We are in the Christmas season, and so we don’t typically spend much time in chapters like Revelation 17. It’s not really a Christmas text. No, we prefer to hang out in the early parts of the gospels of Matthew or Luke. Here’s an interesting exercise: Take some time to compare Luke 1-2 with Revelation 17. There probably aren’t two passages in Scripture more different than these.
One passage fills us with warm thoughts about the baby Jesus. In Luke 1-2, we see a faithful woman. We see purity – virginity, even. We see humble submission to the will of God. We see a birthplace that had no worldly luxury – only swaddling cloths and a manger. We see unimpressive shepherds glorifying and praising God. We see angels singing “peace on earth.” We see people filled with the Holy Spirit and praising God.
There is much to fill our hearts in Luke 1-2.
Meanwhile, Revelation 17 completely unsettles our minds. We are not left with warm thoughts. We don’t see a faithful woman but a prostitute. Prostitutes embody the concept of faithlessness. This was no virgin. In this chapter, we also see impurity and sexual immorality, and a drunken orgy with the kings of the earth. Rather than humble submission, we see pomp and pride and a show of wealth – purple and scarlet, gold and jewels and pearls. Rather than shepherds, we see kings – kings who are hungry for sex and for royal power. And in the end, they are hungry for the very flesh of the prostitute. We also have angels and the Holy Spirit in this passage, but rather than singing “peace on earth,” they are showing us the very opposite. This is a picture of evil, and it is an evil that consumes itself.
There is much to make us uncomfortable about Revelation 17. Again, it is not a proto-typical Christmas text!
However, the very practice of comparing these two passages of Scripture offers us time for pause and a recognition of the world in which we live. The world into which Jesus was born, for all its calm and humble warmth, was the very world where the prostitute rides rampant.
We don’t have to venture too much further into the Christmas story to find King Herod. In his fury, he killed all the male children of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). Herod wanted to kill Jesus. But Jesus escaped. We might be reminded of the dragon of Revelation 12 – the dragon who eventually gave rise to the best. The dragon was waiting beside a pregnant woman who was “clothed with the sun” and about to give birth to the “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” The dragon wanted to devour the child. But the child escaped.
Jesus was born into a world infected with evil.
Our tendency with passages like Revelation 17 is to try to crack the code. We want to decipher who the prostitute is. Who is Babylon? And we try to pinpoint the identities of the beast, the seven kings, and the ten kings. When we study this passage as code-breakers, we’ll find multiple ways to interpret the text.
Some people think “Babylon” in this text, with its seven hills, is Rome. Others think Babylon is some other worldly power, or an embodiment of all the worldly powers like Rome, the Soviet Union, and even the United States. Some people think the prostitute is the apostate church – the church that has turned from being the bride of Christ and the people of God and has become adulterous. This would be the heretical church that has made its bed with the kings of the earth, with the greedy political powers that we see all around us. Some think the seven kings are Roman emperors. No one seems really to know who the ten kings are. And it remains a bit of a puzzle why the beast and the ten kings would turn on the prostitute to devour her.
All of this is very interesting. Sort of.
What is missing in all of this is the certainty we have when we read the chapters on the birth of baby Jesus. Revelation 17 isn’t designed to give us that kind of certainty. As we read, we “marvel,” just as John did.
What we know for sure is hideous evil is pressing against the world, trying to destroy the work of Christ. The world is happy to visit the prostitute. Selfish desire, sexual lust, financial gain, and power are sure draws on the human heart. In a sort of reverse Lord’s Supper, the scene ends with the kings and the beast eating the flesh of a prostitute. Evil turns on itself.
But Christ remains in control. “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called chosen and faithful.”
Perhaps you recall what the angel told Mary back in Luke 1: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33).
Our task as a church is never to forget the conquering and everlasting nature of the kingdom of Jesus. Surrounding us is a world filled with naked desire and selfishness that is competing with itself and devouring itself. But our place is not there. Our place is close to the manger, close to the Lamb – to be “those with him” who are “called and chosen and faithful.” We’re to be like lowly shepherds, not kings. After all, we have our own King.
Even at Christmas time – especially at Christmas time – we can be wary. We can see the world for what it is. And we can trust in our King.