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Revelation 17: The seductive harlot, false religion and the worldly stage

Illustration of a Fall of Babylon by Cyrus II, 539 BC
Illustration of a Fall of Babylon by Cyrus II, 539 BC | Getty Images/Nastasic

Imagine that you are seated in a grand theatre where the stage is set for an epoch drama. The actors are preparing to take their places. You watch as the spectacle unfolds with two pivotal characters: one representing the imperishable truth of unadulterated Christianity, and the other, an enigmatic figure embodying the allure of false religion coupled with worldly power. This theatre is a microcosm of the cosmic battle that has been taking place between good and evil, truth and deception, and wisdom and ignorance, for several millennia.

As the curtain rises, the spotlight falls on these two characters. Their roles are clear, their destinies intertwined, and the audience in awe and apprehension, watches as this ages-long struggle rapidly advances to the final scene.

This is the setting for Revelation chapter 17, where one of the seven angels who had participated in the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath, now takes the apostle John to witness the judgment of an illustrious prostitute. To put it in the vernacular, she is a courtesan — a high-class sophisticated working girl. She has an almost irresistible allure, ensnaring countless nations and souls with her seductive powers. 

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This captivating and glamorous call girl sits atop a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, bearing blasphemous inscriptions. She holds a golden goblet filled with moral decay and vulgarities, and across her forehead, there is this mysterious name: “Babylon the Great, Mother of all Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” She is disgustingly inebriated, drunker than a fish in a whiskey barrel on the blood of God’s holy people.

This woman of ill-repute serves as a symbolic depiction of gross spiritual and moral corruption, representing various false religious and political systems that have opposed God’s authority throughout history, all set against the backdrop of the epic cosmic battle between light and shadow.

Revelation chapters 17 and 18 are among some of the most difficult to interpret.  Perhaps it would be good to navigate this section with keen attention and thorough observation. So much of what is happening in mainline churches today seems to be laying the groundwork for this global, religious, and political entity, referenced as some translations call her, Mystery Babylon.

Here again is Revelation 17:1-6:

“One of the seven angels who had poured out the seven bowls came over and spoke to me. 'Come with me,' he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.

So the angel took me in the Spirit into the wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it. The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand, she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality. A mysterious name was written on her forehead: 'Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.' I could see that she was drunk — drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement.”

Great men of God who were tremendous scholars have interpreted the great harlot as Rome, and the arguments are compelling. Others have said that Babylon represents apostate Jerusalem. Still, some insist that in the last days, the literal city of Babylon, with the help of the United Nations or a future world government, will rebuild and restore Babylon to its past glory and majesty.

I genuinely do not think of myself as a scholar worthy to shine the boots of these saints with extraordinary gifts of erudition.

However, I am not inclined to agree with them.  I am persuaded the late Alan F. Johnson, who taught the New Testament at Wheaton College for 30 years and wrote the commentary for the book of Revelation in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, offers an excellent analysis of Mystery Babylon. Johnson writes:

“[T]he great prostitute, Babylon, that Revelation describes is not any mere historical city with its inhabitants, whether in John’s past, present, or future. Rather, the city is the mother of all these historical prostitutes, the archetypal source of every idolatrous manifestation in time and space. Therefore, it is as much a mistake to identify Babylon with Rome as it is with Jerusalem. Babylon could equally well be seen in any of these classic manifestations from the past or in modern times …

Amazingly, all the harlot-city societies mentioned in Scripture have certain common characteristics that are also reflected in John’s description of the Great Babylon, in which he merges the descriptions of ancient Babylon and Jerusalem into one great composite …Wherever and whenever these characteristics have been manifested historically, there is the appearance of Babylon.”

Consider the characteristics of Babylonish-type religious systems as described by Revelation chapter 17 verses 1-6.

The false religion as represented by the spiritual whore in these verses is portrayed as one “who rules over many waters” (vs. 1). The expression, “many waters,” is a reference to the many nations over which she rules. She has a connection to and has significant influence over political and worldly systems. She is declared to have made the earth drunk with the wine of her spiritual infidelity.

John F. Walvoord, one of the most prominent evangelical scholars of his generation and author of the commentary, The Revelation of Jesus Christ has written:

“The alliance of the apostate church with the political powers of the world during this future period of time not only debauches the true spiritual character of the church and compromises her testimony in every way but has the devastating effect of inducing religious drunkenness on the part of the inhabitants of the earth.

False religion is always the worst enemy of true religion, and the moral wickedness involved in the union of the church with the world imposes a stupefying drunkenness as far as spiritual things are concerned. The hardest to win to Christ and the most difficult to instruct in spiritual truth are those who have previously embraced false religion with its outward show of a worship of God. The concept here presented … makes plain that the apostate church has eagerly sought and solicited the adulterous relation with the world political powers.”

In the early 1930s, there was a movement known as “Deutsche Christen” within the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany. It sought to merge Christianity with Nazi ideology and policies, thereby seriously compromising Christian principles for political purposes.

German Christians (Deutsche Christen) promoted a perversion of the Christian faith that incorporated Nazi anti-Semitic beliefs. They “Aryanized” Christianity by eliminating its Jewish influences.

With the support of the regime, Deutsche Christen gained control of key leadership positions within the Protestant Church and used their influence to purge clergy who opposed their views to promote loyalty to the Nazi government and the Führer, Adolf Hitler.

The alliance between these German-professing Christians and the Nazi state resulted in a flagrant compromise of core Christian values, such as the rejection of racism, the defense of religious freedom, and protection of the most vulnerable in life.  Deutsche Christen supported Nazi policies, which included, the persecution and infanticide of the Jewish people.

It was a disaster for Germany and the Church.

Revelation chapter 17 verse 4 also says the woman “wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls.”  This indicates her association with great material wealth and indulgence. False religion promotes a love for worldly pleasures and extravagant lifestyles. It is enraptured by the siren song of opulence and has an inordinate desire to dance in the gilded ballroom of excess.

Evangelist David Wilkerson, best known for authoring the book, The Cross and the Switchblade, once slammed those who preach a Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel erroneously asserts God’s blessings and financial prosperity are assured to those who have sufficient faith and make financial contributions to religious leaders or organizations.

With the heart of someone broken and his voice trembling, Wilkerson made the following comments:

“This past week I was given a videotape … and I listened to the speakers, and I was dumbfounded. Listen to what was said: ‘A speaker got up and said if a poor widow on welfare hands you 5 dollars, you better take it. Elijah took the widow’s last meal. You are the anointed one. You deserve it. You take it.’ The same speaker said I live in an 8,000-square-foot house. I’m going to build a bigger one now — one that King Solomon would be proud of. I just paid 15,000 dollars for a dog. You see this gorgeous ring on my finger? I was in Jamaica and paid 32,000 dollars for it. He said I want you to know that when the people in my town come past my mansion and they see my Royals Royce sitting in the driveway, then they will know there is a God in Heaven.

Now you tell me that’s the Gospel??!! You tell me you can’t weep over that!!!!”

Indeed, a false gospel emphasizes the material over the spiritual, or it equalizes the material with the spiritual. Either way, it’s unacceptable.

Jesus admonished, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Mark 8:36). Nothing takes precedence over a right relationship with God, and being right with God can be costly. Moreover, walking upright before God often means living sacrificially.

False religion has no desire for Christ and his righteousness. Instead, it treats God like a celestial ATM. It’s not about loving and obeying God. It’s about what one can get out of him.

The woman is described as holding a golden cup filled with abominations and impurities, symbolizing her promotion of false teachings and practices. Walvoord says:

“The picture of the woman as utterly evil signifies spiritual adultery, portraying those who outwardly and religiously seemed to be joined to the true God but are untrue to this relationship. The symbolism of spiritual adultery is not ordinarily used of heathen nations who know not God, but always of people who outwardly carry the name of God while actually worshipping and serving other gods.”

Prominent in the news lately have been controversial statements and actions made by Pope Francis and Pastor Andy Stanley, son of the famed pastor from Atlanta, the late Dr. Charles Stanley.

Pope Francis responded to questions from five conservative cardinals, affirming the Catholic church’s teaching on marriage as a union exclusively between one man and one woman. However, the Pope suggested the Church should explore forms of blessing same-sex unions that do not convey a mistaken conception of marriage. This has prompted pushback from conservative Catholic cardinals, who have legitimately expressed concerns about potential confusion and the presentation of homosexual acts as morally acceptable.

Will the Church also bless the union of heterosexual couples that cohabitate? What about the unions of those who are polyamorous? Shall the Church bless sin? God forbid!

Blessing same-sex marriages, as well as other unions that do not constitute a marriage, no matter how well-intended, would be like attaching a Jaguar’s hood ornament to a Ford Focus in the hope of making it seem a little more like a luxury car. Yet, all it would really do is confuse people as to what both cars are. One is a high-end car, with advanced technology, and designed for superior performance. While the other is just a compact car, with very few comforts or amenities, and made for fuel efficiency. In terms of automotive hierarchy, one is and one isn’t!

In a parallel development, evangelical Pastor Andy Stanley hosted a conference addressing the Church’s relationship with LGBTQ, and featuring gay speakers who promote LGBTQ on the platform. This move by Stanley understandably garnered criticism from conservative Christians, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, Al Mohler Jr., who argued it could seriously water down Christian doctrine.

The Church of England is also considering formal recognition of same-sex relationships through blessings, sparking serious discussions among Anglicans.

“In her hand, she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality.” The nations drink from her golden chalice the wine of her spiritual obscenities, impurities, and immorality.

Nevertheless, this kind of religion is tasteful to the world. It is an appealing religion for the sinful masses — one that craves power — one that does not need to rely on God because it relies on the state — one that is rich and comfortable — one that requires no cross to bear — one where there is no narrow road — one where there is little or no resistance — one where sensual pleasures can be freely indulged — one where material possessions are the measure of all things, and personal arrogance is a virtue.

Note, the woman is said to be intoxicated with the blood of the saints. Mark it down: False religion will not tolerate or live long with true faith in Christ before it seeks to stamp it out. 

In America today, most mainline churches are doctrinally compromised and there has been insufficient influence for right living on the nation’s culture. The result has been unprecedented assaults on religious liberty and the marginalization of Christians who are determined to live by the Bible’s teachings.

In the end, this temptress, this spiritual turncoat, this mercenary of faith, who is dressed to the nines and soused by the blood of the Lord’s precious martyrs, rides upon the back of a scarlet beast with seven heads and 10 horns.

In the past, this fornicating woman has been Egypt, literal Babylon, apostate Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, the historical Papal States, and more recently totalitarian regimes which have suppressed religious freedom, promoted atheism, and persecuted people who have lived by the apostle Paul’s motto: “For me, living means living for Christ and dying is even better” (Philippians 1:21). Out of her lust for power, popularity, and prominence, she has made her bed of whoredom with many rulers through the ages.

Her last manifestation will be her grand finale. United with the Antichrist and his global government, she will be unsparing of all things godly. As Johnson suggests, she will be “the complete or full source of evil power and blasphemy.” Walvoord puts it succinctly, saying that what has been true of her in the past “will be brought to its ultimate in this future time.”

But her destruction will come suddenly, and the curtain will fall for the next scene —  the greatest scene of all — Jesus will appear in power and glory.

The drama now nears its happy ending. Everyone who repents and believes in Christ, while there is still time, will share in the blissful conclusion.

With earnestness, the Scriptures reprove, saying:

“The day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, ‘Everything is peaceful and secure,’ then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape … So be on your guard, not asleep … Stay alert and be clearheaded. Night is the time when people sleep and drinkers get drunk. But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation” (I Thessalonians 5:2,3, 6-8).

Are you confident of salvation? If not, you need to settle the matter with God quickly.

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

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