12th Sunday After Pentecost, September 4, 2011
St. John has come to the point in his book where he wagers everything he has on the knowledge that the hand he holds is greater than anything in the hands of the opposition. Although…in the heat of the contest, it may not look that way! But John knows. The question is, do his readers?
This moment in Revelation is echoed in the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien at the end of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. In that saga, there have been so many battles, won and lost. But at the end the heroes stand at the gates of hell itself, Mordor. The great final battle of Morannon is at hand.
In the movie that battle is not as great as it is in the book. In the book, Tolkien pours into his writing all the darkness of his experiences with the horror of World War I. All his horrific memory of the trenches, the fighting, the dying, the wounds worse than death…it crowds into his words with dark imagination. And yet… despite the War…or perhaps because of it…Tolkien, like St. John, knew something greater than the darkest horrors of this world.
Tolkien once wrote, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God…. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” St. John could have written the same thing. And, in effect, he does in this passage today! So it begins.
17:1 “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 on many waters.’” This image is right out of the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophets regularly used the metaphor of prostitution and adultery to describe Israel’s waywardness in matters of faith. “Adultery,” because instead of remaining faithful to her husband, the Lord God who chose her, Israel was always chasing after every other hunky god in the neighborhood; Baal being the most frequent.
So John writes here, v2, “With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” It’s not so much the moral issue itself, but the faithlessness at the heart of adultery. Instead of single-hearted faithfulness toward God, and a life of faithfulness, something else has caught the world’s roving eye. And, boy!, don’t we know that today. It’s not Baal anymore. He’s so…BC. Today it’s the material gods with whom we are having an extended lover’s quarrel. And woe to the heretic who questions devotion to those gods! But for John, it was Rome.
V3, the woman is riding a scarlet beast. We met that beast back in ch13, and the woman here is a variation on Beast 2 back in ch13. V4, “The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.” V5, she’s called Babylon, because in the Old Testament, Babylon was Israel’s undoing. Now in the New, for John, Rome threatens as the Church’s undoing. V6, “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” Persecution.
And John is astonished by the vision, captivated by this jaw-dropping beauty. But the angel, v7, slaps some sense into the beloved disciple. “Why are you astonished?” Well who wouldn’t be? Despite the words of the prophets of old, Israel was much taken with Babylon, until Babylon took her. In John’s day Rome was still very much in her prime, the ruler of the world. At the height of any empire in history…even our own…who would ever guess that twilight could come?
But it’s always a fool’s wager to bet on the empire rather than on God; even if the empire wraps itself in the language of God…like this harlot on the beast of scarlet. When empire speaks as God…well, it is the clearest sign that the beast is speaking!
In the rest of the chapter the angel identifies the beast on which the woman rides. V9, “The seven heads are seven hills”…the classic description of Rome. In v10, they’re also seven kings. “Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come…” And v11, “The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king.”
OK, another puzzle from St. John. Since the first century, folks have tried to identify these seven kings with Roman emperors. Some do it chronologically, some do it in order of significance. But it never works out.
Others have tried different empires: Assyria, Babylon, the Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, finally the Christian empire of Constantine. An intriguing spin. But the best interpretation is the traditional one. The image is one of earthly power in general, wrapped up with antichristian influence, a symbol for all the eras of tyranny over the Faith. And while tyrants in history have been many and astonishing…the empires always go down. Always! So also, v11, the beast who “once was, and now is not.” This an allusion to Satan’s judgment, first at the cross and finally on the Last Day. We’ll see this again in ch20 with the Millennium.
The point here is a tragic one. V16, “The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.” There is no honor among thieves! The secular powers, the beast, and the antichristian spiritual powers, the harlot, are always mutually destructive. There is only one God, but it’s neither of them. Still, in every age the beast and harlot present themselves as the only game in town, tempting us to play by their rules.
In John, this is the classic struggle of faith; being in the world but not of the world. So easy to say; so hard to live. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus had prayed, “Father, as You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Like Jesus Himself, we Christians do not live apart from the world. We live fully in the world. But it’s not entirely a comfortable fit. If for Jesus: “He came to His own, but His own received Him not,” so then for us: there are moments of faith and moments of crucifixion. Jesus prayed, “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one.” And these visions of John have been all about God keeping His Church from the evil one.
Now…ch18 captures all the anguish of those married to the beast and its rider, when they are overthrown. The vision uses the language of Babylon’s fall, six centuries before John, and echoes the words of Jeremiah who wrote, “A voice! A cry from Babylon! The noise of great destruction…for the Lord is laying Babylon waste and stilling her mighty voice.” Picking up the same tune, John sings, v2, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” V10 “Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power!” V17 “In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!” And the people’s lament goes on and on through these verses.
Now remember, John is not writing about historical Babylon. Babylon here is a metaphor for Rome, and a metaphor for any beastly power in history. Although when John wrote these visions, Rome was nowhere near its fall…but it was coming.
As Edward Gibbons understatedly concluded, “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness…the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.” Judgment came from within. The rider and the beast were swallowed up in their own game. Like Babylon of old, so also Rome, so also any beastly power that sets itself up as God against God. V20, “Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.”
St. John had once warned in his first epistle: “Do not love the world or the things of the world…[for] the world is passing away.” Ah…but do not then conclude from this, as far too many Christians mistakenly do, that the world is evil in itself. (And that the goal of faith, then, is to escape the world.) No! If the world were evil, there could be no new heavens and earth emerging from the old. God called His creation good! But it has become infected by the beast, by the adulteries of the harlot on the beast…in other words, by the evil of human sin since the Fall.
So in John’s writings—the Gospel that bears his name, the 3 Epistles, and the Book of Revelation—in John, the only hope is for the world to die and to be born anew. Death and resurrection. It was revealed on Good Friday and Easter in Jesus. It comes to us personally in Holy Baptism, where we die and are born again. But for this beast-infested world, it will come on the Last Day. And in anticipation of that new birth for this groaning creation, the saints here in the vision rejoice over the death of the old.
19:1 “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are His judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of His servants.” The old dies so that the new may emerge. V6: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready.” The world is cast down a harlot, and the world is lifted up a bride. Oh the rich imagery in that vision…for the Christian and for the world!
So finally, finally, finally, with the appearance of the Rider on the white horse, v11, we are ready for the Last Battle. This been foreshadowed in every age through time. It’s outcome was revealed on Good Friday and Easter. But it has been waiting…waiting its full revelation on the Last Day. And next week, St. John gives us a visionary peek at The End.