2:13–15). But that incident does not satisfy the conditions of Revelation 12:5, where the catching up is to the throne of God in heaven.
The Greek verb for “caught up” in verse 5 is a form of the word harpazō. This word is sometimes used to mean “to seize” or “to catch up,” as a wild beast would its prey, as in John 10:12 where the wolf “snatches them and scatters them.” The same word is used for the rapture of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where the church is caught up to heaven, and is likewise used of Paul being caught up to paradise (2 Cor. 12:2, 4), and of the Spirit of God catching up Philip (Acts 8:39).
If the identification of the twenty-four elders is properly to be regarded as the church in heaven, it would seem to mix metaphors to have the church represented as a male child, especially when the church is regarded in chapter 19 as the wife and bride. There is no good reason for not identifying the man-child as Christ and interpreting the drama of verse 5 as describing His ascension, as noted above. The fact that He is caught up not only to God but to “his throne” is another indication that Christ is intended.
In verse 6, the attention is directed back to the child’s mother, Israel. Here she is seen in the time of great tribulation fleeing into the wilderness to a place prepared by God where for 1,260 days she is cared for (again, the exact length of three-and-a-half years). There is obviously a tremendous time lapse between verses 5 and 6, but this is not an uncommon occurrence in prophecy; the first and second comings of Christ are frequently spoken of in the same sentence. Since Israel is comparatively tranquil and safe in the first three-and-a-half years of Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan. 9:27), the reference must be to the preservation of a portion of the nation Israel through the great tribulation to await the second coming of Christ.
SATAN CAST OUT OF HEAVEN BY MICHAEL (12:7–9)
12:7–9 “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And 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.”
Though the conflict of the end of the age is primarily on earth, there will also be war in heaven. Michael and his angels (that is, the holy angels) fight against Satan and the evil angels associated with him, with the result that Satan and his hordes are thrown out of heaven. The description of Satan in verse 9 is significant as all of his important titles are given: “the dragon,” a term that also applies to the empire that he dominates in the end time; “that ancient serpent,” a reference to the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Eve; “devil,” which means “defamer” or “slanderer,” the master accuser of believers; and Satan, meaning “adversary.” This name is mentioned fourteen times in the book of Job, and occasionally elsewhere (1 Chron. 21:1; Ps. 109:6; Zech. 3:1–2). Given Satan’s all-out opposition to God, it is fitting that the Greek construction of verse 7 indicates that the dragon will start this war.
The concept that there is a spiritual warfare in the very presence of God in heaven has been resisted by some expositors, preferring to regard this war as being fought in the atmospheric or the starry heaven rather than in the very presence of God. The event here prophesied was predicted by Daniel the prophet in Daniel 12:1, where it is recorded that Michael shall “arise” as the one “who has charge of your people.” This event marks the beginning of the great tribulation described in Daniel 12:1. It is undoubtedly the same event as in Revelation 12.
It may seem strange to some that Satan should have access to the very throne of God. Yet this is precisely the picture of Job 1, where Satan along with other angels presents himself before God and accuses Job of fearing God because of God’s goodness to him. Thus early in biblical revelation, Satan is cast in the role of “the accuser of our brothers,” the title given him in Revelation 12:10.
From this point in Revelation, therefore, Satan and his hosts are excluded from the third heaven, the presence of God, although their temporary dominion over the second heaven (outer space) and the first heaven (the sky) continues. Satan’s defeat in heaven, however, is the occasion for him to be cast down to earth and explains the particular virulence of the great tribulation time. Note that even as Satan accuses believers before God day and night prior to his being thrown out of heaven, so the four living creatures of 4:8 do not stop day or night to ascribe holiness to the Lord.
This is another place where we must let the words and events of Scripture speak for themselves and take them at their face value unless compelled to do otherwise. Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (literally, “the inhabited earth”), is now limited in the sphere of his operation. A major step is taken in his ultimate defeat. Believers in this present dispensation, who are now the objects of satanic attack and misrepresentation, can rest assured of the ultimate downfall of Satan and the end of his ability to afflict the people of God. Though the events of this chapter deal in general with the end of the age, it is clear that they do not come chronologically after the seventh trumpet. Rather, the fall of Satan may be predated to the time of the seals in chapter 6, or even before the first seal. His fall begins the great tribulation.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF SATAN’S WRATH AND THE SAINTS’ ULTIMATE VICTORY (12:10–12)
12:10–12 “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
The loud voice making this important announcement is not identified and probably cannot be with certainty. Some have ascribed this voice to God Himself, others to the angels, the twenty-four elders, or the martyred saints in heaven mentioned in 6:10, because they also cry with a loud voice. Support for the latter view is given in that in the same verse the loud voice mentions “the accuser of our brothers.” This would seem to eliminate angels and indicate believers in heaven. The “loud voice” may very well be the shout of triumph of the tribulation saints longing for and anticipating their ultimate victory.
The salvation mentioned here is not salvation from the guilt of sin but salvation in the sense of deliverance and completion of the divine program. The reference to strength implies that now God is going to strengthen His own and manifest His own power. The kingdom being announced is the millennial kingdom when Christ will reign on the earth. Coupled with this is the power or authority of Christ. The expression “his Christ,” also used in 11:15, parallels “his anointed” in Psalm 2:2, a reference to God’s Messiah against whom the kings of the earth rebel but under whose authority they are certain to come.
The victory of the saints in that hour is revealed in verse 11 through the use of three strong spiritual weapons. Satan’s accusations are nullified by the blood of the Lamb that renders the believer pure and makes possible his spiritual victory. The word of the believers’ testimony opposes the deceiving work of Satan in that the preaching of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The believers also exhibit total commitment to their task in which many of them die as martyrs. The word for “loved” is a form of the familiar Greek word agapē, which describes the love of God. Though these believers do not foolishly seek a martyr’s death, they do not regard their lives as more precious than their witness for Christ. They follow the instruction given to the church in Smyrna (2:10) of being faithful unto death, as well as the example of the Savior, who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15; cf. Matt. 16:25).
The voice from heaven continues, exhorting those in the heavens to rejoice because of this great victory. At the same time, the voice pronounces a solemn woe upon the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea. The awfulness of the hour ahead is attributed to the fact that the devil has been thrown down to earth and is about to unleash his wrath on the earth’s inhabitants.
The short time Satan has, refers to the great tribulation after which he will be bound for the duration of the millennial kingdom. Though many of the judgments of God inflicted on the earth during the great tribulation originate in divine power rather than satanic influence, the afflictions of the inhabitants of the earth spring largely from the activities of Satan, resulting in the martyrdom of countless saints and in widespread human suffering of every kind.
THE PERSECUTION OF ISRAEL IN THE GREAT TRIBULATION (12:13–16)
12:13–16 “And 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. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.”
Satan immediately turns his anger toward Israel. This apparently is the beginning of the great tribulation of which Christ warned Israel in Matthew 24:15–22. This had its foreshadowing in Herod’s slaughter of the infants following the birth of Christ (Matt. 2:16). It seems here to refer specifically to the great tribulation that is yet future. The persecution of Israel is a part of the satanic program to thwart and hinder the work of God. As far as Israel is concerned, this had its beginning in the miraculous intervention of God required to bring about the birth of Isaac and fulfill this portion of the promise to Abraham.
Satan used other means thereafter to persecute the descendants of Jacob, including the effort in the time of Esther to blot them out completely.
Israel is hated by Satan not because of any of its own characteristics, but because she is the chosen of God and essential to the overall purpose of God for time and eternity.
The divine intervention of God thwarts this attempt at satanic persecution. The figure of the “two wings of the great eagle” seems to be derived from Exodus 19:4, Deuteronomy 32:11–12, and similar passages where God uses the strength of an eagle to illustrate His faithfulness in caring for Israel. The same flight is indicated in Matthew 24:16, where Christ warns those in Judea to flee to the mountains.
Some have felt that the reference here is to some specific place such as the rock city of Petra, in the southern part of modern Jordan, as the end-time city of refuge for the Jewish people where at least a portion of Israel might be safe from her persecutors. Fruchtenbaum makes a strong case for Petra, pointing to clues in Matthew 24:16; Revelation 12:6, 14; Isaiah 33:13–16; Micah 2:12; and Daniel 11:41. Benware links this time of tribulation with Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, which relates to the Gentiles’ treatment of Israel as the nation undergoes this persecution.
Verse 14 implies that there is some supernatural care of Israel during this period such as that which Elijah experienced by the brook Cherith (cf. 1 Kings 17:5), or that which Israel experienced during the forty years she lived on the manna in the wilderness. Whether natural or supernatural means are used, it is clear that God does preserve a godly remnant, though according to Zechariah 13:8, two-thirds of Israel in the land will perish.
The time element of Israel’s suffering is described as “a time, and times, and half a time.” This again seems to be a reference to the three-and-a-half years of tribulation. A parallel reference is found in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7 referring to the same period of great tribulation. The dragon is here called a serpent (cf. Matt. 10:16; John 3:14 where the word is used in other contexts; Rev. 12:9, 14–15; 20:2 where “serpent” is used in connection with the devil).
The flood sent by Satan to destroy Israel and God’s supernatural protection have been the subject of various interpretations. This may be a literal flood, but the contour of the Holy Land and the fact that Israel’s people would probably not all flee in the same direction combine to make such a literal, physical interpretation improbable.
It is more plausible to understand this symbolically. The flood is the total effort of Satan to exterminate Israel, and the resistance of earth is the natural difficulty in executing such a massive program. The terrain of the Middle East provides countless places of refuge for a fleeing people. Though the exact meaning of these two verses cannot be determined with certainty, the implication is that Satan strives with all his power to persecute and exterminate the people of Israel. By divine intervention, both natural and supernatural means are used to thwart the enemy’s program and carry a remnant of Israel safely through their time of great tribulation.
THE PERSECUTION OF THE GODLY REMNANT OF ISRAEL (12:17)
12:17 “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.”
The godly remnant of Israel is identified by their faith in Christ, “all those who name the name of Jesus Christ.” While the program of Satan is against the Jewish race as such, anti-Semitism as a whole will reach its peak against Jewish believers during this period. There is a double antagonism against those in Israel who turn to Christ as their Messiah and Savior in those critical days and maintain a faithful witness.
Undoubtedly, many of them will suffer a martyr’s death, but others will survive the period, including the 144,000 sealed in chapter 7.
In some versions of the Bible such as the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the phrase translated here as “and he stood on the sand of the sea” is part of Revelation 13:1, although in the Greek text it is listed as Revelation 12:17. The English Standard Version (ESV) better reflects the Greek text, which suggests that the dragon is the subject of the verb “stood,” rather than John and also ties the dragon more closely to his origin in the sea. The reading “I stood,” meaning John, is found in the majority of the Greek manuscripts, but the reading “he stood,” meaning the dragon, is attested by the better manuscripts.
Taken as a whole, chapter 12 is a fitting introduction to the important revelations given in chapter 13. Here are the principal actors of the great tribulation with the historic background that provides so much essential information. Israel, Satan, Christ, the archangel, and the godly remnant figure largely in the closing scenes of the age. Next, the two principal human actors are then introduced: the beast out of the sea and the beast out of the earth, the human instruments that Satan will use to direct his program during the great tribulation.
(Source: John F Walvoord – Revelation)