Revelation 17: 1-6
One 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. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.’
Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 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. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
babylon the great
the mother of prostitutes
and of the abominations of the earth.
I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
Last week we met a woman, her child, a dragon and two beasts. We saw that the woman was God’s people, both Israel and the Church. The child was Jesus, and the dragon was Satan. The two beasts represented the two main ways Satan tries to destroy the church.
The first beast is the outside pressure from state authorities and powers who want the church to conform to their way of thinking. In John’s time it was to worship the Emperor.
The second beast is pressure from the inside – false religion and false prophets who look like the real thing, but are speaking something other than the word of God.
And we saw that the dragon, Satan, really ultimately has one goal, and that is to stop people worshiping Jesus. He doesn’t care who or what else we worship – as long as it’s not Jesus. He doesn’t care where we put our trust – as long as it’s not in Jesus.
This week, the first person, or symbol, we will meet, is a prostitute. At least that’s what the NIV calls her. Older translations of the Bible call her the 'whore of Babylon' or the 'harlot of Babylon', but neither of those words are particularly nice, especially whore, let’s be honest. So we’ve toned it down a bit to prostitute.
However perhaps there was a reason the older versions used more literal translations from the Greek which sound unpleasant and coarse. Maybe by making the language so uncomfortable, the writers wanted us to squirm when she was mentioned. They used whore or harlot because they wanted to provoke an emotional reaction of repulsiveness from the readers. You see, when we use the word prostitute today in 2017, it can take on a different meaning.
We may think about poor young girls who are trafficked from all over the world and sold into sex slavery. We think about those who can’t put food on the table for their children and go out and sell their bodies and degrade themselves because they honestly feel they have no other choice. We see them as victims of abuse.
But there’s also always been another type of prostitute - the harlot - the one who chooses to do the job, even though they don’t have to, they are experts at seduction because they love the money and even sense of power this gives them. They exploit and manipulate people and destroy marriages, they offer temporary pleasure and perversion, but always at a cost. That’s the type of prostitute we are thinking about here. Someone who is in it for what they can get, and doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way.
As we read through the Bible, we find that sin is often not so much described in terms of actions or behaviours, as it is in terms of relationships or the breaking of relationships.
We were created by God, for relationship with God – that was always the greatest desire of God when He made us. Love, relationship, friendship, partnership with Him in looking after creation. Sin damaged that relationship, it put up a wall or barrier, and so the entire rest of the Bible, the rest of the God story that we read, is really God seeking to restore the relationship, to remove the barrier, to reconcile us to Himself.
And so God initially calls Abraham and sets apart a people in the Old Testament to be in covenant relationship with Himself. They were called Israel, the Chosen people. They made a covenant where both sides made deep, significant commitments to each other. The main one was that Israel would worship no other Gods other than Yahweh, and in return He would bless and prosper and protect them. He was their God, they were His people. That was the covenant.
And at times in the Old Testament, God refers to Himself as Israel’s husband, such is His love and devotion for her.
“For your Maker is your husband - the Lord Almighty is his name…” (Isaiah 54:5)
When Israel broke that covenant, when they violated that relationship, often God likened it to them committing spiritual adultery. They had been unfaithful. They have cheated on God. They had prostituted themselves to others. The prophets declared things like this:
“But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,” declares the Lord.” (Jer 3:20)
“Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods. I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.” (Jer 5: 7)
In fact the prophet Hosea was actually told by God to marry a prostitute as a dramatic prophetic symbol of the unfaithfulness of Israel.
“When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)
So even in the Old Testament, God sees His relationship with His people not so much in terms of rules and rituals and regulations – but in terms of covenant, committed, loving relationship. He is ours and we are His. We are devoted to Him and He is committed to us.
He always keeps His side of the covenant – He remains faithful. His people don’t. They wander, they stray, they are unfaithful.
I don’t know if you’ve ever sat with someone when they have discovered that their partner or spouse has been unfaithful. It’s so horrible to watch. The sense of pain and betrayal and hurt and rejection.
I think that’s something of what God feels. When we turn away from Him and allow other things to steal our hearts – its adultery. It’s unfaithfulness. It causes God much pain and heartache and grief.
So here in Revelation – God gives us a picture of someone who is symbolised as a prostitute, the harlot - because her main goal and greatest aim is to draw away our allegiance from God, she wants to lure and entice us into sin and into her way of thinking and living. That would break God's heart.