The Revelation of John, chapter 12: A vision of the Serpent, the second Eve and the second Adam
According to the prophet Daniel, the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem would mark the sealing up of vision and prophet. Ezra, who established the Torah as the official law of Judah, began that task in the 7th year of Artaxerxes, datable to 458 BC. From then on, there would be no more prophecies, and no understanding of those delivered, ‘until the time of the end’. This was itself a prophecy, for Daniel received the vision of the decree to restore Jerusalem in 539 BC, at a time when the city was in ruins. The last Old Testament prophet was Malachi. Although not precisely datable, he is thought to have delivered the oracle known by his name in the same era as Ezra. In a sense, the Law was revived and the Prophets buried. It was as if God had poured out on Israel ‘a spirit of deep sleep’, so that she could not understand the prophets (Isa 28:13, 29:10-12).
What follows is an explanation of the vision in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation. John was told not to seal up its words, for its fulfilment was seen as being near. The time of the end began with the coming of Christ (Dan 9:24, I Cor 10:11). With him ‘the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret all down the ages has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings made known to all nations’ (Rom 16:25). Today, the end really is near.
The imagery evokes the originally created solar system: the sun, moon and twelve planets. The woman is Eve, the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), that is, of those whose names have been written in the book of life, sons of the resurrection (Matt 22:32, Luke 20:36). Since many are not living in this sense, she is also, more specifically, the ‘daughter of Zion’, mother of all who have chosen life (Gal 4:26). In relation to Israel, the sun symbolises Jacob, the moon Rachel, and the planets his twelve sons (Gen 37:9). In relation to the people of the new covenant, the sun symbolises Christ, the moon his Church, reflecting his light, and the planets the twelve apostles. The pain of childbirth also evokes the first chapters of Genesis (Gen 3:16).
The dragon is the same beast as the legged serpent of Genesis 2-3, but since then he has acquired many heads, indicating that in the post-Cataclysm world, divided as it is into kingdoms, Satan controls those kingdoms. The interpretation offered is that the seven heads symbolise, in particular, successive empires that interacted with Israel’s history: Egypt, Assyria, Chaldaea, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, plus the various caliphates of Islam. The ten horns are a confederacy of ten kings or kingdoms yet to arise.
Early in Earth history, four of the twelve planets exploded into the fragments we call comets and asteroids (aster is the Greek word for ‘star’). Some of the fragments hit the Earth, including those that pummelled the Earth during the Flood-Cataclysm and the many that left craters still preserved on younger crust. More such impacts are foretold (Rev 6:13, 8:8, 8:10, 16:21). As before, the imagery draws on the originally created solar system, but the prime significance is spiritual: the stars represent angels worshipped as gods above with power over political events below. The reference is to Antiochus IV, king of the Hellenic empire that stretched from Turkey to Iran, about whom Daniel predicted, ‘He grew great, even to the host of heaven. … And he threw down some of the stars and trampled on them.’ Here is an instance of Satan’s kingdom being divided against itself: he sweeps his fellow angels out of heaven. Records of Antiochus’s reign show him to have been a fervent promoter of Greek religion, particularly the worship of Zeus, the supreme god. He claimed to be his incarnation, calling himself ‘God manifest’. History is silent on the point, but in promoting the Greek pantheon he must have destroyed many indigenous cults – expressions of allegiance, it is implied, to real beings (Deut 32:8, 17, Ps 89:5-7, I Cor 10:20). Provoked by an uprising, in 167 BC he sacked Jerusalem, banned observance of the Law of Moses, and erected in the Temple a statue of himself as Zeus, the foretold ‘abomination that makes desolate’ (Dan 8:13, 11:31, 12:11).
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He shall crush your head,
and you shall crush his heel.
The Serpent’s offspring (Jn 8:44) have always persecuted the offspring of the woman. But the prophecy in Genesis looks to the end of the ages when one of her sons would crush the Serpent decisively, though at a cost. Isaiah had a vision of the man, one who would make atonement for our sins. The bonds of the daughter of Zion would be loosed, for her husband was Yahweh, God of (the angelic) hosts. Barren, afflicted, storm-tossed, she would have many children; they would be taught by Yahweh himself (Isa 52-54).
As an individual, the woman is Mary, who bore the child Jesus, the only begotten (monogenos, John 1:14) son of God and the second Adam (I Cor 15:22, 45). No other angel was ever begotten by God (Heb 1:5), i.e. through union with a human mother. He was the offspring promised from the beginning (Gen 3:15) and promised again to Abraham (Gal 3:19), David (2 Sam 7:12) and Isaiah (Isa 6:13). He was both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’.
When Herod heard that magi from the East were seeking one who had been born king of the Jews, he immediately suspected that the child might be a threat to his own rule and summoned the theologians. Citing the prophet Micah, they confirmed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod observed that others believed it, even if he did not believe himself, so he had all the boys under two years old in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. He was but one in a long line of rulers who have tried to stifle testimony to a kingdom that would supplant their own, and by no means the first. He was too late. Mary and Joseph had already fled to Egypt.
Until the coming of the one who will shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2), Earth will continue to be a battleground. The battle is cosmic, focused on questions of ownership: who owns the Earth, and who owns our souls. One day, not far off, kings will gather for battle at Har Megiddo, 30 km SE of Haifa, in the hope of preventing Christ from returning to Zion and ruling over the nations. But God holds their plans in derision. He has already made it known that the one appointed will dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. He has already said to his Son, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110).
Forty days after his resurrection, the Son ascended to heaven and did sit at the right hand of his Father. There was to be a long interval between his first appearance in humility and his second to defeat his enemies by force. In AD 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, enslaved the surviving inhabitants of Judaea and exiled them to other parts of the Empire, including Rome. Thus the wilderness signifies the ‘wilderness of the nations’ generally (Ezek 20:35), the inhospitable world beyond the promised land. There might also be a reference to believing Jews in Judea, who just before the siege of Jerusalem received a warning to flee to Pella on the other side of the Jordan. Note that the Romans never erected an ‘abomination of desolation’ in the ‘holy place’ (Matt 24:15), and the term topos agios is distinct from that used for the temple on the site, to hieron (Acts 21:28).
Before the return of Christ the Devil himself is thrown out of heaven. For with the spread of evil on the earth, heaven too was corrupted (Eph 6:12). The angels were God’s sons (Gen 6:2, Ps 82). Those that copulated with women before the Flood-Cataclysm were cast into the abyss under the earth (II Pet 2:4, Jude 6). However, Satan was not among them, continued to have access to the Father, and was free to accuse in his presence those on earth who seemed righteous (Job 1:6). God had limited his own power so that Satan and the other angels who received worship in the new world could only be expelled from heaven if they were defeated by fellow angels, and their power to do that depended, firstly, on the victory of God’s firstborn over Satan on the cross (Luke 10:18), and secondly, on the willingness of his followers to bear witness to him, even at the cost of their own lives.
When John received the vision, the Church was tiny, less than 70 years old, and going through extreme persecution; the prophecy that Satan and his angels would no longer be worshipped as gods in heaven was far from its fulfilment. Yet in Europe and even beyond the Roman Empire, over the course of the first millennium the vision came to pass. The gospel fell on fertile ground. Many believed, and many passed on the message, despite threats to desist or die. In holding fast to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, Christians themselves overthrew the Devil. Even the Roman Emperor became a Christian. Whoever knows nothing of this should read The Blood of the Martyrs by Leigh Churchill or The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark or (for a drier, more sociological focus) The Conversion of Europe by Richard Fletcher.
The declaration that the kingship of God and of his Christ had come does not mean that the Earth was now in harmony with heaven. It means simply that public worship of pagan gods had ceased. Once, all the kingdoms of the world were Satan’s to offer to the Son if he would but fall down and worship him (Matt 4:8f). Now they were no longer entirely his. Nations began to worship the true God. The Earth can expect to suffer as a result, for Satan’s awareness that he too will be cast into the abyss only intensifies his hatred of humanity. By suggestion (“Did God really say… ?”) as well as by outright lies, invisibly he deceives the whole world. We see in our own time how Europe has turned away from the God of her forefathers. Eventually, one of the expelled angels (Rev 9:1) is allowed to unlock the abyss. From it demons emerge with power to torment but not kill. Four more bring up a vast multitude of other demons which do have the power to kill (9:15ff).
When visible, angels have a human form (Gen 18:2, Dan 10:16), the form in which God chooses to reveal himself. They are made in his image. The saints, offspring of the woman, are their brothers, being also sons of God. Later the angel says to John, “I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book.”
In their hidden world the angels were, and are, involved in the struggle between good and evil that plays out on earth (Dan 10:13). In the ancient world every nation had its own god (the Babylonians Marduk, the Moabites Chemosh, the Philistines Dagon and so on). These were angels, sons of God exercising spiritual power without his authority (Deut 32:8, 41, I Ki 18:20). They ruled as king through their representative, the nation’s human king. Power came from the worship of their subjects, who looked to their god to make the land fertile and to protect them against their enemies. When Yahweh chose Israel and said to her, “I will be your god,” he put himself at the same level – an entirely characteristic decision not to force himself on the world (Phil 2:6). Maker of heaven and earth, he was the national god of only one nation, worshipped only by her. She had to know by faith that he was in fact king of all the nations (Isa 37:16, Jer 10:7, Dan 4:17).
Michael is the angel of the Jewish nation, but under God, not seeking worship for himself. Churches too have their own angel (Rev 1:20), presumably with a similar relationship and function (Heb 1:14). Jesus Christ is the only angel with authority to rule over the nations, and while he received it from his Father, his worshippers gladly assent to it (Rev 5:12). They accord him glory, majesty, dominion and authority: God is enthroned on the praises of his people (Ps 22:3).
Unable to pursue the king of the Jews, the dragon persecutes his people. The pursuit came to a head with Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews in the Second World War. But in 1948 Palestine was turned into a national homeland for them, a place of refuge. The two wings of the great eagle’ recalls the time when God looked after Israel when she was first in the wilderness (Ex 19:4, Deut 32:10-12), and indicates a great distance. Many settlers arrived by aeroplane.
The Old Testament often speaks of a second Exodus when Israel will be restored to the promised land, but nowhere does it say that the land will rightfully belong to her before the Messiah comes to give it. The Jews were driven from their land two thousand years ago because they did not recognise him. Even today few recognise him, and those who dwell in the land of their ancestors, according to a poll, are among the least religious in the world. Vision and prophet are still sealed up. The conditions for their rightful occupation of the land remain unfulfilled, and therefore it is still characterised as a wilderness (cf. Isa 64:10, Jer 17:6). Indeed, the population was predominantly Gentile in 1948. Apparently a repetition of v. 6, the flight in v. 14 is from one part of the Gentile world to another. Nonetheless it is foreseen, and represented as providential. The Jews regained control of Jerusalem in 1967.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things [events culminating in his coming to gather his elect], you know that he is near, at the gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The fig tree symbolised the Jewish people and their capacity to bear spiritual fruit (Hos 9:10, Joel 1:7). If did not bear fruit, it would be cursed (Matt 21:19) and cut down (Luke 13:6-9), as happened in AD 70. With the rebirth of the Jewish nation state and the growth of Messianic Judaism, the fig tree has again been putting out leaves.
But first Jerusalem must once more come under Gentile occupation (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2). Two men speaking in the power of Moses and Elijah will appear in the city and nourish its people with the words of the Law and the Prophets, preparing them for the tribulation that is yet to come.
A second Antiochus figure (II Thes 2:4) will erect ‘an abomination of desolation’ on the site of the former Temple, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock now stand. Presumably this is the statue of himself referred to in the next chapter (13:14). At that point the inhabitants of the land again must flee. “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now.” The power of the holy people will be shattered (Dan 12:7), the houses of Jerusalem plundered, the women raped and half the city sent into exile (Zech 14:2) along with the rest of the population (Joel 3:2). “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes” (Rev 13:10, Isa 49:21, 52:2f). Thus when he intervenes, God will enter into judgement with them in the ‘wilderness of the nations’, just as he entered into judgement with their forefathers in the wilderness of Egypt (Jer 31:2, Ezek 20:34-38, Hos 2:14f). They will only enter the promised land after they have passed under the rod and walked along a highway of holiness (Isa 35:8-10, 40:3, 43:19); those who have transgressed against him will not be admitted.
The torrent of water is a reference to the wars of 1967 and 1973 (cf. Ps 124, Isa 8:8, Dan 9:26, 11:10). The Devil was furious that Israel survived these wars, so now he makes war on the rest of the woman’s offspring, namely Christians. This is where we are at the present time. The Church in Turkey, Syria and Iraq has been almost eradicated. Elsewhere, where there are still sizable communities – Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, the DRC, to name a few countries – Christians are killed, kidnapped, enslaved, forced to marry Muslims, raped, imprisoned, tortured, because the Accuser knows that his time is short. The souls of the martyrs cry, “How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
In Europe he does not need to be so coercive, for the Church pretends that there is no war. She makes love with the civilisation that is under judgement, appearing in many respects more like her – the great prostitute ‘adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality’ – than the Bride clothed with linen, bright and pure. The Spirit says to her, “I counsel you to buy from me gold purified by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness not be exposed.” Those who do not have ears to hear Jesus will spit from his mouth (Rev 3:16).