Studies in the book of Revelation
Study 9 – The doom of Rome
Chapters 17 – 19 The prostitute city of Rome
These chapters elaborate on the reason for, and manner of judgment (cf. chapters 15 – 16) on Rome, that great prostitute city which sucked in and squandered the resources of the nations. She not only dominated all peoples with her occultism and idolatry but was drunk on the blood of saints within her.
The seven heads represent the emperors from Julius Caesar to Galba (who followed Nero for a mere seven months). The ten horns symbolise subject governments (e.g. of Europe, North Africa, Asia) who eventually destroyed Rome (e.g. the Germans and the Goths) – only to be overcome by the Lamb himself. Rome was overthrown like Babylon in the Old Testament (see Daniel 5): first by a death blow then centuries of decline.
‘On many waters’ (17:1) was also said of Old Testament Babylon (Jeremiah 51:13), representing peoples (17:15; cf. Isaiah 8:7-8; Jeremiah 47:2). Rome’s wealth was seductive – scarlet, purple and jewels of extravagant value (17:4). The golden cup of international influence characterised ancient Babylon also (Jeremiah 51:7). The name on her forehead was the custom of prostitutes in the public brothels of Rome (17:5). She was sated with slaughter, reveling in sadistic killings (17:6).
The link between Rome and Babylon lay not just in simple comparison. From around the time of its founding in mid-8th century B.C. Rome had Babylonian idolatry introduced into its life. In 240 B.C. a famous image of Cybele, the chief Babylonian goddess was taken from Pergamum to Rome and worshipped as the Queen of Heaven. A priestly college of pontiffs based in ancient Babylon was moved to Pergamum in Asia Minor (‘where Satan had his throne’, 2:12-13). King Attalus I became its head, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS (‘the chief bridge-builder’, that is from man to gods). In 133 B.C. Attalus III moved the kingdom over to the Romans. Julius Caesar became Pontifex Maximus in 45 B.C.
The silence on earth which followed Babylon’s fall (18:22-23) contrasts with the rejoicing in heaven as the whore was replaced by the virgin bride (19:1-10).
19:11-16 has no time note. It essentially describes who and what Christ is -the conquering King, Captain of heaven’s armies. The war he wages is a verbal assault – the word of God in his mouth – as he takes the nations for his inheritance (cf. Psalm 2).
19:17-18 preparations are made for when the war ends: there’s no question about the outcome!
19:19-21 the climax of the war = a summary of 17:1 – 19:10, merging the whore’s destruction by the Beast (17:16) and the Beast’s destruction by the Lamb (17:14). In plain language: the city’s destruction by the Empire, and the Empire’s destruction by the Gospel. Jesus promised the weeding out of his kingdom all lawlessness and causes of offence (Matthew 13:40-42). Here Rome’s overthrow is seen in terms of the end of the age.
Chapter 20 The triumph of the gospel
Pre-millenialists reckon that this chapter follows chronologically from chapter 19, the return of Christ. But where else in the New Testament is there any hint of another age with mortal humans on earth after Jesus returns? Certainly not in 1 Corinthians 15:23-24.
Some post-millenialists also see a chronological continuation from chapter 19, viewing the binding of Satan as a result of a spiritual visitation (Revelation 19:11-21) that issues in a Golden Age during which all nations respect Christ’s rule of law. A ‘short time’ of Gog’s activity (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2) sifts the wheat and weeds at the end of the age.
It is clear, however, that John begins a fresh section here, returning to his own generation as his starting point.
Verses 1-3 ‘I saw’ the binding of Satan to prevent him ‘deceiving the nations any more until …’ This parallels the ascension of Jesus that opens Scenes 1, 2 and 4. In his complete work at his first advent Jesus bound the strong man (Matthew 12:28, 29) and, seating us with him in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6), he has commissioned us to disciple all nations (Matthew 28:19). More specifically, John may here he referring to the overthrow of Caesar-worship which, at the time of writing, was binding on all nations within the Empire (13:16-17). the word ‘until’ anticipates a ‘short time’ of attempted universal deception at the end of history. Although the devil is active in other ways he ‘only go as far as the end of his chain’ (John Newton).
Verses 4-6 ‘I saw thrones … [with] authority to judge’ contrasts with the devil’s loss of authority. Highlighted here are the martyred souls who in 6:9-10 cried out for ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ to be judged and their own blood avenged. They ‘come to life’ in the sense that ‘to die is gain … present with the Lord’ (Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:8) – in total contrast to ‘the rest of the (unregenerate) dead.’
The resurrection language here is apparently meant to be understood figuratively. Ezekiel (37:12) and Hosea (13:14) had previously used the symbol of resurrection for spiritual restoration. The fact that John later in this chapter refers to the physical resurrection at the end of history does not mean that ‘the first resurrection’ must also be physical. After all, in John 5:24-20 Jesus refers in one paragraph to both regeneration and the raising of the body as ‘passing from death to life’.
Verses 7-10 Satan’s momentary release at the end of ‘the thousand years’ (code name for a complete period of time, 10 x 10 x 10) inspired God and Magog (code names for the enemies of God’s people) to attempt war (the battle of Armageddon, 16:16) unsuccessfully against the saints. According to Ezekiel 38 – 39 (see 39:17-20) it will end in their carcasses being fed to the birds (cf. 19:17-21). Satan is finally sent to hell, and immediately time ends.
Verses 11-15 Humanity’s final judgment assize is conducted.
21:1-8 And new heavens and earth come into being.
Chapters 21 -22 the glorious city of God
21:9 – 22:5 is the detailed description of the Bride, New Jerusalem, elaborating on 21:1-8 (just as chapters 17 -18 detailed the whore of Babylon; elaborating on chapter 16).
And 22:6-21 is the Epilogue. (For details see Study 1.)