What we glimpse in shadows in John’s gospel we find “clothed with the sun” in John’s Apocalypse, the book of Revelation. Even the title of that last book of the Bible leads us back to John’s gospel. “Revelation” is the usual English rendering of the Greek apokalypsis; but the Greek word is richer than that. It is more accurately translated as “unveiling,” and was used by Greek-speaking Jews to describe the moment when the bride was unveiled before her husband, just before the couple consummated their marriage.
So, once again, as at Cana, we find ourselves with John at a wedding feast. John writes in Revelation: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). Now, throughout the Apocalypse, John uses “the Lamb” to denote Jesus. But who is the bride at this wedding? Toward the end of the book, an angel takes John and tells him, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” Then, together, they see “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:9-10). Jerusalem, it seems, is the bride of Christ. Yet the Jerusalem John describes looks nothing like the earthly Jerusalem. Instead, it shines with “radiance like a most rare jewel…. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel…. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rev 21:11, 19, 21).
Those are beautiful images, but they hardly describe a real city—never mind a bride. What or who, then, is this holy city that is also a bride? Most interpreters, both ancient and modern, believe that the holy city is the Church, depicted by John as the New Jerusalem; for Saint Paul also speaks of the Church in a bridal relationship with Christ (Eph 5:31-32).
Yet if that were all John needed to reveal to us, his Apocalypse would have been a much shorter book. Instead, it is twenty-two chapters long, and filled with images that are sometimes dazzling, sometimes frightening, and often puzzling. We don’t have the space here for a full-scale study of the book of Revelation; but I would like to focus on one of its culminating scenes, its first “unveiling,” which takes place midway through the book.
Ark the Herald Angels Sing
To Jews of the first century, the shocker in the Apocalypse was surely John’s disclosure at the end of chapter 11. It is then that, after hearing seven trumpet blasts, John sees the heavenly temple opened (Rev 11:19) and within it—a miracle!—the ark of the covenant.
This would have been the news story of the millennium. The ark of the covenant—the holiest object in ancient Israel—had been missing for six centuries. Around 587 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah concealed the ark in order to preserve it from defilement when Babylonian invaders came to destroy the temple. We can read the story in 2 Maccabees:
Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers His people together again and shows His mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear.” (2 Mac 2:5-8)
When Jeremiah speaks of “the cloud,” he means the shekinah, or glory cloud, that shrouded the ark of the covenant and signified God’s presence. Within Solomon’s temple, the ark had occupied the holy of holies. In fact, the ark was what made that inner sanctum holy. For the ark held the tablets of stone on which the finger of God had traced the ten commandments. The ark contained a relic of the manna, the food God gave to sustain His people during their desert sojourn. The ark also preserved Aaron’s rod, the symbol of his priestly office.
Made of acacia wood, the ark was box shaped, covered with gold ornament, and overshadowed by carved cherubim. Atop the ark was the mercy seat, which was always unoccupied. Standing before the ark, within the Holy Place, stood the menorah, or seven-branched candlestick.
Yet the first Jewish readers of the Apocalypse knew these details only from history and tradition. (1) Since Jeremiah’s hiding place had never been found, the rebuilt temple had no ark in its holy of holies, no shekinah, no manna in the ark, and no cherubim or mercy seat.
Then along came John claiming to have seen the shekinah (the “glory of God,” Rev 21:10-11, 23)—and most remarkable of all, the ark of the covenant.
Mary Had a Little Lamb
John prepares his reader in many ways for the appearance of the ark. The ark appears, for example, after the blare of the seventh trumpet of the seventh avenging angel. This is a clear allusion to Israel of the old covenant. In the first and greatest battle that Israel fought upon entering the promised land, God commanded the chosen people to carry the ark before them into the fray. Specifically, Revelation 11:15 echoes Joshua 6:13, which describes how, for six days leading up to the Battle of Jericho, Israel’s seven warrior priests marched around the city with the ark of the covenant before, on the seventh day, they blew their trumpets, bringing down the city walls. For ancient Israel, the ark was, in a sense, the most effective weapon, for it represented the protection and power of almighty God. Likewise, Revelation shows that the new and heavenly Israel also does battle in the presence of the ark.
As we might expect, the ark appears with spectacular special effects: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Rev 11:19).
Imagine that you are a first-century reader, raised as a Jew. You have never seen the ark, but all your religious and cultural upbringing has taught you to long for its restoration in the temple. John builds anticipation, so that he almost seems to be teasing such readers by describing the sound and fury accompanying the ark. The dramatic tension becomes nearly unbearable. The reader wants to see the ark, as John sees it.
What follows, then, is jarring. In our contemporary Bibles, after all that buildup, the passage suddenly comes to a screeching halt as chapter 11 concludes. John promises us the ark, but then seems to bring his scene to an abrupt end. We must keep in mind, however, that the chapter divisions in Revelation—as in all the books of the Bible—are artificial, imposed by scribes in the Middle Ages. There were no chapters in John’s original Apocalypse; it was one continuous narrative.
Thus the special effects at the end of chapter 11 served as an immediate prelude for the image that now appears at the beginning of chapter 12. We can read those lines together as describing a single event: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen. … A great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (Rev 11:19-12:2).
John has shown us the ark of the covenant—and it is a woman.
The Apocalypse can indeed seem strange. Earlier we saw a bride that appeared as a city; now we see an ark that appears as a woman.
Who is this woman who is also an ark? Most commentators agree that, on one level at least, this woman—like the bride of Revelation 19—represents the Church, which labors to give birth to believers in every age. Yet it is unlikely that John intended the woman exclusively, or even primarily, to represent the Church. Cardinal Newman offered one compelling argument why personification does not suffice as a reading of Revelation 12:
The image of the woman, according to general Scripture usage, is too bold and prominent for a mere personification. Scripture is not fond of allegories. We have indeed frequent figures there, as when the sacred writers speak of the arm or sword of the Lord. So, too, when they speak of Jerusalem or Samaria in the feminine, or of the Church as a bride or as a vine. But they are not much given to dressing up abstract ideas or generalizations in personal attributes. This is the classical rather than the scriptural style. Xenophon places Hercules between Virtue and Vice, represented as women. (2)
Indeed, mere personification doesn’t seem to fit John’s method throughout the episode with the woman. For he introduces other fantastic characters, who may embody certain ideas, but there can be no doubt that they are also real persons. For example, few interpreters question the identity of the “male child” the woman brings forth (Rev 12:5). Given the context in Revelation, this male child could only be Jesus Christ. John tells us the child “is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” and this clearly is a reference to Psalm 2:9, which describes the messianic king promised by God. John also adds that this child “was caught up to God and to His throne,” which can only refer to Jesus, who ascended into heaven.
What is true for the male child is also true for His enemy, the dragon. John states plainly that the dragon is not only an allegory but a specific person: “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
In the same way, the dragon’s ally, the “beast rising out of the sea” (Rev 13:1), also corresponds to real people. Let’s look at that hideous beast and then look back into history, to see what John saw. The beast has “ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads.” We know from chapter 7 of the book of Daniel that in prophecy, such beasts usually represent dynasties. Horns, for example, are a common symbol of dynastic power.