Teaching series from Revelation

The Mother of Harlots

Revelation 17:1-6

Teaching t23019


We spent three weeks studying Rev.6-16, which is a prophetic vision of the Great Tribulation. This is the final period of fallen human history, when there is an outbreak of evil so terrible that only Jesus’ personal return prevents the world from being destroyed. This section also introduced us to the key characters that are responsible for this evil—the “dragon” (Satan), “the beast” (Antichrist), and the “false prophet.”

This morning we will look at yet another evil entity that works in concert with the three characters above—“Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots.” This is the most confusing character in Revelation, so we will devote much of our time this morning just getting our arms around what this entity is. Read 17:1-5. Let’s start with 17:5, because this gives us its “name” or title.

Notice first that its “name” is a mystery, which in the Bible refers to something that has been largely hidden, but which is now being revealed. Through the symbols of this vision, then, God is exposing an expression of evil that has long been at work undercover.

The first clue to its identity is the content of its name, which is a two-fold title. It is like a city (“Babylon the Great”) and it is like a harlot (“the Mother of Harlots and of the abominations of the earth”). See also 17:18. Both of these images are rooted in the Old Testament, as we will see.

Chapter 18 describes it mainly as “Babylon the Great. This title describes its political and economic activity, which we will study next week.

Chapter 17 describes it mainly as “the Mother of Harlots.” This title describes its religious activity, which we will study this week. Let’s take a closer look at this titleand its Old Testament background...

“The Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth”

This woman symbolizes the source of spiritual adultery within God’s people. Walvoord says: “The picture of the woman... signifies spiritual adultery, portraying those who outwardly and religiously seem to be joined to the true God, but who are untrue to this relationship.”

“Harlotry” and “abominations” are terms God uses in the Old Testament to describe Israel’s involvement in idolatry—the worship of false gods. God frequently described himself as Israel’s “husband” whom they had “married” by making a covenant with Him. This imagery emphasized God’s committed love for Israel and the importance of their exclusive devotion to Him as His “wife.”

But over and over again, Israel committed spiritual adultery and “played the harlot” by worshipping other gods. God was deeply grieved by Israel’s spiritual adultery and harlotry, and He communicated this through scathing rebukes from His prophets. Some of the strongest language on Israel’s spiritual adultery is found in Ezek.16. Read 16:22,24, which uses both of these terms to describe Israel because they worship false gods. Read 16:25,32-34. God describes Israel as a spiritual nymphomaniac, made mad by the aphrodisiac of idolatry. He delivers the same rebuke through Isaiah (read Isa.57:3-8).

Worse yet, Israel did this while continuing to engage in external, formal worship of God (read Isa.29:13). This apostate hypocrisy both betrayed God personally and misrepresented God to the rest of humanity.

John’s vision uses the same imagery. The Harlot in Rev. 17 describes this same spiritual power at work in the Church—culminating in a pseudo-Christian religion that outwardly worships Jesus, but which actually betrays Him and misrepresents Him to the world. The “Mother of Harlots” is the spirit of apostasy. It has lured the Church into apostasy through all of church history, but at the end of the age it will produce the ultimate apostate Church.

Jesus warned that this force would be at work in the Church during the entire time between His First and Second Comings. He predicted that false prophets would arise “in My name” throughout the period between His comings (read Matt.24:5). He also predicted that at the end of the age there would be a great number of false Christian spokespersons who lead a massive defection from the faith (read Matt.24:10,11).

This is the apostasy (“falling away”) that Paul predicts in 2Thess.2:3 (read). Paul also describes this in 2Tim.3:1,4,5 (read). The people who lead this hold to some of the outward forms of biblical Christianity (BAPTISM & COMMUNION; “GOD WORDS”), but deny its real power (NAME ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE GOSPEL).

Rev.17 teaches us several other things about the “Mother of Harlots”:

It seduces people from every part of the world (read and explain 17:1b,15). It seduces both political rulers and common people with its cup of spiritual deception (read 17:2). This sounds like a counterfeit of the fulfillment of the Great Commission—people from every ethnic group are deceived by it.

It possesses great monetary wealth (read 17:4), which it uses to lure people into its idolatries. The theme of Church leaders being corrupted by monetary greed has a rich legacy in church history (“BISHOP OF BLING” suspended for $40+ million for home & $2.9 million for private chapel; HEALER DEALERS; “PREACHERS OF L.A.”).

It is closely connected to, but distinct from the “beast” (read 17:3). It appears here that it is in control over (“sitting on”) the beast, but in the end the beast turns on it and brings about its downfall (read 17:16). It may be that the Antichrist rises to power (in part) through the support of this apostate Church (is the False Prophet its head?)—but then he turns on it and destroys it once he consolidates his power.

Like the beast, it hates the true followers of Jesus (read 17:6). It makes others drunk with its wine of idolatry, but it itself is drunk with the blood of the saints. This has characterized the apostate Church throughout history, especially when the institutional church is allied with the State.

QUALIFICATION: This does not mean that there are no true and faithful Christians in apostate churches or denominations. There is usually a remnant of true believers who (sometimes get kicked out or) remain in these groups as a faithful light for Christ.

So what?

The reality of spiritual deception within the Church has many practical implications. Let’s consider two of them...

First, it is possible that your own understanding of Christianity is deeply skewed because of this force. It may be that the Christianity you feel aversion toward is not true Christianity at all. Paul speaks of this same theme in 2Tim. 3:1,5 (read). He warns that false teachers will infiltrate the Church and create “a form of godliness that denies its power.” In other words, they will produce an external Christian religion that denies the real power in Christianity, who is the living Jesus who offers us complete forgiveness of our sins and a personal love relationship with Him. This is why Martin Luther said that Christian religion is the most effective tactic Satan ever devised!

This was a big reason for my aversion toward Christianity (PERSONAL EXAMPLE). Why was I so aversive? Was it just that I was rebellious? That played a part, but the main reason for my aversion was the Protestant church to which I was taken. The minister didn’t believe that the Bible was God’s Word, so he never taught it. He didn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead and was personally accessible, so he never invited people to receive Him. The result was a form of godliness that denied its power—boring worship services with creepy formal pastoral prayers and empty sermons about current affairs. That is what I hated about Christianity—but it wasn’t Christianity! The terrible irony is that that denomination began as the most dynamic Christian movement of the 18th century. It was led by a man who was radically transformed by Jesus and His Word. What happened between when this denomination started and when I was a kid? I’ll tell you what happened. The “Mother of Harlots” penetrated this denomination and in the early 1900’s lured most of their ministers away from believing in the Bible.

Since I met Christ, I’ve talked discovered that my not story is not unique. I’ve met hundreds of people who were turned off to Christianity because they were raised in churches that were virtually all religious ritual observances and/or threats of God’s judgment. They had no idea that Christianity is not a religion, but a personal love relationship with Christ, a relationship of security because of His gift of forgiveness. Their churches held to a form of godliness, but they denied its power. Consequently, these people were deeply negative about Christianity until they heard the good news (above) from people whose lives had been changed by it. Yet the denominations to which these churches belong were all once vitally alive with this good news. What happened? The “Mother of Harlots” penetrated these denominations in a variety of ways, and turned them into empty religious distortion of true Christianity.

Over the years I’ve also met hundreds of other people who are negative about Christianity, not because they were raised in counterfeit churches, but because they were taught in school that Christianity promotes racism, hatred of non-Christians, slavery, oppression of women, etc. What are they referring to? Not the real Jesus, or what the New Testament teaches! They are referring to what the “Mother of Harlots” has taught in the name of Jesus, and what her followers have done in the name of Jesus.

Do you recognize this aversion in yourself? Is it possible that this is the main reason for your aversion? Is your aversion actually toward what the “Mother of Harlots” has done to Christianity? Would you like to meet the real Jesus? Would you like to be secure in His forgiveness? Would you like to experience His loving leadership of your life? You don’t have to become religious to do this. Just call out to Him, and tell Him that you want to know Him. Then He will show you the difference!

Another obvious implication is that Christians need to be wary of spiritual deception by pseudo-Christian teachers and leaders. Jesus told all of His followers to be wary of this (Matt.24:4,5). Almost every New Testament letter repeats this warning. I have been shocked and sobered by seeing many long-time Christian friends and Christian leaders lured into spiritual deception (EXAMPLES). The question is: How can we protect ourselves against this? Learning the Bible is obviously necessary (quote Heb.5:14), but it is not sufficient. The best way to avoid spiritual deception is being committed to truth-based Christian friendships. Consider these passages:

Read Eph.4:14,15. What protects us from 4:14? What ensures that we will keep growing spiritually instead? “Speaking the truth to one another in love.” Not just attending Bible studies with other Christians, but reminding and applying biblical truth to one another in loving friendships.

Read Col.2:18,19. Why did these people get spiritually deceived? Because they didn’t hold fast to Jesus and let other Christian friends supply them and hold them together with biblical truth.

Read Heb.3:13. What protects us from being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness? Being in friendships in which we regularly exhort one another—remind and encourage one another to keep following what Jesus says.

Here is God’s warning and provision. His warning is that you can know lots of Bible, but if you don’t have this kind of truth-based friendships, you are very vulnerable to spiritual deception. But His provision is that you can be substantially protected from spiritual deception even if you are just learning the Bible—if you build this kind of involvement with Christian friends. (PROMOTE HOME GROUPS & PERSONAL DISCIPLESHIP)

Rev. 14:8 and 16:19 have already briefly described this entity and its judgment by God. Chapters 17,18 elaborate on the identity of this entity and God’s judgment on it.

John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Moody Press, 1966), p.244.

During the early Middle Ages, the Church was so apostate that one can often identify the true Christians by the “heretics” it was persecuting (e.g., Waldensians). In 17th century France, the Church allied with the King to exterminate most of the Huguenot leaders (“St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre”). Apostate Protestant churches collaborated with dictators to persecute true Christians during the 20th century (e.g., Nazi Germany; Maoist China).