The woman, the dragon, and the child: Revelation 12:1-6
Previously: The survivors gave glory to the God of heaven – Rev. 11:13-14
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.
The second trumpet — Revelation 8:8-9
Previously: A third of the earth was burned up (Rev. 8:7)
Rev. 8:8 – The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea. So a third of the sea became blood, 9a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed (HCSB).
The second trumpet
This is the second of four trumpet judgments that affect natural objects, in this case the sea and the creatures who swim in it or sail upon it. The final three trumpet judgments, as we learned in the last lesson, affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell.
In this second trumpet judgment, John sees something that appears to him as a great blazing mountain plummeting into the sea, resulting in a third of the sea becoming blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea dying, and a third of the ships navigating its waters being destroyed.
Is John’s vision to be taken literally? What is this great blazing mountain? Is the sea a reference to all salty bodies of water around the world, or perhaps simply a reference to the Mediterranean Sea – or something else entirely? What are we to make of the fractional reference to “a third,” which we encountered in the first trumpet judgment? Let’s look more closely.
The second angel blew his trumpet
As a reminder, the “trumpet” each angel blows in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and has special significance for Israel (see The first trumpet for more details). In this case, the sound of the shofar announces the commencement of judgment. This is an important detail that should not be overlooked.
While the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2) and Jesus warns His followers to be ready at all times for the unknown day of His return (Matt. 25:13), the judgments God sends upon the world’s wicked are announced in advance. We are not told how much time elapses between the sounding of the shofar and the arrival of these torments, any more than we can say with certainty how much time we have to run for cover after a tornado siren blasts a warning. But it appears that God communicates to mankind through the angels that His mercy is drawing to a close and His hammer is about to fall. Perhaps in these final moments some will repent, although John’s record seems to indicate that the wicked prefer blasphemy to humility in the face of judgment (Rev. (9:21, 16:9b, 21b).
Something like a great mountain ablaze with fire
What is it that John sees? He writes that “something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea.” He doesn’t say “a great mountain,” but “something like a great mountain,” which could mean this is a hidden symbol for his first-century readers or an attempt to describe something he has never seen before – a glimpse, perhaps, into the distant future.
Commentators offer many perspectives:
- Some say this mountain is Satan, lifted up like a mountain in his pride, and burning with hatred for God and his people, who is cast down into the sea of humanity, where he does much harm.
- Others say this is a heresy that does much damage to the church – the Macedonian heresy, perhaps, leveled against the deity of the Holy Spirit, or the Arian heresy against the deity of Christ. Each of these divine persons is one-third of the triune Godhead, so John’s reference to the mountain causing damage to “a third” of the sea finds its significance here.
- Still others argue that it’s best to understand this imagery in terms of the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths and Vandals. Rome is fitly represented as a great mountain, as kingdoms and cities sometimes are in scripture. The “sea” in this case represents the people throughout the Roman Empire who suffer as a result of the invaders’ brutal advance on Rome. Over the course of 137 years, beginning in 410 A.D., the Goths and Vandals sack Rome five times and reportedly one-third of the people are killed.
- W.A. Criswell writes that a modern-day fulfillment could be communism, which finds its foothold among restless people. Rather than producing liberation, it brings captivity, hardship, economic depression, despair and death.
- Futurists like Hal Lindsay see this blazing mountain as John’s attempt to describe nuclear warheads.
- Others interpret these verses literally. “The mountain is probably best understood as being a literal large body that fell from heaven. Since the results are literal, it is reasonable to take the judgments as literal also” (J.F. Walvoord, R.B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Rev. 8:8–9).
Whatever the proper interpretation, it’s clear that this judgment impacts many people. Satan is thought by some commentators to have taken one-third of the angelic host with him in his rebellion. Heresies that undermine any of the persons of the Triune Godhead impact the church and its ability to carry the gospel to the world. Wars involving world powers like Rome generate tremendous violence and upheaval. Worldviews that deny the reality of a Creator and Judge, like communism, result in spiritual, political and economic imprisonment. And modern technology has made it possible for a single nation to wreak havoc on much of the world.
Perhaps, as we’ve addressed in previous lessons, these verses are fulfilled in John’s day, and later in church history, and finally in the last days. Jerusalem falls in 70 A.D. and with it, formal Judaism comes to a close. The Roman Empire falls a few centuries later. Heresies do great damage to the church. Warfare causes great loss of life and damage to property and the environment. And in the last days, according to futurists, the Antichrist will lead nearly the whole world astray. In every case there is a common denominator: sin. Mankind’s rebellion against God manifests itself in political leaders who deify themselves; in church leaders who trump scripture with manmade traditions or, worse, heresies; in philosophers who rail against the idea of God and His absolute truths; and in ordinary people who prefer the praise of men to the praise of God.
Maybe we would do well not to agonize over what each symbol in Revelation means, but to look within ourselves at our fallen state and to grasp the only hope we have: Jesus. Ultimately, it will take the destruction of the entire world to purge it of sin and its consequences and to make way for new heavens and a new earth (see 2 Peter 3: 10-13).
Next: Hurled into the sea (Rev. 8:8-9)
Rosh Hashanah and the Rapture
Today at sundown, Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This celebration is more than a secular event, however. It is rooted deeply in Jewish life and worship. One of the seven major Jewish feasts, Rosh Hashanah also is called the Feast of Trumpets, and the ram’s horn, or shofar, plays a prominent role.
Many Jewish Christians, and their Gentile brothers and sisters, see the significance of this feast as pointing to the rapture of the church — the physical removal of Christians from this world to meet the Messiah in the air. Just as the four spring feasts (Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost) signified the work of the Messiah in His first coming and priestly ministry, the three autumn feasts (Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles) depict the Messiah’s second coming and kingly reign.
The sounding of the shofar and the resurrection of the dead are connected in the New Testament. Consider these passages:
- 1 Cor. 15:51-52 – “Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.”
- 1 Thess. 4:16-17 – “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will always be with the Lord.”
In Old Testament times, the reasons for trumpet blasts were well established. It appears their purposes continue in events to come, if indeed Rosh Hashanah foreshadows our resurrection. The reasons for sounding the shofar are:
- To gather an assembly before the Lord (the rapture of the church).
- To sound a battle alarm (God will defeat Satan and his rebellious followers).
- To announce the coronation of a new king (Jesus the Messiah will sit on the throne of David as King of kings and Lord of lords).
Listen to podcasts or read Rosh Hashanah Part 1 and Rosh Hashanah Part 2.
Download a free study: Jesus in the Feasts of Israel.
To the church at Sardis
Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3
This is the fifth in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Thyatira.
Sardis is located 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and is an important commercial city situated on a major east-west trade route. Key goods produced there include jewelry, dye and textiles. From a religious perspective, Sardis is a pagan city with a temple to Artemis, the ruins of which still remain. Archaeologists also have located the ruins of a small Christian church building next to the temple.
Sardis is said to be the chief city of Asia Minor in John’s day and perhaps the first city in that part of the world converted to the preaching of John. It also may have been the first city there to abandon Christianity and come to ruin. Christ’s stern message is not completely in vain, however, for we know of the second-century bishop Melito who distinguishes himself with piety and learning. Even so, the local church does not endure, nor does the city; only a village called Sart remains today among the ruins.
Christ’s self-description: Jesus identifies Himself as “The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (v. 2). The seven stars, of course, are the angels of the seven churches featured in Rev. 2-3. The phrase “seven spirits” ties back to Rev. 1:4 and may be translated there “the seven-fold Spirit,” likely a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, in this passage, since Jesus describes Himself as having the seven spirits, He may be reminding the church of His place in the Godhead and His authority as One who has all the fullness of the Spirit (see Isa. 11:2-5; Rev. 5:6). The number seven represents fullness or completeness; it is the number of God. And since there are seven churches and seven angels, Jesus may be telling the churches He has equipped each of them with the Holy Spirit for ministry and thus accepts no excuses for their failure to bear fruit. In other places in Revelation, the seven-fold Spirit of God is pictured as seven burning lamps (4:5) and seven all-seeing eyes (5:6).
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition: Jesus has no words of commendation for the church. There is no mention of endurance, faithfulness, suffering, or persecution. Warren Wiersbe comments, “There was reputation without reality, form without force. Like the city itself, the church at Sardis gloried in past splendor, but ignored present decay” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 3:1).
“I know your works,” Jesus says, but He mentions none. “[Y]ou have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (v. 2). The word “reputation” may be translated “name.” The church in Sardis is not obscure. It is not unimportant to the community. Quite the contrary, the people of Sardis – and perhaps other church members throughout of Asia Minor – speak highly of the church. Its name is known. Its star is rising. Its reputation is flourishing. Things are happening at this church – or so the people say. But Jesus has another view altogether.
Evidently there is no opposition to the church in Sardis because the church is not preaching the cross, which is an offense to the unbelieving world (Gal. 5:11). Instead, the pagans of Sardis see Christians as nice, respectable people – neither dangerous nor desirable. The “dead” church – with the Spirit suppressed and the Word of God watered down – is no threat to Satan’s kingdom and therefore is perfectly acceptable to a world filled with religion. The apostle Paul warns us to avoid believers who embody the reputation of Sardis, holding to a form of religion but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5).
Christ’s comfort and/or commands: “Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die,” Jesus says, “for I have not found your works complete before My God” (v. 2b). Twice in the history of Sardis – a nearly impregnable fortress 1,500 feet above the main roads – the citadel has been captured, each time because the city’s sentries failed to keep watch. Jesus tells the sentries of the church, its leaders, to wake up and guard what remains. In other words, there is still hope of resuscitation for this dead church. Matthew Henry writes, “Whenever we are off our watch, we lose ground, and therefore must return to our watchfulness against sin, and Satan, and whatever is destructive to the life and power of godliness.”
What does Jesus mean when He says to “strengthen [or guard] what remains?” Some commentators see this as a reference to believers who are holding fast to their faith, while others argue that Jesus is pointing to their practices because He says, “I have not found your works complete.” Evidently “there is something wanting in them; there is the shell, but not the kernel; there is the carcass, but not the soul – the shadow, but not the substance” (Matthew Henry). Jesus offers three commands to the church: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent” (v. 3). Believers are to remember the finished work of Christ, proclaimed through preaching and sound doctrine. They are to keep these teachings as they partake of the ordinances of the church – the Lord’s Supper and baptism. And they are to repent of their lethargy with respect to Christian service. If they disregard the Lord’s commands, He will come “like a thief” and bring swift judgment upon them.
Jesus warns the church at Ephesus He will come and remove its lampstand. He tells the church at Pergamum He will fight against the Nicolaitans with the sword of His mouth. And he tells the church at Thyatira He will wreak havoc on the false prophetess Jezebel and her followers. But for Sardis, the lofty and secure fortress, He will come in stealth when their watchmen are drowsy, and bring swift and sudden judgment. Numerous times before, Jesus warned of His second coming as a surprise (see Matt. 24:42-43; Luke 12:39-40), and the apostles picked up on this message (see 1 Thess. 5:2,4,6; 2 Peter 3:10). But in the case of Sardis, it appears Jesus is speaking of temporal judgment that will come swiftly, perhaps well in advance of His personal, physical, and glorious return to earth. There is a Greek proverb that says “the feet of the avenging deities are shod with wool,” depicting their noiseless approach in judgment. How much more will Christ’s coming be like that of a thief in the night.
Even so, Jesus says, “you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy” (v. 4). Candidates for Christian baptism in the ancient church wore white robes as a symbol of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Some at Sardis no doubt have remained faithful since that initiatory rite, and for them the Lord promises His intimate presence. Paul writes in Eph. 5:27 that Jesus gave Himself for the church “to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.” And in Rev. 19:8 we see the church depicted as a bride, “permitted to wear fine linen, bright and pure. For the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints.” On earth, believers are declared righteous, or justified; in heaven, they are made righteous, or glorified. In either case, their white robes depict the righteousness of Christ.
Christ’s urge to listen: Jesus repeats the familiar charge in verse 6: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” Many churches today are in trouble, not because they fiercely reject sound doctrine or practice open rebellion against the Lord, but because they inadvertently allow false teachings and ungodly practices to creep in. The end result is the same, however: dead churches admired by the world and religious institutions alike but loathed by God. “Wake yourself, wake yourself up!” Isaiah cries to his fellow countrymen on the brink of judgment. “These two things have happened to you: devastation and destruction, famine and sword. Who will grieve for you? How can I comfort you? Your children have fainted; they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net. They are full of the Lord’s fury, the rebuke of your God” (Isa. 51:17a, 19-20). The apostle Paul, possibly quoting an early Christian hymn based on passages in Isaiah, writes to the church, “Get up, sleeper, and rise up from the dead, and the Messiah will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).
Christ’s promises to the victor: Jesus says “the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels” (v. 5). Matthew Henry writes, “Christ will not blot the names of his chosen and faithful ones out of this book of life; men may be enrolled in the registers of the church, as baptized, as making a profession, as having a name to live, and that name may come to be blotted out of the roll, when it appears that it was but a name, a name to live, without spiritual life; such often lose the very name before they die, they are left of God to blot out their own names by their gross and open wickedness. But the names of those that overcome shall never be blotted out.”
John refers six times in Revelation to the book of life, sometimes called the Lamb’s book of life. Some commentators distinguish the two by stating that the book of life is God’s list of all human beings and that the lost are blotted out of this book, while the Lamb’s book of life features only the elect; therefore, at the end of time both sets of books are in perfect agreement. Yet John seems to use the terms “book of life” and “Lamb’s book of life” interchangeably. This is not to say that Christians may lose their salvation through grievous sin, for the Bible clearly teaches eternal security – a doctrine John emphasizes in his writings (for example, John 5:24; 10:27-30; 1 John 5:6-13). On the contrary, Jesus assures true believers in Sardis and elsewhere that He will keep them in His book and in His hand. The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains: “The statement that their names will not be erased from the book of life presents a problem to some. But a person who is truly born again remains regenerate, as John said elsewhere (John 5:24; 6:35-37, 39; 10:28-29). While this passage may imply that a name could be erased from the book of life, actually it only gives a positive affirmation that their names will not be erased.”
To the church at Smyrna
Read an introduction to Christ’s letters to the seven churches
Revelation 2:8-11 (HCSB)
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: I know your tribulation and poverty, yet you are rich. [I know] the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have tribulation for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.”
The letter to the church at Smyrna
Smyrna is a harbor city known for its temple to the Mother Goddess and for its provincial cult temples to Roman emperors Tiberius (1st century) and Hadrian (2nd century). The city is reportedly a beautiful one with paved streets, a library, a gymnasium, and a shrine to Homer, who may have been born there. Evidently there also is a significant Jewish presence in the city. Christian leaders Polycarp and Pionius write about Jewish opposition to Christians there.
According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, “The name of the city, Smyrna, means ‘myrrh,’ an ordinary perfume. It was also used in the anointing oil of the tabernacle, and in embalming dead bodies (cf. Ex. 30:23; Ps. 45:8; Song 3:6; Matt. 2:11; Mark 15:23; John 19:39). While the Christians of the church at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God” (Rev. 2:8).
Borrowing from Rev. 1:17-18, Jesus calls Himself “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life” (v. 8). As the uncreated Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe, Christ also became flesh and gave His life as a ransom for us, establishing Himself as “the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). There is to be no doubt that He is the foundation of the church, its chief cornerstone, head and bridegroom. No one is in a better position than He to assess the church at Smyrna, which along with Philadelphia are the only churches in Rev. 2-3 to escape rebuke.
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition
Jesus says, “I know your tribulation and poverty, yet you are rich” (v. 9). This is an interesting contrast to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22), which fancies itself wealthy and needing nothing yet is castigated as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Although materially poor (the use of the Greek ptocheian stresses extreme poverty), the believers at Smyrna are spiritually rich, holding a treasure far more precious than silver or gold. As James reminds his readers, “Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him” (James 2:5)? Jesus also commends the church at Smyrna for enduring the “slander of those who say they are Jews and are not” (v. 9). As the apostle Paul writes in Rom. 9:6-8, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants … it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of promise.” Apparently the local Jewish synagogue is called “a synagogue of Satan” because of its open hostility to the body of Christ. Satan is mentioned in four of the seven letters in Rev. 2-3. Sadly, much of the most severe persecution of the church has come at the hands of religionists.
Christ’s comfort and/or commands
Jesus urges the believers at Smyrna, “Don’t be afraid [or stop being afraid] of what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). Rather than deliver this faithful church from severe persecution, Jesus promises them tribulation “for 10 days,” probably a term meant to console them that the evil they are suffering will at last come to an end. Some commentators believe the term “10 days” is a symbolic representation of the entire persecution of the church while others say it represents persecution under 10 Roman emperors. In any case, there is a guaranteed end to Satan’s reign and the church’s suffering. Contrary to believers today who embrace the prosperity gospel, believers in the early church knew full well that their faithfulness brought, not health and wealth, but hardship. As the apostle Paul points out, “all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Jesus tells the church, “Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you” (v. 10). Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna early in the second century, represents well the spirit of the church in that city. The Jews referred in derogatory terms to Jesus as the “hanged one” and they joined the heathens in clamoring from him to be cast to the lions. When that effort was sidetracked they carried wood to execution by burning. When given the opportunity to renounce his faith, even in a half-hearted way, to spare his own life, the bishop declared, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Finally in verse 10, Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The crown of life is one of several crowns, or rewards, promised to Christians (see 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:6-8; 1 Peter 5:4; Rev. 4:4). It also is mentioned in James 1:12. Believers are to be faithful by anticipating what awaits them after death: eternal life.
Christ’s urge to listen
Jesus says in verse 11, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” It’s clear that the lessons of this letter apply to all the churches in John’s day, and to all churches that follow. Since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the scattering of “the way” to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the church often has flourished where the soil was the hardest – in pagan lands, communist countries, territories overrun by Islam, and other places opposed to the Christian faith.
Christ’s promises to the victor
Jesus says “the victor will never be harmed by the second death.” Although many martyrs lost their lives in Smyrna, and multiplied millions have died for their faith in Christ across time, Jesus has lost none of those given to Him (John 18:9). The second death – the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14) – is reserved only for those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life.