A tale of two cities

Chapter seventeen is the first of two chapters that look at the non-Jewish (Gentile) world of the future, as represented by a city called "Babylon". As we have already seen (in study eighteen), Babylon was originally the capital city of the Babylonian Empire. In the dream that Daniel interpreted for King Nebuchadnezzar, it was portrayed by the golden head of an immense statue, which itself was a representation of Nebuchadnezzar's empire and three more empires that would follow it. Although Babylon existed as a particular place, it has also been used throughout the Bible as a symbol of human society in opposition to God. John is now given greater insight into two fundamental aspects of this rebellious world system: religion and commerce. In due course, Babylon will be contrasted with Jerusalem - specifically, the 'new' Jerusalem - that represents the divine system which serves God and becomes God's "dwelling-place" (home) among people. In this first chapter, we shall see how 'Babylon' has offered religion as an alternative to genuine faith in God.

The great prostitute

The government of the antichrist, supported by the 'false prophet', will only be temporary, lasting for a maximum of seven years, but the devastation and destruction it causes will have eternal effects on the earth’s inhabitants. The "great prostitute" is an amalgamation of every man-made religion to form one single, false religion, presided over by the false prophet. This 'woman' is seated on (or beside) "many waters". (As we saw in study twelve, a body of water is often used in the Bible to represent people.)

'Babylon' has been an active force throughout world history in seeking to divert people from the good news that Jesus offers reconciliation with God as a gift - not something that has to be earned through good works or suffering. She has seduced people everywhere with a glittering form of religion that is actually a sham - a hollow imitation that has no power to cleanse people of their sin or stir up love in their hearts. (2 Timothy 3:5) Many of the Old Testament prophets used prostitution as a picture of idolatry. (Isaiah 23:15-17; Jeremiah 2:20-31; Ezekiel 16:17-18; Hoseah 2:5; Nahum 3:3-4) Anyone who chooses some alternative form of religion, not based on God's own word to us, is choosing to love something (or someone) else instead of God Himself. This is spiritual 'fornication' (or adultery) and we see in this chapter that God will, one day, bring it to an end with His judgement.

We know that Jesus died for the sins of the entire world, but His sacrifice is only valid for those who turn to Him and put their entire lives under His sovereignty. To these people, Jesus declares that He will remove their sinful “hearts of stone and give them a heart of love and obedience” in its place. (Ezekiel 36:25-27) No longer will God's people seek many gods; they will be content with the one, true God. The hard, deaf, immovable heart of stone will be radically transformed into a tender, receptive and responsive heart of flesh. (Jeremiah 32:39; Ezekiel 18:31-32) This new life can only be the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord's work to convict us of our sin, but we must then recognise that we need to turn away from our wrong-doing and, by faith, accept that we have been forgiven.

Only as we declare on a daily basis that “Jesus is Lord” can His transforming power make us more like Him. When we put our faith into action, God gives us new motives, new guidelines and a new purpose - His will for us. Right now, we are living at the end of the 'church age'. We are in a season of grace and mercy, the era in which people still have time to make a decision to turn to Jesus. However, one day soon, that period of grace will expire and those who have missed their opportunity will not have another. It is essential that we pray and challenge our family and friends to take this issue seriously and to consider the alternatives.

John sees the 'woman' sitting on a "scarlet beast" and she herself is dressed in purple and scarlet with gold ornaments. This is such a contrast with the picture of the Lamb's bride that we shall see in chapter nineteen. When Jesus' bride makes herself ready, she is given "fine linen, bright and clean". (Revelation 19:7-8) We may also bring to mind what the apostle Peter said about beauty. (1 Peter 3:3-4) The 'great prostitute' puts on a good show, but it is completely false because the cup that she holds is "filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries". (Revelation 17:4) In John's day, prostitutes would often wear a headband with their name on it. The Bible always sees names as having significance because they are more than just a 'label' - something to distinguish one person from another; they describe a person's character. This woman also has a name - a mystery, because it was previously hidden but has now been made clear.

Babylon the Great - Mother of prostitutes

The woman sits on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. As we saw in chapter thirteen, this is the beast from the sea - the antichrist. It is worth remembering here that these chapters are not chronological. John is being given additional information here about the beast (the antichrist) which adds to the earlier information he was given. The woman's influence has extended over many kingdoms and empires throughout the history of the world. She is the embodiment, the very personification of false religions, cults, pagan superstitions, mysticism, spiritualism and witchcraft in every age. This is not just one prostitute but an entire brothel!

The scarlet beast, with its seven heads and ten horns, represents stages of history with which John would have been familiar, divided into seven main kingdoms or empires (and ten smaller ones). They have all been opposed to everything that is holy and true. The prostitute has operated over a long period of time. She does not suddenly ‘pop up’ in the last seven years of life on earth! She is depicted sitting astride the beast, signifying her control over the kingdoms of the world and their support for her. For the moment, it seems as if they are all under her influence, but this is about to come to an end, as we shall see in a moment.

The heads of the beast

These empires have all been linked closely to Israel’s own history, often as her oppressors or captors. The first was the Egyptian empire under which 'the children of Israel' became enslaved after the death of Joseph. Deliverance came through God’s appointed leader, Moses, who led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness towards the land that God had promised to Abraham. This event is recorded in the book of Exodus. They entered the promised land under Joshua and settled there but, after the consolidation of the twelve tribes under King David and then his son, Solomon, the kingdom was divided into two. Ten of the tribes rebelled against Solomon's son (Rehoboam) and set up alternative centres of worship at Bethel and Dan in the North.

As a result of this rebellion against God, He allowed the northern tribes to be overrun and taken off into captivity by the Assyrians - the second empire. They were then overthrown, in turn, by the Babylonian empire which took over its territory and extablished a powerful, widespread kingdom under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and his grandson, Belshazzar. It was this empire that subsequently enslaved the southern Jewish tribes of Judah and Benjamin and to which Daniel was exiled and brought up to later became established as a senior advisor to the king. This empire was then conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia who developed a fourth empire, known as 'Medo-Persia'. (The demise of Babylon is graphically illustrated in the book of Daniel, when Belshazzar sacrilegiously used some gold goblets taken from God's temple in Jerusalem at one of his wild orgies. The hand of God wrote on the wall: “Mene, mene, tekel upharsin” as a judgement on Belshazzar, who was slain that very night by Darius the Mede. (Daniel 5:26-31)

The fifth empire was the Greek empire under Alexander the Great but, when that finally collapsed, it was succeeded by the sixth empire: the Roman Empire. This, of course, was at the height of its power in John's own day and had established its 'Pax Romana' (rule of law) throughout what was to John the known world. This was also when Jesus was born and, after a relatively short life, established the kingdom of God through the church as His body on earth. John wrote: “This calls for a mind [to consider that is packed] with wisdom and intelligence [it is something for a particular mode of thinking and judging of thoughts, feelings, and purposes]. The seven heads are seven hills upon which the woman is sitting and they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one still exists [and is reigning]; the other [the seventh] has not yet appeared, and when he does arrive, he must stay [but] a brief time.” (Revelation 17:9-10 - Amplified version) John is told that the seven heads of the scarlet beast represent both seven hills and also the seven empires. The city of Rome had been founded on seven hills and this is the empire that was currently in power so far as John was concerned.

A flurry of final kingdoms

For the time being, we see the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) as the only enduring kingdom on earth. From its birth some two thousand years ago until the present day, the church of Jesus Christ has expanded across the entire world. The Enemy has done his best to annihilate those who follow Christ but, although churches and Christian worship have been severely attacked at various times and in various places, faith has continued to flourish and churches have continued to thrive. Indeed, we see that, wherever the church has been persecuted, it only seems to grow even more.

The seventh kingdom is one that has yet to appear and John is told that the beast will, himself, be an eighth king. What this means is not clear and explanations vary. One view is that the seventh kingdom is one that is established by the beast when it appears, whilst the eighth is a kingdom that had previously died but has been miraculously raised to life and replaces the seventh kingdom. (In chapter thirteen, John describes one of the heads of the beast as apparently having had a fatal wound that has been healed. See study twenty-five.) Another view is that the seventh kingdom is a new incarnation of the Roman Empire, whilst the eighth is the beast's own kingdom. Still others believe that the seventh kingdom may be the European Union (founded by the 'Treaty of Rome') or the Roman Catholic Church (because it is based in Rome at Vatican City). Regardless of what it may be, it will eventually be replaced by the beast's own kingdom as the eighth one.

In verse twelve, we learn that the ten horns of the scarlet beast represent ten further kings, who will each rule with the beast "for one hour". This will take place during the "tribulation" immediately before Jesus returns to the earth. It seems clear that, halfway through the "tribulation", the antichrist and his allies will become impatient with the ecumenical religious system of the 'prostitute' and the corruption of her system of wealth and commerce; together they will turn and attack her. At this point, the antichrist will break his covenant with Israel and demand that everyone should worship him instead.

The downfall of the prostitute

At the end of chapter seventeen, John is told that the beast and the ten kings will suddenly turn against the prostitute and destroy her. Until this point, the antichrist has used the 'woman' to insinuate himself into the centre of world religion. He has appeared to be a man of peace and diplomacy in order to bring together governments, armies, commerce and religions. He will have achieved a very great deal in a very short time. However, this success, it appears, will lead him to believe that he is now worth much more than simply being a puppet for his master. So, at the mid-point in the "tribulation", he will launch himself as the head of the eighth empire.

In an echo of the fate of King Ahab's wicked wife (Jezebel) the 'woman' will be stripped of her wealth and power. The beast will "consume her flesh and burn her up with fire". (Revelation 17:16; 2 Kings 9:30-37) In chapter thirteen (study twenty-five) we saw Satan trying to counterfeit the 'Trinity' (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) but, whereas we see in Scripture that there is an innate respect and submission from the Holy Spirit for the Son and from the Son for the Father, it is apparent here that the beast is now trying to steal for himself the worship that Satan has always sought and desired. And so Jesus' words (when He was accused by the religious leaders of working miracles through satanic powers) prove absolutely prophetic: "If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand." (Mark 3:23-26)

Having destroyed the new one-world religion, the antichrist will then attempt to force himself onto the world as a self-appointed god during the increasingly difficult circumstances of the second half of the "tribulation". His backing group (of ten kings) will be given the promise of great authority in the new kingdom, in return for the use of their strength and power - the armies and economic structures of which they have control. It will probably be at this point that the false prophet will introduce the financial system based on the using the "mark of the beast". The alliance of armies and rulers will then be used by the antichrist to fight against the Lord Jesus Christ when He appears on the final day of the "tribulation". However, their destruction will be complete at the battle of Armageddon when Jesus returns. (Revelation 17:13-14)

The final battle

Despite the apparent triumph of the antichrist and his forces, John is left in no doubt at all as to who is in control of events, even at this late stage. He is told: "God has put it into their hearts to accomplish His purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God's words are fulfilled." (Revelation 17:17) The scene is now set for the final act of the "tribulation". The 'church age' finished with the rapture of the believers and, when Jesus returns in triumph as Lord of lords and King of kings, He will bring with Him those who are described as "called, chosen and faithful". (These adjectives are used throughout the New Testament to describe the church, the bride of Christ.) These believers, who were raptured, will return in triumph to rule and reign with Jesus Christ. What a joyful and triumphal return that will be!

What does this mean for us today? How can we apply this knowledge to ourselves? We live in a society where, broadly speaking, all manner of religious convictions are tolerated, provided that they are not ‘fundamentalist’ Christian ones. However, if we have truly come to know Jesus and given our lives to Him by faith, He will have changed our hearts and our attitudes from the inside out. We now know, without a shadow of doubt, that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. We know that the death He died, He died for us, so that we might be free from the fear of death and understand that, when the time comes for us to die, there will be an eternal place prepared for us in the presence of God. This should cause us, here and now, to be gripped with a divine fervency to see all people saved, so that no-one has to go through the abominable time of the "tribulation".

It is always good to be ready to give our reasons for loving God and how and why we became believers. It is through our witness that people are going to be set free to live their lives in the fullness that God intends!

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