Saturday, August 7, 2010

Revelation 17

The scarlet woman: Rome (vs. 1-18)--There are four great scenes that finish up the book of Revelation: this history and fall of Rome (17:1-19:10), the overthrow of the beasts and Satan (19:11-20:10), the universal judgment (20:11-15), and the glories of the new Jerusalem (21:1-22:5). So important was the first topic (the destruction of Rome) that almost three complete chapters are given to it. This, of course, was the crux of the problem which John was writing about and what his beleaguered readers wanted to know. But it wasn't enough just to know that Rome was due for judgment; that great power behind the Empire (Satan) must be destroyed as well and the glorious future of the saints assured. All of that is encompassed in these last six chapters of Revelation.

This is probably the most difficult of the final chapters. The identification of the woman (harlot) introduced here is not hard to determine. She sits on "many waters" (v. 1), which is defined in verse 15 as "peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues," certainly an apt description of the Roman Empire. She also sits on seven mountains (v. 9), which was geographically true of the city of Rome. Kings fornicate (figuratively) with her--they give themselves over to her, for a price, and "the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication" (v. 2)--a revelry of paganism that demonstrated Rome's dominance over the peoples it ruled. The woman herself sat on a "scarlet beast" (blood?), which was full of "names of blasphemy," and had seven heads and ten horns (v. 3)--more on that in a moment. The woman herself was arrayed in royal garments (v. 4), and was identified by a name on her forehead as "the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth" (v. 5). She was "drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (v. 6). John marveled at her appearance (v. 6), but was questioned about it by the angel (v. 7). The beast the John saw (probably the first one in chapter 13) "was, and is not"--existed, and some day won't, but will, with its followers, "go to perdition" (v. 8). The destruction of Rome would be an amazing, and frightening, thing to those "whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world" (v. 8). Indeed, when the Roman Empire finally crumbled and was no more, it was shattering to many people. Rome had ruled the world for almost 1,000 years; how could it not be? St. Augustine wrote his famous and very influential book The City of God to try to explain the end of something that seemed timeless. We, in America, can hardly imagine a world without the United States, but we've only been around a little over 200 years. Imagine how the ancients felt at the fall of Rome! Yet the city of Rome was dominant in western civilization for another 1,000 years for it was the seat (and still is, of course) of the Catholic Church. And Roman law, adapted by British common law, remains the basis of western law. The influence of the Roman Empire is yet felt to this very day. And just as the pagans in that empire tried to undermine and destroy Christianity, so the pagans today would love to eradicate the religion of Jesus from the world. They will have as much success as Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian had. Modern pagans are ignoring the book of Revelation, too, but the message, though immediately intended for the early centuries of the Christian era, is timeless and as valuable today as it was when first written.

Verses 9-12 are a real enigma. Many have tried to specifically and literally identify the "seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time" (v. 9). The "ten kings" of verse 12 are also difficult to name with exactitude. Given the nature of apocalyptic literature and the symbolism of numbers, there is a better than even chance that the numbers in verses 9-12 should also be understood figuratively. The seven kings represent the completeness of the time Rome will rule; five have come, so that rule has not yet finished. The beast "is himself also the eighth, and is of the seven, and is going to perdition" (v. 11), which can, and has, been interpreted so many different ways that it's obvious no one knows for sure what it means. I don't, and I won't hazard a guess. This genre of literature (apocalyptic) is so foreign to us that its expressions, at times, are completely beyond our comprehension; humility is absolutely essential when approaching this language. The ten horns that were on the scarlet beast "are ten kings" (v. 12), who will serve Rom "for one hour" (a short time, vs. 12-13); they will also "make war with the Lamb" (v. 14), and be defeated. These "ten kings" are probably not ten literal kings, but the totality of nations ruled by the Roman empire, and they will one day rebel against her, "hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire" (v. 16). No one served Rome out of love, but only out of fear. And when that fear was passed, revolt and revolution were the standard. Think of the modern Soviet Union. When its satellite countries perceived weakness, they went their own way and their was nothing the USSR could do about it--but crumble and fall. Just like Rome. In verse 17, John tells us that the destruction of Rome by others was God's plan; Rome also had its part of play in His purposes (v. 17), but once fulfilled, no longer was needed. The "pax Romana" provided a wonderful background for the establishment and spread of Christianity. And nothing Rome would eventually attempt could stave off the growth and spread of the kingdom of God. And nothing today will stop it, either.

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