Question: Does Revelation 12:1-2 refer to a literal astronomical “sign” in the heavens and, if so, what does the sign mean and how would people recognize it?
(The reader would do well to read Bible Gems #116, “Christmas in the Stars” as background for this present article.)
The passage in Revelation reads:
Rev. 12:1-2 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
This question has several components: (1) Does Revelation 12:1-2 refer to a literal astronomical event? (2) Is such an astronomical event a “sign”? (3) If it is a sign, what does it mean? (4) How would people know to recognize such an obscure astronomical event as a sign? This post, therefore, will be Part 1 on this topic.
Does Revelation 12:1-2 refer to a literal astronomical event?
John’s vision portrays a specific astronomical alignment of the sun, moon stars set in relation to “a woman” (v.1) in the night sky. If this “woman” is a constellation, the only candidate would be Virgo. In the ancient mythology of many cultures Virgo went by different names but was always associated with fertility, and often as a goddess of fertility.
The apostle John, who certainly did not accept the popular mythology, still knew the constellations by their sometimes mythological names, even as we do today. Not only so, but the astrological / mythological interpretations themselves were distortions of God’s intended purpose of the heavenly bodies serving humanity as “signs.” It is God, not man, who gave the stars and their groupings in constellations their names and meanings for “signs and seasons” (Ps. 147:4).
In the Book of Numbers God revealed the birth of the Messiah to Balaam by indicating a “sign” that would appear in the night sky:
Num. 24:17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Hundreds of years later, the Magi in Persia saw the appearance of the star predicted by Balaam and understood its meaning.
Matt. 2:1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Likewise, John’s vision seems to depict a specific astronomical event: the constellation Virgo, with “the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head,” plus another celestial body traveling through this constellation, soon to exit. This extremely specific alignment is in fact scheduled to occur throughout the nine-month period from November 20, 2016 to September 23, 2017 (see graphic above). According to the interactive astronomy site, “theskylive.com”, the planet Jupiter, among the brightest objects in the sky, enters the constellation Virgo on November 20th and exits 9 ½ months later in September with the sun rising behind it. The heavens, indeed, declare the glory of God!