Revelation 12 first takes us back to the birth of Jesus to show that the Messiah and God's chosen people are the main focus of Satan's hatred and wrath. It then moves us forward to the time of Christ's second coming.
Satan's warfare against God's people—including Jesus Christ, the natural descendants of ancient Israel and all true Christians—is the primary subject of Revelation 12 and 13. These chapters explain the devil's motivation and introduce the worldly powers he employs in his end-time battle against Christ and His servants.
John begins: "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. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth" (Revelation 12:1-2). This woman symbolizes the people of God, chosen to be the light of the world—in contrast with the woman of Revelation 17, who is the mother of harlots.
The imagery here recalls the ancestral history of ancient Israel. The patriarch Joseph described one of his revelatory dreams to his family: "Then he … said, 'Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.' So he told it to his father [Jacob, or Israel] and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, '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?'" (Genesis 37:9-10).
Nevertheless, after Joseph became Pharaoh's chief deputy in Egypt, his family did bow before him. His dream proved to be a revelation from God.
Jacob, Joseph's father, quickly grasped the symbolism in Joseph's dream. The sun represented Jacob, the moon his wife and the stars his sons—12 in all, counting Joseph. In other words, the symbolism in Joseph's dream referred to Jacob's family, from which the ancient nation of Israel developed. The woman in Revelation 12, clothed with these same symbols, also represents Jacob's family, after it has expanded into a nation—God's chosen people Israel.
Many hundreds of years after the time of Joseph, the Jews (descendants of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi) and a few remnants of the other tribes were the only descendants of ancient Israel remaining in Palestine. The mighty Roman Empire dominated them when the time came for Jesus, the Messiah, to be born in the Jewish nation. "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" (Revelation 12:5).
But notice what happened immediately after Christ's birth. Satan, symbolized by the dragon, "stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born" (Revelation 12:4). The Gospels record how Satan influenced Herod, the Jews' Roman-appointed king, to murder all male children 2 years old and younger in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate the potential threat to his throne (Matthew 2:16). The king didn't know God had already spared Jesus by having his human parents whisk Him off to Egypt until Herod died (Matthew 2:13-14).
Because of God's loving care, Satan was prevented from destroying the favored woman (Revelation 12:6). Nevertheless, Satan will again relentlessly persecute and kill God's people at the time of the end.
Satan's all-out war
Notice the next event. "And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So 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, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:7-9).
This event comes shortly before Christ returns to bring "salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God" (Revelation 12:10). So God's angel announces: "Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! 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" (Revelation 12:12).
When Satan loses his battle with God's angels, he directs his fury at the people of God, symbolically represented by the woman mentioned earlier (Revelation 12:13), evidently the spiritual "Israel of God" who are now members of His Church (see Galatians 6:16; Galatians 3:7, Galatians 3:29; Romans 2:25-29). God promises this favored woman a place "where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time [3 1 ⁄2 years], from the presence of the serpent" (Revelation 12:14). God will intervene to help the woman survive during this time of unbelievable affliction (Revelation 12:15-16).
Satan's war will be directed not only against the natural, physical offspring of Israel, as at the birth of Christ, but even more specifically against "the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
Notice that Satan will especially rage against commandment keeping saints who follow the actual teachings of Christ. All of them are destined to be hated. Though some are prophesied to survive the Satan-inspired onslaught, the Scriptures reveal that many others will be martyred. As Christ has already warned: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake" (Matthew 24:9).
The persecuting empire
The geopolitical power most actively involved in this persecution of God's people—an end-time revival of the Roman Empire, as we will see—is introduced in Revelation 13 as "a beast rising out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name" (Revelation 13:1). This "beast" receives "his power, his throne, and great authority" from the dragon, Satan (Revelation 13:2; compare Revelation 12:3). Its characteristics are those of a leopard, a bear and a lion (Revelation 13:2).
Centuries earlier Daniel wrote of these same beasts as symbolic of the successive empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece (Daniel 7:4-6; compare with Daniel 8:19-22), each of which would rule the Holy Land. Later that territory would be captured and controlled by Rome, synonymous with a terrible fourth beast Daniel described. John writes about the revival of this ancient system: "And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed" (Revelation 13:3).
At the time of the end all these ancient empires will seem, from a historical perspective, to have been permanently destroyed. But much of their ancient cultural and religious heritage has been carefully preserved. From this heritage the end-time revival of the Roman Empire, a powerful alliance of 10 "kings" or rulers—in our day having titles such as president, prime minister or chancellor—will arise shortly before Christ returns.
In Daniel 2 the heritage of this powerful end-time kingdom or empire is depicted as a statue of a human figure composed of four metals (Daniel 2:31-33). Its head represented Nebuchadnezzar's Neo-Babylonian Empire (Daniel 2:37-38), which conquered and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The dominant powers after Babylon, represented by other parts of the image, were the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greco-Macedonian Empire established by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire (Daniel 2:39-40).
The final manifestation of this system is represented by the feet of the statue: "As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay. 'In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed …'" (Daniel 2:42-44, NIV). In other words the 10 toes of this image will exist at the time of the end and will be smashed by the returning Jesus Christ (Daniel 2:34-45).
The 10 toes on the statue of Daniel 2 apparently correspond to 10 horns on the beast of Revelation 17. What, then, do those 10 horns signify?
"The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them …" (Revelation 17:12-14).
The "beast" these horns collectively form will be a short-lived, end-time empire ruled by Satan. As we will see later, it will be a commercially driven political, religious and military entity similar to the empire ruled by ancient Babylon.
The beast that appears to John in Revelation 13 is a composite of the empires represented by the image described in Daniel 2 and the four beasts of Daniel 7. The fourth beast in Daniel 7 was the Roman Empire, described as different from those that preceded it. The composite beast of Revelation 13 is a resurrection of that Roman Empire, incorporating the characteristics of the three earlier empires.
John clearly refers to the other empires when he says: "Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard [the Greek empire], his feet were like the feet of a bear [the Persian Empire], and his mouth like the mouth of a lion [ancient Babylon]. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority" (Revelation 13:2).
Notice how powerful this beast, possessing many key characteristics of the persecuting empires preceding it, will be in its end-time manifestation: "And all the world marveled and followed the beast. So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, 'Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?'
"And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation" (Revelation 13:3-7).
The book of Revelation reveals, from more than one perspective, the emergence of this vast end-time empire governed from a great city God labels " Babylon the great" (Revelation 17:5-18), the reference here being to Rome. This final resurrection of the Roman Empire, centered in Europe, is destined to become the world's dominant superpower. Satan will use it as his principal weapon against Christ and His people at the end of the age.
Satan will cause the human dictator of the end-time beastlike empire— who is also referred to as "the beast"—to be worshipped worldwide. Satan will give this coming dictator the power to transform his (and Satan's) political and military objectives into a worldwide religious crusade.
John explains: "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8).
The religious factor
Next John says: "Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed" (Revelation 13:11-12, NIV).
Who is the second beast? He is a tool of Satan who uses his position and authority to influence humankind to worship the first beast.
How will he persuade the masses to accept such arrogance? He will be a skillful deceiver directly manipulated and empowered by Satan. "He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (Revelation 13:13-15).
John later describes the powerful religious leader as "the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his [the Beast's] behalf" (Revelation 19:20, NIV). The False Prophet is evidently the satanically led leader of a false religious system represented by the immoral woman riding the Beast in Revelation 17.
Paul also foretold the coming of a superpowerful deceiver: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10). Tragically, most people will be hoodwinked into believing him.
Is emperor worship again possible?
To most of us the prophesied scenario of the worldwide worship of the Beast—much like the worship of the Roman emperors of old—may appear too incredible ever to recur in this modern era. But as recently as World War II the Japanese people were required to worship the emperor of Japan. Their soldiers enthusiastically waged war on his behalf.
We should also remember that in our lifetime many religious leaders have arisen who have represented themselves as divine beings in the flesh. Some have successfully seduced many thousands of followers from all walks of life. At times deluded disciples have willingly forfeited their lives at such leaders' whims.
The idea that the modern masses could not be deluded by a fanatical leader—especially one with a powerfully charismatic personality—is simply not true. History proves it is all too possible.
The second beast described in Revelation 13 represents himself as a lamb (like Christ) but speaks like a dragon (the devil). He will seduce the world into worshipping the first beast (Revelation 13:12). He will even influence and seduce the merchants of international commerce to such an extent "that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Revelation 13:17).
Winners and losers
The inevitable outcome of Satan's war against the servants of God is the subject of chapter 14 and the first four verses of chapter 15. Here the real winners and losers are clearly delineated in divine messages delivered by angels.
Christ, represented as a Lamb, is pictured in the midst of the 144,000 who have "His Father's name written on their foreheads" (Revelation 14:1). These are described as those who have faithfully followed Christ, the Lamb, instead of the Beast even during this time of great tribulation (Revelation 14:4).
John describes these loyal and worthy servants of Christ as "without fault before the throne of God" (Revelation 14:4-5). He continues: "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb …" (Revelation 15:2-3, NIV; compare Revelation 14:3).
John sees them, in his vision, singing and rejoicing, ultimately the real winners in this great spiritual conflict.
John also sees that before this war is over "every nation, tribe, language and people" will have this "eternal gospel" message proclaimed to them: "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth …" (Revelation 14:6-7, NIV). During this time the impending fall and destruction of that great city Babylon the Great is announced by another angel (Revelation 14:8).
John also plainly identifies the losers in the war for the spiritual control of humanity: "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation" (Revelation 14:9-10). The judgment of people who follow the ways of Satan, a judgment God's servants have long anticipated, is at hand.
The saints have every reason to be confident in the outcome. But in the meantime the trials of God's people are not over: "This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus. Then I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them'" (Revelation 14:12-13, NIV). Apparently, to the very end Satan will send his deceived human instruments to pursue and murder those who truly try to obey and serve God.
Then follows a description of Christ and an angel removing the wicked and their wickedness from the earth like a farmer would remove grain from a field with a sickle or "gather the clusters of grapes from the earth's vine" (Revelation 14:14-18, NIV). Those who are gathered are thrown "into the great winepress of God's wrath" (Revelation 14:19-20, NIV). God will express His wrath through "the seven last plagues—last, because with them God's wrath is completed" (Revelation 15:1, NIV).