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Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” Revelation 17:1–2



Notice who brings this part of the vision to the Apostle John. The messenger is one of the angels that poured out a vial of God’s wrath. What happens in this vision is not necessarily a continuation of the bowls of wrath; it is more an exposure of historic working of the spirits in history that have made the pouring out of the bowls of wrath necessary. The messages of the bowls of wrath were directed at spiritual conditions. In them we saw how the everlasting gospel exposed those conditions revealing how people use religion to separate themselves from the love of God.

In the 17th chapter of Revelation we see the historical progression that gave birth to those spiritual conditions. In this chapter there are three particular symbolic representations:

1. The harlot mentioned in verse 1;

2. A scarlet beast introduced in verse 3; and

3. 10 horns also mentioned in verse 3 and developed in verse 12.

While chapter 17 deals again with historical facts in church history it introduces a thread that continues through the remainder of the Book of Revelation.

1. Chapter 18 begins, After these things I saw . . .

2. Chapter 19 begins, After these things I heard . . .

3. Chapter 20 begins, Then I saw . . .

4. Chapter 21 begins, Now I saw . . .

5. And chapter 22 begins, And he showed me . . .

The language indicates a continuity of thought that runs through the last six chapters of the Revelation.

The message of chapter 17 is very direct, very explicit, and very condemning of the harlot, the scarlet beast, and the 10 horns. These are symbols that graphically depict very negative aspects in the history of the church. These characters appeared under different symbols in our study of chapters 12 and 13 where we viewed the early apostasy in the church, the rise of Roman Catholicism, and the Protestant Reformation in general terms. In this chapter, we delve into more specifics about these movements in church history. The symbolism is graphic and distasteful, which is an indication of why the wrath of God has been poured out on them.

As we study these symbols, much will be said that is critical of certain churches and movements, but those things will be historical facts. There is no intention to attack individuals, although some people might be offended by these negative statements. While these facts concern apostasy and false religions, it must be recognized that there are people involved in these churches today that are genuinely saved people that are endeavoring to live for God. Even though God is not in such churches and religious environments, people can get a real experience with God because of the Word and the Spirit of God. The problem for them is that apostasy and false teaching can undermine their experiences with God. That is why there is a Come Out message in chapter 18.

The angel reveals the judgment of God on this great harlot. The word great means large, so it can mean large in size or large in influence. The context leans more to the thought that this harlot has extensive influence. Matthew Henry says of this great harlot:


This is a name of great infamy. A whore [in this passage] is one that is married, and has been false to her husband’s bed, has forsaken the guide of her youth, and broken the covenant of God. She had been a prostitute to the kings of the earth, whom she had intoxicated with the wine of her fornication.


This is another picture of apostasy in the early church. The second seal exposed this in the history of the church. There we saw a red horse that took peace from the earth because he had a great sword and used it to kill people. The second trumpet also exposed this apostasy. There we saw something like a great mountain burning with fire thrown into the sea.

At first glance, the great harlot is seen sitting on many waters. We have seen in the Revelation that waters symbolize people with a relationship with God. The kings of the earth and the inhabitants of the earth are not God’s people but they are people that became associated with the early church. The church in the first and second centuries was effective in spreading the gospel in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. There were many real conversions from paganism to the faith. But, as time passed and, as true in any revival movement, by the third generation the zeal begins to cool and organization begins to take over, killing the movement of God’s Spirit, and deteriorating the quality of people’s spiritual life. Church becomes routine.

This great harlot is seen in about the third century A.D. By this time, there were many pagans that had been brought into the church and self-seeking ministers taking over influential churches. Beginning in this time and because of the general low spiritual condition of most of the people, the great harlot begins to feed people on the wine of her fornication rather than the word of God. The wine is perverted and false doctrine that, at first appeared to make sense and explain many things, but contained a religious spirit that deluded people as to the truth and made them incapable of sober judgment.

False and incorrect doctrine is the wine of her fornication. There are four critical areas of doctrine that religious spirits attack to undermine people’s faith and the effectiveness of the church. Those doctrinal areas are: God, the doctrine of theology; Sin, the doctrine of hamartiology; Salvation, the doctrine of soteriology; and the church, the doctrine of ecclesiology.

Theology, the doctrine of God, was the first doctrine undermined by heresy. The very first inkling of error that attacked the church was Gnosticism. We won’t go into depth on Gnosticism as it battled the church, but the Apostle John had to speak out against it towards the end of his life. In 1 John 4:2–3 John wrote:


By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.


Gnosticism involves much more than just what John speaks on; the issue involved here was the idea that the flesh itself is evil. If the flesh is evil Jesus could not have come in the flesh because God cannot inhabit evil. In the early centuries of the church there were various men that attacked the nature of Jesus, making Him something less or more than the incarnation as revealed in the New Testament. Logically, as these arguments continued, the nature of the Trinity was questioned. In time, the leaders of the church dealt with these errors laying down what they believed to be the true and biblical definitions of Jesus and the Trinity in the great Ecumenical Creeds.

While the Church Fathers dealt with these teachings, the issue of sin began to be altered. The New Testament church knew what sin was and how sin was dealt with in the atonement. But as the nature of God and Jesus was being confused, the nature of sin took on a new and unbiblical meaning in the doctrine of original sin. Some denied any contamination of sin in humans arising from the fall of Adam; others pushed the idea of immanent and total sin in the human condition that was irreversible. There seemed to be no middle ground where the deliverance from sin was possible. When the visible church adopted the position of irreversible sin, the meaning of salvation was changed.

Salvation, instead of the new birth, baptism and confirmation became the proscribed means by which people were proclaimed to be saved. Baptism was said to offset original sin. Even newborn babies had to be baptized because it was said they would go to hell if they were not. Confirmation is a ritual where people are instructed in church dogma and are given church membership upon completion of the course. The early church did have a practice of instructing new converts in the faith. Before they completed the instruction and showed that they were truly converted from paganism, they attended the preaching and worship services but were dismissed just before taking the Lords’ Supper. This dismissing of the new converts was called the missa and the practice eventually became known as the mass. The apostasy eventually changed this practice to what became the mass, a church ritual involving the Lord’s Supper that is believed to confer grace and aid a person’s salvation.

The apostasy also altered the concept of the church. Instead of congregations across the world being independent and self-sustaining, churches in larger metropolitan areas took precedence over churches in smaller cities. The office of bishop was elevated from the local pastor of a church to an executive level that was over several cities or larger political jurisdictions. Eventually the Bishop of Rome became recognized as the Vicar of the Son of God and Supreme Pontiff over the entire Christian church.

Why is this apostasy called the Great Harlot? It is a harlot because it deemed itself to be the true church. The New Testament presents the church as the wife of Christ in Ephesians 5:22–26,


Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.


Matthew Henry discusses the title of the Great Harlot (whore, KJV).


This is a name of great infamy. A whore [in this passage] is one that is married, and has been false to her husband’s bed, has forsaken the guide of her youth, and broken the covenant of God. She had been a prostitute to the kings of the earth, whom she had intoxicated with the wine of her fornication.


Through apostasy, the greater part of the visible church fell away from the key theology based in the Person of God and His work of atonement in Christ—“forsaken the guide of her youth,” as Mr. Henry put it. She kept the name as if she was married to Christ but lowered her standards to embrace the kings of the earth and the inhabitants of the earth. Conformity to teaching and obedience to the clergy replaced real repentance from sin and the new birth so that church membership was the standard and not holiness.

Barnes gives us a closing thought on the Great Harlot.


With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication. Spiritual adultery. The meaning is, that Papal Rome, unfaithful to God, and idolatrous and corrupt, had seduced the rulers of the earth, and led them into the same kind of unfaithfulness, idolatry, and corruption. How true this is in history need not be stated. All the princes and kings of Europe in the dark ages and for many centuries were, and not a few of them are now, entirely under the influence of Papal Rome.


Like the great mountain that was cast into the sea under the sounding of the second trumpet, the angel that had a bowl of God’s wrath now takes John out to the wilderness to see what the Great Harlot does.