Rev. 12:3 – Then 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. (HCSB)
A fiery red dragon
In verse 3 John records another sign appearing in heaven: “a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and 10 horns.” On his heads are seven diadems. There is widespread agreement among Bible scholars that John is gazing at Satan. Any reasonable doubt is erased in verse 9, where the dragon is called “the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world.” More than merely identify the dragon, John gives us important clues as to his character and purpose. Let’s look more closely.
First, we must ask why he is depicted as a fiery red dragon. The Jewish reader in John’s day would be quite familiar with this beast. In the Old Testament world, the dragon or sea monster is one of several closely related symbols representing the chaos and evil threatening God’s creation. Specifically, Old Testament writers speak of Leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon or sea monster, with an emphasis on God’s power to conquer him.
- Ps. 74:13-14 – You (God) divided the sea with Your strength; You smashed the heads of the sea monsters in the waters; You crushed the heads of Leviathan; You fed him to the creatures of the desert. (Leviathan means “twisting one” and refers either to a sea serpent or dragon associated with the chaos of creation, or sometimes to an animal such as a crocodile.)
- Ps. 89:9-10 – You (God) rule the raging sea; when its waves surge, You still them. You crushed Rahab like one who is slain; You scattered Your enemies with Your powerful arm. (Rahab means “boisterous one” and is used in the same sense that Leviathan is used. Scripture sometimes uses this name to describe Egypt; see Isa. 51:9-10.)
- Job 26:12-13 – By His power He stirred the sea, and by His understanding He crushed Rahab. By His breath the heavens gained their beauty; His hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
Ezekiel describes Egypt and her pharaohs as monsters of the seas (Eze. 29:3-5; 32:2-8). Jeremiah compares the king of Babylon to a dragon, or sea monster (Jer. 51:34). But the dragon image is most fully developed in Revelation. “The dragon represents evil, chaos, and ancient opposition to God. Revelation explicitly identifies the dragon with Satan, the archenemy of God and his people. As God defeated the beast from the sea in Daniel and the dragon of Egypt through the Exodus, so he will defeat Satan (Rev. 20:3, 7-10). In the new heaven and earth there will no longer be a sea (21:1) or an ancient sea dragon to threaten God’s new creation” (Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, p. 125).
The dragon’s color is red, which could refer to the bloodshed he brings to the earth (compare with the rider on the fiery red horse, Rev. 6:4), or more specifically the persecution he unleashes on the saints (Rev. 6:9-10; 17:3-6). He is, after all, “the accuser of our brothers” and “has come down … with great fury” (Rev. 12:10, 12). The color red is associated with death (Rev. 6:4) and Satan is a murderer (John 8:44).
Seven heads, 10 horns
Next, John describes the dragon as having seven heads and 10 horns, and on his heads are seven diadems, or kingly crowns. The seven heads and seven crowns may symbolize the dragon’s false claims to divine sovereignty, especially when we note the seven crowns upon the head of the Lamb in Rev. 5:6 and the many crowns upon the head of Jesus as He returns triumphantly in Rev. 19:12. Satan is the great counterfeit, and seven is the number of spiritual perfection.
The number seven appears 377 times in 314 verses in scripture (HCSB), and often it is associated with God. He rests on the seventh day of creation; marks off the week of seven days; makes a seven-fold promise to Abraham and a seven-fold covenant with Israel; is depicted as seven spirits; addresses seven churches in Asia Minor; pours out his judgment in seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Much more could be written about the significance of the number seven and its place in depicting the completeness and satisfaction to be found in God. So why would Satan choose any other number in his efforts to deceive the nations?
The dragon’s 10 horns take us back to Daniel 7, where the prophet sees a terrifying beast with 10 horns, which represent 10 kings. In Revelation 13, a beast emerges from the sea with seven heads and 10 horns. While commentators differ as to the meaning of all this, one thing is clear: Satan is in the midst of human events, a crowned monarch doing his best to keep his doomed kingdom intact.
In Matthew 12, Jesus refers to Satan as a king with a kingdom. Three times in the Gospel of John, our Lord refers to Satan as the prince of this world. In 2 Cor. 4:4, Paul calls Satan the god of this age. And in Ephesians 2, Paul refers to him as the prince of the power of the air. In the temptation of Jesus, Satan takes Him to a high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world. And in 1 John 5, John says the whole world lies in the hands of the wicked one.
Worldly kings and kingdoms rise, and even those who are hand-picked for blessing by God end up pushing Him aside as they are lifted up with pride. Behind these puppet kings, the fiery red dragon pulls the strings. It is his world until the sounding of the seventh trumpet (Rev. 11), when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of Christ.
The dragon’s tail
Next, John writes that the dragon’s tail sweeps away a third of the stars in heaven and hurls them to the earth. When does this happen? And who are the stars? Some interpreters believe the stars are Christian leaders whom Satan deceives, resulting in an apostate church. Others include angels with these Christian leaders – large numbers of them stricken with the Devil’s lashing tail and made weak and ineffective witnesses for the Lord. Still others believe this refers to Satan’s long-ago rebellion against God in which, it is assumed, he led countless other angels to cast their lots with him and receive territorial assignments on the earth. But some commentators understand this passage simply to define the scope of Satan’s power, extending from the throne of God, to which he retains access, to the earth, where he holds the title deed. His tail – his influence and power – stretches from the gates of heaven to the depths of the sea.
The “stars of heaven” in the Old Testament sometimes refer to the saints of God (Gen. 15:5; Jer. 33:22; Dan. 12:3) and sometimes in scripture to angels (Dan. 8:10; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). If this phrase refers to the Lord’s saints, then it must denote Satan’s earthly influence over God’s people prior to their death, for there is no way he may cast believers out of heaven. If the phrase refers to angels, then it could depict Satan’s rebellion, or perhaps describe the damage Satan inflicts in his battle with Michael (Rev. 12:7-9).
R.J.D. Utley provides a much-needed word of caution here: “At this point it may be helpful to remember that although this issue is interesting, it probably was not the author’s intent in this context to discuss the origin of the demonic or the fall of Satan or an angelic rebellion in heaven. In apocalyptic literature the central theme of the vision is crucial, but the literalness of the presentation, the details and the images are dramatic, symbolic, fictional. It is our curiosity and respect for the Bible that motivate our detailed, logical doctrinal formulations. Be careful of pushing the details; apocalyptic literature is often true theology presented in an imaginative frame-work. It is true, but symbolically presented” (Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Study Guide Commentary Series, pp. 89–90).
To devour a child
Finally in this section, a note about the dragon’s interest in the child. John records, “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” (v. 4). We have determined that the woman is Israel, and most commentators readily agree that the child is Jesus, the Messiah. So it seems clear that Satan’s long-running animosity toward Israel reaches its apex in the birth of Christ, the promised Seed of woman who crushes the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15). The Messiah defeats Satan through His incarnation (God taking on flesh and partaking in the human experience – John 1:14), sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21), and sacrificial, substitutionary death, burial and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Through all this, Jesus also defeated the works of the Devil (1 John 3:18).
No doubt, in Old Testament times Satan tries to thwart God’s plan and destroy God’s people. Whether it is through Abraham’s impatience in seeking Ishmael as his heir; pharaoh’s brutality against God’s people and his stubborn resistance to their freedom; the Israelites’ intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding the Promised Land; or Haman’s efforts to exterminate the Jews – the evil one actively works to prevent the people God raised up through Abraham from fulfilling their divine purpose.
All efforts having failed, Satan now positions himself in front of Israel so that when Mary delivers Jesus – a vulnerable child in the hands of a poor Jewish couple – he might devour the Son of God as He breathes His first air. The most obvious act is his stirring of King Herod’s heart to have all the young male children in and around Bethlehem killed. This “massacre of the innocents” is foretold in Jer. 31:15 and, as always, God is at least one step ahead of Satan. He sends an angel to Joseph to warn him of Herod’s plan. Joseph escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt (see Matt. 2:13-20). The Son is born, protected, and safe.
Satan will have future encounters with Jesus – the wilderness temptations, for example – but the Son of Man emerges victorious in all things. The male child knows His purpose in coming to earth. He comes to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10); to die on the cross (John 12:27); and to give His life as a ransom for many (John 20:28). In essence, Jesus and Satan have diametrically opposed purposes and yet share a common means: death. Satan seeks to kill Jesus and thus devour Him. Jesus seeks to be killed in order to deliver sinful people from the wages of sin – death and hell. But He dies and rises from the dead on His terms, and in the Father’s timing, and by the Spirit’s power. Satan is shut out of the redemptive work of the Godhead.
Next: She gave birth to a Son — Revelation 12:5