A World-Changing Proclamation
Following on the heels of John’s appointment as a Prophet (Ch. 10) and a description of how Jesus’ people continue to perform as witnesses of Jesus (11:1-14), Jesus is proclaimed (and, more importantly, worshipped) as the ruler of the entire world. Verse 18 shows what the results of this proclamation will be: nations enraged, God’s wrath, judgment of the dead, the rewarding of God’s servants and the destruction of “those who destroy the earth.” This verse becomes the theme of the remainder of the book.
It is important to note that judgment is not a willy-nilly act of wrath, but a reasoned response to the destructiveness of those who oppose Jesus and the will of God. That is what is meant by such statements as “those who live by the sword die by it.” There is a poetic justice to the destruction of the destroyer.
The Woman and the Dragon
Chapter 12 begins with two “important signs” in the heavens. The first is a woman with a 12-starred crown who gives birth to a baby whom we are later told will rule the earth. The second sign is a great, 7-headed dragon with 10 crowns who tries to devour the child.
The woman’s crown represents the number of Israel, of course. She is “the people of God,” from whom the Messiah must (and does!) come. Jesus is “snatched away to God” when he dies and is resurrected. There is an irony in that Jesus wins by losing his life. This lesson will not be lost on His disciples, for they are also called to lose their lives in order to “overcome.” She flees into “the wilderness,” an echo of the Exodus, where she is nourished (echo of manna) for 1260 days (the time “the holy city” is “trampled by the gentiles in ch. 11 as well as the time the Two Witnesses minister).”
The identity of the dragon is revealed in 12:7-9 as Satan, the Devil, “the deceiver of the whole world.” At some time before Jesus’ birth, he had been “thrown down” to earth, along with 1/3 of the angels. This also gives us the identity of the “star” that makes the waters “bitter” in 8:10-11. He is the same one as the “angel” who unlocks the Abyss to release the locusts of war in 9:1-12. This is the great enemy who has been behind all of the troubles of humankind from the beginning of human time. In the time of Job, he was free to roam the earth and report at the court of God, but from the time he is cast down to earth, he probably no longer is being listened to by God, making him angry and “bitter.”
The dragon, in attempting to take Jesus’ life as an infant, causes a slaughter (through Herod) not unlike that which Pharaoh caused in Moses’ time. The woman is “given two wings like a great eagle,” a statement also intended to remind the reader of God taking His people out of Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 19:4). The dragon pursues the followers of God into the wilderness and attempts to overrun them there, with only partial success.
He then turns on “the rest of her seed,” who “keep the commandments of God” and “hold the testimony of Jesus.” This probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, the perceived centre of both Judaism and Christianity. After Jerusalem’s destruction, it becomes clear that the challenge of the Christians is not over yet, so persecution spreads unevenly throughout the Empire. Though persecuted, there are still enough Christians who are dispersed throughout the Empire, fulfilling Christ’s mission, to keep the Empire off balance. This is how the Two Witnesses can preach and yet be killed for the 3 1/2 “times.” Even the deaths of believers fulfills the withness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The place at which the woman is nourished is very much like the wilderness the Israelites wandered in. There are troubles, temptations and enemies all around. There are grumblers in their midst, even outright rebels against God’s leading. There are even many who refuse to enter the Promised Land when given the opportunity, because some things they are told about by grumblers don’t meet their expectations (whether those things are true or not). Living in the wilderness at the edges of an advanced civilization is not easy.
These believers are said to have “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11, NRSV). All life on earth takes place against the backgdrop of the war between the Dragon and the Seed of the Woman (the singular “seed” of Christ and the plural “rest of her seed” of Christ’s followers). It is in this context that the “he who overcomes” passages in the portions addressed to individual churches must be read. “Overcomers” are the ones who win by losing everything – only to gain much, much more at Jesus’ return.