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So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. Revelation 17:3



We learned that the great harlot represents the apostasy that came against the church during its early centuries. To see this great harlot, the angel that had one of the bowls of wrath, the everlasting gospel, carries John away into the wilderness.

We have seen a similar incident in Chapter 12 where the woman clothed with the sun fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God. In verse 6 it is said the woman was fed in the wilderness for 1260 days. Verse 14 tells us the woman was given two wings of a great eagle to fly into the wilderness to escape the presence of the serpent. In verse 16 we find the earth helping the woman and protecting the woman from the dragon—the serpent.

Some teachers of the Revelation take a holistic view of the church and interpret the woman going into the wilderness as a total apostasy of the church, essentially doing away with the church as built by Jesus. Their thought is that the woman going into the wilderness in chapter 12 becomes the great harlot seen in the opening of chapter 17. Jesus taught that the gates of hell cannot prevail against His church, so it is not possible that there could be a total apostasy that overwhelms the entire church causing it to become the great harlot. The fact is, the apostasy brings the great harlot into existence so that there are two churches: First, the church as built by Jesus, which is based in the atonement; and second, an apostate church which has fallen away from the gospel in favor of heresy and ritual.

The two churches are first spiritual entities, and it is possible that both entities can and could exist in the same physical place. For example, a congregation in a city could have a mixture of people; some that are truly saved and some that have adopted heresy and have actually fallen from the faith.

During this wilderness time the apostasy became prevalent to the point it finally obscured the church as Jesus built it from view. It did not cease to exist but it was difficult to see. Barnes describes this wilderness condition:


It means a desert place, a place where there are few or no inhabitants; a place, therefore, where one might be concealed and unknown—remote from the habitations and the observation of men. This would well represent the fact that the true church became for a time obscure and unknown—as if it had fled away from the habitations of men, and had retired to the solitude and loneliness of a desert. Yet even there (Revelation 12:14, 16) it would be mysteriously nourished, though seemingly driven out into wastes and solitudes, and having its abode among the rocks and sands of a desert.


Barnes also stresses that God prepared a place for His church in this wilderness condition:


A place where she might be safe, and might be kept alive. The meaning is, that during that time, the true church, though obscure and almost unknown, would be the object of the Divine protection and care—a beautiful representation of the church during the corruptions of the Papacy and the darkness of the middle ages.


The wilderness did not destroy God’s church; instead, it produced a spirit that gave birth to a false church.


The great harlot rides a beast.


Here is a distinct difference between the true church and the spirit of apostasy during this time. The true church was given two wings of a great eagle that helped to sustain her in the wilderness. These strong and powerful wings make it possible for her to flee from the errors being taught and to stay true to her head, the Lord Jesus Christ. The harlot, on the other hand, rides a scarlet colored beast.

This beast is not a nice animal. The word beast here means a dangerous animal. The spirit of apostasy is dangerous as it tears down truth, destroys morality, and diverts people’s allegiance from God to the men it uses to propagate heresy and control the minds and hearts of people in a false church. Notice that it is the great harlot that rides the beast. While the beast is a dangerous animal, it is driven and controlled by the great harlot, the spirit of apostasy. This beast is the first church form that emerged from the apostasy in the early church.


The beast is scarlet in color.


The word scarlet comes from a word meaning a berry, which is actually a cluster of eggs of a female insect, the kermes. These were used to make a red die. The kermes is a scale insect, meaning it secretes a waxy shell after it settles on a plant where it will feed. The eggs secreted by the female are sheltered beneath her body until they are hatched and become crawlers. Once hatched, the crawlers scatter over the plant until they find a place to feed. We see something about the nature of this dangerous beast in this color; it attaches itself to something living, which it will devour while reproducing itself with more devouring creatures of the same kind.

But where did the beast get its scarlet color? Notice in verse 4 that the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet. This beast, while dangerous in itself, is even more dangerous in the spiritual world because it is under the control of the great harlot. This is something of which we must be aware even in our time; the churches that have been spawned by the great harlot that exist in our time are under the control of this great harlot.

The great harlot was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls. While her true nature is harlotry, she makes herself appear to be royalty. The scarlet color is a crimson, the color of blood; and the purple is the color of royalty. These garments are her imitation of Christ. At the crucifixion, the soldiers stripped Jesus of His clothes and put a scarlet robe on Him according to Matthew 27:28, or a purple robe according to Mark 15:17.

In this wilderness of apostasy, the great harlot takes on a profession of being the bride of Christ, sharing in His divinity and spiritual royalty. Royalty implies the right to rule over the lives of the people that follow her. Even while clothed in the emblems of the blood of Christ and His divinity, she can’t help adorning herself with the emblems of worldly prosperity and self-glorification. Matthew Henry wrote of this: “Here were all the allurements of worldly honour and riches, pomp and pride, suited to sensual and worldly minds.”

She holds in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. The hand is the instrument of work for the human body, and this cup is filled with the heresy and ritual she uses to replace the Word of God and the working of the Holy Spirit in the false church.

As bad is apostasy is in producing the scarlet colored beast, the great harlot produces a work in the name of religion that compounds the errors of apostasy.

Verse 5, “And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” The official name of the great harlot is Mystery. This name comes from the Greek word meaning to shut the mouth. Its use here indicates a secret or mystery that exists by silence imposed by initiation into religious rites. The mystery is that apostasy substitutes forms of church membership for salvation through the atonement in Christ.

She has three character traits: She is Babylon the Great; she is the mother of harlots; and she is the mother of the abominations of the earth.

The trait of Babylon is drawn from the tower of Babel issue of Genesis chapter 11 where God confounded the languages of the world. You will recall that the leaders of the people were attempting to unite them together in a false religion that claimed to make its own way to heaven without God. God confounded the languages to keep people from understanding each other, which then made it impossible for them to unite. This trait of apostasy is to confound spiritual language through diversity of doctrines that oppose each other and confuse people as to what the truth is. This apostasy is Great, or so large, that it will exist throughout the history of the church, as we can see in our own time.

Apostasy is the mother of harlots. As apostasy is a harlot, she has no real husband and can only produce illegitimate children. As the great harlot, she sets the example for her daughters, or the churches she spawns, that they need no husband to reproduce. All churches that have been born into existence from her are harlots and cannot claim a relationship with Christ because Christ has only one wife, His church, the church He builds through the atonement. People that are taken in by forms of church membership are led to believe they are united to Christ because of those memberships; consequently, they are illegitimate because they have not been born again and added to the true body of Christ.

And apostasy is the mother of the abominations of the earth. The word abominations here refers to idols. Apostasy gives rise to false ideas of God, of Christ, and everything that is truly sacred. Apostasy enthrones those false ideas in the churches it spawns. Ultimately, those false churches take the place of Jesus in the worship and spiritual lives of people taken in by the filthiness of the great harlot’s fornication.

Finally, we find that the great harlot of apostasy is responsible for the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus. This is true in the literal sense because the false churches spawned by apostasy actually did persecute and put Christian people to death. We have already mentioned in earlier lessons persecutions carried out by the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches. Even today, this persecution continues; sometimes in instances of literal persecution and killing, but more commonly with infighting, separation, and denouncing people that endeavor to be true to Jesus, the head of the true church that differ from the teachings and practices of harlot churches.

Chapter 17 is a picture of the history of apostasy and the churches it brings into existence to the end of time. We have seen times of revival and God’s moving in the church world in our previous studies. The horror pictured here does not do away with God’s working in the body of Christ in history. Remember, what is pictured here is the wilderness and the religious activity that takes place there. It is not nice. Nevertheless, God has a place prepared for the woman clothed with the sun even in this wilderness.