Revelation 17:1-2 (NIV) 1 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”
On verses 1-2: The key to properly interpreting the book of Revelation is correctly identifying the characters that appear in the book. Who is “the great prostitute, who sits on many waters” (v1), who committed adultery with the kings of the earth and intoxicated earth’s inhabitants with her adulteries (v2)? Many commentators believe that this great prostitute represents false religion. What false religion are we talking about? In this sharing, I will use the term “false religion” to mean every system of belief in the world that preaches that man by his own effort can reach God or become his own God. The great prostitute of false religion has affected people all over the world for millennia. It gives people a false hope and a false comfort that can be fairly described as “adultery” (v2a), for it involves running away from depending on God to save us by the means of His Son Jesus and running into the arms of a false religious system that is all about one’s own effort and exalting oneself. The comfort of this false religion is like the false comfort of being “intoxicated” (v2b) in that the comfort is fleeting and does not last.
Revelation 17:3 (NIV) 3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.
On verse 3: As stated above, the woman represents false religion which is all about man’s effort to reach God or become God. John sees this woman who represents false religion sitting on a scarlet beast that is covered with blasphemous names and having seven heads and ten horns. Who is this beast? Most likely this beast is the same beast with seven heads and ten horns that we have seen all along in Revelation: the beast from the sea, the anti-Christ. The idea is that the anti-Christ and the spirit of false religion will work in tandem together to wreak havoc on the earth.
Revelation 17:4 (NIV) 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
On verse 4: This woman representing false religion looks very glamorous, even royal, but notice what she is drinking in that golden cup of hers: injustice and evil (“abominable things”) as well as adultery. What can we learn from this? False, man-centered religion has the appearance of being beautiful, but on the inside it is full of injustice and evil. It reminds me of when Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their false, man-centered religion, saying “you Pharisees clean the inside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39).
Revelation 17:5 (NIV) 5 This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
On verse 5: We’ve been saying that this woman represents the spirit of false religion. So why the title “MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT”? According to many commentators, by calling this woman “Babylon the Great”, John’s vision is linking this woman to the famous story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel (also known as Babylon). In the story of the Tower of Babel, people tried to build a city (called Babel or Babylon) with a tower that reaches to the heavens. The goal was to make a name for themselves. The people were of course unsuccessful and the result of their efforts was total confusion. The story of building the tower of Babel is a vivid picture of false man-centered religion, the idea that we can reach God without His help.
Revelation 17:6 (NIV) 6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished.
On verse 6: The picture of this woman being drunk on the blood of Christians illustrates another point about the spirit of false religion: false religion has no interest in accommodating those who believe solely in Jesus (the saints) but is intent on destroying Christianity. While on the outside false religion will come across as all accepting and tolerant of all faiths and belief systems, deep down there is an intolerance and a hatred toward anyone that exalts Jesus above anything else.
Revelation 17:7-8 (NIV) 7 Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.
On verses 7-8: What does verse 8 mean when it says that the beast “once was, now is not, and yet will come”? Many commentators believe this is a reference to how the anti-Christ lived, then suffered a fatal wound, and then miraculously recovered to everyone’s astonishment. However, in the end this beast will still go down to his destruction. “Abyss” literally means destruction and refers to a place where Satan and his demons will be jailed and eventually destroyed.
Revelation 17:9-10 (NIV) 9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.
On verses 9-10: The seven heads of the beast are seven hills or seven kings, five of which have fallen, one who exists, and the seventh still to come. Who are these seven hills or kings exactly? It is not totally clear. Some scholars have identified these 7 hills as 7 empires that were, each at one time, the most powerful empire in the world. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece seem to be the most common empires identified as the first five hills “which have fallen” (v9). The one that exists is, they say, the Roman empire. The seventh that “has not yet come” and which “must remain for a little while” is the final empire that the beast from the sea (the anti-Christ) will rule. Other commentators liken the 7 hills to 7 Roman emperors who rose to power but eventually fell. It is also worth noting that Rome was known as the city of seven hills.
Revelation 17:11 (NIV) 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.
On verse 11: What does this mean? The beast from the sea is that seventh hill/king and thus “belongs to the seven”, but then after he is mortally wounded, he will recover and in effect re-assume power as “an eighth king”. In the end, however, he will still be “going to his destruction” (v11).
Revelation 17:12-14 (NIV) 12 “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. 13 They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings–and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
On verses 12-14: The ten horns on the beast from the sea are ten kings who were not in power during John’s time. However, they will rule at the same time alongside the beast for only “one hour” (v12), meaning a short period. These kings will work together as a confederation of kingdoms and “have one purpose” (v13), which is to serve the beast. They will fight against the Lamb Jesus Christ. However, Jesus Christ the Lord of lords and King and kings will be victorious, along with his “called, chosen and faithful followers” (v14).
Revelation 17:15 (NIV) 15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.
On verse 15: The waters represents peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The fact that the woman sits on the waters means that the influence of false religion will extend across the world. Her influence across the world will be so great that some commentators believe that the result will be one world religion. It can be said that all of the false religions across the world are essentially one and the same in that they are all predicated on man’s effort to reach God or become God. Only Christianity preaches that we are utterly powerless to reach God on our own and desperately need a Saviour to save us from our sins and to bring us to God.
Revelation 17:16-17 (NIV) 16 The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled.
On verses 16-17: Though the woman slept with the ten kings, the ten kings and the beast will hate her, expose her nakedness, eat her and burn her alive. In the end the beast and the ten kings were only using her to get what they want: power. Once they have it, they try to destroy her. According to verse 17, God will ultimately use this situation to accomplish His own purposes.
What can we learn from this? The union of corrupt political systems and false man-centered religion will never last. One will ultimately destroy the other in a grab for more power.
Revelation 17:18 (NIV) 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
On verse 18: The woman, whom we have been identifying as representing false man-centered religion, is also identified as “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth”. Some commentators believe that this could be a reference to Rome, which during John’s time embodied and exemplified the spirit of false religion more than any other city. It could also be another way of saying that as much as the kings of the earth in verse 16 tried to destroy false religion, false religion is the great city or the great system that will continue to rule over them.
Lord Jesus, thank You that though so many have tried to attack and defeat You, You remain unconquerable. Thank You for rescuing us from the bondage of false, man-centered religion which is all about our effort to get to You or become like You. May the world know through us that we all need a Saviour and that His name is Jesus. You are the King of kings and the Lord of lords and nothing can stand against You. In Jesus’ name, AMEN!