The woman clothed with the sun in the prophecy of Revelation 12:1 has been identified as a symbol of the Church by commentators and theologians throughout most of the Church's history. But in the 19th century, ex-Anglican priest John Nelson Darby proposed a different interpretation; he said the woman in heaven represents the Jews.
The question of which is the correct interpretation of the heavenly woman has prompted a great debate in the Church. This and similar debates are pictured by the war in heaven, described in verses 7-9 of the prophecy in this chapter.
A key to resolving this question is found in the book of Isaiah, where heaven is called God's throne. In Revelation 12, the saints are those in heaven, as they are said to be in Christ, who is in heaven. All others are those who dwell in the earth.
Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?
The woman's place in heaven depicts the status of those who belong to Christ. The sun represents the Gospel, and the righteousness of God that clothes the Church, but that would not apply to the unbelieving Jews, who reject the Gospel.
Paul said the prophets and apostles are the foundation of the church, which is the temple of God. In the NT, the church is also called Jerusalem, and she is the heavenly one. This agrees with Paul's statement, in Ephesians 2:4-6, that the saints are seated together with Christ "in heavenly places."
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
The saints, figuratively seated "in heavenly places" are sons of God.
The heavenly Jerusalem is also described in Revelation 21, where it is called the bride of the Lamb. The names of the 12 tribes of the children of Israel are written on the gates of the city, or on the 12 angels which are at the gates. The names of the apostles are in the 12 foundations of the wall of the city.
The woman in heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem and the bride of the Lamb, is identified with the stars, and wears a crown of 12 stars. One third of the stars are drawn by the tail of the dragon, and cast to the earth.
She is clothed with the sun, which represents the gospel. But the sun would become black like sackcloth, suggesting that the gospel has been obscured by false teachings.
She is with child, and pains to be delivered. The saints are her children.
She is confronted by a dragon; she gave birth to her firstborn son, who is Christ, who was born to immortality when he was raised up from the grave, and was caught up to God's throne. This is one of the things that caused Darby to stumble. He said the church did not give birth to Christ. But the woman represents the church of all ages, and the prophets, Paul said, are included in the foundation, with the apostles. Jesus was "born" to immortality, at the resurrection, and so became the "firstborn from the dead." [Colossians 1:18]
She flees to the wilderness, where she is nourished for 1,260 days. This number is symbolic, representing the last half-week of the 70 weeks of Daniel 9:26-27, and the entire age of the church, encompassing all the time since the ressurrection of Jesus.
She is involved in spiritual warfare; she overcomes the dragon, and is persecuted.
She is threatened by the flood from the serpent's mouth, a flood of false information, and doctrine, and flawed interpretations.
She is given two wings of an eagle; she flees to the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, times, and a half.
The wings of the eagle probably picture the gift of understanding prophecy.
She gets help from the earth, which swallows up the flood.
How could sincere Bible scholars misunderstand the identity of the woman? She clearly represents the true saints of God, but if the church is believed to be one or more prominent religious organizations with high visibility, established for centuries in the major cities of the world for many centuries, how could she flee to the wilderness?
Comments about the woman's identity by commentators provided below include quotes from two works by Darby, and one from E.W. Bullinger, which identify the woman with the Jews. Their comments are presented in red type. Each of the other twelve scholars cited, identifies the woman with the Church. They mention several scriptures that support this identification. Darby stated his opinion, that "the woman is not the Church." He saw the Church as the Bride of Christ, which to him, excluded the Church as the Mother of Jesus. But Jesus himself identified his disciples as his mother, as well as his brethren:
And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.
Darby stumbles at the woman's location in heaven in verse 1, and
fleeing to the wilderness in verse 6. He says the woman could not be
the Church because she flees to the wilderness in verse 6, and he says
"The Church is only in heavenly places, but she is not known on earth."
He cannot imagine the church fleeing to the wilderness, but in the time
of John the Baptist, people went out to the wilderness, picturing their
forsaking the corruption of the world, and sin. The seal of a Christian
is to "depart from iniquity." [2
The New Testament shows that the Church included the prophets of the
Old Testament, who together with the prophets were said to be its
foundation. [Ephesians 2:20] Jesus said Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will
be in his kingdom, while unbelieving Jews would not. [Luke
A plaine discovery of the whole revelation of S. John, by John Napier (1611). Proposition 22:
The woman clad with the sun [chap. 12] is the true
Church of God. This is proved, first, by the Song of Solomon, where
Solomon, bearing the figure of Christ, his beloved Woman and Spouse,
throughout all that Canticle, beareth the figure of Christ's Church.
Secondly spiritual Jerusalem, which is Christ's Church by diverse
scriptures, is also called Christ's Spouse in the Revelation. Thirdly,
bodily marriage, is by Saint Paul called a Symbol, and a Sacrament of
the union of Christ, and the Woman espoused representeth the Church.
Fourthly, in the whole Scriptures, idolatrie being called spirituall
whoredome, necessarily the true worshipping of God is represented by
perfect Spousage, and the true Church that worshippeth him, is his
Spouse, and so the Church of God is figured by a Woman. Last of all,
the whole tokens of this Woman, contained in the text so viuely and
perfectly agree with Christes Church (as is declared in the principall
treatise) that necessarily wee must conclude, this woman to meane the
true Church of God.
Isaac Newton, Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John:
In the Prophecy, the affairs of the Church begin to be considered at the opening of the fifth seal; and in the Interpretation, they begin at the same time with the vision of the Church in the form of a woman in heaven ... she is represented by a woman in the Temple of heaven, clothed with the sun of righteousness, and the moon of Jewish ceremonies under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars relating to the twelve Apostles and to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Matthew Henry's Bible Commentary:
We see how the church is represented in this vision. (1.) As a woman, the weaker part of the world, but the spouse of Christ, and the mother of the saints. (2.) As clothed with the sun, the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Having put on Christ, who is the Sun of righteousness, she, by her relation to Christ, is invested with honourable rights and privileges, and shines in his rays.
The Geneva Study Bible:
(1) Until now it has been the general prophecy, ... the beginning of the Church is described in this chapter, and the progress of it in the chapter following. The beginning of the Christian Church we define as the first moment of the conception of Christ, until the time in which this church was weaned and taken away from the breast or milk of her mother: which is the time when the Church of the Jews with their city and temple was overthrown by the judgment of God. So we have in this chapter the story of 69 years and upwards.
John Gill's Exposition of the Bible:
... a woman: by whom is meant, not the virgin Mary, ... nor is the church of God, among the Jews of the former dispensation, designed; ... but the pure apostolic church is meant, or the church of Christ, as it was in the times of the apostles, and the first ages of Christianity...
Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown:
... woman clothed with the sun . . . moon under her feet--the Church, Israel first, and then the Gentile Church; clothed with Christ, "the Sun of righteousness." "Fair as the moon, clear as the sun." Clothed with the Sun, the Church is the bearer of divine supernatural light in the world.
B. W. Johnson's Bible Commentary:
A woman clothed with the sun. A woman is used as a symbol many times in the Scriptures. "Say you to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh." (Isa. 62:11.) Here the reference is to the Church. Again Paul (Gal. 4:31) says, "Ye are not the children of the bond woman, but of the free woman." All are agreed that here the free woman represents the Church. Again (Rev. 21:2), John sees the New Jerusalem descending adorned as a bride to meet her husband. The bride, the Lamb's wife, here and in the ninth verse, indeed in every place spoken of, is the Church.
John Wesley's Notes on the Bible:
A woman - The emblem of the church of Christ, as she is originally of Israel, though built and enlarged on all sides by the addition of heathen converts; and as she will hereafter appear, when all her "natural branches are again "grafted in." She is at present on earth; and yet, with regard to her union with Christ, may be said to be in heaven, Eph. ii, 6.
Clarke's Commentary by Adam Clarke:
That the woman here represents the true Church of Christ most commentators are agreed. In other parts of the Apocalypse, the pure Church of Christ is evidently portrayed by a woman. In chap. xix. 7, a great multitude are represented as saying, "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his WIFE hath made herself ready." In chap. xxi. 9, an angel talks with St. John, saying, "Come hither, I will show thee the BRIDE, the Lamb's wife." That the Christian Church is meant will appear also from her being clothed with the sun, a striking emblem of Jesus Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the light and glory of the Church; for the countenance of the Son of God is as the sun shineth in his strength.
A critical and exegetical commentary on the Revelation of St. John by Robert Henry Charles, (p. 315):
... this woman represents the true Israel or the community of believers. This community embraces Jewish and Gentile Christians ... But since the woman is represented as the mother of the Messiah, the community which she symbolizes must embrace the true O.T. Israel. ... J. Weiss (p. 137) takes the woman to symbolize the heavenly Jerusalem, which St. Paul calls "our mother" (Gal. iv. 26), and which thus forms a contrast to the woman that symbolizes Babylon or Rome in chap. xvii.
A commentary on the Revelation of John by George Eldon Ladd, (p. 167):
The central feature of this heavenly woman is that she is the mother of the Messiah (vs. 2). Some commentators think she represents Mary, the mother of the Lord; others Israel, the people who gave birth to Messiah. It is true that Isaiah 66:7 pictures Zion as being in travail to give birth to the new redeemed Israel (See Isa. 26:17; Mic. 4:10); but this heavenly woman is mother both of Messiah and of the actual church on earth (her "offspring," vs. 17). Therefore, it is easier to understand the woman in a somewhat broader sense as the ideal Zion, the heavenly representative of the people of God (Isa. 54:1; 66:7-9). Paul gives a clue to the meaning of the heavenly woman when he speaks of the Jerusalem which is above, who is the mother of the people of God on earth (Gal. 4:26).
New Testament Commentaries by James B. Coffman:
The woman, of course, is a symbol of the "whole family of God" (Ephesians 3:15; 3:15 ), including especially the true Israel of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It includes Christians, because later in the chapter, they are indicated as children of the woman; and it includes the Old Testament Israel, because through them the Messiah was born. ... The figure of God's people as a woman is extensive throughout the Bible, and no Christian of John's day could have had the slightest doubt of who is meant by this glorious woman. Only a very few writers have ever erred on this. Some have made her out to be Eve; and as might have been expected, Roman Catholic scholars have identified her with the Virgin Mary. This latter interpretation, however, is refuted by the fact that the New Testament nowhere refers to Christians as the children of Mary.
Commentary on Revelation by Ethelbert W. Bullinger (p. 393):
The "sign" of the travailing woman, and her being in pain to be delivered, signifies the expectant attitude of Israel--de jure, if not de facto. The promised seed was meant to be the one great hope of the nation; to which everything pointed and of which everything testified. ... (p. 397): It is clear, so far, that the woman in the "sign" of Israel, viewed as representing the nation as a whole. Israel is thus personified, with the marks which characterize the nation in its constitution and in its hope.
John Darby's Synopsis of the Bible:
The first symbolical person, subject of the prophecy and result of all God's ways in it, is a woman clothed with the sun, having a crown of twelve stars, and the moon under her feet. It is Israel, or Jerusalem as its centre as in the purpose of God (compare Is 9:6 and Ps 87:6). She is clothed with supreme authority, invested with the glory of perfect administration in man, and all the original reflected glory of this under the old covenant, under her feet.
Notes on the Apocalypse by John Nelson Darby:
Verses 1--6 place before us the actors in this scene, viz., a woman with child of Him who is the object of all the counsels of God, and the vessel of His power on earth, while herself weak (she is, according to his counsels, clothed with supreme glory); ... The woman is not the Church. ... The woman, ... who was clothed with the sun, remains on the earth, and is in the desert. As soon as we are obliged to seek the woman on earth, it can be none else but the Jews. The Church is only in heavenly places, but she is not known on earth. Jerusalem is the centre where God recognizes his people.
Darby failed to understand how the woman who is in heaven in verse 1, can flee to the wilderness, which he calls the desert, and so must be located on earth. But the wilderness is figurative. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, saying the experiences of the Israelites in the desert occurred for our examples, and for our instruction. Christians are exhorted to avoid making the mistakes of those Israelites. [1 Corinthians 10:1-11]
Christians are called out of the world, to live as strangers and pilgrims in it, as citizens of the kingdom of God. The saints are to be separate from the world. The woman of Revelation 12 represents those who have escaped the corruption of the world, and who flee to the wilderness, in a spiritual sense. Thus, they can be compared to the Israelites in the wilderness under Moses, who escaped from Egypt.
Just as the Israelites aspired to enter the land of Canaan, there is a spiritual promised land, or "rest" for the saints too. [Hebrews 4:4-9] The land represents the things the saints are promised, and which they hope for, things which the author of Hebrews said were invisible. [Hebrews 11:1]
Scripture compares the spirit of God to a river. The metaphor of a river is connected to the manner in which thoughts or ideas flow or lead from one association to another.
David referred to the metaphorical river, when he wrote:
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
There are multiple streams in the river. A river may fork into different streams. Or, it may be joined by another one, and so become larger. Rivers flow through different environments. And scripture records the progress of God's revelation to man through many centuries, during which it progressed and developed, much like a river.
A river may often possess a stronger current in the middle, where the depth is greater. Rivers may also flow into swamps or marshy areas. Ezekiel wrote of this. He described a metaphorical river flowing from the temple of God. Like a natural river, it included some marshy areas or swamps in its course.
But the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt.
Darby's idea that the woman of Revelation 12 does not include the New Testament saints, or the Christian church, has become one of those marshy areas that Ezekiel's prophecy describes, a delusion. In it, many Christians have wasted much of their lives. And just as there is little flow of the current in a marsh, but the waters are stagnant, the doctrine he embraced leads nowhere; it is a quagmire that is difficult to escape. And as Ezekiel said, in such areas the river does not heal; they are given to salt.
The land promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 extends from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. Only part of this territory was included in the land of Israel, also called Canaan.
The idea of God's Spirit flowing like a river is probably related to the connection between ideas. One leads to another, by association. In the telling of a story, there needs to be a "flow" of ideas, which alludes to the river metaphor. The gospel is like a river, as the ideas included in the gospel flow, one from another. The gospel began with Eden, and the tree of life. Eve was called the mother of all living, and the church is also called "the mother of us all." Sarah is the mother of women of faith, in the first epistle of Peter.
1 Peter 3:5-7
For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
Abraham is called the father of those who are faithful. [Romans 4:16] Actually, Paul says he is "the father of us all." Those in Christ are called "Abraham's seed."
And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The river of the gospel has its source in Eden, and the stream of the promise of a blessing for all nations, that was made to Abraham, was added to it. Similarly all the prophets contributed to this stream. In the New Testament, the metaphorical river of the truth of the gospel flowed to the world, as Ezekiel showed, when he said the river flowed eastward to the sea, and the waters were healed. [Ezekiel 47:8]
This is the river of which Jesus spoke:
He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
The woman in Revelation represents the saints of all ages, and includes the prophets, as well as those who have believed in Christ since New Testament times. Darby and his followers vainly tried to separate the church from its foundation, which scripture says includes the prophets. [Ephesians 2:20-21] This was their great error.
In Revelation 21, the holy city has the names of the 12 tribes on its gates, or on the angels at the gates, and the names of the apostles are in the foundations. What could be more clear? The holy city is the "heavenly" hope that Abraham had. [Hebrews 11:16]
This thwarts Darby's doctrine, and the entire premise of dispensationalism. The theory is flawed, it is a false doctrine.
Just as there is a river of truth, scripture mentions another river, that flows from the mouth of the serpent, in Revelation 12:14. It is the river of lies and false interpretation, and it threatens to carry away the woman.
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.
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.
Many have been carried away by Darby's doctrine. But the earth helps the woman, and swallows up the flood.
How does the earth swallow up a flood of flawed interpretations? The earth or land which swallows up the flood of false teachings may refer to the land promises, that are misunderstood by dispensationalists, who say the literal land must be possessed by Jews. But the land in the promises to Abraham is a shadow and a type, of spiritual things promised to the saints. Jesus was the promised seed, who obtained all the promises of God. Paul wrote:
2 Corinthians 1:20
For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.
The land promise given to Abraham is one of those promises. To dwell in the land of promise was a type of the spiritual blessings available to those who believe in Christ. Dwelling in the land of promise pictures the "rest" promised to the saints [Hebrews 4:4-9]
Thus it is impossible for people to find the true "rest" that the promised land represents, apart from Christ.
Copyright © 2010, 2011, 2013 by Douglas E. Cox
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