13. Revelation is Romance
(Revelation 17v1 – 18v2, 19v11-21)
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 wilderness. 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.When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.
“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!…
…I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords.
And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
It’s a little ironic… as mysterious and intimidating as the Bible’s final book is, Revelation actually tells a very simple story. It’s the story of God saving the world. That’s the revelation, the apocalypse, the peek-a-boo: salvation is who God is. Salvation is what God has done in Jesus and what God will do in the future. God saves. None of this should be a surprise. That’s what the name “Jesus” literally means: “God saves.”
It’s a simple story that overwhelms us because of how it’s told. We lose sight of this forest of salvation because of all its exotic trees. The symbolic nature of Revelation overwhelms us, and we can get preoccupied with a particular chapter or image or set of verses… and we can lose sight of the story… or even what kind of story it is.
This story can sometimes feels like an independent arthouse film, with a proclivity for strange images, unconventional plot structure, and open interpretation. Sometimes it feels like a summer blockbuster, especially when the plagues of Egypt explode onto the scene through trumpets and bowls. Moments within the story feel like edge-of-your-seat thriller (what will John see next!?) or even like a Saturday morning cartoon (the Roadrunner always gets away). But, if we’ll pay attention, Revelation 17-19 makes clear what kind of story Revelation is:
Revelation is a romance.
The plot of Revelation centers around a costly, dramatic rescue for the sake of unquenchable love. At the deepest level of reality—within Godself—Father, Son, and Spirt endlessly, ardently adore one another in self-giving love. And this one God, who is a community of Love, created us so that we can share in his eternal passion. We are his bride—the bride of Christ. The bride of God.
But his bride needs rescuing. And so God has set his face toward sweeping her up and saving her. She needs rescuing—from her own stupid, sinful decisions, from all the monsters and enemies who want her destroyed, and from even the greatest enemy of them all… Death itself. So while Revelation has its artsy moments, its action scenes, as well as its share of thrills and silly cartoons, but, at its heart, this story is a romance.
Revelation is the Romance behind all romances. It’s what all our hearts ache for, but what we almost never talk about. Endless, bottomless, unconditional love. But we rarely mention it. We push it from our minds and especially our hearts. It’s too deep of a longing. We’re afraid—afraid it will never happen because it’s too good to be true.
But John of Patmos has good news for all who long for the universe’s Lover to gather us up in his divine embrace. Our hearts are not delusional: Love IS coming for us and this world. There will be a happy ending for those longing for Love.
How is this Romance of romances presented in Revelation 17-19? Well, it begins with a well-dressed hooker. Riding through the desert. On a seven-headed monster. With ten horns. Tattooed with blasphemous names. And that’s just verse 3. Yikes.
This seems to be the same beast that emerged from the sea in chapter 13. It still seems to still represent the same thing it represented back then: the conquering, coercive power of empire. The most obvious example to John’s audience would be Rome, but empire is a deeper problem than Caesar and his armies. We see the beast raise show its teeth whenever humans rule each other through the power of violence or or economic force or cultural pressure.
But this prostitute… who is she? She’s called “Babylon” (17v5), and she’s dressed in the ritziest-glitziest fashion of the day and holding a glittering golden cup filled with “abominable things” (17v4). She’s a new character in Revelation’s offbeat cast.1
(17v7) Then the angel said to [John]: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides…
How convenient. Thank you, angel. Finally, we’ll get a linear, straightforward, easy-to-follow explanation.
(17v8) The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
That was harder than we expected, but I think we follow so far. Whatever else it is, you’re saying that this beast rising from the sea is a parody of real power. Real power looks like Jesus, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1.4, 8).2 This “beast” looks like a power, but it’s not eternal. It comes and goes. Whatever it is, this beast is a counterfeit… a knock-off of the real thing. And its rider must be a counterfeit too. It takes some stretching, but we can follow the broad strokes of John’s sketching.
But John totally loses us in verses 9-14. And not just us. Scholarship is baffled too. These verses are like a police chase where we turn a corner to discover we’ve suddenly lost the car we were pursuing. Too much distance makes for disappearance.
That’s almost certainly what’s happened here. The distance—how far we are from the original readers culturally or in time—has made for the disappearance of meaning. No one knows precisely what’s being talked about.
Scholars don’t know what to do with these verses. Only a few will tell you that in those terms. Generally you’ll hear words like “theories” and “debate” instead of “we don’t know.” Frequently you’ll hear confident sounding teachers confidently using these verses to decipher when Revelation was written3 or who the Antichrist will one day be4 and what he’ll be like or how an Antichrist will one day conquer the world.5
These theories can be interesting but they’re not essential. These verses are fascinating edges of Revelation but they are not Revelation’s center.
For example: one theory suggests that John borrows a first-century urban legend to serve his own purposes.6 If that’s the case, we would add campfire story to the long list of genres embedded with Revelation. The story told in whispers said that the ancient world’s version of Hitler, Caesar Nero, would soon (any day!) return with armies from Parthia in the East. He had long been considered dead by the time Revelation was penned… and that’s where the story gets spooky. Perhaps he had never really died. Maybe his disappearance was a vast conspiracy, another twisted game from the mad king. And so, the story went, Nero would return one day to conquer the world.7
Perhaps he echoes bits of this campfire story to point through the fog toward the end of the world: “Even should our nightmares come to life, they’ll all dissolve with the dawn of God’s new world.” I find that helpful… but I don’t know with certainty. And let me save you some time: nobody does.
There are, however, some clues that put us on firmer footing. The angel tells John that this Woman—Lady Babylon—sits on seven hills. And the angel follows up with a challenge: “this calls for wisdom.” We heard challenge originally regarding 666. And that riddle was reasonable to solve: “Caesar Nero.” A similar challenge must present here.
And indeed it’s universally accepted that these seven hills are a reference to the seven hills of Rome. Rome is plainly in view… but not named. Why not name her “Lady Rome”? As with the number of the beast, John is interested in his hearers becoming wise to a pattern, not just a person—or in this case, a place.
This Woman is a living embodiment of “the great city” that just collapsed a handful of verses ago at the end of the seven bowls (16v19). We seem to be getting another perspective on that same reality. Maybe this is a picture of how all violent Empires will fall apart at the end of history… and even within history. Maybe, just maybe, this Woman is the “great city” that fell apart…
(17v18) “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Well, ok…. it’s more than “maybe.” This dolled-up hooker unquestionably is “the great city.” A city like Rome sitting on its seven hills.
Like Rome but not limited to Rome. The pattern is more important than the place. Revelation is addressing something bigger than one city or one king or one empire. Any kind of system that relies on violence or economic coercion or cultural/religious manipulation to rule the world fits the pattern of beastly rule and fallen Babylon.
And that “great city” will collapse.
Revelation goes further. Not only WILL it collapse, it ALREADY IS fallen. Whether it looks like it or not. Any life or system or “city” that opposes the good and loving purposes of God is ALREADY fallen. It’s ALREADY doomed to failure. The violence humanity often relies on, the beast we often ride on, will eventually devour us.
That’s the picture in a graphic, horrible nutshell (17v16). This Lady will be eaten alive by the Beast.8 Every “great city” we build on violence and power winds up being consumed that violence and power. Humans ruling other humans through the power of armies and violence or economic force and cultural peer pressure—it’s never going to work.
If we try to rule the world by force,
we’re riding a monster
that eventually consumes us.
The announcement is made clearly: Babylon is fallen (18v1-3). Life in opposition to God is collapsing. At one point an angel throws a giant rock, a millstone, into the sea with a giant splash (18v21) and declares: Babylon is fallen like this… with this kind of ferocity and finality. Babylon is fallen, and—just like that rock—it’s never coming back.
Then from chapter 18 to the start of chapter 19, we find two groups of people reacting to the collapse of all violent human power systems. The same proclamation evokes two dramatically different responses from people. It’s the same reality, the same judgement, but it provokes two wildly different reactions.
We see singing, celebrating, and primal hallelujah,
alongside weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
Everyone in love with the old system, who didn’t care about hurting people for a profit,9 actually despair the fall of Lady Babylon. We find three laments: the corrupt ruling class,10 the profit-driven businessmen,11 and all the heartless middlemen.12
They despair violent empire collapsing.
They despair a world of love.
But then we also find three celebrations:
The masses in heaven are roar in celebration, the mysterious figures backstage of the universe are singing, some great multitude (perhaps on the earth) shouts for joy13:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
And here the Great Romance becomes clear:
John envisions Jesus—unstoppable, all-powerful Jesus—tearing through the heavens, riding a mighty steed (19v11), tattooed with truth (19v16), and the armies of heaven following him (19v14). The Groom has arrived… and he’s is everything the harlot pretended be.
It’s a vision of the future where Jesus brings his unbridled Life to the world. Image piles upon image as Jesus arrives to “wage war” rightly (19v11). He’s arriving to end a war he didn’t start.14 Jesus appears…. but he’s already covered in blood (19v13). And that’s because he’s shed his own.15 Here’s a king who doesn’t conquer with a literal sword of violence… his whisper of love conquers the world (19v15).
That’s the kind of “King of kings” Jesus is (19v16). The King who loves to the point of death. That’s what true power and authority look like. That’s what true kingship and lordship looks like. True lordship is love-shaped; true kingship is cross-shaped.
And why does Jesus tear through the heavens and ride to earth? Jesus, of course, arrives as the Lover of lovers… as the world’s True Lover. Jesus has come to feast at his wedding supper (19v9).This is the feast for which we all hunger. The place where the deepest longings of our hearts are satiated. Those unspeakable yearnings we try to satisfy with food or sex or careers or applause or the next pair of shoes… they find ourselves satisfied here.
The good news entrusted to the Church is there will be a day coming when our deepest longings—our hunger—will be satisfied. Because there is a day coming when Jesus will bring the party of his presence.
Here John shows us our chief end:
the union of heaven and earth,
of God and humanity.
This is what Revelation—and every life—is ultimately all about: the consummation of cosmic Love. Everything exists that we may join our Lover, the Groom of grooms, in his unbroken banquet of love, bliss, and peace.
If we take John’s vision with any kind of seriousness, all these climactic images have immediate, hourly implications for our lives. One of the most immediate and primary being this question: Where are the places where we settle for counterfeit Life?
We live in world where “the Mother of Prostitutes” looks much obviously compelling than the Bride of the Lamb.16 Generation after generation finds themselves tempted by alluring, seemingly beautiful, knock-offs of the real Romance. The Enemy continues his work in the Empire of America as much the Empire of Rome. We’re invited into false life, enticed to become a false bride, beckoned into a false way of being human.
Revelation’s imagery is genius. The harlot offers us a golden cup that does indeed look satisfying… but it’s filled with sewage, vomit, and deplorable things.17 We’re always being offered counterfeits, and we frequently settle for them. We crave intimacy; we settle for “casual” sex. We thirst for peace; we settle for numbing the pain. We hunger for satisfaction; we settle for the next big purchase. We ache for to be truly known; we settle for applause and popularity. We yearn for significance—to know our lives matter—but we settle for busyness. We’re parched for True Life and the Enemy offers to quench our thirst with Death.
We’re thirsty for the cup of salvation;
we settle for the cup of abominable things.
In countless ways that we’re only dimly aware, we buy the subtle lies of the Enemy. We oppose the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love. We march against God. And so John gives us one more sobering reminder of what resisting God—what hating Love—is like.
First, John begins tying up loose ends. His great cartoon monsters that spilled off the screen—the beasts from the sea and land—are at last unmade by Jesus (19v20). These horrifying doodles symbolized the world’s complex political and cultural systems hijacked by evil… and allow John to signal that they will be overthrown by the fire of love.
Second, we’re presented with a graphic picture: birds feasting on those who follow the Beast and the false devotion of False Prophet (19v21). The day when Truth will finally speak in the world, and, on that day, lives built on lies collapse. This terrible image (borrowed from the prophet Ezekiel18) serves as a megaphone to rouse the deaf, perhaps even to wake the dead: that “life” offered by the Enemy is for the birds… so don’t embrace it.
This isn’t Revelation full of threats;
this is Revelation full of wisdom.
John keeps insisting that anyone or anything opposing the Lamb is on path that’s already fallen. If we insist on this path to the end, God will give us what we want… but it will never satisfy our hunger. It will consume us.
There’s a world of difference
between coming to the Feast
and becoming a feast….
so choose wisely.
God grants our lives and choices a scary dignity. We can choose the True, the way of love, and celebrate eternally with our Beloved. Or we can choose the false, the counterfeit, and be consumed by the hateful things we love.
The good news is we’re always already being called to—and welcomed into—the real thing. Our Lover cares for us more than we care even for ourselves…and we are always already welcome at his table.
Groom of grooms, stop us from settling for counterfeit loves and counterfeit life. May we hear your whisper of love calling us out of despair, out of falseness, out of Death. May we hear the romance of Revelation, knowing in our bones that your marriage proposal is for us too. Clothe us as your bride and bring us safely to your wedding feast that will satisfy us fully and forever.
- This Lady has been talked about in 14.8 and 16.19—like talking about a character off-stage—but this is the first time we’re “seeing” her.
- By this point in Revelation, of course, John has begun to recognize the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus through the church’s witness and suffering, and in 11.7 shifted the verb tenses to reflect that reality.
- 17v10: five kings have fallen, one is, the other is yet to come
- 17v11: the beast is “an eight king” who somehow “belongs to the seven”
- 17v12: using ten horns—or ten kings—who rule for “one hour”
- Similar to how John borrows the story of Apollo (Rev 12) for his own purposes.
- Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 407-423.
- This graphic imagery seems to be adapted by a story of judgment concerning Israel spoken by the prophet Ezekiel (16.15-19, 32-42).
- Embedded within economy of all empires is commodification of people as either institutionalized (or, in our century, functional) slaves (end of 18.13).
- 18v9-10: “the kings of the earth”
- 18v11-17: ”the merchants of the earth”
- 18v17-20: “the sea captains”
- “a great multitude in heaven” (19v1-3), “he twenty-four elders and the four living creatures” (19v4-5), “a great multitude” (19v6-8, cf. 14.1-3: the “army” on the mountain).
- See Rev 17.14. The ultimate vision of both the psalms (e.g. Ps 2. 72) and the prophets (e.g. Isa 2.1-5, 11.1-10) envision a day when Yahweh and his “anointed one” (= Messiah, Christ, King) put an end to all wars. The way only way to wage war rightly (“with justice/righteouness”) is to end all war.
- We were first introduced to robes dipped in blood in Revelation 7.14, where we’re told the victorious army of martyrs have washed their robes in the blood of “the Lamb.” The Lamb’s own robes, of course, are the same.
- As we approach the end of Revelation, the imagery introduced in chapters 11 and 12 returns with an invitation: “Become this Woman—become this Bride (12.1, cf. 19.8-9), become this City (Rev 11.2, 20.9 = 21.2), become this Tabernacle/Temple (11.1, cf. 21.3, 22).”
- ” …goblet is full of urine, dung and blood. Sorry about the nasty words; but perhaps I should have used nastier ones… [John’s] point is that the outward appearance of the whore is magnificent, but the inner reality is disgusting, stomach-churning filth” (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 151).
- Ezekiel envisions a decisive battle (39.17-20) where the birds will consume those hell-bent on resisting the God of Life.