I want to suggest that the pandemic may serve to shock us out of our unrecognized reliance on luxury and ease. As Canadians, we enjoy unprecedented wealth when compared with most of the world and especially when compared with earlier periods of history.
We need to hear the words that Jesus spoke to the Laodiceans in Revelation. He told them: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17).
Discerning the harlot
The Laodiceans believed that they had no need of anything. In reality, they were spiritually destitute and did not realize it. They lived in the great city under the influence of the harlot. So Jesus shocked them out of their uncritical reliance on wealth in Revelation 3.
They claimed to be rich, but they did not know, Jesus claims, that they were poor and destitute (Rev 3:17). He did not talk to Laodicea only. Jesus addressed each of the seven churches by naming particular sins of a church and also offering various rewards for faithfulness.
These sins and rewards appear frequently throughout the rest of Revelation to help the seven churches and later readers to overcome sin, endure until the end, and receive the reward of a faithful testimony to Jesus.
In chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation, John sees two related visions that emphasize the moral impoverishment of those who rely on wealth and sensuality for their happiness. The Laodiceans and any Christians who likewise rely on themselves and their wealth need to hear what heaven says: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4).
This is why it makes sense to see Revelation 17 and 18 as particularly confronting a problem in Laodicea and more generally pointing to a generic problem that the other six churches and any other church must confront.
The Harlot riding the scarlet beast in Revelation 17 and the great city Babylon whom she symbolizes portray the sin particular to Laodicea (trust in wealth and luxury). These two chapters portray a story of the harlot, her wealth, her sensuality, and her fall. It aims to open our eyes to allow us how to discern whether or not we have pitched our tent in Babylon (17:18).
It is both a wakeup call and a test. The Laodiceans did not know how poor they truly were because they had wealth to rely on. Yet they needed to act. The central verse in these chapters commands believers to exit Babylon, that is, the harlot’s system of trading, luxury, and sensuality.
Heaven commands, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4).
So they must. If only they might discern how deeply they have participated in the harlot’s world.
Discerning the city
When reading the book of Revelation, the Laodiceans would have remembered Jesus’ words to them (Rev 3:17). The message of Revelation 17 and 18 would have been clear. Jesus told them that they were somehow blind to their poverty, even though they participated in the luxurious and sensuous world of Rome.
They had to confront their participation in harlot, the beast, babylon, and all that these symbols represent. They would see the kings, merchants, and mariners weeping over the harlot’s fall. Then they would have needed to answer the question: will I mourn the loss of wealth, prosperity, and ease too? Or will I rejoice with heaven over the harlot’s fall (Rev 19:1–4)?
Let’s take a few minutes to unpack how this works in Revelation 17 and 18. In the first place, Revelation explicitly defines the symbolism in these chapters.
An angel identifies the seven heads of the beast that the woman rides as Rome (the city on seven hills) in Revelation 17:9. Then an angel defines the harlot as the great city in 17:18 who has power over the kings of the earth (i.e., Rome which takes the symbolic name of Babylon in Revelation 18).
In Revelation, cities carry symbolic meaning. Earlier, John speaks of the great city (Jerusalem) which “symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt” (Rev 11:8). In Revelation 17, the harlot symbolizes the great city (Rev 17:18) which Revelation 18 identifies as Babylon.
Yet Babylon too symbolizes something beyond the historical city. The harlot sits on many waters which symbolize the nations (Rev 17:15). And she also rides a beast with seven heads which symbolize both seven hills and seven kings (Rev 17:9, 10). She entices the nations to trade, to rely on luxuries, and to enjoy sensuality with her.
Hence, Babylon due to the association with great rule and seven hills means Rome and her empire. Further, Revelation 18 describes Babylon as a place in which kings, merchants, and sailors come and go and trade.
Historical Babylon could not have had merchants and mariners sailing into its bays since it exists inland (though, some trading along the Euphrates likely occurred). Historical Babylon also did not have “dominion over the kings of the earth” either (Rev 17:18).
So the Roman Empire here must be the referent. The city on seven hills comment in Revelation 17:9 in any case clinches the matter. With that worked out, let’s return to the text.
Discerning our heart
In chapter 18, two important observations clarify the point of the narrative.* First, the verb tenses move from past, present, and future throughout. Second, the kings, merchants, and mariners all mourn the loss of the harlot—the great city and all it represents.
The first observation suggests that the mourning for the loss of the city can occur at any time under any system that symbolically could be described as the harlot, the great city. The second observation drives a nail right into our hearts.
The portrayal of all sorts of people mourning over the harlot contrasts sharply with the celebration in heaven (19:1–4). It forces us to ask the question: Will we mourn like the mariners? Will we lament the loss of our wealth? Have we truly heard Jesus?
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17).
Have we lived so long in the luxury of North American society that we have fallen prey to the harlot and her city? In North America, we have experienced unprecedented wealth and comfort when we compare ourselves with the rest of the world and across time. And it is entirely possible that this life of relative luxury has caused us to rely on our wealth, safety, and leisure.
If so, we need to come out of the city, or else we will share in her sins or perhaps quite literally “share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4).
I cannot pretend to know the meaning of every event that happens in this world. I do know that no event goes to waste. Everything aims to grow us into the Image of God, Christ. So whether the pandemic spells judgment against us or not, we must at least ask: will we mourn for the harlot (Rev 18) or will we celebrate her fall with heaven (Rev 19:1–4)?
The answer to that question will tell us everything that we need to know.
*Craig Koester highlights these two matters in his little book on Revelation. I basically follow his interpretation of these chapters in the above throughout.