Summary: Exposition of Rev. 17
Tonight I want to talk with you about a harlot.
I guess this is not a subject that comes up in conversation very often. They call it the world’s oldest profession, but it’s not one mentioned in polite company. Church is probably the last place you expect the preacher to mention a harlot, but I have some important reasons.
First of all, this harlot is one of the main characters in the passage we’ll be looking at in Rev. 17. But I also want to talk about this harlot because she is extremely dangerous. She’s a well known woman on the prowl, shamelessly looking for any soul to seduce with her charms. She is a lover who doesn’t love, a lady with no grace, a beauty who is as deadly as a black widow.
What’s more, this harlot is after you. Every day she prances before your eyes and mine, tempting us to ignore our inhibitions and enter her warm embrace. Every day we have to look beyond her appearance and see the ugly truth that this woman is no lady, but a tramp.
I want us to look at this “beauty” whom the Bible pictures riding on a beast. I want to especially see how you and I can safeguard our hearts from both the beauty and the beast. We’ll do this by looking in Rev. 17:1-6.
John begins by describing his vision in vs. 1-6, and then recording the interpretation in vs. 7-18.
Just after he sees the last bowl of God’s wrath poured out on the earth, one of the angels who was involved comes over and invites John to get a closer look at: …the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters who lures the people of the earth into fornication.
It’s significant that John is carried away by the Spirit into the wilderness=desert. He is removed away from the “civilized world” to be able to see this vision more clearly.
First let’s focus on the woman. She sits on a red beast, dressed in expensive clothes (only the rich in John’s day could afford clothes dyed in these colors.) She’s decked out in expensive gold, pearls, and jewelry---all of which you would expect to see on a harlot. In her hand she holds a cold cup full of obscenities and filthiness. Many Roman prostitutes wore kind of a crown around their heads which would have a nameplate on it, identifying the woman. This harlot has an unusual one that identifies her as Mystery Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and the Abominations of the Earth. (v. 5). What does this mean?
The word mystery refers to the fact this woman symbolizes something other than what she appears to be. In other words, she is not merely a specific individual, but a symbol of something else.
The word Babylon connects her not only with the city of Babylon, but with all in rebellion against God. Babylon is identified throughout the Bible as the center of the anti-God world.
The Mother of Harlots and Abominations signifies she is the source, the center of all prostitution and gross offenses against God.
This title is filled out by the description in vs. 6. This evil woman is drunk, not on wine, but on the blood of God’s people, those who have died for their faith. She sits on waters, which vs. 15 symbolize a crowd of people, multitudes, nations, and tongues.
Who is this harlot? John gives us some more clues in vs. 9 and vs. 18. There would be no doubt in the minds of anybody who read these words in the 1st century what city built on 7 hills John refers to: Rome. In the NT Babylon was often a code name for Rome. Rome was a city of wealth and luxury, a city that led many into idolatry (or spiritual fornication.) Rome was full of every sexual perversion you could think of. The Roman persecution of Christians is legendary.
And yet John’s vision is about more than just one corrupt city. This harlot is bigger than that. One scholar explains it this way:
The ancient Babylon…is a trans-historical reality including idolatrous kingdoms as diverse as Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Nineveh, and Rome…It may be said that Babylon[Rome] represents the total culture of the world apart from God…
Now I think we can identify this harlot in line with words John wrote many years before in
1 Jn 2:15-16 15Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.