Between Text & Sermon: Revelation 17:1-14

Article excerpt

MUCH OF REVELATION IS "LITERALLY SYMBOLIC." The question is what the symbolism means and meant, from literary, political, and religious standpoints. Meaningful interpretation of Rev 17 today hinges upon grasping a sense of what it meant for its original authences in late first-century Asia Minor. As these apocalyptic messages were read among the churches, how did their original authences understand the imagery of the woman who rides on the beast, the beast with seven heads and ten horns, and the seven kings and then the eighth? How might they have understood themselves called to receive the text's message then, and how might we best understand this text today?

The vision is described in the first six verses, and the interpretation follows. The overall message is clear: God wins! More specifically, the beast and its rider will be judged; their reign even now is ending, and will meet its doom; those who yield authority to the beast and make war against the Lamb will themselves be finally conquered by the Lamb (Rev 17:1,8, 13-14). This is a message of hope, calling for faithfulness to God in the face of opposing powers in every generation and situation.

The history of interpretation is fascinating along these lines. The great city on seven hills refers literally to Rome (17:9), and the writer also states that "[t]he woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth" (17:18). She is drunk with the blood of the saints and the witnesses to Jesus (17:6), and the worst of moral images - whoredom, adultery, murder - are used to refer to her power and to those who conduct business with her (17:4-6). By contrast, the New Jerusalem is presented as the spodess bride of Christ ( 19:7-8; 21:2), likewise adorned with jewels, but she is conversely presented in righteous ways as the pure and exemplary model of faithfulness.

Resistance to imperial Rome's domination across the Mediterranean world in the late first century CE. would find echoes among later interpretations of the city with seven hills. Echoes of Rome on the Tiber abounded among German and Swiss Protestants of the sixteenth century as they struggled against the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church, and among the allies of the Second World War in defiance of Mussolini. Literally and historically, however, the references to empire in Revelation refer pointedly to the Roman Empire, flexing its muscle throughout the regions in which the early Christian movement was expanding. That being the case, the seven heads and the ten horns refer to nations and leaders in the Mediterranean world that had acquiesced to Rome's rule, and are not references to contemporary institutions or events.

The most likely meaning of the seven kings, and then the eighth, is a reference to the Roman administrations beginning with Augustus and ending with Domitian. Divine honors in Rome began with Augustus (31 B.C.E.-14 CE.), and Nero (54-68 CE.) persecuted Christians in Rome. As Domitian (81-96 CE.) is the eighth major ruler since Augustus, and as he both emphasized imperial honors and persecuted Christians, he fits the bill well (cf. …