Babylon's Fall

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 19, 2015

Revelation 17-18 Jesus Wins: Babylon’s Fall

From the News
Two things in the news caught my attention this week, and I couldn’t help but connect them to our Bible passage for today.

The first story had to do with pop music princess Ariana Grande. Now, I’ll quickly admit that I know virtually nothing about Ariana Grande. I’ve probably heard some of her music, but if you played me 5 different songs by 5 different women, I doubt I could identify which one was hers. I’m not really all that interested in Ariana Grande.

But she made the news because of a bizarre incident in which she and some friends walked into a donut shop and were, apparently, unaware that there were surveillance cameras on them. The security footage shows a store worker placing a tray of donuts on the display counter and then turning away. While the worker’s back is turned, Ariana leans over and licks a donut. She actually licks a donut that she has no intention of buying! It’s the sort of thing even three-year-olds know you shouldn’t do!

Then, shortly thereafter, the worker brings out another tray of abnormally large donuts and the video records Ariana saying: “This is why I hate America. I hate America!”

It’s for this statement that this whole incident made the news, and Ariana has been getting lambasted in the media. She’s made a couple of attempts at apologizing and it is possible that she has done irreparable damage to her career.

Now, oddly enough, I bring this up because I’d like to take a shot at defending Ariana Grande. Not the donut licking, that’s inexcusable. But I’m wondering if we can at least try to understand what she might have meant with her “I hate America” comment.

My guess is she doesn’t really hate this country. But perhaps what she was trying to say (however awkwardly, and remember, she apparently didn’t know she was being recorded, or else she probably would not have licked the donut) what she was trying to say as a tray of dinner plate sized donuts was placed before her, was that our obsession with big foods that are not good for us might not be the best thing. In America, we seem to take a perverse delight in excess. Whether it is more sugar, more fried things, more whatever: we have a tendency to show off our wealth by intentionally eating things we know to be unhealthy.

The other thing that caught my attention was Amazon Prime Day on Wednesday. Billed as Christmas in July, the online retailer that claims to have the widest selection on earth promised a bigger sale than Black Friday with thousands of deals. The event itself proved to be a bit of a disappointment to customers, who complained that the stuff available was “garage sale quality”, and yet Amazon claims it had one of its biggest days of business ever.

What struck me is how consumer driven we are. Thousands of people went shopping for things they didn’t even know they needed or wanted, simply because it was on sale.

Here’s the picture of the American Dream that we were given last week: sitting in your bed with a laptop or tablet in front of you, a box of giant donuts next to you, buying a deluxe mustache trimmer for $2.99 with the click of a button.

Both stories illustrate, I think, our fascination with economic prosperity and materialism. Give us more. Give us bigger. Give us stuff.

Satan’s Tactics
We are in the midst of a series on the book of Revelation. Revelation is a fascinating book with a lot of symbolism and imagery. It has generated a lot of controversy over the years by people attempting to decode it to figure out the future. But I’ve been telling you that basic plotline of Revelation is fairly simple: it’s about a war. The war between Satan and God. Between those who belong to the beast and those who belong to the Lamb. It’s about the ongoing effort to stay faithful to God in a world that is hostile to faith. And, of course, the good news and the message throughout is that Jesus wins.

So a couple of weeks ago we talked about the tactics Satan uses in this war. We saw that sometimes Satan will use brute force to intimidate and harass God’s people. Anti-God governments and persecution may be used to threaten people away from Jesus. This is personified by the Beast.

We also saw that sometimes Satan is more circumspect. Rather than scare people away from God, sometimes Satan will chip away at our worldview: using the sophistication of science and philosophy to get us to doubt God. This is personified by the False Prophet.

Now, today, we will see a third tactic: sometimes Satan will lead us away from God by distracting us. Sometimes, instead of scaring us away from God or convincing us that there is no God, Satan will simply get us to be pre-occupied with so many other things that we have no time for God. This is a form of idolatry, and it is personified in Revelation by the Great Prostitute Babylon.

The main idea today is that our culture will always seek to distract us from God. This is a tactic of Satan that I think those of us living in 21st Century America are very vulnerable to.

We’re going to be looking at Revelation 17 and 18. I won’t be able to go through every verse, but I’d like to consider these two chapters in three parts. We’ll look at 1) the identity of Babylon, 2) the allure of Babylon, and 3) the destruction of Babylon. Then I’ll have a few thoughts at the end.

The Woman in Purple and Scarlet
Let’s begin with the identity of Babylon. Revelation 17:1-2:

1One 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 by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

This takes us back to an image first introduced in chapter 14, one which I mentioned last week. Babylon is introduced as a prostitute who has seduced the kings of the earth. One commentator calls her “barmaid to the world” because here, just as in chapter 14, she is said to intoxicate the inhabitants of the earth with the wine of her adulteries.

Here’s another example of counterfeiting by Satan. Revelation will soon picture the church as the Bride of Christ. The image is of a beautiful bride committed to her husband. But Satan doesn’t have a bride, he has a prostitute. And Satan doesn’t promote faithfulness but adultery.

This image isn’t about sexuality so much as it is about loyalty and commitment. In the Bible, idolatry is spiritual infidelity. And that’s what this woman represents. Her goal is to lure us away from God. Verses 3 through 6:

3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 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. 5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus…

The woman is pictured riding on the beast. More imitation. The church is the Bride of Christ. This seductress is presented as the consort of the beast. And she’s dressed in purple and scarlet and glittering with precious stones and metals. This is an indication that what this woman represents is a voracious appetite for material things. For the finer things.

And her name is Babylon. Babylon, of course, played a major role in the Old Testament. It was known for its mighty empire, the prideful Nebuchadnezzar, and its magnificent Hanging Gardens which were considered one of the wonders of the world. And, of course, Babylon was integral to the destruction of Jerusalem. At this point in history it was an insignificant village, but it had come to be thought of as proverbial for self-absorption, a focal point for human pride, standing under the curse of God. Babylon was a sort of latter day Babel, and the similarity between those two names is no accident. Verses 7-8:

When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. 7 Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

Here’s another wannabe description of the beast: he’s the one who “once was, now is not, and yet will come.” It’s a description that falls short of Jesus who is the one who was, and is, and is yet to come. Moreover all the world falls in love with this seductress (they are astonished), and the beast she rides on is so powerful. Nobody can imagine resisting them. In fact, they have what all the world aspires to. It’s the marriage of military might with culture shaping influence (not unlike the U.S. today). Verse 9:
9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.
The reference to seven hills makes it clear that Babylon represents Rome, a city famous for being founded on seven hills. In John’s day, this was the culture that had the most influence on the world, the culture that represented the pinnacle of success, the culture that everyone wanted to be a part of.

But I don’t think this woman only represents Rome. Rather, “this woman represents fallen human culture in all the apparent glory of its achievement and the true repugnance of its arrogance… long before Rome arose and after Rome fell, the harlot Babylon was giving illegitimate birth to daughters like herself, seductive in appearance and repulsive in reality.” (Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 246)

Whenever a culture begins to determine and define what makes for the good life, instead of listening to Jesus through the Bible, it is a form of Babylon. Promoting spiritual infidelity, every form of idolatry that worships economic prosperity or cultural achievement or personal comfort over commitment to God.

In John’s day, Babylon would have been a way of describing Rome. But in principle, Babylon stands for every center of God-denying, God-destroying, human-centered culture.

The Seductive Appeal of the Great City
So this woman, as she’s pictured in chapter 17, sounds terrifying. As the lady in the State Farm commercial would says: “She sounds hideous.” And yet, it is clear that many people are taken with her. As the verse says: “the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” (17:1) So what is the appeal? What is the allure of Babylon?

That’s the second part of my sermon, and we can find the answers in chapter 18. Most of chapter 18 is a lament by the people of the earth over what is lost when Babylon is destroyed. We can get a sense of her appeal by looking at what the people mourn. For instance, Revelation 18:3:

3 For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

This verse talks about “excessive luxury.” For those who buy into the system of Babylon, that’s the hope and the dream. You can be somebody. You can be successful. You can eat donuts the size of your head and you can buy all the toys and gadgets you want. Or, again, verse 7:

7 Give her as much torment and grief
as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
I will never mourn.’

Here the promise of Babylon is self-fulfillment. “I sit enthroned as queen.” Go the way of Rome and you can be your own ruler. Set your own rules. Lavish yourself with glory and luxury.

Isn’t that the dream? Nobody to tell me what to do. Living by own moral compass. If I want to lick a donut on the counter I’ll lick a donut on the counter because I make my own rules. Verses 11-13:

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

Here’s the bottom line: the bottom line. The thing about the culture was that it promised wealth. When Rome was at its height, it provided a marketplace for the world. It couldn’t import the goods fast enough. And for those who were willing to buy into the culture, it was just a matter of watching the bank accounts grow. Commerce was everything, integrity was nothing. Verses 17-19:

“Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off. 18 When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ 19 They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out: “‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’

Here the sea captains lament because their lines of transportation are ruined. This is economic stability, which is a close cousin to economic prosperity. Cultures like Rome promise trade and commerce will always be possible, and they seek our trust and confidence. But once the city is destroyed, so does the stability it represents. Verse 22:

22 The music of harpists and musicians, pipers and trumpeters,
will never be heard in you again.
No worker of any trade
will ever be found in you again.
The sound of a millstone
will never be heard in you again.

Here it is the arts that are being mourned. A big part of Babylon’s allure is the entertainment she provides. Musicians and actors take on outsized importance. The silly antics of a twenty-something singer become part of the news cycle because we can’t get enough celebrity news and gossip.

This is how Babylon becomes so appealing. This is how Satan seeks to distract us. It’s not that running a successful business or enjoying the finer things in life or having the freedom to make your own decisions are necessarily bad things; but when they become idols, when they become the ultimate things, that’s when they start to interfere with our relationship with God.

And when a culture puts these things above all else, that’s when the culture becomes a harlot seducing us into spiritual adultery.

The Lamb Will Overcome
The third part of my sermon, then, is the destruction of Babylon. Revelation wants to make it very clear: this self-exalting, God-defying culture will not last. Back to chapter 17, verse 14:

14 They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

Here’s another picture of the final battle. We get several references to this final, climatic battle from chapter 12 on, each from a different camera angle. But the story line is always consistent. The forces of the beast line up against the followers of Jesus. There is intense persecution, sharp ideological differences, lavish temptations to fall away. And yet, even as they wage war, “the Lamb will triumph over them.” Because Jesus is who He is—the Lord of lords and King of kings--we need never doubt the income. “And with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.” Those who stay loyal to Him need never doubt that they are on the winning side.

But what I find interesting is the way this chapter describes Babylon’s fall. Because the culture is not destroyed so much by the Lamb, as by her own allies. Verses 15-17:

15 Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. 16 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. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled.”

Verse 16 says that “the beast…will hate the prostitute.” What we have here is Satan’s kingdom dividing against itself. Like the beast it is, the Beast will turn on the harlot and tear her from limb to limb.

This is a pattern in world history. When you look at the end of the great empires, you’ll notice that they often destroy themselves. Rome’s destruction began internally. So did the Soviet Union’s. It makes you wonder even about the United States’ long term future.

The irony of Babylon’s fall magnifies the incomparable wisdom of God. The Beast and his allies become the weapons God uses to bring down the harlot. Verse 17 says that “God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose”. The last thing these rebels against God would want to do is serve the purposes of God, and yet they are helpless against God’s sovereign power. They can’t help themselves.

The truth is: as God’s enemies assemble to do battle with God, they are merely lining up for their own execution. (see Johnson, p. 253)

A Few Thoughts
So that’s Babylon. Her identity, her allure, and her fall. Wherever you go, there’s going to be an anti-God culture. A culture which always seek to distract us from God. So as we conclude, I have a couple of thoughts.

First, Christians should be married to Jesus Christ, not our culture.

Whether it is the temptation to worship self or to worship your pocketbook, culture tends to pull us away from the one true God.

As I’ve said, the image that is set up in opposition to the Great Prostitute is the Bride. In the chapters to come, we’re going to read about the great wedding feast of the Lamb, when Christ is united for eternity with His Bride. And the Bride, of course, is a metaphor for the church. For those who remain faithful, in spite of the temptations to go the easy route of the surrounding culture, there is the promise of victory in the end.

The images are striking. The prostitute represents self-indulgent pleasure, with no commitment. The Bride represents self-giving sacrifice, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. We can follow the fads of culture, always being hip and current; or we can stick with Jesus, even when the rest of the world calls us foolish. Christians should be married not to a culture, but to Jesus Christ.

And so, we need to be careful that we are not more of a product of American culture than we are a product of Jesus Christ. This calls for some serious self-examination: How many of our lifestyle choices, the way we spend our free time, the way we view ourselves, are because we are Americans? And how much of it is because we are Christians?

We need to realize that the two are not the same thing.

I think of the frog in the kettle analogy. You’ve probably heard this before. If you drop a live frog into a boiling pot of water it will hop out. It knows that isn’t good for it. But if you put a frog into a pot of room temperature water and then gradually increase the heat, the frog will be content to stay put until it boils to death. It isn’t able to sense the temperature change.

I’m afraid that happens to a lot of us with the culture. We don’t realize how much we are adopting to the values and attitudes of the culture because it is all around us. We can’t tell when our thinking is being shaped by the movies or the music we listen to more than the voice of God.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not anti-American. Not at all. The freedom we have to worship God as we see fit is an indescribable blessing. Our participative government may have its flaws, but it still seems to me to be the best form available. And the American values of cooperation and ingenuity and community still seem strong.

But we have to be aware that some of the values of materialism and hedonism that are so prominent in American society are not Christian. Many of the things that describe Babylon in Revelation 17 and 18 can alos be found in America today. We need to be discerning.

Which leads me to this thought: Christians should keep ourselves separate from culture and yet still engage it.

Revelation 18:4 and 5 says:

“‘Come out of her, my people,’
so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
5for her sins are piled up to heaven,
And God has remembered her crimes.

Through the ages, this verse has sometimes been used to suggest that the church should completely withdraw from culture. Folks like the Amish might use this verse to say that Christians should physically avoid contact with the greater culture, and refuse to modernize or do business or anything. But that’s not what it is saying.

Think about the Christians that John was writing too. They didn’t have the option of withdrawing from Roman society—Rome was everywhere. It would have literally meant leaving the map, living beyond the borders of the known world.

Rather, the emphasis here is on keeping separate from the larger culture’s sins. Recognizing the dangers and evils inherent in Babylon’s worldview and remaining faithful to the Lamb.

As Christians, we must separate ourselves from the sins of the culture in which we live, while still seeking to engage it with the gospel.