************ Sermon on Revelation 17:1-6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 5, 2009
"The Great Prostitute"
A Do you know the first mention of Babylon in the Bible? In Genesis 11. You know the story. Men got together and said,
(Gen 11:4) "Come, let us build ourselves ... a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." We have all seen pictures of the Tower of Babel that they built.
Babel began as a venture in human autonomy. What do I mean? The people wanted to build a tower that reached into heaven – which in their culture was regarded as the home of the gods. Do you see what man was doing? Man was attempting to find his own way into heaven. Man was attempting to find his own way into the presence of God. Man, out of sinful pride, was looking for fame, independence, and glory.
What is missing from what I just told you? In what way is the picture incomplete? Let me read to you what Scripture actually says: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower ..." (Gen 11:4). And what does God do? "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building" (Gen 11:5). It wasn't just a tower that was being built; it was an entire city. Usually, when we think of Babel, all that we focus on is the tower. But an entire city was being built.
So what? What is the big deal? Back then, most people lived a nomadic lifestyle. They wandered from place to place. Think, too, of Moses audience – the people of Israel as they wandered through the desert and wilderness. To a nomadic people, a city is a big deal. A city represents the ultimate in human community and fellowship. Unless you understand this, you will not understand the rest of the Revelation and what it says about Babylon on the one hand and the New Jerusalem on the other hand.
On one level, Babel shows human ingenuity, ability, imagination, reason, forethought, and planning. Think of everything that goes into building a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens. They needed to have production teams. They needed to have a plan, a set of drawings. They needed to plan ahead. They needed to divide the labor. They needed to use tools. They needed to bake bricks and prepare mortar. It was a highly developed construction process that we see in Genesis 11. Nothing wrong with any of this – they were fulfilling the cultural mandate to fill the earth and subdue it.
The distortion of Babel, the sin of Babel, was the attempt to be self-sufficient. The sin of Babel was the desire for fame, independence, and glory. The sin of Babel was to make Babel an idol. "Look at what we have done. Look at what we have built. Look at how we have joined all people to each other and to God."
You know what happens next. God cannot let this go. God's judgment is a confusion of tongues and languages.
B Now, let us fast forward at least 2000 years. Babel has now become Babylon. And what a city it is. It has the hanging gardens – one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. All nations and all men and all tongues and all languages have been forced to come together in Babylon – by virtue of being conquered. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon goes to the roof of his palace one night. He looks over his city. He looks over his empire. And he says,
(Dan 4:30) "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?"Do you hear the refrain of Babel again? Again, the attempt to be self-sufficient. Again, the desire for fame, independence, and glory. Again, the worship of an idol.
God cannot let this go either. So Nebuchadnezzar is struck with an ancient version of Mad Cow disease.
C The spirit of Babylon was still alive and well at the time of John. It existed in the Roman Empire. "Look at mighty Rome. Look at what we have built by our own hands. Look at the security, comfort, prosperity, and happiness, that comes from our wisdom and strength." Again, the attempt to be self-sufficient. Again, the desire for fame, independence, and glory. Again, the worship of an idol.
This spirit of Babylon is alive and well today too. It pulsates in the cities and people all around us. Man still attempts to make a name for himself. Man still attempts to make his own way to God and heaven. The efforts are doomed, but modern man tries anyway and says to himself:
Today we have the power, the intelligence, the money, the technology. We can make a perfect world. We have the power to create life. We can genetically engineer our children. We can develop cures for things like AIDS and cancer. Eternal life is not a fantasy. Utopia is ours for the making.Do you know what this is? This is the spirit of Babel and Babylon. The attempt to make a name and get to heaven without God. And, God cannot let this go either.
D This morning, we are looking at what the Revelation says about Babylon. Babylon, in the Revelation, represents the totality of human society as it is organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel. Babylon represents fallen human culture – the political, economic, military, religious, social, educational, and scientific realms – that seeks to seduce people away from God and the Gospel.
The question I want to explore with all of you on this Preparatory Sunday is this: "Are we part of Babylon or are we part of the New Jerusalem?" To which city does your heart belong? To which city do you give your allegiance?
II The Great Prostitute
A In Revelation 17, John compares Babylon to a woman on the beast. We notice five things about the woman who represents Babylon who represents human society organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel.
The first thing we notice is that she lures and seduces. She is very beguiling. Along this line, let me hold before you three proverbs: "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover." We know the truth of these proverbs, don't we?! Some of them we have learned by painful experience.
About six weeks ago I received a phone call from AT&T. By switching to a new business plan they were going to save the church money. I listened carefully. The savings were going to come to at least $20 per month. "Sign us up," I said. We got the first phone bill this week – it was a $100 higher than normal. When I got the charges reversed and the new plan cancelled, I found out the phone call was from a third party provider. A month ago, the church office received a phone call from BizzLink. They said all they wanted to do was check our name, phone number, and address. A couple of weeks after that we received a letter from BizzLink informing us that a charge of $40 per month would appear on our telephone bill.
I hardly dare answer the phone anymore. Because we keep learning the truth of the three proverbs: "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Don't we see the same thing with churches? Look at the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22). From the outside, this church looks rich, prosperous, and healthy. But inwardly, she is wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. Look at the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29). An attractive woman, a prophetess by the name of Jezebel, was in the church. She urged the Christians of Thyatira to go along with the idol worship and sexual rituals of the trade guilds – so they could work, feed their families, and remain in business. But Jezebel, as you know, represents great evil and wickedness. "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover."
John tells us about a golden cup in the hand of the woman on the beast (Rev 17:4). A golden cup. Clean and polished and impressive on the outside. But inside it is filled with abominable things. "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover."
As for the woman herself, she sure is nice to look at: dressed in purple and scarlet, glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls (Rev 17:4). But John identifies her as "the great prostitute" (Rev 17:1) and "the mother of prostitutes" (Rev 17:5) – which is to be understood as "the mother prostitute – the prostitute from whom all other prostitutes come." Why does John use such harsh language? Because that is what God inspired him to use. Why so vivid? Why so crass? Because John wants to break the evil spell cast by this woman. On the surface she sounds and looks inviting, appealing, alluring. But underneath the cosmetics and clothing and accessories she is downright ugly. "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover." This is why her name is "mystery" – which means a name with a meaning hidden behind it.
Did you notice all the language of prostitution used in our Bible reading? Verse 1- great prostitute. Verse 2 - committed adultery. Verse 2 - wine of her adulteries. Verse 4 - filth of her adulteries. Verse 5 - the mother of prostitutes. Let there be no mistake about it: Babylon the great is the great prostitute. Meaning what? Meaning that like a prostitute she tries to lure and seduce. She tries to lure and seduce the people of God away from God and into idolatry. This is an Old Testament image. In the Old Testament, idolatry is compared to adultery. Remember Hosea and his message? We see Babylon the prostitute at work in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum (Rev 2). Both churches tolerated those who taught it was okay to go along with the idol worship and sexual rituals of the trade guilds.
So, the first thing we notice about the woman is that she lures and seduces.
B The second thing we notice about the woman who represents Babylon who represents human society organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel is that her influence is vast and wide and universal. Notice the description of Babylon the great prostitute in verse 1? We are told the prostitute sits "on many waters." Now, in Old Testament times this was literally true – Babylon, the city, sat on the River Euphrates and many canals flowed through the city. But, remember, in the Revelation when it comes to place names it isn't the geography that counts but the symbolism. So, what is symbolized by "many waters"? We are told in verse 15:
(Rev 17:15) The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.Babylon the great prostitute sits on peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages; this includes the kings and inhabitants of the earth mentioned in verse 2. Indicating what? Indicating her sovereignty over them. Indicating that her sovereignty is vast, wide, and universal.
How vast and wide is the sovereignty of Babylon the great prostitute? With her the kings of the earth "committed adultery"(Rev 17:2) – that is, they are seduced and led astray by her. And the inhabitants of the earth "were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries" (Rev 17:2). "Intoxicated" – that is, drunk, out of control, insensitive, and uncaring.
C The third thing we notice about the woman who represents Babylon who represents human society organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel is that she is in partnership with the beast. Look at what we are told about her in verse 3:
(Rev 17:3) 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.We have met this beast before – in Revelation 13. This beast, based upon the visions we see in Daniel 7, represents the kingdoms of this world in their opposition to God and Christ and the Gospel. These kingdoms use their might and power to enforce allegiance to something other than the one only true God. Think of Nebuchadnezzar forcing everyone to bow down before his golden statue. Think of the trade guilds at the time of John forcing their members to worship idol gods. Think of the claim of divinity of the Roman Caesars and their demand that all acknowledge them as Lord.
Seated on the beast is the woman, Babylon the great prostitute. Telling us what? That the woman is not the same as the beast. And, that the woman and the beast work together to keep people from Jesus Christ and the Gospel. The beast pursues this goal through the use of brute power. The woman pursues this goal by luring and seducing.
D The fourth thing we notice about the woman who represents Babylon who represents human society organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel is that she lures and seduces with economic prosperity. Wasn't that the great temptation faced by the seven churches of Asia Minor? The great prostitute dangled the wealth and prosperity of the trade guilds before the early Christians. Either they succumb or they were impoverished, destitute, hungry.
The great prostitutes oozes with wealth. Look at her dress: purple and scarlet. That was worn only by the wealthiest of people. The gold and precious stones and pearls add to the picture of extravagant wealth. And in her hand she was holding a gold cup – not the clay cup of the common people, not the silver cup of higher ups, but the gold cup of the super rich.
And, take a look at her list of clients as we find it in Revelation 18: kings who shared her luxury (Rev 18:3,9) and merchants who gained their wealth from her (Rev 18:11,15-19,23). Watch their response when God's judgment is executed upon Babylon the great prostitute:
(Rev 18:10) Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: "Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!"Hear the refrain? "Woe! Woe!" It is the cry at a funeral. It is wailing and lamentation. "Woe! Woe!" Now, as you know, there is grief and mourning only when something important has been lost. You don't wail and mourn when you lose a hang-nail. Nor when you lose a shoelace. Nor when you lose a pack of gum. Notice what the kings and merchants have lost? They have lost economic prosperity. So they are wailing and mourning. Their comfort and security lie in wealth and riches and prosperity rather than in God! In fact, God doesn't even enter the picture.
(Rev 18:16) "Woe! Woe, O great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!"
(Rev 18:19) "Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!"
I have to tie this in with our current economic situation. Let me ask: "Is our current worldwide economic situation the beginning of God's judgment upon Babylon – either through the seal judgments, the trumpet judgments or the bowl judgments?" Think of all the wealth and riches and prosperity that have been wiped out by the popping of the housing bubble, the stock-market correction, the dot-com crash, and the credit crunch. Is this the beginning of God's judgment on the great prostitute?
And, I need to ask another question? Are you one of Babylon's clients? The quickest way to tell if someone has been lured and seduced by Babylon is their response at the possibility of losing it all. What have we seen? Some cry, "Woe! Woe!" We have seen depression and suicide. We have seen people using unethical or illegal means to save their wealth. Because they all think today's economic situation is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Are you one of these? If so, you have been lured and seduced by the woman! You are looking for comfort and security in riches rather than in God.
E The fifth thing we notice about the woman who represents Babylon who represents human society organized against God, Christ, and the Gospel is that she hates Jesus and the Gospel and the church; she hates them with a passion:
(Rev 17:6) I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
Babylon the great prostitute tolerates no rivals. It wants all to bow before the altar of economic success. It wants all to be lured and seduced into the worship of money rather than the worship of God. And, if you refuse – like the early Christians – you are persecuted. You are mocked. You are shunned. You are refused promotions. You do not get certain contracts.
I want to end by comparing Revelation 17 with Revelation 21:
(Rev 17:1,3) 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 ... (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.
(Rev 21:9-10) One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." (10) And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
Do you hear it? Nearly the same language in both passages. Both of them start with one of the seven angels with the seven bowls. Both include a woman – Babylon the great prostitute in one and the bride of Christ in the other. Both include a carrying by the Spirit – in other words, revelation from God. What is the difference? One is punished and perishes. The other endures forever.
At first glance, it looks like the woman on the beast will prevail. But remember, "Appearances can be deceiving." "People are not always what they seem." "Don't judge a book by its cover."
On this Preparatory Sunday, let me ask again the question I asked earlier: "To which city does your heart belong? To which city do you give your allegiance?" If you are part of Babylon, you live life without God and your security lies in wealth. If you are part of the New Jerusalem, you live your life for God and your security lies in Jesus Christ.
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