Chapter 12 of Revelation starts by telling us that John is seeing a sign. This tells us that whereas the preceding chapters can and should be viewed literally we are now heading into a portion of scripture where allegory or metaphors are being used. We thus need to be extremely careful and discerning in our treatment of these verses. It also tells us that chapter 12 does not, or need not, represent a continuous flow of events from chapter 11. It is the sign that appears now; that does not mean the action could not be at some other time. In this essay I will aim to demonstrate that this sign covers the period from Genesis 3 through to Rev 19 from a heavenly perspective.
John Wesley viewed this passage as being a continuous period from Rev 11 and indicative of various actions in history. The invalidity of his argument is ably demonstrated today by that fact that he 'computed' that the persecution would end in 1836.
The key to interpreting this passage is, I suggest, to correctly interpreting the first sign. Who exactly is the woman? The Power Bible commentators are fairly agreed she is the Church and then come up with varying interpretations of the sun, moon and stars. However if we ignore the commentators and use the Bible as its' own commentary then this vision become very easy.
This picture is found, or most of it, back in Genesis 37. In Genesis 37 Joseph is having a dream (or vision). He dreamt of the sun (his father), the moon (his mother) and eleven stars (his brothers), the twelfth star was Joseph himself. So this great wonder that we see in verse 1 is actually the nation of Israel or the Jews as we would call them today.
So if that is already known why is this called a sign? Well the new piece is the woman, as we shall see from verse 2, the woman that was with child. To interpret this we need to go back to Genesis 3:15 to see the first mention of propagation other than under the general title of 'multiplying': "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy see and her seed; it shall bruise they head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." Essentially way back in Genesis 3:15 we see the Devil put under a time delayed sentence; one day he was going to be crushed by the Messiah.
Verse 4 then gives us a potted view of the persecutions of the Jew up to the birth of the Lord. The Devil is pictured as standing to devour the man-child and as we go through the Bible we see repeated attempts at wiping out the Jewish line. First Pharaoh in Egypt, then the attempts on David's life, the repeated murders of Judah's royal children, the exportation and castration of the seed under Nebuchadnezzar then attempted destruction of the Jew by Haman in Persian times and finally Herod's attempt at killing the Lord after his birth. All of these are pictured in the Devil standing waiting to devour.
Verse 5 gives us our first definitive 'dating', we are told the Woman brought forth a man-child and that he was caught up into heaven. This is clearly a reference to our Lord's incarnation and later ascension. Fitted in the narrative, as it is it really looks strange. The woman has been waiting to be delivered of the child, the Devil has been doing everything to prevent the child from coming and then as soon as He comes He goes up to heaven. This looks anti-climactic; it is not dissimilar to Daniel's statement that Messiah will be cut off.
This really is why the 'cross' is such a problem to the Jewish race. The Messiah was supposed to be the solution to the world's problems; verse 5 even says that he 'was to rule with a rod of iron'. It is by understanding these verses that we really can marvel at the privilege granted to us in the current dispensation of Grace.
Going from verse 5 to verse 6 in chapter twelve we are really leaping between Daniel's 69th and 70th week; in other words there is a length of time between them of duration we don't yet know. In fact I suggest we are not leaping to the start of the seventieth week but to the mid-point; in other words we are now beginning to follow on from Revelation 11.
My main justification for placing this scene at the midpoint of the tribulation comes from Daniel 12:1. Here we see 'Michael standing up' for his people followed by a period of persecution followed by the coming of deliverance. We know that the deliverance is at the end of the tribulation and we know that the length of the persecution is 3½ years so it indicates that Michael stands up at the midpoint of the tribulation. Incidentally Dan 12:1 also suggests that Michael instigates the war in heaven not the dragon. Why exactly Michael does this we do not really know; obviously we can say 'because God willed it' but I don't think we know the exact trigger. It could be the setting up of the abomination of desolation as this is the trigger that the Lord gives for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to flee.
In verse 14 we are told that the flight happens with the wings of an eagle; this is almost certainly another symbol. We do not know what the symbol is but we do know that the flight of the Jew from Egypt is also described as being born on Eagle's wings so we may assume it is some form of divine intervention. The verse certainly implies that she is fed miraculously; this could either be an allusion to the manner of the previous wilderness wanderings or it could be something more like that experience by Elijah.
The dragon responds by sending a flood that the earth manages to swallow. I don't think we know what that means. It could be literal, that as she is fleeing a tidal wave comes or it could be symbolic of waves of attacker. Raging water is often a picture of the nations in which case this would be a picture of many countries joining in the persecution; perhaps with others eventually offering shelter to the Jew.
I think a crucial part of this chapter than can easily be overlooked is in verse 17 where the devil, unable to get at the woman, turns upon the remnant of her seed which are those that obey God. This distinction between the woman and those that obey God make it clear that the woman is not a religious entity. The Bible often speaks of a remnant; again we think back to Elijah and there was a remnant of 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal. Similarly we know there is a remnant in our own dispensation. Rev 12:17 suggests that during the tribulation there will be a similar remnant. Part of these will be the 144,000 although those are sealed and are thus immune which suggests there must be come others against whom the Devil can more successfully wage war.