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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Revelation 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-17

Chapter 12

THE WOMAN AND THE BEAST (Revelation 12:1-17)

It is necessary to read this chapter as a whole before we examine it in detail.

12:1-17 A great sign appeared in the sky--a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon beneath her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head; and she was with child, and she cried aloud in her labour and in her agony to bear the child.

And another sign appeared in heaven--lo! a great flame-coloured dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and with seven royal diadems upon its heads. Its tail swept a third part of the stars from the sky and cast them on to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to bear the child so that it might devour the child as soon as she bore him.

She bore a man child who is destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was snatched away to God, even to his throne.

The woman fled to the desert where she had a place prepared for her by God, that they might care for her there for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

There was war in heaven, in which Michael and his angels fought with the dragon and the dragon and his angels fought with them. The dragon was powerless to prevail and there was no longer any place for him in heaven. The great dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of all mankind, was thrown down to earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a great voice in heaven saying:

"Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Anointed One, because there has been cast down the accuser of our brothers, who night and day accuses them before God. They have overcome him through the blood of the Lamb and through the word of their witness, and they did not love their soul to death. Rejoice, therefore, you heavens and you who dwell in them. Alas for the earth and the sea! because the Devil has come down to you with great wrath and well aware that he has only a little time left."

When the Devil saw that he was cast down into the earth, he pursued the woman who bore the man-child. The two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, that she might fly to the desert to her place, where she is cared for for a time and times and half a time away from the serpent. And after the woman the serpent hurled water from his mouth like a river, that he might cause her to be carried away by the river of water; but the earth helped the woman and opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon hurled from his mouth.

The dragon was enraged because of the woman and went away to make war with the rest of her family, those who keep the commandments of God and who bear their witness to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

The Woman With Child (Revelation 12:1-2)

John saw an amazing vision, like a tableau in the sky, whose details he draws from many sources. The woman is clothed with the sun; the moon is her footstool; and she has a crown of twelve stars. The Psalmist says of God that he covers himself with light as with a garment (Psalms 104:2). In the Song of Solomon the poet describes his loved one as being fair as the moon and clear as the sun (SS 6:10). So John got part of his picture from the Old Testament. But he added something which the pagans of Asia Minor would well recognize as part of the old Babylonian picture of the divine. They frequently depicted their goddesses as crowned with the twelve signs of the zodiac and this also is in John's mind. It is as if he took all the signs of divinity and beauty which he could find and added them together.

This woman is in labour to bear a child who is undoubtedly the Messiah, Christ, compare Revelation 12:5 where he is said to be destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron. That is a quotation from Psalms 2:9 and was an accepted description of the Messiah. The woman, then, is the mother of the Messiah.

(i) If the woman is the "mother" of the Messiah, an obvious suggestion is that she should be identified with Mary; but she is so clearly a superhuman figure that she can hardly be identified with any single human being.

(ii) The persecution of the woman by the dragon suggests that she might be identified with the Christian Church. The objection is that the Christian Church could hardly be called the mother of the Messiah.

(iii) In the Old Testament the chosen people, the ideal Israel, the community of the people of God, is often called the Bride of God. "Your Maker is your husband" (Isaiah 54:5). It is Jeremiah's sad complaint that Israel has played the harlot in disloyalty to God (Jeremiah 3:6-10). Hosea hears God say: "I will betroth you to me for ever" (Hosea 2:19-20). In the Revelation itself we hear of the marriage feast of the Lamb and the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:9). "I betrothed you to Christ," writes Paul to the Corinthian Church, "to present you as a pure bride to her one husband" (2 Corinthians 11:2).

This will give us a line of approach. It was from the chosen people that Jesus Christ sprang in his human lineage. It is for the ideal community of the chosen ones of God that the woman stands. Out of that community Christ came and it was that community which underwent such terrible suffering at the hands of the hostile world. We may indeed call this the Church, if we remember that the Church is the community of God's people in every age.

From this picture we learn three great things about this community of God. First, it was out of it that Christ came; and out of it Christ has still to come for those who have never known him. Second, there are forces of evil, spiritual and human, which are set on the destruction of the community of God. Third, however strong the opposition against it and however sore its sufferings, the community of God is under the protection of God and, therefore, it can never be ultimately destroyed.

The Hatred Of The Dragon (Revelation 12:3-4)

Here we have the picture of the great, flame-coloured dragon. In our study of the antecedents of Antichrist we saw that the eastern peoples regarded creation in the light of the struggle between the dragon of chaos and the creating God of order. In the Temple of Marduk, the creating god, in Babylon there was a great image of a "red-gleaming serpent" who stood for the defeated dragon of chaos. There can be little doubt that that is where John got his picture. This dragon appears in many forms in the Old Testament.

It appears as Rahab. "Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon?" (Isaiah 51:9). It appears as leviathan. "Thou didst break the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of leviathan" (Psalms 74:12-14). In the day of the Lord, God with his sore and great and strong sword will punish leviathan (Isaiah 27:1). It appears in the dramatic picture of behemoth (Hebrew #930) in Job 40:15-24. The dragon which is the arch-enemy of God is a common and terrible figure in the thought of the east. It is the connection of the dragon and the sea which explains the rivers of water which the dragon emits to overcome the woman (Revelation 12:15).

The dragon has seven heads and ten horns. This signifies its mighty power. It has seven royal diadems. This signifies its complete power over the kingdoms of this world as opposed to the kingdom of God. The picture of the dragon sweeping the stars from the sky with its tail comes from the picture in Daniel of the little horn who cast the stars to the ground and trampled on them (Daniel 8:10). The picture of the dragon waiting to devour the child comes from Jeremiah, in which it is said of Nebuchadnezzar that "he has swallowed me like a monster" (Jeremiah 51:34).

H. B. Swete finds in this picture the symbolism of an eternal truth about the human situation. In the human situation, as Christian history sees it, there are two figures who occupy the centre of the scene. There is man, fallen, always under the attack of the powers of evil but always struggling towards the birth of a higher life. And there is the power of evil, ever watching for its opportunity to frustrate the upward reach of man. That struggle had its culmination on the Cross.

The Snatching Away Of The Child (Revelation 12:5)

The child which the woman bore was destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron. As we have seen, this quotation from Psalms 2:9 indicates that the child was the Messiah.

When the child was born, he was rescued from the dragon by being snatched up to heaven, even to the throne of God. The word used here for the child being snatched up is the same as is used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to describe the Christian being caught up to meet the Lord in the air (compare 2 Corinthians 12:2 where Paul uses it to tell of himself being caught up into the third heaven).

In a sense this is a puzzling passage. As we have seen, the reference is to Jesus Christ as Messiah, and, as John tells it, the story goes straight from his Birth to his Ascension; the snatching up must refer to the Ascension. As the Acts has it: "He was lifted up" (Acts 1:9). The strange thing is the total omission of the earthly life of Jesus. This is due to two things.

It is due to the fact that John is not at the moment interested in anything other than the fact that Jesus Christ was delivered by the direct action of God from the hostile powers which continually attacked him.

It is due also to the fact that all through the Revelation John's interest is not in the human Jesus but in the exalted Christ, who is able to rescue his people in the time of their distresses.

The Flight To The Desert (Revelation 12:6)

Here we read of the woman escaping into the desert from the attack of the dragon. By the help of God she escaped into a place where she was nourished and which had been prepared for her.

There is no doubt that there are many pictures in John's mind. There is the picture of the escape of Elijah to the brook Cherith, where he was nourished by the ravens (1 Kings 17:1-7); and of his flight into the desert, when he was nourished by the angelic messenger (1 Kings 19:1-8). There is the picture of the flight of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus into Egypt to escape the murderous intent of Herod (Matthew 2:13). But two incidents are specially in John's mind.

(i) In the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, when it was death to keep the law and to worship the true God, many "who sought after justice and judgment went down to the wilderness to dwell there" (1 Maccabees 2:29).

(ii) Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. The years immediately before that were terrible years of bloodshed and of revolution in which anyone with eyes to see and a mind to understand could forecast what was about to happen. Eusebius, the Christian historian, tells us that, before the final disaster came, the Christians in Jerusalem had been warned by a revelation given to approved men to leave Jerusalem and to cross the Jordan into Perea and to dwell there in a town called Pella (Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History 3: 5). This is actually referred to in the account of Jesus' words to the disciples about the last times. When they saw the last terrors coming they were to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14); this is exactly what they did.

H. B. Swete again sees something symbolic here. The Church had to flee into the wilderness and the wilderness is lonely. For the early Christians life was lonely; they were isolated in a pagan world. There are times when Christian witness is bound to be a lonely thing--but even in human loneliness there is divine companionship.

The one thousand two hundred and sixty days are once again the standard period of distress.

Satan, The Enemy Of God (Revelation 12:7-9)

Here we have the picture of war in heaven between the Dragon, the Ancient Serpent, the Devil, Satan--all these names describe the one evil being--and Michael and all his angels. The idea seems to be that, such was his hatred, the dragon pursued the Messiah even to heaven, where he was met by Michael with his heavenly legions and finally cast out. It will be convenient to gather together here what Scripture has to say about Satan; it presents a complicated picture.

(i) There is the echo of the ancient story of a primaeval war in heaven. Satan was an angel who conceived "the impossible thought" of placing his throne higher than that of God (2Enoch 29:4, 5) and was cast out of heaven. The Babylonians had a similar story of Ishtar, the god of the morning star. He, too, rebelled against God and was cast down from heaven. There is one definite reference to this old story in the Old Testament. In Isaiah we read: "How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!" (Isaiah 14:12). The sin which caused the fall from heaven was pride. There may be a reference to this in 1 Timothy 3:6, where it is urged that the Christian preacher must be kept from pride lest he fall into the same condemnation as the devil did. When Satan was cast out of heaven, his dwelling-place became the air in which he had to wander; that is why he is sometimes called The Prince of the Air (Ephesians 2:2).

(ii) There is a strong line of thought in the Old Testament in which Satan is still an angel under God's command and with access to his presence. In Job we find Satan numbered amongst the sons of God and possessing access to his presence (Job 1:6-9; Job 2:1-6); and in Zechariah we also find Satan in the presence of God (Zechariah 3:1-2).

To understand this conception of Satan we must first understand what the word Satan means. Satan originally meant simply an adversary. Even the angel of the Lord who stood in the path of Balaam to stop him from his sinful intentions can be called a satan against him (Numbers 22:22). The Philistines feared that David would be their satan (1 Samuel 29:4). When Solomon entered upon his kingdom, he was so blessed by God that he had no satan left (1 Kings 5:4). But later the foreign kings, Hadad and Rezon, were both to become his satans (1 Kings 11:14; 1 Kings 11:23).

In the Old Testament Satan was the angel who was the counsel for the prosecution against men in the presence of God, their Adversary. Thus he is the counsel for the prosecution against Job, cynically suggesting that Job serves God for what he can get out of it and that, if he is involved in disaster, his loyalty will soon cease (Job 1:11-12), and he is given permission by God to use every weapon short of death to test Job (Job 2:1-6). So in Zechariah Satan is the accuser of Joshua the High Priest (Zechariah 3:1-2). In Psalms 109:6 the King James Version actually uses the word Satan in this sense: "Let Satan stand at the right hand of the wicked." The Revised Standard Version rightly alters the translation to: "Let an accuser bring him to trial."

So, in the Old Testament Satan was the angel who is the counsel for the prosecution when a man was on trial before God; while Michael was the counsel for the defence. Between the Testaments there seems to have been a belief that there was more than one Satan engaged in the task of bringing accusations against men and we read of the archangel whose duty it was to fend off the Satans (I Enoch 40:6).

For the most part in the Old Testament Satan was very much under the jurisdiction of God.

(iii) In the Old Testament we never read of the Devil, although sometimes we come across devils; but in the New Testament Satan becomes the Devil. The Greek is Diabolos (Greek #1228), literally a slanderer. There is not a very great dividing line between being a prosecuting counsel who brings charges against men and inventing such charges and tempting men into actions where such charges will be forthcoming. So, then, in the New Testament Satan becomes the seducer of men. We find that in the story of the temptations of Jesus the three names are indiscriminately used. This power of evil is Satan (Matthew 4:10; Mark 1:13); the Devil (Matthew 4:1; Matthew 4:5; Matthew 4:8; Matthew 4:11; Luke 4:2-3; Luke 4:5; Luke 4:13); and the Tempter (Matthew 4:3).

Since this is so, we find Satan engaged in certain nefarious purposes in the New Testament story. He seeks to seduce Jesus in his temptations. He puts the terrible scheme of betrayal into Judas' mind (John 13:2; John 13:27; Luke 22:3). He is out to make Peter fall (Luke 22:31). He persuades Ananias to keep back part of the price of the possession he had sold (Acts 5:3). He uses every wile (Ephesians 6:11) and every device (2 Corinthians 2:11) to achieve his seducing purposes. He is the cause of illness and pain (Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38; 2 Corinthians 12:7). He hinders the work of the gospel by sowing the tares which choke the good seed (Matthew 13:39), and by snatching away the seed of the word from the human heart before it can gain an entry (Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12).

Thus Satan becomes the enemy of God and man, the Evil One par excellence, for we should probably translate in the Lord's Prayer: "Deliver us from the Evil One" (Matthew 6:13).

He can be called the Ruler of this World (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11), for, having been cast out of heaven, he has to exert his evil influence among men. He comes to be identified with the serpent because of the story of the Fall in Genesis 3:1-24 .

(iv) The strange thing is that the history of Satan is a tragedy, whatever version of the story we use. In one version, Satan is the angel of light, once the greatest of the angels, whose pride caused him to seek to be higher than God and who was cast out of heaven. In the other version, Satan was a real servant of God and perverted his service into an opportunity for sinning. Satan is the supreme example of that tragedy in which the best becomes the worst.

The Song Of The Martyrs In Glory (Revelation 12:10-12)

In these verses we have the song of the glorified martyrs when Satan is cast out of heaven.

(i) Satan appears as the Accuser par excellence; Satan, as H. B. Swete put it, is "the cynical libeller of all that God has made." According to Renan he is "the malevolent critic of creation." Satan stands for the sleepless vigilance of evil against good.

The historical background of the age in which the Revelation was written lends sharpness to this picture of Satan. This was the great age of the informer, the delator. People were constantly being arrested, tortured, killed because someone had informed against them. Tacitus, writing some years before, had said: "He who had no foe was betrayed by his friend." That ancient world knew only too well what malevolent, cynical, venal accusers were like.

(ii) This picture, then, shows us what we might call the cleansing of heaven. Satan, the malevolent Accuser, is cast out for ever. It is for this reason that the martyrs in glory sing their song of triumph.

The martyrs are those who have overcome Satan.

(a) Martyrdom is itself a conquest of Satan. The martyr has proved superior to every seduction and to every threat and even to the violence of Satan. Here is a dramatic truth for life every time we choose to suffer rather than to be disloyal is the defeat of Satan.

(b) The victory of the martyrs is won through the blood of the Lamb. There are two meanings here. First, on his Cross and through his Resurrection Jesus overcame forever the worst that evil could do to him; and those who have entrusted their lives to him share in that victory. Second, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross sin is forgiven; when a man accepts in faith what Christ has done for him, his sins are wiped out. And when he is forgiven, there is nothing for which he can possibly be accused. As Charles Wesley put it:

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in him is mine!

Alive in him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

(c) The martyrs are victorious, because they lived the great principle of the gospel. They did not consider life more important than loyalty. "He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25). This principle runs all through the gospel (Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; Luke 17:33). For us this is not necessarily a matter of dying for the faith but of setting loyalty to Jesus Christ before the comfortable way.

(iii) This passage finishes with the idea that Satan is cast out of heaven and has come down to earth. His power in heaven is broken, but he has still power on earth; and he rages ferociously because he knows that all that he has left is a short time upon this earth before he is finally destroyed.

The Attack Of The Dragon (Revelation 12:13-17)

The dragon, that is the Devil, on being cast out of heaven and descending to earth, attacked the woman who was the mother of the man child. We have seen that the woman stands for the Church in its widest sense of God's Chosen People from the midst of whom God's Anointed One came.

Here, then, is a certain symbolism. The dragon can injure the child by injuring the mother; that is to say, to injure the Church is to injure Jesus Christ. The words of the Risen Christ to Paul on the Damascus road were: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Paul's persecution had been directed against the Church; but the Risen Christ makes it clear that persecution of his Church is persecution of himself. When we despoil the Church of the help we might have given it, we despoil Jesus of the help we might have given him; and when we serve the Church, we serve Jesus himself.

We have already seen (Revelation 12:6) that the escape of the woman to the desert place comes from the escape of the Church to Pella on the other side of Jordan before the final destruction of Jerusalem. But in the escape of the woman and in the attack of the dragon John uses two pictures very familiar to those who knew the Old Testament.

The woman escaped on the two wings of the great eagle. Again and again in the Old Testament the eagle's wings are the symbol of the upbearing arms of God. "You have seen," God said to Israel, "what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to myself" (Exodus 19:4). "Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone did lead him (the people of Israel)" (Deuteronomy 32:11-12). As the Scots paraphrase has it of Isaiah 40:31 :

On eagles' wings they mount, they soar,

their wings are faith and love,

Till, past the cloudy regions here,

they rise to heav'n above.

We may note that, when men came to allegorize Scripture, Hippolytus saw in the eagles' wings the symbol of "the two holy arms of Christ outstretched upon the Cross."

The second picture is of the floods of water cast out by the serpent. We have seen how the old dragon of chaos was a sea dragon and, therefore, to connect the floods with him is quite natural. But again here we have an Old Testament picture. Again and again in the Old Testament tribulation and persecution are likened to an overwhelming flood. "All thy waves and thy billows have gone over me" (Psalms 42:7). It is God's promise to the Psalmist that "the rush of great waters" shall not come near him (Psalms 32:6). If the Lord had not helped him, the waters would have overwhelmed him and the streams would have gone over his soul (Psalms 124:4). When he passes through the waters, God will be with him (Isaiah 43:2).

The chapter finishes with two further pictures.

When the dragon ejected the floods of waters, the earth swallowed them up and so the woman was saved. It is not difficult to see where John got this picture. It quite often happened in Asia Minor that rivers were swallowed up in the sand only to reappear after travelling a distance underground. There was, for instance, a case of this near Colossae, an area which John must have known well.

But it is not so easy to see what the picture means. The symbolism is very likely this. Nature itself is on the side of the man who is faithful to Jesus Christ. As Froude the historian pointed out, in the world there is a moral order and in the long run it is well with the good and ill with the wicked.

Finally John has the picture of the dragon going to war with the rest of the family of the woman, with the rest of the Church. This tells of the coming spread of persecution all over the Church.

As John saw it, Satan cast down to earth is in his last terrible convulsion and that convulsion is going to involve the whole family of the Church in the agony of persecution.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 12:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-12.html. 1956-1959.

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Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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