The woman, the man and the dragon

Revelation 12, a vision of the Serpent, the second Eve and the second Adam, comes exactly half way through the book and embraces the whole of history, from the promise in Genesis that a child of the first woman would crush the Serpent’s head to the birth of the child and his eventual return from heaven to rule the nations with a rod of iron.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cries out in travail and the pain of giving birth.
The imagery evokes the originally created solar system: the sun, moon and twelve planets. 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 the Church, reflecting his light, and the planets the twelve apostles. The woman is Eve, the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), that is, the mother of those whose names have been written in the book of life, the sons of the resurrection (Matt 22:32, Luke 20:36). Since not all Eve’s descendants are living in this sense, she is also, more specifically, the ‘daughter of Zion’, mother of all who have chosen life (Gal 4:26). Both physical and spiritual birth is at the cost of much suffering (Gen 3:16). At the time of Jerusalem’s siege and conquest by the Babylonians, the nation was compared to a woman in labour (Jer 4:31):
I heard a cry as of a woman in travail,
    in pain as of one giving birth to her first child,
the voice of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
    stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.”

But she gave birth only to wind; she accomplished for the earth no deliverance (Isa 26:17f). More national suffering now precedes this birth.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. And his tail sweeps down a third of the stars of heaven, and he cast them to the earth.

The dragon is the same beast as the legged serpent of Genesis 2-3, but since then he has acquired many heads, indicating that as the post-Cataclysm world divided into kingdoms, he became the ruler of those kingdoms. The interpretation offered is that the seven heads symbolise the 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 fragments we call comets and asteroids (aster being 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. ‘Cast’ is the same word as in Rev 8:5, where fire is cast on the Earth. 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. Antiochus IV, king of a Hellenic empire that stretched from Turkey to Iran, was a fervent promoter of Greek religion, particularly the worship of Zeus, the supreme god. The inscription reads King Antiochus, God manifest, bearer of victoryHe 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 and the angel-worship that they represented (Deut 32:8, 17, Ps 89:5-7, I Cor 10:20). In 167 BC, provoked by an uprising, 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). The unintended consequence was that many angels were swept out of heaven, Satan’s kingdom divided against itself. As Daniel predicted, the king ‘grew great, even to the host of heaven. … And he cast down some of the stars and trampled on them.’

When Eve found herself deceived, God said to the Serpent:
I will put hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He shall crush your head,
    and you shall crush his heel.

The Serpent’s offspring (John 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 saw him as one who would make atonement for our sins. The bonds of the daughter of Zion would be loosed. Barren, afflicted, storm-tossed, she would give birth to many children through her husband Yahweh, God of hosts (Isa 52-54).

And the dragon stands before the woman about to give birth, in order that when she bears her child he may devour it. And she gave birth to a son, a male, who is to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron. And her child was caught up to God and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that she may be nourished there 1,260 days.

As an individual, the woman is Mary, who bore the child Jesus, the only-begotten son of God and the second Adam (I Cor 15:22, 45). Every birth is a moment of wonder, but this one especially was. 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, 9:6). He was not only the ‘Son of Man’ but the ‘Son of God’.

When Herod heard that magi from the East were seeking one who had been born king of the Jews, he feared that the child might become a threat to his rule and summoned the theologians. They confirmed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, as foretold by the prophet Micah. Perceiving that it would not be long before everyone linked the child with this prophecy, Herod had every boy under two years old in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. He was but one among many rulers in history 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 fled to Egypt.

The king as shepherd of his people was a common trope in the Ancient Near East. Psalm 2 looked to the coming of a king who would shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2). Until then, 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, kings will gather for battle at Har Megiddo, 30 km SE of Haifa, in the hope of preventing Christ from returning to Zion. But God holds their plans in derision. He has made it known long ago 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 sat at the right hand of his Father. An indeterminate interval was to pass between his first appearance 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. The inhospitable world beyond the promised land was not merely the desert to the south but the ‘wilderness of the nations’ generally (Ezek 20:35, Rev 17:3).

And war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting with the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but did not win, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown out, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown to the earth, and his angels thrown with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown out who accuses them day and night before our God. They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who sojourn in them! But woe to earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great anger, because he knows that his time is short!”

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 and continued to have access to the Father, free to accuse before him 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 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 both in and 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 disciple. 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 therefore expect to suffer, for Satan’s awareness that he, already thrown out of heaven, will be cast into the abyss like the other rebel angels only intensifies his hatred of humanity. Invisibly, and by suggestion as well as by outright lies (“Did God really say… ?”), he deceives the whole world. Europe’s turning away from the God of her forefathers is a consequence of that deception.

Angels were, and are, involved in the struggle between good and evil that plays out in the visible (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 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 Jews, 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).

The twenty-three previous occurrences of ‘heaven’ up to 12:12 have all been singular. Now, this once only, the twenty-fourth word is plural: “Rejoice, O heavens!” The word will occur twenty-three more times after 12:12. The ejection of Satan from heaven marks a turning-point in history.

When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the man. And the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she might fly from the presence of the serpent to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. And the serpent threw water like a river out of his mouth after the woman to carry her away. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon threw out of his mouth. And the dragon was furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Unable to pursue the king of the Jews, the dragon persecutes his people. That the Jews have survived at all after nineteen hundred years of homelessness and persecution is due to God; the hostility is Satan’s. The pursuit came to a head with Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews in the Second World War, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. He slaughtered millions. But in 1948 Palestine became 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.

Jews deported to the Nazi concentration camps

The Old Testament often speaks of a second Exodus when Israel will be restored to the land, but nowhere does it say that the land will rightfully belong to her before the Messiah comes to give it. He himself will bring them back to the land of their forefathers (Isa 60:21, Jer 16:15, Ezek 28:25). 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 there now, 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 remain unfulfilled, and therefore the land itself is 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.

Jesus told his disciples, “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 [the events culminating in his parousia], you know that he is near, at the gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” The fig tree symbolised the Jewish people and their capacity to bear spiritual fruit (Hos 9:10, Joel 1:7). If it failed to 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 again began to put out leaves. How long is a generation, counting from 1948?

But first Jerusalem must once more come under Gentile occupation (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2). Then two men speaking in the power of Moses and Elijah will appear in the city and nourish its people with the food of the Law and the Prophets, to make ready for the Messiah a people prepared (Luke 1:17).

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 the statue 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.” Then God will intervene. He will break the yoke of their burden as on the day of Midian. Just as there came an end to Job’s sufferings, so too will Jerusalem’s come to an end (comparing Job 7:1 with Isa 40:2). She will have ‘received double for her sins’ – double because this final trauma comes on top of what she suffered at the hand of the Romans. And having rescued, God will enter into judgement with his people in the ‘wilderness of the nations’, just as he did with their forefathers in the wilderness of Egypt (Jer 31:2, Ezek 20:34-38, 34:11-22). ‘The Lord will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel” (Isa 27:12). They will inherit the promised land only after they have passed under the rod and walked along a highway of holiness (Isa 35:8-10, 40:3, 43:19); the unclean 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 the followers of Christ rather than Christ himself. As in Hebrew, ‘offspring’ is literally ‘seed’, referring to those who are begotten again by the living and abiding word of God (I Pet 1:23). 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 – in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, the DRC, to name a few – 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?”

In Europe he does not need to be so coercive, for the Church pretends that there is no war. She makes love with the the great prostitute that is under judgement, appearing in many respects more like her than the Bride clothed with linen, bright and pure. But she will not be allowed to remain in that in-between state (I Ki 18:21). She will be made pure by persecution.