Proponents of the pre-tribulational rapture usually defend their view from John 14:3, 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, and Revelation 3:10. But often left out of the typical pre-triublation defense is the passage that perhaps started it all—Revelation 12:1-6.
While it is an exaggeration to claim that the pre-tribulational view was invented by John Darby in the 1800’s, it is true that he is largely responsible for bringing the doctrine into mainstream evangelicalism. It is also true that the passage most responsible for his rapture view is overlooked in eschatology discussions today. Here is Revelation 12:1-6:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son, a male, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
This passage has fallen out of favor with those who defend the pretribulational rapture likely because it is complicated. After all, those other verses (John 14:3, 1 Cor 15:51-53, 1 Thess 4:15-17, and Rev 3:10) are clear-cut enough. Some might even argue that using Revelation 12 to defend the pre-trib rapture actually weakens the case by injecting a degree of difficulty into an otherwise straight-forward discussion. In other words, Revelation 12 is tough to put into one of Larkin’s charts, and—if I can indulge in hyperbole—the amillennial view has largely succeeded in casting sufficient doubt that anything in Revelation is capable of being understood.
But the dispensationalist in me refuses to give up on Revelation 12, and when properly interpreted, Revelation 12:5 provides still another confirmation of the pre-tribulational rapture.
First, our cast of characters. There is a woman, dressed with the sun, reigning over the moon, and crowned with twelve stars. There is a dragon with seven heads and ten horns. And there is a child, who rules the nations.
Each of these three are called “signs” because they point to a person behind them. The woman points to the twelve-tribes, the dragon points to the devil, and child points to Jesus. Some interpreters start sweating when Revelation describes signs, but it doesn’t have to be hard. When you see a sign that says “I-95, you understand that the sign itself is not I-95, but that it points to I-95. The same is true here. The woman is not the twelve-tribes, but she points to them.
How do we know that she points to the twelve tribes of Israel? Because John describes her by quoting Genesis 37:9-11, which is Joseph’s dream concerning the twelve tribes. If Jacob could rightly interpret this as his twelve sons, so can we.
There is actually very little debate about the signs of the dragon or the child (although I did read one amillennial commentator who argues that the child is Israel and the woman is Jesus, but that seems pretty silly).
Once we have figured out the people behind the signs, the plot here is straight forward. Israel produces the Messiah, but at the time of Jesus’ birth, the devil and his demons (“1/3 of the stars of heaven”) tried to destroy the Savior. But the Savior is protected, flees to the wilderness, then returns to Israel where he launches his new nation. After this, the child is “caught up to God and his throne” (12:5), and the devil strikes out at the woman Israel again. Now it is the woman’s turn to flee into the wilderness, where she will be protected for 1,260 days, or three-and-a-half years. In the meantime, the dragon finds himself expelled from heaven (12:13) to attack Israel for “a short time” (vs. 12). The rest of Revelation 12 follows the devil’s attempts to destroy Israel.
So how is this a pre-tribulational passage? Note particularly verse 5: “And she [Israel] gave birth to a son, a male, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.”
Now, I grant that at first reading, this seems to simply be describing the ascension of Christ after his resurrection. But this doesn’t make sense of some very unusual phrases in the verse. Namely, why does John say “a son, a male”? Isn’t that redundant? And can the ascension rightly be described as Jesus being “caught up to God”? Here are three reasons why I take this passage to reference the rapture of the church:
The signs point to people, who point to nations.
John isn’t content to just give three signs pointing to three people. In the passage, each of the signs actually point beyond the person to the nations which come from them. The twelve-tribes are seen in the nation Israel, and the devil is seen as working through the ten nations that make up the anti-Christ’s empire (cf. 13:1, 17:3, 7, 12, 16).
Yet this leaves a question: what nation is Jesus working through? If you answered “The United States of America,” then you are hereby banned from reading the Cripplegate for one-year. The correct answer is, of course, the church. Which gives us this chart:
How do I know I’m right here? Because of the second reason:
A son, a male.
Its not that John lived in a gender-fluid society, so he felt the need to point out that the son also happens to be male. Revelation is nowhere near that PC. Instead, John uses this turn of phrase to draw the reader to Isaiah 66:7: “Before she travailed, she brought forth; Before her pain came, she gave birth to a boy.” As Isaiah continues, the context makes it clear that the baby boy is not an individual, but a nation:
Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Can a land be born in one day? Can a nation be brought forth all at once? As soon as Zion travailed, she also brought forth her sons.
In other words, Isaiah describes the birth of new nation from the child delivered by Israel. Here is Michael Svigel on this:
There is no question that John’s use of “bad grammar” in Revelation 12:5 is intended to point the reader back to the images of Isaiah 66:7…The point of the parallel is that the male son is not an individual, and should be interpreted as a corporate body (“What Child is This? A Forgotten Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture”).
In other words, the baby is a sign pointing to Jesus, and then Jesus leads us to the church.
The word translated “caught up” in verse 5 is actually the word from which we get the English word rapture (harpazo). It is the same word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where it is obviously describing the rapture. The word has a connotation of being rescued at the last possible minute from imminent danger. This most certainly does not describe the ascension of Christ after his resurrection. It makes the best sense of the limited use of this word to see John as making a deliberate description of the rescue of the church before the dragon seeks to attack Israel.
Now, I understand why this would not be persuasive to an amillennialist, or to a preterist. If someone doesn’t see a future demonic attack on Israel described in Revelation 12, then they are certainly not going to see the rapture of the church in verse 5.
But for premillennialists and those who see that Revelation (along with the Olivet Discourse) does describe the devil using the anti-Christ to attack Israel, then verse 5 puts the rapture immediately before that attack. In other words, if you have a straight-forward understanding of Revelation, then you should find the pretribulational rapture confirmed in Revelation 12:5.
If you want a longer and more detailed presentation of this view, you should check out Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationism, particularly chapter 9—“What Child is This?” by Michael Svigel.
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