A Woman Clothed with the Sun: The Church in John's Revelation

The following article is an excerpt from S. Michael Wilcox's new book, Who Shall Be Able to Stand: Finding Personal Meaning in the Book of Revelation.

Revelation 12 portrays the age-old battle between good and evil, between the church of God and the kingdom of the adversary. It is best to read this chapter in the Joseph Smith Translation at the back of your Bible, where the entire chapter is presented. All the words in italics are the changes made by the Prophet. The first representation seen is of a woman, which we are told in verse 7 represents the "church of God." Four main ideas make up her description: "There appeared a great sign in heaven, in the likeness of things on the earth; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And the woman being with child, cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered." (Revelation 12:1-2, JST.)
It seems obvious that the crown of twelve stars represents the twelve apostles. The significance of this image we explored in an earlier chapter. A verse in the Song of Solomon that is repeated several times in the Doctrine and Covenants can deepen our understanding of the sun and the moon as part of the light associated with the church of God.
The Song of Solomon is love poetry between a husband and his wife or a bride and her bridegroom. We will apply it in the manner the Lord suggests in the Doctrine and Covenants, to the relationship of Jesus and his church. Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride are dominant symbols throughout both Old and New Testaments as well as modern scripture. Since Revelation speaks of the bride of Christ in later chapters, it might be worth our while to become familiar with the Song of Solomon, as it will illuminate the beauty of that relationship.
Throughout the Song of Solomon, both bride and bridegroom speak. Each is convinced that no other is like their beloved. A good example is found in chapter 2: "As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters," the husband asserts. Returning his praise, the bride says, "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." (Song of Solomon 2:2-3.) Later when asked by other women, "What is thy beloved more than another beloved, O thou fairest among women?" she answers, "My beloved is . . . the chiefest among ten thousand." (Song of Solomon 5:9-10.) Such conversation, mutual devotion, and delight continue in varying degrees and settings throughout the book.
The verse that is central for us to understand contains the acclaiming words of the husband: "Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?" (Song of Solomon 6:10; italics added.) The first three lines of this compliment would please any woman. All three speak of light in its most beautiful manifestations—that of the sunrise, the softness of moonlight, and the brightness of noonday. If we think of the Church as the light of the world as Christ desires, that light is welcoming as the sunrise, gentle and soft as moonlight, and bright and warming as the sun. The sun gives life with its rays and chases darkness away so we can see all things clearly. There really are no vital issues on which we as Latter-day Saints are not given light and understanding.
There are few women, however, who want to be called "terrible as an army with banners." Terrible in this instance means stirring, lifting, awe- inspiring. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord uses this same phrase to depict his growing church in the latter days. Section 5 speaks of the "beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners." (D&C 5:14.) It is repeated as encouragement to the Saints after their expulsion from Jackson County. (See D&C 105:31.) It is last used in the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple in conjunction with other Old Testament prophecies: "Remember all thy church, O Lord, with all their families, and all their immediate connections . . . that thy church may come forth out of the wilderness of darkness, and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners; and be adorned as a bride for that day when thou shalt unveil the heavens . . . that thy glory may fill the earth." (D&C 109:72-74.)
The allusion to the wilderness is important in the verse above, for the wilderness will play an important role in Revelation 12. In section 109, it is the wilderness of apostasy or darkness (not necessarily, but not excluding, the more literal reading that the Church arose from frontier America). There is one more verse in the Song of Solomon that has to do with the wilderness: "Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness," we are asked, "leaning upon her beloved?" (Song of Solomon 8:5.) When applied to the relationship of the Savior with his church that is struggling to rise up from the wilderness, this verse is wonderfully comforting. It presents a beautiful and touching picture of the help that has been given in the past and that we might anticipate will continue to be offered. Leaning on the strength of the Savior, the Church cannot fail to come forth from the dark wilderness of apostasy.
The importance of this description is seen in such places as temple architecture. The Nauvoo temple had starstones, moonstones, and sunstones. These were repeated in the Salt Lake Temple and even in more recent temples, such as the one in Palmyra. In descending order from top to bottom the stones are placed—stars, sun, moon. The stars encircle the top of the temple, resting above the sunstones. The moonstones lie at the foot of the pillars. Thus, when seen together, they duplicate the description of the woman in Revelation 12. Within the walls of the temple, the covenants and ordinances necessary to give birth to a Zion people are entered into.
SHE BROUGHT FORTH A MAN CHILD

The woman is with child and "travailing in birth.... 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 his throne." (Rev. 12:2-3, JST.) If the woman is the Church, then the child cannot be the Savior, for he occupied the role of husband in the analogy. Besides, the Church does not give birth to Christ. He is the parent, not the child. In verse 7, Joseph Smith reveals the identity of the "man child." The Church is to bring "forth the kingdom of our God and his Christ." The name of the child is Zion. It has been the purpose of the Church in every age to establish a Zion community on the earth. From the earliest beginnings of the Restoration, this was the guiding goal of Joseph Smith and his followers. Even a cursory reading of the Doctrine and Covenants teaches this.
Our knowledge of Lehi's dream tells us that the rod of iron with which the man child will rule all nations is the word of God. Christ promised the righteous Saints of Thyatira that they would rule "over the nations... with a rod of iron," which Joseph Smith changed to read "with the word of God." (Rev. 2:26- 27, JST.) Being caught up to God and his throne may refer to the final translation of the City of Enoch, but in the general context of Revelation, it more likely refers to the ultimate destiny of God's kingdom at the end of the earth.
Isaiah concludes his prophetic mission by speaking of the future birth of the man child, emphasizing how quickly it will be established in the latter days: "Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children." (Isa. 66:7-8.) This is followed by a description of the nourishment that will be found in the new nation. All her children will be "delighted with the abundance of her glory." Her "peace" will be "extend [ed] . . . like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream" will augment her prosperity. (Isa. 66:11-12.)
Brigham Young once spoke of the speed with which the Latter-day Saints would progress toward the perfection of a Zion people, comparing them with the City of Enoch: "I believe with all my heart that the people who gathered around Enoch, and lived with him and built up his city, when they had traveled the same length of time in their experience as this people have, were not as far advanced in the things of the kingdom of God. Make your own comparison between the two people, think of the tradition of the two. How many nations were there in the days of Enoch? The very men who were associated with him had been with Adam; they knew him and his children, and had the privilege of talking with God. Just think of it." (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86], 3:319.)
THE RED DRAGON

The kingdom of God on earth does not grow unopposed. Another claims the earth as his private domain, which he rules with the sword of the fist rather than the sword of the mouth, with an iron rod that oppresses rather than guides. Isaiah described Lucifer as one "who smote the people in wrath with a continual stroke, he that ruled the nations in anger." (Isa. 14:6.) Obviously if the Church gives birth to the man child of Zion and it grows to adulthood, Satan's rule over the nations will be replaced by a gentler scepter and a more commanding sword. Hence, John sees "a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.... And the dragon stood before the woman which was delivered, ready to devour her child after it was born." (Rev. 12:4, JST.)
A number of ideas are suggested by the seven heads and ten horns. This image is repeated in chapter 13 with the description of the beast. We discussed the meaning of horns in chapter 5, where the slain lamb was portrayed with twelve horns representing the apostles. The horn as an extension of power suggests that those rulers, nations, or forces are under the influence of the adversary. Crowns denote kingdoms, dominions, possessions, and sovereignties. Lucifer has always claimed authority on the earth. Did he not once offer its kingdoms to Jesus if He would fall down and worship him?
The seven heads can imply different things, many of which have been detailed before. For me, however, the image primarily advances the idea that evil has many faces. If I were an artist and assigned to paint the dragon, I would make each head different. The heart of evil, however, would be the same. One of the most dangerous things one could do when fighting a seven-headed dragon would be to single out one head, label it the enemy, and focus all attention on its destruction. The single focus would allow the other heads to attack. The kingdom of God has faced many different faces of opposition, but the heart of evil remains ever the same. The idea of multiple facets of Lucifer's kingdom will be explored more fully in a later chapter.
As in the stories of Moses and Jesus (but on a larger scale), a promised child, destined to replace the ruling dynasty, is sought for while in infancy that he might be killed. The rightful ruler must be eliminated so that the illegal one may remain in power. Such thinking led to the casting into the Nile of the infants of Israel and the slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem. The Lord is not to be thwarted, however, for he hid Moses in the inner circle of Pharaoh's court, and Jesus was taken to Egypt by Joseph and Mary, then hidden in the obscurity of a tiny village called Nazareth until he reached adulthood.
THE WOMAN IN THE WILDERNESS

The man child of Revelation is not mentioned again. Did the dragon devour it, or was it taken into the wilderness with its mother? However we answer that question, the emphasis is placed on the woman, for the dragon seeks her destruction with equal ferocity. Though a Zion society was established by Enoch and for a time also by the Nephites and Lamanites after the appearance of Christ, neither one ruled over the earth. The man child of Revelation, however, must replace the dragon's dominion worldwide. For the time being, the attack moves to the mother of the child: "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." (Revelation 12:6.) The Joseph Smith Translation changes days to years.
...[The period of 1,260 years is] a time of trial, apostasy, turmoil, and spiritual famine. The wilderness into which the woman was chased by the dragon is that of apostasy and darkness. John the Baptist was a voice crying in the wilderness of Judea, but he was also a voice of prophetic warning in an apostate world—a wild, uncultivated, undomesticated, disobedient world. Hints of Zenos' allegory of the wild and tame olive tree are seen in this rendering of the idea of wilderness. The association of wilderness with apostasy is also found in section 86 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where "the great persecutor of the church, the apostate... drive[s] the church into the wilderness." (D&C 86:3.)
Verses 6 through 13 of Revelation 12 can be read as an interlude, interjected into the narrative. We could put parentheses around these verses to set them off, a common literary and scriptural technique. Verse 14 is a repetition of verse 5, albeit using different wording: "Therefore, to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might flee 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." (Revelation 12:14, JST.) The expression "time, times, and half a time" originates in Daniel. (See Daniel 7:25.) There the time delineated meant a period of apostasy and trial, as even a cursory reading will reveal. The phrase is akin to forty-two months, three and a half years, and one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
The time in the wilderness seems to best represent the great apostasy, the time of Lucifer's most total power. He now claimed what the Old Testament accords only to Jesus, the right to rule "from the river unto the ends of the earth." (Psalms 72:8; see also Zechariah 9:10.) In the New World, the lights went out completely with the last great battles of the Nephites and Lamanites at the time of Mormon and Moroni. The sacred plates were buried, and within a few centuries almost all remnants of Christian belief were eclipsed in the mystery religions of the Maya, Aztec, and other groups on this continent. Only fleeting shadows of a white god who promised to return, along with some distorted rituals, remained as witness of the American gospel. Using John's imagery, we might say that the woman died in the wilderness jungles of the Americas. Yet even here, the buried plates with their precious messages would not perish.
However, in the Old World, in spite of the apostasy, Christianity survived. Though changed in many of its doctrines, ordinances, and priesthood, many essential truths remained. Most remarkable, the scriptures survived. Some "plain and precious truths" were removed, but what endured still carried a rich fullness. The belief in resurrection, baptism, sacrament, atonement, priesthood, and scripture, though all distorted, continued to exist. The story of Christianity's survival in Europe is a fascinating tale, and one we cannot undertake in the context of this book. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to hundreds of individuals who preserved, copied, debated, lived, displayed in art, and passed on the tenets of Christ's teachings. The great cathedrals of Europe have always filled me with thanksgiving, in spite of their more somber elements, for they represent the triumph of the woman over the dragon. This is not to deny the condemnation of the apostate church that will be discussed in chapter 17 but to give credit where credit is due and validate the Lord's wisdom in keeping the woman from annihilation. She fled into a gentile wilderness and lived. The reason the Restoration had to come through the Gentiles and not the house of Israel is that they were the only ones who believed in Christ and still read and studied his teachings. (See 3 Nephi 16:6- 7.) God prepared a place for the woman in the monasteries, kingdoms, artworks, cathedrals, and writings of Europe. She was nourished and passed through a Reformation, and enough was left to send a fourteen-year-old boy into a grove of trees in response to a verse of scripture still surviving after nearly two thousand years of apostasy. When coupled with the surviving remnant of the New World buried in a hill by the Smith farm, the woman would arise out of the wilderness to shine clear as the sun and fair as the moon.
These same ideas are validated in the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees found in Jacob chapter 5. The allegory presents a history of the house of Israel from Abraham's time to the end of the Millennium. During the early Christian era, apostles like Paul and Peter grafted the Gentiles into the spiritual legacy of the house of Israel. At first the early Christian Gentiles drew nourishment from the roots, but in time the branches overcame the roots. "Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves." (Jacob 5:48; italics added.) The rudiments of the apostasy are contained in these words.
Because of this, the Lord of the vineyard finds "all sorts of fruit" that "cumber the tree." Tasting each one, he discovers that "none of it . . . is good." (Jacob 5:30-32.) However, notice the positive comment the servant of the Lord makes about the survival of the roots: "Behold, because thou didst graft in the branches of the wild olive-tree they have nourished the roots, that they are alive and they have not perished; wherefore thou beholdest that they are yet good." (Jacob 5:34; italics added.) Both Zenos and John use the word nourished when describing what will happen to the woman while in the wilderness.
THE SERPENT'S FLOOD

Lucifer, ever wary of the fruitful possibilities of the woman and her ability and desire to bring forth the destined man child who will end his rule on the earth, seeks to destroy the woman while she is in the wilderness: "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." (Revelation 12:15, JST.) Earlier we spoke of the sword of truth that comes from the mouth of the Savior. Here we are given the parallel image. The flood betokens lies, falsehoods, and apostate doctrines. The history of Christianity is replete with examples of that flood. "And the earth helpeth the woman, and the earth openeth her mouth, and swalloweth up the flood which the dragon casteth out of his mouth." (Revelation 12:16, JST.)
Swallowing up something means its death. This reminds us of the story of Korah and his supporters in the book of Numbers. These men challenged the leadership of Moses, threatening a general apostasy in the camp. "And Moses said. . . . If the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord." Whereupon "the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up." (Numbers 16:28, 30, 32; see also Numbers 26:10; Deuteronomy 11:6.) The story of Korah had importance in New Testament times, for it is alluded to in Jude verse 11. Other scriptures also speak of the open mouth of the earth swallowing up evil. Nephi spoke of the wicked who "kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up." (2 Nephi 26:5.)
Foiled in his attempts to destroy the Church completely, the adversary continues to fight her children. The children of the Church are the Saints in whatever dispensation they live. He may not completely destroy the gospel or the Church, but he can win some victories over individual members. Until the final victory of the Lamb, the Saints will combat the forces of evil: "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." (Revelation 12:17.) Joseph Smith viewed "that old serpent, even the devil, who rebelled against God, and sought to take the kingdom of our God and his Christ—Wherefore, he maketh war with the saints of God, and encompasseth them round about." (D&C 76:28-29.) This war was waged before the earth was created, and we should not find it surprising that it continues here. That we may know of the broader implications of that war and obtain a wonderful degree of hope, John is shown the foundations of the war in the premortal existence. He is also shown the key to winning its battles in any generation. This is the purpose of the interlude, the parenthesis, placed in the middle of chapter 12.
THERE WAS WAR IN HEAVEN

"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. 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."(Revelation 12:7-9.)
These verses are well known among Church members and need little commentary. We may suppose that as the forces of evil were expelled from heaven, so too will they be removed from the earth: "Woe to the inhabiters of the earth . . . for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time." (Revelation 12:12; italics added.) Though he may "rage in the hearts of the children of men" (2 Nephi 28:20), in the context of eternity it will be but a small moment. Even Satan himself knows this. His objective, therefore, is to spread as much misery as he can in the time allotted.
In the meantime, we must deal with him here. He can be overcome, we are told, "by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of . . . testimony." (Revelation 12:11.) Having lost the battle in heaven, he continues to persecute the woman who will one day bring "forth the man child." (Revelation 12:13.) When the forces of darkness seem to prevail, we must remind our-selves that this is but a small battle in a much larger war. Great victories have been won in the past; both forces know the ultimate outcome. Besides, the generals who were triumphant in the earlier battles of our premortal existence still lead the armies of righteousness.
Satan is called "the accuser of our brethren . . . which accused them before our God day and night." (Revelation 12:10.) A good example of Lucifer in this role is found in the book of Job. Presenting himself before the Lord, he accuses Job of worshiping God for purely selfish motives. "Doth Job fear God for nought?" he tauntingly addresses the Lord. "Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face." (Job 1:9-11.)
When Job passes the first test thrown at him by Satan, another accusation is leveled against him: "Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face." (Job 2:4-5.) Though deprived of all he has (including his children), broken in health, covered with boils, and sitting on an ash heap, Job maintains his testimony. Remember that John identifies testimony, knowledge of the Savior's final victory over the adversary, as the power that enables the brethren to overcome the "accuser." "Though he slay me," Job proclaims, "yet will I trust in him. . . . He also shall be my salvation." (Job 13:15-16.) Those accused in Revelation also "loved not their lives unto the death." (Revelation 12:11.) Notice how Job's stirring testimony of Christ incorporates the elements of Revelation 12: "I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." (Job 19:25-26.) Even death, the last weapon in the accuser's arsenal, will finally be vanquished. God's answer to the devil's accusation is the confidence He has in His children: "They will love, worship, and trust me no matter what happens to them," he seems to reply. "You may bring whatever trials you wish upon them, but they will not abandon their faith in me. You have falsely accused them."
How many hope-filled truths are contained in Revelation 12! Though the war once commenced in a world we no longer remember, the enemy was defeated. With the help of the atoning blood of the Lamb, the power of our own testimonies, the radiant woman with her crown of apostles, and the growth to manhood of the man child, what have we to fear? We must trust Christ in spite of life and Lucifer's proving tests, thus denying him of his greatest accusation. This knowledge must sustain us as we encounter the realm of the beast, the whore, and the great merchant city of Babylon that next pass before the wondering eyes of John.
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