Chapters 12 through 14 of Revelation introduce us to a major religious struggle. This conflict is destined to dominate the world stage in the "last days." John shows us how and why God's government — represented on earth by his Church — endures deadly assault from the political, economic and religious system controlled by Satan the devil. This section marks a major turning point in Revelation. John now defines the underlying cause for the hostility about to engulf God's Church. It is kindled by the struggle of a defeated enemy. His death rattle creates one final severe time of tribulation. The outcome, however, is certain. God will come in judgment to destroy his enemies (chapters 16 through 19) and reward his own people (chapters 20 through 22). The stage is prepared for the final conflict. Chapters 12 through 14 introduce the actors who play the major roles. The "woman" of Revelation 12 is God's pure Church. She is known as spiritual Israel, Zion and "the mother" (Galatians 4:26; 6:16; Ephesians 5:23-24, 30-32; Hebrews 12:22). Revelation also reveals the major opponent of the Church. He is the terrifying red dragon with seven heads, 10 horns and seven diadems on his heads. He is the devil — the archenemy of God's people (Rev. 12:3, 9; 20:2). The diadems on Satan's seven heads represent his spurious claim against Christ. As the Lord of Lords, it is to Jesus that all crowns of authority belong (Rev. 19:12, 16).
The Good Woman — God's Church
In Revelation 12, John records a vision of the woman clothed with the sun. She has the moon under her feet. On her head is a wreath made up of 12 stars (Rev. 12:1). What can this strange symbolism mean? The biblical patriarch Joseph dreamed a similar scene almost 2,000 years before Revelation was written. He told his brothers: "I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me" (Genesis 37:9). The context explains these figures. They are Joseph's father Israel (the sun), his mother Rachel (moon) and his eleven brothers (the stars) (Genesis 37:10). Joseph, in this case, would be the l2thbrother or "star." Thus, we have a clear reference to the physical family of Israel. Israel grew into a nation and became God's own special people (Deuteronomy 14:2). God later temporarily rejected the nation for its sins until Christ should appear as the delivering Messiah (Romans 11:25-27). The parallel reference in Revelation 12 is primarily to spiritual Israel — the Church, the congregation or the spirit-begotten people of God (Galatians 6:16). In Revelation 12 we see the Church of God — the Church that Jesus began — as it has come into conflict with Satan and the corrupt empire under his control. Satan, of course, tried to have Jesus himself put to death shortly after his human birth (Matthew 2:16). The devil failed, the biblical account tells us. Jesus lived a perfect life, paid for human sin by his death and was resurrected. He began his Church and it grew both in numbers and spiritual power. However, during the Roman persecution God's people had to flee the confines of the empire for 1,260 years. (This is based on counting a day for each year according to John's vision — see Rev. 12:6 and also Ezekiel 4:5-6.) John carries us historically to the "end times" in the 12th chapter. The struggle between Satan's forces and the people of God increases to fever pitch.
Satan Attacks the Church
Satan wages a titanic battle against God. God defeats Satan when he attacks God's universe-ruling headquarters. John tells us, "The great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth" (Rev. 12:9). Jesus mentioned a similar defeat of Satan in his initial attempt to overthrow God (Luke 10:18). See also Isaiah 14:12-15 which recounts Lucifer's (Satan's) fall from heaven. Compare that pre-Adamic event with Revelation 12, verse three and the first part of verse four. In Revelation, the heavens are said to rejoice because Satan is cast out permanently in the last days (Rev. 12:12). However, the inhabitants of earth suffer woes because of his presence. Satan now begins his final offensive. It is a fruitless attempt to subvert God's plan for mankind. The devil turns his full attention toward gaining control of the entire human race. Satan's goal is a complete martyrdom of God's people. John hears a loud voice, saying: "Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time" (Rev. 12:12). God rescues those of his people who show faith. love and obedience toward him. John uses the symbol of a woman to stand for God's Church. He says, "The woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place... from the presence of the serpent" (Rev. 12:14). This is a symbolic act of Godly protection, portraying divine deliverance (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:10-11; Isaiah 40:31). Satan attempts to expunge God's people before they can escape — kill them to a man and woman! He sends a "flood" after the Church (Rev. 12:15). The flood is a common Old Testament metaphor for overwhelming evil or armies (Isaiah 59:19; Daniel 1l:22). Satan's attempt fails. God prevents harm from coming to those he is protecting (Rev. 12:16). Not all of God's people are protected, however. Many have not fully heeded the warning to repent and overcome. These individuals now enter their time of supreme trial. They must prove their faith and love toward God by facing extreme persecution and death for his name. Satan is the instigator. "And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 12:17, italics added). Some of God's own people must suffer in this great tribulation or holocaust.
The Beasts of Revelation 13
By what means does Satan make war against God's Church? How does he attempt to control the world? Revelation, chapter 13, answers both questions. John sees a repulsive monster in his next vision. "I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns" (Rev. 13:1). This symbol of Satan's earthly power — the beast that rises from the sea — is a political power shaped in Satan's image (Rev. 12:3). The creature of Revelation 13 is a grotesque composite of parts from a leopard, bear and lion (verse 2). One of the heads was mortally wounded but its critical injury miraculously healed (verse 3).
Satan will attempt to gain control of the human race and martyr all those who trust in and obey God.
John writes, "All the world marveled and followed the beast.... Saying, 'Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?"' (Rev. 13:3-4). This beast is given authority "over every tribe, tongue and nation. And all who dwell on the earth will worship him" (Rev. 13:7-8). This is the earthly foe of the Church — the political — military agent through which Satan carries out his war against believers. The power and authority of the beast, however, comes directly from the dragon, Satan the devil (Rev. 13:2). Here is a superpower of immense might. It achieves at least a temporary control of the world. Satan uses this political power as the agent to stamp out and destroy the work of God's people. God allows this power "to make war with the saints and to overcome them" (Rev. 13:7).
A Second Beast Emerges
John also sees another beast that has two horns like a lamb and speaks like a dragon (Rev. 13:11). That is to say, it is a kind of wolf in sheep's clothing. This beast pretends to be something it is not, morally and spiritually. This beast represents religious power intimately associated with the first beast — a great military and political force. John writes of the second beast: "He exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence" (Rev. 13:12). This second beast performs great miracles and it "deceives those who dwell on the earth" (Rev. 13:14). Its role is to bring people to worship the first beast. This beast uses miracles, economic boycott and threats to achieve its aim. Like a false Elijah, this second beast paves the way for the first beast. This false political and religious system also wields tight economic control over those whom it dominates. It causes everyone to receive a "mark" on the right hand and on the forehead.
A mighty military, political, religious and economic superpower will wield international authority.
"No one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Rev. 13:16-18). No one is exempt from this harsh economic control. Whether small, great, rich, poor, free, bond — all must acquiesce. Individuals who refuse to serve the "beast" are not allowed to carry out the smallest economic transactions. What is this "mark?" It is a parody of the sealing, in chapter seven, of the servants of God. The mark serves to identify those who worship the beast. The metaphor could have come from several practices. In Roman times, disobedient slaves were often branded with marks of ownership, much like cattle are today. Religious tattooing was also widespread. Devotees of a god labeled themselves with tattoos to designate their loyal devotion. The word mark was also used for seals attached to commercial documents and stamped with the name and date of the emperor. This beast is also identified by the number 666. To what does this numerical cryptogram refer? The mark or name is the same as the number of its name (Rev. 13:17). Many languages have letters which also are used as numbers. Latin, for example, has been one of those languages. The Roman number X equals 10, V equals 5 and so forth. A piece of graffiti from Pompeii reads: "I love her whose number is 545." The number stood for the name. This principle is what Revelation 13:17 is referring to.
The World Just Before "The End"
Up to this point, Revelation gives us a glimpse, through John's visions, of the state of the world in the last days. An incredibly powerful military, political, religious and economic superpower will wield international authority. It will be the tool of Satan in his final bid for mastery over God. Meanwhile. let us remember the true Church will also be here on earth. Some of its members will have overcome and grown spiritually. God will protect them from the great tribulation (Satan's wrath) and all of the wrath of God (Rev. 3:10). But some will not be developing godly character. God will be forced to expose them to persecution and death in order to make them spiritually perfect (Rev. 3:18). God's people do not suffer martyrdom only because of spiritual laxness. For example, the two witnesses will be martyred to fulfill God's purpose. The apostle Peter was crucified to "glorify God" (John 21:19). In any case, the martyred are "slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Rev. 6:9). Their martyrdom is a powerful testimony for God. The nations will not be without a witness during this time. They will be educated about the true God and his way. The world will be told it is willingly following the devil's way of life and should repent. God will empower the two witnesses to preach that gospel for 3 1/2 years during the worst of the end times. Then comes the seventh trumpet — composed of seven last plagues — and God's intervention in human society.