How Does a Church Become Unfaithful? (vv. 1-4)
Drink the Poison Water of the World’s Chaos (v. 1)
One of the angels with the seven bowls is now sent to explain to John why the great harlot is being judged. This is a continuation of chapter 16. The “great harlot” was familiar to John’s readers in the first century. It is one of the great prophetic themes of the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah and Ezekiel. Who can ever forget Isaiah’s cry: “How is the faithful city become a harlot” (1:21)! Or Ezekiel’s depiction first of Israel then of Judah as harlot sisters – to turn away from the Lord to false gods and worldliness is to be an adulteress wife. Remember that the Lord is married to his people, as Jeremiah said (3:14). This is the reason that with the exception of Tyre and Nineveh, only Israel is called a harlot. A people or city must be married to the Lord in covenant before spiritual harlotry can be committed. In a lesser but real sense, Tyre was married to the Lord, for Hiram helped Solomon build the Lord’s temple. He was a worshipper of the Lord (2 Sam. 5:11); he and Solomon entered into a covenant together (1 Kings 5:12). And “Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matt. 12:41). Even if that repentance did not last, the Lord still held them responsible for the marriage vows to him that repentance makes. In that sense, Nineveh could be called a harlot. Rome, however, was not a harlot, for she had never been in covenant with the Lord. Jerusalem was the harlot wife of the Lord. She did not heed Hosea’s wooing to return to the Lord; she did not heed our Lord’s word and spurned his love. Now, he will divorce and judge Israel formally. The split occurred centuries earlier; now, the break is final.
And Israel is pictured as “sitting on many waters.” “Waters” are often a symbol of the chaotic forces and effects of sin and rebellion (Isa. 57:20). Yet, the Lord “sits as king above the floods” (Ps. 29:10; 93:3-4). Satan spewed many waters of chaos out of his mouth to drown the Lord’s faithful wife, but the earth swallowed up those waters. Israel is here pictured as sitting upon those waters – embracing the chaos of rebellion against the Lord. This may seem like a strange depiction, but Israel had God’s word and covenant. She replaced his word with her traditions. Half of her leadership, the Sadducees, did not believe in God, for they rejected the unseen world of angels and the resurrection. They rejected the prophets. This is the way a church, people at least outwardly connected to the Lord, becomes a harlot wife – embracing the world’s chaos, embracing sin, rather than urging repentance and faith. It is the first step. And how differently Christ’s true wife is pictured – delivered from the poisonous, worldly waters of sin’s chaos (Rev. 12:16). An unfaithful wife sits on those waters, embraces them, becomes part of them, cannot be differentiated from them.
Break Covenant with the Lord and Fornicate with the World (v. 2)
When the Lord says that his unfaithful wife has “committed fornication with the kings of the earth or land,” he means that his people, who should have been the light of the world, have instead corrupted everyone with their idolatry. They have gone after other gods, and therefore broken covenant with him. In verse 18 the harlot is identified as the “great city” that rules over the “kings of the land.” This great city has already been identified as Jerusalem in 11:8. In terms of its covenant status, Jerusalem was not only the center of the Palestinian region, but it also exercised a spiritual rule over all the nations. To Jerusalem belonged the ordinances of God, the priesthood, the temple, and the knowledge of the one true God (Rom. 9:1-5). John is following Jeremiah’s description of Jerusalem (Lam. 1:1; Jer. 22:8). In Acts 4:26, Peter wrote that the “kings of the earth” took counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed. This is a reference to the rulers of the land of Israel in league with the Romans.
Let us greatly fear fornication with the world. This begins with a fornicating, restless, and wandering heart. This is the reason we break our marriage vows and commit adultery. We commit fornication with the world by engaging in immorality in any form. We do it spiritually by endorsing other gods, embracing religious pluralism and statism, and doctrinally by turning away from God’s word. We are bound to the Lord Jesus Christ so that he is our husband. His church is his blood-bought bride. We are bound to him upon the condition that we remain faithful to him, live as his chaste virgins, do not fornicate with the world, and hold him as the love and delight of our hearts. Where we have broken covenant with him, he will forgive us, for he cannot deny himself. But we must turn back to him, forsake our impurities and false gods, and determine to follow him alone. As with Peter, when he is bringing us back home, there is much weeping, not that our tears are atoning but that our hearts yearn to be back with him and to put away all the sins that offend against his love.
Depend upon Man to Survive (v. 3)
When John saw the Lord’s fornicating wife, it was hideous and profane. She was sitting on the beast, on the back of the Roman Empire, riding the power of Rome to carry out her war against the church. She was full of blasphemous names, like public prostitutes in those days, but even more likely with the mark of the beast upon her forehead. She chose Caesar over Christ. Our Lord warned the Jews that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would never be forgiven. This is to equate his work with the work of the devil, to deny his word as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. To blaspheme in their case was to deny the truth they once professed, to repudiate the marriage vows they had taken. It was a dreadful picture of what actually happened in the first century – the Jewish nation and especially leaders riding immorally on the back of the beast, depending upon Rome to “keep their place and nation” (John 11:48) and forsaking the covenant promises of God. There is a warning here for us, that we must never place our confidence in princes or trust in our plans and cleverness to see us through the battle. We must never join God’s enemies, make our peace with them, use their weapons or methods, or adopt the mindset and doctrines of this world.
Corrupt God’s Worship (v. 4)
The harlot’s dress is often viewed as indicative of the luxury and materialism of Rome. Historically, this cannot be denied. However, in light of the established Jerusalem context of chapters 14-18, as well as the overall theme of Revelation, the purple, scarlet and precious stones seems more indicative of the Levitical priesthood. The harlot’s priestly attire highlights her mysterious and abominable appearance. The priesthood God ordained to lead men to salvation is now that of a perverse prostitute who leads men away from the Lord. “Cups” make regular appearances in the Old Testament prophets (Jer. 51:7; Ezek. 23:31; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2), most often indicative of the “cup” of Jehovah’s fury against Israel. The passage in Jeremiah 51:7 so closely approximates John’s language in 17:2,4 that it must be the Old Testament background to his vision. It is a prophecy against Babylon. As John has applied “Babylon” to apostate Jerusalem in a metaphorical fashion, the application of Jeremiah’s prophecy is pointed. Rather than being filled with drink offerings to the Lord, this cup is full of the abominations and filthiness of Jerusalem’s apostasy. How can the priests who minister in the temple offer anything else up to God since they have murdered his Messiah? All of their offerings are an abomination to the Lord. If we are not holding fast to the Head, Jesus Christ, we cannot worship the Lord in spirit and truth. If we substitute the ceremonies and commandments of men for God’s pure word, our worship is corrupt and unacceptable to him (Mark 7:7).
The Shocking Site of an Unfaithful Wife (vv. 5-6)
A Great Mystery – Jerusalem Filled with Blasphemy and Abominations (v. 5)
It would have been no great mystery for Rome to be described as a vile and perverse city. This is different, however, from an unfaithful wife. Rome was never bound to the Lord. How does Rome sit on Rome? A mystery is a truth we could not know unless the Lord taught it to us. It was the mystery of the ages that Israel and its capital city Jerusalem, where the temple was, God’s own throne, should become Babylon. How could Jerusalem with its priesthood become the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth? They broke covenant with the Lord. They rejected Jesus Christ. Together with the “kings of the land,” they crucified the Lord of glory. It is no great harlotry for those who have never known the Lord or pledged to be his people to walk in superstition and idolatry. This is what is expected – “evil men and seducers go from bad to worse, deceived and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). We are grieved but not surprised when our secular government hates the Lord, ignores him completely, wants to kill the unborn and elderly, and start unjust wars around the world. But for Jerusalem, David’s city, where the prophets walked and warned, to choose Caesar over Christ? This is a mystery. The great city of God became Babylon, a place of arrogance, manipulation, and persecution.
Blood Required, as Our Lord Said (v. 6; Matt. 23:35)
We live in such a perverse and God-ignoring age that perhaps Jerusalem’s sins seem tame by comparison to today’s evils. How could anything that happened so long ago have been permanently enshrined in Scripture? Remember that the Jews of the first century crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). This is an unparalleled crime. The Lord would forgive its perpetrators, if they repented, and many thousands did. But most of the Jewish leaders and Jewish people did not repent, and our Lord’s warning was fulfilled: “that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (Matt. 23:35). And hear his lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets and stoned them which are sent to you…behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:37). And verse 6 makes clear the connection between our Lord’s numerous warnings and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This unfaithful woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, Christ’s own martyrs. That blood was required. God is righteous to vindicate his word and his people.
How Do We Remain Christ’s Chaste Virgins in an Impure World?
Come to Jesus Christ to be Delivered from Sin: No Longer Slaves of Sin but of Righteousness
Though not usually applied in this fashion, Jerusalem’s harlot status raises serious issues for us. They were God’s people. They had his promises and covenant, the old covenant sacraments, the priesthood and sacrifices. Yet, they turned away from the Lord. We have seen the same in churches today – once faithful denominations and congregations have had their lampstands removed so that they are no longer true churches. Wisdom dictates serious examination. How can we remain Christ’s true church? Hierarchies and ceremonies will not help us. We must have union with Jesus Christ. He must deliver us from the power of sin. The same thing that makes a faithful Christians secures a Christian church – deliverance from the power of sin. Condemning sins in the broader culture is not the same as being delivered from our own sins, so that we do not love sin any longer, do not want to return to our sins, loathe ourselves for our sins, and continue coming to Jesus Christ as our Advocate to be cleansed from our sins. Jerusalem, like later Rome and Constantinople, had the trappings of religion, a form of godliness, but no power, no real union with Christ. It is only in his sin-destroying, righteousness-empowering fellowship that we can remain faithful to him and not become a false, faithless wife.
Give Your Heart to Jesus Christ: Fight for Purity in Mind and Body, Doctrine and Worship
At the heart of a faithless, false wife is impurity, the strange woman’s wandering heart, her lustful heart that craves fleshly pleasure and worldly good. If we would be and remain faithful to Christ our Head and Husband, we must seek purity in mind and body. The sexual sins of our age must not be named among us (Eph. 5:3). Yes, there will be lusts, for no one is without sin, but we must recognize them as sinful and put them to death by the power of Christ’s word and Spirit. Faithfulness to our Lord is not a matter of outward show to others but a heart that is united to him, a love that leads us to serve him with our bodies as a living sacrifice – not giving them over to sinful pleasures. Our doctrine and worship are two more public ways we confess our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus – that we will abide in his word, not the world’s foolishness, bring our thoughts captive to our Husband and Lord, not think our own vain thoughts. Our worship also – think of it as a wedding ceremony in which each week we renew our vows of love to him and hear from him words of commitment. We must worship as he would have us, not as the world approves. Purity is what marks the faithful wife of Jesus Christ – heart, mind, body, doctrine, worship.
Live for Jesus Christ: Separation from the World, Consecration to our Lord
This may seem like too much service and effort, but a loving and faithful wife does not count the cost. She does not feel she can love and serve her husband too much. She may struggle in moments of weakness or frustration, but grace and love prevail to bring her back to the joy of being a faithful wife. The same is true of Christ’s church. Her heart for him is such that she can never love him too much. She can never serve him too much. Separation from the world, while difficult in practice and requiring wisdom, is not a question for her of how close I can get to the world, but how far do I need to separate so that I can be closer to my Lord and enjoy more of his love and loveliness. As Christ’s bride, we should never feel that we can be too consecrated to him, that he asks too much of us, or that we must go too low in humility and self-denial. Let him ask more if it is he who is asking and strengthening, and I will gladly give it, for I would wash my Lord’s feet with the best I have.
This is one main reason we struggle in this world – we do not relate life to Jesus Christ, holiness to loving him, obedience as honor and service given to our Lord. We serve what we love and esteem. We must relate our life issues and decisions to loving and serving our Savior. Consider internet usage in our homes -- if, when, how monitored – all the questions that dog us because we have this clever tool that is also for most a dangerous temptation. Each family must prayerfully decide the best way to deal with this issue, but it should not be a bone of contention if each family member is determined to love Jesus Christ and separate from the world. Then, it is not a question of what my friends are doing, or what other people are allowed to do, or what I want to do. If we love the Lord Jesus, we do not ask these kinds of questions. Our thought will be to do all we can to please our Lord – not how much we can hold on to for ourselves but how much can we give to our Lord. Then, while we must still work through issues of order, logistics, and accountability, it will be with each family member desiring one thing – to love and honor Jesus Christ. Is this our home? Our heart? Our congregation? Or are we still holding on to sin and self?
For most of us, these kinds of issues arise not because we want to be worldlings but because we are not pursuing consecration to our Lord. Is this person I think I love or even like follow the Lord Jesus with all his or her heart? That is an objective question with an objective answer. Not, how I do feel about him or her, or I think he might be a Christian. You know a real Christian when you meet one – at least, you know him if you are one and are looking for one. They talk about pleasing him, not about pleasing self. They forsake sinful relationships and never enter into them. They do not look for opportunities to sin and make excuses when they sin. They mourn over their sins, turn fully back to the Lord Jesus Christ, and forsake their sins. Why is this? They love Jesus Christ. None of us is perfect or will ever be close to perfect in this life. What we will grow in is love for Christ and desire to please him, with all our warts and failings. This is the way to overcome the world, our particular evils and perversities – grow in love for Jesus Christ. Do not ask how much of this world you can hold on to and still be a Christian. Ask how much of Christ’s love do you want to know? How much of him do you want to have in your life? Is anything in this world worth holding to that would keep you from pleasing the Savior who died for you on the cross? What sin do you insist upon keeping at the peril of losing his fellowship?
Live in Fellowship with Jesus Christ: Mortify and Vivify in Union with Jesus Christ
I am not describing an idyllic Christian life, for I do not believe it exists. We are called to fight the good fight. If one of us says we have not sinned, that we are not sinners, that we are not sinning, we are liars (1 John 1:8-2:2). We need God’s mercy every moment. We have the gospel treasure in fragile vessels (1 Cor. 4:7). The best and truest Christian is under regular attack from his flesh (Gal. 5:18) and must remain vigilant or he will fall (Matt. 26:41; 2 Pet. 3:17). We do not want to prove faithless wives to him in the end, or to have our congregation be a false wife. All the trappings of religion will not save you – Jerusalem had them in abundance and more visibly than we do. She became a harlot wife. To be faithful and grow in Christ, we must keep coming to him to put to death our sins and quicken us in righteousness. Ask him for his Spirit every day – work in me, Spirit of God, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. Rule me, mighty Savior, by your Word and Spirit. Form me to be like you (Phil. 1:11; 1 John 4:17). The Lord Jesus as our faithful Savior and Husband asks nothing of us that he will not give us. Let us want him and love him. He will help us.