The book of Revelation is an apocalypse, an account of a vision in which the veil is opened wide and the Lord’s plan is opened to understanding. The word apocalypse literally means “removal of the covering.” Many prophets have received apocalyptic visions and seen the entire plan of salvation from beginning to end, including Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Joseph Smith (see D&C 76), and John the Revelator. In most Bible translations, the book we call Revelation is entitled Apocalypse.
The Lord provides apocalyptic visions particularly to dispensational prophets so they can in turn teach us the Father’s plan in all its comprehensive breadth. John’s Revelation helped early Christians understand the plan in their own idiom, using symbols and rituals they were familiar with. Today we are less familiar with those symbols and rituals, so a little research helps to make sense of the message of Revelation.
As chapter 11 ends, John sees the veil of the temple in heaven opened to reveal the ark of the covenant, which is God’s throne. Before the throne “there appeared a great sign in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is with child, crying and travailing in birth, pained to be delivered. “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” (JST Rev. 12:1-3).
It helps to understand images like this to know that John was looking into the sky. He used astronomical symbols well known in his time to depict spiritual realities. The heavenly woman was the constellation Virgo, associated in the ancient world with the queen of heaven. Virgo is a sign in the Zodiac, a group of twelve constellations through which the sun travels each year. The sun “clothes” Virgo in the fall of the year, so for the Jews Virgo marked the arrival of the Day of Atonement. Circling her head is a crown of twelve stars, possibly representing for the Jews the Twelve Tribes of Israel (see Peter J. Leithart, Scott R. Swain, Revelation 12-22, T&T Clark International Theological Commentary Book 2, 2018, 16-18).
It also helps to know that revealed symbols can have many meanings. The woman stands for Eve about to give birth to the Seed who will crush the serpent’s head (see Gen. 3:15-20). In addition, Eve is the “mother of all living”; thus, the image of the woman reminds us of the covenant Christ made to redeem us all from the power of the devil. All who enter this covenant are the “seed” of Christ, as Abinadi taught: “Who shall be his seed? . . . All those who have hearkened unto [the words of the prophets], and believed that the Lord would redeem his people. . . I say unto you, that these are his seed, or they are the heirs of the kingdom of God” (Mos. 14:10-11). The “rod of iron” that the child carries is represented by the star Arcturus, which rises near the Day of Atonement. Arcturus is the rod of the constellation known to the ancients as “the Shepherd of the Heavenly Flock” (Jacques M. Chevalier, A Postmodern Revelation, University of Toronto Press, 1997, 209).
Joseph Smith said that the woman represents “the church of God, who had been delivered of her pains, and brought forth the kingdom of our God and his Christ” (JST Rev. 12:7). This inspired translation reinforces the teaching that those who belong to the kingdom of God are the seed or children of Christ.
John sees another ominous sign in heaven, “a great red dragon, having seven heads” standing “before the woman which was delivered ready to devour her child after it was born” (JST Rev. 12:4). This is the seven-headed constellation Hydra, which stretches menacingly across the sky next to Virgo (see Psalm 74:14). Satan, the dragon, has swept a third of the stars from heaven, a symbolic reference to the “many who followed after” him as a result of the “war in heaven” (Rev. 12:4; D&C 29:36).
“There was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought against Michael; and the dragon prevailed not against Michael” (JST Rev. 12:6-7). Michael is Adam, the “prince, the archangel,” who is “set to be at the head” of the human family (D&C 107:54).
So, the dragon’s attack on the woman fails, as we learn from Genesis 3:15. Satan successfully tempts Eve, but he cannot prevent the ultimate triumph of her Seed, “the man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.” Satan will never prevail over Christ.
“Neither was there place found in heaven for the great dragon, who was cast out; that old serpent called the devil, and also called Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth; and his angels were cast out with him” (JST Rev. 12:6-8). The flight of the woman “marks the beginning of a dark time . . . and a sojourn in the wilderness coinciding with the serpent’s dominion over the world” (Chevalier, 343).
After losing the war in heaven, Satan’s “Plan B” was to tempt Adam and Eve into eating not only of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but also of the Tree of Life, thus condemning them and their seed to an eternity in bondage to himself, “living forever in their sins.” But the Father and Son intervene, thwarting Satan’s plan and offering us a way to overcome Satan and enjoy eternal life.
What is that way? How do we overcome Satan and gain eternal life?
John gives us the formula: “By the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of [our] testimony.” When John says that Christ was the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), he means that Christ made a covenant with us in the premortal world to die for our sins.
After Satan’s “plan B” fails, he is cast down to earth and becomes “the accuser” (the Hebrew word satan means “accuser” or “prosecutor”). He is “wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed”—that is, with those who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). His mission now is to entrap God’s children into sin (“the devil is come down unto you,” Rev. 12:12) and then testify against them in the court of eternal justice; he “accuses them before our God day and night.”
However, against this prosecutor they have a defense attorney, the Lamb of God, whose blood pays the penalty for their sins if they repent. Satan, the prosecutor, fails to make his case against them if they trust in the blood of Christ, “for they have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb; and by the word of their testimony.” It is appropriate that all this drama takes place before the throne of God in heaven because each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel would come into the Holy of Holies and scatter the blood of the Lamb on the throne to atone for the sins of Israel. In the sky, Virgo begins her ascent at the autumn equinox, very near the Day of Atonement.
The ascending woman who represents righteous Israel escapes with the help of eagle’s wings, which symbolize the flight of the children of Israel from Egypt into the desert (see Exod. 19:4). She flees “into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there” (Rev. 12:5), just as the children of Israel were fed with manna. Here we can find sanctuary “in the wilderness” of this world, where our Father feeds us with His sacrament “in the presence of our enemies.”
Now John finds himself in the telestial world and sees “a beast rise up . . . having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” The seven heads are “seven hills” (Rev. 17:9), probably a reference to Rome, the capital of the world empire, a city built on seven hills. The people of the earth “worship the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” (Rev. 13:1-4). The great beast equipped with horns symbolizing power and crowns symbolizing kingship stands for the tyrants of the earth, the many empires that have exerted “power over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations,” the rulers of the telestial world.
A second beast comes “out of the earth” and orders all people to worship the first beast. We are told that this second beast is a “false prophet” who performs miracles and deceives the people of the earth into a counterfeit, state-centered religion (Rev. 13:11-18, 19:20). The two beasts, representing state tyranny and false religion, serve the dragon (Satan) who controls the riches of the earth and reigns through the instrumentality of war and terror. The two beasts are symbolized by the constellations Draco and Scorpio (dragon and scorpion), which pursue the righteous woman into the wilderness and preside over the dark time of the year (see Chevalier, 347).
John then has a vision of the symbol of this system of wickedness: “I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast. . . . and the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: and upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:3-5).
Satan has set up his “kingdom” on the earth as a counterfeit of the true kingdom of God. The woman representing the false kingdom is the sham imitation of the woman who represents true Israel. Where the righteous woman is “clothed with the sun,” or celestial glory,” the false woman surrounds herself with imitation glories: jewels, gold, and scarlet. Her purple robe is significant because only the emperor and the most senior officials of the Roman empire were allowed to wear purple. Where the righteous woman carries the precious child who is the Lamb of God, the wicked woman carries a golden cup representing worldliness and sin.
The wicked queen is named “Mystery” (a reference to the lewd and secretive cults of Roman times). “Babylon the Great” had been a symbol of idolatry and oppression since the time of Isaiah (see Isa. 13), and in this context probably refers to the Roman power that ruled John’s world. The word “Babylon” might derive from an ancient term meaning “the gate of God”; the city was centered on a counterfeit temple where abominable ordinances (“blasphemies”) were performed.
Although neither Rome nor Babylon rule our world, idolatry and oppression remain. How can we lived in this world and still separate ourselves from this wicked system of things? How can we keep from being deceived by the allure of this counterfeit “kingdom”? President Dieter F. Uchtdorf offers this counsel:
“The ancient city of Babylon is in ruins. Its splendor is long gone. But Babylon’s worldliness and wickedness live on. Now it falls to us to live as believers in a world of disbelief. The challenge is ours to daily practice the principles of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and to live true to God’s commandments” (“Be Not Afraid, Only Believe,” General Conference, October 2015).
Babylon, the system of oppression and plunder that characterizes our world, will eventually fall. The angels will declare, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit” (Rev. 18:2). In the meantime, the Lord says to us, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). Not everyone will come out; in fact, some will mourn when Babylon falls: “The kings of the earth . . . shall bewail her, and lament for her. . . . And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her, for no man buyeth their merchandise any more” (Rev. 18: 9, 11). The sources of worldly power—both governmental and commercial—will fail with Babylon when the Lord comes again to judge the world.
How do we prepare ourselves for that day? What can we do now to be among those who will rejoice instead of mourn at His coming?
John says, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Rev. 20:12). Those whose names are not in the book of life are “cast into the lake of fire” that symbolizes the second death.
Ponder what you would like to have written about yourself in the book of life. How would you feel if you were called before the throne of God today? If you are fearful of that “great and judgment day,” consider what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says:
“Around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue: ‘I am just not good enough.’ ‘I fall so far short.’ ‘I will never measure up.’ I hear this from teenagers. I hear it from missionaries. I hear it from new converts. I hear it from lifelong members. . . .
“We may not be able to demonstrate yet the 10,000-talent perfection the Father and the Son have achieved, but it is not too much for Them to ask us to be a little more godlike in little things, that we speak and act, love and forgive, repent and improve at least at the 100-pence level of perfection, which it is clearly within our ability to do. . . .
“While in mortality let’s strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call ‘toxic perfectionism.’” (“Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” General Conference, October 2017).
Whose names will be written in the book of life? Those of the repentant souls who strive as far as they can “to be a little more godlike.” Their faults and flaws and pains and repented-for sins will be erased by the blood of the Lamb. What is their destiny?
They become members of the family of God. They come to the wedding feast. They participate in a holy sealing ceremony that binds them all to the Son of God. “I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The woman who fled into the wilderness has become the wife of the Savior. She represents the members of righteous Israel who become citizens of the holy city; but more than that, they become “the bride,” whom Christ seals to Himself. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev. 21:2-4). . . . “And there shall be no more curse; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: . . . and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3-5).
To be sealed to Christ as families (see Rev. 9:4) and to reign with Him in the eternities—this is the definition of exaltation and eternal life. The marriage of the woman to Christ is what is meant by Atonement, for to be “at one” with Christ means to share in His perfection. Despite the painful imperfections in ourselves, in the end “we shall be like Him.”
In the words of Elder Gerrit W. Gong, “May we desire to be ‘humble followers of God and the Lamb,’ perhaps someday to have our names written in the Lamb’s book of life, to sing the song of the Lamb, to be invited to the supper of the Lamb” (“Good Shepherd, Lamb of God,” General Conference, April 2019).