The Backstory of History (Rev. 12:1-6)
Is it too soon to wish you a “Merry Christmas”? This passage makes for the perfect Christmas text. But before we get to it, let’s review.
With the blast of the seventh trumpet the wrath of God fell upon unbelievers and the saints were gathered. We came to the end of the third cycle in Revelation. The letters to the seven churches was followed by the breaking of the seven seals, which was followed by the seven trumpets. Visions of judgment intersect with visions of glory.
Revelation deals with the big picture of life. We learn about the culmination of all that God is doing in this world. We pay attention in order to endure life’s greatest challenges. We need a view of God that can handle ultimate trials. This morning’s passage supports that end.
John just witnessed the deepening revelation of the glory of the heavenly temple as it was opened and the ark was made visible. From there, John provides a summary of redemptive history. From chapters 12-14 we see seven sketches which mostly point to the spiritual realities that lie behind history. Although the histories are not explicitly numbered they follow the pattern of the seals and trumpets which began with Christ’s earthly ministry and culminate in his triumphant return. Therefore, the theme of Christ’s victory over evil carries through this section as well.
Read Rev. 12:1-6
This passage establishes the main characters in the backstory of history.
The Woman in Labor (1-2)
John tips us off that the woman is “a great sign”. She is not a literal person. That doesn’t mean everything else is literal. The basic method of interpretation is symbolic. But, as he starts another cycle, he reminds his audience of this principle.
The associations of this woman point to her cosmic importance. She is someone of high esteem. In Gen. 37:9-11, Joseph has a dream that the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. His father, Jacob, rebuked Joseph for suggesting that he and Rachel, and his eleven brothers would bow before him. This happened when Joseph rose to power in Egypt.
It seems John Is using these cosmic beings to represent the whole family of Israel. The woman is the “mother” of the Messianic community under the old and new covenants. Simply put, this woman represents the universal church wearing a crown of victory. In v.17 she is the “mother” of “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”
But why is she in labor? Isa. 26:17-18 depicts Israel writhing in labor but only giving birth to the wind. They were unable to bring “salvation to the earth.” But this woman is about to give birth to the Messiah in fulfillment of Micah 4:10. This child would truly rescue God’s people. Salvation belongs to him. This is why God preserved his rebellious community. Because it is through the line of promise that this child would be born.
The pain of childbearing was prolonged for thousands of years. The covenant community lived in agonizing labor pains to bring forth this child of promise. Now that Christ has come, it is the mission of the Church to testify of him until he returns.
This woman in labor represents the church clothed in the radiant splendor of holiness. She has been set apart and protected by God as “the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8). God rejoices over her as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isa. 62:5).
But this illustration takes it to another level. Because here the woman is not only gloriously beautiful, but she is pregnant. The husband remains enamored by her beauty, but he is also filled with the protective instincts of a new father. That is God’s posture toward you!
You have been loved and preserved from the threats of…
The Dragon in Waiting (3-4)
The dragon is associated with “that ancient serpent” (v.9) who has always been at odds with God’s purposes. The dragon is described as “great” and “red”, two descriptors repeatedly associated with evil in Revelation. He has seven heads each crowned, not with a victory wreath (as the woman), but with the crowns of royalty. It conveys his authority. He also has ten horns which imply that he wields his authority with power and strength (Dan. 7:7).
The dragon has great authority over the evil spiritual realm, just as the beast in the next chapter will have great authority over the earthly realm. The greatness of the dragon’s authority and power rival that of God, but they are counterfeit. What looks like complete control is, in fact, vastly inferior to the sovereign authority of this child. This seven- headed dragon will be swiftly defeated (20:10) when our Lord returns wearing “many crowns” (19:12).
This dragon shows its strength by sweeping a third of the stars from the sky (cf. Dan. 8:10). Some have taken this as a reference to the angelic beings who were swept to the earth with Satan (Job 38:7; 2 Pt. 2:4; Jude 6). But it seems more likely to be a display of his attack upon God’s created order. Satan brings chaos and disturbance in opposition to God. He makes war on the woman and her child. Satan’s ultimate goal is to sabotage God’s redemptive purposes in Christ Jesus.
This very conflict was promised in Gen. 3:15 and carried on throughout the Old Testament. Cain killed Abel and after Seth’s birth the world grew so corrupt it appeared that evil had won. But God sent the flood and preserved his promise through Noah’s family. God established his covenant with Abraham. And even though he was old and Sarah was past the age of child-bearing, God miraculously provided them with the son of promise, Isaac.
Jacob dealt with the threats of Esau. Joseph survived in Egypt. God led them out of Egypt through Moses, but then the wilderness threatened to end them. The Israelites experienced miraculous victory in wars through Joshua, but under the Judges they spiraled into deeper and deeper compromise. David was almost taken out by Saul. Various kings faced foreign threat and exile. Queen Esther saved the nation from genocide. In the grand scheme, we see Satan’s various threats to the peace and purity of the Church repeatedly fail.
The dragon is waiting to devour the woman’s child as soon as it is born. He attempted to slaughter the child through Herod’s decree (Mt. 2:1-18). He attacked Jesus again with temptation in the wilderness. He landed his strongest blow when he entered Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders, who handed him over to Roman authorities to be crucified. The dragon appeared triumphant.
But the cross that killed the child was the very means God used to crush the head of that ancient serpent. Christ defeated the power of sin as he died upon the cross! And in Christ’s resurrection, the enemy of death was also defeated. Death lost its sting. Finally, upon Christ’s return every vestige of evil will be removed from this earth.
But, since we still undergo spiritual attack, we can assume we are still living in the midst of these days. Evil has not been eradicated just yet. These days will not conclude until Christ’s Second Coming.
We must take spiritual warfare seriously. It is not something to lightly dismiss. Satan roams about like a roaring lion seeking to devour the woman’s offspring (1 Pt. 5:8). Our primary struggle is spiritual in nature (Eph. 6:12).
Do you believe that your main struggle is against an opposition that you cannot see? If so, it should change the way you live, the things you fear, and where you place your hope. You will not expect instant relief and gratification on earth, but you will be sustained by the hope of a future “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading—kept in heaven for you” (1 Pt. 1:4)!
You trust that the dragon was ultimately defeated by…
The Child in Power (5-6)
A child is born – one who would rule the nations (Psa. 2:7-9). Notice, this third character is not referred to as a “sign” because a literal person is in view. Nearly all commentators agree that this child is Christ, the seed of the woman promised to rescue God’s covenant people (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4).
This child would have total dominion over mankind. But, the child was caught up to heaven and God’s throne. He was not removed from his dominion, rather his ascension established his reign.
Some commentators teach that the reign of this child is an earthly reign for a thousand years in the future. He is in heaven now, but when he returns he will establish his reign on earth. But, it makes more sense with the context (and the rest of Scripture) to see this reign as beginning upon Christ’s ascension.
The focus of the narrative is Christ’s birth and ascension. These events bracket his earthly ministry which includes his redemptive accomplishments both in his humiliation and exaltation.
After making several post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven. He sat down “at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19) in order that he might “fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). Jesus was “taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16) so that it might be perfectly clear to everyone that he had accomplished his earthly mission.
He secured the redemption of his covenant people in his death and resurrection, and now – having ascended into heaven – Jesus appears “in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). Everyone has “been subjected to him” (1 Pt. 3:22).
- By ascending the Holy Spirit came in power upon the church (Jn. 14:15-17; Acts 2).
- It confirmed Christ’s supremacy.
- It affirmed the Father’s approval of the Son’s sacrifice.
During this time the woman flees to the wilderness where she is nourished and protected by God for 1,260 days. These numbers (42 months, 1,260 days, “time, times, and half a time”) refer to the present age where the church is both protected and persecuted. It is a period equal to half of seven years (a complete timeframe). The idea is that God would limit this period of persecution. Jesus taught that the time would be shortened “for the sake of the elect” (Mt. 24:22; Mk. 13:20). The 1,260 days is a time of wilderness suffering, yet divine nourishing.
Just as the wilderness generation was preserved and looking forward to entering into the Promised Land, so the Church is presently being preserved through various trials and tribulations, while looking forward to the New Heavens and New Earth. This is what the Promised Land ultimately pointed to (Heb. 11:10).
Jesus escaped all of Satan’s attacks during his earthly ministry. Now he reigns from heaven protecting his bride. Nothing can thwart God’s purposes! But this is a sobering thought as well. Those who do not submit under Christ’s reign will fall under his judgment. The King will protect his bride defeating all his and her enemies.
The great drama of history centers around the promised child who defeated the great dragon.
Christians belong to the Church Militant. We are in constant spiritual warfare. Satan’s power is great as John has previously written to the Church (1 Jn 5:19). But he has already been defeated, and we can trust that we will be protected and provided for in the midst of our trials.
Our present time is a time of testing. Since it is a spiritual war, our weapons are not carnal. Instead of a sword we take up the Word of God. Instead of shields we are protected by faith in Christ. Instead of responding to evil with vengeance, we respond with compassion and prayer, entrusting ourselves to a just God.