by Roger McCay
22 January 2023
Sermon Passage: Revelation 12:1-6
Link to Audio Version
What comes to mind when you think of wilderness?
Here in southwest Alabama, we might reasonably think first of the forest wilderness. And there are different types of environmental wildernesses in this world that we could get into. The type of wilderness our passage today seems to allude to, however, takes my mind back to some of the various desert wildernesses that I’ve experienced in life. Impressions I retain of the desert wilderness are, first off, the magnificent beauty in so many forms that you find everywhere you turn. But there are the less pleasant aspects, also: lots of sand, dirt, and rocks; brutal sandstorms; dryness; harsh terrain; the sun painfully bright; scrub bushes; dangerous wild animals and reptiles—at times extreme heat and at times extreme cold. The desert wilderness can be a hostile place for man, a place where a person will die of exposure in a short time without the proper food, shelter, and equipment.
Now, maybe your thoughts of the wilderness take your mind to something a little more personal—a place in your life where you are or have been that is a dark place; hazardous; with temptations and trials at every turn. Or, perhaps, you think of a place where sorrow, fear, sin, guilt, or maybe disaster has taken you down to a point of depression or despair. It could even be that you are in a wilderness today, where life has brought you to a place of emptiness and loneliness.
At some point we all go through some sort of wilderness experience in this life. And in the midst of it, you might wonder if God has forsaken you, mistaking sojourning in the wilderness for abandonment by the Lord. When such is the case, the teachings and promises of Scripture can bring us great comfort. The truth of the realities revealed to us in the Lord’s Word remind us, his people, that our loving God is always with us, sovereignly caring for us, no matter what our life’s circumstances might be.
In our passage today, we begin a segment of the book of Revelation (chs. 12-15), which is seated between the two major series of the trumpets and the bowls. John begins this section by laying down some foundations from redemptive history, stepping back into the past and bringing it up into the near future, from his point of view (circa. AD 65). And he does this by tapping into imagery of the ancient war of the two seeds—the woman’s and the serpent’s (Gen. 3:15).
So, let’s jump right in, with the sign of the woman, in v. 1:
“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.”
Now, bottom line up front, the sign in heaven of the woman, here, points to Old Covenant Israel, in an idealized form. How so? Well, consider some of the clues. First off, there is the general context of Revelation and its key themes, involving Christ Jesus the Savior and King and the Lord’s covenantal dealings with Israel and the church, which we’ve extensively covered, previously. Also, throughout Revelation, John consistently draws from OT imagery. The OT prophets repeatedly and consistently refer to Israel as a woman, which even just a slight familiarity with the prophets will affirm. She is also ideally portrayed in many places, like in Isaiah 49:18; 52:1-2; Zech. 2:10, etc., etc. Consider, for example, Ezek. 16:12-13:
12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.
This passage isn’t addressed to some earthly woman who lived at some time in history. It is God speaking to his wife, his covenant people, Israel. And he goes on to point out how she quickly moved from her queenly ideal to playing the harlot (Ezek. 16:15ff.), which also fits consistently within the larger themes of Revelation.
Another thing is that John’s vision hearkens back to Joseph’s dream, which, in Gen. 37:5-11, he relayed to his brothers. There Joseph refers to his vision with “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars.” His father, Jacob (whom God had renamed Israel) interpreted those as referring to himself, as the sun; Joseph’s mother Rachel, as the moon; and the eleven stars, as Joseph’s brothers. Add Joseph to the eleven, and there were twelve sons of Israel, who would become the tribes of Israel (Joseph blessed with a double portion, in his sons Ephraim and Manasseh). So, the reference draws to mind Israel and his children, descended from Abraham and Isaac, whose descendants God covenanted with at Mount Sinai, after the Exodus, taking her as his wife.
And then there is the passage in Song of Solomon 6:10, where the bridegroom looks to his bride, reveling in her beauty, saying, “Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun.”
John is, in Rev. 12:1, presenting symbolically, in poetic language, an idealized view of the Lord’s Old Covenant wife, Israel, picturing her in her spiritually discerned, heavenly, exalted glory—clothed in the sun with her feet on the moon, with a crown adorned with twelve stars. As Kenneth Gentry explains:
John is presenting Old Covenant Israel, the elect of Israel, in her ideal form. He’s painting a glorious picture here. And this is Israel in principle; it is Israel as God intended her to be; it’s not what Israel has become in history and is being judged for now.”
So, Verse 2:
“She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”
As we’ll see in a minute, when we look at v. 5, the Lord’s wife gives birth to the Christ. But v. 2, in a way, speaks to her entire history, which consisted of birth pains and agony towards giving birth to the Messiah, whose seed she carried until he came forth from the virgin Mary.
It may be, as some suggest, that John’s description reflects upon Isa. 66:7-9, with its imagery of Zion (Jerusalem) giving birth to “a son” and “children.” Certainly Isa. 66 is further fulfilled (beyond its immediate ramifications) in “Christ Jesus” and the multiplication of the children of God, in the church (Rev. 12:17).
But this image of the woman/mother goes all the way back to the Garden Eden, in Gen. 3:15, where we have the proto-εὐαγγέλιον, the first gospel pronouncement, where God revealed that the seed of the woman (the Christ) would crush the head of the Serpent (the devil). And the imagery of Rev. 12:2 brings to mind the labor and pain of Israel’s entire history, as the Old Covenant church travailed, bringing forth the promised Seed. As David Chilton points out:
“This is the most essential meaning of Israel’s history, apart from which it has no significance: the bearing of the Manchild …, the Savior of the world. From the protevangelium to the Flood, from the Abrahamic Covenant through the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the settling of Canaan, the Babylonian Captivity, the return from exile, and the suffering under the Greeks and the Romans, Israel was laboring to give birth to the Christ, to bring in the Messianic age.”
And through her travails, she cried out, the prophetic word proclaimed by her prophets, who bore witness to the coming birth of Christ. Indeed the entire OT proclaimed Jesus, like he showed the men on the Road to Emmaus, in Luke 24:25-27, after his resurrection. In v. 27, it says: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. So even before Israel existed, and throughout history, from Mother Eve until Mother Mary, God worked through the generations to bring about the Christ, according to his covenant of grace.
And so we come the adversary, the dragon, in Rev. 12, v. 3:
3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.
Quite obviously, this sign points to Satan, the devil, made absolutely clear in v. 9, which speaks to “the great dragon …, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” We recently, in ch. 11, saw him referenced as “the beast that rises from the abyss,” and shortly before that, in ch. 9, as a “star fallen from heaven to earth,” “the angel of the abyss,” called Abaddon and Apollyon. But let’s consider what the symbols are here, that were chosen to describe him.
The dragon, a terrible reptile of myth, is red of color, which speaks to his enmity against man, and the bloodshed for which he is responsible. As Jesus said, in John 8:44, “He was a murderer from the beginning.” He was behind the first murder—Abel murdered by Cain, in Gen. 4, and, as Kenneth Gentry observes, “He is the one behind Israel and Rome persecuting Christianity…. in the first century.” But we’ll look at that more closely in a bit, when we touch on the war between the two seeds.
And notice how “he has seven heads and ten horns.” Like much in Revelation hearkens back to Daniel, this seems to hearken back to the vision in Dan. 7:3-7, of which Chilton observes:
John reveals him [Satan]] as the power behind the imperial thrones of the ancient world that persecuted the Church; for, like the four Beast-empires of Daniel’s prophecy, the Dragon has seven heads and ten horns: Daniel’s beasts possessed seven heads among them (the third beast having four), and the fourth beast had ten horns….. Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome were all stages in the Dragon’s attempt to establish his illicit empire over the world.”
Then looking forward to Rev 13, we see “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads,” but in that case the sea beast has “ten diadems on its horns” versus the “seven diadems” on Satan’s “heads,” like in Rev. 12:3. Gentry, explains that the number 7 is “the number of qualitative completion,” and 10 is “the number of quantitative perfection.” Thus the 7 heads and 10 horns speak of Satan’s “great power…. And this will link him with the 7 headed beast of Rome, because the 7 headed beast of Rome is going to reflect his father, the dragon, Satan, by reflecting the dragon’s seven heads as well.” Lord willing, we’ll delve into that more when we get to Rev. 13, vv. 1-2.
Rev. 12:4 then tells us a little more about the dragon:
“His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.”
That it was his tail doing the sweeping is figurative to the result of the actions of his rebellion against the Lord, in heaven. John has already spoken of angels in the sense of being stars, in Revelation. Along those lines, what this verse symbolizes is the fall of Satan and his bringing down the angels who joined in his rebellion, as the Lord cast them out. Rev. 12:9 speaks to this:
“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6 further tell of this casting down of the fallen angels. Although their account speaks more to the fallen angels imprisoned in the abyss, which we encountered in Rev. 9, with Satan, the angel of the abyss, as king over them. And while fascinating, the discussion on demons cast down to earth and demons confined to the abyss goes a bit beyond the scope of this sermon.
As it was, Satan and the fallen angels were cast down from heaven to the land, and there they warred against God’s people, in the war of the two seeds. The second part of v. 4:
And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.
Now, in the immediate sense of the birth of the child, which v. 5 identifies as the Christ, our minds go to Herod and his attempt to murder Jesus when he was an infant. As Gentry explains:
Satan is the one who causes Herod to try to kill Christ and kill the children in Bethlehem. See, the devil is standing before the woman wanting to kill her child when he is born. So, we have there an allusion to Herod’s destruction of the children and trying to kill Christ.
Expanding on the concept, Chilton’s observation seems apt in that this (in a larger sense) hearkens to the course of events from the time of the fall, in Genesis. He writes:
“This conflict between Christ and Satan was announced in Genesis 3:15, the war between the two seeds, the Seed of the Woman and the seed of the Serpent. From the first book of the Bible to the last, this is the basic warfare of history. The Dragon is at war with the Woman and her Seed, primarily Jesus Christ. All throughout history Satan was trying either to keep Christ from being born, or to kill him as soon as He was born.”
Chilton then goes on touching on the major attacks against the seed recorded in the Scriptures, from Cain and Able, through Noah, then Abraham’s family troubles, Jacob and Esau, Pharoah and Moses, Saul and David, Athaliah and Joash, Haman and Esther, even the Israelites sacrificing their children to demons. But despite all the attacks through history, the Seed was preserved. Then, of course, the pattern of attacks reach their climax (the “about to” in Rev. 12:4) with Christ’s birth and Herod’s satanic attempt to kill him by ordering the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.
And what a terrifying picture, in Rev. 12:4: a dragon hovering over an essentially helpless woman and soon to be born infant. What chance would they have? But does anyone really think Satan can out-willy and defeat the plans of the sovereign creator Lord of the heavens and the earth? There never was any question as to the Lord’s victory.
Which leads us to v. 5:
“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.”
Now, it seems obvious that this is talking about Jesus, and while not everyone agrees, I’m just going to leave it there and not argue the obvious today. Jesus was born, and, as we considered in detail last week, Jesus reigns now with unstoppable power, reigning on the heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father.
Verse 5 also telescopes the whole life and ministry of Christ on this earth. But remember the battle that was ongoing (the battle of the seeds): Christ’s temptation, in the wilderness where Satan comes to tempt him; the betrayal of Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, whom Satan entered in order to betray Christ; and the cross (“the devil’s mousetrap,” as Augustine put it). What seemed like victory for Satan turned into his utter defeat and total victory for the Lord Jesus—resurrected, and caught up to the throne in his ascension.
So, throughout history Satan tried to destroy the seed. Time and time again it looked dire, but every time Satan failed to destroy Christ, failing utterly every time.
However, while defeated, and bound (and we’ll eventually get to the nature and extent of his binding, Lord willing), Satan, through his minions, continues to rage against Christ, by going after his people. Verse 6:
“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.”
The woman, here, now is a shift of focus from God’s people in their idealized Old Covenant existence to God’s people now in their New Covenant existence—both together one people of God under his Covenant of Grace. As the New Covenant replaced the Old, with the Old passing away (Heb. 8:13), God’s people expanded from being mostly confined to a single people and nation (the Jews), to now opening up to all people worldwide in every nation, both Jew and Gentile.
The mother church of Christianity was, of course, the church in Jerusalem. There came a time when, following Jesus’ warning in his prophetic discourse (Matt. 24:15-16; Luke 21:20ff.), the vast majority of the church escaped from Jerusalem, to the rough desert wilderness of Perea, in the foothills of the Transjordanian Mountains, finding refuge at a place called Pella (according to early church historians Eusebius and Epiphanius). Although, I suspect many of them may have gone to other places, too, considering the already empire-wide nature of the church.
So, fitting the 1260 days here, in Rev. 12:6 (also the 42 months and 1260 days from Rev. 11:2-3, which we’ve recently studied), in the fall of AD 66, the Roman general, Cestius Gallus (ordered by the Roman governor Gessius Florus to restore order in Jerusalem) brought his armies up around the walls of the city, to then (inexplicably) leave the city. After he pulled back, it seems that, considering the timing, much (if not most) of the Jerusalem church may have realized it was time to leave Judea and Jerusalem, based on Jesus’ warning in Luke 21:20-21:
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it.”
So, afterward, and later through that year (maybe even into early 67) the church would have packed up and fled. This would have them fully escaping the oncoming conquest, making it to safety shortly before Vespasian began his campaign against the Jews per Nero’s order, in the Spring of AD 67. And this would fit, too, with Josephus’ account where, after Cestius’ withdrawal, many of the Jews “swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink.” Thus, having heeded Jesus’ order, most of the church would have escaped to God’s providentially prepared place, sojourning throughout the 42 months (1260 days) of conquest, which ended with Jerusalem’s destruction, in AD 70.
Now, with that said, when preaching on the Olivet Discourse a couple of years ago, I mentioned that the church’s exodus may have occurred after Vespasian’s initial surrounding of Jerusalem, in AD 69, before he withdrew to go to Rome to take the crown. But, my studies over time have brought me to think that the timing of Cestius Gallus’ surrounding of the city, as a signal they needed to flee, fits better with the 1260 days given here, in Rev. 12:6. Even so, perhaps some of the church members who remained in the city after the first exodus of late 66/early 67, realized their last chance was upon them when Vespasian pulled back in 69, so they then fled to meet up with the church sojourning in Pella, and so forth (with the exception of the two witnesses, who stayed in Jerusalem during the 1260 days, until martyred).
Anyway, as it was, the church fled according to Jesus’ warning, and God providentially provided for them, safe away from the conquest. Jesus warned them. They remembered. And they got out when they saw the signs. God protected them. When Jerusalem had become a smoking ruin, they were doing just fine due to the Lord’s victorious provision.
So, what about that wilderness you may find yourself in, that I mentioned earlier? Well, you may have heard that saying, by Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” My friends along those lines, if you’re going through the wilderness, keep going. If you are a Christian, in Christ Jesus you have victory no matter comes your way. Do you think there is anything that could thwart the Lord’s purposes for you? God loves you; he is with you, and he cares for you. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever suffer or even die. But it does mean you have victory in Christ despite suffering and death. The Lord is with you always and will never abandon you (Matt. 28:20). He cares for you. Thus, sometimes he may send you into the wilderness for your own good, providing what you need according to his perfect love, knowledge, and will (like he did for the Jerusalem church, protecting and providing for them, in Rev. 12:6).
In Christ Jesus, through the power of God that is within you (his Spirit), you can overcome even the devil. So, let us look to Jesus in his victory and his provision for his people, and let us find our victory and contentment in him. Because the Lord overcomes, we should trust in his sovereign care.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series (Chesnee SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2012), DVD 3, lesson 14.
 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 300.
 Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series, lesson 14.
 Chilton, 303.
 Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series, lesson 14.
 Chilton, 307.
 Cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.5.2; also cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 29.7.7-8; 30.2.7; and On Weights and Measures 15
 For some reason I said “summer AD 66” when I first preached this, which you’ll hear. Caught my mistake later, so this reflects the change.
 Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 633. J.W. 2.20.1.
 Quote attributed in various sources to Winston Churchill, but there is some doubt as to its origins.