Your Greatest Danger

A sermon on Revelation 17:1-18:8 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/24/2005

What’s the greatest danger you face? Heart disease? Cancer? Traffic or other accidents? Crime? Natural disaster? Terrorism?

In some countries, people might answer: Economic collapse, political upheaval, or war.

These can all bring physical pain and death. But there is a greater danger we all face – much more deadly than any of these.

The New Testament character of Demas exemplifies this danger. In Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24, Paul sends greetings from Demas, whom he calls a fellow worker. Demas was a companion of Paul’s – some might say a disciple. Paul wrote Colossians and Philemon while under arrest, so Demas had the courage to stay with Paul when things got tough. We don’t know how long Demas had been with Paul prior to his passing along these greetings, but afterwards he remained by his side for several years: at least three, perhaps as long as eight. For Paul refers to him one more time, in his last letter, 2 Timothy. Paul writes 2 Timothy from his final imprisonment – the imprisonment that ends in his execution. And he writes these sad words:

9 Do your best to come to me quickly,  10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me . . .  2 Timothy 4:9-10  

Demas loved this world. And so after years of being with Paul, after years of being discipled by Paul – he deserts him.

The greatest danger you face here in the US is loving the things of the world.

Love of the world is the theme of today’s text in Revelation. Here, Jesus pictures to John the attractions of the world in the person of a prostitute, Babylon. We’ve been introduced to Babylon already. In 14:8, one of three angels preceding the final judgment declares:

"Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality." Revelation 14:8

Then in chapter 16, when God’s wrath is completed through the pouring out of the seventh bowl, John once again records Babylon’s demise:

The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. Revelation 16:19

So, in a sense, chapters 17 and 18 are a flashback. For John sees Babylon not fallen but alive and well. The prostitute Babylon is alluring and yet repugnant. An angel tells John about her, and about her relationship to the first beast we have seen before. And then, finally, in chapter 18 the angel declares her end.

We’ll look at this text under two headings:

The Allures of this World:

Resisting the Allures of this World

If a man discipled by Paul could become ensnared by the allures of this world, so can you. So once again, let us heed Jesus’ warning: He who has ears, he must hear.

The Allures of This World

Under this heading we’ll look at the images John sees, and try to understand their relevance for us today.

What is the woman? What does she stand for? Let’s note her characteristics. How does John describe her?

In verse 1, she is called the great prostitute. Verse 2 echoes 14:8, in saying that all men who do not belong to God – those who dwell on earth – are drunk with the wine of her sexual immorality. Their vision is clouded; they cannot see reality. Like someone who is drunk, or someone overwhelmed with sexual passion, they see her, they enjoy her – and they consequently do foolish acts that harm themselves.

Verse 3 tells us she is sitting on a beast – evidently, the first beast from chapter 13, with seven heads and ten horns. Recall that we identified that beast as political power used against God’s people (see sermon). Thus, the woman is allied with political power, but distinct from it.

Verse 4 tells us she is dressed in purple and scarlet – expensive dyes, which only the rich could own. She also wears gold, jewels and pearls, and holds a golden cup. She thus lives in luxury, and promises her paramours that they too can have access to her luxury.

Speaking of a literal woman, Proverbs 5:3 says:

the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil.

The adulteress promises sweet pleasure. She speaks temptingly. She coaxes with comfort.  

Just so the great prostitute. This woman is rich. This woman is attractive. This woman is available. She is alluring – and many are coming to partake of her favors.

But Proverbs 5 goes on to warn:

Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? . . . The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. Proverbs 5:20, 22

Just so with the great prostitute. But she is dangerous and disgusting.

You may wonder, “Coty, can something can be both attractive and disgusting?” Yes. It is perfectly possible to be attracted to what is repugnant. When my daughter Erin was 4 or 5 years old, she was fascinated with bugs. She had no fear of picking up and examining bugs, and did it all the time. At a church picnic, she picked up a huge bug of some sort, and showed it to a boy her age. He screwed up his face and replied, “That’s disgusting – let me hold it!”

For many men, prostitutes are alluring, even while they are disgusting. Pornography is similar. Many men, captivated by this sin, know it is wrong, hate it, are disgusted by it – yet are drawn to it again and again.

So what about the prostitute in our text? She is alluring and attractive. Is she disgusting also?

Verse 4 tells us she is: Her golden cup, so pretty on the outside, is “full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” And verse 5 tells us what is written on her forehead, what defines her: “Mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” She herself is drunk with the blood of the saints. That is her feast.

What is John’s reaction to seeing her? Verse 6 tell us he marvels at her. This same word is used in verse 8 and in 13:3 describing the response of God’s enemies’ to the beast. They are attracted to the beast. They want to follow him.

I think John is strangely attracted to this woman. He is disgusted. He knows this woman is doomed. Yet her seductive powers are strong. She is attractive. That’s why the angel rebukes him in verse 7: “Why do you marvel?”

In sum, this woman is: Alluring. Attractive. She promises great pleasure, but when seen in truth, she is horribly disgusting. She is thus deeply dangerous to God’s people.

What does this woman stand for? Why does Jesus have John see these images? Why does Jesus impress upon us the dangerous attraction of this woman?

We need to skip down to find out. Verses 7-17 mainly have to do with the beast, and his relationship to the prostitute. We’ll come back to that section briefly in a minute. Just note for now that the beast, political power, eventually fights against the prostitute (verse 15).

For now, skip ahead to the last verse of the chapter. This verse and the first verses of chapter 18 give us more clues about the woman:

The woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth. Revelation 17:18

“The great city.” We saw that term used in 16:19, and discussed it in the sermon on chapter 11.There we saw the contrast between the “great city” and the “holy city.” Revelation 11:8 is particularly helpful in defining the woman:

the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.

This verse sounds confusing at first. How can something be Sodom, Egypt, and earthly Jerusalem all at the same time? But as is the case with so many symbols in Revelation, we need to ask ourselves: What is true of Sodom, Egypt, and earthly Jerusalem? What is characteristic of each?

Combine this picture with what we’ve already seen in 14:8, 17:2, and 18:3. There we’ve seen that Babylon makes those who dwell on the earth drunk with the wine of her sexual immorality. Then 18:3, 7 and 9 add to the images we saw of her wealth in chapter 17. She uses her luxurious living as bait to entice men to her, so that “the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living" (18:3). Next week’s text will detail her wealth, and its impact on the merchants and kings.

So how can we summarize what this woman stands for? In some ways, she seems similar to the second beast of chapter 13, later called the false prophet. Recall that the first beast seems to work by brute strength, forcing people to follow him. The second beast, however, entices and persuades, picturing false religion. The great prostitute is similarly enticing.

But in addition, the pictures in our text emphasize the appeal of luxury, of luxurious living: So might summarize by saying the prostitute represents the appeal of worldly comforts gained through false religion, ideology, or economic success.

So note: this woman allures us with good things. Just like a real life prostitute allures men with sexuality, which is a gift of God, this woman allures us with comforts or luxuries of this life. What are these? Perhaps something as simple as:

These are all gifts of God! But if they distract us from God, if they take the place of God, they are exceedingly dangerous.

Are you distracted from following God – by His gifts?

So the woman represents the allures of this world. What then is her relation to the first beast - the one on which she rides? Let me read 17:7 to 15, which details this relationship:

But the angel said to me, "Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. 9 This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are of one mind and hand over their power and authority to the beast. 14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful." 15 And the angel said to me, "The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.

Does that help? Probably no on first reading. It sounds pretty confusing. But remember what we have seen before: The first beast is an amalgamation of four beasts appearing in a vision recorded in Daniel 7. There an angel interprets the vision for Daniel: The beasts are four empires, four kingdoms. As an amalgamation of all of them, the beast seems to stand for political power.

Our passage then tells a complicated story about the horns and heads of the beast. These verses have led to thousands of pages of speculation about past and future kings. But consider it this way: the angel is underlining what we already know about the beast. This beast has 7 heads, and we are told these are also 7 mountains and 7 kings. The kings have been around in the past, are present now, and will be there in the future – but their power will come to an end. The beast himself is a king.

Remember the meaning of the number 7 in Revelation: Perfection, completeness. Furthermore, throughout Scripture, heads stand for power, as do mountain.

Thus, this chapter piles image upon image to give a picture of complete political power, past, present, and future. Rome’s 7 hills are probably in background – since Rome was the reigning political power at the time the book was written – but we should not limit our interpretation to any particular time period. Just as the first beast is an amalgamation of images of empires across centuries, these beasts and kings are representing raw political power over centuries.

And eventually the greatest political power unites to do battle against the Lamb, but He conquers all these foes (All political power united against Lamb to fight against him, but he conquers them (17:14).

But what do we make of verses 16 and 17? The beast and 10 kings end up turning on the prostitute. That is, political power turns against false religion and ideology and promises of economic success. This sounds strange. Can something like this really happen?

By all means. It has happened time and again in history. The French Revolution began with a clear ideology, promising liberty, equality, and fraternity. But after a few short years, it degenerated into a push for raw political power. In our own day, Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980 in Zimbabwe, with a communist ideology and promises of economic prosperity to the oppressed Africans. These days, he has no ideology. He simply clings to power by raw force. He no longer tries to persuade anyone that he is good for them. He simply rules by might.

Throughout time we will have examples of this. But, possibly, at the end of time this will happen on a larger scale. At that time, the allures of this world will no longer be useful to Satan. He will work through raw political power, through oppressive government. That government will abandon false religion, ideology, and promises of economic success. It will cruelly try to wipe out God’s people. But the Lamb will overwhelm that most powerful of opponents.

So, at some point, the great prostitute will be defeated by her own allies. But for most people most of the time, the great prostitute stands, tempting us. And for those of us in the US, the allures of this world are a key component of Satan’s attack. For those who don’t know Christ, these allures keep them from Him. For those who do know Christ, these allures distract them from seeing Him, making them ineffective and unproductive.

This woman is dangerous. This woman is attractive.

How are you doing in the fight against those allures?

How to Resist the Allures of This World:

How does the angel instruct God’s people to resist the prostitute?

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, "Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.” Revelation 18:4

These verse echoes several texts in Jeremiah and Isaiah about the literal Babylon. Jeremiah 51:45 is an example:

"Go out of the midst of her, my people! Let every one save his life from the fierce anger of the LORD!”

The voice from heaven warns us:

That’s the overarching command. How do we obey the command? How can we resist? In the course of the text, John gives us three lessons, three ways to go out of her:

1) Remind yourself that all worldly allures are being destroyed

The prostitute’s doom is certain. She will be destroyed, along with all those who follow after her.

For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her." Revelation 18:8

John argues similarly in 1 John 2:15, 17. He says: Do not love the world or the things in the world. Why not? Verse 17 gives one reason: The world is passing away along with its desires. Don’t love things that won’t last.

As attractive as the prostitute’s favors seem, as good as God’s gifts really are, they do not endure. They do not last. God will destroy them all, but “whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). Abides with Him forever.

So you fight the allures of the world by saying: “ Thank you, God, for this gift of a house, a car, a job, a husband, a wife, a family. I know all these things are passing away – so help me focus my delight on You!”

2) Voluntarily deny yourself good things of this world

In 17:3, the angel takes John into the wilderness or desert before he sees the prostitute. We saw in chapter 12 (see sermon) that the desert is a picture of the absence of physical comforts, but the presence of spiritual protection. John needs protection before he can look at the prostitute – and still he marvels!

How will we keep from marveling? How will we keep from being attracted to the things of this world, the promises of contentment and the good life? Paul says, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Yet corporations pay billions of dollars to advertisers to convince us that we should not be content with food and clothing! And the money is well spent. They convince us.

We thus see this prostitute every day.

So what’s your desert? How can you protect self? Here is one way:

Remove yourself regularly, periodically from worldly allures, so that you can focus on the most important delight, God Himself. Such times will help to prove to yourself that all the creature comforts of American life are unnecessary. Jesus resists Satan by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Nor does man live by houses or jobs or sex or music. So, choose to deny yourself for a time. Fast. From food. Or from the comforts of your home. Or from the TV or radio. Or from sexual relations in marriage (if your spouse heartily agrees). Choose not to consume or look at what you have a right to consume or look at.

This periodic restraining of your appetites can help develop self-control. But note: The goal is not self-control! Self-control is a means to the end. The goal is to see what is most beautiful: God Himself.

In his book A Hunger for God, John Piper quotes from Jesus’s parable of the sower, how “the desires for other things enter in and choke the word:” (Mark 4:19). He then comments.

“Desires for other things” – there’s the enemy. And the only weapon that will triumph is a deep hunger for God. The weakness of our hunger for God is not because he is unsavory, but because we keep ourselves stuffed with “other things”.

Are you keeping yourself stuffed with other things? How often do you say “No” to pleasures – legitimate pleasures – so that you might focus on God? When was the last time you denied yourself?

There is no inherent virtue in self-denial. But to see God, to clear our heads from the intoxication of worldly pleasures, sometimes we need to go to the wilderness. So be thankful for God’s gifts. But take your eyes off of them! Look to the Giver!

What do you need to deny yourself this week so that you might see God more clearly?

Finally: when the allures of this world seem irresistible:

3) Trust in God’s Sovereignty

Three verses in chapter 17 highlight God’s sovereignty: 17, 14, 8.

Verse 17: Speaking of God’s enemies - the ten horns or kings who are allied with the beast – the angel says:

for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.

Do you see what this is saying? God is in control – even of His enemies! They think they are plotting against Him, working to destroy Him. They in the end work His purposes – even while they do what they most want.  

We looked at this idea in more detail in the sermon on Chapter 6, so won’t go into detail here. But remember: God is in control! Do not fear His enemies! Do not believe their lies that you will miss out on life unless you join them. God is sovereign even over them.

Verse 14:The angel refers to those who follow the Lamb as  “called and chosen and faithful.” And in verse 8, who marvels at the beast? Who becomes a follower of the beast?

The dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast.

Thus: Who doesn’t marvel at the beast? Those whose names have been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.

Do you see what this is saying? If you belong to God, you are secure in Him.

As Jesus Himself said:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. John 10:27-29 

So when the allures of this world look overwhelming, when you don’t think you can resist, when your head is cloudy because of desires, tell yourself: “I belong to Him. He has called me. Thus, by His power I can resist. He began a good work in me. He will complete it. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief! Guard me from the enemy!”

And the One who controls your enemy, the One who holds you in his hand, the One who called you and chose you, will protect you.

What if you are not sure of your status? You can be. Turn from the things of this world. Find your delight in Him. Say, “Lord, I confess I am attracted to earthly things. Lord, I know that is a dead end. I want to find my joy in you. Forgive me by the blood of Jesus. Accept me into your family!” And you will find that your name was written in the book of life from all eternity.

Are you a Demas?

I don’t want to be a Demas. Don’t you be a Demas.

So don’t fall to the allures of this world. Don’t be content with the joys of this life.

Seek God! Seek His kingdom! And you will find the greatest joy imaginable.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/24/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful. The Piper quote is from A Hunger for God (Crossway, 1997), p. 10.

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