It is a pivotal story placed at the center of John’s Apocalypse, but who are the characters, and what does it mean? A radiant woman gives birth to a baby boy with a big destiny. A fiery dragon hurls a third of the stars to earth, then tries to devour the infant. Somehow, the infant is forcibly seized and brought up to God while the woman flees to a desert asylum and there is nourished for a long span of time.
Commentators in this camp see this as a flashback to a story that has already been told earlier in John’s Revelation. To the historicist, the oracles concerning the seals and the trumpets covered the scope of church history. Now, John is circling back with a second set of visions that will cover the same timeframe.
The first set of visions dealt with the outward events of church history. The second set of visions will deal with inner affairs of the church. Seen this way:
- Woman is the true church bearing the fruit of growth in numbers and maturity.
- Heaven represents the governance of the Romans. The sun and the moon symbolize the highest authorities, whereas the stars would be lesser authorities.
- Male child stands in for all the people of the Church who are destined to rule the world one day.
- Dragon symbolizes all those who ruthlessly persecute the Church, particularly Rome.
- Third of the Stars represents a time when a third of ruling authorities were against the Church, identified as Maximum’s reign in the Asian portion of the Roman Empire, beginning in 313. The rest of the Empire, under the rule of Constantine, extended favor to Christianity.
- Child caught up to God speaks of the Church’s destiny surviving in spite of fierce persecution, as shown in Constantine’s full reign beginning in 324.
- Rod of Iron represents the sternness of Constantine’s rule, who now stamped out all other religions.
Scholars who concentrate on the Jewish War of 66-70 CE part ways in this chapter.
Jerusalem Group: One group of interpreters continues to see Jerusalem in view. For them, Babylon is simply another name for this city judged by God. The first part of John’s vision reveals the Lamb, God’s judgment on the enemies of God, and the avenging of Christian martyrs. The second part reveals the Church’s conflict with all the powers beset against it.
Rome Group: But the other group sees prophecy concerning the Roman Empire and Babylon refers to the city of Rome. At this point, the judgment of Jerusalem is complete, the final war waged, the temple destroyed. Chapter 12, then, represents the transition into the demise of the Roman Empire.
For both groups of expositors:
- Woman is the Old Testament faithful.
- Male child is Jesus, born out of their faithfulness. Their cries in travail are the prophets proclaiming Messiah’s coming.
- Dragon has a direct corollary to Daniel’s vision of four beasts, and points to four world empires which followed each other: Babylon-> on Medo-Persia-> Greece-> Rome. Each was an attempt by the Beast to gain world dominance.
- Caught up to God symbolizes Jesus ascending into heaven
- Fleeing woman represents Jewish Christians fleeing from Jerusalem but continuing to be pursued by Roman persecution. The dragon destroys Jerusalem only when it becomes clear that his intended prey has escaped.
- 1,260 Days is the timeframe in which Christians are protected in the hills to which they have fled during the three-and-a-half year siege of Jerusalem and/or the three-and-a-half years of Nero’s brutal assault against Christians.
There are four women depicted in John’s Revelation. The first is a woman named Jezebel, leading some people astray in the assemblies of Thyatira.
The other two women will not be featured until the harlot is introduced, and later her counterpart, the Bride of Christ.
Queen of Heaven
For the Catholic commentator, the woman in labor is none other than Mary, mother of Jesus, portrayed as the Queen of Heaven. She is arrayed in the sun, the moon is her footstool, and she is crowned with stars.
Some Protestant theologians tend to see the woman as a representation of the Church, and the male child as those who come to saving faith during the Tribulation. To bolster their case, interpreters compare Jesus’s words to the assemblies in Thyatira with the destiny of the woman’s infant son:
“And the one conquering and the one keeping My works until the end, I will give to that one jurisdiction over the nations,
“and that one will shepherd them like a staff of iron as the vessels of potters are shattered …”Revelation 2:26-27
Those who heeded Jesus’s words would be considered conquerors and would receive jurisdiction over the nations. Theologians have offered some ideas about what that might mean, coming largely from the reference Jesus made to Psalm 2
- To reign with Christ over the whole earth during the millennium, with particular interest in unsaved nations.
- To be part of the saints who will reign in heaven with Christ.
- To reign over other Christians of lower rank or status in the new earth.
Most futurist expositors, however, see the woman as Israel – or, at least, the faithful remnant throughout Israel’s Old Testament account – and her son as Christ. Her appearance evokes Joseph’s dream of Abraham as the sun, Leah as the moon, and he and his brothers as twelve stars.
Israel’s son must be Jesus because Psalm 2 is a Messianic prophecy. This description of Christ’s rule will also be reiterated later in John’s Revelation.
Just two verses after this passage, the dragon will be named for who he is, Satan, and his description seems to imply he is associated with a revived Roman Empire.
Scholars are split on this issue as well. Is this a description of Satan’s ancient revolt? Are these Satan’s horde of damned angels? If so, then it must be a retrospective, in the midst of prophecy. Some interpreters instead believe this is Satan’s attempt to suppress those who are opposed to his rule.
The Cross and Resurrection
Satan’s design to destroy Christ is itself destroyed when Jesus rises from the dead, triumphing over sin, corruption, and death itself.
Oasis in the Wilderness
However, the woman fleeing is again a symbolic depiction, this time of Jewish people who flee the persecution of the Antichrist, and escape to a wilderness area in Palestine. For many commentators, the ancient mountain stronghold of Petra comes to mind, a city carved entirely out of living red rock in Jordan, near the Dead Sea.
Second Half of the Tribulation
The timeframe matches with Daniel’s vision of the second half of the seventieth week. The scope, then, of John’s description covers the first coming of Christ as an introduction to His imminent Second Coming.
These theologians see Chapters 12-14 as the fourth act in the great drama of the Apocalypse. John describes the span of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, and current reign against the backdrop of Satan’s attempt to destroy Him (Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants comes to mind).
- Woman is either believing Israel, or all those who have professed faith in God throughout time.
- Painful travail represents faithful Israel’s painful travail while awaiting Messiah.
- Dragon is clearly Satan, seeking to crush Messiah (think of the protoevangelium). Seven heads indicate complete authority, ten horns show military might, seven diadems refer to political power.
- Third of Stars are the fallen angels who join Satan’s rebellion
- Son is Jesus
Because Jesus ascended into heaven, out of Satan’s reach, the devil can only vent his spleen on the Body of Christ, the Church. But God has prepared sanctuary for the beleaguered Church, and will care for all those who put their faith in Him throughout church history.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg