Session 17

Revelation Study – Session 17


The sixth act in this seven act great drama of redemption begins in Revelation 17. 


It is always customary for the victor to celebrate when the battle is over.  In Act 5, the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath depicting the utter devastation of the forces of evil takes place.  Now, as Act 6 the smoke of battle has cleared away, and we are ready to see something of the completeness of the victory for the saints of God and the  celebration which followed.  As in most of the acts of this drama, Act 6 is made up of seven symbols with an interlude between the sixth and the seventh.  In this act, as in the case of Act 5 describing the opposing forces in the battle array, the divisions are not clearly numbered, but are obvious to the careful reader.  There are seven scenes of celebration with a special feature of the celebration described in the interlude between the 6th and 7th scenes.  Everything within this section of the Revelation bears the mark of celebration, which is a logical sequence to the climax of the battle.


Overview the seven scenes of celebration:


1.      17:1-18 – Introductory scene designed to identify clearly the conquered enemy


2.      18:1-24 – Scene showing utter devastation of Rome


3.      19:1-6 – Heavenly choir giving praise to God


4.      19:7-10 – Heavenly wedding between the Lamb and His bride


5.      19:11-18 – Triumphal processional in heaven


6.      19:19-21 – Formal sentencing of the evil earthly leaders of Rome


Interlude (20:1-6) showing special recognition given to those who have been martyred for their faith in Christ.


7.      20:1-9 – The final defeat of Satan



SCENE 1 (17:1-18) – Identity of the conquered enemy

            One of the angels who had one of the seven bowls of wrath is about to take John on a tour of the enemy territory so that he might rejoice in the completeness of the victory, but first he must identify this enemy and his territory.  So he carried John away in the spirit into the wilderness.  There he was shown a woman on a scarlet-colored beast, “full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (v.. 3).  The woman herself was arrayed in scarlet-colored garments and decked with gold and precious stones.  She had a golden cup in her hand “full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication” (v. 4).  Upon her forehead a name was written:  “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (v. 5).  She had been made drunk with the blood of the saints, the martyrs of Jesus. 

            This description alone would have been enough to identify the woman as a symbol of the wicked city of Rome, the headquarters of those persecuting God’s people.  We have run across the name Babylon before and have observed that, for the first-century Christian, it no doubt referred to Rome.  Because of the tight censorship John could not have used the word Rome; but just in case his readers did not pick up that clue, John goes on to give other clues that would surely remove all doubt or uncertainty.

            This woman sits upon a beast that has seven heads and ten horns.  At this point John urges his readers to use all of the wisdom that God has given them in order to decipher this code.  It has to be couched in mystery in order to keep the Roman censors from intercepting it, but if they will use their heads wisely they can get the message.  This is the same symbol we saw in Revelation 13 describing the beast from the sea that represented Rome in general and Domitian, the current emperor in particular.

            From one point of view, John explains, the seven heads of the beast represent the seven mountains on which the woman sits.  All who are familiar with Rome know that it is situated on seven hills.  This was merely a means of identity.  As if this were not enough, John goes on to explain that, looking at it from another point of view, the seven heads represent seven kings: “Five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.  And the beast which was, and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.” (vv. 10-11).  This at first appears to be a senseless riddle, but it is not at all senseless when interpreted in the light of the known facts of history.

            As we saw in our study of chapter 13, at the time John wrote, the eighth emperor was ruling over the mighty but wicked Roman Empire.  In chronological order they were: 

  • Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14-37 AD)
  • Caligula (37-41 AD)
  • Claudius (41-54 AD)
  • Nero (54-68 AD) – After the death of Nero three men claimed the throne in rapid succession, but none of the three lived long enough to establish himself on the throne; therefore, they are not counted in the succession of the emperors, and thy were never considered by the people as emperors.  They were Galba (six months), Otho (four months), and Vitellius (six months).
  • Vespasian (69-79 AD)
  • Titus (79-81 AD)
  • Domitian (81-96 AD)            

None of the eight mentioned above could be classified as outstandingly good, but two of them were notoriously bad:  Nero and Domitian.  There grew up a popular legend among the people that Nero did not really die and would return to the throne again; or, if he had died, he would be reincarnated.  When Domitian came along, he was so much like Nero in disposition that many of the people really believed that Domitian was the reincarnation of Nero.  Of course, John and his fellow Christians did not believe this legend; but John did make use of it to identify the enemy. 

Interestingly, John positions himself in the reign of Vespasian.  That could be another move designed to elude the censors.  However, if Domitian was the reincarnation of Nero, then he was in a sense the immediate successor of Nero, even though historically this was Vespasian.  John does explain that the eighth king was also one of the seven.  At any rate, there is little reason to believe that these first-century Christians did not understand what John was driving at in the riddle.

            Verse 12 tells us the “ten horns” represent “ten kings.”  This probably refers to the rulers of Rome’s provinces who receive their authority from Rome.  They would rule for only a short time.  Initially they would get their orders from Rome and do Rome’s bidding.  But as Rome began to disintegrate, they turned on the empire and hastened its demise. (vv. 16ff)

            There are, of course, other interpretations of this riddle.  For instance, Dr. W. A. Criswell, in his commentary of the Revelation, interprets these five fallen kings to refer to five ancient empires:  Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek.  The one that is refers to Rome, and the one that is yet to come is the “great, final, political dominion presided over by this anti-Christ, which is world government in its ultimate form”.  He goes on to explain that this final world government “will be divided into nations, into ten kingdoms”; and the ten kings of these ten kingdoms will give their power and strength to the Antichrist. 

            To me, the interpretation that identifies these kings with the emperors of Rome, culminating with Domitian, seems to make much better sense.  As we have said so many times throughout this study, for John and his first-century friends, the arch-enemy of God and God’s redeemed people was the wicked and blasphemous empire of Rome.  For those of us who live in the 21st, the principle may be applied to any similar godless regime.  What John seeks to show here is that these blasphemous leaders and their wicked kingdoms will be utterly destroyed by the great power of the wrath of God in judgment.  Just how complete this destruction is we shall see in the next scene.


SCENE 2 (18:1-24) – The utter devastation of Rome

            Having clearly identified the enemy, John is ready to show us the utter devastation of the enemy territory-the great and wicked city, the center and citadel of wickedness.  John saw a mighty angel swoop down out of heaven whose brilliance lighted the whole battlefield so that all could see. 


            The fate of Rome  (vv.1-8)

            Verse 2 – A picture of total desolation.  The angel cried with a loud voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!  And she has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird.”(18:2). 


            Verse 3 – Reminder of the corruption that caused Rome’s devastation...


            Verse 4-6 – Warning to God’s people not to get caught up in the sins and consequently the judgment of Rome...


            Verse 7 – Picture of Rome’s complacency...


      Reactions to Rome’s fall  (18:9-20)

            vv.9-19 – Allies lament...

            v.20 – God’s people rejoice...


      Rome’s total oblivion  (18:21-24)

            v.22 – No more partying

            v.22b – No more prosperity

            v.23 – No more home life


            One writer summarizes Revelation 18 this way:  “… in a vivid picture of contrast he shows the vast difference between the city’s former glory and the dismal darkness of its present state.  In her heyday Rome was lighted with brilliance.  In her was glamour, glitter, excitement, ostentation, and uninhibited licentiousness.  She reigned like a queen, and all the nations gathered around her to offer homage and praise.  People came from afar to profit by her worldwide trade marts and to enjoy her famous places of merriment.

            But now look at her.  She is desolate and forsaken.  The men who lived deliciously by her stand afar off and mourn her downfall.  It is as if a mighty angel has taken her in his hand as one would take a pebble from the beach and thumped it into the sea.  There is a brief ripple in the water and then disappearance into oblivion.  Thus has God dealt with the wicked city.  There is no more lucrative trade within her, no more vivacious activities, no more glamour.  All is dull and dark.  The utter devastation is described by John in this dramatic chapter.  Thus are we able to see how complete is God’s work of destruction of the satanic kingdom.  This picture of doom will find fulfillment in every great city of this earth where satanic might has brought on moral and spiritual corruption.”