We continue our study of the many monstrous characters in the Revelation.
Babylon the Harlot
John refers to Rome as “Babylon” and then as a harlot (or whore or prostitute, depending on the translation). This is one of many parts of the Revelation that makes it difficult to teach in high school — although less so today than when I was in high school.
The “great whore” (17:1 NRSV) or harlot of chapter 17 is called Babylon (17:5), a Jezebel-like figure and a parody of the feminine images of Roma Aeterna and Dea Roma (Eternal Rome and Goddess Rome). She is “seated” on many waters (peoples; 17:15) and on the blasphemous beast with seven heads (17:2–3). These heads are identified (17:9–10) as both seven mountains (as in Rome’s seven hills) and seven kings (the fullness of emperors). Clad in luxury, the whore has fornicated with the inhabitants of the earth and become drunk with the blood of the saints (17:2–6), and as the all-powerful city who rules all others (17:18), she has ten client kings in her grip who will make war on the Lamb but also eventually turn on her (17:12–17).
Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 3134-3140). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Babylon, the great whore, the seductive and self-glorifying city, is the antithesis of the people/the city of God: the woman in chapter 12, the Lamb’s bride of chapters 19–22, the new Jerusalem of chapters 21–22.
(Kindle Locations 3142-3144).
Thus, Rome, the prostitute, is contrasted with the church, the bride of Christ, and the new Jerusalem, which is in heaven but destined to join the earth when Jesus returns.
And the harlot remains with us. It does not take a political activist or liberation theologian to recognize the ongoing power of “Babylon.” New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, writing in 1993, said the following:
Babylon is allegorical of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator
. . . . The message of the book of Revelation concerns . . . God’s judgments not only of persons, but also of nations and, in fact, of all principalities and powers—which is to say, all authorities, corporations, institutions, structures, bureaucracies, and the like.
Even, Metzger adds, the Christian churches.
(Kindle Locations 3143-3150).
Metzger sounds like Yoder and other neo-Anabaptists in his criticism of the “powers,” even though he was a good Presbyterian (USA) — hardly the denomination one associates with such critiques given its close attachment to the Democratic Party (not that the evangelicals don’t live in Republican glass houses).
The Church/the People of God
The church is no monster, but neither is it idealized in the Revelation, except for very intentional purposes —
We have already seen, by looking at Revelation 2–3, that the church in Revelation is an imperfect entity, and that both churches and individual Christians live somewhere on a spectrum ranging from faithfulness to faithlessness. In spite of this existential reality, John insists that the church is a people that has been liberated and forgiven by the blood (death) of the Lamb (1:5; 5:9); that it produces faithful and “victorious” servants who have affirmed their identification with the Lamb’s blood by shedding their own blood (6:10; 7:14); and that it is destined for ultimate victory and glory, symbolized especially by white robes (3:4–5; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13–14; 19:14; 22:14). Like Jesus himself, the church is symbolized by the colors red and white, slaughtered yet victorious.
(Kindle Locations 3152-3157).
The church, for all its struggles, sins, and compromises, will ultimately prevail — if it gives heed to the warnings John is giving them.
There are several visions that speak of the church and God’s people. For example,
This people is most vividly represented by the woman of chapter 12, who is described as “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” and “about to bear a child” (12:1–4). The dragon (identified as the devil/Satan/the serpent) wishes to devour the child, a son “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5; cf. Psalm 2), but the child is taken to God’s throne. The woman flees into the wilderness, where she is protected and nourished by God, but also pursued by the serpent, who now wishes “to make war on the rest of her children,” identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17; cf. “our comrades,” or brothers; 12:10).
This vision suggests that the woman is not primarily an individual (such as Mary, the mother of Jesus) but a symbol of the entire people of God, from whom come first the Messiah Jesus and then other children.
(Kindle Locations 3160-3167).
The church is often pictured as a faithful witness, in contrast to the various monsters —
The most significant characteristic of the church as the people of God in Revelation is its calling to be a faithful witness (e.g., 2:10; 17:14). This call must be heeded even despite the interrelated pressures of opposition and temptation. It is rooted in Jesus the faithful witness (1:5; 3:14; 19:11), and it is exemplified in John the faithful witness now on Patmos (1:9), the martyred Antipas of Pergamum (2:13), and all the faithful witnesses/martyrs now in heaven (6:9–11; 7:13–17; 12:11; 17:6). The call is also highlighted by the parabolic vision of the two witnesses (11:1–13).24 John’s commission to be a Christlike, prophetic, faithful witness is reaffirmed in his vision of eating the bittersweet scroll (10:8–11; cf. Ezek 3:3), but the exiled John then recognizes that God has called others as witnesses, too. Their faithful, prophetic testimony to and among the nations (symbolized by the court of the Gentiles at the temple in 11:2) caused them to share the fate of their faithful Lord—both death and resurrection.
(Kindle Locations 3174-3181).
A Multinational Martyrological Community
These two states of the church—as a persecuted pilgrim people now and as a vast triumphant heavenly people later—are on graphic display in Revelation 7, one of the most important texts about the church in the entire New Testament. Its dramatic and rhetorical function as an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals does not diminish, but rather enhances, its theological prominence.
In the first part of the chapter (7:1–8), we see the church on earth, situated in the midst of the tribulation associated with the seven seals of judgment. It is depicted as 144,000 sealed people from the tribes of Israel (7:4), establishing continuity between the church and the original chosen people. These 144,000 have had their foreheads sealed, a mark of their identity as God’s people and of God’s protection of them during tribulation (7:3 versus 13:16–17; see OT precedents in Exod 12:23; Ezek 9:4). Here, as later in chapter 12, “[f]aithful Christians are preserved through (not from!) the great persecution that is about to be unleashed upon them.”
In the second part of the chapter (7:9–17), we are given a vision of the church in heaven, where there is an innumerable multinational multitude, robed in white (symbolizing victory and resurrection), who acclaim the victorious salvation of God and the Lamb. These are those who have “come out of the great ordeal” (7:14) and already experience some of the blessings of the eschatological reality later portrayed in Revelation 21–22 (7:15–17).
Some interpreters understand the 144,000 and/or the multitude to be only the martyrs who have died in the tribulation, but it is more likely that each group represents the whole church. In any case, however, the images convey two crucial dimensions of the church: (1) its international, multicultural character, and (2) the reward it receives for faithful witness. The latter is reinforced in chapter 11.
The beautiful vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9) is—or should be—at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. This is what God is up to in the world.
(Kindle Locations 3199-3218) (emphasis in original).
What is God’s planning? What does he want from us? “[A] great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
Sounds like God’s promises to Abraham fulfilled.
Sounds like Jesus’ Triumphal Entry — where the people glimpsed for a moment what was possible, only to sink back into the ordinary, day-to-day muck of self-interested politics — leading to a crucifixion.
Our task is not to repeat their mistakes.