One of the most intriguing metaphors in the Bible is that of “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT.” What is it, who is it, and is there a warning message for us today?
The phrase “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” appears only once in the Bible. It is in Revelation 17:5: “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”
Who or what is this mystery that is written in all capital letters in many English Bibles in order to emphasize that this was a formal title or inscription? Does God’s Word reveal the answer?
The Greek word mysterion denotes “a divine mystery or allegory that is now revealed” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, p. 556). The passage in Revelation 17 is thus a revealing of the mystery about this end-time entity that is also referred to in the book of Revelation as “great Babylon” (16:19) and “Babylon the great” (18:2).
A mistake that some have made is to read their own interpretation into the Scriptures, particularly when it comes to prophecy. The apostle Peter said, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). This scripture makes a very important point; we must let the Bible explain itself and its symbols.
We must also remember the beginning verse of the book of Revelation, which states, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (1:1). This makes it plain that this is not John’s personal writing or opinion, but it is the revelation of Jesus Christ.
A fallen woman
Christ’s explanation of Babylon the great begins in Revelation 17:1: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters.” This “great harlot” is about to receive her judgment from Jesus Christ for her many sins. She is also called “THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS” (verse 5), meaning that other harlots have come from her. The “waters” that the harlot sits on (mentioned in verse 1) are revealed in verse 15 to be “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.”
A harlot or prostitute was used symbolically in the Bible to illustrate unfaithfulness to the Lord. For example, the people of Israel left the true worship of God to follow the false gods and religions of the peoples around them (Hosea 1:2, 6; 2:4-5; Jeremiah 3:8-10). However, by identifying this harlot with Babylon, Revelation shows that this time God is talking about gentiles, not Israel.
The symbolism of a “harlot” in Revelation thus represents a sinful and fallen woman in the eyes of Jesus Christ. She is portrayed as unfaithful to God and to His Word. This woman is in contrast to the woman described in Revelation 12, who is described as being faithful to God.
A faithful woman
In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul calls the Church at Corinth a “chaste virgin” that he has “betrothed to Christ.” In this verse Paul refers to the Church of God at Corinth as a pure and righteous woman who will become the bride of Christ.
The apostle John used a similar description in 2 John 1:1, where he used the term “elect [“chosen,” margin] lady” in reference to the Church. The term is used again in verse 5. In verse 13, the phrase “your elect sister” likely refers to a neighboring congregation. In these three verses John symbolically calls the Church of God an “elect” woman.
In Revelation 12:13-14 we see a righteous “woman” persecuted by Satan, but taken into a wilderness for protection at the time of the end. In verse 17 Satan goes to “make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” This woman is the Church that Jesus Christ built (Matthew 16:18).
All three of these scriptural examples picture as a woman the Church that Jesus began.
We see that the Bible uses a faithful woman to picture God’s Church and an immoral woman to picture disobedience to God, or a false church.In summary, we see that the Bible uses a faithful woman to picture God’s Church and an immoral woman to picture disobedience to God, or a false church.
Mystery Babylon revealed
Now that we understand that the harlot of Revelation 17 represents a false church, let’s note what she does. Revelation 17:6 says, “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” This describes religious persecution directed toward the saints of Jesus Christ.
The next verse says, “I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her.” This verse reveals that this woman rides on a political beast. This political beast is described in verses 8-17. It is also spoken of in Revelation 13:3-8 and Daniel 7:7-8, 19-25. This beast is the regenerated Roman Empire through its numerous revivals down through the ages that will end at the second coming of Jesus Christ. For further study of this political power, see “Who Is the Beast?”
Daniel 7:8 uses different symbolism to represent this false church. Daniel writes about a “little horn” that accompanies the fourth empire (the Roman Empire) described in Daniel’s vision. This “little horn” would “speak pompous words against the Most High, … [and] persecute the saints of the Most High” (verse 25). (More details about the connections between the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation are covered in our article “Daniel 7: Four Beasts and a Little Horn.”)
In Revelation 17 we are given the location where Babylon the great is centered. “And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (verse 18, emphasis added). When John wrote this at the end of the first century, there was only one city on earth that reigned over the kings of the earth—and that was Rome. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is inseparably connected with that great city of Rome. In contrast, the faithful woman in Revelation 12 did not reign over any kings on the earth, and it began in Jerusalem.
Mother of harlots
Jesus Christ has revealed to John and to those who believe His word who and what “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” is. Once Christ has identified this false church, it is not difficult to identify her daughters.
She is the mother of all those churches that have separated from her, but who continue to follow many of the false doctrines and practices that originated with her centuries ago (Revelation 17:5).
Abominations of the earth
“MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” is not only called the “MOTHER OF HARLOTS.” The same verse also calls her the mother of “the abominations of the earth.” The previous verse says the woman has “in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication” (verse 4). Why does Jesus Christ use such strong language against this church?
The answer can be found in what Jesus said to the Pharisees, “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). This woman, “highly esteemed” in the eyes of many in this world, has become an “abomination in the sight of God” for perverting the truth of God.
Christ’s judgment on the woman
Jesus Christ tells John through His angel, “I will show you the judgment of the great harlot” (Revelation 17:1). The final judgment is revealed in the next chapter, which says, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit” (Revelation 18:2).
Interestingly, God inspired the prophet Isaiah to use similar language to describe the fall of the Babylonian Empire (Isaiah 21:9; 47:9). This civil government, which also forced people to practice false religious worship (Daniel 3:1-6), was a forerunner or type of the false religious power also called Babylon in Revelation 17-18.
When God’s judgment on Babylon the great—the powerful, false church—occurs during the end times, it will be swift. As the scriptures note, it will take place “in one day” (Revelation 18:8) and “in one hour” (verses 10, 17, 19) of that day. “Thus with violence the great city Babylon shall be thrown down, and shall not be found anymore” (verse 21). It will be God’s vengeance for all His saints who were martyred by her over the centuries (verses 20, 24).
Judgment with a warning
Jesus Christ gives us all a warning in His judgment against this woman and the ungodly society that will exist at the time of the end. John writes, “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues’” (verse 4). This warning includes two important lessons for us.
First, we are to completely come out of all doctrines and practices that are not from God’s Word—the Bible. Christians must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This means seeking to follow the doctrines and teachings of the faithful woman of Revelation 12.
Second, it should go without saying that Christians are not to return to the false doctrines and teachings of this false woman after they have come out of her. Christians have made this mistake of compromising and returning to false doctrines in the past, and the Bible indicates that some will make this mistake again in the future (Revelation 2-3). Christians cannot worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) by mixing in or returning to false doctrines.
Jesus Christ has revealed to the reader the mystery of who “BABYLON THE GREAT” is. She is no longer a mystery. Will you heed your Savior’s instruction to come out of her so you don’t receive the punishment destined to come upon her and all who follow her misguided teaching?
For further study on Babylon, see the article “What is Babylon?”