Would you please explain Revelation 12:17?


Reading Revelation 12:17 in context, it shows that in the future, just prior to Christ’s return, some in God’s Church will be protected from the Great Tribulation and Satan’s wrath, while other Christians will have to go through that terrible time of martyrdom.

Revelation 12:17 reads: “And the dragon [Satan the devil] was enraged with the woman [the Church of God], and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

We begin our discussion of this passage by quoting from chapter 13 of our free booklet, “Is That in the Bible?–The Mysteries of the Book of Revelation“:

“Commencing with Revelation 12:7, events that will take place at the time of the end—still future—are being described. A new war is depicted between Satan and God—another demonic attempt to dethrone God. But Satan will fail again and will be cast back down to the earth, to subsequently persecute the woman with ‘great wrath’ (Revelation 12:7–13).

“While the woman has flown to her place of safety, here on earth, with two wings of a great eagle (compare Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 1:31; 32:11; Isaiah 63:9), to be nourished there for 3-½ years (Revelation 12:14), Satan will spew water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman. This might perhaps allude to an army or to a military force (compare Daniel 11:10; Jeremiah 47:2–3). The earth will open its mouth to help the woman (compare Numbers 16:31–32). All of this will happen on earth—not in heaven, as some who believe in the false concept of a secret rapture erroneously teach.

“Satan will proceed to persecute others within the Church who will not be at the place of safety here on earth (those belonging to the prophetic ‘church of the Laodiceans,’ compare Revelation 3:14–19, including 144,000 Israelites and the great multitude of Gentiles, mentioned earlier).”

For further information on the existence of the place of safety here on earth, and the protection of some of God’s people (the “Philadelphia” Christians, compare Revelation 3:7-13, especially verse 10), please read our Q&A on the subject.

But why does God not protect other members of the Church of God–even though they “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ”?

First, it is obvious that not all true Christians will be protected at the place of safety. God has decreed that some will have an important responsibility to fulfill during the Great Tribulation. The Bible speaks of two witnesses who will preach during the time of the Great Tribulation, and who will be killed a few days prior to Christ’s return. It stands to reason, based on Scripture, that the two witnesses will be supported by other Christians who will not be at the place of safety–and some, if not many of them, might likewise have to endure martyrdom–not necessarily because of any character flaws, but because they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake and God’s glory (compare Revelation 6:9-11; John 21:17-19; Acts 5:40-41; 1 Peter 4:12-19).

It is also true, however, that many Christians described in the Bible as “Laodiceans” (compare Revelation 3:14-22), will have to go through the Great Tribulation. They are “lukewarm” Christians, thinking that they are rich and pure and righteous. They could be compared with the Pharisees who were spiritually blind, even though they were convinced that they were righteous and able to see. They kept the commandments of God, but not in the way that was pleasing to God. Rather than looking for God’s righteousness, they tried to establish their own righteousness.

Likewise, “Laodicean” Christians include people who are not really zealous in doing the Work of God, as well as those who think that they are, but they are not zealous in their self-examination to really see themselves as God does. They “keep” God’s commandments and “have” the testimony or the words or teachings of Christ–confessing Christ and claiming to be His true most dedicated followers–but they are not really willing to live God’s Word from the heart and with uncompromising and unwavering determination and conviction.

All of us are called upon to examine ourselves to see whether we are really in the faith–whether Christ really lives in us. Christ will tell those who did many miracles in His name and who preached the gospel in His name: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matthew 7:23). Christ never knew them to the extent that He could count on their unwavering and unconditional obedience. Even though they knew and perhaps even taught the commandments of God and the Words of Christ, they did not really live them–certainly not from the heart. They might have thought they were righteous–but they were not in God’s eyes.

Even though most commentators identify the persecuted Christians in Revelation 12:17 as dedicated, zealous and blameless followers of Christ, based on the fact that they “keep” the commandments and “have” the testimony, that understanding may not be correct.

The Elberfelder Bible comments that the word for “keep” can either convey the meaning of “to preserve” or “to do.” It does not have to mean both. God told the Israelites through Moses to “keep” and “do” the commandments (compare Deuteronomy 4:6. Authorized Version). The Elberfelder Bible translates: “to preserve and do them.” Generally speaking, the scribes and Pharisees “preserved” or “kept” the Law of God, but they most certainly did not “do” it (compare Matthew 23:1-3).

The Greek word for “keep” is “tereo,” and it includes the meaning of “watch over, preserve, keep, watch” (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). The passage in Revelation 12:17 could then be understood to say that they persevered or “watched” or “watched over” the commandments, but they were not really doing them. They called themselves Christians, but were not really conquered and led by God’s Holy Spirit.

But even if those who will not be protected at the place of safety keep the commandments and confess Christ in the sense that they will actually be obeying and doing them, they still might not have embraced them in the sense that they had become part of their nature–they would not have obeyed them from the heart; they would have not fully convinced themselves that they had to be kept; they would not have developed in themselves a LOVE for the truth.

The Great Tribulation will change all of this for many of them. In facing and experiencing martyrdom, many will come to the conviction that it is necessary, in the eyes of God, to embrace God’s Word wholeheartedly, as it defines His nature, and as true Christians are developing God’s divine nature within them. God would like to see this kind of unwavering commitment and conviction in His disciples now, in order to spare them from the terrible time to come–but for many, if not most Christians today, this goal will only be achieved through severe pain and suffering in the future.

In context with the annual Passover and the admonition to Christians to partake of it in a worthy manner, Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 11:29-31:

“For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”

God knows best what is needed for us to be able to enter His Kingdom. And when He calls someone to His truth in this day and age, He is not easily giving up on such a person. When Jonah tried to run away from his calling, God performed many miracles–some were very unpleasant for Jonah–to see to it that he would fulfill his task. Still, Jesus warns and admonishes all of us:

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of life, and that Day come upon you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be COUNTED WORTHY TO ESCAPE all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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