A Study of Revelation

Chapter 17

The main subject of chapter 17 is the “great harlot.” A “harlot” is a prostitute who sells sexual favors for money. This is a symbol used to show that the apostate church “sells herself” for money and influence in the religious world. “Harlot” carries with it the idea of being unfaithful to one man. In spiritual terms the apostate church is not faithful to the one true God. Just as harlots have many physical partners, spiritual harlots worship many gods. They are unfaithful to the true God. They are committing spiritual fornication with the kings of the earth in that they have joined themselves together to persecute and even kill the saints. This “great harlot” in the book of Revelation is representative of those who claim to be spiritual but refuse to worship the true God in the way he has commanded. Israel acted as a harlot in her relationship to God.

Jeremiah 3:1-2
3:1God says, “If a husband divorces his wife And she goes from him And belongs to another man, Will he still return to her? Will not that land be completely polluted? But you are a harlot with many lovers; Yet you turn to Me,” declares the LORD.

2 “Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see; Where have you not been violated? By the roads you have sat for them Like an Arab in the desert, And you have polluted a land With your harlotry and with your wickedness.

Studying this passage, and others, helps us to see that this is the proper way to interpret the term “great harlot.” A “great harlot” is any and all those who claim to be spiritual but refuse to worship and serve God in the way he has revealed in His Word. This, then, is a reference in the book of Revelation to the original apostate church which spawned man “harlots” in the years since the original apostasy. The apostate church arose because of a gradual wandering away from the teachings of the Scriptures and a setting up of laws designed by men to worship God. It was spiritual fornication. Man was unfaithful to the true God and began to worship other gods, or more specifically, in the original apostate church, a man who claimed to be God on earth. Listen to the Apostle Paul:

2 Thess. 2
3* ¶ Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.

The Holy Roman church grew out of a falling away from the true teachings of God. The Roman Catholic church eventually set one man up who claimed infallibility and called himself “Pope” meaning “father.” We have but one Father, and he is our God in heaven. Today millions of people around the world still worship the man in this same office. Many believe that his is incapable of error and that he acts as a direct messenger from God.

Since the original “great harlot” thousands have come forward in the “christian” world claiming to follow God but not according to the teachings of the New Testament. Today the “great harlot” includes anyone who is not worshiping God according to the way he has designed, including those who were once members of the Lord’s church but who have now fallen away. Those who follow the traditions of men rather than the word of God are committing spiritual fornication.

17:1* ¶ Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters,
2* with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.”

The first part of this description is something worth remembering throughout the book of Revelation. “I will show you the judgment of the great harlot…” means that this harlot will end up in destruction, just as those people did who disobeyed God and received the seven plagues.

The harlot is first of all sitting “on many waters.” The waters indicate the influence she has on many people, we know this is the proper interpretation because verse 15 says: “And he *said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” The great harlot will affect or control many people. Throughout the Christian age this harlot has been deceiving and forcing people to worship according to her desires.

The kings of the earth commit immorality with the harlot. This indicates that they have shared in her deeds. They have aided her in her desire to commit spiritual immorality. Many governments of the world have been and to this day are partners with the great harlot. They combine their powers in order to control their people and in doing so, they cause people to commit spiritual immorality. This is certainly easily seen as one looks at the history of the church from the time of the Apostle John to our day. The powers of the Holy Roman Empire which gave birth to the Roman Catholic church and the government of Rome combined to force people to worship God according to the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman church made laws for man to follow and the Roman government enforced them. During this period of world history many were convicted and even executed as heretics simply because they refused to worship according to Roman Catholic doctrine (see any encyclopedia for “Dark-Ages,” “Medieval”, “Spanish Inquisition.”, etc.).

The “great harlot” in the book of Revelation is also described as “Babylon” and the “great city.” These are three different ways of describing the same thing. “Babylon” indicates that these people are great enemies of God. “Great City” shows the vast number of people involved in this spiritual fornication and it also shows the contrast between those who oppose God and those who serve his as Christians in his “holy city” (see Heb. 12:22; Rev. 22:2, 10, 19; 3:12). The “great harlot” shows that they are committing spiritual adultery.

Today, intoxicated with the power of her “wine” the great harlot continues to destroy the spiritual souls of those too weak to break away from her seduction.

3* And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.

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Here she is in all her glory. She is a “woman” who is in the wilderness in contrast to the “bride of Christ” that wanders in the wilderness of this world until Christ returns. The true church in the wilderness is cared for by God. The wilderness is symbolic of the world of sin. This is the symbolism of the Old Testament.

During the time of Moses, the Israelites, God’s chosen people under the law of Moses, actually wandered in a wilderness for forty years and were fed manna sent from heaven. They were seeking to enter their promised land. They were called “the congregation (or more properly, as in the KJV “church” see “ekklesia”) in the wilderness. In spiritual likeness the church of the New Testament, God’s chosen people under the law of Christ, wanders in the world today feeding on spiritual manna from God, which is the Word of God. The church today is looking for her spiritual promised land which is heaven. The “woman” or “great harlot” operates in the “wilderness” today, the world of sin, where she persecutes and tempts the truth church. The True church must overcome these temptations in order to enter the promised land.

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John sees this “woman” sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads, ten horns and full of blasphemous names. In verse 8 we will discuss this thought in more detail. The meaning of the beast is this; it represents those governments which use their powers in order to persecute God’s people. Verse 3 is telling us that there is a close relationship between the great harlot and the beast. The great harlot (religious powers of men on this earth) is riding the beast (the governmental powers of the nations. This demonstrates that these powers have joined forces and help each other control the people of the earth.

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This is exactly what we can see in the history of man. A few hundred years after Christ died the religious powers of the Roman Catholic church joined forces with the governmental powers of the Roman Empire to control men both physically and spiritually. Laws concerning man’s worship to God were made by the religious powers and enforced by the secular government of Rome. People who were considered heretics by the Roman Catholic church sentenced tried, punished, and even executed by the civil government of Rom. These actions plunged the world into a period of history known as the Dark Ages.

Today these powers do not exist to the extent that they once did, but the Roman Catholic apostasy has spawned thousands of “harlots” that have caused man to continue to commit spiritual adultery with the assistance of governments all over the world who have been strongly influenced by one religious power or another to act in collusion to keep people in subjection to these powers who are greedy for more power.

It is clear in the book of Revelation that though this “great harlot” began as the original apostate church, the Roman Catholic church, she is now a harlot that includes all people of all ages who commit spiritual immorality. The “great harlot” has simply changed forms. The “great harlot” continues to ride the beast today in many forms of denominationalism.

4* The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality,

Art used by permission by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992.
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She is dressed in expensive clothing and adorned with valuable jewels because she controls a vast amount of riches in our world through the manipulation of people. All through the Dark Ages the amount of wealth and possessions accumulated by the Catholic church is almost beyond comprehension. This religious power controlled a great amount of the world’s wealth. It was accumulated because of “abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality” which she held in the golden cup in her hand. The spiritual fornication which she committed with kings of the earth had enabled her to obtain great wealth. A tremendous amount of wealth is controlled today by false religions. Many religious powers survive because of the amount of many they are able to raise and control.

5* and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”

She is “babylon the great” because she is the enemy of God’s people, just as Babylon in the Old Testament was an enemy of God’s chosen people. She is the spiritual enemy of God’s people. During the Dark Ages Roman Catholicism was responsible for the persecution of many people. If anyone attempted to follow the teaching of the New Testament they were considered a heretic and were sought out and punished. The persecution of the church of Christ today is much more subtle. It is directed more toward the mental than toward the physical. The persecutions that Christians in the United States suffer today are in the forms of harassment and belittlement because the church of the Lord will not participate in certain activities which the Bible condemns, but that society considers acceptable.

She is the “mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.” Here the meaning is clear. Shortly after the apostolic times the church began drifting away from the teaching of the Bible. It became the apostate church, or the church which had fallen away. Eventually, the religious power of the Roman Catholic church arose out of tis apostate church. It became a religious power which was committing spiritual fornication. This religious power practically ruled the world through the Dark Ages. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Whittenburg, Germany. This is generally considered to be the beginning point of what became known as the Reformation Movement. Although this began as an attempt to reform the Catholic church, it actually led to the present situation in which there are literally hundreds of religious organizations which are practicing spiritual fornication. This “great harlot” became the “mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.”


6* And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.

This verse again points to the period of world history known as the Dark Ages. During this time many were persecuted and killed because they refused to submit to the manmade laws of worship. John is amazed at what he sees.

7* ¶ And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

Here the interpretation of what John did not understand is given. The rest of chapter 17 is an explanation of the beast which the woman rode and the relationship between the two.

The beast is described as having seven heads and ten horns. This same beast is described in 13:1 as the beast out of the sea.

8* “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.

This beast “was, and is not, and is bout to come up out of the abyss” is the same beast that is described in 13:3 as having one of his seven heads “slain,” but his fatal wound was healed. In verse 10 there is an additional description of these heads, “five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.” By combining the descriptive statements in these passages we can see that this beast must represent something of which five are already failed and one is in existence during the time of John but will fall and then be restored as the seventh head of the beast.

Without getting into all of the speculation about these beasts, we will simply state that the seven heads are seven world-kingdoms which have been hostile to God and to his people which are revealed in the Bible. They are Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and a seventh to arise at a future time after Revelation was written would then be represent the Holy Roman Empire which was the next worldwide kingdom to arise after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D..

This seven-headed beast represents those governmental powers of this world which oppose God. The number “7” stands for divine completeness. There have been seven worldwide governments throughout biblical history. These fulfill God’s plan concerning the governments which control the entire world. They are complete. Since the number “7” is used to symbolic divine completeness it may be possible for additional governments to arise which may control the entire world. Daniel 4:32 as well as the New Testament tells us that God will governments into power.

What John sees is that all people who dwell on this earth, except Christians, will be amazed at the resurrection of this seventh head. The same statement is made in 13:8 concerning the beast out of the sea which had one of its seven heads slain but was healed. The beast in 13:8 and this beast are one in the same. This is exactly what happened within a few hundred years after Christ ascended to heaven. The Roman Empire fell in the year 476 A.D. In 800 A.D. the powers of the civil government of Rome combined with the religious power of the Catholic church to form the Holy Roman Empire which ruled the world. This brought back the power of the fallen Roman Empire in the form of a religious-governmental power. The death wound was healed. The beast which “was not” one again existed. This seventh head, the Holy roman Empire, is also referred to as the great harlot in this chapter. Two powers actually combined to form one government. One part was the civil government which is described symbolically as the “beast.” The other was the religious part which is symbolically described as the “great harlot.”

The beast which John saw coming “up out of the abyss” is the same beast that “comes up out of the abyss” in 11:7. There it is described as making war against the two witnesses, or the church and “killing” them. The beast is also referred to as the “great city” in 11:8, just as it is in this chapter in verse 18.

9* “Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits,

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Wisdom comes from the Word of God. Most liberalize the “seven mountains” here because Rome is built on 7 hills. If this were true, the seven heads of the beast would also represent the mountains upon which Rome is built because they “are seven mountains on which the woman sits.” If the woman is sitting on the 7 hills of Rome the beast would be the land on which Rome is built. This makes it all but impossible to interpret the death wound and healing of one of these heads.

10* and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.

“And they are seven kings” tells us the proper interpretation to follow. The seven kings are the same as the seven mountains and the seven heads of the beast. The word “king” in this context carries with ti the meaning of a sovereign. To be in agreement with the symbols used in this chapter this must refer to sovereign nations or kingdoms. This same symbolic language is used in Dan. 7:17-23. Four great beasts were to rise out of the earth from the time of Daniel until the time of Christ. Inn Dan. 7:23, the fourth beast was referred to as the fourth kingdom upon the earth which would devour the whole earth. This was the kingdom, beast, which would be in power when Christ came the first time to set up his everlasting kingdom, the church (see Da. 7:14, 27). Therefore, this fourth beast must have represented the roman Empire which was in power during the time of Christ. In Dan. 7:17 these four beasts are referred to as four kings. Therefore, the term “king” is used to refer to a kingdom. The same is true here. The seven kings are referring to seven kingdoms.

Of these seven kingdoms “five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come.” “One is” is reference to the kingdom in power during the time of the writing of Revelation, which would be the roman Empire. The “five have fallen” would be the five worldwide kingdoms which ruled the world previous to the Roman Empire. They were Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece. The “other has not yet come” would be the Holy Roman empire, the next and only worldwide kingdom to have existed since the fall of the Roman Empire. When this seventh kingdom arises,

it must remain a “little while.” There is no way to determine the exact amount of time referred to as a “little while.” This only indicates that this kingdom would not continue to dominate the world until the end of time. It would come to an end. This is exactly what happened to the Holy Roman Empire. It has lost its worldwide powers.

11* “The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction.

To determine the identity of this beast we need to determine which kingdom is referred to as the one “which was and is not.” Verse 8 referees to this beast as “that he was and is not and will come.” This, then, refers to a kingdom which was in power, but lost its power, and later regained it. This is the same kingdom as the one mentioned in verse 10. The kingdom in power during the time of John’s recording of Revelation was the Roman Empire. Therefore, the one that “was and is not” is the Roman Empire. It was wounded to death, or in other words fell in 476 A.D. This death wound was healed, and the Roman Empire one again existed in the form of the Holy roman Empire. This eighth beast is a manifestation of the roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. It is the one which was, and is not, and is one of the seven. The only plausible explanation of this is the worldwide power of the Roman Catholic Church which still exists today. Its headquarters is located in the Vatican in Rome, and it exerts a vast amount of both religious and political pressures throughout the world. The structure and authority of the once powerful Roman Empire is still with us today in a religious form. It is the eighth beast.

2 Thess 2:3,4 says:

3* ¶ Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.

This passage helps to explain Rev. 17:11 – “and he goes to destruction.” The eighth beast is the religious beast which still possesses great power today and controls the thoughts and actions of untold millions of people. It will remain in existence until the second-coming of Christ, at which time it will be completely destroyed.

12* “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour.

Art used by permission by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992.
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The ten horns represent ten kings, and these ten kings represent ten kingdoms. The number “10” is used in Revelation to mean completeness. Therefore, these ten horns represent a complete number of kingdoms which are to have power with the beast. Unlike the seven heads, specific information is not given about these ten kingdoms. Because of this, we should not try to name any certain powers which they might represent. They represent all governmental powers which arise after the fall of the seventh head of the beast. The seventh head in verse 10 was to continue for a little while. Then an eight beast would arise, and these ten horns would be in power at the same time of this eight beast. The seventh head represented the Holy Roman Empire which gradually lost its worldwide power toward the end of the Middle Ages. As this took place, many powerful nations began to arise throughout the world. This period of time is symbolically described as the “ten horns.” There is no way of knowing how many kingdoms will exist during this time, or how long it will last. According to verse 16 and all of chapter 18, this situation will exist until Christ comes again. this places the world today in this period of time described as the ten horns.

These ten kingdoms are to be in power one hour with the beast. This would be the eight beast since the seventh has already fallen. This shows that these ten kingdoms and the eight beast are to be in power at the same time. Since the eight beast is the final manifestation of the Roman Empire remaining in the form of the Roman Catholic religious organization, along with many other false religions organizations which were borne by her, this situation being describe here shows that these governmental kingdoms are shaping power, or combining powers, with false religious powers in order to rule the people of the world. This exact thing is taking place in many countries around the world today. The power of false religious organizations, and especially Roman Catholicism, reigns supreme today in many nations. It is a controlling influence in many governments as they establish laws for people to follow.

Art used by permission by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992.
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To receive power for “one hour” with the beast would mean that these governments coexist with the beast for an undefined period of time. Some may exist for many years and some for only a few. While they remain in power they will share powers with the beast. The powerful forces of the apostate church, or false religion in general, may see many governmental powers rise and fall, but it will remain intact. It draws its powers form the powerful forces of civil government, thereby causing many to worship God according to its laws. This causes many to commit spiritual fornication and be lost in the sight of God.

13* “These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast.

These ten kingdoms have one purpose in the sense that they all share their powers with this eighth beast, or false religious organizations. They strengthen the beast. Because of the great influences of false religion, the governmental kingdoms will seek to honor the requests of the religious beast in order to use the powers of the beast for its own gain. In this way they support the beast. They give their power and strength to the beast.

14* ¶ “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”

Art used by permission by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992.
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These governmental kingdoms and the religious beast will make war against the Lamb. There have been and still are places in our world where Christians are in danger of physical persecutions because of their public worship to God. This religious beast constantly wages spiritual war against the saints though its false teachings. In this way the ten kings and the beast are waging war against the saints. As Christians we must realize that the world does not appreciate the true teachings of the gospel, for the gospel condemns them if they refuse to obey it. This lesson is taught very clearly in the series of the seven last plagues. The people of this world are interested in the things of the world and will levy all kinds of persecutions against Christians who are trying to warn them that they should live according to the ways Christ has directed in his Word.

This is a war that will continue as long as the earth stands. Christians are to take comfort in the fact that the Lamb will be the victor because he is Lord of lords and King of kings. In other words, Christ is more powerful than any force which could possibly exist on earth. He is reigning now on his throne in heaven and ruling his spiritual kingdom, the church. When he comes a second time, he will destroy all powers which exist and he will deliver the kingdom up to God who will reign supreme forever and ever.

1 Cor. 15:24 says:

24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.

“And those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” We are called through the gospel:

2 Thess. 2:14:
14* It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Those who answer the call of the gospel are the called, the chosen and the faithful. In other words, they are Christians.

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