1 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. – Revelation 12:1-6 ESV
With the beginning of this section of his book, John records yet another sign that is given to him, but this time he describes it as a great sign (mega sēmeion). This one is particularly significant because it provides John and his readers with a backdrop or explanation to all that is about to happen. It is the program that provides the identity of each of the primary actors in the great drama that is about to unfold. In a sense, God is providing us with the back story so that we can better understand all that is going to take place. First, John describes seeing “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). And while John sees this sign in heaven, it is actually a representation of an earthly reality. This sign is being provided by God from heaven, but it relates to all that has happened and will continue to happen on earth.
The woman is presented as wearing regal apparel, having a crown (stephanos) on her head. But she is pregnant and clearly experiencing the pains of childbirth. In order to discern this woman’s identity, we must look further into John’s description of the sign, where he says, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5 ESV). This is an unmistakable reference to Jesus. It ties directly to this Messianic passage found in Psalm 2:
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” – Psalm 2:4-8 ESV
Just to make sure that we understand this as a reference to Jesus, John uses a similar expression later on in his letter.
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. – Revelation 19:15 ESV
So, it would seem that the pregnant woman John sees is a representation of the nation of Israel. It is not the church, because the church did not give birth to Jesus. It was Jesus who gave birth to the church. The most logical and likely explanation is that John is being given a vision of Israel, represented as a pregnant woman. And this imagery is consistent with the rest of Scripture. Israel was often pictured as a pregnant woman.
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… – Isaiah 26:17 ESV
7 “Before she was in labor
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
8 Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
she brought forth her children.
9 Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?”
says the Lord;
“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”
says your God. – Isaiah 66:7-9 ESV
It was the nation of Israel that gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. He was born as a descendant of Abraham. And Jesus’ Hebrew lineage is further portrayed by the reference to the woman being adorned with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars. This imagery is reminiscent of the second dream that Joseph, the son of Jacob had.
9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” – Genesis 37:9-10 ESV
God gave Joseph a second dream that predicted events that were to come. Eventually, his father, mother and brothers did bow down to him. He would be sold into slavery by his brothers, out of jealousy, but he would end up the second-highest official in the land of Egypt. And his family would come to Egypt seeking relief from a famine in the land of Canaan, only to find that their long-lost son and brother was now in charge of their fate and their future.
It is clear that the sun is a reference to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and one of the patriarch’s of the Jewish nation. The moon is a picture of his wife, Rachel. And the 12 stars are the 12 sons of Jacob, who would become the 12 tribes of Israel. So, the woman in the sign revealed to John is none other than the nation of Israel. As a Jew, all of this imagery would have been very familiar to John and unquestionable as to its meaning. And the woman’s obvious pain from childbirth is an indication of Israel’s pain and suffering before the first advent of Jesus. For more than 400 years the nation had suffered the loss of their sovereignty as a nation, having been destined to repeated subjugation at the hands of various nations, including that of the Romans at the time of Jesus’ incarnation. They had no king. They were powerless as a people. And as John revealed in his gospel, they were a people living in darkness.
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV
But there was another character revealed to John and, while this one would have been disturbing, it would have been no less obvious in terms of its meaning. He saw “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3 ESV). And John will leave no question as to the identity of this dragon, because he spells it out in no uncertain terms in verse 9: “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” The term “dragon” is found 12 times in the New Testament and in each case it occurs in the book of Revelation and always in relation to Satan. All the imagery associated with this character conveys his power and aggressive nature. He is pictured as having seven heads and ten horns, and upon each of his seven heads is a crown (diadema). Much of this imagery will be unpacked later on in John’s book. But the seven heads are thought to represent seven nations that are to come to power in the ends times. The ten horns, according to Revelation 17:12 “are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast.” These ten kings will operate under the power and influence of Satan himself. And, according to Daniel, there will rise up one who will defeat three of the kings, leaving only seven remaining.
I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots… – Daniel 7:8 ESV
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
and shall put down three kings. – Daniel 7:24 ESV
John describes seeing this dragon using his tail to sweep a third of the stars from heaven, which then fell to earth. This is a picture of Satan’s rebellion against God and his eventual fall. This event is recorded for us in the book of Isaiah.
12 “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.” – Isaiah 14:12-15 ESV
Satan attempted to overthrow God and somehow encouraged a third of the heavenly beings to join him in his rebellion. But he was defeated and cast down to earth, along with all those who chose to side with him. And verse 4 tells us that Satan attempted to “devour” the child born to the woman. This would seem to be a description of Satan’s repeated attempts to thwart the plan of God for the redemption of the world by trying to eliminate Jesus as the means by which that salvation came. First, he led Herod to try and kill Jesus while He was still an infant. Then he tried to sway Jesus from His mission by tempting Him. When that failed, Satan enticed the Jews to crucify Jesus, hoping to end any hopes of Him becoming Israel’s Messiah. But it all failed. And the woman’s “child was caught up to God and to his throne.” Jesus died, but rose again and returned to His Father’s side in heaven. And John is shown that the woman, Israel, will flee “into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days” (Revelation 12:6 ESV). The 1,260 days is 3-1/2 years, an indication that during the second half of the 7 years of tribulation, the nation of Israel will be protected by God and provided with some form of refuge from the attacks of Satan. We know that during the first half of the tribulation, Israel will experience relative peace because the Antichrist or world ruler will make a covenant or peace treaty with them, allowing them to rebuild the temple and re-institute the sacrificial system. But at the midway point, he will turn on them, persecuting and putting them to death. But God will protect His people.
With these signs, John is given a backdrop against which to view all that is about to happen. Satan and Israel will be major players in all that is to come. The chosen people of God, Israel, are prominently portrayed in the end times chronology. God is not done with them yet. And while they rejected their Messiah when He came the first time, there will be a remnant who turn to Him and are restored to a right relationship with God because of His second coming.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.