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And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Revelation 12:3–5


As the dragon appears in the heaven of the Revelation our attention is first called to some parts of its appearance. The dragon has seven heads and ten horns just like the fearsome beast of Daniels’ prophecy in the 7th chapter of the Book of Daniel. The seven heads of Daniel’s beast are a picture of the seven hills on which the city of Rome is built and the 10 horns are said to represent 10 forms of government that existed during the rise and duration of the Roman Empire. Those are true representations of Daniel’s beast, which was a political beast but the dragon of the Revelation is in the heaven of the vision and pictures a religious system without Christ. Uriah Smith, the Adventist writer, comments on the dragon.


The dragon stood before the woman to devour her child. Rome in the person of Herod attempted to destroy Jesus Christ, when he sent forth and destroyed all the children of Bethlehem from two years old and under. The child which was born to the expectant desires of a waiting and watching church, was our adorable Redeemer, who is soon to rule the nations with a rod of iron. Herod could not destroy him. The combined powers of hell could not overcome him.[1]


Uriah Smith sees the woman’s child only in the person of Jesus and not in the great host of people that were being saved through the ministry of the church. Nevertheless, he does capture the thought of the first persecution of the church in Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus. From the persecution of the baby Jesus, Uriah jumps to the papacy of the Roman Church, which is too great a jump in history for this part of the vision. F. G. Smith, the Church of God author, writes


We are assured that the dragon, as a beast, was the Roman Empire then reigning. But since in the descriptive symbols the dragon had with him “angels,” which espoused his cause and fought for him, the system was more than a political power, being also very definitely religious. The combination of symbols being from the two major departments—animal life and angelic life—indicates the dual nature of the dragon as signifying the Roman Empire under its pagan, or heathen, form.[2]


Both authors see the dragon as a religious-persecuting creature they identify with the Roman Empire.

While the Roman Empire did persecute the early church the nature of this dragon exceeds the Roman Empire and encompasses all religions that do not accept Jesus Christ. The seven heads indicate the persecuting nature of the dragon through the seven eras of the history of the church. It is clear from the lessons of the letters to the seven churches, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven systems of religion of chapters 12–14 that a persecuting power of Christ-less religion always works against the church Jesus built. Some of these systems call themselves Christian, but Jesus is far removed from their purpose.


The Ten Horns


The ten horns do not correspond to the number of heads on this dragon. The seven heads show the persecuting nature of this dragon throughout the Church era, but these 10 horns are specifically related to the era of the early church. First, there is no indication as to whether the horns are attached to any specific heads. We can assume that the appearance of this beast at the same time as the church suggests that the horns relate to the immediate history of the early church. Therefore, these horns depict the 10 persecutions experience by the early church following the Day of Pentecost to the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

The first persecution of the church is pictured in the Book of Acts and was carried out by the Jewish leaders. The Book of Acts tells us that Saul of Tarsus was a major actor during that persecution until he was converted on the road to Damascus and became the Apostle Paul.

During the next 250 years persecutions were carried out against the church across the Roman Empire. A fact that we seldom hear about these persecutions is that before AD 250 persecution was not actually sponsored or instigated by the Roman Empire. Persecutions were sporadic, localized and often mob-led.

Persecution of the church was not a political action, it was religious. The position of the Roman Empire was that religion could be tolerated only if it contributed to the stability of the state. Religion practiced in the Empire did not demand loyalty to just one god; it demanded loyalty to the state. The state was the highest good in the union of state and religion. The monotheism of Christians prevented them from participating in events that involved “other gods.” Christians were disliked because of their refusal to worship the gods or take part in sacrifices expected of Roman citizens. Pagans believed that bad things such as earthquakes and floods would happen if the established pagan gods were not respected and worshipped. Christians were look upon as superstitious and occult. They were accused of cannibalism because of their practice of eating the blood and body of Christ. (The Lord’s Supper) They were accused of incest because they referred to each other as brother and sister.

While persecution of the church happened across the Roman Empire, it was sporadic and isolated until AD 250 when an edict against Christians was signed by Decius. Up to this time the persecutions were largely by local authorities putting pressure on Christians to make a public sacrifice to some pagan deity. Many Christians apostatized to avoid torture or execution. Generally speaking, Roman governors were more interested in making apostates rather than martyrs. When unrest against Christians arose within a governor’s jurisdiction he was more inclined to appease the complainers in some way than to turn the region into riots and lynching.


Ten Persecutions


After the Jewish persecution of the church there were 9 persecutions of the church within the Roman Empire. Together those make up the 10 horns on the fiery red dragon.

The first persecution after the Jewish persecution was by the Emperor Nero in AD 64, who blamed the Christians in Rome for the Great Fire of Rome. Nero actually set the fire and ordered the hated Christians to be punished for it.

Next was persecution under Domitian, AD 89–96. The facts of this persecution are sketchy but there are some accounts of martyrdom and persecution of Christians.

Trajan was Emperor from AD 98–117. Persecution during his reign was essentially a case by case persecution. Authorities were told not to seek out Christians but Christians that were reported and found guilty of being Christians were punished unless they proved they were not Christians by worshipping the Roman gods.

Hadrian reigned from AD 117–138 and was more lenient with Christians than Trajan. His rule was that just being a Christian was not grounds for punishment unless they had committed some illegal act.

The next season of persecution of the church ran from AD 161–238. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor from 161–180 and the number and severity of the persecutions in various places increased. From 193–211 several persecutions were conducted under Septimius Severus. These were mostly local persecutions rather than across the Empire. From 235–238 under Maximinius persecution was conducted against the heads of the church.

The eighth of the ten eras of persecution was under Decius in AD 250. This persecution was different in that the Roman government was officially involved. Decius issued an edict requiting everyone in the Empire to make a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate and obtain a signed and witnessed certificate attesting to the sacrifice. This was the first time Christians throughout the Empire were forced by imperial edict to choose between Jesus and their lives. This persecution lasted 18 months.

In AD 257 Emperor Valerian ordered all Christian clergy to perform sacrifices to the Roman gods. The next year he ordered bishops and high-ranking church officials to be put to death. By this time the Roman state had come to view Christianity as a criminal organization and not a religion.

The tenth and final season of persecution of the early church was under Emperors Diocletian and Galerius from AD 303–313. A general persecution of the church was called for on February 24, 303. The persecution under Diocletian was the most pervasive in Roman history.

Constantine became co-emperor in 306 and restored Christians to full legal equality. Galerius ended the persecution in the East in 311 only to resume persecution in Egypt, Palestine and Asia Minor. Through Constantine’s influence the Edict of Milan was signed in 313, which brought all persecution of the church to an end. By AD 324 Constantine was full ruler of the Roman Empire and adopted Christianity as his favored religion.


The Seven Crowns


The fiery red dragon has seven diadems or crowns on his heads. Since the crowns are on the heads and the heads represent the persecuting nature of the dragon that exists through all seven of the eras of church history, those crowns in some way represent an influence that continues through each era.

Most commentators see the seven crowns representing the seven forms of Roman government. Adam Clarke acknowledges the fact of the seven forms of government but sees the crowns as the power behind those governments: “In the seven Roman forms of government already enumerated, heathenism has been the crowning or dominant religion.” The heads are the persecuting power of the dragon throughout church history but the crowns are Christ-less religion that motivates the persecution.

How can we tie the crown symbol to this Christ-less motivation? Crowns appear 6 times up to this point in the Revelation. The rider of the white horse in the first seal has a crown. (6:2) The 24 elders in chapter 4 have crowns. The church at Smyrna is given a crown after enduring persecution. The faithful in the church at Philadelphia is told to let no one take their crown. None of these seem to fit the use of the symbol in chapter 12; however . . . the locusts under the 5th trumpet have crowns on their heads. (9:7). The locusts of the 5th trumpet opposed the church in that era with the mission to hurt people. They had a king called Abaddon and Apollyon; meaning the destroyer.

I submit that the crowns on each of the seven heads represent the demonic authority of the Destroyer that motivates the dragon spirit of persecution in each of the church eras. It can be any of the religious influences that deny Christ and His authority in the church. Judaism at the time of Christ and the early days of the church. The pagan religious influence that motivated the Roman Empire. Papalism that arose through the apostasy of the church in the Dark Ages. The Ala of Islam. The divided-Jesus church during the Reformation. Superstition and philosophic religions that fought the mission work of the church in modern times. And godless materialism and humanism that fights the church today.


The Dragon’s Tail


The red dragon has a tail that is the after-effect of outright persecution. Under the 6th Trumpet an army of horsemen was released to work plagues on a third of mankind. They had power in their mouths and according to Revelation 9:19, “their tails were like serpents, having heads; and with them they do harm.” Isaiah 9:15 contrasts heads and tails, “The elder and honorable, he is the head; The prophet who teaches lies, he is the tail. For the leaders of this people cause them to err, and those who are led by them are destroyed.”

In the history of the church, the church always seemed to prosper and grow in times of conflict with the world but when the conflict was over the church became lazy and began to fall away from its divine mission. When Emperor Constantine legalized the church in the Roman Empire, the church became worldly and lost sight of its mission of salvation. Toward the end of the Reformation, the passion for the gospel was replaced with differentiation and building of denominations. Towards the end of the influence of the Primitive Church movement, the teaching of holiness and the uniqueness of the body of Christ was replaced with conformity to the established concept of denominationalism. In our time we see churches given over to materialism and humanism vaguely covering them with a supposed gospel shroud.


The Child Caught Up to Heaven


Finally, in verse 5 of Revelation chapter 12 we see the child born and caught up to God and His throne. This pictures the vast number of converts during the first centuries of the Christian church.

The church was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. The rod of iron is the church preaching the truth of the gospel as seen in Psalm 2:8–9, “Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel.” Barnes comprehends the meaning of this symbol:


The reference is to such control as a shepherd employs in relation to his flock—protecting, guarding, and defending them, with the idea that the flock is under his care; and, on the supposition that this refers to the church, it means that it would yet have the ascendency or the dominion over the earth. The meaning in the phrase, "with a rod of iron," is, that the dominion would be strong or irresistible—as an iron sceptre is one that cannot be broken or resisted. The thoughts here expressed, therefore, are (*) that the church would become universal—or that the principles of truth and righteousness would prevail everywhere on the earth; (*) that the ascendency of religion over the understandings and consciences of men would be irresistible-as firm as a government administered under a sceptre of iron; yet (*) that it would be rather of a character of protection than of force or violence, like the sway which a shepherd wields over his flock. I understand the "man child" here, therefore, to refer to the church in its increase under the Messiah, and the idea to be, that church was, at the time referred to, about to be enlarged, and that, though its increase was opposed, yet it was destined ultimately to assert a mild sway over all the world. The time here referred to would seem to be some period in the early history of the church when religion was likely to be rapidly propagated, and when it was opposed and retarded by violent persecution—perhaps the last of the persecutions under the Pagan Roman empire.


The child being caught up to God and His throne is an allusion to the great throne of Revelation chapter 5 where the church is pictured as 4 living creatures and 24 elders worshipping God. Under the preaching of the gospel throughout the known world of the first centuries of the history of the church countless people were saved from sin and brought into a right relation with God regardless of how hard the fiery red dragon spirit persecuted the church.


[1] Smith, Uriah,  Thoughts, Critical and Practical on the Book of Revelation,  Steam Press: Battle Creek, MICH,  1875,  pg. 215.

[2] Smith, F. G.,  The Revelation Explained,  The Warner Press: Anderson, IN,  1942,  pg.159.