Revelation 11:13-18 would seem to make a perfect ending for John’s vision: the Judgment has been accomplished, and God reigns over all. Nevertheless, John continues to see many fantastic images, even more puzzling and bizarre than before!
He now sees a woman about to give birth and a dragon prepared to consume the child when it is born (Revelation 12:1-4). The child is born and taken up into heaven to his throne; the woman flees to the wilderness and is nourished there (Revelation 12:5-6). Then there is war in heaven between the dragon and Michael and his fellow angels: the dragon is defeated, and cast down to the earth, and warnings are given about his wrath (Revelation 12:7-12). The dragon then pursues the woman from before but is continually frustrated in his endeavor to vanquish her (Revelation 12:13-17).
In great wrath, the dragon stands by the shore of the sea while a beast comes forth: it has ten horns, seven heads, and seven diadems, with one of its heads appearing to have been slain but was now healed, and it is described in terms of a lion, bear, and leopard (Revelation 13:1-3). The dragon gives his authority to the beast, and the beast speaks blasphemy and makes war on the saints and overcomes them (Revelation 13:4, 6-7). Another beast comes forth from the ground: it has the appearance of a lamb but speaks as a dragon, and it is given authority by the first beast to cause all to worship the beast, deceiving with signs from heaven and a marvelous image (Revelation 13:11-15). The people of the earth do in turn worship him, and they maintain its mark so they can buy and sell (Revelation 13:5, 16-17). The beast has the number of a man: 666 (Revelation 13:18).
Yet John then sees the Lamb on Mount Zion with the 144,000 who bear His name, the ones who remained as virgins and who follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14:1, 4-5). John hears the thunderous sound of harpers singing the new song before the throne of God (Revelation 14:2-3). An angel then “gospels the Gospel,” proclaiming good news to all mankind: God’s hour of judgment had come, and all should fear Him and worship Him their Creator (Revelation 14:6-7). Another angel proclaims the downfall of Babylon; a third angel warns those who have obtained the mark of the beast of the eternal condemnation which awaits (Revelation 14:8-11). John then sees the One like a son of man on a cloud, and an angel from the temple exhorts Him to reap the earth with a sharp sickle, and He does so (Revelation 14:14-16). Another angel then comes forth from the heavenly temple with a sharp sickle and with it gathered the grape clusters of earth into the winepress of the wrath of God which is then trodden outside of the city, with extraordinary amounts of blood pouring forth (Revelation 14:17-20).
This story seems to come out of nowhere and may disorient the reader, but John provides plenty of contextual hints and descriptions which allow us to understand the picture he sees. The woman is arrayed with sun, moon, and stars, consistent with a picture of Israel from Genesis 37:9-11, yet continues to exist and look to God for sustenance after the birth of the Child, which is more consistent with the church (cf. Revelation 12:13, 16-17): therefore, the woman likely represents the collective people of God throughout time. The Child, described as One who rules with a rod of iron, is the Christ, based on Psalm 2:9 and Revelation 2:27. The dragon is also called the serpent, the Devil, and Satan (Revelation 12:9), consistent with Satan as God’s adversary as a serpent or a monster in Genesis 3:1-15 and Isaiah 51:9. The first beast is described as a hybrid of the beasts Daniel sees coming out of the water in Daniel 7:3-8; in that context, they represent the successive empires of Babylon, Persia, and Macedonia. As one who blasphemes God and makes war on His saints, the beast represents the ultimate earthly power arrogating itself against God; at that time, Rome (cf. Revelation 13:1, 6-7). It has what seems to be a death wound that healed (Revelation 13:4): Rome had looked quite fragile and perhaps on the verge of collapse in the year of the four emperors in 69 CE, but Vespasian re-established its power. Some associate “666” with Nero; he was quite the godless tyrant, persecuting the people of God, and there was some concern that he either had not really died or had been brought back to life: Nero redivivius, either as himself or in the form of another (e.g., Domitian). The second beast imitates God and the Lamb: he attempts to look like the lamb and does signs that in previous days validated people’s belief in God, yet now does so to serve the beast (Revelation 13:11-15; cf. Numbers 16:35, 1 Kings 18:20-40, 2 Kings 1:10-14): as such, he represents the civil religion which encourages and promotes the earthly power arrogating against God.
John thus describes the forces arrayed against the people of God: the earthly power and its religion empowered by the Evil One. For a time they are given the power to persecute and even overcome the saints. The rest of the world honors and worships at the feet of that earthly power. We can easily understand how this situation would lead many of God’s people to despair.
Nevertheless, the Evil One is not acting from a position of power: instead, he has already been defeated! He has been cast down from heaven, and his time on earth is short (Revelation 12:9-12). The “Gospel” is “gospeled” (Revelation 14:6-7); these are the first and only times John talks of the “Gospel” as such, and they come at a crucial moment. God is the Creator and thus Controller of all things; the Lamb has gained the victory in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. God’s judgment of condemnation and wrath comes quickly upon “Babylon,” an image which will feature quite prominently in future chapters, and upon all those who have accepted the mark of the beast, the sign of the one given power over the people. The earth is then fully harvested, both grain and grapes; atonement comes to those who belong to God, and condemnation to the full for those who have turned away from Him. The conclusion is fixed and certain; the time will be short.
John does not sugarcoat reality for those to whom he writes: some will go to into captivity, and some will be killed (Revelation 13:10). Yet this is the “faith and patience” of those who follow God: if they put their trust in the blood of the Lamb and proclaim the word of their testimony, they will overcome the Evil One (Revelation 12:9). Through the earthly powers Satan persecutes those who keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus, yet if they endure, even to death, they receive the blessing of God, rest from their labors, and their works follow after them (cf. Revelation 12:17, 14:12-13).
For generations many have speculated regarding the identity of the beast, his mark, and his number. Such speculations tend to tell more about the speculators than anything about what John saw. Likewise, this section of Revelation proves especially terrifying and disturbing for many readers. Nevertheless, Revelation 12:1-14:20 proves critical to the vision which John sees: it explains why even though God and the Lamb rule in the heavens, things do not seem to be going so well on the earth. The Evil One has been given a rather long leash on the earth and uses the powers of empire and religion to deceive the many and persecute the saints. Yet God gives us hope that it will not always be so! In such an environment, we do well to heed the good news of the angel: fear God who is our Creator and worship Him (Revelation 14:7). Learning about the dragon and the beasts should not cause us to waver or fear, for they have already been defeated by Christ, and we can gain the victory over them through Christ as well. Let us maintain faith and patience and glorify God!