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Revelation 12

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

Revelation 12:1. And there appeared a great sign in heaven. The ‘sign’ consists of three particulars, and the first of these is again divided into three parts, mention of which occupies the remainder of this verse, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The immense body of light constituting the sun is her garment. The moon, the second of the light-giving bodies of heaven, is under her feet, yet certainly not in token of subjection, an idea entirely out of keeping with the position immediately afterwards assigned to the twelve stars. Nor does it seem possible to behold in ‘the moon’ a representation of the Law, or of the legal Israel, as the foundation of the Christian Church. The Church is founded not on the Law but on Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). In order to ascertain the meaning we must take sun, moon, and stars together; and, when we do so, the idea appears to be that the woman is completely enveloped in light. This is not secured by the simple mention of the sun as her garment, for that only wraps her body round from the shoulders to the feet. The other bodies of light which shine in heaven are therefore called into requisition. By means of them she has light around, beneath, and above her. The stars are not set as jewels in her crown. They are her crown, a crown of victory. The woman is a conqueror, and twelve is the number of the Church. (For the whole description comp. Song of Solomon 6:10; Revelation 1:16; Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:14.)

Verses 1-17

The third Woe, or the seventh Trumpet, came to an end with chap. 11; and, as the seven Trumpets followed immediately after the seven Seals, we might now have expected that these, in their turn, would be followed by the seven Bowls. The pouring out of these Bowls, however, does not begin until we reach chap. 15. Three chapters intervene; and it becomes both important and difficult to fix their place in the articulation of the Apocalypse as a whole. The inquiry is rendered more difficult than it might otherwise have been by the fact that chap. 12 seems distinctly to take us back to the beginning of the Christian era, to the birth of Christ. Can it be, then, that hitherto we have witnessed only the fortunes of the Jewish Church, and that the Christian Church is now to be brought before us in the wider sphere of the Gentile mission? The supposition is plausible, but it is hardly possible to accept it. The Church of Christ is not thus divided by St. John into two parts. He takes his figures, indeed, at one moment from Judaism, at another from Gentilism, but it is always one Church that he has in view, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek. The enemies of the Church, again, described in chaps, 12, 13, are certainly not peculiar to her Gentile branch, but are equally hostile to all believers from whatever quarter they come. The course of events, too, under the seven Bowls is so strictly parallel, though at the same time climactic, to that under the seven Trumpets, that it is impossible to regard the former in any other light than as a series of visions directed to the same object and filled with substantially the same meaning. How then explain this long intercalary portion of three chapters? The key is to be found in the words of Revelation 15:1, ‘Seven plagues, which are the last, for in them is finished the wrath of God.’ We are on the verge of the seven final and most disastrous plagues. The moment is thus far more critical than any at which we have previously stood. The purposes of the Almighty are now to be fully accomplished. The whole mystery of His dealings with a sinful world to which He has offered salvation is about to end. No place, therefore, could be more suitable than the present for once more gathering together the main elements of the conflict and the main features of the result.

The first object of the Seer is to give us a full and correct idea of the three great enemies of the people of God. Of these the earliest and chief is the Dragon; and to make us acquainted at once with his power and with his weakness is the aim of chap. 12. The chapter obviously divides itself into three pans or scenes, the relation of which to one another will come before us in the course of exposition.

Verse 2

Revelation 12:2. And she was with child. These words form the second particular of the vision; while the third represents her as at that moment suffering the pangs of childbirth, and the crieth out, travailing in birth, and in pain to he delivered. To the question, Who is this woman? different answers have been given. We need not dwell upon them. In one sense or another she must be the Church of God, yet not the mere Jewish Church, but the Church in the largest conception that we can form of it, as first indeed planted in Israel but afterwards extended to all nations. More will have to be said upon this point immediately. In the meantime, if it be objected that Christ bears the Church, not the Church Christ, it may be sufficient to reply that there is a sense in which Christ may truly be called the Son of the Church. He is the flower of the Chosen Family, as concerning the flesh He comes of Israel. So much is He one with His people that even His conception by the power of the Spirit and His birth of a virgin (who had no power of her own to produce Him) have their counterpart in them. They are born of the Spirit: they are the many children of a mother who was barren (Galatians 4:27). The Church, therefore, may properly be described by images taken from the history of Christ’s own mother and of His own nativity.

Verse 3

Revelation 12:3. And there appeared another sign in heaven. In every respect this second sign is the counterpart or opposite of the first; and, like it, it is described in three particulars. The first has relation to the object seen.

And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads seven diadems. The dragon is ‘great’ in power. He is ‘red’ with the colour of blood because he kills men (chap. Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:6; John 8:44; 1 John 3:12). He has ‘seven heads and ten horns,’ a figure by which is indicated his rule over all the kingdoms of this world as well as the force with which he rules them. The ‘diadems,’ it may be further noticed, are not crowns like that of the woman. They are rather bands or fillets round the head. Even in the greatest lustre of his might the dragon is not a conqueror.

Verse 4

Revelation 12:4. His tail draweth the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth. The second particular thus mentioned of the dragon has relation to what he does, and is in contrast with what had been said of the woman when we were told that she ‘was with child.’ The present tense of the first half of the sentence shows that the words describe a characteristic of the dragon, an element of his nature, and not something that happened at the moment. The woman was pregnant with life, the dragon can do nothing but destroy. Mention has been so frequently made of a ‘third part’ of things (chaps. Revelation 8:7-12, Revelation 9:15; Revelation 9:18) that we cannot be surprised at meeting it again, and all that it seems possible to say is that the proportion is not to be too literally interpreted. Enough that it designates great influence for evil, yet influence restrained by a power mightier than its own. The second half of the sentence is founded upon Daniel 8:10, and the allusion in the mention of ‘stars’ is to powers originally heavenly. Against men who are made to shine as stars in the heavenly firmament the dragon can do nothing. They have rather trampled him beneath their feet and gained over him an everlasting victory. The ‘stars of heaven’ spoken of can only be those angels of whom it is elsewhere said that they ‘kept not their first estate’ (Jude, Revelation 12:6). In this particular the work of the dragon is again presented to us as the exact counterpart of that of the woman

‘She raises mortals to the skies,

He draws the angels down.’

And the dragon stood before the woman which was about to be delivered that, when she is delivered, he may devour her child. In these words we have the dragon doing what Pharaoh did to Israel (Exodus 1:15-22), and again and again in the Psalms and Prophets Pharaoh is spoken of as the dragon (Psalms 74:13; Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3). Nor is it without interest in this connection to remember that Pharaoh’s crown was wreathed with a dragon (the asp or serpent of Egypt), and that just as the eagle was the ensign of Rome so the dragon was that of Egypt. Hence the significance of Moses’ rod being turned into a serpent. It is worth while to notice, too, how entirely the imagery agrees with the record of the infancy of our Lord in St Matthew’s Gospel (comp. especially Matthew 2:13; Matthew 2:15). The motive alike of Pharaoh and of Herod was envy, Satan’s motive. In this verse also the dragon is in direct contrast with the woman. She is to bear a living child: he would destroy it as soon as it was born.

Verse 5

Revelation 12:5. The birth takes place. The woman is delivered of a son, of man’s sex. The last expression is remarkable. In the Authorised Version we read simply of ‘a man child,’ in the Revised of ‘a son, a man child.’ We have given another rendering in the hope of thereby bringing out the force which in the original obviously belongs to the words. The object is not simply to tell us that the ‘son’ is a male, which as a son he must be, but to impress upon us the thought of his manhood, power, and force. He is already more than a child; the properties of manhood belong to Him from His birth (comp. John 16:21 and note there). The function of this Son is as a shepherd to tend all the nations with a sceptre of iron. He is to subdue and rule the hostile world (chap. Revelation 2:27); and He is caught up unto God and unto his throne not merely that He may be safe there, but that with Divine power He may destroy him who would have destroyed Himself (chap. Revelation 3:21). It may be well to observe that this power is not said to be as yet actually exercised by the ‘son.’ It belongs to Him, and it shall be exercised in due season.

Verse 6

Revelation 12:6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they may nourish her there a thousand, two hundred, and threescore days. The fortunes of the woman’s child having been described, we are now informed of her own. The flight of Elijah into the wilderness, perhaps even the temptation of our Lord there, is present to the writer’s mind; and the words are applicable to the condition of the Church during her whole pilgrimage state in the present world. Thus closes the first scene of the chapter, and we have now to ask as to its meaning. It appears to us that the key to this is to be found in the opening verses of the Gospel of St. John (John 1:1-5), the parallelism of which to the present passage it is impossible to mistake. We have the same contrasts as those there presented, light, darkness, light shining in the darkness, the darkness trying to prevail against the light, but not overcoming it (see note on John 1:5). Here also, as there, nothing is said of the origin of the darkness. We read only that it exists. If these observations be correct we can now understand the scene. It is not interrupted at Revelation 12:7, in order that the war in heaven may be described, and again resumed at Revelation 12:13. There is a marked difference between the two scenes contained in Revelation 12:1-6 and Revelation 12:13-17, and the difference consists in this, that the first is ideal, the second actual. Strictly speaking, the woman in Revelation 12:1-6 is neither the Jewish nor the Christian Church. She is light from Him ‘who is light, and with whom there is no darkness at all,’ light which had been always shining before it was partially embodied either in the Church of the old or the new covenant. Her actual conflict with the darkness has not begun. We behold her in her own glorious existence, and it is enough to dwell upon the potencies that are in her as ‘a light of man.’ In like manner the dragon is not yet to be identified with the devil or Satan. That identification does not take place till we reach Revelation 12:9. The former differs from the latter as the abstract and ideal power of evil differs from evil in the concrete. As the woman is ideal light, light before it appears in the Church upon earth, so the dragon is ideal darkness, the power of sin before it begins its deadly warfare against the children of God. Thus also we learn what is intended by the son who is born to the woman. He is not the Son actually incarnate but the ideally incarnate Son, ‘the true light, which lighteth every man, coming into the world’ (John 1:9). More difficulty may be felt in answering the question, whether, along with the Son Himself, we are to see in this ‘son, of man’s sex,’ the true members of Christ’s Body. Ideally, it would seem that we are to do so. All commentators allow that in the son’s being ‘caught up unto God and unto His throne’ there is a reference to the ascension and glorification of our Lord. But, if so, it appears to be impossible to separate between the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord and those who are in Him thus risen, ascended, and glorified. In a note on John 16:21 we have called attention to the use of the word ‘man’ instead of child in that verse, as showing that we are there invited to behold the new birth of regenerated humanity, that new life in a risen Saviour with which the Church springs into being. The thought thus presented in the words of Jesus meets us again in this vision of the Seer. Christ’s true people as well as Himself are made to sit down with Him in His throne, even as He sat down with His Father in His throne (Revelation 3:21). They not less than their Lord tend as a shepherd the nations with a sceptre of iron, even as He received of His Father (chap. Revelation 2:26-27). We cannot separate Him from them or them from Him. Everything then in these verses is anticipatory or ideal. The forces are on the field. We see light and darkness, their natural antagonism to each other, the fierce enmity of the darkness against the light, the apparent success but real defeat of the darkness, the apparent quenching but real triumph of the light God’s eternal plan is before us. We have a ‘pattern’ like that ‘showed to Moses in the mount’ (comp. chap. Revelation 4:11).

Verses 7-9

Revelation 12:7-9. With the words of Revelation 12:7 the second scene of the chapter opens, and the transition from the ideal to the actual begins. As the first scene, too, corresponded to the first paragraph of the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (Revelation 12:1-5), so this scene corresponds to its second paragraph (Revelation 12:6-13). It is not enough that the light shall withstand the darkness. It has also to assault and overcome it. Hence it is that Michael and his angels are the first to move; and hence in all probability the remarkable grammatical construction of Revelation 12:7 in the original, a construction which seems intended to bring out this thought.

The war opens in heaven. No explanation is afforded of our finding evil there; nor is there greater difficulty in conceiving of evil in heaven than in admitting its existence upon earth. All things are primarily good and pure and holy. Such is the fundamental idea of existence; but this idea is disturbed by sin. The good is not perfectly unmixed; and, without knowing how the evil originated, we are compelled to acknowledge that it exists. Traces of the same teaching as that found here are to be seen in 1 Kings 22:0; Job 1:2; Zechariah 3:0; and in the words of Jesus, of which this whole scene is a symbolical representation, ‘I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18). The war begun is conducted on the one side by Michael and his angels, on the other by the dragon and his angels. The mention of Michael is taken from Daniel 10:13; Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1; comp. Jude 1:9. He is certainly not Jesus Himself, nor is he merely a created angel to whose guardianship the Church is committed. He is rather an expression of Jesus, an aspect (if we may so speak), a representation, of the Divine good embodied in Him; and His angels are the varied agencies belonging to that good and executing its designs. The ‘dragon’ is next more completely identified by a description consisting of three particulars. First, he is the old serpent, a reference to the history of the fall. Secondly, he is he that is called the devil and Satan, the former of these terms denoting the deceiver (chap. Revelation 20:8), the second the accuser (Revelation 12:10), of the saints. Thirdly, he is he that deceiveth the whole inhabited world, the world with all its inhabitants, and not simply them that ‘dwell upon the earth.’ Not that he succeeds in eventually betraying all. But even the saints he endeavours to deceive. He tempts them as he tempted our Lord in the wilderness. When the war has been continued for a time, the dragon is not only defeated, but no place is found for him any more in heaven. He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. The victory of good over evil is complete. It may be well to notice that, if the devil is thus cast out of heaven, out of the assembly of the saints, he must have been originally good. Had he not been so he would never have been in heaven, but would have ruled from a past eternity in some realm of his own.

Verses 10-12

Revelation 12:10-12. The victory thus gained is followed by a song of praise and thanksgiving, which proceeds from a great voice in heaven. Whose voice this is we are not told, and it may be well to leave it in its indefiniteness.

The song is one of adoring praise that the s alvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, have been perfectly established. ‘Now is there judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out;’ ‘He will convict the world concerning judgment, because the prince of this world hath been judged’ (John 12:31; John 16:8; John 16:11).

This victory of the ‘brethren’ has been gained because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony. By the former can only be understood the blood of Jesus shed and presented before God on behalf of His people, by the latter that testimony of Jesus, that witness concerning Him, which they had been enabled to deliver.

When the victory has thus been spoken of as pained the ‘great voice’ further cries, Rejoice ye heavens, and ye that tabernacle in them. They who thus tabernacled in the heavens can hardly be angels; nor are they the spirits of the just made perfect contrasted with the righteous still struggling upon earth. The victory of all the righteous is by this time supposed to be complete. They can be no other than the whole redeemed family of God. These form the Divine Tabernacle, the place in which God rests, as He rested of old in the tabernacle in the wilderness (comp. chap. Revelation 7:15, Revelation 13:6, Revelation 21:3). Thus constituting a tabernacle for God, they may by an easy transition be said themselves ‘to tabernacle,’ for the true idea of the Tabernacle consisted in this, that it was the meeting-place of God and man. There is no thought of the transitoriness of a tent, or of tent life. While all the good rejoice, there is woe for the earth and for the sea, that is, not the neutral earth or the ocean, but all who are unconnected with God’s kingdom ‘the heavens.’

Because the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time. The consciousness that it is so fills him with the rage of despair.

The second scene of the chapter is a distinct advance upon the first. We pass from the dragon the ideal representative of evil to the devil or Satan, known to us as the source of all the sin and misery from which earth suffers. Further, we learn why the Church on earth has to contend with this great adversary. He has been cast, with his angels, out of heaven; and it is God’s decree that the main and last struggle between good and evil shall be fought out on earth. Among men, not angels, the plan of redemption shall be conducted to its glorious issue. To impress these thoughts upon us is the reason why the second scene of this chapter has its place assigned to it.

Verses 13-14

Revelation 12:13-14. From what has been said it will be evident that with the 13th verse there is no reverting to the point which we had reached at Revelation 12:6. On the contrary, another step is taken in advance; and we are invited to behold in actual warfare the forces that in the first scene had been only ideally described, and the entrance of one of which into the world had been brought before us in the second. The dragon has not been led to submission by the fact that he had been driven out of heaven. He has rather been roused to greater fury (Revelation 12:12), and in that fury he attacks the woman. She is described as the woman which brought forth the child of man’s sex, and is thus identified with the woman of Revelation 12:1. Yet she is not exactly the same. Then she was viewed as the ideal, now she is viewed as the actual Church, not indeed as the Church of Israel, but as the Church universal, the Church of every age and nation, the Church within which the light of Divine truth shines, and which is persecuted by the devil’s darkness.

Although, however, thus persecuted the woman is not overcome. The light is safe under the care of God. This circumstance is set forth in the fact that to the woman were given the two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness into her place. The flight, the wilderness, the nourishment afforded there, and the flood of water to be immediately spoken of, remind us so much of the flight of Israel from Egypt to the promised land as to leave no doubt that these events lie at the bottom of the description, although, as usual, they are treated with great freedom, forming only the starting-point from which the Seer proceeds to the clothing of his idea. The eagle is certainly not that of chap. Revelation 8:13. Yet the articles employed in the original, which are not generic, show that a definite eagle is meant. It can be no other than the eagle of Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalms 36:7. The eagle is God Himself, and its wings are His wings. On these wings the woman flies into the desert, into her place, i.e the place of Revelation 12:6, the place already prepared for her, and where, though in the desert, she shall be secure. What is good, what is Divine, has not in this world its Canaan. It is still in the wilderness, but it is preserved there by the loving care of the Most High.

In this place she is nourished. The reference is probably to the history of Elijah, who was nourished first at the brook Cheritn and then at Zarephath during the three years and a half when there was no rain; but it may be also to the extraordinary means by which God sustained His people in the wilderness, not by natural supplies of food, but by the manna, the water, and the flesh with which He miraculously provided them. This is done for a time, and times, and half a time, or for three years and a half, the whole period of the militant condition of the Church in a present world.

Verses 15-16

Revelation 12:15-16. The imagery employed in these verses is difficult. It is in all probability taken from the passage of Israel across the Red Sea and the river Jordan into the Promised Land. This reference is the more probable when we remember the language of David in Psalms 18:0, when at Revelation 12:4 he first declares that ‘the floods of ungodly men’ (emissaries of Satan, persecutors) made him afraid, and then at Revelation 12:15-17 compares his deliverance to the passage of Israel through the Red Sea. With this may be mixed the thought of the history of Korah and his companions, when men who had envied Moses and risen against him in a formidable insurrection were destroyed by the earth’s opening her mouth (Numbers 16:32). The symbol is of God’s protecting care of His people. In the day of their trial He will provide for them a way of escape.

Verse 17

Revelation 12:17, and chap. Revelation 13:1 a. Defeated in his purpose the dragon breaks forth into a paroxysm of rage. The important expression in this verse, the rest of her seed, is difficult, and it has been very variously interpreted. These interpretations it is impossible to examine, and it must suffice to say that ‘the rest of her seed,’ as appears from the immediately following description of their character, can only mean that portion of the woman’s seed which remained faithful to its trust. They are ‘the saints’ of chap. Revelation 13:7. We have here, in short, one of those anticipatory indications, like that of the measuring in chap. Revelation 11:1, of a separation between the Church as a whole and a part of the members, between the vine as a whole and its fruit-bearing branches, which prepare us for the further manifestation of this mystery in later chapters of the book. The expression ‘the rest’ seems to correspond to the ‘remnant’ referred to by St. Paul in Romans 9:27; Romans 11:5, and it is used in Revelation 2:24 in a similar sense.

The first great enemy of the Church has been described. One thing more is necessary that, ready for the conflict, he shall take up his position on the field. Accordingly it is to be observed that the first clause of chap. Revelation 13:1 ought to form a part of the last verse of this chapter, and that the true reading of the clause is not that of the Authorised Version ‘I stood’ but ‘he stood’ or ‘took his stand.’ The dragon took his stand upon the sand of the sea, upon the margin of that ‘earth’ and ‘sea’ in which he finds his prey (Revelation 12:12).

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 12". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/revelation-12.html. 1879-90.
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