Instead of reading scripture all at once before the sermon as we usually do, our passage from Revelation today will instead be incorporated throughout the sermon.
Our sermon series on Revelation began with a vision of Jesus Christ, focusing on two of the 7 churches to whom John addresses Revelation, and the dramatic action and worship in the heavenly throne room where the 24 Elders and the Lamb are gathered. We then moved into lamps, trumpets, and bowls unleashing plagues upon all of creation. Like I said a couple of weeks ago we didn’t name this sermon series “Stranger Things” for nothing.
If you’ve never watched Stranger Things, it’s about a group of kids who discover a portal that was accidentally opened to another dimension known as “The Upside Down.” Throughout the show, there’s a juxtaposition of innocence represented by the youth of the kids and 80s’ nostalgia (the show is set in the 1980s) and evil represented by the chaos, violence and terror of the Upside-Down. Throughout the show, the kids do everything they can to keep evil powers from the Upside Down from entering our world. I liken it to “Goonies” meets “Revelation.”
In a similar fashion, John is writing in Revelation chapter 17 about the contrasting power of the kingdom of God versus the powers of evil.
Last week Pastor Troy preached about a woman about to give birth, while a dragon waits nearby to devour her baby. According to Biblical Scholars, this woman symbolizes many people and things. The most obvious is Mary, the mother of Jesus, but the woman also symbolizes the faithful of Israel, Eve – the mother of all human creation, and yet others interpret this woman to symbolize the faithful of the church.
In our passage from Revelation chapter 17, we are introduced to another woman. While the woman in the passage from last week is a faithful mother about to give birth to the savior, the woman in chapter 17 is…well, it’s written right there in the Bible. She is a whore. She is presented as the opposite of the faithful woman in chapter 12. Both women represent different powers. The power of God and the power of evil. Let’s read together Rev 17:1-6a.
Side note: this is not a commentary on women in general. Some have wrongly misinterpreted this passage as talking about one specific woman or women in general. That is not what is going on here. This woman, like the woman from last week’s sermon, symbolizes something bigger than herself or any one woman.
John’s reaction is interesting. He too is amazed at the sight of the woman. As terrible as she appears, she’s robed in fine clothes and dons expensive jewelry. At first glance, she’s quite impressive. The woman’s appearance seduces even John because she exudes riches and power, both of which are highly seductive. It’s then that the Angel admonishes John by saying: “Why are you amazed? Let me tell you who she really is.” For the first time in Revelation one of the angels explains the vision. Let’s read together 17:6-14.
I was inspired by Pastor Troy to do my own drawing from Revelation. So here it is mine and let’s use this to unpack the various symbols and metaphors in this passage.
First there is the woman adorned in fine clothing, but we, like John must be careful to not be enamored with her. Here is her title: “‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abomination’ written on her forehead. She holds a cup filled with the blood of the saints and martyrs. The woman is referred to specifically as the “whore of Babylon” as Babylon was the imperial power that conquered Israel and dispersed the Israelites to other lands against their will. It was a dark time in Hebrew history. Once again they are oppressed by a new power, the Roman Empire.
She sits upon a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns. If the description of the beast (“was and is not and is to come”) sounds familiar that’s because it is a play on words. It plays on the statement God made about God’s own self in Revelation chapter one: “I am the Alpha and the Omega. The one who is, who was, and is to come.” With this play on words the beast is describing itself as the opposite of God.
The seven heads of the beast allude to a couple of things. First, they allude to seven mountains on which “the woman sits.” Anyone reading this letter in John’s time would know this is a reference to Rome as Rome was known as the great city surrounded by seven hills. Rome is the new Babylon. A powerful empire that used violence and force to expand its rule. It’s safe to say that the woman not only represents Babylon and Rome but any regime or power that uses its power to oppress and enslave people economically and physically.
The seven mountains also allude to the seven kings who work in conjunction with the woman. The description of the Kings is where one can get lost in the weeds or is tempted to pick up one part of the Mosaic missing out of the big picture. Many Biblical scholars think these kings represent Roman emperors, but there isn’t total agreement on that. While we don’t know for sure who or what governments these kings represent, what we do know is that the kings represent governments that have aligned themselves with Babylonian ethics. They represent those who willingly align themselves with empires such as Babylon instead of aligning themselves with God.
Note that the woman is seated on the beast. The beast is actually the one in control and the mastermind of all of the evil. The whore of Babylon and the seven kings are simply his puppets who willingly do his bidding to spread destruction throughout the world.
So what does this vision mean for us today? How can we translate these symbols from John’s day into ours?
Revelation 17 and really all of Revelation begs the question: “Which power are we going to put our trust in? Will we align ourselves with Babylon or Rome? Will we align ourselves with the great governments of the day or with Jesus Christ? The answer seems obvious, but it actually isn’t. Babylon and Rome were powerful empires that ruled over many. To side with Babylon and Rome was to side with the powerful. With that comes security, protection, and popularity. Not just for yourself but for your family as well. The same can be said today. It is never popular or safe to follow Jesus Christ. It never has been and never will be. While we today don’t know the type of persecution early Christians experienced during the Roman Empire, we’ve witnessed what happens to those who take Christ’s commands seriously to serve and love others – even if it resulted in great risk to themselves and their families.
If you were to ask anyone today what they thought about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the majority, if not all, would say he was a man of deep faith and a national hero gone too soon. In the last years of his life, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen as a controversial and divisive figure. In 1966, two years before his assassination, he had a 63% negative approval rating, according to Gallup. To give you an idea of how unpopular King was, Nixon had a higher approval rating when he left the White House after he resigned.
Dr. King was unpopular because he brought to light the injustices of segregation. There were those who benefitted from segregation and who were still, frankly, racist and took offense to King’s work. As a Christian, Dr. King used scripture to criticize segregation. In fact, his favorite scripture passage was Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Yet even with the appeal of scripture, King was not just unpopular with the general public, but with the majority of white churchgoers as well. King preached the good news of Jesus Christ. He spoke the truth. But it cost him his reputation and in the end his very life.
Aligning ourselves with Jesus Christ does not always result in safety and comfort. This is why John has been exiled to Patmos in the first place. He writes Revelation in order to encourage the seven churches using symbols and metaphors they would have understood. He wanted them to know that even the most powerful regimes are still no match for the power of God.
And yet such regimes are highly attractive. It’s important to note that the word “prostitute” (Babylon and Rome personified in this chapter) comes from the Greek word “porne,” which means “to distort.” It’s also where we get the word “pornography.” Sex itself is not a bad thing, but pornography distorts the goodness of intimacy. Regimes and powers that are in opposition to God can be attractive because they are a distortion of what is good. And that distortion is more often than not subtle, making it difficult to spot.
In John’s day, the “Pax Romana” meaning the “peace of Rome” distorted the concept of peace. For many “peace” could only be experienced if they allowed themselves to be conquered or exploited by Rome. This is why tax collectors were despised in Jesus’s day. They were Rome’s henchmen who demanded that people barely making ends meet pay an exorbitant amount of taxes to the Roman Empire. The Peace of Rome could only be experienced by a privileged few.
We as the church have sided with powers that are in opposition to the Kingdom of God. We have distorted scripture to support the crusades and the justification of slavery. I’m very alarmed in how scripture is distorted once again to support Christian Nationalism. The idea that America is God’s chosen nation. As a child of immigrants I love this country and am thankful for the brave men and women who have given their lives for our country. But I am concerned with the rise of Christian Nationalism because it portrays God as being for just one nation when God is for all nations.
The waters on which the whore of Babylon sits represent the nations that Rome has conquered and exploited. The angel shares in Revelation 17:15 that the multitude of waters that the woman also sits upon represent “peoples, nations, and languages,” the many nations that Rome has conquered, enslaved, and/or exploited. What this vision also conveys is that any empire or government that oppresses or exploits people is not in line with the kingdom of God. God is for all nations and it is not part of God’s will for any nation or race to be conquered, enslaved, or exploited.
And yet John shares this vision with these early churches to encourage them. It may seem like Rome has won and the Kingdom of God is null and void. Rome keeps conquering nations and expanding their empire despite their facade of “peace” for all under their rule. It seems futile to not side with Rome. If Rome can conquer entire nations they could for sure shut down a tiny church.
History tells us, however, that no empire lasts forever. It may take decades as we saw with Rome, but eventually, the Roman empire disintegrated.
At the time Revelation was written, the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. There were no signs of Rome falling anytime soon. But what John knew, and what he wants us to know, is that earthly empires and powers are temporary. They don’t last. Greed and oppression are roads to self-destruction as the greedy and the oppressors eventually turn on each other, just as the beast eventually devours the whore. The appetite for power is never satiated. Those who work against God’s kingdom always lose. Let’s read together Revelation 17:16-18.
The sobering message of this vision is that God’s judgment is carried out when God allows those who wreak destruction to become victims of their own practices. (Craig Koester)
I can’t think of a time better than Lent to reorient and recenter ourselves upon Jesus Christ. The more we gather together as a Christ-centered community where together we study God’s word and pray, and the more we pray on our own and are intentional about gathering for worship the more prepared we are to distinguish between God and all other powers that oppose God’s kingdom. Even when such evil powers subtly distort the truth and may even disguise themselves as being aligned with the Kingdom of God, when we are recentered on Jesus Christ we will be able identify those powers.
For there is something Babylon-ish with every government of every nation in every age. There is something Babylon-ish in each one of us. To be faithful is to constantly reorient ourselves around the one who is truly all-powerful and whose Kingdom knows no end. To speak up for the lowly, the poor, and the oppressed just as Jesus did. It’s the only way we won’t be deceived by the way evil powers subtly distort all that God has deemed good, making all that is the opposite of the goodness of God appear attractive.
May we have ears to hear and eyes to see who Jesus Christ truly is so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are following the true King of this world.