In Revelation 17, we read about “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” called a “great harlot.” What is it, who is it, and is there a warning message for us today?



Who or what is this mystery that is written in all capital letters in many English Bibles? 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 an end-time entity that is also referred to elsewhere in the book of Revelation as “great Babylon” (16:19) and “Babylon the great” (18:2).

This article will explore the following about MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, not of private interpretation

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.

What does a harlot, or a whore, symbolize in the Bible?

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 explained in verse 15 to be “peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.”

Four times in chapter 17 this Babylon is called a harlot (verses 1, 5, 15, 16). Six times she is called a “woman” (verses 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 18).

What is the symbolism of a “harlot” in the Bible?

In the Bible, a harlot or whore is often used symbolically to illustrate religious unfaithfulness to the true God. We see many examples of God using this imagery in the Old Testament:

  • In Exodus 34:15-16 God warned Israel not to “play the harlot” by worshipping and sacrificing to false gods.
  • In Judges 2:17 God commented on how the people “played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them” during the period of the judges.
  • In 1 Chronicles 5:25 we read that specific tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel were “unfaithful to the God of their fathers, and played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land.” This led to their being sent into captivity to Assyria (verse 26).
  • In Hosea 1:2 God revealed to the prophet Hosea that “the land [of Israel] had committed great harlotry by departing from the LORD.” (See also Hosea 2:4-5.)
  • Later, in Jeremiah 3:8-9, God said that Judah followed the lead of the northern kingdom of Israel and also “did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. So it came to pass, through her casual harlotry, that she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees.” God considered their worship of carved stone images and trees (see Jeremiah 10:1-5) to be national adultery.

The above scriptures make very clear the Bible’s definition of spiritual harlotry: adopting the false worship practices of pagan religions.

However, in Revelation 17 the harlot is not identified with Israel—but with Babylon. This shows that Revelation 17 is talking about a gentile religious entity. In the Bible, Babylon is a symbol of defiance against God—going all the way back to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

The symbolism of a whore in Revelation thus represents a sinful and fallen religious system—which is 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.

To learn more about the significance of the whore of Babylon in prophecy, read “Revelation 17: Who Is the Scarlet Woman?

The faithful Church is also symbolized by a woman

To identify the great whore of Babylon in Revelation 17, we have to explore her opposite. Throughout the New Testament, God’s faithful Church is pictured by a contrasting image—a chaste, pure female virgin.

In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul calls the Church at Corinth a “chaste virgin” that is “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 [meaning chosen] 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).

The Bible uses a faithful, chaste woman to picture God’s Church and a whore to picture disobedience to God, or a false church.These scriptural examples portray the faithful Church of God (founded by Jesus Christ) as a chaste woman. Just as a chaste woman is pure and practices fidelity to God and her future husband, the true Church remains doctrinally pure and is faithful to God the Father and Jesus Christ.

In summary, the Bible uses a faithful, chaste woman to picture God’s Church and a whore to picture disobedience to God, or a false church.

Who is Mystery Babylon?

Now that we understand that the whore of Revelation 17 represents a false church, let’s examine what else Revelation 17 tells us about her.

She has global influence. We have already seen that she “sits on many waters” (verse 1), representing her influence over many people around the world. Revelation 17:2 continues: “With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”

So this religious entity not only influences ordinary people, but has a history of influencing political leaders. The statement that people have been made “drunk” by her is a reference to the spiritual confusion she causes by her false teachings and practices.

She has a history of persecution. 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 against the saints of Jesus Christ.

She “rides” a powerful political system. 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 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.

Considering all the biblical clues, many students of history and Bible prophecy have concluded the woman of Revelation 17 represents the Roman Catholic Church, which led the Holy Roman Empire to bring great persecution and martyrdom on Christians who held to the teachings of Jesus and His apostles.

Christians who continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath and the festivals of God, such as Passover, were seen to be in opposition to the changes made by the established church. This church labeled faithful Christians heretics because they refused to come under its authority and practice its teachings, such as observing pagan celebrations and customs like Sunday, Easter and Christmas, which it adopted.

Centered in a city with global influence. 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. It carries the name of Rome in its own name, teaches that Rome is the leading city over all of Christendom, and continues to be headquartered from that city today. (Vatican City, located in Rome, is technically the world’s smallest sovereign nation.)

In contrast, the faithful woman in Revelation 12 did not reign over any kings on the earth, and it began in Jerusalem.

For further study of this false church, see the articles “What Is Babylon?” and “Revelation 17: Who Is the Scarlet Woman?

Mother of harlots

In Revelation 17:5 this religious system is called: “THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS.” This means that this large church has given birth to other smaller false churches. The fact that they also are called “harlots” means that they also are unfaithful to the teachings of God in the Bible. Once we have 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 teach many of the false doctrines and practices that originated with her centuries ago (Revelation 17:5).

There have been two major schisms from the Roman Catholic Church in history. First was the “Great Schism” of 1054, when the Eastern churches broke from Rome to become the Eastern Orthodox churches. Second was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which led to the creation of multiple new denominations throughout Europe and the world.

Though hundreds of denominations of Christianity exist today, most of them trace their roots back to Rome through either the Great Schism or the Protestant Reformation.

Nearly all of them continue to teach and practice many of the false doctrines that originated from the Roman Church (such as observing Sunday as the day of worship, teaching that God is a trinity and celebrating holidays based on paganism).

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 and teaching people to worship God in ways He never intended to be worshipped and to believe doctrines Jesus Christ never taught.

The fall of Babylon the great

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, 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 teachings?

For further study on Babylon, see the article “What Is Babylon?

About the Author

Jim Haeffele

Jim Haeffele

Jim Haeffele is a church pastor in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He currently pastors congregations in Fort Myers, Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida. He has served in the ministry of the Church of God for over 46 years. During those years he and his wife, Lois, have served congregations from Portland, Oregon, where he grew up, to Utah, Ohio, North Carolina, and now Florida.

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