In the beginning of Revelation 12, John records his vision of a pregnant woman about to give birth. He sees her in brilliant radiance — clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet. On her head is a wreath or crown of 12 stars. To whom does the woman and child refer?
In Genesis, we have the story of the biblical patriarch Joseph who had a dream in which a similar scene manifested itself to him. He later told his brothers that he had seen the sun, the moon and 11 stars bowing down to him (Genesis 37:9).
The portraits in Joseph's dream clearly refer to his family members. They would be Joseph's father Israel (sun), his mother Rachel (moon) and his eleven brothers (stars) (Genesis 37:10). Joseph, in this case, would be the 12th brother or "star." Israel's 12 sons became populous tribes and grew into the nation that became God's chosen people (Deuteronomy 14:2).
Revelation 12 radically alters the elements of Joseph's dream. It reinterprets them in terms of spiritual Israel — the church or the congregation of God's people (Galatians 6:16).
In Revelation the 12 tribes do not refer to the ancient nation, but symbolize the complete church (7:1-8). The woman being arrayed with the sun could represent the church as the radiant bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2). The moon under the woman's feet and the crown on her head could depict her victory through Christ.
Under this imagery, the "woman" of Revelation 12 would represent God's pure church. Biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring says: "She is the cosmic woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and crowned with twelve stars, who brings forth the Messiah" (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, "Revelation," p. 152).
In the New Testament, the church is known as spiritual Israel, Zion and "the mother" (Galatians 4:26; 6:16; Ephesians 5:23-24, 30-32; Hebrews 12:22). Zion-Jerusalem was the idealized mother of the nation of Israel (Isaiah 54:1). The metaphor carried over into the New Testament and was applied to the church (Galatians 4:26).
Some commentators see a broad meaning in the woman symbol of Revelation 12:1-3. The image, they say, is a reinterpretation of both Jewish messiah concepts and pagan savior myths in terms of the Christ experience. M. Eugene Boring says: "The woman is not Mary, or Israel, nor the church but less and more than all of these. John's imagery pulls together elements from the pagan myth of the queen of heaven; from the Genesis story of Eve, mother of all living, whose 'seed' shall bruise the head of the primeval serpent (Gen 3:1-16); from Israel who escapes from the dragon/Pharaoh into the wilderness on wings of an eagle (Exod. 19:4, cf. Ps 74:12-15); and Zion, 'mother' of the People of God through the ages, Israel and the church" (p. 152).
With this view in mind, some interpreters see references to various pagan myths in this section, as well as to the Old Testament story of Joseph's dream. In Greek mythology the pregnant goddess Leto is pursed by the dragon Python. She escapes to an island where she gives birth to Apollo, who later kills the dragon. Nearly every Mediterranean culture had some variant of this type of combat myth, pitting monster against champion.
Revelation's image of the cosmic woman brands all such myths as wrongheaded. It says that none of the stories understand that Jesus is the Savior and that the church constitutes the people of God. Christ is the Son who slays the dragon, Apollo is not. The church is the mother, from whom and for whom the Messiah comes; Leto is not the mother. The goddess Roma — the Roman Empire personified — is actually a type of the international spiritual prostitute, Babylon the Great. The true Queen of Heaven is Zion, composed of the church or people of God.
Thus, in the tale of the woman, Revelation exposes long-standing political-religious beliefs for what they are. British Bible scholar G.R. Beasley-Murray says, John's use of the Apollo myth "is an astonishing example of communicating the Christian faith through an internationally known symbol" (The New Century Bible Commentary, "Revelation," p. 192).
Revelation also casts Jesus as the church's redeemer — the long-awaited Messiah. In doing so, the book redefines the meaning of Old Testament symbols in a final way. Says G.R. Beasley-Murray: "By using this vehicle of expression John has at a stroke claimed the fulfillment of pagan hope and Old Testament promise in the Christ of the Gospel. There is no other deliverer but Jesus" (p. 196).
In Revelation 12, the major opponent of the church is also exposed. He is the terrifying red dragon with seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns on his head. Revelation clearly identifies the dragon or monster. He is "that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray" (12:9, with 20:2).
Satan's earthly proxy — the beast from the sea — also has seven heads and ten horns, and he is scarlet in color as well (13:1; 17:3). Satan's character is mirrored in his earthly representatives. The dragon personifies evil. Since ancient mythology had many references to dragons, John's audience would have understood that the dragon of Revelation 13 represented a cosmic enemy.
Exactly what the dragon's seven heads represent is not immediately clear. However, given John's use of seven as a numerical symbol of completeness, perhaps this suggests the universal nature of Satan's power and that he completely embodies within himself all evil. The dragon also has seven diadems or royal crowns on his heads. They could represent Satan's spurious claim against Christ. As the Lord of Lords, it is to Jesus that all crowns of authority belong. He is the one who will be crowned with many diadems (19:12, 16).
We are told the dragon had "swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth" (12:4). This fraction is used several times in Revelation. Perhaps we should interpret it as meaning a significant minority.
We are also given a short biography of the woman's "male child," a reference to Jesus (12:5). Revelation is here telling the story of the Christ event in relationship to Satan's unsuccessful attempt to thwart God's plan.
The dragon tried to kill or "devour" the woman's child at the moment of his birth (12:4). This is a reference to a historical situation. When Herod heard that the Jewish messiah had been born in Bethlehem, he killed all the infants in the city, which would have resulted in the baby Jesus' death (Matthew 2:16). Jesus, of course, escaped with his parents to Egypt. Revelation tells us Satan the devil was really behind the human plot to murder Jesus — to "devour" him.
Some commentators think that Satan's attempt to "devour" the woman's child also included his tempting of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11), his obscuring of Jesus' gospel message (Matthew 13:39), and his inspiring the crucifixion of Christ (John 13:2). By killing Jesus through the crucifixion, the devil may have assumed he had won a victory over the Messiah. In fact, it was Jesus' death itself that saved the world and sealed the devil's fate (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14).
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus, the child of the woman, "was snatched up to God and to his throne" (12:5). That is, he was resurrected to immortality. God has exalted the glorified Jesus to a position of universal authority (Philippians 2:9-11). He is destined to "rule all the nations with an iron scepter" (12:5). He will shepherd the nations with loving, but absolute authority. These words — "rule all nations" — clearly identify to whom the child symbol refers. He is God's anointed Messiah, destined to reign in God's kingdom over all the earth (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 19:15).