Chapter twelve is commonly labeled the start of the second half of the book; and there is some good reasoning for that, but we must be careful not to take that idea too far. For some have cut the book asunder, making chapters 4-11 a complete and whole book; and consider chapters 12-22 to be practically a different book. Even more, some have gone so far as to count the second part as a total repeat of the first part, except from a different perspective. I reject these ideas; I do not find them natural to the reading of the text. When reading the book, the visions unfold a development in “the things that must soon take place.” There is always a progression, even though the visions may bring up earlier details; but that is only to help us better understand the things that were about to happen. We were told earlier that it would be in the days of the sounding of the seventh trumpet that “the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” (10:7). That trumpet just sounded; therefore, in compliance with 10:7, the mystery which the prophets foretold would be fulfilled in the things that must soon take place, as outlined in these final chapters of the book. The seven seals broke open the covenant document, finding the house of Israel guilty; and causing the seven trumpets to sound the warning to the people. The last warning call has been made and the time for the pouring out of God’s wrath upon the people will commence with the seven plagues, “which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.” (15:1). Once the wrath of God is finished upon the old covenant people, the kingdom is fully restored to a holy people who God can dwell with (21:3; see also Matthew 21:43). Do we see the natural development of the account? From the seals, to the trumpets, to the bowls, each reveal a progression in the fulfillment of the words of the prophets.
If we are not giving careful consideration to the development of the prophecy, then chapter twelve can cause some confusion; for it may appear to be starting a whole new book (this is where some commentators get off track). I agree (as most do) that this chapter speaks of events which had taken place several decades before John saw the vision; but this does not necessitate changing gears on the book. In keeping with the harmony of the context, the events of chapter twelve have a significant bearing on the “things that must soon take place.” So, while the events of this chapter had taken place, the Lord provides this information to give his servants a better understanding of the events in their near future.
(1) And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
This is a “great” sign, one of much significance. This sign was “in heaven,” providing us with information that this is a spiritual topic, which is not to be taken literally. The sign is of a pregnant woman who has reached her full term. This is reflective of what God said to Ahaz and the house of David in Isaiah 7:10-14, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ahaz refused God’s gracious request, for he had other plans in the works (with Assyria) which did not include God. God responds first by exclaiming of how exhausting Ahaz is to him, then gives him a sign anyway, saying “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” John sees this great sign in heaven of a woman with child, and God told the house of David that he would give them a sign of a woman with Child. Is the child, named Immanuel (God is with us), the same as the child born in Revelation twelve? Yes, it is unmistakable. For this child is said to “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5), that can only be Christ (Psalm 2; Matthew 28:18); and he is said to be “caught up to God and to his throne” (12:5). The details of the woman’s child point to the Lamb of God, and him alone.
Now, if the child is the Lord of glory, then who is the woman? Mary would be the first logical thought, if we haven’t read the rest of the chapter yet; but the details in 12:6 and 12:13-17 make that interpretation impossible. The prophets again hold the answer for us (which is to be expected from a book that is revealing the fulfillment of the prophets’ words); they spoke of God’s people in the personification of a woman (here is only a few examples: Psalm 46:5, 48:12-13, 87:5, 102:13-14, 132:15-16; Isaiah 1:21, 51:3, 54:1-6; 62:4, 66:7-14). Israel is personified as a faithless bride in Ezekiel 16, and a great whore in Ezekiel 23 and the book of Hosea. Then she is a weeping widow in Lamentations 1. The house of Israel is often called the “Daughter of Zion” by the prophets (Isaiah 1:8, 37:22, 52:2, 62:11, Jeremiah 4:31, 6:2, Lamentations 1:6, 2:8-10, 4:22; Micah 1:13, 4:8-13; Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 2:10, 9:9). Israel is also called a virgin by the prophets (Isaiah 37:22, 47:1; Jeremiah 2:32, 14:17, 18:13, 31:21; Lamentations 1:15, 2:13; Ezekiel 23:3; Joel 1:8; Amos 5:2).
This chapter makes it apparent that the woman is the sign of the people of God. But her glorious depiction and her righteous offspring in this chapter give us her identity more specifically; she is the faithful people of God under the old covenant. She is not described as the faithless harlot who we often see in the prophets (and we’ll see later in Revelation 17), but she is the lovely, glorious, obedient woman who is also described in the prophets (Psalm 48:12-13), and often suffers for her faithfulness to God (Isaiah 54:1-6; 26:17-18). She does not run with the flood of dissipation that was seen in the false religious lives of majority Israel; she was the faithful remnant (Zechariah 14:2; Romans 9:27, 11:5). Zechariah and Elizabeth were a part of this personified “woman;” they were “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6). And of course, Mary (living by faith: Luke 1:28, 45) and Joseph (a just/righteous man: Matthew 1:19) were both a part of the faithful house. From the faithful remnant came the Christ; “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).
“Clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The faithful, reflecting the glory of God’s own character, as symbolized by all three glories in the sky. The light of the sun, the moon and stars are all included to speak of her light and beauty. On her head are twelve stars; the number is a sign of her identity as the people of God (like the 12 tribes). These twelve stars are made into a crown for her head. This crown is not a diadem, like a ruler would wear; but a stephanos (victory wreath). Her endurance, from Abel to Jesus, is a wonderful exhibition of victory!
(2) She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.
This is a common figure of the Bible (Isaiah 13:8, 21:3, 26:17; Psalm 48:6; Jeremiah 4:31, 6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 30:6, 49:24, 50:43; John 16:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). It is most often used of waiting in the days of oppression for deliverance to come. This is a fitting picture for the faithful remnant, oppressed by the wickedness of the Jews who had rejected the law of God and adopted the traditions of men (Mark 7:9). The faithful remnant was always looking for the fulfillment of the old covenant, the coming of the righteous king. In pain they waited for the deliverer of their sins.