Enticing… & Subversive – Revelation 17:1-18 05/30/21
There is a slippery slope that you can step onto, and before you know it, you’re in trouble. This is because there are things that we can get into that are not intrinsically wrong, but spiritually can be very dangerous. We all kind of resonate with that, don’t we? And… that’s why money, a morally neutral commodity, can be so very dangerous spiritually. In fact money, and the things we can do with it, will be one aspect of the Antichrist’s pull on the world and, if we’re going to be honest, on many in the Church.
Our full text today is Revelation 17:1-18. Here we transition into a new literary unit which runs from Revelation 17:1 through Revelation 19:10. There is very little in these chapters that chronologically links these verses to the rest of the Revelation. The literary sub-unit of 17:1-18 is dominated by the “harlot” and her relationship to the Beast.
John draws from ancient history, Hebrew Scripture, and contemporary events as he reveals what will take place at some point in the future. To begin with, there are several interesting parallels between the harlot of Revelation 17 and the goddess Roma, who was seen as personifying Rome. Roma was a female deity seen to personify both the city of Rome, and more broadly, the Roman state. Her image was stamped on Roman coins, shown seated on seven shields, which on the coin resembled seven hills.
In a lower section of the back of the coins was an image of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. They’re depicted being nursed by a she-wolf. In the Revelation John uses an interesting play on words, the Latin “lupa”, i.e. she-wolf, carried the connotation of a prostitute in Roman society. With that double meaning, John now links Rome to a prostitute and creates a kind of subversive joke. Again, we find a surprising sense of humor injected into the Revelation.
Next we find Babylon showing up again. The Bible is full of information regarding Babylon as the source of false religions. This began with the building of the tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11:4. Now, we read this and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is this: this was mankind’s first concerted effort to gain mastery over creation through the occult, specifically here, astrology. According to Scripture, Babylon was founded by Nimrod. Based on extra biblical sources, his wife, Semiramis, was reportedly responsible for establishing the secret religious rites of the Babylonian mysteries.
Later, the name “Babylon” was applied to the city of Babylon, a city which dated as far back as 3,000 years before Christ. Historically, God’s people have seen Babylon as the source various belief systems that stood in opposition to the faith of Israel, and later in opposition to the faith of the Church. Because of this, the name “Babylon” is often used to refer to the source of false religions, often religions that are demonically inspired. It was, then, a natural transition to interpose Babylon for Rome.
The truth is, the spirit of “Babylon” will be found behind any satanic deception at work in the world. It’s defined by idolatrous worship rather than by geographic or temporal boundaries. Here, Babylon is the archetypal head of all worldly resistance to God. John takes this imagery and uses it to characterize spiritual forces of evil.
This is not only evil, it is also seductive. This woman is described as a harlot, which is consistent with the ancient world’s practice of merging prostitution with idolatrous worship. The truth is, immorality tends to spread. It begins to infiltrate our personal lives long before it’s visible publicly. It is that slippery slope we have to watch out for.
We need to spend some time thinking about what this means to us today. God, characterizing Babylon as a “harlot,” emphasizes the alluring and seductive nature that tempts and draws people away from Christ. We find an ironic contrast between her beauty, or desirableness, and her gross wickedness. The nations of the world cooperate with Babylon in order to ensure material security. They’re pursuing wealth before anything else. That sounds and awful lot like today, doesn’t it? Closely associated with placing faith in that which can be gone in an instant, wealth, is the second major problem with the harlot’s conduct. She will lead the nations of the earth away from faith in, and then belief in, God.
Now, there’s a ton of stuff I’m simply passing over. For our purposes today, it’s enough to know that the harlot and the Beast will make war on the Church, and ultimately be overthrown by King Jesus. Ultimately, surprise of surprises, we discover that God remains in control… even when it doesn’t look like it.
Our text today provides us with a warning against elevating material abundance, military power, racial pride, or technological sophistication, in such a way that it becomes nothing more than idolatry. Where do we, as God’s people, stand in all of this? Our challenge is to discern what, in our own culture, and even worse, in our own lifestyles, is taking on the nature of Babylon. Have we fallen in love with our wealth, our comfort, our independence, to such a level that we’re in danger of making these things into idols in the place of God? There is always that very real risk.
How do we go about disentangling ourselves from anything that interferes or distracts us from being fully available for God’s purposes? I think that, ultimately, we need to decide where our true affections lie. Are your affections firmly planted on what will endure, rather than on what’s passing away even as we use it? I’m not talking about having things, I’m talking about loving them... in place of the One who provided them for you to enjoy.