And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6, ESV)
Revelation 12 presents another overlay of history. This overlay unmasks the deep questions of what is behind history. Why the conflict on earth? Why is there persecution? Revelation 12 gives a glimpse of the deep conflict. Things in this world are not just the battles of politics, corporate greed, war among nations, or terrorism. The conflict is the war of Satan and his demons against God, God's angels, and God's people.
As I keep rereading Revelation, I am drawn by its imagery. The Holy Spirit working through John gives us the most striking, subtle, and deep imagery in all of world literature. Revelation 12 announces this is a great sign. The sign opens with a woman. Not any woman. This is a beautiful woman, robed with the dazzling radiance of the sun. She is standing on the moon; she wears a crown of twelve stars. The stars allude to the Old Testament of Old Covenant Israel. But the woman is pregnant, and not just pregnant, she is in the pangs of labor. Her child is the one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron -- the messiah, Jesus Christ. Thus now the woman appears to be Mary. But as we read further, the woman also appears to be the church. Who is she? Israel, Mary, or the church? I think the woman is all of these. That's one of the things I like about the subtlety of Revelation. Revelation paints a breathtaking picture of the woman. In this painting there is the Old Covenant Israel, but the strokes also reveal Mary, and other strokes also reveal the church. The painting shows her to be the mother of Christ and also the mother of all who believe in Christ, and yet some other strokes she is all of God's people.
Another sign is the dragon. As beautiful is the woman, the dragon is ugly. He is red, misshapened with seven heads and ten horns. He is a counterfeit of God. His seven heads of cunning counterfeits God's wisdom and omniscience. His ten horns of power counterfeits God's omnipotence. The dragon's seven crowns counterfeits God authority. The dragon's power to sweep away a third of the stars is impressive, but it isn't comprehensive. The dragon is trying to destroy the Messiah. Who is the dragon? He is identified as Satan, the old serpent -- indicating Satan has been battling God's people since the Garden of Eden. Satan fails to devour Christ. When Satan looses the battle with Christ, he is goes to war with the woman and she flees to the wilderness. We see again the number of 1,260 days, the period of the woman's tribulation and simultaneous protection by God. As multifaceted is the imagery of the woman, so is this 1,260 days in the wilderness. It is protection of Mary from Herod who tried to kill Jesus. It is the protection of the church from Satan after Christ's ascension into heaven until the consummation of history with Christ's return.
Revelation 12 also recasts this war of the dragon with the woman with the war in heaven of with Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. Satan is cast out of heaven. He now cannot accuse God's people in heaven like he did with Job. Christ's resurrection and ascension threw Satan out of heaven.
But Satan still continues to make war against God's people. Revelation 12 shows him vomiting water out of his mouth -- trying to drown the faith of the church with deceptive teaching. God again protects her by opening up the earth to swallow the water, as God opened the earth to destroy the deceivers, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in the Old Testament (Numbers 16:31-33).
We are in a deep conflict. As the Apostle Paul says,
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).
This conflict started even before the fall of Adam and Eve. It continues today. But Christ has defeated Satan, he is cast out of heaven. Satan is enraged over his defeat and while he will be soundly defeated at Christ's return, he continues to war against God's people. But we are protected by God. We are not protected from physical violence nor from persecution; we are protected spiritually from destruction.
As we celebrate Christ's birth 2000 years ago, we can rejoice that while we live in the tribulation of Satan's war against God, Satan already has lost the major battles and will ultimately be defeated by Christ. If you belong to Christ, you will be saved from destruction. You are protected in this wilderness