12 Mar 2023
Passage Revelation 17
Speaker Chris Haley
What are Christians in their behaviour allowed to do now, that they didn’t used to be allowed to do in days gone by? I mean like in days gone by Christians were looked down on by other Christians as ‘worldly’ if they went to the cinema! Or if they went to a pub. Or if they owned a tv. Or listened to pop music! Or if you wore a t-shirt, not a shirt on a Sunday, or women wore trousers! Some of you of you are looking confused, but I kid you not! Nowadays though it seems all those things are fine- I think. So do we now live in a ‘worldly’ church? Is ‘worldliness’ listening to what everyone else listens to? Watching what everyone else watches? Going where everyone else goes? These are questions that have been asked down through the ages. They were relevant in John’s day, they’re relevant in our day. How do we be in the world, but not part of the world?
What we have here this morning in this new section introduced here is a tale of two cities. Two cities that will be contrasted throughout the rest of the book. One city is Babylon, and the other one we’ll meet in Revelation 21 is the New Jerusalem. They’re also pictured as two women. Babylon is as we’ll see this week is pictured as prostitute, dressed in expensive attire. The New Jerusalem will be dressed as a bride, adorned for her husband. Babylon is destined for destruction, but the New Jerusalem will continue forever. That is slowly what’s being set up in this section, building up to the end of the book. We’re more familiar with the city we’re presented with at the end- the New Jerusalem, Zion, the City of our Lord God. We’re less familiar, I think, with Babylon, which is dangerous, because in chapter 18 we’re going to be told this:
Revelation 18:4-5 ESV
“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
But how are we to come out of her if we don’t know who she is! If we get this wrong then we’ll end up opposing or coming out of the wrong thing! For example, if we take this as society in general, as some do, then we’ll end up trying to avoid the world altogether! Which some Christian groups do! If we take it just as first century Rome, as some, then it will have little to no bearing on our lives. If we take it as one empire or person, it may only be relevant if we live near that time. So we need to approach this carefully. Who is Babylon and what are they all about? And what does this all this have to do with ‘worldliness’? So our first point…
The Attraction of Babylon v1-6
1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” 3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations.” 6 And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marvelled greatly. (Revelation 17:1-6 ESV)
Babylon here is pictured as an upper-class prostitute covered in jewellry. Riding on the back of a scarlet beast. What’s that about? Babylon is not an accidental name. Babylon was one of the first cities mentioned in the Bible. When it went by the name of Babel. Babel was the site of mankind’s first co-ordinated rebellion against God. Mankind came together in opposition to God to build a tower to make a name for themselves. If we can get our head round Babel, we can get our head round Babylon. Babel was man’s attempt to go it alone without God. A new man-made Eden without God, against God. A towering garden city. You may see remnants of the original idea in the hanging gardens of Babylon which was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Babel was a twisted parody of Eden. A twisted parody of God’s towering garden city we’ll see in chapters 21 and 22. Babylon is its continuation, and just as he put a stop to Babel, God will put a stop to Babylon too!
Babylon, of course went on to become a great city and a great empire. One which oppressed God’s people, and took them into exile. This too is a theme that will be picked up in this new Babylon. Babylon then is society in opposition to God. It is the world seen as a system vehemently against God. It is not the Empires and the Governments themselves- they were pictured as the beast, but Babylon rides on the back of the beast. She’s like a disease, and these Godless empires are the carriers, and we see here that she’s characterised by three things. Sheffield was built on steel. Bradford was built on wool. San Francisco was built on Rock and Roll! But Babylon was built on three things: money, sex, and power.
Money because she’s adorned in expensive jewellry and attire. Sex because she is a prostitute full of sexual immorality. Power because she hires herself out to kings, and has dominion over nations in verse 18. The sex almost certainly has a religious aspect, as idolatry was often pictured as adultery in the Old Testament, and in practice in the ancient world, the two were linked, but money, sex and power are the beating heart of Babylon. Enjoying seeing Christians killed for their faith. This woman is drunk on the blood of the saints.
Babylon is a debauched drunken, power-hungry, sex-saturated, money-mad culture. A culture that seduces the nations, and she laughs, as she rides on the back of the beast. She is an anti-church- a rival culture that opposes the church. That seduces the world. The church was a community of people who turned from idols to serve the living God – and called others to do the same. Babylon is a community of people who have turned from the living God to serve idols- and call others to do the same. Whether those idols be physical or the money, sex, and power that permeates Babylon. If we look at Babylon that way, the problem is not finding an empire or organisation that fits the bill. The problem is that nearly all cultures outside the church that way! Based on Money, sex, and power. The big one in the mind of the original readers would be the culture of Rome. Rome had that same mixture going on. Indeed Apostle Peter when writing to the church in 1 Peter signs off with:
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13 ESV)
Almost certainly meaning the church in Rome, rather than literally Babylon. Rome was that debauched mixtures of money, sex, and power, drunk on the blood of the saints. Indeed, probably those ideas of excesses in our mind probably send us to Rome and their infamous drunken parties, but the Greeks did it before them- they were included in the worship of certain gods. The Persians did it before them, so did the Babylonians.
Babylon then is society at large in its opposition to God. Babylon is anti-God culture in all its forms. Babylon in that sense is ‘the world’, in the phrase, the world, the flesh and the devil
Think of how Jesus, James and John talk about ‘the world’:
John 16:33 ESV I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
James 4:4 ESV You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
1 John 2:16 ESV For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
In each of those verses you could easily substitute ‘the world’ for Babylon and they would still make sense
To be ‘worldly’ in that sense is to be Babylonian, and we are to live as exiles in this Babylon. Counter-cultural, not living as the world does, and not living for what the world lives for. Another reason why Babylon is an appropriate name. Babylon is the godless culture we live in, and we are not to go along with it, but the lure to go along with it is strong. Even John stands and marvels at this. There is an appeal. Babylon is a seductress.
The tools of her trade are temptation and lies- just as the devil used in the garden, which is a reminder that she is just as much a servant of the devil as the beast is. The beast strikes Christians, but Babylon seduces them. The beast is about power and persecution, Babylon: sin and seduction, and from experience, in the west, in our context, Babylon takes down more believers than the beast does. More professing believers are sucked into this system, than leave the faith from persecution. Babylon lures them to live for money, sex and power. Think about people you have known who have wandered away from the faith, whether slowly or dramatically. Aren’t most of those stories ones of seduction by the world? That romantic relationship, that dream job, that more respectable standing, or even just a desire to feel ‘normal’ in the world.
Or with cults and sects and false teaching. How much of that comes down to money, sex or power? It’s normally one of the three! And even within the church we are not immune from worldly Babylonian influence. How many churches are ripped apart by power struggles? How many pastors have had to stand down because of misuse of money, misuse of power, or inappropriate sexual relations? John wants us to recognise Babylon in all her guises, and have nothing to do with her! In the west it’s not the Beast, it’s Babylon that threatens us more at moment. That’s not to say that the beast isn’t biting though, the world attacks in other ways and we need to be aware of both. And so point 2…
The Attack of the Beast v7-14
7 But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” (Revelation 17:7-14 ESV)
The beast we’ve already met back in chapter 13- the details are almost exactly the same here- only we’re told now it’s red like the dragon. In chapter 13 we defined it as the empires and nations of the world. The political powers and authorities in opposition to God. We did so in part because the Beast’s features pick up on the four beasts in Daniel 7. This beast is a sort of mash up of all four. In Daniel 7 we’re told what they are.
Daniel 7:17 ESV 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings (or kingdoms) who shall arise out of the earth.
‘Kings’ and ‘Kingdoms’ are used interchangeably in the passage in Daniel. Those Kingdoms were the Babylonian Empire, the Mede/Persian Empire, the Greeks, and lastly Rome. Four empires that oppressed God’s people, and the language here is very similar. And like Babylon was portrayed as a sort of parody, a mick take, of the church, so the satanic beast is like a parody of God. God says in Revelation 1:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8 ESV)
The beast on the other hand ‘Was, but is not, and is about to rise… to go to destruction’. It’s like he’s trying to be God, but can’t quite manage it, and in the end will be destroyed! The reference to being not, but to come, and back in chapeter 13 being mortally wounded, yet healed. Those might be references to the way these empires are struck down, but then seem to reappear in another form, like a mock resurrection. Knock down Rome, up pops the Huns, knock down the Huns, up pops the Caliphates, knock down the Caliphates, up pops the Mongols, and so on and so on! The beast looks beaten, but every time it bounces back! And the people will marvel at it- all who don’t have their name written in the book of life. In other words everyone who’s not a believer in Christ. It’s like it’s inevitable! It just keeps coming back!
And that’s what we see in the description in verses 9-13. A total of 18 kings are mentioned here, and people have looked in history and found historical possibilities for kings or kingdoms- as we said the two are used interchangeably. The problem is of course if we take Daniel 7 and Daniel 2 as our base, there are only four kingdoms mentioned there
Some see reference to a separate kingdom with the 10 toes on the statue, but that still only takes us up to five- and according to v10 we’re already at six- either in John’s day or at the end, however you want to take it!
Better to take it as we have done throughout that seven has to do with completeness, wholeness. The kings/kingdoms are called seven hills, which could be a reference to Rome, built on seven hills, but as we noted when we looked at the beast last time so is Jerusalem, so is Washington DC, Moscow, Brussels, Tehran, Mecca, and Morley, South Leeds where I went to high school! Better, as it refers to kings too to see it as seven empires. The Babylonian empire is called a destroying mountain in Jeremiah 51, a chapter we’ll pick up on next week. They are seven empires representing empires across time, and in John’s day he was already very close to the end- the last one will remain only a little while!
And the beast itself is not one of the seven. It sits alongside the others an eighth- as one commentator puts it, “the beast is the essence, the concentrated expression of the seven, the embodiment of their spirit” (Milligan)
It represents the whole lot. If this were Daniel 2, it would be the whole statue of empires, and remember when the feet are struck by the rock which is Christ’s kingdom, it is not just the feet that are destroyed, but the whole statue! It is not just one empire that will be destroyed, not even seven, the whole kit and kaboodle will be ended by Christ! He will have victory over the beast!
What about the ten horns then, which receive authority as kings for an hour? Again 10 is a number we meet again and again in revelation. It just means ‘a lot’. Although the time is short, there will be plenty of kings, (and probably kingdoms to go with them). They will all be comparatively short lived. The Egyptian empire endured nearly 2,000 years! The Roman empire nearly 500 years! But the first French Empire lasted only 10 years! Adolf Hitler managed to keep the German Reich going only 6 years! The beast’s spokesman will keep changing. Its face will keep changing, but its character will remain the same! They look in control, but really the authority lies with beast. They make war on the lamb, on Christ and his saints. They persecute the church.
Babylon tempts, but the Beast terrorises, and in many parts of the world the danger is not so much Babylon, but the beast! The beast is starting to raise it’s head though in the UK too. We had some shocking stories sharing in the Church WhatsApp Group: Christians arrested for praying silently in their heads, street preachers being added to the prevent watchlist. At the moment there are protections for Christians in the law, but Babylon is riding on the back of the beast, and it won’t be too long before the beast does Babylon’s bidding, but there is hope… and so our last point
The End of Babylon v14-18
14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” (Revelation 17:14 ESV)
The beast and his followers make war on the lamb (and his followers), but in a twist of events, the lamb conquers him! The terrifying beast with its seven heads, and ten horns is no match, for a lamb, looking as though it was slain! This lamb, weak in appearance we’re told is Lord of Lord, and King of Kings. No mere King is a match to the Lamb! And his followers are no mere lackies! They called, chosen, faithful! That’s us! We are those followers of the lamb, which means our future is secure.
Think about those descriptions we’re given. We’re called, called by God, God has called us by name, we are his:
John 10:3 ESV To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Not only that… We’re chosen. God chose us before the foundation of the world, and He chose us out of the world:
John 15:19 ESV If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
The world may hate us, the Beast may attack, Babylon despise us, but God has chosen us! Finally… we’re faithful. In Revelation faithfulness has to with perseverance through persecution. They have been tested and found faithful. The other two are things done by God, God calls, God chooses, I just wonder whether there’s a hint here that God will keep us faithful. Whether there is or not all these things speak of our secure identity in Christ. Despite the difficulty of the battle, we are secure, and the outcome is secure, and that means an end to the beast- more details to follow later in the book, but also an end to Babylon, but even before then there is strife between the Beast and Babylon. The beast leaves Babylon desolate and naked.
16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. (Revelation 17:16 ESV)
For all her vaunted wealth and luxury, Babylon ends up with nothing, shamed in the street like a common prostitute, and then worse is devoured by the beast!
Her ending is a sort of mash up between the ending of unfaithful Israel in Ezekiel 16 and Jeremiah 2-4, who are also pictured there as prostitute and ends up stripped naked, and shamed by those around her. Like promiscuous Israel there its her lovers who turn on her and seek to kill her. It’s her lovers who invade and destroy her.
This whole beast/Babylon partnership has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The pervasive violence and moral decadency means that they are bound for mutual strife, and eventually destruction. So many times through history a strong nation or culture has moved towards moral decadency, holding sway over its kings and leaders, only to be swallowed whole by the next big empire on the scene. The empire of course repeats the pattern and the whole cycle starts again. The beast destroys one version of Babylon only to spawn another. Babylon’s fate matches that of promiscuous Israel and Judah.
But also it matches the fate of idolatrous queen Jezebel who was in the end was devoured by beastly dogs. She of course again matches the character of Babylon, luring people into sin and idolatry. Of course, there has already been a ‘Jezebel’ in Revelation. In Revelation 2 in the letter to the church in Thyatira, a so called prophetess was leading the church into sexual immorality, and causing them to stumble by eating food sacrificed to the world’s idols
And that of course is what Babylon does, leading the world astray. Even seeming to hold sway over visible elements of the church. Through Jezebels of both genders, the church is led astray into false teaching and immorality. The church’s job is to resist that, to stand firm against the tide, not to go the way of the world.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll go entirely different places, or watch entirely different things, wear completely different clothes or listen to completely different music, but it should make a difference sometimes in all those areas: What we watch at the cinema, how much we drink at the pub, how much time we spend watching tv, what lyrics we make stick in our mind through our playlists. As Paul writes to the Galatians
Galatians 5:13 …To freedom you were called, brothers. Only do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, but serve one another in love.
But worldliness is more subtle than just the films we watch, the music we listen to, or the clothes we wear, Babylon’s tendrils go much deeper. It’s quite possible to be as straightlaced as an saintly Victorian and still be worldly, because Babylon’s tendrils go into the heart. Why do we do what we do?
Worldliness is as much living for what the world lives for as doing what the world does. I know plenty of Christians through the years who have renounced worldly pursuits in pursuit of worldly goals! Like the holy preacher on tv who preaches the Bible, but then spends as much time asking for donations to their personal ministry: Money. Like the Christian student who’s never at nightclubs because they want to be admired by the opposite sex at the Christian Union: Sex. Like the Christian who volunteers to help run an important event at church, because nobody recognises them in the job at work: Power.
Even if we’re playing by Christian ‘rules’, if it’s still the world’s game, then it’s worldliness.It’s still Babylon at work. It’s just money, sex and power in more sanitised, palatable forms, but friends, as we’ll see next week, we must flee Babylon! Babylon is doomed, instead we must live for the city that will last: The New Jerusalem, that comes out of heaven. Zion, the holy city, the city of our God. We must live as citizens of Zion, even in the midst of Babylon. Not because we’re allowed to by other Christians, or not allowed to, but because we want to, and we truly are citizens there. So flee Babylon, endure the beast, and live for Jesus and the glorious future that is ours.