Note: This article is part of a series.
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. (Revelation 12:1, NKJ)
The images of the church found in the book of Revelation draw on Old Testament symbols to give us a unique perspective of the church. The visions of Revelation show us what the church looks like from the standpoint of heaven. God’s view of the church is often significantly different from ours. Our view of the church is heavily influenced by that of the world. We often see ourselves as small, struggling, and under constant attack. To us it can seem like the church is hopelessly ineffective in its efforts to impact our culture. We see infighting, worldliness and halting faith. From our experience in a fallen world that is at war with the church, there are many reasons for concern. Revelation certainly captures this aspect of the church. Revelation 12:17 says, “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” (NKJ). Here the church is a woman in the wilderness under the constant attack of the devil (pictured as a great dragon in this chapter).
This description feels about right to us. We look around at how our culture mocks biblical views on sexuality, marriage, and ethics; we see how any concept of absolute truth or a binding moral law is condemned as bigotry; and we feel like people who are living in the wilderness and being hunted by an enemy.
Throughout the book of Revelation, the Lord uses images that affirm the reality we are experiencing – that of a beleaguered group under siege (see 11:2, 7-9), but God balances these pictures with others that remind us of who we are in God’s ultimate plan and purpose (see 11:6, 11-12). We experience but a small part of God’s great work in history. God keeps reminding us of what we really are in Christ.
We see the same dynamic in Revelation 12. The church is the woman on the run but she is also presented as a great and glorious mother. The chapter begins with a new “sign” in heaven. This sign is that of a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars” (v. 1). Here is a picture of the church that we really need to understand and appreciate. This picture communicates several significant truths about the church.
First, the church is comprised of believers throughout history. In Genesis 37:9 we are told that Joseph dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Here heavenly bodies represent the covenant community of Jacob and his family. This fact was not lost on the rest of the family as Joseph’s father says, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” (v. 10). The fact that the woman is pictured with twelve stars in the vision of Revelation 12 is significant. The numbers in Revelation are symbolic and the number twelve refers to the people of God. There were twelve tribes in Israel and twelve disciples in the New Testament. Revelation 12 describes the church anticipating the arrival of the Messiah (v. 1-5) but also the church enduring persecution after Messiah comes (v. 6-17). Thus, the vision gives us a picture of the people of God in all ages. The continuity of the church reminds you that God is preserving and extending His kingdom in all ages.
Second, the church is glorious. The heavenly bodies are pictures of glory. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:41, “There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.” The picture is also meant to convey great beauty. In the Song of Solomon, the beloved uses similar language to ask about his love, “Who is she who looks forth as the morning, Fair as the moon, Clear as the sun, Awesome as an army with banners” (Song 6:10)? By picturing the church as a woman wrapped in the sun with the moon under her feet and stars on her head, God reminds you that the church, wrapped in the perfections of Christ, is the most glorious and beautiful work God is doing in our world. In contrast we are prone to focusing on all the ordinariness (and even ugliness) of the church, in which it seems that we struggle with all the same problems as our neighbors and make too little progress in our ongoing struggles with sin. This beautiful picture of a celestial woman reminds you that God looks at His people through His Son and to Him you are spectacular.
Third, the church is triumphant. The celestial woman has a garland on her head. The Greek word is stephanos, which refers to the victor’s wreath given to an Olympic champion. The heavenly woman is victorious. Again, that’s not how we see the church, but God sees men and women purchased and redeemed by Christ. Revelation 12 tells us in short compass that Christ has defeated the devil, the great dragon. His victory is our victory. In Him we have redemption and eternal life – things that can never be taken away from us. Yes, we struggle while on earth but God sees the big picture. He sees the victory. He sees what we are becoming in Christ. The vision balances the reality of our battles with sin and temptation with the ultimate reality of our complete and total triumph in Christ.
Finally, we should note that the vision reminds us that the church is a mother. Revelation 12:5 says, “She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.” The allusion to the Messiah from Psalm 2:9 as one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron confirms that this is a reference to Jesus and highlights something fascinating about the church. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, but He came in the flesh as a child of the covenant community. The Messiah, who is the Savior of the church, was Himself a member of the church. The church is aptly pictured as a mother as she continues to be the place where the gospel is preached, the sacraments are administered, the children of God are born again to new life, and the faith of God’s people is nurtured. We should not be surprised then that the church also experiences labor pains. The work of motherhood is grueling and trying but is also immensely rewarding. So it is with the church. Sometimes we experience the challenge and messiness of childbirth but we also experience the joy of seeing new life begin and grow.
So, as you give thanks today for your many blessings. Remember to thank God for the blessing of being part of the church. Revelation 12 reminds you that in Christ, the church is a glorious, beautiful, victorious mother in which dead souls rise to life and grow in grace. If you have come to faith in Jesus, you have a place in this picture. God sees you through His Son, and in His eyes you are holy, glorious, and triumphant.