In the end, the ungodly dominant world system will fall. Those who idolatrously participate in and profit from its power, sex, and money will hopelessly mourn its fall and their loss, but God mercifully warns his people to leave this “Babylon” before his judgment falls on her. Come out of her and rejoice in the Lord!
Introduction – You’ve heard these questions before: “If there is a good God, why do bad things happen? Where did greed, injustice, and violence come from? Why can’t we all just get along? Will there be a final reckoning, a Judgment Day?” Even atheists, agnostics, and others who don’t believe that the world is “fallen” from an original state of goodness are unhappy with the way the world is. You might think bad things just happen, that bad people just do bad things, and that’s just the way it is. That it has always been this way, and it will probably always be this way. But deep down, even you don’t like it. Everyone has a sense that the way the world functions is not the way it should be.
Christians believe that God the Creator is all-powerful and all-good, but we also know there is something wrong with the world. Evil is real, and appears to be alive, well, and ever-present. If we’re honest, it often seems God’s enemies have successfully hijacked God’s world by seizing authority and control almost everywhere. Is this the way the world is always going to be?
I. Starting at the End of the Fall
A. Babylon’s identity (17:1-6, 18; 18:10, 16, 18)
Remember that Revelation is best understood as a “picture” book, not a “puzzle” book. It gives us a picture in apocalyptic imagery of The City of Man: an ungodly city symbolizing the powerful world system. The other image of Babylon is the Great Prostitute: an ungodly city personified, symbolizing the seductive world system.
I used to read the blog postings of Michael Spencer, aka The Internet Monk. Before he died a few years ago, he ministered as a Christian high school teacher, chapel director, and youth pastor. He did all this in Kentucky, in the mountain Appalachian subculture. His community for some time has been plagued by poverty and many of the often accompanying society ills: hopelessness, lack of educational and vocation options, and a general malaise that can set in like a fog clouding everything. Choosing to live a simple lifestyle alongside the poor in his community, he testified to a change in his perspective regarding the dominant American culture. When the stock market crashed back in 2008 launching the Great Recession, some of the regular commenters on his blog asked him if the Bible had anything to say about America’s financial crisis. I’ll never forget his answer. Without offering any commentary whatsoever, he posted the full text of Revelation 18! While many of his readers got a good laugh because they thought he was just being creatively snarky, those who have a biblically-informed view of history understood this is precisely how Revelation is supposed to be used. Revelation 18 was such a spot-on commentary on America’s financial crisis because our country (and many of us Christians who live here) has been behaving and believing like Babylon, the Powerful and Luxurious Prostitute. Sometimes it takes a view from the outside to see it. Sometimes it takes humility to listen to the sirens calling us wake up.
B. Babylon is judged, fallen, and mourned (vv. 1-19)
The Big Three idols of the world are Power, Sex, and Money. An idol is something that is a good thing created by God, but that the world corrupts by worshiping it. Think of how each of the Big Three captures the hearts of people and are built into the ungodly world systems. Friedrich Nietzsche thought Power makes the world go around because he understood the “will to dominate” as the fundamental driving force in a person. Sigmund Freud thought Sex is fundamental. Karl Marx thought it is Money. The Bible says they all had legitimate insights into the nature of “Babylon,” but none of them understood Babylon’s religious nature. Babylon is all about idolatry. The Big Three idols all support each other in an ungodly dominant world system, and since they are idols people participate in them and use them with religious fervor. God judges Babylon because she supports counterfeit gods. Babylon falls because idolatry cannot defiantly stand forever on the foundation of God’s good world. People mourn Babylon because when the party is over, their party is over!
C. God’s people rejoice (vv. 20-24)
The glorious angel announces the fall of every Babylon throughout history, and the final Babylon standing at the end of history. This is good news! But only for God’s people. Every saint who ever suffered temptation, oppression, or persecution (whether it be passive or aggressive, personal or systemic) cries out to God for deliverance from and judgment on the Babylon he struggles against. Babylon’s fall is the end of an epic struggle between good and evil, the powerful and the abused, the rich oppressors and the poor victims, the devil and God. Such a precipitous fall from greatness, brimming with cosmic significance, begs a question.
II. What is the Story of the Fall?
A. Act One: Creation
Many people are familiar with the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). But the Story of the Fall begins in the second verse with God bringing form out of the formlessness, and filling the void with his creatures. Note the disorder and emptiness that characterized the earth was not God’s nemesis. It had no power to resist God, but still it was not good. As God formed and filled the universe with everything that is, he elevated the world to a status of glory and goodness (Gen 1:31). And in this world he pronounced “very good,” God set his image-bearers, the first two humans, Adam and Eve, to tend and keep their earthly home (the Garden of God), guarding and protecting it from any who would seek to attack God by plunging his creation back into disorder and chaos. As long as Adam faithfully served the Lord God, he would dwell with God forever (Gen 2:15-17). The implied hope for humanity was to fill the earth with descendants of Adam and Eve, godly image-bearers, who would responsibly subdue all of creation as God’s good stewards, developing the world into a glorious civilization, the City of God (Gen 1:28-30).
B. Act Two: Fall
1. But there was one who hated God and his image-bearers enough to thwart that wonderful vision for the world. Satan entered the serpent in the Garden of God with a plan to sabotage God’s intention (Gen 3:1-5). If he could persuade God’s children to abandon their Lord for ideas of self-glorification, then the City of God would never be built. Instead, people would become haters of God and lovers of self, fashioning idols of anything and everything in the world that was created good. Satan knew as people pursued self-glory, they would destroy God’s good plan. By turning against God and believing Satan’s lie, people would turn to all the things that Satan values. Corruption, selfishness, slavery, hatred. When Satan won the hearts of men, he assumed he had defeated God’s good plan, and the world’s destiny was to fall back into disorder and chaos. With man as his servant, he hoped to build a monument to his coup: The City of Man.
2. However, God would not be defeated. He intervened in the Garden, promising an epic struggle between two peoples throughout history: the seed of the serpent, and the redeemed seed of the woman. God also promised that although Satan would win many battles, he would lose the war (Gen 3:15). In the meantime, God had to exile Adam and Eve from the Garden of God because sinners could no longer safely enter God’s holy presence (Gen 3:22-24).
3. As Eve bore children, she became the mother of all the living, both the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. The serpent’s seed would build the City of Man, iterations of Babylon that grew in idolatrous sophistication, worshiping Power, Sex, and Money (Gen 4:1-24). The woman’s seed would call on the name of the Lord, longing for deliverance from the temptation to become citizens of Babylon, all the while looking for the city whose architect and builder is God (Gen 4:25-26; cf. Heb 11:16; 13:13-14). The primeval history records more and more people giving up hope in the City of God to participate in and use the enticements of Babylon. Beginning with Cain, and culminating with Nimrod (Gen 10:8-12) and the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), early history demonstrates how far humanity had collectively fallen, seeking entrance into God’s heavenly presence by bald-faced power grabs and sheer architectural determination. But man cannot end his own exile by building a city founded on the exploitation of Power, Sex, and Money. Only God is able to bring people to himself so they might treat power, sex, and money in godly ways.
C. Act Three: Israel
In his redemptive mercy, God chose a Babylonian idol worshiper named Abram to begin the journey to the City that God would build, the place where the seed of the woman would once again enter into God’s presence (Gen 11:31; 12:1-3). Through his covenantal relationship with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, God gave hope that the exile would soon be over. By giving his people the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and by living among them in the temple in Jerusalem, the City of God became a reality for its citizens. God’s City and People were supposed to be a witness to the citizens of the City of Man, calling them to renounce their citizenship in Babylon, repent of their idolizing Power, Sex, and Money, and return to the holy God (Ex 19:5-6). But the tragic history of Israel showed that the Old Testament City of God fell into disorder and chaos. Over and over again, Israel’s rulers, merchants, traders, and priests prostituted themselves to the false gods of the City of Man (Ezek 16). In doing so, they aligned themselves with Satan, adopting his evil values as their own. Israel became a people that lived as if in exile, hating God and anyone who longed for God’s holy city. When the experiment that was the OT City of God became indistinguishable from the City of Man, when the citizens of God’s city asked to be free of God’s presence, God sent them back to Babylon, literally into the land of the Babylonian empire (2 Chr 36:15-21). Then after two generations, God redeemed his people from Babylon and brought them back into their homeland, where he would begin the centuries-long work to bring form and order out of their fall into exile (Ezra 1-2).
1. After the Babylonian empire fell apart, God’s people were subject to the oppressive rule of other “Babylons.” Persia, Greece, and Rome took their turns as the ungodly dominant world systems that plagued the few citizens of the City of God (Dan 2, 4, 7-8). Near the height of her rule, the Roman-Babylon seduced the whole world with her pleasures and luxuries, and threatened with almost irresistible strength anyone who resisted participating in and profiting from her sinful ways (Rev 17:6-18). At this low point of disorder and chaos, when it seemed the idols of Power, Sex, and Money ruled over all, God sent the Seed of the Woman, his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, to crush the head of the serpent (Lk 1:46-55). Jesus would reverse the fall into formlessness and void, he would storm the gates of the City of Man, and conquer the false gods of Babylon (Lk 4:1-13). His victory was costly, for the serpent bruised Christ’s heel in the crucifixion. The citizens of the City of Man hated Jesus so they conspired to kill him (Mt 26:3-4). But when Jesus rose from the dead, he dealt the decisive blow to Satan and the City of Man. In the cross, the Seed of the Woman fell by the sword that the angel of death wields protecting the Garden of God. Jesus took the penalty of death for his people that they might reenter the Garden, the City of God (Mk 15:37-38). It was the beginning of the end of exile.
2. Although Jesus won the victory alone, he is not alone. His redeemed people, the universal Church, are permanent citizens of the City of God (Phil 3:20). They participate in the spoils of his victory by plundering lost souls from the City of Man, restoring to the repentant their citizenship and allegiance to the Lord God (Jude 20-23). The war between the seeds of the serpent and the woman still rages, between the City of Man and the City of God, but the victory is already won and assured by Christ. Many Babylons will continue to rise and oppress God’s people. Satan will constantly raise the stakes in the deadly war for the souls of men, and it will seem in various times and places as if the City of Man gains the advantage. Its false gods of Power, Sex, and Money conspire together to make a fearful and seductive counterfeit religion, sometimes even luring those in the Church (1 Jn 2:15-16; 5:19-21). But in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s people will resist the allure of Babylon, sometimes even unto death (Acts 7:59-60).
E. Act Five: New Creation
The last Babylon to rise will likely be the most fearsome and seductive manifestation of the City of Man ever seen on the earth. But she is doomed. All the monuments to the false gods of Power, Sex, and Money will fall quickly, finally, and permanently (Rev 17-18). God will suddenly (in one day, even in one hour!) crash that never-ending party hosted by the Great Prostitute. The age-long Saturday night will be replaced by the eternal Lord’s Day. Babylon’s citizens and friends who are drunk on the wine of her wrath against God’s people will suffer an eternal hangover. Those who cast their lot with Babylon, selling their souls to participate in and profit from her immorality and idolatry will mourn forever her fall and their loss. When the final fall of Babylon comes, there will be no hope for those who love the City of Man. Their exile from the City of God will last forever, with no hope of any counterfeit city to temporarily satisfy their lust for self-serving Power, Sex, and Money.
III. Why the Story of the Fall?
A. To warn everyone of Babylon’s end
1. Desolation (vv. 1-8). Imagine a post-apocalyptic story in which the setting is harsh and basically uninhabitable. I think of the Will Smith movie “I Am Legend” set in New York after a mutated virus kills nearly all of humanity, and the infected survivors are transformed into zombie-like creatures. That is what this picture of Babylon looks like. Hellish, haunted, unclean, detestable, hopeless. Eternal desolation.
2. Despair (vv. 9-19). If you rather enjoy the benefits of Babylon, then her fall is really bad news. Her citizens are destroyed in a plague of fire. That is a very common biblical image of hell. But also notice her friends standing far away—those who participated in and profited from her idolatrous and luxurious system—kings, merchants, traders, rich oppressors. Although they aren’t standing in the City of Man when it goes up in flames, they absolutely share in her plagues because they shared in her sins. The friends of Babylon despair since her loss is their loss. Her fate is their fate. In her death they lose their prostitute lover. And they find no comfort. This is another biblical image of hell. Eternal despair.
3. Desertion (vv. 21-23a). As a great millstone violently hurled into the sea, so will Babylon sink, never to be found again. The mundane and happy evidence of a thriving culture will disappear completely. No more music, craftsmanship, or food production. No more light or nightlife or weddings. No more civilization or even people. Why? Because the business of Babylon glorified Man rather than God. Because all nations were tricked by Babylon’s sorcery into worshiping the false gods of Power, Sex, and Money. Because she murdered anyone who stood in her way, and martyred the people of God who stood as a witness against her. Life in Babylon will cease because her life was only about exploitation, pleasure-seeking, and money-making. This is yet another biblical image of hell. Eternal desertion.
B. To encourage us to remain pure and faithful to the end (vv. 4, 20, 24)
Compare the hideous description of Babylon the Great Prostitute with the purity of the faithful Bride of Christ (Rev 17:1-6; 19:7-8). Compare the fearsome, seductive, and deathly description of Babylon the City of Man with the imagery of the peaceful, beautiful and life-giving New Jerusalem, the City of God (Rev 18; 21:10-27). Jesus calls his people to come out of Babylon to avoid committing her sins and thus sharing in her plagues. The angels call you to rejoice because God has judged Babylon for your sake. He has heard your cries, seen your troubles, and remembered your self-denying efforts to remain pure from her and faithful to him. He has justly avenged our blood—the blood of our spiritual forefathers and the blood of our spiritual children.
C. To show how the gospel alone changes hearts to resist Babylon’s seductions
1. Which city are you attracted to? Some of you are thinking, “Well, it depends. Sometimes I want to be pure and faithful to God, but I get enticed for the things Babylon promises. I chase after Babylon when I’m weak, participating in, cooperating with, using, or tolerating her. Later I feel guilty and empty and hate myself for giving my heart to her yet again.” The love of Babylon will never satisfy you. Idols are harsh gods to serve. When you give your love to an idol like Power, Sex, or Money and you find a measure of success, the idol will enslave you and drag you down in Babylon’s fall. And when you give your love to an idol and you find failure, your counterfeit god will never forgive you. You’ll end up desolate, despairing, and deserted. This is why the Apostle Paul cried out to God, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24)
2. This is why the gospel alone can change your heart. Only the love of God in Christ Jesus can give you power to resist Babylon’s seductions. Yes, there are plenty of wise strategies you can employ to fight against Babylon. But none of them will do any good to change your heart. Weapons and tools are neutral. Your heart always determines how you will use them. This is why self-discipline, morality, and engaging in culture war are absolutely powerless to change your heart. Any strategy you employ without dealing first with your idols will only serve to empower your idols.
Conclusion – Your heart will only change to the degree that you look to Jesus Christ, exchanging your love of Babylon for a new love. Look at the beauty of Christ’s power. Infinite power at his command to get whatever he desired, yet he gave it up for the powerless. Or look at the beauty of Christ’s love. Who deserves a friend, a husband like Jesus? His love is perfect, holy, sweet and precious, yet he gladly chose to give his love to sinners like you, to call you his beloved. Look at the beauty of Christ’s wealth. Everything in the universe he rightfully calls his own, yet he spends it all on the needs of the poor, helpless, oppressed, persecuted, ignored, hated—those who call the City of God their home. You cannot excise the love of Babylon from your heart without replacing it with a new love. Any other love except for Christ will just be a new idol destined for a fall. Only Jesus will forgive you when you fail him. Only Jesus will treat you with tender love when you serve him. Only Jesus will lift you up when you fall.
*Note: the idea and title for this sermon, and for the sermon series “God’s Stories,” came from Michael Lawrence’s excellent book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.