Revelation 12:1–17 and the Interpretive Journey
Before we close this unit, we want to show you how to take a passage in Revelation through the steps of the Interpretive Journey. Revelation 12:1–17 provides a useful example. We realize that not everyone will agree with our interpretations of this passage, but we will go through the process anyway so that you can see what is involved.
Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
This step consists of understanding the context of chapter 12 so that we may be able to interpret the symbols (“signs” in 12:1, 3) in light of that context. The chapter opens with a woman who is about to give birth to a male child. An enormous red dragon is waiting to devour the child. But as soon as the child is born, he is snatched up to God, who also provides a safe place on earth for the mother. The scene then shifts to heaven, where the archangel Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and his angels. The dragon (now explicitly called “the devil, or Satan,” 12:9) is defeated and thrown down to earth. As a defeated foe who has had to forfeit his place in heaven, the devil pursues the woman with a vengeance and makes war against the rest of her offspring.
How would the first-century audience have understood these characters? Most likely they would not have identified the woman with Mary, the mother of Jesus (a much later interpretation). Instead, they likely would have thought of the woman as the true Israel, the faithful community who gives birth to both the Messiah and the church. Both the male child and the offspring (12:17) serve as keys for identifying the woman. Note that the prophets often portray righteous Israel as a mother and the symbols used in 12:1 confirm this interpretation (cf. Gen. 37:9). After giving birth to the Messiah, the woman flees to a place of spiritual refuge for a period of 1,260 days, the time of persecution between the ascension and exaltation of Christ and his future return (cf. Rev. 11:2; 12:14; 13:5).
The dragon is explicitly identified in the passage as the devil, or Satan (12:9). This enemy of God attempts to devour the male child and lead the whole world astray. The detailed description of the dragon as red with seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns only adds to the awesomeness of the image. We are told that the male child “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (12:5), an allusion to Psalm 2 that is applied even more clearly to Jesus in Revelation 19:5. The male child most certainly represents Jesus Christ. After the child is born he is taken up to God. By moving straight from Jesus’ birth to his ascension and enthronement, John stresses that Satan’s evil plot has been foiled by Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation.
The original audience would have understood the war in heaven (12:7–12) and the subsequent rage of the devil (12:13–17) as an explanation of two significant realities. (1) God has defeated Satan and the victory is certain. (2) God’s people on earth will continue to suffer as victims of the devil’s rage. The heavenly perspective would help the original audience to understand their hostile environment and encourage them to persevere. They too can appropriate the victory and overcome the devil “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,” that is, by bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ even if it costs them their lives (12:11).
Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Like the original audience, we look back on the first coming of Christ and forward to his second coming. Both the biblical audience and the contemporary audience live between the already and the not yet. Because we share this situation with the original audience, we too can expect to suffer. As offspring of the woman (12:17), we will also encounter the anger of a defeated devil. Nevertheless, because we live in a different place and time (i.e., we are not part of Domitian’s Roman Empire), our suffering may take different forms and may vary in intensity. In general, churches in North America are not being persecuted to the same degree that churches in Asia Minor were being persecuted, though that could change.
We do, however, struggle with many of the same temptations toward complacency and compromise that the churches of Asia Minor faced. Immorality, idolatry, false teaching, materialism, and other such sins are still alive and well in our day. Like our ancestors, we also feel the attack of the devil in our attempt to live consistently and faithfully in the midst of a world system opposed to God. We know what it means to be at war with the evil one. The comment in 12:11 that first-century believers “triumphed over him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” and “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” will pose a strong challenge to North American Christians not accustomed to considering radical sacrifice for the cause of Christ, much less martyrdom.
Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What are the theological principles in this text?
The theological principles are built on similarities between their situation and ours. There are several principles or truths that emerge from this passage:
- There is a real devil that is opposed to God and is bent on deceiving and destroying God’s people. Spiritual warfare is real.
- Satan has been defeated by the life and redemptive work of Christ.
- Christians can overcome the devil by living and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully.
- Christians can expect to suffer for being faithful in their witness to Christ.
Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
The rest of the Bible clearly affirms all four principles identified above (i.e., the existence of Satan, his purposes of opposing God and his people, and how Christians triumph over him through faithfulness to Christ even to the point of being willing to suffer).
Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this theological principle?
Earlier in Grasping God’s Word we explained what is involved in the application of a biblical text. We need to see first how the principles in the text address the original situation. Let’s use the third theological principle listed above as an example: “Christians can overcome the devil by living and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully.” There are several common elements in the intersection between this theological principle and the original situation: (1) Christians (2) experience victory over the devil (3) by living and proclaiming the gospel of Christ (4) even under threat of death.
Next, we must discover a parallel situation in a contemporary context. In the original context the satanic attack takes the form of persecution. Consequently, we can say that any time Christians suffer persecution for their faithfulness to the gospel of Christ, we have a parallel situation.
Finally, we need to make our application specific so that people will know how to live out this part of the biblical story. In our example, persecuted Christians overcome the devil by living and proclaiming the gospel of Christ. As we mentioned earlier, perhaps the best way to make an application specific is to create a real-world scenario to serve as an illustration or example of how a person might live out the biblical principles. Real-world scenarios or stories should be both faithful to the meaning of the text and relevant to the contemporary audience. You might create a scenario illustrating inappropriate versus appropriate strategies for overcoming the devil (e.g., displaying the bumper sticker “The devil is a nerd” versus authentic, verbal witness to Christ). Or you could come up with a scenario of how to engage the culture with the gospel of Christ rather than withdrawing to avoid persecution. Sometimes a real-life story serves as the best illustration of all.
Consider the gripping account of faithful Christians living on the Indonesian island of Buru:
On the morning of December 23, 1999, a group of Muslims murdered scores of Christians, including women and children at a plywood factory on the Indonesian island of Buru, according to several Christian employees who survived the attack. Christians and Muslims have been fighting for more than a year and hundreds have been killed. Yoke Pauno, a factory worker who has taken refuge in Ambon, the capital, says she saw armed Muslims ask a woman holding a baby if she was “obed” or “achan,” the local slang for Christian and Muslim, respectively. When the woman answered “obed,” both she and her child were brutally killed.
Real-life scenarios and stories help us to grasp the text in our town.