Teaching series from Revelation

The Whore of Babylon

Revelation 17, 18

Teaching t09181


Review the theme of chapters 6-16—the Great Tribulation. This is the final period of human history as we know it, 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.”

We will look at the third major vision in Revelation—chapters 17 and 18. This vision introduces us to yet another evil character, and describes the judgment that God will pour out upon it at the end of the age. This is the vision of the “Whore of Babylon.”1 This is the most confusing character in Revelation, and it will take most of our time this morning to figure out just what this entity is. 

Read 17:1-5. Let's start with 17:5, because this gives us its “name” or title.

The name is a mystery, which in the Bible refers to something that has been largely hidden, but which is now being revealed (see Romans 16:25-26). Through the symbols of this vision, then, God is exposing an expression of evil that has long been at work in secret, 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”). Both of these images are rooted in the Old Testament, and they reveal different aspects of this entity. Chapter 17 describes it mainly as “the mother of harlots,” while chapter 18 describes it mainly as “Babylon the great.” Let's take a closer look at both of these titles . . . 

“The Mother of Harlots . . .”

“Harlotry” and “abominations” are terms related in the Old Testament not only to sexual immorality, but especially to idolatry. See especially Ezek. 16:15ff., which uses both of these terms to describe Israel as a harlot full of abominations (16:22) because it allowed itself to be seduced from its “husband” YHWH to commit spiritual adultery with idols. God uses very graphic language to describe Israel as a spiritual nymphomaniac, made mad from the aphrodisiac of idolatry (see 16:15, 25, 32-34). Israel became so polluted with idolatry that God had to remove her through exile to bring her to repentance.

Revelation 17 evidently describes this same spiritual adultery at work in the Church—culminating in the apostate Church. Just as Israel became a harlot during the Old Testament period, so the Church (called the “Bride of Christ”) will ultimately become a great harlot during the period between Jesus' two comings. “Apostate” means “fallen away” and here refers to a counterfeit entity that claims to be Christianity but has really rejected Christ. Jesus warned that false prophets would arise throughout the period between his comings (Matt. 24:5), and that at the end of the age there would be a massive defection from the faith (Matt. 24:10). This is the apostasy (“falling away”) that Paul predicts in 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1,52. The Harlot, then, is the demonic counterfeit of the Bride of Christ, the Church.

She seduces not just Israel, but people from every part of the world (17:1b,15). She seduces both political rulers and common people with her cup of idolatrous inducements (17:2).

She is intimately related to, but distinct from the “beast (17:3). It appears here that she is in control over (“sitting on”) the beast, but in the end the beast turns on her and brings about her downfall (17:16). It may be that the Antichrist rises to power (in part) through the support of the apostate Church—but then turns on it once he consolidates his power.

At any rate, like the beast, she hates the followers of Jesus Christ (17:6). She makes others drunk with her wine of idolatry, but she herself is drunk with the blood of the saints. One of the most horrible themes in church history is the institutional church (especially when allied with the State) betraying and persecuting true believers (INQUISITION; STATE CHURCH LEADERS IN NAZI GERMANY & COMMUNIST RUSSIA & CHINA).

Most of the rest of chapter 17 describes the beast, which we have already studied, so we'll pass over this section. But notice in 17:18 that this “woman” is also “the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:18). In other words, as we saw in 17:5, these two terms describe the same entity in two different forms. Chapter 17 describes it as a spiritual whore—the source of spiritual deception and the counterfeit Church, while chapter 18 describes it as “Babylon the great”—the “secular” expression of this same evil entity.

“Babylon the Great”

Read 18:1-2. 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. The language here echoes several Old Testament passages concerning the kingdom of Babylon (in southern Iraq).

The original kingdom of Babylon is described in Genesis 10-11. It was humanity's first empire, ruled by the godless tyrant Nimrod, who was “a mighty hunter in defiance of the Lord” (10:8-9). Nimrod built the first great city, Babel (“gateway to the gods”), which was a society rooted in human pride and dedicated to exalting itself over everything, including God (11:4). God noted that that this kind of all-encompassing empire would totally corrupt humanity, so he prevented this by confusing the people's languages so they have to disperse.

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 boasted Daniel 4:30 (read). Nebuchadnezzar was the first major ruler to require his subjects to worship his image (Daniel 3). While God used Babylon to discipline Judah for its idolatry, he vowed to destroy Babylon because of its arrogance. See Isaiah's taunt in Isaiah 14:12-15. Note how his description of the aftermath of Babylon's judgment (Isaiah 13:19-22) is echoed by Revelation 18:1-3.

So “Babylon the great” represents fallen humanity's determination to construct a “God-tight” society (EXPLAIN “AIR-TIGHT”). It began with original Babylon, re-emerged in neo-Babylon, has flowered since then in many godless empires throughout history (including Rome in 1st century, and 20th century expressions like the Fascist Axis and the Iron Curtain regime), 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. Chapter 18 is a taunt announcing its sudden, dramatic, and permanent downfall—probably by the return of Jesus.

We don't have time to study the whole chapter, but I do want to highlight a feature an aspect of “Babylon” that may hit closer to home . . . 

It seduces rulers and business-people through the offer of material wealth (18:3 NIV “ . . . by the wealth of her luxury”). “Babylon” specializes not in the material necessities of life, but in material luxury at the cost of human lives (18:12-13). This is why her devotees lament her fall (rulers in 18:9; merchants in 18:11-14; passengers in 18:17-19). “Babylon the great” is in large part the spirit of materialism (seeking identity and security and stimulation through the acquisition and enjoyment and accumulation of money and things). Materialism flourishes in every political system—including capitalist democracies (SLAVE TRADE). It is a key feature of the American Dream, and which drives this materially prosperous and spiritually sick nation and infects all of us here to some degree!

It seduces people by corrupting even good things so that they become idols that lead us away from God. Notice the final description of “Babylon” in 18:21b-23 (read). “Sorcery” is the Greek word pharmakeia, from which we get “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical drugs.” It means the mixing of potions to induce spells in idol worship. It is used figuratively here to refer to “Babylon's” deceptive activity even through 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”), human relationships (“bridegroom and bride”) and economics/commerce (“merchants”). And to this list we could things like education/academia, political office, sports and entertainment, etc.

Am I saying that these things are evil? No! All of these things are good gifts from God that he wants us to enjoy. We deplore the unbiblical fundamentalism that calls for Christians to withdraw from any of these arenas in order to be spiritual! God wants Christians involved in every one of these areas!

But beware! All of these areas are now laced with an intoxicating “drug” that can deceive you into thinking these gifts can replace the Giver. And if you buy into this lie, these very gifts that God gives you to enjoy will destroy your character and your relationships and your very soul. The arts are a great breeding ground for aesthetic pride. Information technology has the power to erode rational and reflective thought, and to erode or prevent in-depth personal relationships. Academia can breed intellectual arrogance, political activity can corrupt you with power-lust. Professional sports stars' salaries and travel schedule have devoured the stars and destroyed countless marriages.

What is the “Babylon?” It is what the same author (John) elsewhere calls “the world” (read 1 John 2:15-16). The kosmos (“orderly arrangement”) is that satanically-inspired system of values (hedonism, materialism, egotism) that seeks to seduce us from a love relationship with the one true God, who alone can provide us with the security and identity and significance we need. It is a whore, appealing to our fallen desires and promising us satisfaction that it can never deliver—while it charges the price of our souls.  

“You gotta drink”

So much for explanation—it's time for some application. It would require a whole series of teachings to explain how God wants us to respond to the Whore of Babylon. I'm going to explain the most basic and important response . . .

The Rally's commercial says, “You gotta eat.” God says, “You gotta drink.” We have incurably thirsty souls, and we are unable to make our own water. Therefore, your choice is not whether you will drink, but only from whom you will drink. And according to the Bible, there are only two sources.

You can drink from the Whore of Babylon. Her cup is full of false gods (NAME SOME) that will intoxicate you temporarily, and she will keep mixing different versions of the same ingredients to keep you coming back. But they won't satisfy you, and eventually they will drive you mad and destroy your soul. Haven't you drunk from this cup enough??? How much more do you have to drink before you admit that it doesn't work?

Or you can drink from Jesus Christ. His cup is full of living water (read John 4:10, 14). This living water is the love of God, which is the only thing that will ever quench the thirst of your soul. He says he is offering this living water as a gift. You don't have to clean yourself up before he will give it to you; he will give it to you as you are and it will spring up inside you to transform your life. (HIS ORIGINAL AUDIENCE WAS THE SAMARITAN WOMAN.) All you have to do is ask Jesus for it. Admit to him that you are thirsty, that the Whore's cup doesn't satisfy—and simply ask him to give you this living water of a love relationship with God. If you do this, your life will never be the same!

Listen to Dave Durrell describe his experience of drinking from both cups . . . 


1 Revelation 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.

2 With regard, to 2 Tim. 3:5, how many of us grew up in churches where we never heard the gospel? Is this not the “form of godliness” without its power?

Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt