The Enemy of God’s people (Revelation 17-18)

If the world at times seems cruel, unjust and ungodly, it’s not a new phenomenon.   If Governments seem to legislate against God’s Law and the markets encourage greed and selfishness then there is nothing new under The Sun. If our culture encourages sexual immorality, the objectification of women and the sexualisation of youngsters then its only following age old traditions.

And there’s some good news in that desperate picture because when we wonder “How can we live as faithful Christians in such a world?” then we are asking the same question that early Christians were asking when Revelation was written.

The book of Revelation is designed to answer such questions because it gives us Heaven’s eternal perspective on life now.

Let’s have a look at Revelation 17-18 and see what’s going on.

The Great Prostitute

In his vision, John sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns. He is told that this is the great prostitute and he is going to see the judgement coming to her.  The woman is identified as “Babylon.”  She is drunk on the blood of God’s people.

There are two important themes here.

  1. Babylon – the city that stands against God’s people

Back in Genesis 11, we find the people of the world uniting together to resist God’s will. They build a tower hoping it will reach heaven so they can make a great name for themselves.  God comes down and confuses their languages so that they scatter. Genesis tells us that the place is then called Babel, a Hebrew word for confusion but also a pun on the name “Babili” from which Babylon is derived. The name probably had the idea of “gateway of the gods.”

From then on, Babylon was identified with opposition to God. It is this empire that invades Judah, destroys Jerusalem and takes the people captive. It is her King, Nebuchadnezzar that builds a statue for himself. It is there that the people lament:

“Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept     as we thought of Jerusalem.[a] We put away our harps,     hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us.     Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn:     “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the Lord     while in a pagan land?”[1]

Now, Babylon is used as a code name for Rome, the city on seven hills (17:9). Note that the 7 heads and ten horns also refer to prominent rulers.  Whilst some commentators have tried to identify these with specific emperors, we probably do best to see the number 7 again representing the complete rule of all Roman emperors in a symbolic sense.[2]

So, the Revelation locates itself very firmly in the time of John’s first readers. It was relevant to them because Babylon was now Rome. But Babylon is also in a way “every city” in the sense that it represents every power that opposes God and his people.  We see this in two ways. First of all, we have the beast that dies and rises (17:8; 17:11). The beast is both one of the seven Kings and distinct as an 8th.  This may draw on the rumour that Nero would somehow return.[3] This for John would not be about a literal return from the dead but the way in which rulers acting as ant-Christ are of the same type.  Evil even when defeated for a time, rises again. Then you also have the ten kings yet to come who will make war against the Lamb (17:12-14).

Babylon is a mighty power ruling over the nations (17:15-18). Yet notice the sense in which worldly powers are by their nature divided. Consumed by greed, jealousy and rivalry, they have a habit of turning in on themselves. The beast hates the prostitute who rides on it, will turn on her, strip her, burn and eat her (17:17-18).

The unfaithful world

The Kings and all the people of this world commit adultery with the prostitute (17:1-2). The people of this world submit and “give their authority to the scarlet beast (17:17).

Now, the imagery of a prostitute and adultery will immediately make us think specifically of sexual sin.  We are right to pause on that specific application and not duck it. When we looked at this passage in Bearwood Chapel, the preacher noted that prostitution is a disturbing evil because it causes women to sell sex, to sell themselves. However, he helpfully widened it out. We can see immediately why prostitution and adultery are serious but there are other ways in which we act unfaithfully through lust, use of pornography and the objectification of women.  There is a call in Revelation 18:4 to come out or “come away from” Babylon.

However, the theme of sexual unfaithfulness in the Bible usually pushes us to the root cause of this which is unfaithfulness to God. The Old Testament prophets connected adultery with idolatry.  God is the true husband of his people, going after other gods is to reject his love, care and rule.

Idolatry happens when we reject God’s reign and put other rivals in his place. Those rivals can be the gods and physical idols of other religions, our superstions and fears. Idolatry can be our possessions. It can even be good things like relationships and friendships that become all consuming. Often it is about putting myself and my needs first.

Babylon is fallen

If we are tempted to be captivated, enthralled to Babylon’s supposed treasures or if we live in fear of its power to persecute and bully then Revelation 18 should wake us up sharp. This Great City is in fact a fallen city.

“She has become a home for demons. She is a hideout for every foul spirit, a hideout for every foul vulture and every foul and dreadful animal.” [4]

The veneer is stripped away and we see her in all her weakness and ugliness, a place of desolation and decay with the stench of death. A sacked city, a defeated enemy.  Her destruction is coming and the world will mourn.

Babylon is judged because:

“In your streets flowed the blood of the prophets and of God’s holy people and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world.”[5]

This brings a warning message. In so far as we identify with this World and its ways; in so far as we are taken in by temptation to get power, popularity, instant gratification, material wealth; in so far as we accept this world’s morality and in so far as we use its tactics of bullying, manipulation and deceit we are identifying with and aligning with the enemy of God and his people.  The City is judged and so like Lot from Sodom we are called to “Come away from her, my people.” (18:4).

This is a powerful and vital call to holiness. Where our lives are marked by greed, selfishness, lies, lust then the call is to repent and turn from sin, to find forgiveness and cleansing in Christ and to rely on the Holy Spirit to grow in sanctification.

This also brings a message of hope. It offers hope to the victims of this world, especially those persecuted for their faith. God will judge sin and wickedness, suffering and trials are momentary.  It is also a message of hope to those who seek to live godly lives, rooted in Christ, the day of his return is coming. This should encourage us to persevere and be faithful.

Conclusion

This World stands against God and his word. It opposes and persecutes God’s people. It preys on the weak and the vulnerable. In response to the Gospel, we are called to live lives that are distinct from this world. We can persevere even when faithfulness brings persecution

Looking back to past grace -we have been saved by grace for works of service

Enjoying present grace now – knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit

Looking forward to future grace – the day is coming.

[1] Psalm 137: 1-4.

[2] Mounce, Revelation, 317,

[3] Mounce, Revelation, 317-318.

[4] Revelation 18:2.

[5] Revelation 18:24

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