John saw a woman clothed with the sun, having the moon beneath her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head. About ready to give birth, she cried out in pain. (12:1, 2)
Then he saw a large fiery-colored dragon with seven crowned heads and ten horns. Its tail dragged a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. Positioned before the woman, the dragon was poised to devour the child about to be born. This child, a son, was destined to shepherd the nations with an iron rod. The dragon’s aim was foiled, for the child was taken away to God and his throne. As for the woman, she fled into the wilderness to her divinely prepared place, where she would be nourished for 1,260 days. (12:3-6)
This scene was introduced with the words, “And a great sign was seen in heaven,” indicating that the woman is a symbolic figure. Developments surrounding her child appear to be the key factor in properly identifying her. The future role of her son involved rulership, and he ceased to be in any danger upon being taken to God and his throne. Only Jesus Christ fits the description. As the promised Messiah, he alone was foretold to shepherd the nations with an iron rod. (Psalm 2:8, 9) While on earth, he was threatened with death as an infant and later found himself repeatedly subjected to the attacks of the dragon (Satan the Devil), which were aimed to sway him from flawlessly carrying out his Father’s will. (Matthew 2:13-16; 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; John 14:30) As a man on earth, Jesus was vulnerable like a child. That vulnerability is evident from the words in the book of Hebrews (5:7, NAB): “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” After his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, however, the dragon could do nothing to him. Accordingly, the imagery regarding the male child portrays the situation of Jesus Christ while on earth and then his return to his Father as the possessor of all authority in heaven and on earth. (Acts 2:33-36; 7:55, 56; Hebrews 1:3)
Based on his knowledge of the writings of the Hebrew prophets, John would have known that a woman could be a symbol of a congregation of people. (Isaiah 51:17-23; 52:1-3; 54:1-17; 66:7-13; Jeremiah 2:2-37; Ezekiel 23:2-49; Hosea 2:2, 3; Micah 7:8-10) He also knew that faithful servants of God longed for the coming of the promised Messiah and that he would, as a descendant of David, be from the tribe of Judah. (Compare Luke 1:68-79; 2:25-32, 36-38.) Accordingly, a sound basis exists for identifying the woman as being representative of the true Israel of God, the servants of the Most High as a collective whole. This would make it possible to view the woman as the mother of the Messiah and, later, as the persecuted Christian congregation. Possibly, because the true people of God on earth and the faithful heavenly sons of God are members of the same family (12:10), the woman may be regarded as including the angels. The flight into the wilderness, however, may be indicative that the woman primarily is to be viewed from the standpoint of God’s servants on earth.
Neither by day nor by night is the woman in darkness, for she is clothed with the sun and has the moon beneath her feet. Possibly this is indicative of her glorious standing as the recipient of the light of God’s favor. (Compare Isaiah 60:20.) In Joseph’s dream, the stars represented his brothers (Genesis 37:9, 10), and so it could be that the twelve stars stand for the twelve patriarchal heads of Israel. The names on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, on the other hand, may suggest that the twelve stars could be linked to the twelve apostles. (21:14) Perhaps, as a “victory wreath” (stéphanos), her crown suggests the triumph that would be achieved through the child and in which God’s people as a whole would share. This would harmonize with the apostle Paul’s words to the Romans (16:20), “The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet.” The woman’s cry on account of labor pains may not necessarily depict the groans and distress of God’s afflicted servants who longed for the relief to which the coming of the Messiah would lead. It may simply be part of the portrayal of what accompanies human birth.
In 12:9, the dragon is identified as the “Devil and Satan” (the slanderer and resister of God). The fiery color could point to a record of great bloodshed, for the devil does have the power to inflict death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15) As the ruler of the world alienated from and at enmity with God, the dragon is appropriately depicted as having seven diadems (crowns indicative of rulership). (John 12:31) The ten horns apparently denote the completeness of dragon’s power over the ungodly world, and the seven crowned heads the all-embracing rulership exercised through the governing elements of the world at enmity with God. On his side, the devil has “angels” (12:7) who have allowed themselves to come under his influence and control and may be depicted as a third of the stars (a considerable number but less than half).
It appears that the period of 1,260 days serves to recall the terrible persecution of the Israelites who endeavored to observe the requirements of God’s law during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. They, too, found refuge in the wilderness. (1 Maccabees 2:19-30) In the case of God’s servants as a collective whole, there was no literal wilderness to which they could escape after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. In their case, the world of mankind in which they found themselves was like the wilderness in which the Israelites wandered before finally entering the land God had promised to give to them. Although in the world, God’s servants are no part of it. Accordingly, the woman’s place is one God has prepared for her in the sense that it is, according to his will, one distinctly separate from the world. As the Israelites were sustained in the wilderness, so the “woman” is nourished for the entire period represented by the 1,260 days and therefore is preserved alive.
A Battle in Heaven (12:7-17)
Michael and his angels battled with the dragon and his angels, resulting in total defeat for the dragon. The dragon, the old serpent (called the Devil and Satan), the deceiver of earth’s inhabitants, was ousted from the place he occupied in the realm above the earth and, with his angels, was cast down to the earth. (12:7-9) The dragon’s being referred to as the “old serpent” evidently links him to his having used a serpent to deceive Eve. (Genesis 3:1-6)
The name “Michael” means “Who is like God?” In the book of Jude (9), he is called “the archangel” and, in the book of Daniel (10:13, 21; 12:1), “one of the chief princes” and the “prince who stands for the sons of your people” (apparently meaning standing as a defender or protector of God’s people). The Septuagint (12:1) says, “Michael the great angel who is standing over the sons of your people,” whereas the version of Theodotian reads, “Michael the great ruler who is standing over the sons of your people.” In Daniel 10:21, the Septuagint refers to Michael as “the angel,” but the version of Theodotian calls him “your ruler,” that is, the ruler of Daniel’s people. Jewish apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch, dating from before the time of Jesus’ birth) includes Michael along with six other angels of the same rank, two of the others being Gabriel and Raphael (mentioned in the book of Tobit). In 2 Esdras 4:36 (included in the Greek and Slavonic Bibles), Jeremiel is called an “archangel.”
While there have been numerous commentators over the centuries who have linked Michael with Jesus Christ, it would appear preferable not to introduce this interpretation. At other times in the book of Revelation, the descriptions clearly identify the Son of God. Therefore, it would seem unusual that, in this case, the identity would not be obvious but would be concealed by calling him “Michael the archangel,” an angel whom John would have recognized as “one of the chief princes” and not, specifically, as the preeminent Son of God who is greater than the angels. (Compare Hebrews 1:3, 4.) It may also be noted that a cry of command, an archangel’s voice, and the blast of God’s trumpet are evidently referred to as heralding Christ’s return in glory. Just as the Son of God would not be blowing God’s trumpet, he would not be announcing himself with a cry of command and an archangel’s voice. (1 Thessalonians 4:16; compare 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52.)
Based on his familiarity with the book of Daniel (10:13, 20, 21), John would have known about conflicts in the superterrestrial realm, with Michael coming to the rescue in support of another angel. Therefore, the war in heaven likely suggested to John the dragon’s desperate, hostile attempt to interfere with Jesus Christ’s exercising the full authority he had been granted.
The triumph Jesus attained through his death, as the apostle Paul wrote, “disarmed the rulers and authorities.” (Colossians 2:15, NRSV) While on earth, Jesus specifically referred to Satan’s future fall from heaven and his being cast out. (Luke 10:17, 18; John 12:31) Consequently, it would appear that the battle in heaven basically depicts the enforcement of Christ’s victory, ejecting Satan and his demons from the realm above the earth. No longer could they exercise the kind of superterrestrial tyranny from which people of the world of mankind alienated from God could not be freed. By accepting what Christ had done for them in laying down his life, people who once feared the powers of darkness above them and were enslaved to them gained their liberty. The total defeat of the powers of darkness meant that they could not again make involuntary slaves of those who had been freed or stop the flow of more people into the exalted realm where Christ is Lord. (Compare Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 1:13, 14.)
John heard a loud voice in heaven announcing what the defeat of the powers of darkness had accomplished: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers (who accuses them day and night before our God) has been cast out. And they have conquered him by the Lamb’s blood and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their souls [when faced with] death. Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and those dwelling in them. Woe for the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great rage, knowing he has little time.” (12:10-12)
The defeat of the powers of darkness signified salvation or triumph and proved to be a manifestation of divine power. God is the Supreme Sovereign, and the decisive action against the dragon and his angels revealed undeniably that God’s kingdom had come against its enemies. Moreover, Christ’s all-embracing authority had been displayed in the conflict that vanquished the powers of darkness.
The victory over the powers of darkness also opened up salvation or deliverance for people of all races, nations, tribes, and language groups. As God’s spirit became operative toward all who responded in faith to what Christ accomplished by his death, the workings of a tremendous power became evident in the dramatic changes produced in their lives. (Compare Ephesians 1:17-2:10.) In ever-increasing numbers, people chose to be willing subjects of God’s kingdom and to submit to the authority of his Christ.
The dragon’s accusation seemingly is the slander hurled against the “brothers” of the faithful angels, claiming that they were impure in their motivations and actions. (Compare Job 1:9-11; 2:3-5; Zechariah 3:1-4) As humans, they were sinners and not without blemish. By having the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice applied to them on the basis of their faith in his shed blood, however, any accusation made against them amounted to slander. So it would indeed be by the Lamb’s blood that they would conquer the false accuser, maintaining loyalty to God and Christ while trusting fully in the cleansing that had been effected in their case. (Compare Romans 8:1, 17, 33, 34; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Revelation 1:5.) The triumph of the brothers even in the face of death, not loving their souls or lives when the “word of their testimony” concerning Christ could lead to death (from which they could have saved themselves by denying him), would reveal them to be unconquerable by reason of their faith in Christ’s shed blood and its benefits for them personally. Perhaps the proclamation about the triumph of the brothers is to be regarded in an anticipatory sense, as Christ’s loyal disciples would find themselves facing death for their testimony. Another possibility is that the brothers include even those servants of God before Jesus Christ came to the earth. The one sacrifice of Christ did cover all sins — past, present, and future. By reason of their faith in the coming Messiah, God’s ancient servants could be said to have conquered by the Lamb’s blood. (Compare Hebrews 11:4-12:1) One’s considering the woman to represent all of God’s servants would allow for the possibility that the brothers include all who proved themselves to be persons of genuine faith. (Compare Luke 13:28.)
While the defeat of the powers of darkness meant great rejoicing in the heavens, the dragon and his angels were not destroyed and were still in a position to wreak havoc on the earth or among humans. The devil’s fury was great, as he knew his time was limited, and this portended woe or calamity for the land and the sea, or people everywhere. God’s servants would become the special object of the devil’s rage.
Expelled from the superterrestrial realm, the dragon pursued the woman. To enable her to flee quickly into the wilderness and away from the serpent, she was given two large eagle wings. There, in the wilderness, she would be nourished for three and a half times. The serpent’s efforts to destroy her by spewing forth water like a river to drown her failed, for help came from an unexpected source. The earth opened up and swallowed the water. Apparently this image of the woman’s escape served to show that God’s people as a collective whole or a congregation would not be destroyed. (Compare Matthew 16:18.) As individuals, however, they would experience the devil’s rage, for he would war against the “seed of the woman” or those who observe God’s commands and bear witness concerning Jesus. (12:13-17)