Locating Babylon (Revelation 17:1-18)
Topic: Revelation Passage: Revelation 17:1–17:18
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
August 16, 2015
I. Today's Location
32.5364° North, 44.4208° East. For some, this would be the answer. “The answer to what?”, you might ask. The answer to the question, “Where is Babylon?”.
For some, Babylon is located exactly where it's always been located: about 53 miles south of Baghdad, just outside the town of Al Hillah. And if I could take you there right now, you would see the remains of that ancient city. You would even see modern-day replicas of ancient Babylonian buildings and walls, replicas built by Saddam Hussein himself.
But as we return to the Book of Revelation this morning, we will discover that the Apostle John, that Jesus, has a very different answer for us when it comes to locating Babylon today.
Let's look together at that answer. Turn with me to Revelation chapter 17.
II. The Passage: “The Woman That You Saw” (17:1-18)
Before we dig into this amazing, but complicated chapter, let me remind that we have, in some sense, already finished the main vision of the book. That vision began in chapter 4 and concluded in chapter 16. It was the vision of God and His throne, of the Lamb and the scroll, and of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls that represent the ultimate justice of God being brought over time, but eventually in full, to a fallen and rebellious world.
So what's left to cover? Well, chapters 17-22 provide us with a fuller explanation of the fate of both the condemned and the blessed. In fact, chapters 17-19 represent an expansion on what takes place during the sixth and seventh bowl judgments of chapter 16.
The unity of these final chapters is seen in the fact that two women are the connecting thread. Listen to 17:1 and 21:9...
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters...”
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
Revelation will end with a celebration. But not before the condemnation of everything that twists and distorts and corrupts and kills. Not before God brings His ultimate justice. In regard to chapter 17, I see two parts here. Part 1 is found in 17:1-6a, and Part 2 is found in 17:6b-18.
1. Introducing the Vision of the Prostitute (17:1-6a)
So let's look first at 17:1-6a, as an angel is with John, introducing the vision of the prostitute:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters,  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.”  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.  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.  And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations.”  And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
So right away we see a connection to the previous chapter. Who is showing John this vision? It is one of the seven angels from chapter 16, the ones who poured out those bowl judgments upon the earth.
Also notice how the angel describes the vision. It is a vision, not only of this woman, this prostitute, but also of her judgment. Now once we learn the identity of this woman, we realize that we have already read of her judgment; in fact, twice before, once in chapter 14 and once in chapter 16. In light of verse 5 here, listen to those two previous instances:
Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” (14:8) The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. (16:19)
Who is this woman? She is Babylon. No, she is not that ancient city built on the Euphrates River, over which Nebuchadnezzar ruled. But she does embody so much of what that ancient city represents; what it stood for. Just look at how she is described here. Like ancient Babylon, she is gloriously impressive, but also grossly impure. Like ancient Babylon, she is radiant and regal, but also depraved and drunk. And like ancient Babylon, she rains down suffering and death on the people of God.
She is not only a prostitute, but the “mother of prostitutes.” We'll talk more about what that means in just a little bit.
But we have to emphasize that this woman is not alone in the vision. We are told she is riding a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. We know this “beast”, don't we. Flip back for just a minute to Revelation 13. Look at what we read there in verses 1 and 2, and let's see if there really is a connection...
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.  And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.
Seven heads? Ten horns? Blasphemous names? This is the very same beast we find here in chapter 17. What's critical to see here is that there is a critical connection between the woman and the beast. Yes, she sits over him, but also on him; that is, he (v. 7) carries her wherever she goes. So what are we to make of all this?
2. Interpreting the Vision of the Prostitute (17:6b-18)
Well, thankfully, chapter 17 is one of the few places in the book where there is actually some explanation given to help us make sense of the symbolic imagery of the vision. In the previous section, the accompanying angel introduces the vision. But starting in the last half of verse 6, he is interpreting the vision of the prostitute. Let's listen to his explanation...
When I saw her, I marveled greatly.  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.  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.  This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated;  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.  As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.  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.  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.”  And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.  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,  for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.  And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
From one perspective, what we have here is somewhat unexpected. Why? Because the interpretation given by the angel spends far more time talking about the beast than the woman herself. In fact, verses 9 and 18 are the only verses that give us explicit explanations about the figure of the woman.
But look at what those verses do tell us. Verse 9 reveals that the woman is seated on seven mountains or hills. Additionally, verse 18 tells us that this woman, this prostitute, is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.When those two verses are taken together, the original readers of Revelation, those Christians in the seven churches of western Asia Minor, these readers would have immediately identified the harlot: she is Rome, the city often described in ancient literature as being built on seven hills; the city that in John's time ruled over most of what those readers recognized as the inhabited world.
Of course, when we remember our discussion of chapter 13, this should not be surprising.
In chapter 13, we recognized that the Roman Empire, embodied in the Emperor himself, provided us with the best explanation for the two beasts presented in those visions. Remember, this book was written to Christians who lived day in and day out under the power and pressure of Rome and the Imperial Cult. In fact, the region in which the seven churches were located had three Imperial Cult centers, when no other region in the entire Empire had even two. Many had zero.
So original context, the original location and culture, the devil-derived power and authority of the beast, the blasphemous titles used by the Emperors, the pressures to worship the Emperor and his statue, these all fit too neatly into chapter 13 to be some kind of coincidence. And chapter 17 simply strengthens the case. Why else would the angel give two interpretations for the seven heads of the beast in verses 9 and 10 if the first were not a clue confirming what any First-century reader would have suspected? In fact, the woman seated on seven mountains or hills would have been a familiar image, found on coins and sculptures of the time; it was an image of Dea Roma, the goddess who represented the city of Rome.
But look at that second interpretation of the seven heads of the beast. The heads are, verse 10, 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. Now what in the world does that mean?
So here's where we need to be careful. I just interpreted the seven mountains as seven literal hills, right? So the seven kings must be seven literal kings, right? Wrong. You see, mountains or hills in apocalyptic literature symbolize kingdom power, just as Babylon was described as a “destroying mountain” in Jeremiah 51:25. I believe it's the number seven, that number of completion, that keeps us primarily grounded in symbolic imagery. So “mountains” does go hand in hand with “kings”. But why use both? I think it was because it was also noteworthy that Rome was actually built on seven hills.
So if these kings are symbolic in some sense, what is the angel telling us? Well, this is where we need to remember that the “beast” in Revelation does seem to be more than just one earthly empire. Do you remember how, in chapter 13, the beast is described as a composite of all the earthly empires symbolized in Daniel 7?
Just as the woman is Babylon, that is, a current manifestation of the spirit of Babylon, so too is the Roman “beast” a current manifestation of the world system that has always stood in opposition to God. This is why it's made clear that the beast is an “eighth” power, that in some sense, he is different than the seven. But he is also “of the seven”, that is he is manifested in the seven.
John identified this same power in chapter 4 of his first letter: ...every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already (I John 4:3).
So what the angel reveals in Revelation 17, is that this worldly power that has existed for ages (i.e. the first five kings), this worldly power that currently reigns (i.e. the king who is), will also manifest itself again in new way, but only for “a little while” (i.e. the seventh king); why just “a little while”? Because the “beast” is “about to...go to destruction”. And we know how he will be destroyed. Verse 14 confirms that the beast and his royal henchmen will be conquered by none other than Jesus Christ himself, the Lamb...for he is Lord of lords and King of kings.
What then does it mean, verse 8, that the beast “was, and is not”? It means that the former persecution against the church will be renewed, “for the time is near” (1:3). This would happen under the Emperor Domitian, and at least eight other emperors after him. Revelation was written, in large part, to prepare the original readers for this coming persecution.
III. Seduction, Not Coercion
So if we stop and think about all this for a minute, one of the most interesting things about chapter 17 is the fact that God makes a distinction for us between the woman and the beast. Up to this point in the book, the references to “Babylon” seemed to be just another symbolic way of describing the “beast”, of identifying and indicting the godless world system. And, inasmuch as the woman rides the beast, that connection is right. But it's clear in chapter 17, especially from the harlot's demise, that the beast and Babylon are also distinct.
But how are they distinct? When we consider what we know about the prostitute from chapters 17 and 18, we realize that her power is not like the beast's; that is, it does not express itself in political pressure, military might, or cultural coercion, but instead...in sensuality and seduction. Yes, through the beast she has “dominion over the kings of the earth” (v. 18). But her real control is described in verse 2. She is the one “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.
What does that mean? Throughout Revelation, sexual immorality represents not only physical compromise, but all compromise that leads us away from God and toward the beast. You may remember that for most of the seven churches, the danger was not, at this point, government persecution, but something similar to what was happening in Thyatira:
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (2:20).
In short, the danger was compromise by seduction, not by coercion.
This is an especially important warning for us. I've always been uneasy about Christians who regularly talk about or seem strangely fascinated by the idea of a future America where our faith is illegal; a future society where we, like so many disciples before us, will be harshly persecuted for our beliefs. Why do such people and their talk me uneasy? Because I don't believe that could happen? Of course that could happen.
No, it makes me uneasy because that possibility is always described as the really dangerous time. That's what we really have to watch out for and do everything we can now to avert.
Brothers and sisters, friends, I beg to differ. Real spiritual vigilance is not about speculating on and preparing for future persecution. It is about locating Babylon today. Where is she right now? Don't be deceived: she is still whoring about in the present. She is still drunk at this very moment. Even now she seduces both “kings” and the “dwellers on earth” (v. 2) with her “abominations” and “impurities” (v. 4) . She is still seated squarely over “many waters” , that is, over peoples and multitudes and nations and languages (vs. 1, 15).
And just as Jesus warned the seven churches, both in chapters 2 and 3, and throughout this Revelation, her seductions do not stop at the door of the church. Real spiritual vigilance is about a sober-minded recognition of these seductions to compromise, recognizing them in your own home; in your own decisions, in your own purchases; in your own priorities; in your own heart.
And Jesus knows firsthand the true temptation and the true nature of her seductions. That is why she is described with such opulent and glorious language on one hand. She is very attractive. But her abominations and impurities are also revealed, so we can be reminded of the utter ugliness of her sins.
I think we can consider Babylon's seductions in light of four “P's”: she seduces with pleasure and possession, as well as position and power. Aren't these things all of us crave in one form or another? The pleasures of the flesh, like comfort, food, and sex. The possessions of this world. Maybe a position of respect or acceptance. Power. The power to control or hurt, or maybe power to protect ourselves.
There is no doubt that Revelation is a book of clear-headed and serious warnings. But it is also, even more so, a book about the gospel. It is a book that invites us to see the eternal pleasure and possessions that await those who overcome by grace, through faith in the victorious Lamb. It is a book that reminds, as we see so clearly here in verses 16 and 17, that God is, will, and always has been carrying out His purposes, until His “words...are fulfilled”. Even Babylon, even the beast, even evil must submit to His sovereign purposes.
I don't know about you, but I find that, yes, not easy to understand in some ways; but more so, I find that incredibly comforting. Only judgment awaits the harlot, and only judgment awaits those who are found, in the end, drunk with her corruptions. And as we see here, it is an irrational, self-destructive judgment. Sin always drive us, in the end, to the spiritually, emotionally, relationally cannibalistic tendencies of greed, fear, and pride.
Judgment awaits the harlot. But total victory awaits the Lamb. Won't you let Him conquer your heart this morning? Won't you let His victory spill into that area of your life where, even now, the prostitute has you entranced? Look to Him. And ask God to give you, this week, the eyes to locate Babylon in your own life, in your own home.
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