Our world’s economy, our health, our peace with other nations are much more fragile than we imagine and could unravel very quickly, preparing the way for a world leader who offers peace and prosperity in a time of international crisis. And that is what we are going to look at in Revelation 17.
At the end of this chapter, the angel turns John’s attention back to the woman—the harlot. The angel called her “the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18). This undoubtedly is a reference to Babylon, the only city specifically mentioned in the chapter (Revelation 17:5). The spirit of Babylon is a system of apostate religion that has been with us since the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), reigning over the leaders and kingdoms of the world.
Religion has always guided the decisions of political leaders.
- The Baal worship of Jezebel corrupted King Ahab and drove him away from the worship of Yahweh.
- The legalism of the Pharisees twisted the truth of Judaism and led to the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.
- The political lust of the popes during the Middle Ages deceived the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.
- The puritanism of the Pilgrims helped establish a colony in America and informed the laws ruling that and subsequent colonies.
- The spirit of Enlightenment and deism guided much of the thinking of America’s leading founders.
- The godlessness of atheism, the religion of nihilism, cast Communist countries into darkness and death.
The revelation John received in chapter 17 was of the age-old apostate religious system and its relation to political power during the seven-year tribulation. In the first half of the Tribulation—the first three and a half years—this religious system is ecumenical, a worldwide belief that stands above and independent of government, aggressively hostile to Christ and His followers. In the second half of the Tribulation—the last three and a half years—the Antichrist will terminate this religious system, known as the harlot of Babylon, and will demand universal worship of himself.
Practically, I believe there is a challenge for all of us to watch our beliefs carefully. False religions abound today. John told believers in his first epistle that we know we are living in the last days because “many Antichrists have appeared” down through the centuries (1 John 2:18). Some of these religions look like Christianity—they talk about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection. But they don’t use those words in the same way the Bible does.
That’s why John warned: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
So let’s do that—let’s “test the spirits.” A foolproof test of whether any religious doctrine is true or false is to measure it against the Bible’s yardstick. Specifically, here are three questions to help you “test the spirits” and evaluate any religion:
1. What does it teach about Jesus? (1 John 4:2-3)
Many religions like Islam, Mormonism, and other false religions profess belief in Jesus Christ, but when you pin them down, they do not believe that He is the unique son of God who came from heaven, took on human form, died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, rose from the dead, and is coming back again.
2. What does it believe about salvation? (Galatians 1:8)
Another way to test the spirits—to see if a religion is true or not—is ask this simple question: “What must I do to go to heaven when I die?” If the answer you are given is anything other than—“You must confess your sins and trust that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the debt of your sins and was raised from the dead to give you eternal life”— then run away, that church is counterfeit or apostate.
3. What results does it produce? (2 Timothy 3:5)
But there is another kind of counterfeit religion that doesn’t necessarily rob people of heaven. It robs Christians of the abundant life Jesus came to give us (John 10:10). In 2 Timothy 3:5 Paul warned against “holding to a form of godliness” but denying its power.
One of my concerns about a church like ours that has a history of standing firm on doctrinal orthodoxy is that we substitute biblical information for spiritual transformation. We come to Sunday School or the worship service, fill our heads with knowledge, but never experience any change in our life. We are able to identify the harlot of Revelation 17; we understand the role of Israel of biblical prophecy; and we proclaim our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. And yet, we still cannot forgive the person who has wronged us; we become enslaved by greed; we are addicted to the things of the flesh; and we can go days or weeks without ever thinking about or talking to God.
If we are not careful, we will develop a faith that is a hollow, cheap, and counterfeit. Again, in the words of Paul, we demonstrate a form of godliness—the outward trappings of true faith—but inwardly we are just as dead as the harlot of Babylon because we deny the power of genuine faith.
Revelation 17 is not only a reminder of the role false religion will play in the end times, but a warning to avoid any false religious system that denies the person of Christ, the provision of God for salvation, and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.