If you follow this blog regularly (and my Facebook and Twitter feeds), you probably have noticed that I’ve been doing some research on the book of Revelation. Last week, I posted what I think will be the first of several scattered posts about my findings as I study the book [Corrective Strategies and Themes for Understanding the Book of Revelation (Tired of the chaos? Me too!)].
My first experiment in preaching from Revelation took place yesterday (5/12/13)… well, if we don’t count the obvious ways that I have incorporated Revelation 21-22 into my preaching engagements over the past several years. My home church, College Community Church – Mennonite Brethren, has walked through Revelation since the first week after Resurrection Sunday.
The passage I was asked to cover was Revelation 17. Specifically, I was invited to talk about how Christians are to relate to earthly powers. So, in continuity with the rest of the sermon series, I put together some thoughts on how to understand Babylon – the whore – and how to relate to our modern day “Babylon – the USA (download sermon).
Before I get too far into content, let’s read the biblical text (which was read aloud just prior to my sermon).
1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” 15And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
As I say in the sermon, “If that’s not an appropriate text for Mother’s Day, I don’t know what is…”
Several issues could be mentioned about this chapter of Revelation. Perhaps listing some of them here will help. For a more detailed analysis, of course, you will have to download the sermon and listen to it
- This is a passage that refers to realities present in the first century. Revelation 17-18, although it has ramifications for the future, primarily speaks of the Roman Empire and the way its system was opposed to the way of God.
- Understanding John of Patmos (the Seer, the Divine, etc) as a poet helps us to frame the text within its symbolism rather than trying to overly-literalize the text. Eugene Peterson states: “A poet uses words not to explain something, and not to describe something, but to make something. Poet (poētēs) [in Greek] means “maker.” Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it.”
- Revelation 17 is a call to resist the ordinary pressures of daily life in the Empire, not necessarily to resist the Empire “proper” as if nonviolent Christians could plot a literal insurrection.
- The language of Babylon gives us interpretive permission to recognize the spirit of Empire in any age. Therefore, as Richard Bauckham states: “Any society whom Babylon’s cap fits must wear it.” Therefore, the text summons us to ask difficult questions about modern day Empire – the United States – and our allegiance/lack-there-of to our nation of origin. So, this is a passage about God’s judgment on Rome first, but then by extension it is about God’s judgment on all Empires.
- God’s judgment is mostly about the way in which Empire self-destructs, not about God’s direct action against Babylon [see 17.16-17] (think here of the Apostle Paul’s word about “God giving them over”).
- Whore/harlot/prostitute language offends us, and it should. It’s important to note the type of whore the text has in mind. One kind of prostitute, is created by the economically exploitive practices of empires as a means of survival or forced through various forms of trafficking. Revelation’s whore is of a different sort. N.T. Wright states: “…have no need to sell themselves, but who have discovered it’s a quick way to make quite a lot of money, and that if you play your cards right you can maintain a high social status, with fancy clothes, flittering jewels and the finest pearls.”
- 4 Reasons John uses whore imagery. 1) Revelation as a whole is a book about God’s faithfulness to creation and the Lamb’s eventual marriage to a restored world and a restored people (Rev 21-22). 2) O.T. (Hosea, etc) uses marital unfaithfulness as a representation of idolatry. Babylon has become a source of idolatry through imperial religion (worship of Caesar, etc), that promotes a lifestyle of economic exploitation that leaves all empty. 3) Worship in local temples involved prostitution and with money and power, why not live sexually careless lives? God calls us to honor God with our bodies. 4) Prostitution lures in people to give them a sense pleasure/power at the expense of others. The way of empire leads to oppression, especially of the poor.
- Empire seduces the powerful to desire more power, while seducing the commoners through false security and the promise of the finer things. Empires eventually make grandiose claims that ought to be only reserved for God alone. They give a pleasing appearance but are full of “abominations” that abuse human beings for the sake of economic policies that benefit the rich. Such Empires will use any means necessary to silence counter-imperial voices, even lethal violence. These Empires expand as conquered peoples comply with their demands rather than live as the alternative.
- The radical summons to discipleship comes in the following chapter. Revelation 18.4 states: “Come out of her my people, so that you don’t take part in her sins and don’t receive any of her plagues.” This is sexual language, inviting followers of Jesus to “pull out” of the ways of Empire and its imperial religion rather than falling into the lure of her prostituting ways.
Hopefully these insights give you a bit of an intro for how to understand the whore of Revelation, Babylon, and the call to discipleship. The actual sermon that I preached, contains much more, and presents these ideas and others in a more “inspirational” format 😉
You can download it here — Revelation 17 – The Whore, The Empire, & A Tale of Two Cities.
 Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 3.
 Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 156.
 Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 150. “4 Ways” comes from this section.