John the Baptist revealed the Lord Jesus to his disciples with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”; In Revelation Chapter 17 an angel essentially says to John the Revelator, “Behold the Whore of Babylon who embodies the sins of the world.”
It is easy to get confused by the stream of images and symbols that flash through the book of Revelation, especially when different images are used to describe the same reality. So, I will attempt to explain the images in Chapter 17 as simply as possible. A scarlet woman is introduced who is referred to as ‘the great prostitute’ and ‘Mystery Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth’. Although this particular imagery has not been used before in Revelation, we have already encountered the reality it describes. The second beast of Chapter 13 is called ‘the false prophet’ (Revelation 16:13) and I have already made the claim that this beast/prophet represents Religion in all its negative forms. In Chapter 13 Religion is described as partnering Humanism, the Beast from the Sea. Here in Chapter 17 it is described as riding on the beast of Humanism – it’s the same idea in different words and images.
Up to this point we have been aware that religion is a false prophet, but here in Chapter 17 we are shown something startling concerning the true identity of the Earth Beast/Great Whore of Religion. As Christians, it is easy for us to see Islam, Hinduism, and so on, as false prophets. As Protestants, it is also possible for us to understand why teachers like Matthew Henry regarded Roman Catholicism as the Great Prostitute. But, we might be shocked to realise that more than world religions and Roman Catholicism are in view here.
‘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. 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’ (Revelation 17:6-8).
The angel asked John why he was so astonished when he saw the Whore of Babylon, and that is a question we too need to ask. John must have seen many Roman women of high standing dressed in similar fashion, and he would have been familiar with the immoral behaviour in that society. Why did seeing this woman shock him so? I think it was because he recognised her from an earlier vision. Chapter 12 starts with the vision of ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’ (Rev 12:1). Here in Chapter 17 John is confronted with the vision of a woman clothed in gaudy splendour, with a beast under her feet, and a whore’s headband identifying her. Could this be the same woman? I think it is; the sun-clothed woman has become the Great Prostitute! We identified the sun-clothed woman as representing the people of God, firstly ancient Israel and then later, the church. Now we see the church, in intimate partnership with the beast of Humanism, abandoned to idolatry and bent on persecuting true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
How did much of the ‘church’ degenerate to such an extent? The short answer is, by adopting the values and methods of the humanistic world system instead of being different from it. On the one hand we find the liberal ‘church’, focused on social and political issues and wanting desperately to merge into a one-world religion of compromise and false peace. On the other hand, we have the wealth and feel good ‘church’ eagerly adopting business structures and practices from the world and setting before its followers the false promise of everlasting prosperity.
Having described the Whore, John then sketches a complex portrayal of Humanism as existing in every age: like the Roman powers of his day, the great Babylonian and Greek powers that preceded Rome, and the world powers which were to come after his generation. With pointed irony John writes, ‘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’ (Revelation 17:8). God was earlier described as ‘him who is, and who was, and who is to come’ (Revelation 1:4) but the beast once was, now is not, and yet will come.
For millennia religion has piggybacked on Humanism, serving the Beast and getting rewarded for its services. But now, in the end, the Beast turns on the Whore and destroys her in a most horrible way.
Chapters 17 and 18 are unremittingly distressing and dark, so when reading them it is important that we let our eyes return to the beginning of Part 5 of Revelation:
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the ages.
Who will not fear you, O Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”