The drama of the second (Revelation 4:1-16:20) has not yet ended. We are yet in the middle of it. Heaven has opened the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and sounded the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) but we have not yet seen the final, climatic bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16). sandwiched between the trumpets and the bowls is the dramatic story of war in heaven and war upon the earth. It functions similar to the interludes that came between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7) and trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:14). This “interlude” identifies the players in the drama.
It is as if someone has hit the pause button on one screen–the drama of the unfolding sevens–and our attention has been arrested by another screen. The “interlude” of Revelation 12-14 will take us back to the beginning of the story as it reminds us that the conflict between God and the kingdom of this world is a long one. The conflict was waged in the Garden of Eden, on the shores of the Red Sea, and in the birth and ministry of Jesus. What the followers of the Lamb experience is nothing new; the world powers have always opposed the kingdom purposes of God. The “interlude” identifies and describes the “war.”
John introduces the conflict by describing two signs that appear “in heaven.” The first sign is a woman clothed in creation itself–robed in the sun, standing on the moon and the twelve stars on her head in the form of a victory wreath (stephanos). The second sign is a blood-red dragon whose seven heads were diadems and whose tail creates havoc on the earth by showering it with a third of the stars. The woman affirms creation while the dragon destroys it. The woman wears a victory wreath like the martyrs while the dragon rules the earth as a destroyer of the earth (cf. Revelation 11:18). The woman is God’s beloved while the dragon is God’s enemy.
Startlingly, the woman is pregnant and feels the birth pangs. She is about to give birth. The dragon menacingly stands in front of her ready to destroy whatever comes out of her. The birth is part of God’s redemptive story and the dragon opposes it.
A son is born. The son, protected by God, inherits a throne when he ascends to God. The dragon’s purpose is frustrated. Though the dragon wears seven royal diadems, the son assumes the throne. The son will reign rather than the dragon. The woman flees the anger of the dragon; she flees from the dragon into the wilderness for safety, a place prepared by God.
God delivers the son by snatching him up to heaven, but the woman is left upon the earth. She hides in the wilderness where she will stay for 1260 days or three and one half years (42 months).
Who are these “people”? What is happening?
The one certain identification in the text is the identity of the son. John gives us an interpretative key. He is the one who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This alludes to Psalm 2 where God’s anointed king will inherit the earth and the nations will experience God’s wrath. Revelation 11:18 also alluded to Psalm 2. The reign of the kingdom of the anointed (Messiah) began when the son was ascended to the right hand of God to sit upon his throne. The birth and ascension of Jesus are described in Revelation 12:5; the rest of the story–what filled the pages between those two events–is assumed. The readers know the history of the faithful witness who went to the cross in obedience to the Father and was raised from the dead to ascend to the throne. The son reigns.
Who is the woman? We might say Mary and this would be partly correct but not mainly correct. The woman represents something much greater than Mary herself. The woman appears “in heaven.” The woman wears the martyrs victory wreath. The woman is those who have overcome, but those who overcame before the birth of the Messiah. The woman is faithful Israel. She gives birth to the Messiah. Mary, of course, represented Israel as the one through whom the Messiah came. So, at one level–a literal level–the woman is Mary, but the point is symbolic. Mary represents Israel. The chosen people of God gave birth to Jesus. Perhaps at even deeper level the woman represents Eve from whom the whole of humanity has come; she is the mother of all. She is the one whose seed would crush the serpent’s head. So, we might read this at three levels–Eve, Israel and Mary.
Who is the dragon? As with Mary, we might say that at a literal level the dragon is Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child in Bethlehem. But again the dragon is “in heaven” and the seven crowns and ten horns describe something much larger than Herod himself. The symbolic picture at least leads us to Roman power. Rome, as a world power, opposes the kingdom of God. In Revelation 17 we will see “seven heads and ten horns” explicitly identified with Roman imperial authority. It is not only Herod who seeks to destroy Christ; it is Roman power itself. But there is a cosmic dimension to this figure. The dragon is “in heaven” and is an enemy of the cosmos itself. Indeed, the dragon is identified in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan.” This is the one who opposed Eve herself and led the original couple astray even as he now leads the “whole world astray.” So, we might read this at three levels as well–Serpent, Rome and Herod.
Who, then, is the woman who flees? She flees into the wilderness just as Israel fled from the armies of Pharoah into the wilderness for safety. But the woman is more than Israel at this point. The woman represents the whole people of God. This is indicated by the length of time she will stay in the wilderness. It is the same length of time that the two witnesses in Revelation 11 prophesied against the ruling powers. Just as the two prophets represent a witnessing church, so here the hiding woman symbolizes the one people of God, now composed of Jew and Gentile.
The trial that has come upon the whole earth is the result of a cosmic battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The cosmic powers of evil are warring against the faithful people of God. This was true in the Garden. It was true at the Red Sea. It was true at the cross. It was true in first century Asia Minor. It is still true. The war is not yet over.