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. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 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. 5 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, 6 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.[i]
Many ancient mythologies contain a story about the despotic usurper fated to be destroyed by a yet unborn prince. It shouldn’t surprise us that so many cultures share some form of this mythic storyline since it was the first promise made to the parents of all humanity, Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. [ii]
One such myth familiar to John’s readers in Roman Asia was the story of Apollo. When his mother, Leto, was pregnant with Apollo by Zeus she was attacked by the dragon, Python. Python knew Apollo had been appointed to kill him. But Zeus sent a great wind to carry Leto away to an island where Poseidon hid the island under water. Four days after Apollo was born, Apollo found the dragon and slew it.[iii]
No doubt there were those listening to this letter being read who hear the similarities to John’s vision in Revelation 12 and the myth of Apollo. But John didn’t need to draw on Greek mythology for this vision. He paints with the colors of the Old Testament, from the promise of the Seed of the Woman and the life of Moses, and the New Testament gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. This vision of the woman, child, and dragon in Revelation 12 is the “big picture” account of the history of God’s people on earth. It begins the second half of Revelation.
The first half of Revelation provided prophecies to seven churches of Roman Asia and some general overviews of history in the 7 seals and 7 trumpets. We heard about the world’s opposition to the gospel, Messiah’s judgment of the earth-dwellers, and the church’s calling to fight the holy war through worship and witness. The second half of Revelation focuses on the chief enemies in the holy war taking place behind the scenes. We see Satan aided by two beasts, the whore of Babylon, and the earth-dwellers who all bear the mark of the beast.
The 12th chapter is considered by many scholars to be the central vision of the book. It shows the conflict between the church, the devil, and Messiah. It’s a painting that recalls Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”[iv]
THE WOMAN (12:1-2)
John’s vision begins, “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.” [v] With the sound of the final trumpet and its praise chorus still reverberating, John sees a great sign in the same heavens where he has just seen the heavenly temple and ark of the covenant. Right up front, John lets us know that what he sees is not an actual woman, but a symbol of something (not someone). This is not the virgin Mary because John says up front what he’s seeing is a sign, and because verse 17 tells us this woman’s children include “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” [vi]
This symbolic woman represents the faithful community of God’s covenant people existing both before and after Messiah’s incarnation. It includes all the Old Testament saints who looked in hope to the coming of the long-promised Seed of the Woman. The image of the sun, moon, and stars comes from Genesis 37, where Joseph dreams of the sun, moon, and eleven stars as Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph’s 11 brothers bowing down to him (the 12th star/tribe of Israel). The woman is yet another representation of the spiritual temple, the 144,000 sealed into Christ, the earthly city of God, the citizens of the New Jerusalem. It’s a picture of Galatians 4:26, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”
Like Jacob’s vision in Genesis 37, this sign in the heavens of Revelation 12 emphasizes the radiant glory of God’s covenant people. This is how God sees all the people trusting into Messiah. It’s the heavenly perspective on what the city of God on earth looks like from his eternal purpose and perspective. She is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”[vii] She is clothed in the radiant glory of the light of God represented by the sun and moon. “The OT also associates Jerusalem with Solomon’s queen, who was “as beautiful as the full moon, as pure as the sun” (Cant. 6:10 and the parallel in 6:4).” Isaiah 60:19-20 also uses sun and moon imagery to describe Israel as a promise that God will glorify his people after their exile and persecution. Later Jewish writings apply this imagery to the faithful among Israel, the true Israel of God (Gal. 6:16).[viii]
Jesus does not see our congregation as too small, too poor, too unimportant, or too boring because we don’t have lazars and smoke machines and a big rock band. He sees it as a lampstand in the dark wilderness. Satan doesn’t see this congregation too unimportant. He is attacking many of us with snarling fierceness because this is a place where the light of the gospel is preached, prayed, sung, and portrayed in the sacraments. If you want to see what God sees in this church, look at Revelation 12:1.
John writes in verse 2, “She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” [ix] This picture sums up all Israel’s history as she labored to produce Messiah. She was pregnant with the Seed of the Woman from the moment God called Abraham and promised him the Seed, the Christ who would crush the serpent’s head. The woman’s crown shows her share in Christ’ kingship from the time before his birth and into eternity. That’s how we know she is bearing a royal seed as she labors to deliver the child. Isaiah sang (Isa. 26:17), “Like a pregnant woman /who writhes and cries out in her pangs /when she is near to giving birth, /so were we because of you, O Lord….” [x]
The mission of God’s people, the earthly city of God, is reflected in verse two. Our duty is to deliver Messiah by proclaiming his law and gospel to one another and to the earth-dwellers bound in captivity to Satan and his minions. The church doesn’t exist to provide humane services to the world. It exists to bear Christ, to hold up Jesus so that those sealed into Christ before the foundation of the world will become aware of their salvation.[xi]
The church is our mother, she raises us and our children and gives birth to those born again from the work of the Spirit. But there are always birth pains. There were travails for Israel before Messiah was born and there are afflictions for the church in this present age. That’s why it crucial to see this picture of a woman precious to God, radiant in his purpose of redemption, protected and beloved by the Father who keeps mother church and all her children safe from ultimate destruction.[xii]
Revelation explains to God’s people in these last days why we experience the things we do. The first half of Revelation deals with the historical realities of our birth pangs. It showed our sin and failure in chapters 2 and 3. We saw Christ pouring out limited judgment upon the earth-dwellers to protect his church in chapters 6 and 7. We saw further judgment in chapters 8 and 9 designed primarily to harden the hearts of the earth-dwellers and display God’s glory as he calls refusing idolaters to repentance. We see these events as God’s response to the church’s prayer for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (8:3-5).
Now, in chapter 12, we see the overarching explanation for all history. There is a great spiritual battle raging behind the scenes. Verse 3 begins, “And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon….”[xiii] Underneath all the visible history of the world is a spiritual enemy bent on destroying Messiah and his kingdom. John names him in verse 9 as, “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world….”[xiv] He is ancient because he first appeared to Adam and Eve as a beguiling creature who invited them to celebrate a sacramental meal symbolizing their freedom from God’s rule. Satan didn’t invite them to worship him; he invited them to worship themselves. Ever since, our most basic desire has become self-worship (Gen. 3:1-6).
In that moment where God sent the serpent into God’s garden-temple so that God’s priest, Adam, could pronounce the Last Judgment upon this godless angel, Adam and Eve began to worship themselves and party with the forces of evil. They became earth-dwellers without hope until God spoke in judgment and blessing. The Lord promised holy war between Satan, his minions, his earth-dwelling followers and the Seed of the Woman, Messiah Jesus (Gen. 3:15). All those who trust into the perfect work and sacrificial death of the now-risen and ascended Christ are combatants in this holy war, be they Old Covenant saints awaiting Messiah’s first coming or New Covenant saints awaiting the consummation of his earthly kingdom.
The dragon imagery John sees here not only goes back to the Garden of Eden, but also includes the mythological dragon imagery that symbolized chaos and evil in all the ancient world. In the Old Testament, Egypt was referred to as a sea dragon (Ps. 74:13–14; 89:10; Isa. 30:7; 51:9; Ezek. 29:3; 32:2–3; Hab. 3:8–15). In Jeremiah 51:34 and Amos 9:3, Babylon is the great sea dragon. [xv] In Isaiah 27:1, the prophet wrote of God’s judgment of Assyria, saying God “will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”[xvi] Behind all the biblical references to the sea dragon as nation-states bent on destroying God’s chosen people is the great red dragon of Revelation 12. He is the true monster lurking in history whom Peter called one who, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[xvii]
The dragon is red because he is the father of bloodshed and murder. Jesus said of him:
He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.[xviii]
In ancient mythology, the many-headed dragon was considered impossible to slay. Seven heads speak to the fullness of his earthly power. His 10 horns speak of the strength of his evil in the world that he holds under his sway. The fourth and most terrible beast of Daniel’s visions had 10 horns (Dan. 7:7, 24). Daniel associated the horns as nations under the beast’s control. The red dragon’s princely authority over nations and cultures is further shown by the 7 crowns worn on the 7 heads. These symbols of his earthly, usurped dominion cause Paul to describe our enemy as, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”[xix]
Satan may rule, but he does not serve his subjects. He destroys them: they will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. [xx] Behind the earth-dwellers idols (the things they seek for self-fulfillment and self-generated happiness) lie such dark emptiness, bleak despair, and deep disappointment they long for suicide. Their ruler cares nothing for them. They hurt themselves and fantasize about death. Yet, John has written in Rev. 9:20-21 that they:
…did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. [xxi]
You who do not trust into Christ this morning, how is that working out for you? I’m willing that, like me, you know people who bear the physical scars of their longing for death. But still those suicidal folks pursue that which does not satisfy because their ruler cares nothing for them. His delight is in your misery. The dragon doesn’t simply sweep his tail to cause earthly harm to the true citizens of heaven (12:4), he is an equal-opportunity pathological narcissist. But, only those who are sealed into Christ have Christ’s hand of protection and his promise of true life. His tail-sweeping my wipe out of third of God’s witnesses from the earth in his attempt to damage heaven, but God will deliver his slain witnesses safely into the New Jerusalem and raise up more until the time Messiah returns with final judgment in his hands.
After God cursed the dragon in the Garden of Eden, Satan began his attempts to murder the Promised Seed. He incited Cain to kill his god-fearing brother Abel (Gen. 4:8). He led Pharaoh to order the deaths of all Jewish boy babies as soon as they were born (Ex. 1:8-16). He moved King Saul to repeatedly try to murder David, through whose line the Promised Seed would come. In Babylon, the dragon moved Haman to plot a Jewish holocaust (Ester 3:15) only to be stopped by Queen Ester whom God placed with the Persian king. The devil moved King Herod to slay every male child in Bethlehem under two years old (Matt. 2:16) to put an end to Messiah. Throughout all history, God’s people have been plagued with the birth pains of the dragon trying to slay the Promised Seed and his subjects.
Then John sees, in verses 5 and 6, that the Promised Seed is born. “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron….” [xxii] The one whom John would later preach to his congregation in Ephesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8) comes into the world. Maybe you caught the allusion to Psalm 2 (the iron rod), the psalm John has been using to describe the rebellious, raging earth-dwellers and the Messiah who will defeat them as God the Father laughs at their futile attempts of overcome his kingdom. The nations in Old Testament literature refers not so much to political entities as all gentiles, all peoples outside God’s saving covenant with his people. It refers to the earth-dwellers.
Earth-dwellers hide among God’s people. Take Judas, a disciple who healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead all while preaching Christ. But the red dragon used him to betray Jesus into the hands of Jewish and Roman authorities who crucified the Promised Seed. Finally, it seemed the dragon had devoured the child. But it was the perfect sacrifice of the perfect Promised Seed upon the cross at Calvary that crushed the dragon’s head. To announce that fact to the dragon, the Promised Messianic Seed was raised out of the grave. He ascended into heaven and took his seat on the heavenly throne as the great Lion-Lamb worthy to execute God’s saving covenant of judgment and blessing. The murderous work of the dragon results in the death of his power and, ultimately, his eternal deathly punishment.
He cannot destroy the woman, the temple-city of God, for God hides her in the wilderness as he hid Israel for 1,260 days. If you are trusting into Christ, you live surrounded by a spiritual wilderness of earth-dwellers desperately pursuing their demonic idols. But in this wilderness, you are nourished with the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17). You are sustained with the tapas of Word and sacrament, worship, and prayer pointing you to Christ the overcomer who fights the holy war for you as you stand resisting the red dragon. The dragon hates to hear it, but we proclaim to one another today: Jesus wins! He wins because he already won when he hung himself upon a cross to break the power of sin and absorb the wrath of God for all God’s people.
If you are not trusting into Christ this morning as your only hope in life, the universe, and everything, we invite you to come find rest in him. He alone offers water in the wilderness. He alone is shelter from the dragon. He alone rescues from destruction.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [xxiii]
[iii] Beal, 624.
[viii] Beale, 625. Phillips, 342-343.
[xi] Phillips, 344.
[xv] Beale, 632.