Is there anything that can still astound you? John has described some very unusual things—but astonishment is his reaction at what he sees in Revelation 17. He shows you something of which you need to beware, but also assures you of the outcome.
Beware of the woman sitting on the scarlet beast. The wicked woman is contrasted with the woman pictured in Revelation 12 and the one in Revelation 21. She is both attractive, dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with jewelry, and horribly repulsive, because of her sinfulness and her persecution of the saints. The fact that the woman has the name of a city, Babylon, written on her forehead clues you in to realizing that this is representative, symbolic language. Babylon, a city long since destroyed, brings to mind the rebellion against God that took place at the tower of Babel. It is a representation of the powerful kingdom in which Daniel was a captive, and which he prophesied would be destroyed. It is the kingdom from which Nebuchadnezzar was removed for a time because of his prideful boasting (Daniel 4). Her name is mysterious, in part because the woman here in Revelation 17 is contrasted with the symbolic woman of Revelation 12. That regal lady, about to give birth, represents the church, from whom the Messiah would come. When the dragon fails to devour him, he turns against the woman and her children, but they flee to the wilderness and the Lord preserves them. The woman of Revelation 17 contrasts also with the glorious woman of Revelation 21, the bride of the Lamb, who is coming down out of heaven. She is the new Jerusalem, a magnificent city, where God dwells with his people. “Since the woman in ch. 12 and the bride in chs. 19 and 21 represent the church throughout the ages, so the harlot counterpart represents satanically infused economic-religious institutions throughout history.” (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, p. 859).
Flee the seductive temptations of pleasure, power, and wealth. John is amazed, probably shocked, as the angel takes him to the desert to view the punishment of this figure. The blatant power of sexual temptation is clear—she is described as the prostitute. The woman Solomon describes in Proverbs 7 contrasts with Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8. Solomon’s warning focuses on the lack of discernment of the young man who is taken in by her. Pay attention to the power of this temptation, particularly as we live in a time when such temptation so easily comes into our homes and onto our devices. Pleasure is promised, but the end result is suffering and death. The ornate attire and gold, precious stones, and pearls may intentionally remind you of the high priest’s robes, but here similar dress is put to evil ends. Closely connected with sexual temptation is the temptation to worship power and wealth. The woman sits on the scarlet beast. The seven heads and ten horns represent kings and the kingdoms over which they rule. Whatever connections John may have made with particular rulers of his day, it is very difficult to come up with an indisputable identification. More likely John wants you to focus on any and all the kingdoms of this world that live in opposition to the kingdom of God. The beast fits ancient Babylon (and the various figures of Daniel 7), Jerusalem in John’s day, which had martyred his own brother, Rome, on seven hills, that persecuted the church, and the cities in which the seven churches were located. He includes also any and all future forces of evil. To be a mover and shaker in the world, to prosper economically, seems to require alliance with the woman and with the beast. Notice how the merchants and sailors world-wide mourn when Babylon is overthrown in Revelation 18. We have seen that members of some of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 faced great economic difficulty because their trade guilds expected involvement in idol worship and related sexual immorality (and some in the churches encouraged that kind of compromise). The kind of pressure is evident in John’s description of the woman, who is drunk with the blood of the saints. John’s description might have seemed distant to us not long ago, but our culture is in much the same position. CrossFit executive, Russell Berger, was fired this past week, for daring to tweet his support for a particular CrossFit gym that was unwilling to host a gay pride event. As one newspaper put it: “A CrossFit executive got excommunicated from the sport on Wednesday after posting a series of tweets blasting the LGBT community as ‘sinners.’” Never mind that the description is not accurate. Our culture not only allows immorality, it requires active consent in some areas. Medical professionals who will not participate in abortion, euthanasia, or gender reassignment surgery are finding it difficult or impossible to keep their jobs. The beast and the woman seated on it require active allegiance. The astonishment described in Revelation 17:8 is not abhorrence, but support. Notice how the description of the beast in that verse parodies the name of God, Revelation 1:4. The temptations presented by the woman and the fear induced by the beast affect not only kingdoms and cultures, but threaten the hearts of God’s people as well. “Our modern cities, with their wealth, false religions, and sexual exploitation, are modern forms of Babylon. . . . Little babylons also operate in the recesses of our heart. . . .The Beast controls his subjects through fear; the Prostitute seduces people by playing on their lusts with the enticements of illicit pleasures. However subtle the remaining sinful tendencies in the Christian’s heart may be, they also involve fear and lust.” (Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King, p. 161).
Prepare for battle! The Lamb will win the battle. John writes to the seven churches, and the Spirit who inspired him gives you this same book, so that you can be prepared for battle. It is a battle in which the foe may seem overpowering. The kings and armies of the earth gather to do battle—a spiritual battle to be sure, but on with very real consequences for God’s people on earth—with the Lamb and his followers. John wants you to know that you may appear to lose. You may lose your job, your liberty, or even your life. But the enemy does not know how powerful is the one they have attacked. Do battle with the Lamb, and you will lose. The nations and peoples and rulers are given authority, but as Revelation 17:15–18 makes clear, they use that power to turn against the the prostitute. Evil turns on itself, and God uses even the evil acts of men and demons to advance his own purposes. “At its root every pagan world empire is another incarnation of the same satanic spirit that will reach full intensity just before it shatters before the glory of the Lamb and ‘goes to destruction’ (17:8, 11). The final conspiracy is also symbolized in the ten kings (ten horns) who receive authority with the beast ‘for one hour,’ for the sole purpose of putting that authority at the beast’s disposal as it launches its last desperate assault on the Lamb and his ‘called and chosen and faithful followers’ (17:12–14). . . . Jesus’ followers must be prepared for a period of unparalleled, intense persecution at the end, when evil forces now restrained will be released to work their worst against the church. Yet that time of trauma will be brief, and our enemies final conspiracy will end not in the downfall of the church, as they expect, but in their destruction.” (Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, pp. 251–252).
Live as followers of the Lamb. Where does this leave you? John describes the victory of the Lamb, who conquers because of who he is: Lord of lords and King of kings. He triumphed by his suffering, death, and resurrection. Further, he is not alone. With him, sharing in his triumph, are his followers. John uses three words to describe them. They are called, they are chosen, and they are faithful. Because you have been called and chosen by the Lamb and his Father, you are faithful. You are called to continue to be faithful. Even if obedience is costly, stand firm!
Perhaps you say, “Nothing surprises me anymore.” That may be true, but don’t lose the ability to be astonished with John, to be taken aback, not just at the the horrible wickedness of rebellion, but also at the awful punishment which it brings. Stand firm in the face of both temptation to engage in sin and in the pressure to conform to a rebellious world. Live as what you are: a follower of the Lamb!