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Today's Study

Revelation 12:1-3: Who Are the Woman and the Dragon?

The images presented in Revelation are vivid. The one in Revelation 12:1-3 is part of a set of pictures that serve as a prelude to the final end of the age, since the seventh trumpet, the penultimate judgment, has already blown. Yet what are we to make of this picture? Who is this woman? What is this dragon? How do we interpret such images, which remind us more of Greek mythology than of most Scripture?

John's images are intended to be meaningful, but at the same time he uses them because they can also be fluid. Both the woman and the dragon have a fluidity about them that allows them to be useful to the author.

First, we look at the woman. There are two women in this section of Revelation. The first is this woman, God's woman. The second is the woman of Revelation 17, a prostitute. The opposition reminds us of the two women of Proverbs 1--10, the one lady wisdom and the other the loose woman. Here the first woman is clothed with heavenly glory, the sun, with the moon being under her feet. The second woman is clothed in "purple and scarlet," colors of earthly emperors. The first woman has twelve stars for a crown. The second woman has gold and jewels. The first woman gives birth, but the second woman appears sterile. There is a contrast in every way.

We recognize that the second woman is Rome; is the first woman Jerusalem? There have been several answers to that question. Some scholars point to the twelve stars and argue the parallel to twelve patriarchs. Indeed, the whole picture, including the sun and the moon, reminds us of Joseph's dream (Gen 37:9). Other scholars look at the incident of the birth of the child and claim that the woman is Mary. Still others point out that the sign appears in heaven, so this must be some idealization of the people of God, God's true bride. I do not see that one must choose among these interpretations. Jewish thought often oscillates between the one and the many. For example, in the servant songs of the second part of Isaiah the servant is sometimes Israel (Is 49:3) and sometimes an individual (Is 49:5), and in Daniel the Son of Man (Dan 7:13-14) and "the saints of the Most High" (Dan 7:18) also alternate. So in our image the woman is God's people, the faithful of Israel. The woman is also Mary, who individualized that faithful group in giving birth to the Messiah.

In the second part of the chapter the image of the woman shifts, for she is persecuted. Is she still the faithful in Israel? Or is she now the wider people of God, Jew as well as Gentile? Certainly in her flight to the wilderness we are reminded of Jesus' words (Mk 13:14; Lk 21:21), which the Jewish-Christian church acted upon just before A.D. 70. Does it then mean that God will protect a Jewish-Christian group? Or should we remember his words in Matthew 16:18 that "the gates of Hades" would not overcome his church, therefore interpreting this as a reference to his whole church? Perhaps the correct answer is both. The image is that of the flight of Israel from Pharaoh into the wilderness and the flight of the church from Jerusalem in the A.D. 66-70 war. This shows that God will care for and protect his church, specifically during the time when the forces of evil reign apparently triumphant, the 1,260 days. All of the lies and demonic forces that the dragon can spit out cannot destroy this church. But at the same time the dragon makes war with the woman's children, the Christians. So while the church as a whole is protected and cannot be stamped out, Christians as individuals will experience the anger of Satan, even martyrdom.

Second, then, we have the dragon. This image is drawn from Old Testament pictures of Leviathan, the many-headed sea monster (Ps 74:13-14). The monster is sometimes mythological in the sense that he is not identified with any historical embodiment, and sometimes a specific enemy of God's people, such as Egypt (Ps 74:14; Ezek 29:3) or Assyria (Is 27:1). This picture was medi-ated to John via Daniel, who describes a fourth beast with ten horns (Dan 7:7). John, of course, makes very clear about whom he believes Daniel is talking (or in terms of whom he is reinterpreting Daniel), for he writes in Revelation 12:9, "The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray." Yet this dragon also has an earthly embodiment. The "beast coming out of the sea" (Rev 13:1) has seven heads and ten horns like the dragon, as does the beast the great prostitute rides (Rev 17:3). And as the prostitute parodied the woman clothed in the sun, so the dragon parodies someone else. Revelation 12:3 notes that he has seven crowns, while in Revelation 19:12 the "King of kings and Lord of lords" has many crowns on his head.

The dragon naturally tried to destroy Christ, the child in the story. John is not interested at this point in the life and death of Christ, but moves from his birth to his ascension. However, we must remember than in his Gospel the "lifting up" of the Son of Man is both cross and ascension, so this does not mean that the cross is absent from his thought.

John's concern is with the war of the dragon against God's people. The war has two phases, a heavenly and an earthly. The heavenly phase is fought by Michael, "the great prince who protects your [that is, Daniel's] people" (Dan 12:1), and his angels. The dragon has swept one-third of the angels with him in his fall, so he also has angels to fight with. But he is the loser. Even though God never appears on the scene, but fights through his angels, the victory is secured. Satan loses his access to heaven. When does John see this as happening? Although some scholars refer this to the original fall of Satan, it probably happens at the end of the age, for it happens after the child is caught up to heaven. Furthermore, there is plenty of Jewish testimony to the idea of Satan's having access to heaven during world history.

There is also a battle on earth. The human beings apparently do not see their foe. Yet they defeat the devil. In fact, the outcome of the war in heaven appears to be parallel to that on earth, just as Daniel's prayers in Daniel 10 appear to be parallel to a battle going on in the spiritual realm, a battle he knows nothing about until he is informed. In Revelation the human beings win, not because of their strength and wisdom, but because of their trust in "the blood of the Lamb" and their open confession of their faith in him. They were so firm in this trust and confession that "they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death" (Rev 12:11). The devil could make martyrs, but each martyr was the devil's own defeat. The martyr was safe with God in heaven; the devil's power over the person had crumbled. In other words, the primary means of spiritual warfare is commitment to God and his redemption in Christ, a commitment so openly confessed and so radical that even death will not shake one from it.

This battle is fought throughout the Christian age, but it is most intense at the end of the age. In this period of 42 months the devil is fully aware that he has lost, both in heaven and on earth. Now he just wishes to destroy, to "make war" against "those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (see Rev 12:17). The reason John is writing this picture is so that such people will hold on until martyrdom or the end of the age.

Like all of his apocalyptic pictures, this one is not intended to scare Christians. It does portray them as characters in an eschatological battle of gigantic proportions, but at the same time it portrays the limitations of the devil himself, not to mention his angels, and his final end. Furthermore, it portrays the protection of God over his saints, as well as his eventual victory. This is designed to encourage the Christian to stand fast, whether he or she is living in the ongoing struggle of the Christian age or in the intense struggle of the final phase of that time. Dragons may be the stuff of fantasy, but in this case the fantasy is real, even if hidden in the spiritual realm, and the stakes are high. Yet the outcome is sure for those who remain firm in their commitment to Christ.

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