Revelation 12 and 13 introduce us to a portion of scripture that is highly symbolic. This is clearly flagged as chapter 12 commences. Whilst some have troubles with earlier chapters it is really from here forward that many Bible students throw up their hands in desperation at attempting to unpick what Revelation means. In particular the beast and the false prophet appear to be subject to so many interpretations and counter interpretations that it is almost impossible to ascertain from the commentators what is happening.
However; I believe that whenever faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem then there is profit to be gained my tackling those parts of the problem that are readily tractable. In the case of Revelation 12 and 13 the one piece of symbolism that can be unpicked trivially, at least by anyone prepared to take the Bible at face value, is the identity of the dragon. In this essay I will attempt to make this identity clear and additionally to build from this basis to form a framework in which the rest of these chapters may be interpreted.
The identity of the dragon is yielded by Rev 12:9: -
Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
What is perhaps more interesting is the question: 'Why is he described in these verses in a new form?' Given the writer of Revelation was prepared to unveil him as Satan then why first unveil him as a dragon? I suggest that in much the same way that the new names given to God from time to time reveal some new aspect of his character then the new name given to the adversary is there to reveal his character. In this case ferocity and destructiveness.
The appearance of the dragon, the heads and the horns , tie us in two other chapters in Revelation: 13 and 17. The latter reference includes the color red that suggests that the beast of Revelation 17 could be identical to the dragon of Revelation 12.
Naively the beast of Revelation 13 might also be equated with this dragon but that would be a mistake. In Rev 13:1 the crowns are upon the horns, the dragon has the crowns upon the heads. Rev 13:4 shows that the beast and the dragon are distinct entities. What we are thus seeing is that the heads, horns and crowns are symbolic of a nature or characteristic of these evil beings. In fact the beast of the sea from Rev 13:1 is also the little horn of Daniel 7 as I have shown elsewhere.
When looking at the power the dragon wields we find a curious mixture of restriction and liberty. We find him and his followers constrained to the earth yet he would make war with the saints and prevail. We find him able to raise the beast from the dead, we find him able to enact many miracles including giving breath to a statue, he is able to gain economic control over the entire world and to execute at will. Yet we are also told up-front that he only has three and a half years to work; in fact he knows of this limitation and this is partly what provokes his fury.
Thus we see that for a period of three and half years the dragon and his followers have tremendous power and following them is definitely a short term expedient.
Revelation 16 is where it all really begins to fall apart. In this chapter we see the seven vials of wrath and we find that not only is the dragon unable to offer his followers specific protection but that two of the vials (1st and 5th) exclusively (or at least primarily) target the beasts and thus the dragons followers. Revelation 17 & 18 shows that a world religious system based upon the dragon is also destined for destruction and finally we see the dragon cast into the lake of fire.
Thus as we continue through the remainder of Revelation we can be sure of the identity of the dragon as Satan and we will be able to identify the beings and systems based upon him by the numbers of heads and crowns. We can also be sure that we will see much of his power unloosed but also that eventually evil will loose.
Of course this identity is plain to us through the eyes of scripture; but we should remember that this dragon is still the deceiver that 'deceives the whole world'. When his protoge appears he will be heralded as a world leader of tremendous acumen. So whilst we are able to identify Satan working in the future we need to keep ourselves alert to the manner in which the adversary makes himself known today. He may be subtler and have less overt power; but he can still be extremely effective unless we stop him.
1Pe 5:8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: