The woman clothed with the sun and standing on the moon with a crown of 12 stars upon her head is faithful Israel. This imagery likely comes from Joseph’s dream, although it is repurposed by John to display the glory of God’s people. The words used to describe her labor are emphatic and intense. She is in great pains to give birth to this child (perhaps, making allusion to Israel’s struggle to survive and to make it to the age of the Messiah).
The dragon is described as having the color of fire (purros), which makes it the ultimate symbol of a chaotic agent. The dragon already is that symbol in the ancient Near Eastern world, specifically Babylonian, from which John has inherited this imagery. Fire, of course, is John’s chosen symbol of ultimate chaos. Fire is an element in which humans cannot live—perhaps, the most unlivable element known in John’s day, and certainly, on the mind of the post-Vesuvian, Roman world (his description of hell as a “lake of fire” is most-likely taken from this event).
The dragon is further described as having seven heads and seven crowns, which displays the totality of his rule. The ten horns, however, may indicate the temporality of his reign, as well as the reign of the beast described in the same manner in Chapter 13. In Revelation 2:10, Christ tells the church at Smyrna that they will undergo persecution for 10 days. This seems to be said as a comfort in that it will be only for a temporary period. Likewise, in 17:12, the ten horns represent the ten kings who give their dominions to the beast, but their rule is only for “one hour,” surely representing the short period of their reigns. If this is the case, then the ten horns likely represent the temporary reign of the dragon. Since the beast is described in the same way, it is likely that the dragon rules through the beast and that reign itself is temporary. The fourth beast in Daniel, the terrible beast, also has 10 horns.
His sweeping away a third of the stars is a reference to the fallen angels that follow him. This is a Second Temple Jewish understanding found in texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees. Stars have represented angels throughout the book. It is possible that they represent the tribes of Israel in the imagery of the woman just pictured, but it seems unlikely that John would think only a third were swept away given that the bulk of Israel went into apostasy. The Greek word surō means to drag or draw away. The tail may represent that which follows the dragon, but we may be looking for John to be more specific than he is. Instead, it is enough to say that the dragon has dragged away a third of the angels, i.e., a massive amount of angels, but still displaying the partiality of his domain in heaven in the same way that the thirds in the preceding judgment texts indicated only partial, microcosmic judgments.
The dragon then stands in front of the woman so that he can devour the child who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, but he is caught up to God and His throne. This is clearly referring to Christ. The woman is Israel, and John, as he often does, repurposes imagery from other things to refer to new things by recalling the birth event of Christ, where Herod attempts to destroy Christ as a baby. His mother is then told to flee to Egypt to be protected there until the threat is past. Israel is now the woman that God exiles to the wilderness, and yet, is being protected there for a period of time. That period, i.e., 3 and a half years, is taken from Daniel’s use of it to describe the persecution of Antiochus IV that lasted for 3 and a half years. It has come to symbolize a time of tribulation and persecution, and so John uses it to refer to an indefinite time period when tribulation/persecution will take place.
The ascension of Christ has caused a war to break out in heaven, but His work has caused the archangel Michael, who guards God’s Israel, to prevail. The devil is thrown down with his angels. The spiritual rule of Christ begins from heaven, and the only domain left for the dragon is the earth. This is a part of John’s already-not yet theology, where victory is first taken in the spiritual realm and then later taken in the physical, i.e., first heaven and then earth. The Accuser’s ability to make any progress with God against His people who sin against Him in heaven has come to an end. Christ’s work and ascension has put an end to any accusation against them.
John makes sure to let his readers know that this is true for those who overcome. They overcome by their faith in the work of Christ on the cross, their testimony, and the fact that they no longer love their lives more than Christ, even willing now to die rather than deny Him.
The ascension of Christ has now brought on victory for those in heaven, but turmoil for those upon the earth, since the devil now knows his lease is going to be up soon. His dominion in heaven is over, which means that his dominion over the entire cosmos is set to end. Hence, he does what he does now εἰδὼς ὅτι ὀλίγον καιρὸν ἔχει “knowing that he has little time.”
vv. 13-16 references the devil’s desire to destroy Israel (i.e., Jewish Christians), but again the text relates that she is given wings of an eagle (a symbol of deliverance in Revelation) and flies out to the wilderness (i.e., exile). John seems to be arguing that Israel’s exile, although a judgment upon Israel, is something that will ultimately protect it (faithful Israel that believes in the Messiah at least) in the long run. There is no chronology that can be gained from this chapter, as the scene of her going out to the wilderness during the time of tribulation (Daniel’s 3 and half years that is now described as it is in Daniel as “time, times, and half a time”) seems to be repeated again.
The woman is clearly distinguished from the Gentile Christians, since they are described as the woman’s children who keep the commandments of God and the testimony about Jesus (v. 17). What is v. 18 in many texts is the transition to the means through which the devil will make war with Christians, i.e., through the two beasts of Chapter 13. If this refers to Jewish Christians (ethnic faithful Israel) in contrast to Gentile Christians, it seems odd that Jewish Christians are not also seen as being persecuted by the dragon through the beast. It may be, however, that John's point is that the Jewish Christians are exiled from the Jewish Wars and that now the dragon will continue to persecute the Gentile Christians (specifically, his Gentile recipients in Asia Minor).
The beast coming out of the sea is first clearly referring to the Roman Empire as a whole. It will later become more specific and be personified in two of its emperors, Nero (the head that was slain) and Domitian (the head that was healed). Each of its horns has ten crowns, again, denoting the idea that these are rulers of a temporary empire made up of other kings giving over their authority to the emperor. The sea is the more chaotic place, less created, and hence, well represents the world as the place from which this beast springs.
Lots of imagery from Daniel is repurposed here. The three wild beasts (leopard, bear, and lion) of Daniel 7 are now combined into one beast. Veneration of the beast is worship of the dragon. John has argued from the beginning that to follow the world and its patterns is to reject Christ as Lord, and here, he argues that it is to worship the devil. In fact, John argues that this includes the whole world. Only faithful Christians who are destined to follow Christ will not follow the beast, i.e., worship the devil through the beast.
He is permitted to rule for 42 months, again, 3 and a half years, symbolizing a time of tribulation/persecution.
Another beast appears, but not from the abyss like the first one. This one comes from the land, a created place. It has the horns of a lamb, but speaks like a dragon. The imagery of the lamb used for Christ in the New Testament is only found in about 4 or 5 places outside of Revelation. The imagery, however, is used thirty times to refer to Christ in the Apocalypse. It is clear that John wishes to argue that the second beast comes in the name and authority of Jesus Christ, but its message is that of the dragon. This continues John’s polemic against the false teachers in the church who are arguing that it is morally acceptable for Christians to partake in the world’s practices, starting with the celebration festivals to other gods (likely the emperor cult specifically) and sexual immorality (which was also a large part of acceptance of the culture). John now argues that this beast is the false church that is really just an extension of pagan religion that causes the world to worship the beast, and draws them away from Christ and the truth. This beast will later be called, “the false prophet.”
This beast gives credence to the pagan Roman religion, and John describes it as a part of that religion, causing people to worship the beast, causing the image to have its effect upon the world and the church, etc.
The image speaking and causing those to die is likely not talking about a literal statue coming alive. Instead, Pliny’s letter to Trajan is a help as the image was used to identify Christians and put them to death. In a way, it testified against them when they refused to worship the Augusti through it. The false teachers in the church were telling Christians that they could worship the emperor and the gods and partake in the religious festivals to them without being condemned, since they had a licentious view of grace. John now argues that those who follow these false teachers, as the rest of the world follows the world’s paganism of which it is a part, become possessions of the beast, and therefore, are described as having his name written upon him (the marker of a slave who cannot escape his master or of a horse that is branded). This will ultimately mean that they will go wherever their master goes and share his fate in the lake of fire.
Richard Baucham in his book, The Climax of Prophecy has an excellent chapter fleshing out the numbers used for Nero’s name (the number spells out both Nero and the Greek word θηρίον “beast," see G. K. Beale's commentary). It is clear that John wishes the beast to be identified first as Nero. Later, he will inform his reader that Nero is dead and a new beast (the healed head) has risen in the eighth emperor according to John’s chronology.