VI. The Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, and the Lamb (Revelation 12:1–15:8)
VI. The Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, and the Lamb (12:1–15:8)
The rewind commences as John retells the story of the tribulation through the eyes of its dominant characters. This section of the book focuses on the second half of the tribulation period.
12:1-2 The first person to whom we’re introduced is a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1). The “twelve stars” symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, and the “woman” is Israel. Her pregnancy denotes two realities. First, it symbolizes the fact that Jesus the Messiah came through Israel. At his first coming, Jesus was born of a Jewish woman. Second, it symbolizes the fact that Jesus’s second coming must again originate with Israel. The purpose of the tribulation is for Israel to give birth, so to speak, to the Messiah once again. In other words, Jesus cannot return until Israel receives him. Most of the Jewish people currently reject him. Yet through the labor and agony (12:2) of the tribulation, overwhelming numbers of Israelites will receive Christ. Only after that occurs can he appear to the rest of the world.
12:3-4 The second character introduced in this scene is a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads (12:3). John states explicitly in 12:9 that this dragon is the devil. The sweeping away of a third of the stars in heaven (12:4) depicts Satan’s control over a third of the angels, who have rebelled against God and help carry out Satan’s evil schemes. Scripture suggests there are millions of angels, so the devil controls an extraordinary multitude.
During the tribulation, Satan will seek to destroy Israel and devour her child (12:4). That is, he wants to preclude the possibility that Christ will return to the world through Israel. If there is no Israel, there can be no triumphant return of Christ and Satan will rule the earth. He employed a similar strategy at Jesus’s first coming, with King Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child (see Matt 2:1-18).
12:5-6 The birth of a Son, of course, is a reference to Jesus’s advent as a baby in Bethlehem. His rule of all nations with an iron rod refers to the millennial kingdom, in which he will reign over the earth with his people for a thousand years. The child’s being caught up to God and to his throne (12:5) pictures the ascension of Christ (see Acts 1:6-11). Israel’s nourishment in the wilderness for 1,260 days (12:6) depicts God’s protection of Israel during the second half of the tribulation—three and a half years. During that time, the Jewish people will receive Jesus as Messiah en masse and hasten his second coming.
12:7-8 To protect Israel, the archangel Michael and his fellow angels will fight against the dragon and his demons (12:7). The angels’ manner of fighting will be similar to what they do on behalf of all believers today (see Heb 1:14). The accidents we narrowly avoid and the perfect timing of various life events are not coincidences, but heaven’s orchestration of all things for our good. As Michael fought on Daniel’s behalf against demons in the Old Testament era (see Dan 10:13), angels fight for believers today and will fight for Israel in the tribulation to come. Despite the devil’s raging, he and his demons will not prevail. Indeed, there is no place . . . in heaven for them any longer (12:8). In the end, they will neither thwart God’s plan for Israel nor for the return of his Son.
12:9 Satan’s expulsion from heaven is the same episode referenced in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Revelation 9:1, which occurred sometime before the fall of mankind (see Gen 3). At that time, Satan was thrown to earth, and his fallen angels with him. Since then, his chief strategy has been to act as the one who deceives the whole world. He cannot win spiritual battles by exerting authority because he has been defeated on the cross. He has to win by deception, influencing our thinking through spiritual and worldly means. We allow Satan to achieve victories in our lives when we act on that deception rather than rejecting it as a lie.
12:10 Another strategy of Satan’s is to be the accuser of believers (see Zech 3:1-7), accusing them before our God day and night. This indicates, first, that God has allowed Satan access to his divine presence. Second, it indicates Satan uses that access to level accusations against God’s people. He does that because he knows the Lord’s righteous character and that human sin breaks their fellowship with God. If Satan cannot prevent a person from being saved, he at least wants to steal the joy that comes from walking in fellowship with God.
12:11 Those who conquer Satan in their lives do so by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Every Christian is saved from eternal condemnation by Christ’s blood. Those who defeat Satan’s schemes in this life and receive the reward of eternal authority do so by a godly public testimony. Secret agent Christians, those who are saved but operate undercover, so to speak, will receive no authority from Christ. Triumphant, conquering believers do not love their lives more than they love God. His kingdom agenda for their lives overrules all others.
12:12-13 During the final three and a half years of the tribulation, the earth will experience Satan’s great fury, because he knows his time is short (12:12). The devil can read Revelation too, and he knows from 20:1-3 that he will be locked up for a thousand years following Christ’s return. This reality will prompt him to take full advantage of his final forty-two months of freedom to wreak havoc in Israel and the world. His goal will be to destroy Israel and thus render God’s Word false. As John puts it, when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman (Israel) who had given birth to the male child (Jesus) (12:13).
12:14 During the same three and a half years—a time, times, and half a time—in which Satan comes against Israel with wild fury, God will protect Israel supernaturally. This cosmic conflict of good and evil will eventuate in an epic battle known as Armageddon (16:16).
12:15-16 Satan will unleash a particularly severe attack on Israel at some point, depicted as water spewed from the serpent . . . like a river flowing after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood (12:15). To counter this diabolical attempt at Israel’s destruction, God will activate a supernatural defense mechanism, pictured metaphorically as the earth’s opening its mouth and swallowing up the river that the dragon had spewed (12:16). This prophecy illustrates a broader principle: We discover God most powerfully in the context of being overwhelmed. When believers are flooded with opposition, often they are able to watch God supernaturally suck up the flood of despair and avert Satan’s plan for destruction.
12:17-18 This defeat will leave Satan furious with Israel and intent to wage war against men and women from every nation who keep the commands of God and hold firmly to the testimony about Jesus (12:17). The scene closes with the dragon standing on the sand of the sea (12:18).
13:1 Chapter 13 completes the description of an unholy trinity that John began in 12:3. The three members of this pseudo-trinity are the devil, depicted as a dragon; the Antichrist, depicted as a beast from the sea; and the false prophet, depicted as a beast from the earth.
The sea represents the Gentiles. So depicting the Antichrist as a beast coming up out of the sea signifies that he will be a Gentile. The Antichrist’s ten horns represent a ten-nation confederacy that he will rule (see Dan 7:7-8). The setting of this chapter is the second half of the tribulation, during which time the Antichrist will oppose Israel after appearing to be its ally during the first half. This figure will blaspheme the names of God, signified by the blasphemous names on its heads.
13:2 The Antichrist will be a human monster. He is described as a predator like a leopard with feet . . . like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s. History has known monsters in the persons of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and Mao among others. The reason we classify them this way is that they sought to exterminate people en masse. This is precisely what the Antichrist will seek to do with Israel. This man’s great authority will come directly from Satan.
13:3-4 At some point, the Antichrist will appear to be fatally wounded, but the fatal wound will be healed. This will lead the whole earth to be amazed and to follow him (13:3). As they do, he will direct worship toward the devil. Mass worship of the devil may seem bizarre and even unthinkable to us, but it is not so absurd in a culture that has dismissed God. The Antichrist will seize upon the spiritual vacuum and inspire widespread worship of himself and of Satan (13:4).
13:5-7 The Antichrist’s authority during the latter half of the tribulation will be significant. Not only will he be permitted to utter boasts and blasphemies against God for three and a half years (13:5), but he will also blaspheme the Lord’s dwelling in heaven and those who dwell in heaven (13:6)—either believers there, or angels, or both. The Antichrist also will have authority to wage war against followers of Jesus living on earth and to conquer them (13:7). This evil power will touch every tribe, people, language, and nation—a familiar refrain by this point in Revelation.
If the thought of a world ruler with such sweeping authority seems farfetched, think of Hitler. If not for a series of providential interventions, he might have achieved the goal of world domination. For example, a snowstorm kept the Germans from conquering Russia, and America’s entrance into World War II pushed them back on the western front. Hitler wasn’t the Antichrist, but he was an antichrist. And his near conquest of the world makes an actual conquest by this future leader seem less implausible.
13:8 Only believers will refuse to worship the Antichrist. All others will bow—everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slaughtered. This verse implies that God the Father reckoned the death of Jesus to humans as righteousness before the foundation of the world. Christ’s death occurred at a specific point in history some two thousand years ago, but for God all moments are the present. Thus, even before creating the universe, he counted Christ’s death as atoning for the sin each person inherits from Adam (cf. Rom 5:18).
Importantly, no one is condemned for original, inherited sin. The only cause for anyone’s consignment to hell is his or her own personal sin, including rejection of Jesus as Savior. That’s why children who die in infancy and people born with severe mental disabilities go to heaven. They have no conscience, personal sin, or spiritual rejection of the Savior for which to be condemned. Yet when a person knowingly sins and rejects the revelation of God in creation, his or her name is erased from the book of life and only reinserted should he or she place faith in Jesus as Savior.
13:9-10 The tribulation will be a rough period for followers of Jesus. All who refuse to worship the beast will be under a sentence of captivity and death, though not everyone who follows Jesus will die. The heightened cost of discipleship at that time will make it much less desirable to be saved then than it is now. Extreme persecution calls for endurance and faithfulness from the saints (13:10).
13:11 The earth is a reference to the promised land. Thus, the beast coming up out of the earth will be Jewish. He will have a gentle side like a lamb but will speak the very words of Satan like a dragon.
13:12 This second beast, the false prophet, completes the unholy trinity, which imitates the work of the Holy Trinity. Within the Godhead, the Father seeks worship; the Son gives glory to the Father; and the Holy Spirit gives glory to the Son. Here, Satan seeks worship for himself; the first beast glorifies Satan; and the second beast glorifies the first. Specifically, this second beast compels the earth and those who live on it to worship the first beast. Additionally, he will heal the Antichrist’s fatal wound, imitating the Holy Spirit’s work of raising Christ from the dead (see Rom 8:11).
13:13-15 The false prophet will perform great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in front of people (13:13). Many will be deceived because of the signs, the apex of which will be the Antichrist’s resurrection (13:14). The false prophet also will animate a previously inanimate image of the Antichrist so that the image of the beast [will] both speak and cause whoever [will] not worship the image to be killed (13:15). Many people will assume a person doing such miracles is divine, but Scripture teaches otherwise. Just because someone can work a miracle doesn’t make him worthy of following. God does miracles in a righteous way and in support of biblical truth. But even if someone can call down fire and raise the dead, he is an instrument of Satan if he does not also point people to Jesus.
13:16-18 Another role of the false prophet will be to force everyone on earth to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead to signify allegiance to the Antichrist (13:16). Without this mark, a person will not be permitted to engage in commerce of any kind (13:17). Such a mark may take the form of a chip embedded under the skin. The mark will contain the number of the Antichrist, which is 666 (13:18). Six is the number of man; it contrasts with seven, which is the number of God. The numeral six is repeated three times, once each for Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet. Only by the grace of God will those without this mark be able to function in a world under their influence. Note that the centralized, governmental control of trade is the economics of the Antichrist (13:17).
14:1 Some religious groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, contend the 144,000 people with Jesus on Mount Zion with his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads are the sum total of all saved people. That’s absolutely false. These are Jewish evangelists, whose job is to announce the gospel worldwide during the tribulation to lead many more to faith in Christ. These evangelists will prepare the way for the return of Jesus. The mark on their foreheads contrasts with the mark placed on nonbelievers by the false prophet (cf. 13:16).
14:2-3 John hears thunderous music in heaven like harpists playing (14:2) as the 144,000 evangelists sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, a song which no one could learn except them (14:3). The privilege of sharing the gospel worldwide during this period of widespread Christian persecution will inspire worship among the Jewish evangelists.
14:4-5 Two key characteristics of the 144,000 are their moral purity and their status as firstfruits of God’s saving work during the tribulation. Their purity is evident from their description as having not defiled themselves with women (14:4) and from the fact that no lie was found in their mouths. Indeed, they are blameless (14:5). Morally and spiritually, they follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).
As Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:23), the 144,000 Jewish evangelists are the “firstfruits” of those to be saved during the tribulation. There will be a multitude saved during the tribulation, but these 144,000 are presented to God the Father and God the Son as the initial harvest of those redeemed from humanity (14:4).
14:6 The message announced by these 144,000 evangelists also is heralded by an angel flying high overhead. It is the eternal gospel announced to every nation, tribe, language, and people. Even while judgment and persecution are being poured out on the earth, widespread evangelism will be occurring.
14:7 Multitudes will persist in rebellion against God, but multitudes will heed the call to fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship of God as Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and the springs marks a contrast with the false worship of Satan and the Antichrist.
14:8 Babylon the Great is a metaphorical expression depicting the system of false religion and rebellion against God established by the devil and the two beasts (cf. 17:1-18). Unlike worship of God, which will endure, this false religion will prove temporary. Nevertheless, it will entice all the nations to indulge fleshly lusts such as the craving for sexual immorality, which will bring God’s wrath.
14:9-10 Anyone who receives the mark of the beast on his forehead or on his hand (14:9) has positioned himself against God and thus will also drink the wine of God’s wrath. Receiving the mark of 666 (13:18) may appear to be a harmless formality to enable commerce, but it designates its recipients for judgment at full strength in hell—a place where the wicked are tormented with fire and sulfur in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb (14:10).
14:11-12 Those who reject God’s offer of mercy in Christ will not simply die and pass into unconsciousness. Rather, their conscious torment will go on forever and ever. One aspect of that torment is a lack of rest during the day and the night (14:11). Hell is separation from God, and God is the one who gives rest (see Matt 11:28). So picture the unpleasantness of battling insomnia for a week. Then extend that into eternity. Then contrast that potential future with heaven, which is depicted in Scripture as a place of eternal rest (Heb 3:7–4:11). Consignment to hell is a free choice, a penalty men and women bring on themselves, as when they elect to receive the mark of the beast (14:11). That reality should motivate followers of Jesus to endure in their obedience to God’s commandments and their faith (14:12).
14:13 The dead who die in the Lord from now on is a reference to those who are persecuted for their faith in Christ during the tribulation. They will find rest from their labors, a fate which is the opposite of that experienced by those who receive the mark of the beast.
14:14-16 With the end of history rapidly approaching, one like the Son of Man appears on the cloud, with a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand (14:14). The sickle here is an instrument to inflict judgment and death on those who reject God. It is mentioned six times in five verses (14:14-18) to underscore the impending doom for those who reject God during the tribulation. In general, a sickle is a tool used to harvest crops, and that makes it an entirely appropriate metaphor for divine judgment because a harvest (14:15) of people’s deeds during their earthly lives is in view. Thus, the one seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested (14:16).
14:17-19 The number of divine messengers prepared to reap the harvest of judgment increases when another angel who [has] a sharp sickle [comes] out of the temple in heaven (14:17). Yet another angel calls to the one with the sharp sickle that the harvest has ripened (14:18). This phrase is a reminder that God does not pour out his wrath on people at the first hint of their sinful rebellion, though that would be entirely justified. Instead, he provides extended opportunity for repentance and strikes with the sickle of judgment when rebellion has matured into an unmistakable pattern. He is like the keeper of a cosmic vineyard, casting grapes into the great winepress of [his] wrath (14:19).
14:20 When God brings final judgment against the nations who attack him at Armageddon (cf. 16:14-16), the bloodletting will be so severe that blood will splatter up the level of a horse’s bridle for approximately 180 miles.
15:1 This chapter is a prelude to seven last plagues, which will be delivered by seven angels. With the delivery of these judgments, God’s wrath will be completed. That is, there will be no more judgment to be poured out on earth during the tribulation. Final judgment will remain, in which the wicked and the righteous are consigned to their respective eternal destinies. In view here is the cessation of the temporal judgments of the tribulation. While all the judgments to this point have been catastrophic, John hints at the uniquely awesome nature of these last judgments by noting that the sight of the seven angels was great and awe-inspiring.
15:2 As in 4:6, John sees something like a sea of glass. In all likelihood, it is not actually made of glass but is a body of water that is utterly smooth. The calmness, however, does not indicate serenity, for the sea is mixed with fire, an indication that the calm is merely a dramatic pause before a display of God’s burning wrath. Standing on the sea are those who had won the victory over the beast by refusing to worship its image or be marked by the number of its name. These believers presumably have been martyred because they are in heaven rather than on earth. They hold harps from God.
15:3 The song of these believers is the song of God’s servant Moses and the song of the Lamb. As Moses sang in triumph after Israel’s Egyptian enemies had been swallowed up by the Red Sea (see Exod 15:1-18), followers of Christ from the tribulation will sing at the prospect of Satan, the Antichrist, and the false prophet being overwhelmed with judgment. This song will be even more glorious than that of Moses, though, because the judgment will be carried out by the Lamb of God. Jesus was active in Moses’s day, following Israel through the wilderness (see 1 Cor 10:1-4). But he was not yet openly identified as the incarnate Messiah and Redeemer, as he is here. The worship song celebrates God’s great and awe-inspiring works, which are never capricious or unfair, but just and true.
15:4 The two specific reasons for which God is worshiped are his character and his works. He is to be feared because of his glorious name and utter holiness. His acts during the tribulation—both of judging the rebellious and of saving great multitudes—are righteous and have drawn all the nations to worship before him.
15:5-6 The procession of the seven angels (15:6) out of the heavenly temple (15:5) indicates the judgments they are to bear come directly from God’s presence, for in the Old Testament, the temple was where God’s presence dwelled. The agents of judgment are dressed to highlight their glory and moral purity, with pure, bright linen and golden sashes wrapped around their chests (15:6).
15:7 One of the four living creatures, introduced in 4:6, gives the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God. The appearance of these elements in chapter 4 and again here bookends the judgments of the tribulation. As a worship service in heaven featuring the four living creatures inaugurated the tribulation, a worship service featuring the creatures will culminate it. While God’s wrath against the earth will last only for a season, he lives forever.
15:8 The temple’s filling with smoke harkens back to two Old Testament scenes. The first occurred in 1 Kings 8:10-11, in which Solomon dedicated the temple and God’s presence was manifested as a cloud that filled the building. No one could stand to enter, and the priests could not carry out their assigned functions. The second scene occurred in Isaiah 6:4. There the temple “filled with smoke” as Isaiah beheld God’s glorious presence seated on a throne, surrounded by angelic creatures. In both instances, the cloud/smoke signified God’s manifest presence. That is the point of the smoke in Revelation as well. God wants all to recognize him as the source of the fierce judgments to ensue.