This chapter describes the great whore, an immoral woman arrayed in purple and scarlet and having a golden cup full of abominations and having the name ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth’. She is sitting on a scarlet beast with 10 horns. These horns are said later to make war with the Lamb who will overcome them (v.14). The 10 horns will hate the whore and burn her with fire (v.16).
First of all we must remember the guidelines given to us in the first verse of Revelation which were, “to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass”, that is, to say, historical events, which would affect their lives. The revelation would also be ‘signified’, that is, given in symbolic language rather than in literal terms. This style of revelation has been used many times before in the Scriptures.
For example, in the prophecy of Ezekiel, God’s people, Israel, is described as a prostitute because they had corrupted their worship of God by adopting the worship of pagan idols which was the practice of nations living around them. They had also sought the assistance of the Assyrians when they were threatened by other enemies. This is the allegory in chapter 23, “There were two women…and they were mine, and they bear sons and daughters. Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah and Jerusalem Aholibah. And Aholah played the harlot and she doted on her lovers, on the Assyrians her neighbours (v.5) …With all their idols she defiled herself. Wherefore I have delivered her into the hand of her lovers…(These slew her with the sword) (v.10). And when her sister Aholibah saw this, she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she…” (v.11). The rest of the chapter is couched in similar language.
This example from Ezekiel’s prophecy illustrates the way God sometimes uses sexual immorality to describe a departure from the true worship of himself. It is suggested that it is this principle that is being employed in the 17th chapter of Revelation. The description of a great whore stands for a religious institution which had corrupted its originally pure worship of God.
The decline in the early Christian Church
The apostle Paul, who was responsible for establishing the Christian Church in Corinth wrote to them in an endeavour to maintain their purity in doctrine and practice. On one occasion he wrote, “…I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor.11:2). Here the church is described as ‘a chaste virgin’; a woman who is suitable and desirable as a wife for her husband; who in this case is the Lord Jesus. Her chastity signifies her purity in doctrine and practice.
However, in the course of one of his missionary journeys Paul had occasion to address the elders of the church in Ephesus with the following warning, “For I know that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch…” (Acts 20:29-31).
The progress of the Christian church during the early centuries was in a world dominated by pagan Roman emperors. Because Christianity grew rapidly in numbers and popularity, the emperor Constantine decided to elevate the Christian church to the exalted position of the State Religion in place of paganism.
To further the worldly interests of the church, Constantine saw fit to preside over a council of Christian bishops and lay representatives to settle matters of dispute in the church. One outcome of these discussions was the promulgation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which some in the church would not accept. These dissenters, being in the minority, were severely treated and persecuted. For this reason they were forced to escape to Northern Africa for refuge. This development is described in verse 6 of ch.12., “And the woman fled into the wilderness where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and three score days” (v.6).
It is evident that this refugee woman is that party in the church which was intent on preserving purity of doctrine and practice in the ecclesias and “which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (12:17).
It is interesting to note the time span that was granted to these persecuted Christians. As is usual in such time periods, by substituting a year for a day we can understand that these Christians were granted a period of 1260 years in which to continue their protest.
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians he predicted a falling away from the Truth by the church before the return from heaven of the Lord Jesus, “…That day (the day of Christ) shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess.2:3-4).
This falling away happened during the early centuries and developed as the Roman Catholic Church down the ages. Its worldliness and immorality is recorded by many historians such as Gibbon in his ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.
The Whore’s Regalia
The woman of chapter 17, then, can be seen by her description to represent the Catholic church in her latter day manifestation. Her immorality is representative of her corruptions in doctrines and practices. She is said to be arrayed in purple and scarlet which are the colours of the vestments worn by her clergy and cardinals. These colours also indicate the imperial character of her Popes who had assumed in past ages regal powers to enthrone kings and to depose them.
On her forehead a name has been written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth. It so happened that an inscription used to be worn on the Pope’s triple crown until subsequently removed by Pope Julius III, thus identifying the Catholic Church as this apostate woman. This Church claimed to be ‘The Mother and Mistress of all the Churches”. As she is the mother of harlots, her daughters, the state churches of Christendom, are also harlots which have retained many of the erroneous dogmas of Rome such as the Trinity.
The Popes triple Tiara
One of the abominations is the priesthood organised by the Church to which her devotees are required to confess their sins in the confessionals in order to be forgiven. This practice is contrary to the Bible teaching that Jesus is the only one who can do this work. “Wherefore in all things it behoved him (Jesus) to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb.2:17). And again, “But this man (Jesus), because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb.7:24-25). This means that the only way believers may have their sins forgiven is by confession to God through Jesus who is now our High Priest and Mediator.
The persecution of ‘heretics’
Sadly, the Woman is said to be “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (v.6).
Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there have been believers in true Bible teaching who have refused to worship God in a Catholic church and have therefore been persecuted. At first this persecution took the form of their being deprived of their material possessions. Later these dissidents, who were called ‘heretics’ were put to death often in most cruel ways for their faith. In the thirteenth century the Church established a special court known as the Inquisition. This court was given authority to ‘try’ cases of suspected heresy. During these days many faithful saints chose martyrdom rather than returning to Catholicism. The Church left it to the secular authority to carry out the death sentences. For instance, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX repeated previous laws ordering the burning of ‘heretics’ by the state.
In France the Waldenses, who were followers of Peter Valdez, were among those who suffered at the hands of the Catholics. In England the Lollards in the time of Wycliffe also suffered persecution. In 1562 the notorious massacre of the Huguenots took place in France when thousands were slaughtered by orders of the Church of Rome.
Painting of Francuis Dubors of the Paris massacre of the Huguenots, some estimate up to 30,00 murdered in France.
This was an era when the Bible began to be translated and printed in the mother tongue of the common people in Germany, England and many other lands. In 1536 William Tyndale produced a New Testament in English. Many of his friends who were found reading his translation were burnt at the stake. He himself was eventually betrayed and imprisoned and later strangled and burnt at the stake
There is no doubt that Tyndale and many others were encouraged by what Jesus wrote to the ecclesia at Sm yrna, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: …be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev.2:10).
Lastly we should take note of another detail in the revelation of chapter 17; this is that the woman was “sitting upon a scarlet coloured beast….having seven heads and ten horns” (v.3). This feature, like that of the history of the Catholic Church, has had many vicissitudes in its development and it is hoped to deal with this feature in Part 2.
Bro. Ralph Green, (Torquay, England)