Read Revelation, chapter 17, the vision of the great harlot. It was common among the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, including such men as Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Wesley, and John Knox to identify the great harlot of the Revelation with the Roman Catholic Church. Even Alexander Campbell, in his debate in the past century with Bishop Purcell, defended the proposition that Babylon, the great harlot, was the Roman Catholic Church.
Let me say at the very beginning, that I do not believe that is true. I am not saying that because I am trying to be nice to Roman Catholicism, but I do not believe Babylon, the great harlot, is a portrait of apostate Christianity—a Christianity that has drifted away from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as they were directed by the Holy Spirit. The picture given is not so much a picture of religious deception, as it is of worldly seduction. I believe the fact that Babylon, the symbol employed in Revelation 17, is significant.
In the Old Testament , five cites are described as harlots: Nineveh, Tyre, Babylon, Jerusalem, and Samaria. Nineveh is so described in Nahum 3:1–4, Tyre in Isaiah 23:15–27, Babylon in Isaiah 47:5–7, and Jerusalem and Samaria in Ezekiel 23 and elsewhere.
If God wanted to choose a city to represent apostasy from the true religion of God, which of these would He choose? Only Jerusalem and Samaria were ever associated with faithful Judaism, Nineveh, Tyre, and Babylon were strictly pagan cities that were never identified with the chosen people of God. They could serve only as symbols of a world apart from God, offering only those pleasures the world can offer. And, of those, Babylon was the greatest city and the one that could most reasonably represent worldwide influence, a city of the world influencing the world with the attractions of the world.
That Babylon is the symbol of the power, influence, attraction, corruption, and seduction of the world, rather than the symbol of apostate Christianity is further suggested by the fact that, as we move further into the chapter, Babylon begins to assume
the form of another great city, Rome. At the time John wrote Revelation, Rome represented all of those things that Babylon represented. Even as Babylon, Rome was the capital city of a world empire, a totally pagan city, a perfect symbol of luxury, vice and glamour seducing the world. At that time, Rome could not have been a symbol of apostasy from the true religion of God. But, Babylon, as the great harlot, could be a symbol of the great seductive attractions of this world.
Even in that great prophecy in Hosea 2, the apostasy of Israel is attributed to the seductive attraction of this world, rather than the deception of false religion. In Hosea 2:4–5, God said concerning Israel: “I will not have mercy on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. For their mother has played the harlot; she who conceived them has done shamefully. For she said, I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.”
Israel was not being seduced so much by other gods, although she involved herself in idolatry, as she was by the allure of the things of this world. So, what we are seeing in Revelation 17 is not a representation of the apostate church under the figure of Babylon. I believe that Babylon represents the seductive attractions of this world, the lusts of this world.
I believe that Satan employs three weapons to destroy the people of God, and these three weapons are discussed in Revelation under the imagery of the beast that comes out of the sea, the beast that comes out of the earth, and the great harlot, Babylon. Now, Satan, the great dragon, is the one who is the force behind it all, but he uses these three instruments to cause people to bear the mark of the beast.
The three instruments of destruction that Satan employs against the people of God are persecution, deception, and seduction. In other words, Satan would like to destroy the people of God through persecution. If he cold attack your body, if he could persecute you in a physical way, and cause you to deny your Lord, he would have won the battle.
But, if that does not work, he has a second weapon. He can try to deceive you. He can use false religion to cause you to not see true religion. He can produce a counterfeit so that unless
you are seeking God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, you can be deceived and be led away into a counterfeit religion. I do believe that Roman Catholicism fits in that category.
But there is a third instrument, seduction, Satan can attack your body with persecution, attack your mind to deceive you, but he can also attack your emotions and your will. He can try to get you to anchor your life in and tie your life to this world and center all of your affairs in this life without reference to a life that is to come.
In fact, I believe that in I John 2:15–17, you have an exact, clear and direct statement of what Revelation 17 is trying to tell us. John said: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” And I believe that Babylon, under the figure of the great harlot, is a symbol used to suggest this weapon of Satan to try to destroy you. This weapon is the seductive allure of this world, and what it has to offer in opposition to that which God is offering to His people.
In Revelation 17:1, I think it is significant that God did not choose the symbol of Jerusalem, which might have served as a good symbol of an apostate church, as the great harlot, but he used Babylon as the symbol because Babylon never was a part of God's people. Jerusalem, as a harlot, would be a good symbol of an apostate church, but not Babylon.
Babylon was always in opposition to the people of God. I believe, then, that what we are seeing is Satan's attempt to capture your heart and your affections through the employment of the enticements and lusts of this world.
Read Revelation 17:1–2: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, ‘Come. I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.’ ”
I believe that the basis, or the symbolism, comes out of a passage in Jeremiah 51, because the same kind of imagery is used there and employed in the Revelation. In Jeremiah 51:7, Jeremiah said: “Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord's hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged.”
Resume reading at Revelation 17:3: “So, he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.” Notice the similarity to Jeremiah 51:7. Babylon has been a golden cup in Jehovah's hand that made all the earth drunken. The nations have drunk of her wine: therefore the nations are mad.
Now, notice Jeremiah 51:12–13: “Set up the standard on the walls of Babylon; make the guard strong. Set up the watchman, prepare the ambushes. For the Lord has both devised and done what He spoke against the inhabitants of Babylon. O you who dwell by many waters, abundant in treasures, your end has come, the measure of your covetousness.”
That which characterizes Babylon is covetousness. She is a harlot and she seduces the people of God with her luxuries. Note verse 3 again: “... I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast.” This beast is described as full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
Back in Revelation 13, we were introduced to this beast, the beast that had the seven heads and ten horns. We identified it as representing all of the persecuting governments of the world. And, what we are seeing here is Babylon, the great harlot, sitting on the scarlet colored beast. In other words, she is in close association with the beast. The governments of this world so often gain the support of the people by promising economic prosperity and other earthly benefits.
John sees this woman in the wilderness. That is where the church was seen earlier in Revelation 12. Satan goes where the church is. He is going to use the great harlot to seduce the
people of God. Babylon is described now in verse 5: “... And on her forehead a name was written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”
We are seeing Babylon as representing seduction. That is the idea. The harlot seduces. That is what she does. The harlot does not persecute, the harlot does not particularly deceive, the harlot simply seduces. And, we see then, the seductive power Satan has to seduce God's people away from allegiance to God. These include luxury, glamour, and all the vices. All of these are suggested, and it seems that Babylon is a good choice as a symbol of that kind of seductive power, because the great cities of our world are the places where these particular kinds of attractions seem to center. Not only are they seemingly concentrated in the great cities of the world, but from those great cities the world is influenced by all these things.
In our own country, for example, where are Satan's greatest instruments for seducing the people? You have Los Angeles and Hollywood producing constantly those things that are in opposition to what God wants His people to have. These cities influence the world. So, God has chosen the greatest city that He could choose in ancient times, mighty Babylon. I do not thing there was a greater city on the face of the earth in terms of its size and its influence. Babylon was chosen to suggest seductive power.
Babylon later becomes a symbol for Rome. Interpreters agree the seven mountains have reference to the seven hills of Rome. Rome is being suggested, here, because Rome, in the time when John was living, was the perfect example of the great seductive city with all of the luxury and vice and glamour that the world could offer.
Verse 6 says: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.” A good illustration of the kind of thing that is suggested here would be the coliseum in Rome where, for the amusement and entertainment of the people, the Christians were fed to the lions. There the blood of martyr's flowed, all in the name of entertainment and great amusement.
Verse 7 says, “But the angel said to me, ‘Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has seven heads and ten horns.’ ” All we have seen up to now may still seem rather mysterious, so the angel says, “I am going to explain all of this to you now so that you will begin to understand better what we are seeing here.” And, so, we go to verse 8: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition.” I believe that to understand Babylon, you have to understand the beast. In our study of Revelation 13, we learned that the beast represents the persecuting powers of all of the ages.
The emphasis I want to give here is of all ages of time and history, because we learned that the beast was not just representing one particular government. It was not representing just the government of Rome. It was representing all of the governments of the world that would persecute God's people.
Now, as we see the woman riding the beast in chapter 17, we are seeing the same kind of association. The woman and beast are coextensive. The duration of time in which the beast is active is the duration of time in which the woman is active. This suggests to us that the woman is not a specific woman at some particular point in history, nor referring to any one particular thing in history, but it covers all of history. In other words, Satan has always been using governments to persecute God's people. Satan has always been trying to seduce the people of God. So, the symbols here that are being used are ones that are comprehensive.
Notice again verse 8, “The beast that you saw was, and is not and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and to to perdition.” What does that mean?
As we saw earlier, in chapter 13, the beast had seven heads representing many governments. The beast received what seemed like a death stroke and it looked like the beast would die, because one of the heads was wounded, but it revived and the world marveled. The point is that when one government seemingly is destroyed, the world gets excited, but then it always seems like a worse government comes along and takes its place. And that has been the history of the world, one bad
government after another. When one falls, another comes up. What we are seeing here is the beast that was, and is not. But, that is not the end of the story. It is about to come up out of the abyss, and then to go into perdition. There are two pictures. One of evil governments that continue to arise. They disappear, but then another comes up.
The other picture is of evil governments that go into perdition. They all will finally fall. But now, notice the middle of verse 8: “And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”
This is the same thing we saw in chapter 13. Those who are not God's people, those ho are not Christians, marvel at this, but the people of God do not marvel because they know. God revealed that this is the way things are. It is no marvel. But, Satan continues to bring about new governments and new persecuting powers and he will continue to do so until the end of time.
Look at verse 9: “Here is the mind which has wisdom.” In other words, the angel is saying, “Let me give you some wise insight into the whole situation and try again to make it clear to you what is going on here.” He says: “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is and the other had not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue for a short time.” Here the beast is portrayed in two ways.
First of all, the seven heads are seven mountains. That is one picture that you want to get. But, then, there is another picture he wants to develop, and that is that the seven heads also represent seven kings. There two thing suggested here. One is the seven heads, which are seven mountains on which the woman sits, the seven hills of Rome. Rome, was the present embodiment of persecuting world government. This is one that that is being suggested.
But, there is a second thing. There are seven kings; the five are fallen, the one is, the other is yet to come; and when he comes, he must continue a little while. Now, he says there are five fallen kings.
We need to go back to Daniel, chapters 2 and 7 in which the whole picture is rooted, because the beast of Revelation 17 that is described more fully for us in Revelation 13 was a beast that was a composite of the picture of the four beasts in Daniel 7 represented four successive world empires, which is made clear as you compare it with Daniel 2.
This suggests that the beast of Revelation 17 is the embodiment of all of these governments, which follow one right after the other. And, you recall in Daniel 2:39, when Daniel was interpreting the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar about the statue of the four different metals that Daniel says these represent four kingdoms. In verse 39, Daniel said to King Nebuchadnezzar; “But after you shall arise another kingdom.” Daniel, in Daniel 2 and 7, speaks of the kings as representing kingdoms. Since the symbolism of Revelation 17 emerges out of Daniel 7, let us let it set the context for interpreting Revelation 17.
Then, when it says in Revelation 17:9–10 that the heads are seven kings, I believe we have to understand that as meaning there are seven kingdoms. So, they represent seven kingdoms, and he says the five are fallen, the one is, and the other is not yet come. What do we see as we look at the kingdoms of the world? There had been five kingdoms previously: the Greek, Egyptian, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, and the Persian, and they all had fallen. Now, there is one more. The Roman Empire was now in existence. The Roman Empire is the one that is. Then, he says, the other is yet to come; and when he comes, he must continue for a little while.
We will learn in a moment what that is. But, let us move to verse 11: “The beast that was, and is not, is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition.” I believe the eighth represents all of the persecuting governments that are yet to come, because it says the beast that was, and is not, is himself also an eighth. But, that beast represented all persecuting governments yet to come. The fact that there has never been a single world government since Rome may account for the eighth being presented as a composite of governments.
Read verse 12: “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive
Authority for one hour as kings with the beast.” Many interpreters have said these are actual kings that have ruled somewhere or will rule somewhere at sometime. But, notice that these that are called ten kings do not have any kingdom. So, in reality, they are not kings in the normal sense of the word.
But, what are “kings” anyway? They are men of power and influence in the world. But, these are kings without a kingdom. It says they have received no kingdom as yet , and there is no necessary implication they ever will. But, it says they received authority as kings. I think that is the whole point. It is speaking now of men who have authority as kings, that is, influential and powerful figures in the world. Does this mean, literally, ten individual ones? In Revelation “ten” is a symbol of completeness. It has the significance of all the men in the future who are influenced and authoritative and powerful in our world who are not actually leaders of kingdoms, but who line themselves up along with the leaders of kingdoms. Men of great influence in the world will often align themselves with whoever is in power at the time for personal advantage and personal gain.
We are now seeing a picture of corrupt and persecuting governmental powers who have great and powerful men from all areas of life assisting them. They received authority as kings, with the beast, for one hour. In other words, their influence is not going to be very permanent and very long. It is only for a brief time. Men who try to align themselves with the top dog, who try to get favors from the man on top, usually do not last very long in their ability to influence and affect things.
Notice verse 13: “These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast.” In other words, they single-mindedly are giving their allegiance to the persecuting governmental powers of the world. They are not interested in following God or His Son, Jesus Christ.
But, notice verse 14, which, I believe, is the theme and the key to the whole book of Revelation. Revelation 17:14 is the essential passage of this book: “These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of Lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.”
So far we have simply seen a rather discouraging and disgusting picture of governmental oppressive powers and men lined up with them and those who are trying to seduce God's people. But, the message now is: “Cheer up, Christians!" These are all going to war against the Lamb of God, but the Lamb will overcome them. And the beautiful part for us is that we shall overcome! That includes all who are called and chosen and faithful. Did Jesus not say in Revelation 2:10: “... Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.” Yes, if you are faithful to Jesus. It does not matter what is happening out there in the world. It does not matter what is taking place there if you will keep your eye on the Lamb, on Jesus. Then, you will be a conqueror. Then, you will overcome the world.
Verse 15: “And he said to me, ‘The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.’ ” In other words, the influence of that power is great and far–reaching. Verse 16 says: “And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire.”
Initially, you see the harlot, the woman, riding upon the beast and they are working together. But a house cannot stand for long if it is divided against itself. Satan's hosts are divided against themselves.
Finally, those who are among the associates of the beast will hate the harlot. They will begin to see that the world does not really have the answers, that the things of the world do not satisfy, and finally, they try to rebel against it all and throw it off—but it is too late. They hate being trapped. They cannot. They have been caught in the snare of Satan, in the passions and the lusts of the world. They are slaves to their own passions, and even though they would try to fight against it, it is too late. They have been caught. And, they hate the very thing they used to love. Is that the way with sin?
The things that attract us that God says are wrong, when we experience them, we find them bitter, we find they do not provide the satisfaction we expected. Yet, if we continue in them, we reach the point where we just cannot get out of the trap. We have developed habits that are wrong, and we cannot break them.
Finally notice verses 17–18: “For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” Yes, the allure and the seduction of the world even control those who are the kings of the earth. Even those who are kings and rulers of governments are still subject to the passions of the flesh. They are even slaves themselves to the allure of the world and find that they themselves live restlessly because they have not found the peace that lies and resides in a true relationship with God.
Revelation 17 is a very difficult chapter, admittedly, but we have tried to give our best explanation of the chapter in the hopes of seeing what the message is. And, the message is, essentially, that the powers of Satan shall fight against the Lamb and the Lamb shall overcome them. He is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and they also shall overcome that are with Him, called and chosen and faithful. “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created things, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37–39).
Be faithful to Him and you need not worry about the rest, because God will be victorious and His people will be conquerors. You can join that host of those who have given their allegiance to Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. All else is a pathetic substitute that never satisfies, but Jesus gives life and that life is eternal.