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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Revelation 12-22
By John MacArthur
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2000 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
The War of the Ages—Part 1: The Prelude (Revelation 12:1–6)
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. (12:1–6)
The Bible warns that "pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling" (Prov. 16:18). The most notorious and tragic illustration of that principle, the one with the most far-reaching consequences, was Satan's prideful rebellion against God. By it Lucifer, having fallen from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18), was cast down from his exalted position as the "anointed cherub who covers" (Ezek. 28:14). He forfeited his place as the highest created being and became the supreme enemy of God. Satan's rebellion touched off a cosmic war throughout the universe—a war dwarfing any other war in human experience. Satan's war against God is a two-front war. By leading a mutiny against God among the angels, Satan attempted unsuccessfully to destroy the paradise of heaven. By leading a mutiny against God among men, Satan destroyed the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden, plunged the whole human race into decay and corruption, and usurped (temporarily) the role of the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 16:11).
The opening campaign of Satan's war of the ages took place in heaven. When he rebelled (Isa. 14:12–15; Ezek. 28:12–17), one-third of the angels foolishly and wickedly cast their lots with him (see the discussion of v. 4 below). None of them could have known what the eternal consequences of their choice would be. Wanting to be like God, they became as much unlike Him as possible. These fallen angels (or demons) became Satan's storm troopers, doing the bidding of their evil commander. They fight against divine purpose, making war with both the holy angels and the human race.
When Adam and Eve plummeted into corruption by choosing to listen to Satan's lies and disobey God, the human race became embroiled in the cosmic war of the ages. In fact, since the Fall the earth has been the primary theater in which that war has been fought. Though already fallen, every member of the human race faces the same choice as the angels did in eternity past: to fight on God's side or on Satan's. Remaining neutral is not an option, for in Matthew 12:30 Jesus declared, "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters."
The final battles of Satan's long war against God are yet to be fought. They will take place in the future, during the last half of the seven-year tribulation period, the time Jesus called the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:21). At that time Satan, aided by the absence of the raptured church and the presence of increased demon hordes (9:1–11), will mount his most desperate assaults against God's purposes and His people. But despite the savage fury with which those assaults will be carried out, they will not succeed. The Lord Jesus Christ will effortlessly crush Satan and his forces (19:11–21) and send him to the abyss for the duration of the millennial kingdom (20:1–2). After leading a final rebellion at the close of the Millennium, Satan will be consigned to eternal punishment in the lake of fire (20:3, 7–10).
The sounding of the seventh trumpet will proclaim the triumphant victory of the Lord Jesus Christ over the usurper, Satan: "Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever'" (11:15). There will be joy in heaven because Christ has defeated Satan and established His eternal kingdom. Thus, the outcome of the war between Satan and God is not in doubt. Christ's ultimate triumph is certain.
Though chapter 11 records the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the effects it produces are not described until chapters 15–18. The seventh trumpet will sound near the end of the Tribulation, launching the brief, but final and devastating bowl judgments just before Christ's return in power and glory. Chapters 6–11 describe the events of the Tribulation up to the sounding of the seventh trumpet; chapters 12–14 recapitulate that same period, describing events from Satan's vantage point. In addition, the latter section takes the reader all the way back to the original rebellion of Satan (12:3–4). The chronological narrative of the Tribulation events then resumes in chapter 15.
The Tribulation will feature both the unprecedented judgments of God's eschatological wrath and the desperate fury of Satan's efforts to thwart God's purposes. That deadly combination will make the Tribulation the most devastating period in human history (Matt. 24:21–22). During that time, horrifying events will take place, caused both by God's judgments and by Satan's fury.
Before describing that final war, the inspired apostle John first introduces the main characters involved in it: the woman (Israel), the dragon (Satan),and the male child (Jesus Christ).
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. (12:1–2)
The first thing John saw in this vision was a great sign—the first of seven signs in the last half of Revelation (cf. v. 3; 13:13, 14; 15:1; 16:14; 19:20). Mega(great) appears repeatedly in this vision (cf. vv. 3, 9, 12, 14); everything John saw seemed to be huge either in size or in significance. Semeion(sign) describes a symbol that points to a reality. The literal approach to interpreting Scripture allows for normal use of symbolic language, but understands that it points to a literal reality. In this case, the description plainly shows that the woman John saw was not an actual woman. Also, the reference to "the rest of her children," those "who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (v. 17), shows that this woman is a symbolic mother.
The woman is the second of four symbolic women identified in Revelation. The first, though an actual woman, had the symbolic name Jezebel (2:20). She was a false teacher and symbolizes paganism. Another symbolic woman, depicted as a harlot, appears in 17:1–7. She represents the apostate church. The fourth woman, described in 19:7–8 as the bride of the Lamb (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2), represents the true church. Some argue that the woman in this present vision represents the church, but as the context makes clear (cf. v. 5), she represents Israel. The Old Testament also pictures Israel as a woman, the adulterous wife of the Lord (Jer. 3:1, 20; Ezek. 16:32–35; Hos. 2:2) whom God will ultimately restore to Himself (Isa. 50:1). A reference to the ark of the covenant (11:19) adds further support for identifying the woman as Israel.
That Israel will play a key role in the end-time drama is not surprising. The seventieth week of Daniel's prophecy (the Tribulation) will primarily concern Israel, just as the first sixty-nine did (cf. Dan. 9:24–27). Israel's presence in the end times is consistent with God's emphatic promises of her continued existence as a nation:
Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for light by day
And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name:
"If this fixed order departs
From before Me," declares the Lord,
"Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease
From being a nation before Me forever."
Thus says the Lord,
"If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done," declares the Lord.
(Jer. 31:35–37; cf. 33:20–26; 46:28; Amos 9:8)
Further, Israel's presence during the seventieth week of Daniel's prophecy is in keeping with God's promises to her of a kingdom (Isa. 65:17–25; Ezek. 37:21–28; Dan. 2:44; Zech. 8:1–13) and national salvation (Zech. 12:10–13:1; 13:8–9; Rom. 11:26).
Often as an instrument of God's judgment, Satan has persecuted the Jewish people throughout their history. He knows that to destroy Israel would make it impossible for God to fulfill His promises to the Jewish people. God will not allow him to do that, but will use Satan to chasten Israel. It comes as no surprise that the devil will intensify his persecution of Israel as the establishment of the millennial kingdom draws near. As previously noted, the seventh trumpet will sound near the end of the Tribulation. Only weeks, or perhaps a few months at most, will remain after it sounds until the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. With his time running out (cf. v. 12), Jewish people will become the special target of Satan's hatred and destructive attacks.
John saw that the woman was clothed with the sun, and had the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. That fascinating description reflects Joseph's dream, recorded in Genesis 37:9–11:
Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, "Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me." He related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?" His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
In the imagery of Joseph's dream, the sun represents Jacob, the moon Rachel, and the eleven stars Joseph's brothers. The allusion to Joseph's dream is fitting, since his life parallels Israel's history. Both endured the indignity of captivity in Gentile nations, yet were in the end delivered and exalted to a place of prominence in a kingdom.
That the woman was clothed with the sun reflects redeemed Israel's unique glory, brilliance, and dignity because of her exalted status as God's chosen nation (cf. Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 1 Kings 3:8; Pss. 33:12; 106:5; Isa. 43:20). It also links her with Jacob (the sun in Joseph's dream), an heir in the Abrahamic covenant; Israel's continued existence as a nation reflects the ongoing fulfillment of that covenant (cf. Gen. 12:1–2). The reference to the moon under her feet may be a further description of Israel's exalted status. It could also include the concept of God's covenantal relationship with Israel, since the moon was part of the cycle of Israel's required times of worship (cf. Num. 29:5–6; Neh. 10:33; Ps. 81:3; Isa. 1:13–14; Col. 2:16). The crown(stephanos; the crown associated with triumph in the midst of suffering and struggle) of twelve stars (Joseph being the twelfth) on the woman's head refers to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Having described the woman's attire, John noted her condition: she was with child. That also is familiar Old Testament imagery describing Israel (cf. Isa. 26:17–18; 66:7–9; Jer. 4:31; 13:21; Mic. 4:10; 5:3). That the woman is pregnant further confirms her identity as Israel; the church cannot be a mother since she is not yet married (19:7–9; 2 Cor. 11:2). Being pregnant, the woman cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. Just like a pregnant woman in labor feels pain, so the nation of Israel was in pain, waiting for Messiah to come forth. The cause of some of the pain is the persecution by Satan, who attempts to destroy the mother. The nation was in pain when the Messiah came the first time. So will it be at His second coming. Ever since the first promise of a Redeemer who would come to destroy him (Gen. 3:15), Satan has attacked Israel. For centuries, Israel agonized and suffered, longing for the Child who would come to destroy Satan, sin, and death, and establish the promised kingdom. No nation in history has suffered as long or as severely as Israel has—both from God's chastening, and also from Satan's furious efforts to destroy the nation through whom the Messiah would come.
Having described the woman's agonizing labor pains, John introduces the cause of her suffering.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. (12:3–4)
With the second sign, a new character emerges on the scene: the woman's mortal enemy, dramatically portrayed by another sign that appeared in heaven. verse 9 clearly identifies the great red dragon as Satan (cf. 20:2). Satan, of course, is not an actual dragon (any more than Israel is an actual woman) but a malevolent spirit being, a fallen angel. The symbolic language used to describe him pictures the reality of his person and character. Only in Revelation is Satan referred to as a dragon; before that he is called (among other names) a serpent (Gen. 3:1ff.; 2 Cor. 11:3). A dragon is a far more terrifying symbol. In the Old Testament the same Hebrew word translated dragon (Isa. 27:1; 51:9) is also translated monster or sea monster (Gen. 1:21; Job 7:12; Pss. 74:13; 148:7; Jer. 51:34; Ezek. 29:3; 32:2). It pictures a large, ferocious, and terrifying animal. Red, the color of fiery destruction and bloodshed, further stresses Satan's vicious, deadly, destructive nature. In the words of Jesus, "He was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). The Hebrew word for "serpent" (nachash) used in Genesis 3:1 is used interchangeably in some texts with the Hebrew word for dragon (tannin) (cf. Ex. 7:9, 15). So the animal Satan used in the Garden of Eden was a reptile, but one not yet cast down to its belly (Gen. 3:14). Likely, it was more upright—a dragon standing upon two legs, cursed to walk on four legs close to the ground, or slither like a snake. Red is a fitting color for the dragon, since he attacks both the woman and her child.
Ezekiel 29:1–5, which describes Pharaoh as the enemy of God, captures the essence of this frightening imagery used to describe Satan:
In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth of the month, the word of the Lord came to me saying, "Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak and say, 'Thus says the Lord God,
"Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,
The great monster that lies in the midst of his rivers,
That has said, 'My Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.'
I shall put hooks in your jaws
And make the fish of your rivers cling to your scales.
And I shall bring you up out of the midst of your rivers,
And all the fish of your rivers will cling to your scales.
I shall abandon you to the wilderness, you and all the fish of your rivers;
You will fall on the open field; you will not be brought together or gathered.
I have given you for food to the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the
The dragon is further described as having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. He is depicted as a seven-headed monster that rules the world. Satan has been allowed by God to rule the world since the Fall and will continue to do so until the seventh trumpet sounds (11:15). The seven heads with their seven diadems(diadema; royal crowns symbolizing power and authority) represent seven consecutive world empires running their course under Satan's dominion: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and Antichrist's future empire (17:9–10). The final kingdom, ruled by Antichrist, will be a ten-nation confederacy; the ten horns represent the kings who will rule under Antichrist (17:12; cf. 13:1; Dan. 7:23–25). The shifting of the diadems from the dragon's heads to the beast's horns (13:1) reveals the shift in power from the seven consecutive world empires to the ten kings under the final Antichrist.
Satan's pervasive, evil influence is not limited to the human realm, but extended first into the angelic realm. In the picturesque language of John's vision, the dragon's tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. The references to the dragon's angels in verses 7 and 9 indicate that the stars of heaven are angels. The genitive case offers further support for that interpretation: these are stars belonging to heaven; that is their proper abode. Angels are depicted symbolically as stars elsewhere in Scripture (9:1; Job 38:7).
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Revelation 12-22 by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2000 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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