Rev. 12:1 – A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. 2She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony to give birth. 3Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and 10 horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4His tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she did give birth he might devour her child. 5But she gave birth to a Son – a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter – and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6The woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, to be fed there for 1,260 days. (HCSB)
Between the seventh trumpet and the first bowl judgment there is an interlude of four chapters featuring remarkable imagery and stunning characters – from the Lamb to a fiery red dragon. It begins with John describing “a great sign in heaven” and the appearance of three larger-than-life beings.
Woman, dragon, child
First, there is a pregnant woman clothed with the sun. The moon is beneath her feet and a crown of 12 stars adorns her head. Next, we see a great fiery red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns. He wears seven kingly crowns. His tail sweeps away a third of the stars in heaven and hurls them to the earth. This terrifying creature positions himself in front of the woman so he may devour her child as soon as He is born. Finally, there is a male child, one who will shepherd all nations and be caught up into heaven with God.
This passage ends with the woman fleeing into the wilderness where she receives divine protection for 1,260 days.
What does all this mean? Who is the woman? What do we make of the astronomical trappings above and below her? Who is the male child she bears? Why is a ghastly dragon obsessed with the woman’s child? What do the dragon’s heads, horns and crowns symbolize? And what are we to make of the motion of his tail, which sweeps away a third of the stars in heaven and hurls them to earth? Why does the woman flee to the wilderness? And what is the place God has prepared for her?
These six verses are rich with imagery. Identifying the woman, dragon, and child will help us unlock the mysteries of the second half of this great book.
A woman clothed with the sun
John records a “great sign,” or a “great symbolic display,” in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars on her head. This is not to be taken literally, for John clearly tells us so. But who does the woman represent?
Some say this radiant woman is the Virgin Mary, but this cannot be so, for the verses that follow tell us that after she gives birth to the male child, she flees into the wilderness. She is given two wings of a great eagle so she may fly from the dragon’s presence. The dragon is angry with her and tries to kill her, but when he proves unsuccessful, he wages war against “the rest of her offspring – those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony about Jesus” (v. 17). The symbolism here does not square with the life of Mary, although she does flee with Joseph and Jesus to Egypt (the wilderness?) for a time.
Other commentators argue that the woman represents the church. Matthew Henry, for example, describes the church: (1) As a woman, the weaker part of the world, but the spouse of Christ, and the mother of the saints; (2) as clothed with the sun, the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ; (3) as having the moon under her feet (that is, the world) as she stands upon it, but lives above it; (4) as having on her head a crown of 12 stars, that is, the doctrine of the gospel preached by the 12 apostles, which is a crown of glory to all true believers; and (5) as in travail, crying out, and pained to be delivered … to bring forth a holy progeny to Christ (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 12:1-11).
But the woman cannot be the church, for the church does not give birth to the Messiah. Rather, it is Christ who, in His agony, gives birth to the church. “As Eve was taken out of the side of Adam, so the church was born out of the riven, open, bleeding side of our Lord,” writes W.A. Criswell. “[A]ny interpretation that makes the church the mother of Christ is a wrenching, a violation of the plain, simple vision here in the Apocalypse” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, pp. 67-8).
Israel vs. the church
It seems clear that the woman in this vision is Israel, either ethnic Israel or a believing remnant. John’s words echo the dream of Joseph in Gen. 37:9, where the sun and moon refer to Jacob and Rachel, Joseph’s parents. The stars in the woman’s crown relate to the 12 sons of Jacob and thus picture Israel fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant. The description of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth recall the first Messianic promise in Gen. 3:15-16 and, by extension, the virgin birth (Isa. 7:14). But there’s more. In Rom. 9:4-5 the apostle Paul writes, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The forefathers are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
The Bible distinguishes Israel from the church in its imagery. The church always is the betrothed bride of Christ, remaining unmarried until the consummation of the age and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that he has “promised you in marriage to one husband – to present a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). In contrast, Israel often is referred to as a married woman, as a mother (Isa. 54:1), as a widow and a divorced woman in her rebellion and captivity (Isa. 47:7-9; 50:1). In the scriptures, the church is never depicted as a mother. She is always the bride. Therefore, it is best to understand John’s vision of the woman as depicting Israel, who gives birth to a Son, the Messiah.
The agony with which Israel gives birth to the male child no doubt describes the travails of God’s people under the Old Covenant. Centuries pass between the first promise of the “seed of woman” (Gen. 3:15) and the birth of Jesus. Abraham dies without seeing the homeland God has promised or the blessing Abraham will share with the entire world. Joseph travels to Egypt as a slave and dies there as princely hero, but his offspring multiply and then suffer there for centuries. Once Moses is sent to deliver God’s people from captivity, and Joshua leads them into the Promised Land, they reject God in favor of corrupt kings and false gods, and they end up in captivity. Then, when the last of the Old Testament books is written, it is another 400 years of silence before the cry of a virgin-born Savior in an animal stall in Bethlehem unceremoniously heralds the fulfilled promise that attracts angels, shepherds, and wise men – and the sword of an intimidated King Herod. What great hardships Israel has endured. But now – glory to God in the highest heaven – Israel gives birth to the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, and the Savior of the world.
Next: A fiery red dragon – Rev. 12:3-4