Revelation chapter 12 tells the story of “the woman”, who symbolizes first the nation of Israel and then the Christian Church (see Who is the Woman Clothed With the Sun?). The dragon (Satan) tried to “devour” her Child (Jesus), but when he was unsuccessful he pursued the woman. “Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (Revelation 12:6).
The same theme is repeated later in the chapter: “The dragon… persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time” (Revelation 12:13,14).
These two passages are obviously talking about the same thing. We see in them a period of time, 1260 days (3 ½ years) in the first, and a time, times and half a time in the second. A “time” in Hebrew refers to a year, so a time (1 year), times (two years) and half a time (half a year) are the same as 1260 days.
In Revelation 13:5 the same period is mentioned: “He (the beast from the sea) was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months (forty-two months is also 3 ½ years).
This obviously important period of time is first mentioned in Daniel chapter 7. The prophet saw four beasts rising out of the sea, which symbolize the great empires that oppressed God’s people: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Ten horns arose out of the Roman monster, which represented the “barbarian” tribes that took over the Roman territory after the fall of the pagan Roman Empire. “I was considering the horns, and there was another horn, a little one, coming up among them before whom three of the first horns were plucked out by the roots. And there in this horn, were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking pompous words” (Daniel 7:8).
Daniel saw that this “horn” was doing more than speaking: “He (the little horn) shall be different from the first ones… and shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand, for a time and times and half a time” (Daniel 7:24,25).
A study of history reveals that the Roman Catholic Church was the religio-political power that developed its authority after the break-up of the Roman Empire. It became the effective controller of the European nations that were the successors of the barbarian tribes. For more that 1000 years (the Dark Ages) it “spoke pompous words” and “persecuted the saints of the most high”.
During this time, true Christians who refused to submit to the papal authority were branded heretics and were persecuted. Groups of believers such as the Waldenses and later the Reformers were forced to retreat to the mountainous “wilderness” around the borders of Italy, France and Switzerland.
In Bible prophecy a day often symbolizes a year. Thus the 1260 days of Revelation 12, when the “woman” fled to the wilderness, symbolize the 1260 years of papal oppression. This time period began in the early 6th century. The last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was forced from his throne by Odoacer, one of several Germanic chieftains who carved up the empire, in 476 AD. The barbarians, who did not accept the Catholic religion, controlled the city until 538, when the armies of the eastern Byzantine Empire under general Belisarius began a series of victories in the Gothic wars that would ultimately allow Rome to become an effective center for the Roman Catholic authority that ruled during the Middle Ages.
Roman Catholic political authority reached its peak in the 12th century, and then gradually eroded, weakened by internal corruption in the Church and by the Protestant Reformation that took larges swaths of territory out of the Roman sphere of influence.
The death knell of Catholic military influence in Europe came with the French and Italian revolutions. A symbolic but important date is 1798, when the armies of France took Pope Pius VI captive. Though seriously ill, he was hurried from one city to another and finally died in Valence, France in 1799. The arrest and deportation of the pope in 1798 was neither the first nor the last of a series of blows to the Roman Catholic Church, but the dramatic removal of the head of the Church from Rome came exactly 1260 years after 538 AD, the year in which the barbarians were driven from Rome.
In Revelation 13 the loss of military authority by the papal power is called “the deadly wound”. But the prophecy predicts that the wound would be healed, and a new power, symbolized by the beast from the earth, would create an “image to the beast” that would revive the persecutions of God’s people, culminating in the Mark of the Beast.