The most interesting thing about this passage is the background that is used to write it. The background is pagan mythology! Osborne*** offers a great summary where he cites Mol who calls this passage the “international myth” as a form of this story appears in virtually every religion of the ancient world. Here are some excerpts from Osborne’s introduction:
“In Egypt the mother goddess Isis is pursued by the red dragon Set or Typhon and flees to an island, where she gives birth to the sun god, Horus. In Ugaritic myth the storm god Baal defeats the seven-headed serpent Leviathan and sets up his kingdom. IN Mesopotamia, Marduk, the god of light, kills the seven-headed dragon Tiamat, who had thrown down a third of the stars. In Greco-Roman myth, the goddess Leto, pregnant with Apollo, is pursued by the dragon Python. She is rescued by Poseidon, who places her in safety on an island. After Apollo is born, he slays Python.” (Pg. 454).
Out of these, the Leto/Apollo myth is the closest to what John has written here. So why does this vision seem to be taken from pagan myths? Osborne*** (Pgs. 454-455) concludes that this would have given the pagans, who longed for their myths to be true, someone who would fulfill what had been myths to them. Jesus would have “actualized” these myths “in history”. We have seen in other parts of Revelation where pagan myths and area history were used as background, especially in the seven messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Chapters 2 and 3).
1 And a great sign was seen in heaven1, a woman2 clothed with3 the sun, and the moon under her feet, and a crown4 of twelve stars5 on her head.6 2 And being pregnant7, she cries out in labor and suffered terrible pain8 in giving birth. 3 And another sign was seen in heaven, and behold, a great red9 dragon10 having seven heads11, ten horns12, and seven royal headbands13 on his head. 4 His tail14 pulled down by force15 a third of the stars16 of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood17 in front of18 the woman, who is about to give birth, so that when she may give birth, he might devour her child19. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is destined20 to rule21 all nations with an iron staff.22 6 And her child was caught up23 to God and to his24 throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had25 a place prepared26 there by God, so that they might take care of27 her there for one thousand two hundred and sixty days28.
1 John sees this in heaven. The vision gives an overview of the rebellion against God and His provision for redemption.
2 Many scholars see this woman as Mary the mother of Jesus. Mounce** sees her as “the messianic community, the ideal Israel”, thus the church/ believers. (Pg. 236). Paul also alludes to this in Galatians 4:26. Beale* sees her as the “faithful community” before and after the coming of Christ. (Pg. 625).
This image of the woman can well remind us of Mary and the nation that bore the seed of Abraham through whom all would be blessed. It is particularly applicable to Israel with the mention of a crown with twelve stars, representing the twelve tribes.
3 περιβεβλημένη (clothed with)
Greek: “having been clothed” or “having been thrown around”. In other
words, the sun has been thrown around the woman like clothing.
The light of God was given to Israel. They were chosen to reveal Him so the earth would know.
4 στέφανος (a crown)
A sign of winning or great achievement. A wreath. This may also indicate a “heavenly” form of royalty. This is also the same word used for the conquering crowns in the seven letters (2:10) and the 1st seal (6:2). If the woman stands as the believers, then the crown would be the conquering crown.
5 The twelve starts could mean different things. They could represent the twelve tribes of Israel as listed in the sealing of the slaves of God (7:1-8) or possibly the twelve apostles.
6 The vision of the women is a allusion to Joseph’s dreams in Genesis 37:1-9. There, the sun represented Jacob (Israel), the moon represented his mother, and the stars represented his brothers. Osborne*** concludes that this woman represents Israel and the church, or “God’s people”. (Pgs. 456-457). Mounce** states that “The world may despise the true Israel and hold it in lowest esteem, but from God’s point of view she is a radiant bride.” (Pg. 236).
Perhaps it might be a stretch to consider this woman as representing the church. The church did not give birth to Jesus, but rather Jesus that gave birth to the church. The Church is the Bride of Christ. It does not give birth to the Son and groom, but awaits His return.
The Church has not displaced Israel, rather we are grafted in, as wild branches into a cultivated olive tree. Paul reminds us that if their unbelief brought riches, even salvation to the world, how much more will be the riches of their belief. The root remains and a remnant will be saved. The two become one tree as they become one with the tree of life.
7 ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα (being pregnant)
Greek: “in having a womb”. An idiom for “being pregnant”.
8 βασανιζομένη (suffered terrible pain)
Greek: “having been tormented”. Osborne*** (Pg. 458) points out that no where else in the NT is βασανίζω (I torment/torture) used to describe labor pains but is used to describe persecution of God’s people. Thus, he sees a double meaning here: 1. The birth of the Messiah and 2. The messianic woes of the people of God to birth the “messianic age”.
Mounce** points out that the OT often pictures Israel as a woman in travail. Here, the woman represents the “true Israel” (believers) in her pre-messianic agony of expectation. (Pg. 237).
Beale* points to John 16:19-22 where Christ compares the grief of his disciples over his upcoming death to a woman about to give birth. In doing so, he connects the believing disciples with the believers here. (Pg. 630).
Israel has endured much suffering for their rejection of God, but it is through that rejection that God works His plan for redemption. In the end Israel will be redeemed. Though facing much hostility and abuse in the world, some will be saved. The Church, that was born of her wanderings, will welcome her return. There will be neither Jew or Gentile, but a new man.
9 πυρρὸς (red)
Greek: “fiery red”. Indicates that the color was orange, yellow, and red like fire. As the red horse of the second seal, the red dragon probably represents blood and slaughter. Osborne*** (Pg. 459).
10 δράκων (dragon)
A dragon in the ancient world was a monstrous winged serpent or lizard. It could also be a sea-monster or Leviathan (Job 3:8; 41:1). Also in the ancient world, the dragon “came to represent all the terrors of the sea and thus the presence of evil and death”. Osborne*** (Pg. 459). Beale* points out that the dragon represents the evil sea monster of the OT that “symbolizes evil kingdoms who oppress Israel”. He goes on to state that the passage is a retelling of Egypt’s pursuit of Israel into the wilderness where God protects them. (Pgs. 632-633).
The dragon is first revealed as the serpent in the Garden, manifesting rebellion and deception. Corruption and death lie in his path. This was overcome by the resurrection of Christ.
11 Osborne*** sees the seven heads as sovereignty over the earth. (Pg. 460).
12 The horns in the ancient world represented strength or military strength. Osborne*** sees them as an imitation of the seven horns of the lamb in 5:6. (Pg. 460). The ten horns is an allusion to the forth beast in Daniel 7. Mounce** (Pg. 237).
13 διαδήματα (headband)
A type of crown employed as a symbol of the highest ruling power in a particular area and therefore often associated with kingship — ‘diadem crown. Since this is a different type of crown than is found in verse 1, it may indicate an “earthly” form of royalty. Beale* states that the diadems “represent the devil’s false claim of sovereign, universal authority in opposition to the true ‘King of kings and Lord or lords’”. (Pg. 635).
14 The “tail” of a dragon in the ancient world was normally a weapon. Osborne*** (Pg. 460).
The swarm of locust out of the abyss were described as horses with serpent tails.
15 σύρει (pulled down by force)
Most of the time, this verbs indicates that a resistance was in place that made the doer of the action to have to use force. It’s possible that the 1/3 of the stars of heaven didn’t want to be pulled down.
This could reflect Satan being cast down from heaven to earth.
It is interesting to note the parallel use of 1/3 in the following verse from Zechariah:
8 It will come about in all the land,
Declares the Lord,
That two parts in it will be cut off and perish;
But the third will be left in it.
9 And I will bring the third part through the fire,
Refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.
They will call on My name,
16 In the Apocalypse, stars always represent angels. Osborne*** sees this seen as a short-lived victory of Satan as he was able to convince 1/3 of the angels of heaven to side with him in the “original war in heaven”. (Pg. 461). Mounce** states that this is a reminder of Daniel 8:10 where “the little horn (Antiochus Epiphanes) casts to the ground some of the stars and tramples them under foot.” He goes on to say that this passage is not a teaching of fallen angels, “but to reporting a great pageant enacted in the heavens”. (Pg. 238). Beale* states that the stars are persecuted christians based on the interpretation that Daniel 8:10 represents “peoples”. He also reminds us that the angels of each or the churches in chapters 2 and 3 also represent the people of those churches. He goes on to state that the falling stars here are related to the twelve stars in verse 1. If that is true, then the “pulling down by force” of a third of the twelve stars could represent the satanic attack on believers in both the OT and NT times. (Pgs. 635-637).
If we accept that Satan is a fallen angel and was cast down from heaven, I’m not sure why the same understanding would not apply to his followers. The demons that Jesus cast out while earth came from somewhere and they were Legion. It might be truly said that Satan attacks both believers and unbelievers: unbelievers so that they remain in that state and believers that they too might fall.
Some do not see the relating of fallen stars to the twelve tribes of Israel which are part of the foundation of the New Jerusalem. The twelve stars form the woman’s crown which sits on her head, which is the place of prestige and authority.
17 ἕστηκεν (stood)
Greek: “has stood”. The verb is in the perfect tense as is John’s style.
It is also in the active voice which may be some indication of the ongoing nature of Satan’s hostility and rebellion.
18 ἐνώπιον (in front of)
In a sense, Satan has been trying to cut in front of God for a long time. He does not want to have anyone above him, but sees himself as first. This is at the core of rebellion and disobedience.
19 There are many parallels to this passage: Satan’s temptation of Jesus, Herod’s slaughtering of the children under two years of age, and the crucifixion of Christ. In any case, Satan was trying to get rid of Jesus.
Satan is described as a roaring lion. In his rage and thirst for revenge lies the hunger for the blood of the saints, of those washed in the cleansing blood of redemption. It is a redemption he neither seeks nor will accept. It is the same for those who follow in his path.
20 μέλλει (destined)
Christ was predestined for His destiny. He was slain from the foundation of the world. While this would put Him in the wilderness given to Satan as a result of the fall, and confront Him with the same temptation as was before Adam, the outcome was a choice that Jesus made as a man. Because it was a choice, the outcome hung in the balance and in that moment. Unlike Adam, He chose obedience. Because He did, He entered into the glory that was before Him and so can we.
This wilderness presents us with the same choice. Like Jesus, we are predestined, but we choose to accept obey God. The prospect of eternity with or without God lies before us. Let us see the glory that lies beyond this cross of mortality. The choice lies in each moment.
Greek: “is about to”.
21 ποιμαίνειν (to rule)
or “to shepherd”.
22 The allusion to Psalms 2:9 is also quoted in 2:27.
ῥάβδῳ (rod, branch, staff, sceptre)
It is with His staff He shepherds His flock. It is with His rod He rules His domain.
23 ἡρπάσθη (was caught up)
ἁρπάζω is the same verb that we get “rapture” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
A symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Beale* makes an astonishing statement that it is possible that the use of
ἁρπάζω, which mean “to catch up by force” or “to snatch up”, would actually allow for the dragon to have devoured the child (crucifixion) temporarily only to have that victory taken away by God. (Pg. 639). We have a modern-day idiom that says: “we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat”. Here, God “snatched” Christ’s death from the jaws of Satan’s victory.
Beale’s statement articulates the meaning of the bruise inflicted on the Son by the serpent spoken of in Genesis. Jesus faced and experienced death on our behalf, but did not remain in the tomb. His obedience allowed victory over death. His body was bruised by mortality, but was raised incorruptible. The sting of death was overcome and becomes just a step into eternity for those who choose to follow.
24 αὐτοῦ (his)
It was God’s throne because “child” in neuter in form in Greek and God (θεός), is masculine in form. The child was caught up to God and to God’s throne.
25 ἔχει (had)
The verb is actually in the present tense. “has”.
26 ἡτοιμασμένον (prepared)
Greek: “having been prepared”. This is in the perfect tense indicating that the place was already prepared for the woman before hand. Mounce** sees this place of refuge as a “spiritual refuge” that will enable the believers to stand up to Satan. (Pg. 239).
27 τρέφωσιν (they might take care of)
Greek: “they might feed her”. The idea here is for the woman to be taken care of by food and protection. If spiritual nourishment is implied, then God would supply spiritual help in the believers time of persecution.
As the angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, so God provides for His people.
28 Another way of saying three and a half years. Beale* points out that this is the same amount of time in which God protects the church and the witnesses witness. (Pg. 642).
NT = New Testament
OT = Old Testament
ESV = English Standard Version
NASB = New American Standard Bible
NIV = New International Version
KJV = King James Version
TR = Textus Receptus (A late Byzantine Greek text of the NT. A
predecessor of the TR was used in the translation of the KJV)
LXX = Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT)
The Greek New Testament with Greek-English Dictionary B. Aland (Editor), K. Aland (Editor), J. Karavidopoulos (Editor), B. M. Metzger (Editor), C. M. Martini (Editor)
(BDAG) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition Walter Bauer (Author), Frederick William Danker (Editor)
A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament Bruce M. Metzger
(Kittel) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (VOLUMES 1-10) Gerhard Kittel (Editor), Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Translator)
*The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.).) G. K. Beale
**The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) Robert H. Mounce
***Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) Grant R. Osborne
+Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics Daniel B. Wallace
++An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek C. F. D. Moule
+++Biblical Greek (Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici) Maximilian Zerwick
A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament Max Zerwick (Author), Mary Grosvenor (Author)
Ἀποκάλυψις 12·1 Καὶ σημεῖον μέγα ὤφθη ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, γυνὴ περιβεβλημένη τὸν ἥλιον, καὶ ἡ σελήνη ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν αὐτῆς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς στέφανος ἀστέρων δώδεκα, 2 καὶ ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα, καὶ κράζει ὠδίνουσα καὶ βασανιζομένη τεκεῖν. 3 καὶ ὤφθη ἄλλο σημεῖον ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, καὶ ἰδοὺ δράκων μέγας πυρρὸς ἔχων κεφαλὰς ἑπτὰ καὶ κέρατα δέκα καὶ ἐπὶ τὰς κεφαλὰς αὐτοῦ ἑπτὰ διαδήματα, 4 καὶ ἡ οὐρὰ αὐτοῦ σύρει τὸ τρίτον τῶν ἀστέρων τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἔβαλεν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν γῆν. Καὶ ὁ δράκων ἕστηκεν ἐνώπιον τῆς γυναικὸς τῆς μελλούσης τεκεῖν, ἵνα ὅταν τέκῃ τὸ τέκνον αὐτῆς καταφάγῃ. 5 καὶ ἔτεκεν υἱὸν ἄρσεν, ὃς μέλλει ποιμαίνειν πάντα τὰ ἔθνη ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ. καὶ ἡρπάσθη τὸ τέκνον αὐτῆς πρὸς τὸν θεὸν καὶ πρὸς τὸν θρόνον αὐτοῦ. 6 καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἔφυγεν εἰς τὴν ἔρημον, ὅπου ἔχει ἐκεῖ τόπον ἡτοιμασμένον ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα ἐκεῖ τρέφωσιν αὐτὴν ἡμέρας χιλίας διακοσίας ἑξήκοντα.