The End? The struggle is real

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).

beast_Rev17In 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?

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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). 

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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.

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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

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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!

The End? Renouncing the lie

For a short video recording of this sixth session through the book of Revelation, click here or on the image below. 

 

How much freedom do we have in Christ?  What may we do with our freedom?  These are the questions that the church in Thyatira grappled with towards the end of the first century.  Plagued by trials and temptations under tyrannical Roman rule, John penned words and comfort and correction to this and six other churches in Asia Minor about the victory we have in Christ; the circular letter is known as the Revelation of Christ.

Thyatira is known today as Akhisar in far west Turkey. This ancient city was strategically located as a buffer to the Roman empire, obstructing the path of its enemies and giving it time to gather military strength.  It was located in a rich agricultural area and was famous for its purple dye. This city prospered during the Roman Empire through the security of the army and the trade routes through it.  The remains of its temples and amphitheater bears witness of the culture of that day.  History also teaches us that many Jews settled in Thyatira during the reign of Seleucus I (305-281 BC).

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Thyatiran coins of that era reveal strong trade guilds of weaving, leather, pottery, and bronze melting active in this city.   These guilds, forerunners to our trade unions, formed leagues who promoted and protected their trade and its workers.  In this pagan environment the guilds had their own gods whom they worshiped together in the hope of success and prosperity.  These regular religious rituals involved  sharing in a feast consisting of the meats offered to the gods.  These feasts ended in revelries and religious orgies, symbolizing the fertility of their trades.

Because of the pagan association of these trade guilds, Christians found it hard to work in cities with strong guilds: firstly because of a refusal to participate in the worship of pagan gods; secondly because they refused to eat meat offered to idols; and thirdly  because of the perverse nature of these communal meals.  And this was the contentious issue for the church in Thyatira at the time of John’s writing.

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Lydia of Thyatira through whom the church was presumably planted (Acts 16:14-15)

The letter of Christ to the church in Thyatira is the longest and sternest of all seven dictated to by John (Revelation 2:18-28).

Revelation (2:18).  Christ reveals himself to be present with this church as the Son of God” – implying the True Son of God.  In Thyatira both emperor Domitian and the god Heracles were worshiped as “son of god”; yet Jesus starts this letter by asserting his authority and supremacy over the city and its church.  He continues by revealing himself as One whose eyes are like blazing fire” – who sees everything, with nothing hidden from his sight; “and whose feet are like burnished bronze” – a strong ruler with a secure reign (compare Daniel 2:31-35).  Jesus comforts the church that his reign is lasting, but warns them that he sees everything and “searches the hearts and minds” (2:23) of all men.

Commendation (2:19).  Jesus begins his letters to Thyatira with affirmation of their  steadfast “works, love, service, faith and patient endurance” in this harsh and hostile environment, lauding that their have even increased!  With this clear statement Christ honours the faithfulness of this church.

Accusation (2:20-23).  But in this church the Lord also sees something abominable: this congregation allows a false teacher, “Jezebel… mislead(ing) my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”  It is very improbable that there was a woman named Jezebel in the congregation at Thyatira because of the name’s origin and unfavorable connotations.  Rather, the apocalyptic genre of Revelation invites us to read this “prophetess” as a type of Jezebel in the the Old Testament, revealing something of her character and conduct in the church, which Christ strongly condemns.

Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, was a Sidonian princess married to Ahab, King of Israel for political association (1 Kings 16:31; around 850 BC). She is infamous for being the most wicked and destructive queen in Israel’s history.  She was a priestess of Baal and Asherah, a witch practicing sorcery, who was set on making these pagan religions Israels official state religion (1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 9:22).  Jezebel not only promoted the worship of these Canaanite fertility gods by erecting places of (immoral) worship and training Baal and Asherah priests, spreading them throughout Israel; she also violently persecuted all the priests and prophets loyal to God. 

Therefore, as elsewhere in the Bible, Jezebel’s name in Revelation 2:20 is synonymous with leading God’s people into idolatry and immorality; she is one who turns the hearts of God’s people away from him through seduction, manipulation and intimidation.  This Thyatiran “teacher and prophetess” sins against God and his people by permitting the church to participate in the perverse guild festivities – presumable under the guise of “freedom in Christ” (see Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:13-26).  Grace does not give the church freedom to sin, but freedom from sin.

Warning and exhortation (2:21-25).  Christ states that he had given this prophetess time to repent, but now declares that he is about to judge her and all who hold on to her teachings.  The judgment will be some severe sickness.  The exhortation to the church is to turn away from this false prophetess’ “so-called deep secrets of Satan” (2:24) before the judgment begins.  As God did with Ahab’s wife Jezebel, so the Lord promises to “kill all her children” to remind the Church “that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (2:23)

The phrase “searches the heart and mind” points to the core of the issue: these false prophesies were merely license for the church to live out their carnal desires for social acceptance and sexual appetites above allegiance to Christ.  Like Paul warned, these transgressors “are being lead astray by their carnal desires.” (2 Timothy 3:6)

However – the Lord sees and honours those in this church who do not follow Jezebel’s deception teachings.  To the faithful ones Christ “do(es) not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.” (2:24-25).  The phrase “no other burden” reminds the readers/ hearers of the First Apostolic Council’s in Jerusalem which stated that gentile converts to Christianity did not have to fulfill the whole Torah, “except to abstain from from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” (Acts 15:28-29).  Just remain faithful Jesus as you do now – He will come and reward you!

Promise (2:26-28).  To the those “who overcome” Christ promises to share in his victorious reign (quoting from Psalm 2:9).  He also promises “the morning star” – to share in Christ’s own glory (Revelation 22:16).

What should this church overcome? The only power Jezebel had over them was deception: telling them that what they really wanted was indeed permitted by Christ.  This church’s desire for social inclusion and sensual lusts at these pagan feasts were what they had to overcome.  They had to overcome the lure of temporal pleasures by the surety of a greater, eternal pleasure.  Their refusal to partake of these pleasures in this pagan culture was witness to their allegiance to Christ and their hope of a better kingdom (Hebrews 11:16).

Bringing it home.

Although our work environments might not require outright worship of pagan gods, social pressure to conform is still strong, and refusal to participate in work-place customs often lead to exclusion and limiting career options.  The temptation to conform to immoral or unethical work practices is very real today.  But this means unfaithfulness to Christ.

Likewise, 2000 years of human development have not changed our sensual desires.  The temptation to conform to contemporary immoral norms is as strong in our day as back then in Thyatira.  This too is unfaithfulness to Christ.

Like the false prophetess “Jezebel” in Thyatira, there are many who say Christ’s grace covers these sins and therefore it is permitted.  But Christ’s warning and exhortation to us is the same as to them: he is the judge who sees everything – so remain faithful until he comes and he will reward you.