Revelation 12 documents what is arguably one of the most vivid and compelling images in all of John’s vision—we read:
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.
This is a vivid picture—the woman, radiant and elegant, contrasted with the dragon, wicked and twisted. Here stands a portrait, placed in the heavens as a sign for all to see, that is expansive in its implications. I hope, in the exercise that follows, to touch on these implications.
However, before we can address these implications some preliminary work is necessary. And this preliminary work is necessary for a pair of reasons—first, because the most common way to read John’s vision—as a word about the future—is the most misleading way as well. And while there is vast misunderstanding about the nature of apocalyptic literature as a whole, let me say at this point only that John wrote this to the first century Church, that he expected them to understand him, and that his dominant desire was to encourage them while they endured persecution under Roman authority. Our attention, so long attuned to the future implications of John’s words, has been robbed of its present, rich, and potent encouragement for us. The second need for this preliminary work is because John’s imagination is fed and fired by his immersion in the Old Testament—in fact, it is not too strong a statement to say that without some knowledge of the Old Testament, the meaning of John’s Revelation is impenetrable. Permit me, then, to jaunt through this passage now, in as brief a fashion as possible, in order to illuminate some of the images John employs to illustrate his ‘sign’. From those images, I want to draw our attention to a series of ‘compressions’ that John makes. From those compressions, I want to make an observation about Federalism.
The first ‘sign’ in this passage is the woman, and the description of her clothing echoes one of the dreams of Joseph found in Genesis 37:9. There, Joseph sees his father (the sun) and mother (the moon) and brothers (11 stars) bowing down to him—Joseph’s dream was a sign, foreshadowing the future when Joseph would indeed be raised above his family in authority in Egypt. The clothing, here, is the first witness to the woman’s identity—she represents Israel, dressed as God’s elect queen (an image which also hearkens to an abundance of Old Testament references). But her identity shifts as quickly as we get a handle upon it, because in the next verse (12:2) we read that she is pregnant and about to give birth. Reading ahead (verse 5), we can see that her child is Jesus, the one who would “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (a reference to Psalm 2). Therefore the second witness to the woman’s identity shows that she is Mary, mother of Jesus.
The second ‘sign’ in this passage is of the dragon—seven-headed, seven-crowned, ten-horned, and red (the sevens here document the utter completeness of his evil); displaying his opposition to the ways of God in his disregard for God’s creation (the sweeping away of stars), and in his intentions to devour the child of God’s promised people. He knows, from the curse declared by God in Genesis 3, that this child will “crush his head” (Gen 3:15). That he is in fact the same serpent is made clear at 12:9: he is Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent from the garden. This revelation has two interesting implications: first, that in some sense the woman in our passage is also Eve, and second, that the dragon here is also Herod, who sought to devour the Christ-child at his birth.
The woman in this passage is rescued and preserved for ‘1,260 days’ (v6). Later, after the dragon has been defeated, he pursues the woman again—she, once again, is rescued—this time for ‘a time, times, and half-a time’ (v14). The language of ‘time, times, and half a time’ is an echo from the book of Daniel, and stands for a period of three and a half years, which is, for all intents and purposes, identical to 1,260 days. Here, again, the Old Testament is our friend, and what I believe we must see is that this number—three and a half years—represents the period of exile. For more clarity in this matter we need to turn back to chapter 11, where these numbers occurred together again, along with a third figure—that of 42 months (11:2—also three and a half years). This third figure enhances our understanding in a couple of ways; first, because the period of Israelite exile in the wilderness was, in total, 42 years (40 for the exile, 2 traveling to and waiting at Sinai); second (and perhaps more obscurely), that the number of encampments that the Israelites make while exiled is 42 (cf. Numbers 33). This number, then, identifies not only periods of exile, but also testifies to God’s provision and ultimate plan superintending exile. And perhaps it is not too far a stretch to observe that the two periods of the woman’s exile equal 7 ‘years’—a completion. Enraged at his impotence to harm God’s chosen queen, the dragon makes war “against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v17). Here, then, the Church steps into view as the target of the devil’s schemes; unable to harm God, to harm God’s son, or God’s chosen queen, he turns his ire against God’s servants.
There is a great deal more that can be said, contextually and historically, about this passage, but for our present purposes we have enough information to move forward, and here I would like to draw attention to a number of ‘compressions’ in this passage. What we must see in this passage is that John has compressed heaven and earth, he has compressed time, and he has compressed individuals and nations. This ‘sign’ he documents is a sign that points to a heavenly reality, it is an ageless sign, and it is also a representative sign. Consider, for the next moments, the ways in which these ‘characters’ play throughout all of salvation history. First, the woman represents Eve, the first queen, and the dragon/serpent is her enemy from the garden, Satan. There also is prophesied the enmity between her offspring and the serpent. Second, the woman is nation Israel in Egypt, giving birth to children while Pharaoh, the dragon, attempts to kill her children (and succeeds). From her comes Moses, a chosen child who leads Israel out of exile (a forerunner to Christ). Third, the woman is Mary, who gives birth to Jesus, and must flee Herod, another dragon, who kills infants. Fourthly, then, and with the most impact upon us, the woman is the Church, God’s chosen and radiant bride, we are her children, persecuted by the dragon, and the dragon—especially for John’s audience—is Rome (which, ominously, is a city built on seven hills). Here, then, in John’s sign, we see that the material and the spiritual are compressed—heavenly realities are revealed in earthly actions; we see that time is compressed—we shift from the beginning of time, to the dawn of the exile, to the birth of Christ, to the new ‘exile’ of the Church in the world; and we see the compression of individuals and nations—the Heavenly Queen/Eve/Israel/Mary/Church acts in a play against Satan/Pharaoh/Dragon/Herod/Rome.
What is the encouragement, then, from this passage? The encouragement is manifold. First, John is providing his suffering churches with a framework for interpreting the persecution they are undergoing. Their enemy, he claims, is not Rome itself, but the serpent who has long opposed God’s ways. John is simply casting into vivid imagery a teaching that Paul casts in statements: “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). The good news in John’s Revelation is also that this enemy is thoroughly defeated (go read the poem at 12:10-13 and this will become clear). Second, we can rest assured that we, as God’s chosen Church, are secure with God’s provision during this period of exile—He Himself superintends our care. Third, that we are marked as targets of the Serpent’s enmity because we declare ourselves through our obedience to Christ—in other words, persecution is a mark of our faithfulness, and we should, in some ways, be ‘encouraged’ that our service to God makes us targets.
A curiosity in this passage is that, though Jesus stands at the centre of this story, he is not its primary focus; the focus falls upon God’s people and the enemy of God’s people. And this, I suppose, is because the ‘sign’ that John sees stands in the heavens because it is a picture of our entire age on earth—all of the history of God’s people thus far and all the history into the future is captured in this image. This ‘sign’ testifies to us about the nature of both God’s chosen people, and also about His people’s hate-filled enemy. And perhaps that is the most encouraging aspect of the entire vision: our enemy is predictable: we can anticipate how he will behave in a given situation. But so also, in some sense, God is predictable as well, and will always care for and save His chosen people. Take heart, then! What you are part of is part of the greater story, of which God is victor and you are secure in Him.
The final observation I want to make is not, specifically, a point that John was making—John’s specific point was the instruction and encouragement of the Church. This point is something we can extrapolate from John’s image, and although it was not John’s purpose to communicate it, I believe it is part of the fabric of his image. The final point I want to make is about Federalism. Federalism is the name of a theological idea which attempts to explain how it is that we (a) participate in Adam’s sin and (b) participate in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. Essentially, it states that we all are represented by Adam (as a government representative stands for the people of his/her constituency), and that his actions have correlative implications for us. And this is where John’s vision is helpful, because John, here, clearly sees a bright correlation between heavenly and earthly realities—his ‘compressions’ testify to a broader picture of what is happening at this moment in what we call ‘reality’. Employing John’s ‘compressed’ sight, we can take a long view of our salvation history and see the following things: first, that John’s picture provides us with a way to see that Adam sinned, and therefore we all participate in the sin of Adam through this heavenly matrix—more even than that, we are presently participating in Adam’s sin. And second, John’s compressed sight can also help us to see that the same mechanism is active in applying Christ’s death, atonement, and resurrection to us, and how we (through belief and baptism) become participants in his work for us. And employing the same implications of John’s compressions, we can see that we are presently dying with Christ—indeed, dying with him each hour of each day—and also presently living with Christ in his resurrection. And even further, we can perhaps elucidate the sense in which Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundations of the world” (Rev 13:8). In the end the message I want to communicate is that in the economy of God’s work in the world, events in the past have present and continuing impact. In other words, the atoning work of Christ is an eternal sign in the heavens which is actively working in and informing our present reality.
So tell me, read this way, are you encouraged by Revelation 12?