Beauty and the Beast (Revelation 17:1-6)
In 1973 in Sugar Land, Texas, a group founded Uglies Unlimited to urge society and employers to accept people for who they are, not what they look like. Members consider themselves the “guardians of the ugly human beings.”
Although people should not be judged on their physical appearance, it is a face that many are, in fact, judged by their appearance—by how beautiful or unattractive they are. Therefore, people do whatever they can to improve their appearance. Women spend millions of dollars a year on makeup, jewelry, and clothing—many are constantly in search of a new hairdo. Plastic surgery has become common in this country.
But, there are always those poor souls who are as ugly as sin but consider themselves to be beauty queens. Our text tonight speaks of a woman just like that—she hit every branch coming down the ugly tree, but she believed she was greatly attractive. Let’s examine this text to see what we can learn about “Beauty and the Beast.”
Meeting the Harlot, vv 1-3
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with John, saying, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters.” This same angel who shows John the harlot will come again in Revelation 21:9 to show John the Bride of Christ. It is quite appropriate that the same angel shows John both the harlot and Jesus’ bride. That this angel shows both women to John probably indicates that we are to see a distinction between the two—one is beautiful and fit for the Lord, and the other is a harlot, one who is unfaithful.
This woman is a harlot in that she is unfaithful. Spiritual unfaithfulness is often called harlotry in the Old Testament. “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers” (Is 1:21). “I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighing, your lewd harlotries, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?” (Jer 13:27).
This woman, like Jerusalem of old, is spiritually unfaithful and is likened to a harlot.
The reason that unfaithfulness is depicted as harlotry is that Israel is depicted as the bride of God. Speaking of the children of Israel, Isaiah said, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So shall your God rejoicing over you” (Is 62:5). “‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the LORD; ‘for I am married to you’” (Jer 3:14).
The church is referred to as the bride of Christ. “My brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead” (Rom 7:4). “I have betrothed you t o one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2). Thus, if we are unfaithful to the Lord, it can easily be likened to adultery, for we are married to the Lord.
Just who is this woman, then? This woman seems to be the false religion prevalent in the Roman Empire.
The angel told John that he would see the judgment of this harlot—she is going to face divine retribution.
The kings of the earth have committed fornication with this harlot, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication. The kings of the earth would refer to the puppet kings Rome had set up in Asia and Syria in states subservient to Rome. They had committed fornication with this woman by carrying out the emperor cult in their various states. The inhabitants of the earth became drunk with the wine of her fornication in that people followed the emperor cult.
John was carried away in the Spirit into the wilderness, and he saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. John was carried away in the Spirit. “In the Spirit” in Revelation refers to John’s inspiration; this is simply a way of saying that John wrote by inspiration. We know that the Spirit was the means of inspiration: “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).
John was carried away into the wilderness. The wilderness was associated with the demonic in some Jewish traditions. The woman John will behold will be demonic in that she will work for and with demons.
John saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. This beast seems to be the sea beast of Revelation 13, probably a Roman emperor. The scarlet color of his beast seems to refer to the blood with which it is stained. The blasphemous names of which the beast was full seems to refer to the divine names assumed by Roman emperors—divine, savior, and lord.
Dressing the Harlot, vv 4-6
John here describes the appearance of the harlot he saw.
The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.
The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet. This purple and scarlet stand in stark contrast to the fine linen of the Lamb’s bride (Rev 19:8). The dyes used to make true purple and scarlet garments were quite expensive. Thus, they were only worn by the wealthy, such as queens, or by well-to-do prostitutes, who used purple attire to attract attention. This woman may have attempted to look like a queen to hide her true character, her ugliness. But, more than likely, she is here depicted in attire appropriate for well-to-do prostitutes.
She is bedecked with gold and pearls—an obvious attempt to beautify herself.
She held in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication—she has committed grievous sins, abominations, and fornication.
The woman had on her forehead a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” Placing the name on the forehead (probably on a headband) appears to have been the custom of Roman courtesans. As the mother of harlots and earth’s abominations, this woman is the worst of them all.
The woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. Rome was thirsty for blood. Criminals and slaves were often placed in the coliseum or in other places where they were forced to shed their own blood. After Christianity became an illegal religion, Christians were often placed in the coliseum to be devoured by wild animals. This woman has shed so much blood that she has become drunk drinking the blood
Who exactly is this woman and what should we take away from this passage? As we mentioned earlier, this woman seems to be juxtaposed to the bride of the Lamb. This woman, then, seems to be the emperor cult, the false religion of John’s day.
What should we learn?
One important lesson for us is surely how the Lord views false religion.
This passage displays false religion as a prostitute. This surely cannot be a pleasing view to the Lord. There is not a husband here who would be happy if his wife were to become a prostitute. Why should we expect the Lord to be pleased with his wife’s becoming a harlot?
Another important lesson for us is our need to be faithful.
This woman is unfaithful religion; it does not take organized unfaithfulness for Christians to be unfaithful; we can be unfaithful on our own.
We need to be faithful to the Lord. “Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess 2:15). “Beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Pet 3:17).
Will you be faithful to the Lord?