The following is a hermeneutical paper I wrote on Revelation 12 for my MATS program.
The book of Revelation has something of a checkered history among the Christian church as a source of great controversy and fear in its confusing depictions of God and future events. Of all the books of the Bible, it is the clearest reminder that hermeneutics is not something we have to (or should) go about alone. If we take advantages of good commentaries and the wealth of Christian interpretive tradition of this book, we can begin to see it as its original audience might have: an awesome testimony to the salvation of Jesus Christ, an encouragement in times of trial, and a tantalizing (not comprehensive) glimpse of what is to come.
The author of Revelation is traditionally identified as the Apostle John, author of the fourth gospel and three letters; he explicitly identifies himself in 1:1, 4 and 9. Textual criticism affirms that though there are some stylistic differences between it and John's other works, these are no more significant than those between, say, Galatians and Romans, and the more significant similarities give us little reason to doubt this John's identity as author. (Fee xix) The date of writing is believed to be the late first century or early second century based on the conditions of the churches in chapters 2 and 3, the references to a past martyrdom, and the state of the tension between the church and the Roman empire—just before serious persecution broke out. (Fee xx)
The recipients are explicitly stated as the churches in seven cities in western Asia (modern Turkey): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:11), all relatively close to the island of Patmos where John lived in exile. These churches were in various conditions internally, as we see in chapters 2 and 3, but John's occasion for writing to them is the external situation of increasing Roman persecution. His relationship with these churches is not entirely clear; given his high status in the church as "the elder" (2 Jhn 1, 3 Jhn 1), he may have been familiar with them, but he now speaks to them as the witness to a heavenly vision. His purpose in relaying the vision is not, I believe, to provide information about the future (though it does do this) but encouragement and exhortation to the churches to persevere in the faith amidst a rising tide of Roman persecution. The book's apocalyptic genre and prophetic tone serve as the vehicles by which he does this.
This should inspire some caution for interpreters. Our textbook wisely reminds us that the events of Revelation "predict literal events, though the descriptions do not portray the events literally." (Klein 443) John uses bizarre and symbolic imagery to depict real people and events; even more confusingly, he conflates them temporally, jumbling together past events with future ones (either in his immediate future or eschatological). In my study of the book, two interpretive guidelines I've settled on are to read it nonliterally (for the actors are almost always depicted by symbols of varying transparency) and to realize that the "plot" of Revelation (at least before chapter 19) is driven by the earthly events the churches are about to experience—prophetically dressed in heavenly language—not abstract theological realities or a cosmic forecast of the end.
Revelation 12 is roughly in the middle of the book, and reading the whole thing helps greatly in understanding its context. After Paul's greeting (1:1-8) and initial vision of the Lord Jesus (1:9-20), he is given messages for the seven churches (ch. 2-3) which serve as appraisals of their spiritual condition and ways they need to prepare for the upcoming trials. Then the apocalyptic imagery begins in full, with John taken to God's throne room in heaven (ch. 4) where he sees Jesus the risen Lamb receiving great praise and glory for His victory over death (ch. 5). This makes Him worthy to open the seven seals of a great scroll. As He does this, the Christian martyrs are oppressed and cry out for justice (6:10). The faithful are sealed as belonging to the Lord (ch. 7) while God begins a program of wrath to bring justice against those who persecuted them (ch. 8-10), sending a sign against them in the form of two more witnesses (ch. 11).
Chapter 12, and 13-14 after it, lay the stage and, importantly, a theological foundation for the subsequent pouring out of God's wrath (ch. 15-16), defeat of the powers of this world (ch. 17-18), and ultimate defeat of Satan, death, and Hades (ch. 19-20). I will be focusing in this paper on chapter 12, which can be outlined as follows:
I. Introduction of the characters (1-6)
A. The woman (1-2)
B. The dragon (3-4a)
C. The child (4b-6)
1. The dragon attempts to devour the child
2. The child is taken up to heaven
3. The women hides in the wildnerness
II. War in heaven (7-12)
A. Victory of the angels, Satan thrown down (7-9)
B. A triumphal hymn (10-12)
1. Salvation has come
2. Celebration of Christian martyrs
3. Rejoicing in heaven, woe to the dragon
III. War between the women and the dragon (13-17)
A. The woman flees to the wilderness (13-14)
B. The dragon spews a great river (15-16)
C. The dragon goes off to make war on the woman's other offspring (17
The chapter starts off by introducing several important characters. In verse 1, John sees "a great and wondrous sign" (NIV) in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars. This is an example of John's near-constant references back to the Old Testament as a sort of code to convey meaning to his readers using their Bibles (Septuagints) that any Roman readers would miss. In this case, it is a reference to Joseph's dream in Gen 37:9, and so based on this and later clues the women likely represents faithful Israel, or more generally "the faithful messianic community". (Fee 164) In verse 2 we see that she is pregnant and about to give birth.
Then in verse 3 we meet the second character, the dragon, via another sign in heaven. Again, its bizarre description is best taken symbolically. Its ten horns are probably a reference back to the fourth beast in Daniel's similarly apocalyptic vision (Dan 7:7), and though it is clearly stated to represent Satan himself (v. 9), its seven heads may also be an association with Rome, the great earthly enemy of God's people, which was a city set on seven hills (Fee 165). Its tail sweeps a third of the stars from the sky—which is less of a literal event and more of an identity marker by way of reference to Daniel (8:10), and could also be a reference to the angels who fell with Satan from heaven. (Patterson 263) This dragon prepares to devour the woman's (Israel's) child when he is born—who could the child be?
Of course, this child is identified in verse 5 as none other than Jesus, through a reference to the messianic language of Psa 2:9: he "will rule all the nations with an iron scepter". An extremely condensed retelling of the life of Jesus, he is born and then "snatched up to God and his throne", bookending Jesus' earthly life with references to its beginning (the nativity) and end (the ascension), leaves little doubt that John is talking about the Messiah. Following this the woman flees to the wilderness, where God will take care of her (signifying God's preservation of the remnant of Israel; see Isa 10:20-22, Jer 31:7, Mic 2:12) for 1,260 days.
The significance of this number is less clear; it is the same length of time God's witnesses will preach to the people of the beast (11:3). It is also roughly equivalent to 42 months, the length of time that the nations will trample on the court of the gentiles (11:2) and the beast from the earth will exercise authority (13:5). In 12:14 this length of time is also given as the even more mysterious phrase "time, and times, and half a time" (possibly meaning the equivalent 1 + 2 + ½ = three and a half years), which is also used in Dan 7:25 as the time the saints will be handed over to the fourth beast, and time given in Dan 12:7 until the completion of the visions. All of these have to do with the time God allows the wicked to reign and His people to suffer tribulation at the hands of evil, the time until wrongs are righted and the victory is won.
However it is expressed, three and a half years is half of seven years, seven being a good, perfect, and complete number because of its role in Genesis 1. In this case, it encourages the churches by emphasizing the temporary, passing nature of the tribulation and looking forward to the time of perfection. "Merely three and one-half—the period of tribulation years—it is not perfect or good. It is not God's final word, but only an imperfect, incomplete parody of the perfection to come." (Klein 447) "The complete or perfect seven is split in half, symbolic of the in-between times that are fractured until they are repaired by the messiah." (Resseguie 161)
After this, John shows his propensity for depicting events asynchronously (or rather, in theological rather than chronological order). Having just depicted the birth and ascension of Jesus, in verses 7-9 he now returns to prehistory to show the war in heaven between Satan's armies and the Lord's angels. As in other places, Satan and his angels are defeated and cast from heaven (see Isa 14:12-15, Ezek 28:12-17, Luk 10:18, 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6). We are also given a clear identification of the dragon as a symbol for Satan, as well as "that ancient serpent" (tying him back with the serpent in Genesis 3).
Following this is a great and beautiful hymn of victory in heaven in 10-12. It begins with a triumphant affirmation that the great eschatological hopes of Christians, the power and salvation and kingdom of God, and the authority of his Christ, have now come. Satan, the accuser, has been thrown down, though he continues to accuse the brothers and sisters on earth as we will see. Verse 11 explains Satan was defeated by the faith and perseverance of Christian witnesses and martyrs (the same word in Greek), a bit of a contradiction until you realize John is tying Satan's heavenly defeat with how God's human followers resist him on earth, allowing the churches to which he is writing to share in this cosmic victory in the midst of their current hardship. The hymn ends with a call for rejoicing in heaven, but a sober warning to the earth at the upcoming wrath of the devil (and, by association, oppression and persecution from Rome).
After the dragon is hurled to the earth, he seeks revenge on the woman—almost certainly a reference to/fulfillment of God's promise of enmity between the woman and the serpent in Gen 3:15. The women "was given the wings of a great eagle" to fly to the aforementioned place of refuge for "time, times, and half a time", the duration of the tribulation, signifying God's protection of His people. The dragon spews a torrent of water from his mouth, which the earth swallows. Then, in verse 17, the dragon turns to make war against her offspring—"those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus", that is, the Christian church.
John seems to be employing more Old Testament references here (besides the thematic reference to Gen 3:15). It seems to be "an apocalyptic retelling of the story of Israel...but in such a way that the two stories (the Old and New) merge at the present point where Satan, through the empire, is now pursuing Israel's new, and therefore true, offspring, the followers of the Slain Lamb." (Fee 175) So verse 14 is a reference to God sustaining Israel in the desert before and during the Exodus. It could also signify all the times God has sustained His people in exile, such as during the Babylonian captivity. Likewise verses 15 and 16 call back to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea in Ex 14-15, particularly 15:12: "You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them." Either way, these verses depict by analogy the protection from God that the faithful are to put their faith in through the present pursuit of the church by Rome.
Finally, in verse 17, the dragon is enraged and goes to make war against the Christian church. John is clearly setting the stage for the seven churches' present situation, foreseeing that Satan (through the Roman empire) is about viciously persecute the church by way of analogy with the past tribulation of Israel; this is the main prophetic insight of the book. (Fee xvii) He identifies the church as the offspring of the women (who gave birth to Jesus), those who (1) obey God's commandments and (2) hold to the testimony of Jesus (an implicit reminder to continue in these things).
In Revelation 12 we see John draw a coded parallel between the war between God and the devil, God's past deliverance of His chosen people, Israel, and a promise of His deliverance of His chosen people, the church, from imminent persecution. John weaves an alternate, repackaged account of some key parts of salvation history, and through the clever use of symbolism he elevates the present plight of the churches in Asia to this same cosmic stage while hiding the book's countercultural message from their oppressors. In this chapter the Apostle teches his audience that though the cosmic forces of evil are mighty and bent on their destruction, the God they follow is mightier still and alone able to preserve His covenant people, just as He has been doing from the start.