With the judgments concluding we now turn our attention to Chapter 17 as it portrays the judgment of God on the harlot, that sits in opposition to the cause of Christ. In chapter 17 the harlot appears in a crude display of the snares of wealth, power and being drunk with the blood of martyrs. This vision can sometimes be seen as confusing but fortunately after the opening vision John learns from the angel the meaning of its symbolism.
Vs 1: John is called by one of the seven angels to view the judgment of this notorious prostitute. In Old Testament prophetic teaching the imagery of the prostitute is commonly shown to represent religious apostasy and idolatry.
The woman/prostitute of the Apocalypse represents a pagan city, and it is unquestionably Rome. She is decorated in luxury and is intoxicated with the blood of the saints. She represents a dominant world system based on the seduction for personal gain over the righteous demands of a persecuted minority. The apocalyptic proclamation that the woman shall soon be stripped naked and destroyed comes as a necessary and welcome reminder to the readers that God is forever sovereign, and He continues to occupy the throne of the Kingdom.
The woman is pictured as sitting upon a beast in many waters. The waters represent the peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages. Since the prostitute is later named Babylon the Great, it would appear that this is part of the description where Babylon is the city that is “over many waters.”
Vs 2: The kings of the earth who had illicit relations with the woman/city are the nations who are in illegitimate relations with Rome. They represent the apostate nations that Rome has enticed into idolatrous worship of herself and the beast.
Vs 7: The angel who took John to the wilderness to see the vision of the woman and the beast responds to John’s amazement by explaining the mystery of the woman and the beast on which she rides. This is a single mystery that involves both characters. They cannot be understood apart from the other. But what we see in chapter 17 is widely concerned with the clarification of the beast, but chapter 18 details the judgment of the woman/prostitute.
Vs 8: The portrayal of the beast is a deliberate contrast to the picture of Jesus found in chapter 1 and Ch. 4. In the widest sense the beast is understood to be a satanically inspired being or force that, even though he died, returns to launch himself with renewed rage against the powers of God.
He is the beast of chapter 13 who was fatally wounded in one of his heads and yet survived. Down through history he repeatedly “comes up out of the Abyss” to harass and, if it were possible, to destroy the people of God. John wrote under the shadow of an impending persecution. The beast is about to come again.
The Beast had exercised a controlling influence in the consecutive supremacies of the emperors of Rome, but in this final attack he is to be revealed for what he really is—the incarnation of evil in its deep-seated hatred and violent opposition to God and all that is just and good. It is the reappearance of the beast that causes the astonishment on the part of the unbelieving world.
Vs 18: the woman “represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” For John and his readers, the city is Rome. She is the wicked seducer whose malevolent influence has infiltrated the whole of the Mediterranean world. Yet Babylon the Great, who is the basis of universal harlotry and repugnance (v. 5), is more than first-century Rome. Every great center of power that has prostituted its wealth and influence restores to life the spirit of ancient Babylon. It can be described as the final spiritual Babylon, which will provide the social, religious, and political base for the last attempt of Antichrist to establish his kingdom.
This leads to what I want to spend the remainder of our time together. The woman and the beast represent evil and idolatry, which God specifically has words to say about idolatry. As with much of Revelation, we are encouraged to turn our attention to the book of Exodus. More specifically Exodus 20.
Exodus 20:4. - 6
Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5Do not bow in worship to them, and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, 6but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands (Exodus 20:4 – 6)
What Are Idols?
In Exodus 20:4 – 5 We are introduced to the sin of idolatry and the prohibition of people making images or statues (whether on earth, below the earth or in the heavens) and bowing down in worship to them.
The first commandment warns of worshiping the wrong God (there are no gods besides me), now the second commandment warns against worshiping God in the wrong way. This commandment includes imagining the true God as like yourself, a ruler or something lower. This means we have the tendency to make God into something of our own limited understanding, likeness, or ability to control. This is what the Israelites did at the base of Mt. Sinai while Moses was receiving the law. When the Israelites were worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32) they weren’t worshiping foreign gods like Baal, Ra, or Osiris, they were worshiping their perception or creation of God. They had created an image in the form of a golden calf and worshiped it as God. They used their imagination to create and conceive a physical representation of what they believed was God. Thus, even if their motives were right (which I highly doubt), they were creating an image of god, who could not be created. This was their sin. They created a god of their own understanding and imagination. I have heard people talk about acknowledging or worshiping the god of their own understanding and this concerns me because they are talking about worshiping an idol. What we perceive or imagine God to be in our own minds is dangerous and goes against the second command. J.I. Packer writes, “No statement starting, ‘this is how I like to think of God’ should ever be trusted. An imagined God will always be quite imaginary and unreal.”
Do We Worship Idols Today?
You may say, “I am a Christian and I know I shouldn’t make statues in God’s image, so why is this commandment even relevant or applicable to me today?” The answer is everything in our lives and in this world has the potential to become an idol!
Modern humanity may not worship statues or carved images, but I would argue that many do have other (both seen and unseen) gods that they worship today. According to recently deceased author and Pastor Timothy Keller, “A counterfeit god (idol) is anything so central and essential in your life that, should you lose it, your life would be hardly worth living. An idol has so much controlling position in your heart that you spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought.” Professor Tom Shippey states, "(Idols are when we) take the hearts fondest desires and magnify them to idolatrous proportions.” Anytime one needs something to represent or to see God we are undermining his freedom. No image can capture God’s glory. However, we try do this with buildings, pulpits, relics lying around the church or any image that we need to bring us into the presence of God.
This happens in churches today. I remember many years ago once being criticized at a church I pastored for moving a pulpit from the area where I preached to another part of the stage; the reality was, the pulpit had become an idol. On another occasion I asked a pastor friend if I could borrow some candelabras from his church for a wedding. He agreed. I went to the church to pick them up and I was stopped by the church secretary and told, very sternly, those candelabra cannot be removed from their place since they were the only items that had survived a church fire in prior years. In fact, they are not even supposed to be touched without gloved hands. Those candelabra had clearly become idols.
Is all idolatry bad?
The short answer is yes. God does not tolerate idolatry. Throughout scripture we read that God will not take second seat to anyone or anything. Exodus 20:5 says, “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”. There are many potential idols in our lives and sometimes these can be good, healthy, and advantageous when viewed and used properly… but when we place them above God and worshiped (kiss hand in affection) they subtly become idols, no matter how good or advantageous they may be.
What Can Idolatry Look Like for Us?
When we depend on or look to anything more favorably than God as our source of joy, security, and salvation then it/they have become idols in our lives. Idolatry can have many faces in our churches and culture. These idols can also include…
Is there something in your life taking precedence over God? If so, then this “something” has become an idol/God. We are created beings and we were created in the image of God to worship God. Unfortunately, our natural sinful inclination is not to worship God, but to worship things created by God. Romans 1:18 – 23 says, “But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.”
Sometimes it is so easy to exchange worship for God with the temporal and fleeting. We replace God with subtle physical idolatry (people or things) or idols of our hearts (Unseen and possibly good).
My prayer is that you take some time this week and pray about identifying the idols in your life and seek to replace them with the true, life-giving, fulfilling, and joyful worship to the only one who is worthy of praise. When we faithfully allow God to search our hearts, He is going to deal with us individually and when He does, we need to be prepared to make the necessary changes in our lives so we can be right with God.
Jeff has been in full-time ministry for thirty years. He currently serves as Executive Director at Anchor House Ministry at SeaPort Manatee in Palmetto, FL and he is a part-time Campus Pastor at West Bradenton Southside in Bradenton, Florida.
Jeff Has authored A Lent Devotional (A Spiritual Journey to Lent) an Advent Devotional (The Advent of Jesus) and a devotional on the book of James (James: Where Faith and Life Meet). All three are available on Amazon.
He is married to Carrie and they have four children, Micaiah, Gabe, Simon, and Berea.
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