With chapter twelve, John begins a more detailed account that provides a fuller picture of the forces at work in the plagues we have seen and will see more of. It becomes more clear over the next several chapters how the Powers of evil are involved in the kinds of events that make up the plagues—and how the victory of God is won and implemented.
First, “God’s temple in heaven” is opened (11:19) as part of the seventh trumpet vision that announces “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (that is, the One on the throne and the Lamb) and the time has come “for destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18). This “time has come” should best be seen as a plot device—the time of the story where we turn to the “destroyers of the earth” and their fate has come. Revelation is not setting out a chronology for the world’s future so much as exhorting its readers to part of the work that will destroy the earth’s destroyers—who are the Powers behind the empires of the world, including the Roman Empire.
The “opening” of the temple here signals the coming change in focus in the second half of the book that will culminate with a return to the temple—though we will see in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two that John has in mind a radically changed notion of the temple.
Revelation 12:1-6—The two main actors
Chapter twelve contains a wealth of images and events—many are cryptic and difficult to understand. As elsewhere in Revelation, with this chapter we should focus more on the overall sensibility that is being conveyed more than expect to see in each of the images a direct correlation with a particular historical person or event. With all the uncertainty we can’t help but have about many of specifics, the general message here is pretty clear—a new dimension is added to the story with the introduction of the Dragon. We are now able better to understand the paradoxes of previous chapters concerning the plagues in relation to the One on the throne who is so closely linked with the Lamb. God is not the only cosmic actor in this drama.
Right after the temple “in heaven” is opened, “a great portent appeared in heaven”—what will be the first scene in the process of destroying the destroyers of the earth and bringing full liberation to the followers of the Lamb and the rest of creation. It is notable that the first of Revelation’s “portents” (profound symbolic visions) is of this woman “clothed with the sun” who seems to represent several entities—most centrally the community of God’s people who received and sought to embody Torah and who brought forth God’s “Messiah” (11:15) as well also representing Jesus’s birth mother and the early Christian churches.
Two later “portents” relate to the work the woman initiates of “destroying the destroyers of the earth”—the entry of the Dragon as an overt actor into the drama (12:3) and a reference to the “seven angels” whose plagues bring to an end “the wrath of God” (15:1). These three “portents” belong together—the woman along with her offspring’s “throw down” the Dragon, “conquering him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11), which will turn out to be the precise means by which the wrath of God referred to in the account of the third portent comes to an end, as we will see.
The woman gives birth to a male child who is the focus of the enmity of the Dragon (who is identified a few verses later as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” 12:9). The reason for this enmity (or, maybe better, intense fear) is that this child is destined to “rule all the nations” (12:5). As “ruler,” this child is directly linked with the mention in the previous chapter of the “Messiah” who joins with “our Lord” to make the “kingdom of the world” their kingdom (11:15).
The swirling imagery here reiterates the main claims of the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” that makes up this book. The vocation of God’s elect people, Israel, has been to provide the communal context for the implementation of the strategy God will us to destroy the destroyers of the earth and transform the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of God. Crucially, this “kingdom” is termed the kingdom of the Lord and his Messiah—that is, using the imagery from earlier in Revelation, the kingdom of the One on the throne and the Lamb. As will be re-emphasized in just a few verses, this transformation happens in only one way: The self-giving love of the Lamb (i.e., Messiah) is the only means to defeating the Dragon.
The Dragon has tremendous power (his “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to earth,” 12:4), as we recognize if we accept that he is the power behind terrible plagues we read of in chapters six through ten. However, crucially, right away it’s clear that the Dragon’s power is no match for the power of the One on the throne and the Lamb. We see the limits to the power of the Dragon here when we read that though he is poised to “devour her child as soon as it was born” (12:4), in fact the child “was snatched away and taken to God and his thrown” (12:5) and the woman escapes to safety.
The woman flees to the “wilderness,” another rich if cryptic image. Linking with the exodus story that lurks in the background throughout Revelation, we may see the wilderness as a place of refuge where God’s people go after God miraculously “snatched” them from Pharaoh’s Egypt. But the wilderness is also a dangerous place. That the woman (probably now especially representing God’s faithful people, especially John’s early Christian readers [and, remember, these are mostly still Jews]) is “nourished” in the wilderness for one thousand two hundred sixty days (or forty-two months or three-and-one-half years) implies that what John has in mind is the strengthening of God’s people during the dangerous, plague-filled years of human history between Jesus’s resurrection and the final transformation of the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of God.
What follows for the rest of the book is the struggle between the woman’s child (known to us from earlier in the book as the Lamb) and the Dragon (and his minions, the Beast, False Prophet, Babylon, the Great Harlot, and their human allies). These are the two main characters of the drama. We see clearly from the start of this part of the story, though, the paradox—a seemingly all-power Dragon and this little child engaged in a battle that proves not to be a battle because the Dragon actually has no true power in face of the Lamb’s refusal to be deceived. And the child (Lamb) will conquer.
Revelation twelve parallels chapters seven and eleven. In chapter seven, John sees “angels” bent on destruction (like the Dragon here) and hears that “the servants of our God [will be marked] with a seal on their foreheads” (7:2-3). What follows is a vision of victory that is won by the Lamb’s persevering love and the servants’ faithfulness to that love. Likewise, in chapter eleven, the “temple” (linked there with those who “worship” in it) is “measured,” in contrast to “the court outside the temple” where “the nations … will trample over the holy city for forty-two months” (11:1-3). As the chapter continues we read of the faithfulness of the “two witnesses” (i.e., the people of God) even in face of death that results in God’s victory.
Chapter twelve reiterates this same story—protection from God that allows for faithful witness but also suffering, even death, for the faithful ones—which proves to be the means that defeat the Dragon. These are three creative ways of presenting what we have seen from the beginning of the book: the pattern of Jesus (faithful life, death, vindication) that result in “a kingdom, priests serving [Jesus’s] God and Father” (1:5-6).
Revelation 12:7-12—The Dragon’s defeat
In verse seven, we read that “war broke out in heaven.” The forces of God are led by “Michael,” the commander of “angels” who battle the Dragon. This appears to be a reference to the cryptic figure of the head of the archangels who is mentioned occasionally in ancient Jewish and Christian writings.
Clearly the point here is not about the identity of the Dragon’s opponents but the claim that the Dragon has been thrown out of heaven. That is, there is no on-going battle between two equal cosmic powers, God and Satan. Satan is simply expelled by angels—God’s own hand is not even necessary. As we will see reiterated in what is come in Revelation, though the book presents good and evil at war, this is not a Manichean universe with two equal powers struggling for dominance. There is one ultimate power—the One on the throne. Several times, beginning here, we see the Enemy forces simply “defeated” (11:8), “thrown down” (11:9), captured and “thrown alive into the lake of fire” (19:20), and “thrown into the lake of fire” (20:10).
Verse nine gives us a fuller picture of the identity of the Dragon: “that ancient serpent, who is called Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” This description points to the key element of the Powers that oppose God that John cares about—the element of deception. The entire “revelation of Jesus Christ” that this book contains draws its inspiration from the need to challenge the way the people in John’s congregations were being deceived. In a nutshell, the “deception” that bamboozles “the whole world” is about power. Is the greatness of Rome (as paradigm for a whole series of human empires going back at least to ancient Egypt) an expression of true power such that people in John’s communities must give the Empire their loyalty? Or is true power the way of the Lamb—a way that demands loyalty toward God’s kingdom and disloyalty to all idolatrous empires?
Chapter twelve contains one of the most direct statements about power in the book. The Dragon has deceived many to believe in its definition of reality (including, John asserts in the messages to the seven congregations in chapters two and three, many who profess to follow the Lamb). However, the proclamation of the “loud voice in heaven” presents a different picture of reality.
“Salvation,” “power,” “kingdom,” and “authority” are all claims made by human empires, again, paradigmatically by Rome. Revelation’s assertion is that true salvation, power, kingdom, and authority have instead to do with God and “his Messiah” (the Lamb). “The accuser of our comrades,” the Dragon who is the power behind empires, “has been thrown down” without actually being able to put up a fight (12:10).
And now comes the key point—the central assertion of the entire book, and indeed of early Christianity itself: “They 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” (12:10). The “they” here presumably mainly refers to the “comrades”—those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4), though both God and his Messiah are probably in mind too. The victory over the Dragon here is precisely the same victory as the victory of the Lamb that is celebrated in chapter five.
The meaning of “the blood of the Lamb” is not the later satisfaction atonement where Jesus offers a sacrifice that enables God to offer forgiveness—a sacrifice utterly unique to him. Here, rather, the point is Jesus’s way of persevering love lived to the death which serves as a model and as empowerment for his followers to do the same thing. It’s “the blood of the Lamb” (the faithful life of Jesus unto the shedding of his blood when the Empire executes him) along with the faithful “testimony” (or “witness”) of his followers that conquer the Dragon. This is a call to John’s readers to be part of this work (remember that each of the seven messages concluded with a promise to those who conquer).
The point, it seems, is not that the Dragon might win a battle with God concerning the ultimate outcome of history. Rather, it’s that the Dragon, now “thrown down to the earth” (12:9), continues to deceive the inhabitants of the earth and prevent them from being at home in the New Jerusalem. To “conquer” is to trust that the way of persevering love is the truth and that the Dragon and his empires make false claims for loyalty. This is what’s at stake for John.
Verse twelve seems a bit paradoxical. Following the praise of God, the Lamb, and the comrades for conquering the Dragon comes a warning to “the earth and the sea” since “the devil has come down to you with great wrath” (12:12). The point seems to be that the victory that matters is won, that faithful imitation of the Lamb conquers, yet this victory is bittersweet (remember the scroll John eats, 10:9-10) because during this historical time (the three and a half years) the struggle continues: worship amidst the plagues.
Revelation 12:13-17—The Dragon fights on
The final part of Revelation twelve, like the rest of the chapter, tells a story that does not quite make literal sense but that seems reiterate the entire book’s basic plot. The Dragon is “thrown down to the earth” (12:13), defeated by Michael and hence not able to wrest dominion from the One on the throne. But in his rage, he continues to fight and wreak havoc on whoever he can—presumably for the three and a half years.
The Dragon pursues the woman, but she is kept safe “for a time, and times, and half a time” (i.e., three and a half years). The place of safety is “the wilderness” (12:14), another allusion to the exodus journey from Egypt to the promised land (and also the place where Jesus himself encountered Satan and withstood the onslaught of temptations to give loyalty to Satan rather than to God). The Dragon’s onslaught includes an attempt to sweep the woman away in a flood. Now, the safety of the woman is assured when “the earth came to the help of the woman,” perhaps a reminder of the rainbow in chapter five and the sense that the creation ultimately serves the purposes of the creator. The Dragon has come down to the earth (12:12), but the earth resists the Dragon’s agenda (though its inhabitants do take his side, 13:4, 8).
The final idea here is that the Dragon, after the defeat in heaven and the failure to capture the woman, turns its hostility toward “the rest of [the woman’s] children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). This allusion seems to confirm that the plagues and tribulations we are in the midst of in this middle section of the book are most directly an expression of the Dragon’s fury—even as they ultimately serve God’s purposes of transforming the world and bringing in the New Jerusalem. The Dragon himself is the source of the famine, pestilence, and war—which is to say, as we will see in chapter thirteen, that the Beast (i.e., the Roman Empire and similar phenomena) are agents of Satan and not God in their creation of a kind of “peace and order” based on violence and domination.
One confusing part of the vision in the latter part of chapter twelve is the precise identity of the woman in relation to the community of God’s people. The woman births the Messiah, seemingly an allusion to this community. But in the end, when the Dragon can’t capture the woman he turns to war on her children, seemingly also an allusion to this community. Perhaps one way to understand these images here is to see in them two manifestations of the community’s vocation—to be the source of the Messiah (the woman) and also to be the on-going manifestation of God’s shalom work in the world (her children). Of course, precision is not at the top of John’s literary concerns.
Chapter twelve ends with a transition. The Dragon takes “his stand on the sand of the seashore” (12:18), at this space between the sea and land. It would seem that what’s in mind here is the sense of the sea as the source of the chaos and idolatry that shatters human wellbeing. What comes out the sea is the Dragon’s main servant, the great “Beast” (13:1). What follows in the next several chapters of the book is another way of thinking about the plagues, with an emphasis on their political expression.
It is important to keep in mind the message that we have gotten so far of the protection of God’s people alongside the portrayal of suffering and trauma. The Beast will seem extraordinarily powerful and the followers of the Lamb extraordinarily vulnerable. And this is the case. However, the burden of Revelation is to complexify our sense of power and vulnerability. We have been told several times that God’s care will be sustained and the God has already won the victory. The visions in chapters thirteen through twenty in various ways ultimately emphasize this same message.