At the close of the Apocalypse, before the vision of the manifestation of the Lord Jesus, appears a vision of a woman riding upon a scarlet monster with the name: “Babylon the great, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17. 5, R.V.) blazoned upon her forehead. The final phase of the system thus symbolised and its doom just before the coming of Christ is the message of chapter seventeen and its continued existence in the city which after a brief period shares that doom is the burden of chapter eighteen.
This system will become supreme at the consummation of the age and will dominate the federated empire which is foretold and depicted in the beast she rides. But it will become supreme then because it grows apace now. This present growth affects us and the revelation is given for our present, spiritual direction and moral guidance. If we fail to identify the movement now we may unwittingly contribute to its development, if only by our failure to contribute rightly to something of a better nature.
The interpretation that the woman is the Church of Rome hardly covers the facts of the chapter adequately. She rode upon five heads which are stated to be five kings which fell before the days of John the seer (vv. 9, 10, R.V.). The Church of Rome did not come into existence until centuries after. This woman is called “the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth, which indicates that every idolatrous system owes its origin to her. It is demonstrable that many unfaithful religious systems existed before Rome, notably the eastern ones. Rome rather takes character from them than they from her. She is shown to be intoxicated “with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (v. 6, R.V.). (It is scarcely necessary to take “kai” as “even” here and to read: “with the blood of the saints even with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” To do so seems to leave us without reason for the repetition of the words: “the blood of.”) In view of the evidence of pre-christian existence, the two groups seem clearly to indicate that Old Testament saints as well as New Testament ones are her victims. Moreover, the word “mystery” or “secret” is used to designate either the character of the whole vision, or to form part of its name. It is disclosed by revelation only to the, inspired seer. Not until the final phase of its history is it really manifest and does its name become written in its forehead. This secret character is further made evident by the fact that though the religious system in which the woman manifests herself is destroyed yet she lives on in the city (v. 18).
Therefore to regard the movement which is symbolised by the woman as no more than the manifest System of Rome as we know it confines the exposition. It fails to recognise all the facts stated and implied in the passage and to penetrate to its inner meaning. So doing, it leaves all who are clear of the system of Rome bereft of the wholesome warnings inherent in the chapter.
The truth is that here is disclosed the existence of an unseen spiritual system, the secret working of which has affected every century since the name that describes it was first used in Genesis 11. By the end of the age it will have fully manifested itself in a united religion which will dominate the imperial power; and though that religion in which the system is manifested be destroyed, it will live on a short while in the social and commercial system of the city which will meet its doom at the advent of Christ. This is the parent system which has produced Rome from the simple churches of early Christian days in the same way as she produced her other harlot daughters in preceding times.
This system is referred to several times earlier in the Scriptures and is symbolised in a similar way. When the Lord blessed the woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath and was opposed by its ruler, He likened the corrupted state of Judaism therein exposed to meal which had become corrupted by leaven which a woman had secretly hidden within it (Luke 13. 20, 21). The setting of the parable and the reason for its utterance settle beyond question that Judaism is here illustrated and, obviously, the leaven which corrupted it is evil. The way the Lord held the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians responsible for this corruption, denouncing their teachings as so many leavens establishes the character of that, which the secret system hid in Judaism (see Matt. 16. 6 and 12, and ch. 23).
That phase of the kingdom of God became corrupted to such an extent that adherents of an originally God-given religion put to a cross Him who was God manifested in flesh; and they did so in professed zeal for that religion. The Temple hymns were being sung and its ritual was being assiduously performed when Jesus was being reviled by its leaders and others as He hung on the tree under a charge of blasphemy and political insurrection which they had unrighteously and ignorantly forced. So dreadfully successful has this woman Babylon been. And she can repeat herself!
That this secret system would leaven that phase of the kingdom of God which follows, as successfully as it did that which preceded the Cross, Christ foretold in the similar parable He unfolded on another occasion (Matt. 13. 33). Not only is the present phase of the kingdom likened to a sower, but it too was likened to a woman which hid leaven in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened. It was predicted that the same secret system by a like means would equally corrupt Christianity, and the same kinds of leaven would have place in the fresh phase of the fell scheme.
(The next article will deal with those passages which establish the character of the leavens).
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