Teaching series from Revelation

Babylon the Great

Revelation 18:1-23

Teaching t23020


Repeat theme of Rev. 6-18 – the Great Tribulation (define; Matt.24). Review three evil characters. Last week we began studying the fourth and most mysterious evil character—the spirit of satanic deception that has influenced all of human history, but which will reach its peak during the GT. This character has a two different faces with two different names, which reveal how this spirit of deception manifests itself.

As we saw last week, chapter 17 introduces this entity as a woman named “The Mother of Harlots.” This signifies the spirit of deception at work religiously—leading both Israel and God’s people (Israel and the Church) into idolatry and apostasy.

Rev.18 introduces this same entity as a city named “Babylon the Great.” As we will see, this name signifies the spirit of deception at work politically and economically. Rev.18 shows that “Babylon the Great” deceives in three ways...

It is the ultimate expression of human empires that defy God’s rulership

Read 18:1-8. An angel announces the fall of “Babylon the Great.” That which was so powerful and impressive has now become a desolate dungeon of the demons that animated it. Why is it named “Babylon?” Because the name echoes several Old Testament passages concerning the two historical kingdoms of Babylon—both of which were empires that openly defied God’s rulership.

The original kingdom of Babylon is described in Gen. 10,11. It was humanity’s first empire, ruled by the godless tyrant Nimrod (literally: “we shall rebel”), who was “a mighty hunter in defiance of the Lord” (read 10:8,9). Nimrod built the first great city, Babel (literally: “gate to the gods”), which was a society rooted in human pride, occultic polytheism, and dedicated to exalting itself over everything, including God. God noted that that this kind of empire would totally corrupt humanity, so he prevented this by confusing the people’s languages so they had to disperse (read 11:4-7; Babel in Hebrew means “confusion”).

Later, Neo-Babylon emerged in the 600’s BC, and it was the greatest empire ever known up to that point. Neo-Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and Israel’s Temple in 586 BC. It was ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar, who (like Nimrod) was so intoxicated by his own power that he uttered great boasts (read Dan.4:30). Nebuchadnezzar may have been the first major ruler to require his subjects to worship his image (Dan. 3). But God fulfilled his prediction that He would destroy Babylon because of its arrogance (read Isa.13:17a,19-22). This description is echoed by Rev.18:1-3.

So “Babylon the Great” is the culmination of fallen humanity’s drive to create a global kingdom that defies God and exalts human self-will. It is the fulfillment of what Nietzsche called “the will to power.” It began with original Babylon, re-emerged in neo-Babylon, has erupted since then in many godless empires throughout history (e.g., ROME; FASCISM; COMMUNISM), and it will come to ultimate fruition in the global reign of the Antichrist. Yet, in spite of its splendor and power, God is going to take it out suddenly (18:8 – “in one day”), dramatically, and permanently—probably by the return of Jesus.

Will this happen in our lifetime? It is certainly possible, but we don’t know. But this chapter provides two additional insights into how “Babylon the Great” operates that are always relevant. The first is that one of the keys to its deceptive power is its use of material wealth...

It seduces governments and businesses through the allure of material wealth

Read 18:3. Just as the “Mother of Harlots” held out a cup of religious deception that “intoxicated” God’s people into apostasy, so “Babylon the Great” holds out a cup that intoxicates and deceives rulers and merchants into rebellion against God. What is that cup? It is her “excessive luxuries.” The prospect of material wealth has corrupted governments and businesses. This theme is repeated throughout this passage:

Read 18:9,10. The rulers who were enriched by her wealth mourn her destruction (and anticipate their own judgment by God).

Read 18:13-15a. The merchants who were enriched by selling her wealth (which includes both luxury items and the human slaves used to accumulate wealth) mourn her destruction and are terrified because the same fate awaits them.

In other words, “Babylon the Great” is the purveyor of materialism—the philosophy of life that defines identity and significance and security in terms of money and material possessions. This is one of many biblical passages that condemns materialism as a great evil. It has corrupted countless fallen human governments and businesses, and it has inflicted untold misery on countless human beings who have been exploited and oppressed so that rulers and merchants (and others) can have wealth.

“Babylon’s” materialism flourishes in every political system—including ours. We tend to critique this in other political systems (e.g., European monarchies that colonized Africa, S. America and Asia; Nazi Germany’s enslavement of Jews and Gypsies and others to runs it war machine; Soviet Russia’s exploitation of its satellite nations like East Germany), but be blind to how much it has driven and corrupted our own capitalist democracy.

QUALIFY: America has been great in many ways. Its democratic government has prevented dictatorship. It has resisted and defeated tyrants at great sacrifice. It has had some principled leaders who have helped liberate oppressed people (e.g., Lincoln; Civil Rights presidents).

But it is undeniable that materialism has always been a key feature of the American Dream, and that it has deeply tainted our history as a nation. It has often dominated our domestic and foreign policies (e.g., land-theft and genocide of Native Americans; generations of African enslaved; “Manifest Destiny” used to justify colonialism). Consumer prosperity continues to be the dominant factor in presidential elections (James Carville’s famous answer to how Clinton defeated Bush Sr.: “It’s the economy, stupid!”)?

Stephen Keillor, an evangelical American history scholar, analyzes American history from this biblical perspective in his excellent book, This Rebellious House. Listen to how he describes the rise of industrial capitalism in America during the late 19th through mid-20th century: “By seeing industrial capitalism as an exceedingly efficient Babel project, we see it clearest...Industrial capitalism and its consumer culture were more efficient, more democratic and seemingly more humane than prior tactics for rebelling against God... Consumer culture offered the citizens self-satisfactions that proved more popular. (While) merchant capitalism had built an economy on luxuries few could afford, consumer culture ‘democratized desire’ and promised luxury for all. (While) plantation capitalism had created more slaves than planters; consumerism promised workers luxuries that no wealthy planter enjoyed. Here was a better Babel.”

We should be grateful for the many good things about our nation, but we should not be naïve about “Babylon’s” influence on it. But the deceptive power of “Babylon the Great” doesn’t just seduce our government and businesses through materialism. It also seduces each of us on a deeply personal level...

It seduces individuals by turning good things into idols that distract & enslave

Notice the final description of “Babylon the Great” in 18:21b-23 (read). “Magic spell” is the Greek word pharmakeia, from which we get “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical drugs.” In the ancient world, it referred to the mixing of potions to induce spells involved in idol worship. It is used figuratively here to refer to “Babylon’s” deceptive activity to involve people in idolatry (18:3). It is likely that the preceding context describes how “Babylon” seduces people into idolatry—not just by creating religious false gods, but by making everyday activities substitutes for God.

The arts (“harpists and musicians and flute-players and trumpeters”), industry and technology (“craftsman of any craft...sound of a mill...light of a lamp”), marriage (“the voice of bridegroom and bride”), and economics/commerce (“merchants”) are all morally legitimate activities. And to this list we could add other morally legitimate activities, like education/academia, sports and entertainment, etc.

But “Babylon” has cast a “spell” that deceives most people into viewing these activities in the wrong way—not as gifts from a good God who alone gives us identity and meaning and security, but as replacements for God and counterfeit sources of identity, meaning and security. This is what idolatry is. This is what rules our culture. “Babylon” serves up various mixtures of this “spell” to appeal to us in various stages of our lives. Some are socially unacceptable (e.g., drug addiction), while others are socially sanctioned (e.g., careerism; consumerism). But all of them are designed to enslave us and corrupt us and keep us from God.

The movie “The Matrix” does a masterful job of illustrating this “spell.” Everyone thinks they’re living their own lives, free to choose their jobs, free to recreate, etc. But they are deceived. There is an evil entity that has devised this system of deception to deceive and enslave them for its own purposes. SHOW “RED PILL-BLUE PILL” CLIP.

The real red pill is not a pill at all. It is a Person, Jesus Christ. He can expose how this “spell” is deceiving you. And He can break its power by bringing you into personal contact with God’s love and truth. He has already paid the price to do this by dying on the cross for your sins. He is willing and able to do this for you today. Do you want Him to do this for you? It is as easy as taking that red pill. All you have to do is ask Him to forgive and deliver you. At that moment, you will be liberated from enslavement to this “spell” and equipped to live a new life centered around a love relationship with God. What do you say? Will you make this choice, or (by default) go on being deceived? It’s up to you.

Discussion Question

Those of us who have received Christ can never be owned by “Babylon” again. But we can allow it to re-capture our affections and neutralize our spiritual growth and effectiveness (quote Mk.4:18,19). How can we avoid coming under “Babylon’s” spell again?

We can remember that it is doomed to destruction (1Jn.2:17; Rev. 18). Why would we invest in a company that we know will go bankrupt in 5 years?

We can vigorously pursue our love relationships with God. The best way to prevent deception by the counterfeit is to keep experiencing the real. We do this by through participating in His Word, praying to Him and being in fellowship with other Christians.

We can stay on mission with Jesus by reaching out to people who are still enslaved. He saved us from it in order to send us into it to rescue others (Jn. 17:15,18; “The Matrix”).

If God has convicted us that we have allowed it to re-capture our affections, we can admit this to God and His people and ask Him to restore us (Jas. 4:4-10). He promises to draw near to us and give grace to us and break its power over us.

Next week

We begin the good news in Revelation—the Return of Jesus to earth...

Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p.160.