False Religion

Revelation 17

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2023

Today, we come to one of the most mysterious and intriguing chapters in the Book of Revelation.  It is the famous chapter about the scarlet woman with the golden cup.  It is a strange chapter in the Bible.  It is the story about a prostitute and her lovers.

John is carried away by an angel to see a hooker, and it was not for the purpose of evangelism.  Not too many angels take believers out to see prostitutes these days.

Here, an angel carries away an apostle of Jesus Christ in the Spirit to see a prostitute and not just any prostitute but a great prostitute (Revelation 17:1, 3).

Today, we want to look at who this woman is.  What does she represent?  How does it apply to us, even if we don’t live in the Tribulation Period.  We will try to see this chapter in a way you have never seen it before.

It is one of the most difficult chapters in the whole Book of Revelation.  We are told that this chapter calls for a mind with wisdom (Revelation 17:9 NIV).

Apparently, we don’t have wisdom.  Most of us don’t know what the chapter is about.  Who is the woman and who is who the beast she is riding?

Who is the woman?  Is the woman literal Babylon? That was a city that sits on many waters.  It was constructed on a canal system.

Is the woman Rome. That was the view of the early church.  It is the view of most modern scholars.

Is the woman Jerusalem?  God said of the city of Jerusalem, “See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!” (Isaiah 1:21 NIV).  That is interesting but Jerusalem is not a city on seven hills.

Is the woman the US?  There are plenty of websites and some books that take this view.

Is the woman the United Nations?  That is the view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Is the woman the Catholic Church.  That was the view of the Reformers and many today.

Who is the woman?  Who are the ten kings?  What are the seven heads?  Are they kings or are they kingdoms?

Many who think they knew what the chapter is about are completely wrong.  That is not surprising.  It is called a mystery.  We see that word twice in this chapter.

The word “mystery” is used four times in Revelation (Revelation 1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7).  The last time that we see the word “mystery” in the Bible is with regard to Revelation 17.[1]

Incidentally, if people say that they can explain everything in the chapter perfectly, don’t believe them.  There are some things in the chapter that are clear, but some things are a mystery.

The good news is that the chapter not only has a vision but an interpretation of the vision.  We have the VISION in Revelation 17:1-6.  We have the INTERPRETATION in Revelation 17:7-18.

Who does the interpretation?  An angel.  An angel interprets the vision for us.  We do not have to guess what it means.

We have the inspired interpretation.  The problem is that even with the interpretation, we still do not know completely what it means.

It is almost as if the angel is deliberately vague because this is a mystery.

The angel says that the woman is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:18).  What city is it?  Is it Nashville?  Is it LA or New York?  Is it Rome?  Is it Jerusalem?

The angel says that the seven heads are seven hills (Revelation 17:9) but does not tell us which hills.

Incidentally, some churches teach what is called seven mountain theology. It is supposedly based on Revelation 17.  The seven mountains are key institutions.

They are family, religion, education, the media, entertainment, business, and government.  They come up with the seven-mountain mandate based on this chapter but there is a problem.

The angel did NOT say that the seven heads are seven institutions but that the seven heads are seven hills or seven mountains (Revelation 17:9).  There is no reason not to take that literally.

A Graphic Chapter

This chapter should come with a content advisory warning. This is a graphic chapter.  It is not a good chapter for children’s church.  It uses graphic language.  It uses sexual imagery.  There is a great whore in the chapter (Revelation 17:1).

There is sexual immorality.  Kings commit sexual immorality (Revelation 17:2).  There is marital unfaithfulness.

There is seduction in this chapter.  The inhabitants of the earth will be seduced by this woman (Revelation 17:2)

There is prostitution all through this chapter.  In fact, the root word for “prostitute” in Greek is PORN.  The root word porn is used six times in the chapter.[2]

Revelation 17:1 – I will show you the great πόρνης (prostitute)

Revelation 17:2 – With her the kings of the earth have committed ἐπόρνευσαν (adultery)

Revelation 17:4 – She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her πορνεας (adulteries)

Revelation 17:5 – The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of πορνῶν (prostitutes)

Revelation 17:15 – the waters you saw, where the πόρνη (prostitute) sits

Revelation 17:16 – The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the πόρνην (prostitute).

There is drunkenness in this chapter.  It not only has a prostitute but a drunken prostitute in it (Revelation 17:6).

There is blasphemy in this chapter.  The scarlet beast is covered with blasphemous names (Revelation 17:3).

There are all kinds of filth in this chapter, a gold cup full of filth.  It is a cup of unclean things (Revelation 17:4).

There is violence.  There is murder in this chapter.  This woman is drunk with the blood of God’s people (Revelation 17:6).  Not only are the saints killed in this chapter but so is the prostitute (Revelation 17:16).

There are wicked politicians and kings who use people for their own purposes.  Politicians still do this today.

The clients of this prostitute use her and then get rid of her.  Her former lovers hate her and kill her (Revelation 17:16).

There is nudity in this chapter.  There is cannibalism in the chapter.  The beast and the ten kings leave her naked and eat her flesh (Revelation 17:16).

That shows the self-destructive nature of evil.  Evil is self-destructive. Evil turns on itself.  Evil destroys evil. The prostitute of Babylon is destroyed by someone more wicked than she is.

What is even stranger is that the beast and the ten kings actually do the will of God. When they kill the prostitute, they do what God wanted them to do.

We are told in this chapter that God “put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose” (Revelation 17:17 NIV).

How is that possible?  He uses evil people as instruments of judgment.  He used wicked Babylon and Assyria to judge His own people.

A Symbolic Chapter

We will see this woman is not pornographic; she is prophetic.  She is symbolic.  A woman rides a beast in the chapter (Revelation 17:3).

She is not a literal woman and the animal she rides, the seven-headed beast with blasphemous names, is not a literal beast.

The woman is called a harlot, but she is not a literal harlot. She is not a physical prostitute.  She is a spiritual prostitute.

Kings of the earth commit fornication with her, but it is not literal fornication.

The harlot sits on many waters, but these are not literal waters. These waters represent something.  They represent peoples, multitudes, nations and languages (Revelation 17:15 NIV).

This woman is also said to be drunk.  This is a drunken prostitute but she is not drunk on wine but on blood.  It is a different type of drunkenness.

In fact, not only is the woman drunk but so are the nations. You have drunken nations in this chapter, intoxicated from this woman.  The whole chapter is an allegory.

Five Characters

Who are the two main characters in the chapter?  A woman and a beast.  If you look carefully, you will see five characters in this chapter.

1) The filthy prostitute with the golden cup

2) The seven-headed beast with blasphemous names on it

3) The ten kings who are aligned with the Beast

These ten kings have not yet received a kingdom (Revelation 17:12 NIV).  They are not on the scene right now but one day they will be, and they will give their power and authority to the beast (Revelation 17:13 NIV).  They help support him and give him his power.

4) Jesus the Lamb

In this chapter, Jesus is attacked.  The Beast and the ten kings “will wage war against the Lamb” (Revelation 17:14 NIV).

They will not just wage war against Christians.  They will wage war against Jesus.  They will wage war against God himself.

He is not only attacked; He is victorious.  The Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of king (Revelation 17:14 NIV).

He will defeat them at the battle of Armageddon.  All of the forces of evil and all of the powers of Hell cannot stand up to the Lamb.

It is a little ironic that a lamb defeats them.  He is not just the Sacrificial Lamb.  He is the Warrior Lamb.

There is a lesson here.  Evil can be powerful.  Evil can be organized.  Evil can be frightening.  It can be intimidating but one day, evil will come to an end.

One day, evil will be destroyed.  That is hard to imagine in the day in which we live where we see evil every day on TV.  Can you imagine living in a world without evil?

The Beast will triumph over the prostitute.  He will triumph over the saints and overcome them, but Jesus will triumph over the Beast.

5) Believers

What are we told about believers in this chapter?  They will be persecuted.  Many will be martyred.  This woman who was drunk with their blood (Revelation 17:6).

Believers are described by three words: called, chosen and faithful followers (Revelation 17:14 NIV).  They are also described as those who bear testimony to Jesus (Revelation 17:6).

Description of the Beast

We know a lot about the Beast.  What are we told about him in this chapter?

1) He will have demonic influence

He will come out of the Abyss (Revelation 17:8).  He will be superhuman.  He will get his power from the dragon.  The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. (Revelation 13:2).  He will be the incarnation of Satan.

2) He will live twice.

Revelation 17 mentions three phases of the beast.  He once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss (Revelation 17:8 NIV).

That is a parody of God.  Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8 ESV).

It is a parody of Jesus who died and came back to life.  The beast also will die and come back to life (Revelation 13:2, 12, 14).

3) He will have allies.

Ten kings will give their authority to the Beast (Revelation 17:13).  They will support him politically.

4) He will be profane.

We are told that this beast will be covered with blasphemous names (Revelation 17:3 NIV).  We saw the blasphemy of the beast earlier in the book.

The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. (Revelation 13:5-6).

5) He will be murderous.

He is a scarlet beast (Revelation 17:3 NIV).  The scarlet beast is like the scarlet prostitute.  The beast and prostitute are the same color of Satan.  He is described as a big red dragon (Revelation 12:3).

6) He will be popular

He will be popular but only with the unsaved, those whose names are not in the Book of Life.

The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come. (Revelation 17:8 NIV)

7) His reign will be short.

He will not be around long.  He must remain for only a LITTLE WHILE (Revelation 17:10 NIV)It will be forty-two months (Revelation 13:5).

Like the ten kings, he will have a short tenure.  The ten kings will receive authority only for ONE HOUR (Revelation 17:12), perhaps just the first half of the Tribulation.

8) He will end up in Hell.

We are told that he “is going to his destruction” (Revelation 17:11 NIV).  He will be cast in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:10).  Paul calls the Antichrist “the son of perdition” (KJV) or “the son of destruction” (ESV) in II Thessalonians 2:3.

“The two books the devil hates most are Genesis and Revelation. Why? In Genesis the devil’s doom is pronounced.  In Revelation it’s carried out. It is the Devil’s Obituary”[3]

There is a famous quote about Satan.  “The next time Satan reminds you of your past. Remind him of his future.”

False Religious System

What is this chapter really about?  How does it apply today?  Many read Revelation 17 and miss the whole point of the chapter.

This chapter is all about false religion.  The Tribulation will be a time full of religion.  Everyone will not become a atheist at that time.

In the Tribulation, we will see a false end-time religious system appear.  It will be the final form of world religion.  It will be a great world church.  It will be a one-world religion.

It certainly will not be limited to the Catholic Church, as some think. It will not be limited to liberal Christianity.  It will include non-Christian religions, as well.

This religion will be liberal. It will be apostate. It will be unbiblical. It will be idolatrous.  It will be blasphemous.  It is called Babylon because that was where idolatry began.

Some would object to this and say that the woman is not a church.  She is a city.  The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth. (Revelation 17:18 NIV).  Are they right?  No.

This woman has to represent a religious system.  It has to represent a counterfeit church.  It is easy to prove.  Let’s compare two passages.  Compare the two women of Revelation at the end of the book.

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. (Revelation 17:1 NIV)

9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:9-10 NIV)

Both times John was taken away in the spirit by an angel to see a woman.

Both angels were one of the angels who had the seven bowls of wrath.

Both times, the woman that John saw was described as a city.  One city was called Babylon.  One city was called Jerusalem.

One woman was the bride, and one woman was the prostitute.  One woman represented the true church, and one woman represented the counterfeit church.  The harlot and the bride are both pictured as a city.

There is a big contrast between the two.  One is faithful and the other is unfaithful.  One is a pure and spotless bride and one is a harlot.  God demands purity in worship.

One woman was stripped naked, and one was clothed with fine linen (Revelation 17:16; 19:8).

One wears purple and red (Revelation 17:4).  The other wears white (Revelation 4:4; 7:9, 13; 19:14)

One woman is with Christ and one woman is allied to people who fight Christ.

What is the application?  There are two groups of people.  You are either part of the bride or you are part of the harlot.  Which group are you a part of?

Characteristics of False Religion

The woman represents the religious system that will exist in the Tribulation Period but there are some ways it applies to us today.  We see several characteristics of false religion from this prostitute.

1) False Religion is Seductive

The woman in Revelation 17 was seductive.  She seduced people all over the world.  Kings were seduced by her.

There must be something seductive about prostitution or it would not be called “the world’s oldest profession.”

False religion is also seductive.  People are attracted to false churches and to cults.  There is some appeal or people would not be joining.  Don’t be seduced.

2) False Religion is Hypocritical

This woman looked beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside.  She had glittering jewels.  She was clothed in red and purple.

Purple dye was expensive in the ancient world.  She had this golden cup in her hand that was extremely valuable, but it was full of abominations.

Many churches look great on the outside.  They have a great building and stained-glass windows but may not teach things that are lined up with Scripture.  Is you religion hypocritical?

3) False Religion is Wicked

This woman has evil written on her forehead in big letters and is proud of it.  She doesn’t hide it.  She would wear it in a pride festival.

She has a gold cup in her hand.  It does not just have some unclean things in it.  This cup is FULL of unclean things.

This cup was “filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries” (Revelation 17:4 NIV).

God says in the next chapter that “her sins are piled up to heaven” (Revelation 18:6 NIV)

False religion does not only contain false doctrines but also false practices.  The two go together.  False doctrine leads to false living.  Liberal churches ordain homosexuals.  They support and encourage immorality.

4) False Religion is Intolerant

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. (Revelation 17:6 NIV)

This woman was drunk with blood of the saints.  She killed believers.  She executed Christians.  That is why she wears the color red.  She stands for bloodshed.  That is a sign of false religion.  False religion always attacks the people of God.

At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. (Galatians 4:29 NIV)

5) False Religion is Political

In Revelation 17, the woman rides on the top of the beast.  She rides on top of the state.

There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. (Revelation 17:3 NIV)

Here, religion and government are combined.  This is a union of church and state, and the church controls the state.  It dominates and controls government.

The church should never be involved in government.  The state uses religion for its purposes.  Stalin used the church and then tries to destroy it.  Hitler used the Catholic Church and then persecuted it.

Notice who this woman is associated with.  She is not just associated with the state but with a demonically controlled government that opposes Christ.

The Beast is the one who comes out of the Abyss (Revelation 17:8). He is covered with blasphemous names (Revelation 17:3).

There is a hideous, horrible looking, seven headed, blasphemous beast.  Most people would be afraid of this animal, but she is not.  She associates with it proudly.

She had a partnership with the beast.   She sits on the one who eventually kills her.  Be careful who you associate with.  Be careful who your friends are.  They can get you killed.  You can end up dead like the prostitute in Revelation 17.

6) False Religion is Temporary

Notice how the chapter begins.  One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters (Revelation 17:1 NIV)

One day, false religion will come to an end.  Islam will come to an end.  Hinduism will come to an end.  Buddhism will come to an end and so will all the cults.

That is one thing that stands out clearly from this chapter.  All worship will be destroyed, except the worship of the Antichrist.  Eventually, the Antichrist will be destroyed.

[1] There is a translation note here.  The Revelation 17:5 KJV reads the words, “Mystery, Babylon the Great.” written on her forehead.  Mystery is part of her title in the KJV.  The NIV reads, “The name written on her forehead was a mystery: babylon the great the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth.” In the second reading, the name is “Babylon the Great”.  Both readings are possible, but four times in Revelation her name is “Babylon the Great” (Revelation 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2).  Nowhere else in Revelation is mystery a part of her name.

[2] https://www.universityreformedchurch.org/sermons/revelation-171-18/

[3] https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/100464/genesis-and-revelation-by-dr-larry-petton

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