The woman is depicted as “pregnant” in verse 2. She cries out in labor and agony to give birth. Perhaps this is a summary description of Israel’s tortuous path to the virgin birth. God’s people have experienced slavery in Egypt, captivity in Assyria and Babylon, the destruction of their great city and temple, and a legacy of wicked leaders and false prophets. That the nation of Israel exists at all by the time of Roman rule is a miracle unto itself. But now the agonies of childbirth are about to give way to the joy of experiencing a most unique miracle as God becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
Despite his most sinister efforts, Satan is unable to destroy God’s people or prevent the birth of their Messiah. John describes it simply: “But she gave birth to a Son – a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter” (v. 5). This reference is taken from the Greek translation of Ps. 2:9 – “you will shepherd [rule] them with a rod of iron.” The Hebrew text renders it, “[Y]ou will smash them with a rod of iron.” Either way, the emphasis is on the reign of a king.
The verb “to shepherd” reflects the entire scope of the king’s rule and not just his putting down of enemies. “In the ancient Near East, with its agricultural economy, rulers were often spoken of as shepherds,” according to The Apologetics Study Bible. Examples include 2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; Ezek. 34:8, 23; and Zech. 13:7. The New Testament uses, but does not directly quote, the Greek version (see Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15) to make its point about the reign of Christ. “What John declares in Revelation is true because God inspired it, even though his quote was taken from a different version of the psalm” (p. 790).
The word “rod” sometimes is used interchangeably with “staff” and fits in this context as it describes a shepherd-like king. The rod often is a slender, straight stick taken from a tree, or it can be a shorter, club-like instrument. Rods and staffs are used as walking sticks (Gen. 32:10), for defense (Ps. 23:4), for punishment (Exod. 21:20; Num. 22:27; Prov. 13:24; 1 Cor. 4:21), and for measurement (Rev. 11:1). They also symbolize prophetic (Exod. 4:2–4; 7:8–24; Judges 6:21), priestly (Num. 17:1–10), and royal (Gen. 49:10 NRSV; Judges 5:14 NRSV; Jer. 48:17; Rev. 2:27) offices (Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, pp. 1406-07). No doubt John in this passage refers to the firmness with which the male child guides and protects His own.
Caught up to God
Next, John says the male child is “caught up to God and to His throne” (v. 5). This appears to be a reference to the ascension of Jesus following His earthly ministry. Jesus tells His followers He will return to His Father, and the gospel writers are eyewitnesses of this dramatic event. For example, in John 6:62 He says to His followers, “Then what if you were to observe the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” And in John 20:17 the resurrected Messiah tells Mary, “Don’t cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to My brothers and tell them that I am ascending to My Father and your Father – to My God and your God.”
The gospel writers Mark and Luke record Jesus’ resurrection (although the closing verses of Mark’s gospel are disputed). Luke, who also authors the Book of Acts, tells us of Jesus’ ascension and His future return in a similar fashion: “After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11).
In addition, the apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians and to Timothy as if the ascension is an accepted fact (Eph. 4:8-10; 1 Tim. 3:16), while the writer of Hebrews depicts Jesus as seated in heaven at the Father’s right hand (Heb. 10:12).
In taking us from the birth of Jesus to His ascension, John is not minimizing the Messiah’s earthly ministry, for he writes a great deal about it in the Gospel of John. His focus in Revelation is on the exalted, reigning Christ. So in these verses John emphasizes the work of Jesus in leaving heaven, taking on flesh, and returning as the resurrected God-man and exalted Lord to His rightful place at the Father’s right hand.
In Jesus’ ascension, we also see that He will return one day in a similar fashion – gloriously, personally, physically, and visibly. And we take comfort in knowing that Jesus, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), has provided for our future resurrection and glorification (John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). “What took place primarily in the case of the divine Son of the woman, shall take place also in the case of those who are one with Him, the sealed of Israel (Rev 7:1–8), and the elect of all nations, about to be translated and to reign with Him over the earth at His appearing” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. 12:5).
Next: The woman fled – Rev. 12:6