The Background of Religious Intolerance
Verse 1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
An elucidation of this part of the chapter will involve little more than a mere definition of the symbols introduced. This may be given in few words.
"A woman," signifies a true church. (2 Corinthians 11: 2.) A corrupt woman is used to represent an apostate or corrupt church. (Ezekiel 23: 2-4; Revelation 17: 3-6, 15, 18.) By parity of reasoning, a pure woman, as in this instance, would represent the true church. "The sun" here signifies the light and glory of the gospel era. "The moon" is the symbol of the Mosaic period. As the moon shines with a borrowed light derived from the sun, so the former era shone with a light borrowed from the present. There they had the type and shadow; here we have the antitype and the substance. "A crown of twelve stars" appropriately symbolizes the twelve apostles. "A great red dragon" represents pagan Rome. (See comments under verses 4 and 5.) "Heaven" is the space in which this representation was seen by the apostle. We are not to suppose that the scenes here presented to John took place in heaven where God resides, for they are events which occurred upon this earth. This vision which passed before the eye of the prophet, appeared as if in the region occupied by the sun, moon, and stars, which we speak of as heaven.
Verses 1 and 2 cover a period of time beginning just previous to the opening of the Christian Era, when the church was earnestly longing for and expecting the advent of the Messiah, and extending to the full establishment of the gospel church with its crown of twelve apostles. (Luke 2: 25, 26, 38.)
No symbols more fitting and impressive could be found than are here employed. The Mosaic period shone with a light borrowed from the Christian Era, even as the moon shines with light borrowed from the sun. How appropriate, therefore, to represent the former by the moon, and the latter by the sun. The woman, the church, had the moon under her feet; that is, the Mosaic period had just ended, and the woman was clothed with the light of the gospel sun, which had just risen. By anticipation the church is represented as fully organized, with its twelve apostles, before the man child, Christ, appeared upon the scene. It was to be thus constituted immediately after Christ should begin His ministry; and He is more especially connected with this church than with that of the former period. There is no ground for misunderstanding the passage; and hence no violence is done to a correct system of interpretation by this representation.
Verse 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to His throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
"Third Part of the Stars of Heaven."--The dragon drew the third part of the stars of heaven. If the twelve stars with which the woman is crowned, here used symbolically, denote the twelve apostles, then the stars thrown down by the dragon before his attempt to destroy the man child, or before the Christian Era, may denote a part of the rulers of the Jewish people. That the sun, moon, and stars are sometimes used in this symbolic sense, we have already had evidence in Revelation 8: 12. Judea became a Roman province sixty-three years before the birth of the Messiah. The Jews had three classes of rulers--kings, priests, and the Sanhedrin. A third of these, the kings were taken away by the Roman power. Philip Smith, after describing the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans and Herod, and its capitulation in the spring of 37 B.C., after an obstinate resistance of six months, says: "Such was the end of the Asmonean dynasty, exactly 130 years after the first victories of Judas Maccabaeus, and in the seventieth year from the assumption of the diadem by Aristobulus I." 
This allusion to the stars undoubtedly has also a wider meaning, and is related to the truths emphasized in verses 7-9 of this chapter. As a result of the conflict there brought to view, it is evident that a third part of the angelic host, who joined with Satan in his rebellion against the Ruler of the universe, were cast out of the courts of glory.
"The Dragon Stood Before the Woman."--It now becomes necessary to identify the power symbolized by the dragon, and this can be done very easily. The testimony concerning the "man child" which the dragon seeks to destroy, is applicable to only one being that has appeared in this world, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. No other one has been caught up to God and His throne, but He has been thus exalted. (Ephesians 1: 20, 21; Hebrews 8: 1, Revelation 3: 21.) No other one as received from God the commission to rule all nations with a rod of iron, but He has been appointed to this work. (Psalm 2: 7-9.)
There can certainly be no doubt that the man child represents Jesus Christ. The time to which the prophecy refers is equally evident. It was the time when Christ appeared in this world as a babe in Bethlehem.
It will now be easy to find the power symbolized by the dragon, for the dragon represents some power which attempted to destroy Christ at His birth. Was any such attempt made? Who made it? No formal answer to this question need be given to anyone who has read how Herod, in a fiendish effort to destroy the infant Jesus, sent forth and slew all the children in Bethlehem from two years old and under. But who was Herod? He was a Roman governor. From Rome Herod derived his power. Rome ruled at that time over all the world (Luke 2: 1), and was therefore the responsible actor in this event. Moreover, Rome was the only earthly government which at that time could be symbolized in prophecy, for the very reason that its dominion was universal. It is not, therefore, without the most conclusive reason that the Roman Empire is regarded by Protestant commentators generally to be the power indicated by the great red dragon.
It may be a fact worth mentioning that during the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian Era, next to the eagle the dragon was the principle standard of the Roman legions. That dragon was painted red, as if in faithful response to the picture held up by the seer of Patmos they would exclaim to the world, We are the nation which that picture represents.
Rome, as we have seen, attempted to destroy Jesus Christ through the fiendish plot of Herod. The child who was born to the waiting and watching church, was our adorable Redeemer, who is soon to rule the nations with a rod of iron. Herod could not destroy Him. The combined powers of earth and hell could not overcome Him. Though held for a time under the dominion of the grave, He rent its cruel bands, opened a way of life for mankind, and was caught up to God and His throne. He ascended to heaven in the sight of His disciples, leaving to them and us the promise that He would come again.
The church fled into the wilderness at the time of the papacy was firmly established in 538, where it was nourished by the word of God, and the ministration of angels during the long, dark, and bloody rule of that power for 1260 years.
Verse 7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and His angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, 8 and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. 11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. 12 Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
War in Heaven.--The first six verses of this chapter, as has been seen, take us down to the close of the 1260 years in 1798, which marked the end of the papal supremacy. In the 7th verse it is equally plain that we are carried back into previous ages. How far?--To the time first introduced in the chapter, the days of the first advent, when with fiendish ingenuity Satan working through the power of pagan Rome sought to destroy the Saviour of men; and also back beyond that time to the very beginning of the great controversy between truth and righteousness, when in heaven itself Michael (Christ) and His angels fought against the dragon (Satan) and his angels. To prove that Michael is Christ, see Jude 9; 1 Thessalonians 4: 16; John 5: 28, 29.
"Prevailed Not."--Thank God that in that early conflict the archdeceiver was defeated. As "Lucifer, son of the morning," with envy and hatred in his heart, he had presumptuously led a host of disaffected angels in rebellion against the government of God. But the Scripture says he "prevailed not," and "was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him."
Centuries later at the time of Christ's first advent, "the great dragon," "that old serpent called the devil, and Satan," put forth a supreme effort in the guise of the great red dragon, representing pagan Rome, to destroy the world's Redeemer. Satan had looked forward to Christ's mission to this earth as his last chance of success in overthrowing the plan of salvation. He came to Christ with specious temptations, in hope of overcoming Him. He tried in various ways to destroy Christ during His ministry. When he had succeeded in laying Him in the tomb, he endeavored, in malignant triumph, to hold Him there. But in every encounter the Son of God came off triumphant; and He sends back His gracious promise to His faithful followers: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne." Revelation 3: 21. This shows us that Jesus while on earth waged a warfare, and obtained the victory. Satan saw his last effort fail, his last scheme miscarry. He had boasted that he would overcome the Son of God in His mission to this world, and thus render the plan of salvation an ignominious failure. Well he knew that if he was foiled in this his last desperate effort to thwart the work of God, his last hope had perished, and all was lost. In the language of verse 8, he "prevailed not," and hence the song may well be sung, "Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them."
Their Place Found No More in Heaven.--Satan and the fallen angels had suffered a terrible defeat, which Christ describes by saying, "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven" (Luke 10: 18), and Peter tells us that these fallen angels have been delivered "into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment" (2 Peter 2: 4).
The hope which he had long cherished of overcoming the Son of man when He took Himself our nature, had forever perished. His power was limited. He could no more aspire to a personal encounter with the Son of God, for Christ had vanquished him. Henceforth the church (the woman) is the object of his malice, and he resorts to all those nefarious means against her that would naturally characterize his rage.
But hereupon a song is sung in heaven, "Now is come salvation." How is this, if these scenes are in the past? Had salvation and strength and the kingdom of God and the power of His Christ then come? Not at all; but this song was sung prospectively. Those things were made sure. The great victory had been won by Christ which forever settled the question of their establishment.
The prophet then glances rapidly over the working of Satan from that time to the end (verses 11, 12), during which time the faithful "brethren" overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, while his wrath increases as his time grows short.
It was Satan that moved upon Herod to put the Saviour to death. But the chief agent of the archrebel in making war upon Christ and His people during the early centuries of the Christian Era was the Roman Empire, in which paganism was the dominant religion. Thus, while the dragon primarily represents Satan, it is in a secondary sense representative of pagan Rome.
Verse 13 And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. 14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. 15 And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. 16 And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. 17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
The Church in the Wilderness.--Here we are once more carried back to the time when Satan became fully aware that he had failed in all his attempts against the Lord of glory in His earthly mission. Seeing this, he turned with tenfold fury, as already noticed, upon the church which Christ had established. Then we have another view of the church going into that condition here spoken of as being "in the wilderness." This must denote a state of seclusion from the public gaze, and of concealment from her foes. That church which during all the Dark Ages trumpeted her lordly commands into the ears of listening Christendom, and flaunted her ostentatious banners before gaping crowds, was not the church of Christ; it was the body of the mystery of iniquity.
The "mystery of godliness" was God manifested here as a man; the "mystery of iniquity" was a man pretending to be God. This was the great apostasy produced by the union of paganism and Christianity. The true church was out of sight. In secret places they worshiped God. The caves and the hidden recesses of the valleys of the Piedmont may be taken as representative places, where the truth of the gospel was sacredly cherished from the rage of its foes. Here God watched over His church, and by His providence protected and nourished her.
The eagles' wings given her appropriately signify the haste with which the true church was obliged to seek her own safety when the man of sin was installed in power. The assistance of God was provided her to this end. The like figure is used to describe God's dealings with ancient Israel. By Moses He said to them, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself." Exodus 19: 4.
The mention of the period during which the woman is nourished in the wilderness as "a time and times and half a time," similar phraseology to that used in Daniel 7: 25, furnishes a key for the explanation of the latter passage. The same period is called in Revelation 12: 6, "a thousand two hundred and threescore days." This shows that a "time" is one year, 360 days; two "times," two years, or 720 days; and "half a time," half a year, or 180 days, making in all 1260 days. These days, being symbolic, signify 1260 literal years.
The serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood to carry away the church. By its false doctrines the papacy had so corrupted all nations as to have absolute control of the civil power for long centuries. Through it Satan could hurl a mighty flood of persecutions against the church in every direction, and this he was not slow to do. (See reference to the terrible persecutions of the church in remarks on Daniel 7: 25.) Millions of true believers were carried away by the flood, but the church was not entirely swallowed up, for the days were shortened for the elect's sake. (Matthew 24: 22.)
"The earth helped the woman" by opening its mouth and swallowing up the flood. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century began its work. God raised up Martin Luther and his colaborers to expose the true character of the papacy, and break the power with which superstition had enslaved the minds of the people. Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg; and the pen with which he wrote them, according to the symbolic dream of the good elector Frederick of Saxony, did indeed span the continent, and shake the triple crown on the pope's head. Princes began to espouse the cause of the Reformers. It was the dawning of religious light and liberty, and God would not suffer the darkness to swallow up its radiance.
The spell was broken. Men found that the bulls and anathemas of the pope fell harmless at their feet, just as soon as they dared exercised their God-given right to regulate their consciences by His word alone. Defenders of the true faith multiplied. Soon there was enough Protestant soil found in Europe and the New World to swallow up the flood of papal fury, and rob it of its power to harm the church. Thus the earth helped the woman, and has continued to help her to the present day, as the spirit of the Reformation and religious liberty has been fostered by the leading nations of Christendom.
War on the Remnant.--But the dragon is not yet through with his work. Verse 17 brings to view another and a final outburst of his wrath, this time against the last generation of Christians to live on the earth. We say the last generation, for the war of the dragon is directed against the remnant of the woman's seed, the true church, and no generation but the last can truthfully be represented by the remnant. If the view is correct that we have already reached the generation which is to witness the closing up of earthly scenes, this warfare against the truth cannot be far in the future.
This remnant is characterized by its keeping of the commandments of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ. This points to a Sabbath reform to be accomplished in the last days, for on the Sabbath alone as pertaining to the commandments, is there a difference of faith and practice among those who accept the decalogue as the moral law. This is more particularly brought to view in the message of Revelation 14: 9-12.
 Philip Smith, History of the World, Vol. III, p. 181.