In 21st post in our study of Revelation we look at the Fall of Babylon (chapter 17). A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.
We are easily tempted to heroify the struggle for faith in the early church and downplay our own challenges to remain faithful to Christ. In doing so we diminish our battles and remain ignorant of the dangerous evil forces waging war against us (Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The spiritual forces opposing us within our own culture is real, and could be life-threatening to our faith. (Do you have friends or family who have drifted away from Jesus?) Therefore we should not be ignorant of the schemes of Satan (2 Corinthians 2:11). Revelation 17 unveils the satanic forces within the 1st century Roman culture, Christ’s judgment on it, and how to overcome it. A careful look at their struggle within their own seductive culture will unmask our struggle within our culture – so this message becomes personal.
This chapter unveils three seductive lies which is potentially lethal to faith in God, as well as three truth to overcome Satan’s scheme in these lies.
Absolute autonomy. John sees Babylon, the Great Harlot, riding on the Beast, superior over many nations and people groups on many waters (nations and people groups) (17:1,3,5,15). All the rulers on earth are said to be seduced and subjected to her (17:2, 18). She is the one responsible for the death of God’s saints through the ages as well as witnesses of Jesus, as she resists their message of the reign of God in Christ (17:6).
In John’s day this clearly pointed to Rome, the ancient city surrounded by seven mountains from which the empire was ruled (17:9; 18). But Rome was not the first city to be named Babylon: the Old Testament prophets also referred to Nineveh, Tyre, and Greece as “Babylon”. Rome was not the last city to be known by this name (17:9-10). The city is named after Babel (Genesis 11:4), the first city who revolted against God’s rule. Babylon has become synonymous throughout the Scriptures with humanity’s claim for self-rule, self-sufficiency and self-seeking. This is an extension from mankind’s original sin in Garden – succumbing to the temptation to decide what is good and right so that I may satisfy my needs all by myself. As such, Babylon represents all of mankind who choose to live in sin, to live apart from God and his rule.
Why then name Babylon the “Mother of all harlots” (17:5)? Scripturally, spiritual idolatry is likened to sexual immorality in that every single man and woman is created by God: “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Romans 11:36; refer Hosea; Ezekiel 16; Isaiah 3). Each person belongs to God, as a husband or wife belongs to his/her spouse. Therefore, denying him and living as though we do not belong to another to live for our own pleasures is the spiritual equivalent of sexual infidelity in a marriage. And this is the seductive heresy of Babylon: “I belong to no-one; I will decide what is right and wrong and give answer to no-one. I am my own master!”
Do you see this lie at work in our culture, in the undertones of films, music, advertisements and career pursuits? Do you hear this voice in your head when you are tempted to deny God and serve yourself – like everyone else in society?
Luxurious living. John is mesmerized, almost hypnotized by the image of the seductive Babylon – in spite her brutality (17:6-7). She is displayed in great power (over the nations, mastering the beast (17:2-3, 15), arrayed in opulence and glamour (17:3-4), and oozing sexual seduction (17:2). She is the epitome of John’s description of sin: “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)
The picture John sees is the promise of fulfillment of all our desires. The is that of hedonism, calling to us: “Look at me: I can fulfill all your desires!” All she asks is to stop resisting, to give in and enjoy her. She will give you life! Can you hear her call in our sensual, self-seeking culture? Do you believe her?
It’s beautiful to see here how God is not rebuking believers for their sensual desires here. Rather, he makes the readers aware that resisting sensual temptations in this self-gratifying culture amounts to waging spiritual war. We are taking our thoughts captive, breaking down strongholds, battling principalities and powers (2 Corinthians 10:1-5; Ephesians 6:12). Christ helps believers to see the true nature of the this Beauty and her Beast: Her beauty is skin-deep; she is vulgar, blood-thirsty and downright evil (17:3). The message to believers is clear: resist her and live, or succumb to her temptation and die (compare with the seductress of Proverbs 5:3-6 and 7:6-27).
The futile fight. The angel explains the mystery of this Great Prostitute riding on the back of the Beast with seven heads and ten horns. It refers in John’s day to the city of Rome (7 mountains). The angels reveals the heads to also mean 5 kings past, one reigning now, another to come, and the Beast himself being an 8th. This is confusing.
A number of interpretations are offered by commentators. A first interpretation explains Babylon is likened to five great empires in OT Scripture, being Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, Greece, now Rome in this Text, and perhaps another powerful nation in after John’s writing (or all the secular nations combined). A second interpretation tries to identify a number of powerful Roman emperors who this list of 5/1/1 might refer to. Both these interpretations leads to creative speculation – who is included and who is excluded in this list? And what does this mean to the reader?
A third interpretation comes by reminder that Revelation is an apocalyptic genre – and therefore all numbers are symbolic! The seven rulers refer to all the rulers of Babylon throughout the ages – past, present and future. The beast is also a ruler in his own right. The ten horns represent the totality of power and authority of human rule apart from God. As such it illustrates the Great Harlot’s control over every kingdom. Together the Harlot and the Beast is portrayed as an unstoppable force. Together they have ruled through the ages and will always rule. It leaves the reader feeling powerless, that resistance is futile.
Do you believe this lie that the fight is futile? Have you given up on resisting the world, of obeying the call of Christ to “deny yourself, pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24)?
Great encouragement. We are often tempted to see our struggles as insignificant in comparison with those persecuted for their faith daily. These believers get lashed and locked up for their prayers – while we struggle to maintain our times of devotion. But God does not take our struggle lightly, as we see in this chapter. He shows us the severity of our struggle, those sinister forces that wears us through distraction, doubt and deception, shutting us down in shame. Christ faced the same temptations in the dessert as John witnessed here (Luke 4:1-11), and overcame them, so that he might have compassion on us and extend grace to overcome with him (Hebrews 2:17-18).
Great exhortation. Revelation 17 not only reveals Harlot and her deadly deceptions, but also the truth by which believers might overcome her seduction.
Truth 1. To a people who are tempted to believe that we may choose to live as we want, John records the victory of the Lamb who “is King of kings, Lord of lords” (17:14). Against the lie of independence and autonomy we see the Lamb as sovereign over all earthly and spiritual domains. He is the sovereign Lord: Master, Owner, and Commander of all. And those who overcome with Him see themselves as “called” by Him, “chosen” by Him “and faithful” to Him (17:14). We overcome the lie of autonomy by recognizing His Lordship over us.
Truth 2. Secondly, to people pressured to believe that they may (or must) pursue the fulfillment of all their desires in this world, Christ reveals that the offers of satisfaction in this world are all empty promises. Even the Beast will turn on the Harlot to destroy her (17:15-17). The way this fallen world tries to fulfill our desires leaves us unsatisfied, often with shame, regret, and even disgust. “Life is not in found in the abundance of things stored up” (Luke 12:15), nor in “gratifying the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This fallen world cannot satisfy all desires. Our desires were shaped for paradise and can only be satisfied in Christ’s renewal of all things.
Truth 3. The third truth Christ gives the church to overcome the overwhelming sense of futility, is that indeed, the Lamb and his Army does overcome Babylon and her Beast (17:14-16). Revelation contrasts the destruction the city Babylon, the city filled with immorality and idolatry and all things abominable with the with the glorious unveiling of Jerusalem, the city of the holy, the pure, the faithful (chapters 19-22). It contrasts the destruction of Great Harlot with the great wedding feast and celebration of the Bride of Christ. Indeed, the Way of the Lamb – of self-denial and trust in God – leads to victory and eternal life (compare Jesus’s “I am meek and lowly of heart” Matthew 11:29).
Bringing this home
Indeed we are at war in our peaceful, prosperous Western society. “Many cry ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace'” (Jeremiah 6:14; Ezekiel 13:10). God knows this and gracefully unveiled our cultural battle as seductive lies, luring us away from Christ, to destruction. But He also reveals the victory of those who see themselves as called and chosen, remaining faithful to him (17:14).
This unveiling of deadly deceptions in our culture calls me to recognize where I have come to believe these lies, and repent of my sense of autonomy, giving in to sensuality and succumbing to worldly living. Turn to God, because is rich in mercy, and his grace is sufficient for today!