The Pursuit of God

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Applying Revelation 17: Rome Gets It…Again

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This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 15-16: Invincible Rebels.

Revelation is classified as a prophetic book. When Christians think of Divine prophecy, they usually think of future knowledge. This leads them to assume that Revelation must be predicting future events, because prophecy always has to be about the future, right? Wrong.

When you think of Divine prophecy, picture yourself standing with God in a super dark room. You can’t see anything that’s in the room until God suddenly turns on a flashlight. That’s what prophecy is: it’s a type of illumination which only God can provide. It’s God turning on a light and enabling you to see spiritual truths that you couldn’t see before. Now God can point His flashlight in any direction on the human timeline: the past, the present, or the future. He can adjust His beam to have a narrow or broad point. When He shines a light on some specific event in the past, you suddenly see that event in a whole new way. When He shines it on the present, you suddenly see current circumstances in a whole new way. When He shines it on the future, you get a glimpse of something that’s coming and learn principles which change what you focus on today.

In Revelation, the bulk of the prophesying that’s happening is current and future—at least from John’s perspective. But from our perspective, this book is focused on the ancient past. In Revelation, God isn’t shining a light into your future or into the future of generations still to come. In Revelation, God’s primary goal is to get John and his peers to change the way they are viewing their current circumstances. The Christians at this time are fretting that demonic powers are ruling the world and that Yahweh and Jesus are somehow getting triumphed over. To counter these fears, Yahweh is creating vision after vision of the current situation in Rome, and then He keeps showing Rome getting violently spanked. The symbolic ways in which God portrays Rome, her downfall, and the activity of supernatural beings are all meant to teach important principles about God being in control. The power of demons has been blown out of proportion in the minds of these Jews. God is now putting demons back in their proper place by showing what pathetic little pawns they are. All of the evil that goes on in the world ends up serving God’s purposes. Everyone who rebels against God—both humans and demons—end up defeated by Him, so these Christians don’t need to be so afraid. God is in control.

Now at the end of Chapter 16, Yahweh utterly trashed the planet, smashed Rome into three pieces, and turned structures into rubble. Then He declared “It is finished!” from within His smoky Temple, and we were supposed to think His wrath was satisfied. Only we could tell something wasn’t quite right because that vision ended with humans on earth cursing Yahweh as they tried to dodge ginormous hailstones which were crashing down all around them. Clearly things were not finished—instead, things were left hanging. Well, now God is going to act like the friend who invites you over to watch a movie, fires one up, then stops it partway through and says, “Wait, this isn’t the movie I wanted to watch.” You’re then left wondering how that first movie ended as your friend starts streaming a different one. That’s how God is treating the Jews in Revelation: He’s showing them a series of quick flicks, and some of them don’t seem to play all the way out. Meanwhile, they all seem to be telling the same storyline over and over. In Chapter 17, God is going to once again start telling the tale of how the mighty Roman Empire will fall. But first, He’s going to spend some time pointing out how wicked and rebellious she is.

One of the seven angels who had poured out the seven bowls came over and spoke to me. “Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.” (Rev. 17:1-2)

Before you start searching the map looking for a city that sits on “many waters”, realize that Rome was located on the Tiber River—the most important river in central Italy. Rome also controlled water trade routes throughout the Mediterranean region, so to suggest that the city being referred to here is any one other than ancient Rome is just silly.

As Rome conquered kingdom after kingdom, the rulers of those kingdoms had to choose whether they would be cooperative or resistant. Many chose to cooperate, and what is being described here are nations who gladly embrace the Roman way of doing things. Now before we make Rome out to be the scourge of the earth, realize that all the nations she devoured were already entrenched in their own forms of demonic idol worship. Rome simply encouraged everyone to keep wallowing in the same spiritual rebellion that she herself was wallowing in.

So the angel took me in the Spirit into the wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it. The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality. A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement. (Rev. 17:3-6)

This woman who is named Babylon is a personification of Rome. She’s a cocky prostitute—God’s favorite metaphor for people who are worshiping idol gods. In the Old Testament we find many passages in which Yahweh refers to Israel as a brazen prostitute who is beautifully adorned and doing it with an endless stream of lovers. The way Rome is being exalted here as ultra-evil is another accommodation of the Jews’ biased thinking. They’ve decided that Rome is utterly inexcusable, while at the same time whitewashing their own people who were given centuries worth of direct illumination from Yahweh only to utterly reject His Messiah. Who has the least excuse for rebelling against God—a Christian who has been educated about God’s values or an unsaved person who has been raised to believe in other gods? The more illumination we receive, the more accountable we become. While their own people are intentionally squandering a rich heritage of spiritual illumination, these Jewish Christians want to only throw stones at Rome. It’s more than a little hypocritical.

We’ll call this prostitute Miss Rebel Rome. The beast she is riding on is a fit for Spotty Domitian: seven heads, ten horns, and a bunch of blasphemous tattoos. As this chapter progresses, John’s angel guide will attach symbolic meaning to some of Spotty Domitian’s strange features.

babylon beast

“Why are you so amazed?” the angel asked. “I will tell you the mystery of this woman and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns on which she sits. The beast you saw was once alive but isn’t now. And yet he will soon come up out of the bottomless pit and go to eternal destruction. And the people who belong to this world, whose names were not written in the Book of Life before the world was made, will be amazed at the reappearance of this beast who had died.” (Rev. 17:7-8)

Everyone was already thrown into Hell back in Chapter 14, but we’re starting over again, so the world is once again full of active rebels who are worshiping the beast.

Now this chapter has some confusing doubletalk in it. Even though John sees Miss Rebel Rome riding around on Spotty Domitian, the angel refers to a beast who “was once alive but now isn’t.” He then talks about how one day that dead beast will be transferred from the underworld of Hades into eternal destruction, which means Hell. At the end of this book, we’ll see all of Hades get chucked into Hell. But for now, these Jews still believe that Hades is the first place souls go to when they die. Hades has a nice paradise section and an unpleasant, fiery section.

So who is this dead beast who died yet will one day return to the earth? This would have to be yet another reference to the belief that Domitian is a reincarnation of Nero. Nero was the super evil emperor who died, only to then return in the form of evil Domitian. And as confusing as this is, the angel is now going to make things even more complicated by doubling up on the symbolism.

“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.” (Rev. 17:9-11)

The large city of Rome spanned across seven hills, so this business about Miss Rebel Rome sitting on seven hills is another undeniable reference to Rome.

seven hills

The angel says that Spotty Domitian’s seven heads symbolically represent seven kings, with Spotty Domitian himself being king #8. Since Miss Rebel Rome is riding on this beast, we must be talking about eight Roman emperors. This fits nicely with historical facts. Back during the reign of Augustus, the Roman Republic was officially renamed the Roman Empire. If we count how many emperors there have been since that declaration, Domitian is #8.

Roman Emperors

Since Domitian is the current king, it makes sense that he’s given the most prominent symbolism—being represented by the entire beast and not just a single head. By now there have been many direct references to Domitian in this book: the 666 code name which identifies him as super evil, the appearance of his patron god Apollo, and his personal divinity complex which is symbolized by the statue of him which demands to be worshiped.

Now if you show your friend a movie clip, then turn off the television and start explaining to them what they had seen, you’d talk in the past tense. “That house you saw represented such-and-such. That man you saw was the guy who is going to save such-and-such.” It sounds like this angel is using similar language with John. “That beast who you saw but who you don’t see now is an eighth king. He’s as bad as the other seven and will also be destroyed.” It’s very awkward language, but this book only gets so smooth.

“The ten horns of the beast are ten kings who have not yet risen to power. They will be appointed to their kingdoms for one brief moment to reign with the beast. They will all agree to give him their power and authority. Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings. And His called and chosen and faithful ones will be with Him.” (Rev. 17:12-14)

Here kings of other nations are described as handing Domitian their power and authority, likely because they are afraid of opposing him. Back in the Gospels, Herod the Great called himself the king of the Jews, but he really functioned as a puppet of Rome. Back in the Old Testament, Jewish kings often found themselves in a similar predicament—they still held the royal title, but they functioned as servants of the nation which was currently dominating them and making them pay heavy taxes. Here in Revelation, many kings who have allied with Rome, either voluntarily, or because they felt forced to, are described as joining with her to war against Jesus. Finally Jesus is getting back in the spotlight as the formidable Opponent that He is.

Now in real life, did ancient rulers get together and say, “Hey, let’s go attack Jesus”? No.  What’s being described here is the Divine perspective of many nations continuously spitting in God’s face and egging each other on in the worship of demonic idols. Jesus is then described as easily defeating them because He is the King who is supreme over all other kings.

Then the angel said to me, “The waters where the prostitute is ruling represent masses of people of every nation and language. The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute. They will strip her naked, eat her flesh, and burn her remains with fire. For God has put a plan into their minds, a plan that will carry out His purposes. They will agree to give their authority to the scarlet beast, and so the words of God will be fulfilled. And this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” (Rev. 17:15-18)

harlot_beast

Here the large scope of the Roman Empire is acknowledged as Miss Rebel Rome is described as ruling over people of every nation and language. In other words, Rome rules the whole world—at least from the perspective of these ancient Jews. But now there is some kind of civil war in which Spotty Domitian and his ten violent horns all turn against Miss Rebel Rome, assault her, eat her, and burn up her remains. In these times to die such a grisly death raised all kinds of fears about your soul having a tough time transitioning to the underworld. But notice how God is credited as being the One to inspire this attack in the first place. How stupid is it for Domitian to destroy his own empire? And yet this isn’t the first time Yahweh has described turning a nation’s leaders into cotton brains who make foolish choices which end up wrecking their own countries. In real life, Domitian is at the end of his reign and really showing his psychotic colors by butchering members of the Roman Senate whenever he feels like it. A leader who acts like this ends up destabilizing his own government and causing so much panic that his own citizens start brainstorming ways to kill him. That’s exactly what happened to Domitian—he was murdered by a plot which his own wife helped to execute. Then his memory was officially condemned, preventing him from being added to the list of deified emperors who ought to be worshiped as gods.

We shouldn’t try to get too literal with these images.  What Yahweh’s really demonstrating is that He has a myriad of options at His disposal.  In Chapter 16, He swamped Rome in terrifying darkness, then leveled her with an epic earthquake.  Here He causes human rulers to gang up on her.  In real life, the Roman Empire will grow too big and unstable, then fracture into pieces, and those pieces will each continue to fall apart until there is no longer any concept of Rome.  What we’re seeing here in Revelation isn’t at all an accurate depiction of what will happen to Rome in real life.  It’s Yahweh promising the Jews that Rome’s destruction is already planned and that in the meantime, He’s in control.

So now what? Well, this devouring of Miss Rebel Rome is supposed to be a picture of Rome being destroyed which makes all the Christians celebrate. Chapter 19 will begin with a large crowd of people in Heaven all praising Yahweh for finally destroying that nasty old city—again. And just when we’re ready to finally be done with the fighting, we’re reminded that our three evil beasts are still roaming wild. And apparently there’s a huge crowd of able bodied soldiers who are unaffected by Rome’s collapse and they’re all armed and ready to wage war against Jesus.  There’s just no end to the fighting in this book, and in Chapter 19, we’ll find more antagonists getting thrown into Hell and more corpses being devoured. This is definitely not G-rated material. But before we get into all of that we’ll need to work our way through Chapter 18, which is a collection of seven songs about the fall of Rome.  Some are mocking, some are sad.  It turns out there are quite a few people on earth who are very sad to see Rome go.

UP NEXT: Applying Revelation 18: Seven Songs About Rome

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