Previously on Decoding the Apocalypse
We have finished our discussion of Vision Two in the Apocalypse (Rev. 4.1–16.21) and come to the beginning of Vision Three (Rev. 17.1-21.8). Up to this point, we have looked at the following:
- In Vision One, we were presented with a vivid word picture of Jesus.
- Next, John followed in Vision Two with a picture of Jesus who was the one who could open the book which revealed the story of the end.
- Then, we saw the breaking of the first six seals, which suggested what would be happening during the course of the age.
- Next, when we thought that the seventh seal would be opened and the end of the age would be revealed, John stood back for a moment and presented a picture-within-a-picture, an Interlude, in which he demonstrated in symbolic language, a before and after picture of the people of God, which suggested that none of the them would be lost in a time of great tribulation.
- Then, we talked about how the seven trumpets were the contents of the seventh seal: How they functioned as a more expanded look at the end.
- Next, we observed John’s renewed calling as told in the story of the Angel and the Little Book.
- Then, we took a look at the concept of the Measuring of the Temple, looking at three suggested theological positions, i.e., a literal rebuilding, that this metaphor might be a Believing Jewish Remnant, or it may be a reference to the church. We hinted that the latter was the most likely.
- Finally, we looked at the metaphor of the Two Witnesses and suggested that this was also a reference to the church.
Following that we looked at:
- The Dragon, the Woman, and Her Seed (12.1-17), which is the beginning of Interlude 3 and describes in metaphorical terms the spiritual conflict behind the scenes where there is a heavenly warfare between God and Satan.
- Next, the Two Beasts (13.1-18), which included the Beast From the Sea (13.1-10) and the Beast From the Earth (13.11-18), which is a description of the rise of antichrist which may be the deification of secular authority.
- Then, we looked at the number 666 and indicated that the number likely means “less than perfect” and demonstrates that while God’s Messiah, Jesus, is more than perfect, i.e., his number is 888, the Devil’s Messiah, antichrist, is “less than perfect,” which was a genuine appeal for comfort for the seven churches.
- Finally, we suggested the blowing of seven trumpets was yet again simply an expansion of the seventh seal.
Now, we turn our attention to the Third Vision.
The Third Vision 17.1-21.8
When we interpret Revelation, we tend to make its facts true for only this generation of believers, which is really not true. This has been the case in the numerous attempts to try to identify the Whore of Babylonia of Revelation 17-18. Here are some of the attempts:
- Babylon is to be rebuilt on the Euphrates
- A great world-city of the last days, either one to be built as the seat of the anti-Christian government, or in an ideal sense; any and all great cities that have directed persecution against the people of God
- The Pope of the Catholic Church
- The apostate church of the future in general: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and unfaithful Protestantism
- First Century Rome
- The European Common Market
- The Capitalist System
Our attempt in this present study is to demonstrate that it had a meaning for the first hearer and that down through the ages of Church History there have been things which resembled the description of the Babylonian Harlot. Even today, the capitalistic system shows some tendencies of the Whore of Babylon mentioned in Revelation 17-18.
The Harlot and the Scarlet Beast 17.1-6
Verse 1. In Old Testament prophecy, the imagery of a harlot is commonly used to denote religious apostasy. Isaiah laments over the once faithful Jerusalem who has become a harlot (Isa. 1.21). Israel was noted by Jeremiah as a wild ass in heat (Jer. 2.24), and a prostitute (Jer. 13.27). The harlot in Revelation is a pagan city and passages like Nahum 3.4 or Isaiah 23.16-17 may supply the immediate background. In the context of Revelation 17-18, the imagery is of the prostitution of all that is right and noble for the questionable ends of power and luxury. For John, the harlot is first century Rome. The portrait, of which John paints a word picture, most likely came from Valeria Messalina, the wife of Claudius, whom the Roman world recognized to be the epitome of all that was rotten and corrupt in the empire. She was notorious for her promiscuity and harlotry.
Adorned in luxury and intoxicated with the blood of the saints, this great harlot stands for a dominant world system based on seduction for personal gain over against the righteous demands of godliness. Her image is a timely truth and portrays the essential conflicts of humankind from the beginning of time until the end of time. At the close of the first century, the great harlot stood as the final and intensified expression of worldly power. As a reminder that God is still sovereignly occupying his throne over his universe, the text later tells us that the harlot will be stripped naked and destroyed (Rev. 17.16).
Verse 5. The harlot of Babylon is a system of godlessness which leads men and women away from the worship of God to their own destruction. Specifically, she is first century Rome, who, like Babylon of old, had gained a worldwide reputation for luxury, corruption, and power. Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120), one of the great historians of ancient Rome, describes Rome as the place “where all the horrible and shameful things in the world congregate and find a home” (Tacitus, Annals. xv.44). Juvenal’s account of the vile and debased Messalina, mentioned before, who served incognito in the public brothels, is an indication of the depths of immorality in first century Rome. To put it in perspective in American terms, think of the President’s wife slipping out of the White House every evening and going to the Red Light district of Washington D.C. and being a prostitute for the evening (substitute your country’s leader for the President). Seneca called Rome a filthy sewer and other writers of the period suggested that Rome was the mother of harlots.
The Harlot’s Destruction 17.7-18
Verse 9. In verse 8, the beast was portrayed as an evil power who had appeared throughout history and was about to put in one final appearance, which would lead to his destruction. John tells the reader that this image calls for a mind with wisdom. In other words, this is a warning that one must interpret with care. John is saying that although the interpretation of the seven heads is not obvious, it may be understood by those who ponder the riddle with care and wisdom. There is little doubt that a first-century reader would understand this reference in any other way than as a reference to Rome, the city built on seven hills. In John’s day, Rome epitomized all the antagonism and opposition to the Christian faith that could be imagined.
Verse 10. Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation of the seven kings is that the number seven is primarily symbolic and stands for the power of the Roman Empire as a historic whole. For John and the Apocalyptic writers of the day, seven was the number of completeness. It appears that the single purpose of John at this point, supported by other Apocalyptic writings, is to declare the imminent end of the age according to God’s timetable.
Verse 12. The ten kings can be identified as purely eschatological figures representing the totality of the powers of all nations on the earth which are to be made subservient to antichrist. The number ten is symbolic and also indicates completeness. The timeframe “for one hour” is a very short period of time. The Lens Crafters U.S and Canada eyeglass stores have a slogan, “In about an hour.” It does not mean to convey “one hour.” It means to convey that you get your eyeglasses in a very short period of time as compared to a traditional eyeglass store. This is the kind of metaphor that is common to us, but is often taken in a strick liternalness when it is found in Scripture. I wonder why that is?
Verse 18. The woman is the great city which rules over the kings of the earth. For John, this is the city of Rome. She is the wicked seducer whose pernicious influence has permeated the whole of the Mediterranean world. Yet, Babylon the Great, the source of universal harlotry and abomination, is more than first-century Rome. Every great center of power, which has prostituted its wealth and influence, restores to life the spirit of ancient Babylon. John’s words extend beyond his immediate setting in history and sketch the portrait of an eschatological Babylon, which will provide a social, religious, and political base for the last attempt of antichrist to establish its kingdom over against the kingdom of God.
Babylon Is Declared Desolate 18.1-8
Verse 2. This is a picture of absolute desolation where the proud achievements of human beings become only the demonic haunts of unclean spirits.
Verse 4. The people of God are called upon to come out of the doomed city. It is a call to each generation of believers to spiritually withdraw from corruption. The persecuted church has always faced the temptation to compromise with worldliness and thus ease the tension of living in a hostile environment. John gives two reasons for separation from the city:
- So that one does not indulge in her sins.
- So that one does not receive her judgment.
Verse 8. The phrase in one day does not designate a span of time, but is a symbolic term for suddenness.
The Laments of Kings, Merchants, and Seamen 18.9-20
This whole section is modeled after Ezekiel’s lamentation over Tyre (Ezekiel 27). Fifteen of the twenty-nine commodities listed in Revelation 18.12-13 are found in Ezekiel 27.12-22. One can even discover the same three groups of mourners.
Kings — 18.9-10. The first lament is from the kings of the earth. These are the governing heads of all nations who have entered into questionable trade with the commercial center of the ancient world. They represent the bankruptcy of an arrogant existence which believed that it was secure because it was living in a long-standing political order. Remember, Rome had been around for several centuries.
Merchants — 18.11-16. Now the lament is taken up by the merchants. They weep and mourn, not out of sympathy for a proud city now brought low, but because with its collapse they have been deprived of their major source of financial gain. No longer is there anyone to buy their merchandise. The excessive luxury of Rome and its passion for the extravagant is well-known.
Here are some illustrations of the extravagance:
- At one of Nero’s banquets, the Egyptian roses which adorned the setting cost nearly $100,000.
- Vitellius, one of the short-lived leaders of Rome between Nero and Vespasian, had a love for delicacies like peacock’s brains and nightingale’s tongues. In less than one year, he spent thousands of dollars, mostly on food.
- One Roman, after squandering his immense fortune, committed suicide because he could not live on the pittance which remained—about $300,000.
Seamen — 18.17-19. This group could be either those who made their living on the sea or those who gained their living by the sea, which would refer to all those who would earn their living in connection with the maritime industry.
Each group sees the fall of Rome in terms of their own interest.
Babylon Destroyed 18.21-24
In verses 9-19, one can see how Rome’s political and commercial allies would be affected by her fall. In these verses, John shows her collapse from the inside. The arts, crafts, commerce, and customs of the great city will all be permanently silenced. Six times in verses 21-23, the phrase never, ever…again is stated. The makeup of the Greek expresses an emphatic denial for the future. Never means never!
The stone which is plunged into the sea by the angel is an action symbolizing the disappearance of Rome. It stresses how suddenly and spectacularly the judgment of God will be executed, not only upon an ancient city, but ultimately upon the entire anti-Christian world as it opposes God.
Silence reigns on the fallen city. Where the streets were once filled with sounds of music and voices, silence has taken over. Not only had the music ceased, but the sounds of craftsmen plying their trade. The entire economy has abruptly stopped. The absence of all light adds to the desolation of the fallen city. Rome was a busy city, accustomed to lights which burned by night as craftsmen worked long hours to fill their orders. Now only blackness blanketed the city.
The blood of Christian martyrs ran red in the streets of Rome. The massacre under Nero in AD 64 was certainly a realistic background for the stark reminder of Rome’s brutality.
All of this is to say that Rome of the first century was certainly in the minds of the first hearers when they read Revelation.
This does not negate the reality that down through history, the church has been faced with many harlots like Babylon. One of them will be the final fulfillment of Revelation.
Remember, caution should be taken about dogmatic positions regarding this passage of Revelation.
The Thanksgiving for the Judgment of Babylon 19.1-5
Chapter 17 has pictured the apostate civilization which supports antichrist.
Chapter 18 pictures the fall of that civilization.
In the first five verses of chapter 19, the judgment of Babylon is seen as a cause for giving thanks.
Questions for Discussion
- “Every great center of power, which has prostituted its wealth and influence, restores to life the spirit of ancient Babylon.” How does your country fair under this statement?
- What are some of the extravagances of your national or local government?
- What are some of the extravagances of your church?
- What are some of the extravagances of your family and/or personal life?