The End of the World: “The Death of the Harlot” – Revelation 17

The greatest problem with sexuality in the twenty-first century is that it is misdirected. We understand the impulses and benefits of sexual expression; but in our society, many of us just don’t seem to understand its real purpose. Intimate expression was NOT designed primarily for personal entertainment, but for a shared expression of love. A symptom of this is found in modern pornography, and many other perversions of the original design. The marriage bed was given as a beautiful picture of relationship and shared joy. Our world has taken the personal pleasure aspect and replaced the designed intent. As a result, many get the technique, but not the point. Why do I mention this? Because it is worth noting that for many of us, the very same thing could be said of our religious devotion. In fact, in Scripture, the notion of religious celebration is cloaked in sexual language. A real walk with God for Israel was called a “marriage” (in the Book of Hosea) to the Father in Heaven. For the church, the same terminology was used for a “wedding feast” to the Son (in Ephesians and Revelation). Likewise, the terminology of prostitution was used for false worship – because men substituted the purpose for the techniques.

Spiritually speaking, the “great harlot” of the Bible isn’t a literal woman, but a substituted system of religion in place of a relationship with the living God.

It is the attempt at “looking for love in all the wrong places” as the country singer reminds. It is the substitution of intimacy with our Creator, with the trappings of worship and tradition that focus us on the emotional benefits of relationship without the relationship itself. The more you think about it, the more terming “religion” as a “HARLOT” makes perfect sense in the Bible.

The world we live in may not favor the God of the Bible, but it truly IS a religious world. If we were frozen in time back in the year 2000 (just a few years ago) and our world was a single village of 100 people representing the whole earth, (based on the Center for World Missions):

  • 33 of us would call ourselves some kind of “Christian” – though half of us wouldn’t consider the other half as truly so!
  • 20 of us would call ourselves Muslims – though many Shia and Sunni would not both agree that this was completely true.
  • 14 of us would call ourselves Hindus.
  • 6 of us would call ourselves one of three kinds of Buddhists.
  • 18 of us would be scattered over a series of smaller faiths and beliefs – including Animism, Judaism, Sikhs, etc.
  • Only 12 of us would claim NOT to have a faith or a religion. This includes 3 of us that would claim “Atheism”, 2 that have a political philosophy that “makes religion more or less irrelevant”, and the last 7 percent include “statistical unknowns”.

What is perfectly clear is this: people are religious creatures. They LIKE to observe some kind of religion. They worship, celebrate and venerate – many of them – because it scratches an “itch” within. What God meant to be a hunger for relationship with Him, has become a prostituted relationship as people succumbed to the beckoning of one harlot after another…until the prophetic day God kills all the illicit lovers in one hour. Revelation 17 is the story of the day false religion is crushed.

Key Principle: The goal of the deceiver is to celebrate the acts of religion as an end in themselves, while distracting our eyes away from the One who is to be worshiped.

The Great Whore of “substituted faith” is soon to be defeated. The false system of religion that has infiltrated every corner of our world is running on short time. It is not one religion that God will bring to an end – but religion itself – not ONE belief system God wants to undo – it is EVERY false system. Revelation 17 focuses in on the story of that end.

Let me be clear: Religion without a relationship with God is the worship of devotion rather than the worship of God. It is the adulation of liturgy without the gaze into the face of the God who created us. It is the essence of truth-less faith, a sentimental ethic based on cobbled together human moral philosophies that keep revealed truths of God’s Word at a distance. Human religion is the exaltation of the feelings that come from a relationship – without the relationship itself – like the substitution of pornography over the marriage bed. God never called us to desire to worship for the act itself. He called us to worship HIM, because in Him is every significance to our very being.

As we dive into the story of the great harlot’s death, we should keep in mind that Revelation 16:12 spoke of the vial judgment about to be poured on the harlot – but this chapter and the next zooms in on the details. Babylon’s religious substitution and wayward political power will be finally ended in Revelation 19. We are in an expansion of the chapter we studied last time that is finished at Armageddon.

Despite its many words, there are only three parts to the chapter we are studying – a promise made by an angel to John, a vision shown to fulfill the promise, and an explanation of that vision. John is essentially shown what could be explained like a “YouTube movie” by an angel to help him understand the powerful destructions he witnessed in the bowl judgments of Revelation 16. After the movie, the angel had to coach John into the explanation of the movie. Let’s take a closer look:

The Promise (17:1-2)

Revelation 17:1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.”

Back in chapter 12 we were introduced to Satan, who was in the form of a Dragon, when he was hurled to the earth from Heaven. By chapter 13, the Dragon called for help from both the earth and the demonic world – a team that consisted of a beast from the sea, and a second helper – the beast from the earth. The beast from the sea was identified as the Antichrist, primarily a political leader The beast from the land was identified as the so called “False Prophet” – as his major function was to call attention to the antichrist and his political system, legitimizing it in tradition and religious trappings and pronouncements. By Revelation 16, John witnessed the overthrow of the Antichrist and his supporting religious system – but he didn’t really grasp all of what he saw. One of the avenging angels of God, fresh from the work of the destruction of man’s political and religious self-invented system, turned to John to help him understand the scene more completely. Perhaps the angel beckoned with an empty saucer still his hands. In any case, John knew the angel by his appearance.

The angel agreed to show John the identity and work of the harlot – by journeying in a vision to the center of her brothel. In the Bible, a spiritually alive and growing people can be named with the image of a virgin or chaste female; whereas a corrupt, idolatrous an unfaithful people can be pictured as a harlot. In many cases, the harlot represents a CITY (as Revelation 17:18 says is the case). That is not unusual, but the harlotry can be identified as a people that have organized themselves around a city, so as to be deeply identified with it (Isaiah 1). Have you noticed how religious organizations tend to be synonymous with a specific city?

  • Who could argue that “Jews” and the “Jewish world” is not meant when we refer to Jerusalem?
  • Who would not follow the idea of “Islam” when we speak of “Mecca”?
  • Is it really a stretch to refer to “Catholicism” as “Rome”?

They aren’t alone. Buddhism, Sikhs, Shintoism and many other religious groups can be represented by key cities – though the references may be less familiar to the modern westerner. The point I am positing is this: the woman is more than simply a city – she is a religious tradition or way of life graphically identified by a city important to her adherents. The purpose of the angel’s call to give attention to the vision was to expose her identity and her complete corruption, along with uncovering her network of contacts with political powers through which she enticed the world to herself. It is clear that she is influential in many places and among many peoples.

The Vision (17:3-6, 18)

Revelation 17:3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, 5 and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” 6 And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly. .. Revelation 17:18 “The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

Off they went on the journey that I will refer to as a “movie”. Perhaps they broke all laws of time and space and actually entered into that place (that is certainly possible given the context) – but there is no need for me to see it only in that way. With the advance of over twenty centuries since John lived, I can sit in my living room at home and be transported on a screen to the deck of a ship in Pearl Harbor or the cockpit of a powerful F-15 thundering through the sky. John never saw TV. He never knew about HNN – “Heaven Network News”. He had no such way of understanding visions.

I suggested at the start of today’s lesson that the woman of the vision was false religion personified. How did I come to that idea? There are at least eight important descriptions of the woman in the passage we just read:

  • She is called “the Great Harlot” – a false relationship that mimics a real one and leads to destruction of the real one. That seems to fit well.
  • She “sits upon many waters” – but these are qualified in 17:15 as people groups. That means that she is something that impacts, effects and persuades to action a variety of people from a variety of places on earth, but she is unified – an identifiable force.
  • She is “full of blasphemous names” – suggests that she is not called by ONE name, but rather by a variety of them. They all have one essential commonality – they distract from the truth of a relationship with the One true God, and are henceforth blasphemous.
  • She has “seven heads and ten horns”: this seems strange, but the very same description was used of both the dragon and the antichrist – because the point is the same. The organized system of power is demonically empowered to deceive and distract from true worship. She is part of the devil’s deception system, as was the antichrist. She is under the organization, and it has specific rulers and characteristics.
  • She is “clothed in purple” and “adorned with gold”: The expense of blue taken from the murex snail in antiquity left us with the term “royal blue” because of the extravagant expense. Who can deny the expense that has been poured into the great cathedrals and temples around the world?

From time to time I wonder about the lavish spending in the religious world. I want to tell you honestly that I love the great Cathedrals of Europe. I am captivated by the works of Michelangelo and the many commissions of Sixtus VI. I love the Renaissance and its reminder that beauty doesn’t have to begin when my body enters the coffin – my God loves beauty and decoration. At the same time, I have chosen to join and be ordained in a Brethren fellowship. I don’t know how to break the news to those who aren’t aware, but we meet in some of the most SPARTAN buildings in the whole religious world. Shocking artwork is if we put a colored carpet on a floor or a drape over a window. We are in the religious dictionary under “purely functional”!  Why do I not choose to ornately decorate a church building? Did not God have a very beautiful Temple built in Jerusalem? Are we forbidden to commission art in the church?

Let me be clear: ornate churches are neither right nor wrong. Art that helps people focus on God’s goodness and hope in Him serve an important purpose in much of the world. We have chosen a different path. We have chosen to put more of our resources into people ministry than in building beauty. We borrow less, build sturdy and work it hard. It is the philosophy of the growing family more than the rich and childless uncle. We will accept scars on walls before we will tolerate unused rooms, Funeral homes are easy to keep clean. Ministry is messy. We don’t need, nor do we seek, more complications that come with the higher and more artistic churches. We do, however, delight in visiting them!

I am concerned that church money be primarily used to reach and teach people – that resources be measured by whether or not they will aid in the purposes of preaching Christ and building disciple makers. All other uses of funds need to be subjected to that purpose.

  • She has “her golden cup full of immoralities”: If the immorality truly is, as the Biblical prophets of old used it, a spiritual departure from relationship with God into idolatry and false religion, can we not see how full false religion has become of itself? There are whole libraries and universities dedicated to the intricate study of things that do not lead to truth as defined in the Scripture.
  • She is called “Babylon the Great”: To recognize this point of the identification may take additional explanation. The Biblical record of Babylon begins with the “Tower of Babel” story that was physically identified as having been located on the “plain of Shinar” (Genesis 11:1-9). Based on the “Table of Nations” record in Genesis, it appears that some descendants of Noah – sons of Ham, came to that plain under the leadership of a man named Nimrod (son of Cush through Ham, great-grandson of Noah) to build a monument to themselves for the glory of man.

Some rabbinic commentaries suggest that Nimrod means ’to rebel’, others are more along the lines of ‘foolish’ – both seem fitting to the record of his chief accomplishments. As “a mighty one on the earth” and “a mighty hunter before God” he had an auspicious beginning, but did not appear to end well. His name became synonymous with a kingdom of enemies of God, as in Micah 5:6:

And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof: thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our land, and when he treadeth within our borders.”

It is worth noting that “Babel” means ’gate to or of God’ – and the story is one of human desire to build a way to God with their own hands – the very definition of RELIGION. Behind EVERY false religion is the denial of God’s PLAN, together with trust in man’s own strength and abilities. In Genesis 10, concerning Nimrod and the “beginning of his kingdom” (Heb: “reshit memelketo”) were the founding of the towns of “Babel, Uruk, Akkad and Calneh in the land of Shinar (Genesis 10:8-12). It appears that Babel later became known as Babylon. One author noted: “Two hundred sixty times in Scripture the Babylon is used to represent the system of false religions that spun off the first one in Genesis.” (sermon central illustrations).

  • The woman is described as: “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus”:  To make sure we are not left with only a vague view of well-meaning but misguided religious people, we are instructed that the harlot was caustic to the cause of Christ. There is one thing that the vast calls to a religion of tolerance will not tolerate – that is Christians spreading the Gospel of Jesus.

In 2011, Al Mohler, the Southern Baptist scholar wrote: “Christians — especially those enjoying the safety of the West — often think of martyrdom as a part of the distant Christian past. But a recent barrage of headlines dispels that notion in a hurry. Over the past several weeks, Christians in Iraq suffered a series of church bombings, and experts in the region predicted a virtual evacuation of that nation’s Christian population. …The murderous terrorism against Christians in Iraq amounts to a form of religious cleansing. Meanwhile, oppression of Christians in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, intensified with a January 1 bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one worshipers were killed and another 100 were injured. … In Pakistan, rioters took to the streets to insist that the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws stay in place — effectively allowing only Muslim practice and preaching. As The New York Times reported, “A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets, and forced businesses to close, to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.” There is no way we can determine the exact theological beliefs of these worshipers in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but there can be no question that they are suffering and dying in the name of Jesus Christ. They deserve our earnest prayers and advocacy. They also remind us by their witness that Christ has enemies — and so do His followers. The blood of the martyrs does indeed cry out their witness for Christ…

God wants a relationship with men based on His Word – not based on the power play of religious men and women that have learned to control the flocks of the hapless. Religion has been no friend to truth. It has provided a means for a few to take from the many – enriching some while enslaving a host in dungeons beneath them. It has led people on the “wide path that leads to destruction” – even fleecing their pockets on the way down. It has enticed the masses throughout history – and drugged them– leaving them with neither with the promise of eternity in the loving presence of the Savior in the world beyond, nor the deep and intimate joy of a walk with Him this side of Heaven. It is counterfeit currency of the spiritual realm, and it is both presently destructive and predictably damning.

The Explanation (17:7-18)

John saw the demise of the system of the enemy, but he couldn’t understand all of the players. He wasn’t comprehending exactly what he was seeing.

Revelation 17:7 And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

The angel could apparently tell by the look on his face. Fortunately for us, the angel made it even plainer in an overt attempt to explain. One commentator mentioned, interestingly enough, that “This is the last question in the book of Revelation.” From here, answers are provided:

The Beast (Revelation 17:8 and 11)

Revelation 17:8 “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come….11 “The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.

The beast came from the pit, as did his empowering spirit – that is, the Devil that called him forth. The antichrist is of Satanic origin. The surprising detail is that He poked his head out into human history before Revelation 13. His spirit was on earth before – an issue I believe was made clear in Daniel 11, where before verse 36 Daniel wrote about Antiochus IV the ancient Seleucid Ruler, but after verse 36 the description appears to depict a later manifestation – the Antichrist. He “was” before – but he “is not” again until the end times and his release from below. He will be a WONDER to mankind – likely because of his miraculous healing we described in previous lessons.

His Seven Heads (Revelation 17:9-10)

Revelation 17:9 “Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10 and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.

Revelation 17:9 opens with a cautionary note – this description will take “wisdom”. Spiritual understanding will be required to grasp the complex nature of this identity. Simple connection can easily be made:

  • Between the Devil’s description as having “seven heads and ten horns” as in Revelation 12:3,
  • The Antichrist with his same description in Revelation 13:1,
  • The woman’s beast of burden that carries her – described in Revelation 17:7.

In other words, it is simple to match each description and summarize that they are all ONE SYSTEM, founded by Satan and spread by the Antichrist. They bear along the woman of false religion. Simple enough, but that is not a complete view. There is more detail given.

The seven heads refer to both land masses (SEVEN MOUNTAINS) and to rulers and political systems (SEVEN KINGS) according to 17:9-10. This multi-headed beast is a layered symbol – not simply one thing but a nexus of more than one –  a long derived and carefully sculpted system. The beast possesses the seven heads, but exists apart from them. They are the “FACE” of the beast, but not – strictly speaking – the beast itself. He is not simply one of the horns or heads – he is seen in their face and power. In fact, his specific direct rule represents an eighth kingdom (Rev. 17:11).

I recognize a great number of men have made the point that ROME was built on seven hills. As a guide overseas, I can tell you that a number of cities are set on seven hills. Among them, Paris, Istanbul and even Jerusalem may be said to be upon seven hills. To conclude the Catholic Church or Rome is in the passage is, in my view, wholly inadequate. This would omit that the identity is BOTH something spread over seven hills and were systems of RULE. Incidentally, the “seven hills” could easily be a way of saying WORLD WIDE long before John could have known that there were seven land masses or continents on the face of the globe. If the “waters” in the end of chapter 17 are people of the whole earth, why can’t the lands be the continents of that same earth?

Additionally, a number of taken in hand to write that the seven are kingdoms counted off between Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, etc. That may be true, but we need to be careful about what is included. If God was counting kingdoms, let’s not forget that in the west we tend to neglect Dynastic China – a not quaint development of its own. If the number is to count kingdoms, let us be clear that the count must be based on those kingdoms that have some direct interaction with Israel – or some other explanation of that sort (as in Daniel’s telling of kingdoms in prophecy).

The Horns (Revelation 17:12-14, 16-17)

Revelation 17:12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13 “These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. 14 “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” …16 “And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. 17 “For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.

The story of the horns looks at first glance to be a bit complicated, but it really isn’t. If you read it carefully you will see:

  • Each horn represents a king and kingdom. These ten kings and kingdoms form a confederacy (a subject we have seen before in the fact that the Antichrist gets people together on the issue of Jerusalem for a time).
  • Ultimately, the power of the group is subservient to the purposes of the confederacy, which is directed by the Antichrist.
  • One chief purpose will be to fight the Gospel, and anyone who has the message of the Redeemer.
  • Jesus will defeat them – a fact we will see graphically in Revelation 19!
  • The governments will USE the world religions – but in truth will HATE the world religions. In fact, at their first opportunity, they will rape the false religious world to take her power and wealth. Increasingly, all world religions will find themselves surrendered to objectives of the political confederation. Those who oppose it will be shattered.

The Waters (Revelation 17:15)

Revelation 17:15 And he said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.

People the world over are drawn to religion and tradition. They are religious because God created them to be worshipers. If they will not worship the true God, they will worship someone or something else. We may look around and we think America is becoming less religious. Actually, in many ways she is becoming more religious – only less Christian.

The Main Idea

It is easy to get lost in all the detail. The fact of the matter is that the chief goal of the deceiver is to celebrate the acts of religion as an end in themselves, while distracting our eyes away from the One who is to be worshipped.

When Pope John Paul invited the world religious leaders together for a day of prayer at Assisi, a huge united under a huge plastic tent to mix Christian hymns and Buddhist chants before reading commitments to work for peace in 11 languages from Arabic to Hebrew to Farsi and Punjabi. According to the Associated Press, the gathering was one of the largest ever of “Christian groups, bringing together Catholics, Baptist, Lutherans, Quakers and Mennonites, among others, along with Orthodox Christians headed by the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholmew I.” But “Christians” were only one of 12 religions represented. While they and the Jews were praying to Jehovah, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, Sikhs, Shintoist, and African witchdoctors were all besieging their respective deities.

Lest we single out only one religious leader (and, in fact, a dead one), let us be clear that many groups exist to promote the religious spirit of unity and tolerance. The “Coexist Foundation” says, according to the Anglican Bishop of London: “This work is a vital test of our determination to find new ways of managing conflict in the new world order.” That group has as its council the Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal and Sheikh Ali Goma’a, The Muslim Grand Mufti of Egypt, as well as Rabbi Dr David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

Their symbol, seen on T-shirts all over is:

 – An Islamic crescent in the place of the “C”

– The peace symbol in the place of the “o”

– A male/female symbol in the place of the “e”

– The Jewish Star of David in the place of the “x”

– A Wiccan/pagan symbol in the place of the “i”

– An Asian Ying-Yang (peace symbol) in the place of the “s”

– A Christian cross in the place of the “t”

This is the essence of the message of today’s religion – BELIEVE for yourself. Don’t persuade – that isn’t tolerant. Don’t missionize – that isn’t kind. Just take what YOU want for yourself- and leave everyone alone. COEXIST. Don’t press your children to believe anything.

What a contrast to what the Bible teaches! The Bible makes the transmission of faith from parent to child a “natural part of everyday life” (Dt. 5-7). The Bible calls for believers to get out and share their faith, because men and women are LOST without a real relationship with God found ONLY in Jesus Christ.

Coexist teaches NO MISSION, NO PERSUASION – it is all about YOUR COMFORT. It has been with us so long, that many identify faith as so PERSONAL that it shouldn’t be considered in the CHARACTER JUDGMENT we evaluate a person’s fitness for public office. It is “personal” – as if it won’t have as much an impact on their decision making processes as their spouse. Think about that: our faith orientation is like our marriage. If it is a marriage to a different god than in the Word, it is an expression of dedication to spiritual prostitute. Now we are back where we started our lesson.

Do not be deceived! God doesn’t say simply that the AMOUNT of your dedication in worship is His goal – but the OBJECT of your worship. It is not simply that YOU ARE RELIGIOUS. People make the perilous assumption that we can put much trust in a rock, stone, or tradition made by men – and God will be equally pleased.  It is not true, and it is not even logical. Much belief that an aspirin will cure cancer will not make it true. If the object of one’s faith is false, then the faith is of no benefit.

We must remember that God is properly the object of our worship. His provision for our salvation is Jesus alone. If we have learned to judge ourselves by the standard of “how we treat our fellow man”, can we not also recognize that God will judge us by “how we treat God”? When I dismiss the sacrifice of God’s Son, when I chose either to ignore, replace, or lash out against the Ever Holy, Ever-Just, Ever-knowing God – my very Creator… do I not place myself in peril?

Psalm 2 offers a biting insight: 2:2 “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed… 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. 5 Then He will speak to them in His anger, and terrify them in His fury, saying, 6 “But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” 7 “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You…10 Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. 11 Worship the LORD with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!

Hide in Him. You will find real security there – and you will find it nowhere else in the end. The other relationships aren’t a real marriage.