Sermon: The Harlot Introduced: Revelation 17:1-6

Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 50:1–20

“The word that the Lord spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet: ‘Declare among the nations and proclaim, set up a banner and proclaim, conceal it not, and say: ‘Babylon is taken, Bel is put to shame, Merodach is dismayed. Her images are put to shame, her idols are dismayed.’ For out of the north a nation has come up against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away. ‘In those days and in that time’, declares the Lord, ‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’ My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord, their habitation of righteousness, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.’ Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats before the flock. For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her. From there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed. Chaldea shall be plundered; all who plunder her shall be sated, declares the Lord. Though you rejoice, though you exult, O plunderers of my heritage, though you frolic like a heifer in the pasture, and neigh like stallions, your mother shall be utterly shamed, and she who bore you shall be disgraced. Behold, she shall be the last of the nations, a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert. Because of the wrath of the Lord she shall not be inhabited but shall be an utter desolation; everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled, and hiss because of all her wounds. Set yourselves in array against Babylon all around, all you who bend the bow; shoot at her, spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the Lord. Raise a shout against her all around; she has surrendered; her bulwarks have fallen; her walls are thrown down. For this is the vengeance of the Lord: take vengeance on her; do to her as she has done. Cut off from Babylon the sower, and the one who handles the sickle in time of harvest; because of the sword of the oppressor, every one shall turn to his own people, and every one shall flee to his own land. Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead. In those days and in that time, declares the Lord, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.” (Jeremiah 50:1–20, ESV)

Sermon Text: Revelation 17:1-6

“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 prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.’ And 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. The woman was arrayed 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 sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” (Revelation 17:1-6, ESV)

Introduction

Brothers and sisters, as we journey deeper into the book of Revelation it is important for us to remember that this book was originally written, not to us, but to seven churches in Asia Minor in the first century A.D. Specifically Revelation was addressed to the church in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These churches, being seven in number, do represent all churches (their struggles being common to all), but we must remember that these were actual churches, and that the book of Revelation was given first to them. 

Christ addressed each of these churches individually in seven letters found in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation. He rebuked most of them for their weaknesses; he encouraged and exhorted all. These churches struggled with many things: some were persecuted, others were plagued by false teaching, some were especially tempted by the seductiveness of the world, others had, in their prosperity, grown complacent in their love for God and for one another.

I mention those letters to the seven churches here so that we might recognize how the rest of the book of Revelation connects to them. Though the visions of chapters 4 and following differ rather significantly in style, they are not unrelated to those seven letters, but give an answer to them. In the letters the churches were exhorted to stay true to Christ at all costs. They were commanded to persevere. They were urged to overcome! But do you see how the visions of chapters four and following complement the letters as they provide an answer to the inevitable question, “why?”, or “is it worth it?” After reading the letters to those seven churches you can almost here the members of those churches asking, “why should we persevere in Christ if it will mean poverty for us? Why should we persevere in Christ if it will mean persecution for us? Why bear up under this suffering in the name of Christ? Why abstain from the pleasures of this world? Is it worth it?”

The visions of chapters 4 and following say to the Christ follower, “it is worth it!”, by revealing how things really are, and how they will be. That is what the book of Revelation reveals – how things really are now, and how they will be at the end of the age. The book reveals how things really are, despite appearances.

Though things might appear to be otherwise the truth is that God is enthroned in heaven and he is worshiped there, being radiant in glory and awesome in power. And Christ is there at the Fathers right hand. These are sovereign over all. Nothing happens in this world apart from their decree. God and Christ know those who belong to them. They promise to keep them and will judge all who oppose them, partially now, and fully in the end. To belong to Christ – to have his seal placed upon you – means life eternal. But to belong to the evil one – to have his mark stamped on you – means everlasting damnation. In the world, Christ followers will indeed have tribulation. They will be pursued by the dragon. They will come under the assault of the beast from the sea (political powers that persecute). They will feel the pressure of the beast from the land (false prophets who serve the beast and the dragon), but God will keep those who are his, and judge all who oppose him in the end.

These are some of the truths that have been communicated to us via the the visions shown to John as described in Revelation chapters 4 through 16. These truths are for the church. Initially, they were for the seven churches of the first century in Asia Minor, but they are also for us today. The visions, like the letters, urge Christians to persevere in Christ by showing how things truly are.

The Harlot Introduced

Here in chapter 17 we come to a new vision, and in it we are introduced to a new character. She is called “the harlot”, or the “the great prostitute who is seated on many waters” (Revelation 17:1, ESV). And this new character, as we will see, symbolizes the seductiveness of the world. She represents the seductiveness of the great cities of the world – cities filled to the brim and overflowing with money, sinful pleasures, and the promise of power and fame. Here the Christian is warned to see the seductiveness of the cultures of the world for what it is. The world’s beauty, though impressive, is only skin deep. Though the world might appeal to us, in truth she is rotten to the core. Her way leads to death. Her end is destruction.

 

The harlot of Revelation 17 was an answer to those in the seven churches who’s appetites and affections were drawn to the seductiveness of Rome – Rome being the dominate world power in that day. . Remember that there were some in the church in Thyatira who loved “that woman Jezebel, who [called] herself a prophetess and [taught] and [seduced Christ’s] servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20–21, ESV).  And there were some in Pergamum who “[held] to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14, ESV). The church in Laodicea had been lulled into complacency by her prosperity, saying, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that [they were] wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17, ESV). To those enamored with the sinful pleasures, and luxuries of the world, the book of Revelations presents the harlot of chapter 17. Her beauty and appeal is not denied, but Christians are warned not to chase after, for, though she promises pleasures forever more, she leads only to death – her end is destruction.

In versus 1 and 2 the harlot is introduced: “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 prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”

It was one of the angels who had the seven bowls that revealed the harlot to John. It should be recognized that this vision concerning the harlot provides us with another vantage point what bowls six and seven revealed, namely the gathering of the kings of the earth for judgement, and the judgement of Babylon, which stands for the great cities of the world.

Notice that though this is the first time the harlot has been mentioned, she is described as judged as soon as she is introduced. “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute”, the angel says.

This harlot is said to be “seated on many waters”. Her being seated indicates her power and authority over the people of the earth and over the beast. When it is said that she is seated on many waters, it is to remind us of Jeremiah 51 where God did promise to judge Babylon, saying, “O you who dwell by many waters, rich in treasures, your end has come; the thread of your life is cut” (Jeremiah 51:13, ESV). Babylon was rich, in part, due to her close proximity to the Tigers and Euphrates rivers, and thus her success in trade.

We are told that it is with the harlot that the “kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” It would be a mistake to think that this harlot represents only the temptation of sexual sin. True, she is called a “harlot” or “prostitute”. And true, the sin of “sexual immorality” is mentioned again and again. But we should remember that harlotry, sexual immorality, and the sin of adultery often function as a metaphor for spiritual idolatry in the pages of Holy Scripture. For example, in Jeremiah chapter 3 God confronts Israel for her idolatry (their false and misdirected worship) by saying,  “You have played the whore with many lovers… declares the Lord. Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been ravished? By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers… You have polluted the land with your vile whoredom” (Jeremiah 3:1–2, ESV).  God was not confronting Israel for sexual sin only, but for her sin of idolatry, which sometimes involved sexual immorality.

Harlotry and the sin of sexual immorality and adultery serve as metaphors for spiritual idolatry because the two things are similar. The sin of adultery is committed when a husband or wife goes off to join themselves to another, thus violating the marriage covenant. The husband belongs to the wife, and the wife to the husband, and it is a grave sin when that union is broken. And so also the sin of idolatry is committed when a person abandons the worship of the one true God, to worship another who is not God. The creature belongs to the Creator, and the Creator is to be worshiped and served by the creature. It is a grave sin when that union is severed. You can understand, then, why spiritual idolatry (false worship) is referred to as adultery and whoredom. It is a most grievous sin when the thing that should be given only to God is given to another, namely glory, honor, and praise.

The harlot of Revelation 17 signifies all of the ways in which the world seduces men and women to abandon the worship of the one true God, and to worship something in his creation instead.

So far John has only heard about the harlot. In verses 3 through 6 he sees her. There we read,  “And he [the angel] 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. The woman was arrayed 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 sexual immorality.”

What shall we say about this?

One, John was in the Spirit, which indicates that he was again receiving a prophetic vision.

Two, he was carried away into a wilderness. We should remember that it was into the wilderness that the church fled while being pursued by the dragon in Revelation 12. It was there in the wilderness that the church “has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days” (Revelation 12:6, ESV). Many things may be signified by the fact that John was taken into a wilderness to see this harlot. One is that the church will not be entirely immune from the harlots seductive powers as she is protected and preserved in this wilderness place. Another may be that when Babylon is judged, which is what this woman represents, the once thriving city will be made desolate, like a wilderness place. This is what Revelation chapter 18 describes. There an angel calls out with mighty voice, saying,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (Revelation 18:1–3, ESV).

John being carried away into the wilderness to see the harlot does prepare us to here of her judgment unto desolation in that place.

Three, notice the apparel of the women. “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls.” Her dress is very extravagant. She represents the luxurious living and sinful seduction.

Four, notice that she is “holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” She has in her a hand a cup filled with a deadly sinful concoction which she offers to the kings of the earth and the earth dwellers, from which they do drink.

In verse 5 we read, “And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” On her forehead was written a “name of mystery”. The name will need to be interpreted for us, for it is mysterious. The fact that it is written on her forehead indicates that her name reveals her true character. And what is her name? “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And what does the women with this name represent? In verse 18 the angel reveals it when he says to John, “And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18, ESV). The harlot, as I said before, represents the seductiveness of the world. She represents the seductiveness of the great cities or cultures of the world – cities filled to the brim and overflowing with money, sinful pleasures, and the promise of power and fame.

In verse 6 we read, “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus… (Revelation 17:6, ESV). So this woman, if she cannot seduce Christ’s people, does persecute them even to the point to of death.

Clearly the description of the woman of Revelation 17 is meant to be contrasted with the description of the bride of Christ which we will find in Revelation chapter 21. There we find language similar to the language found at the beginning of chapter 17:

“Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit [not to the wilderness, but] to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal… [and so on]” (Revelation 21:9–12, ESV).

Satan has his woman, and Christ has his.

Satan’s woman is the world. She is a harlot arrayed in extravagant apparel, but filled will all manner of impurity, who does seduce men and women to commit idolatry. Her way is death. Her end is destruction.

Christ’s woman is the church. She too is arrayed gloriously, but is pure – made pure by the blood of her husband and the washing of the water of the word. She is no harlot, but has remained true to her God and to Christ. Her end is everlasting glory.

At the end of verse 6 John says, “When I saw her, I marveled greatly” (Revelation 17:6, ESV).

Commentators differ on how to interpret this. Some say that John himself was tempted strongly by the harlot. Others refuse to say that John was in any way impressed by her. The answer seems to me to be somewhere in the middle. Though John probably was not swayed by her seductive powers, it seems that he recognized the potential. He understood the power that this woman did have to seduce, and so he marveled greatly.

The angel then said to him, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her” (Revelation 17:7, ESV). In other words, John, there’s nothing to be impressed with here. I will show who this woman truly is.

Application and Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, we must stop here today for the sake of time and pick with verse 7 next week, where we will learn more about this harlot and her relationship to “the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.”

But before we conclude I must ask, does the world seduce you? Does the seductiveness of the world land with you? Are the sinful things of he world appealing to you?

Now it is important for us to think clearly and biblically here. The things of this world are not inherently sinfully. It is good and right for the Christian to enjoy the world – to marvel at it is beauty and to give glory to God for it. It is right for the Christian to eat and drink with thanksgiving in his heart. It is right and good for the Christian to earn money to prove for himself and for his family. Indeed, all of the pleasures of this life can and should be enjoyed to the glory of God!

But you know as well as I do how the evil one does tempt us to approach the good things of this world in the wrong way, to misuse them, to make them ultimate, and only to please ones self. This is the essence of idolatry, wherein men and women worship and serve the creation instead of the Creator. They do not give glory to God. They do not seek to obey him. They do not live according to his will. Instead they seek only to satisfy their sinful appetites and desires.

How is it for you, friend? Are your affections bent towards God, or towards evil? Do you love the things that he has called loves, or do you love this world more? Does the harlot seduce you? Are you drawn to her sinfully? Or have have you been renewed by Christ so that you crave that which is good and right and distain that which is evil?

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:5–10, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, the old, natural and sinful man is indeed seduced by the world. The sinfulness of the world certainly appeals to him. He, given his fallen nature, has an appetite for it. But in Christ we have been made new. And in Christ, by his word and Spirit, we are being renewed day by day. This is what we must pursue – transformation of the mind, the heart and the will – so that we love what God love as and hate what he hates. So that when we look upon the harlot of Revelation 17 we marvel not, but look away with authentic and heart felt disgust.

How do get this heart transformation? By walking in the means of grace that God has given to us.

Worship on the Lord’s Day Sabbath

Being attentive to God’s word, seeking to obey it.

Giving cheerfully

Prayer (and fasting)

 

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