Revelation 17: The Beast Consumes the Whore, where the relational polarity of the age of decay always leads

I’ve been working through the book of Revelation for quite a while now in our Adult Sunday School class. This week we talked about the vision in Revelation 17 of the whore of Babylon and her relationship with the beast. The beast clearly is a representation of empire and the whore is a representation of an idolatrous relationship with the goods of the world. Together the form a potent alliance of mutual convenience at the expense of all else. In the vision towards the end of the chapter the beast turns on the whore.

Revelation 17:15-18 (NRSV)
And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

One of the things I’ve been developing on over the last couple of years is a vocabulary for my people to help them understand the world and what the Bible says about it. One of the things I constantly repeat is the contrast between the age of decay and the age to come. Both haves have their own relational polarities. What do I mean by that? This is a metaphor borrowed from elementary science. A relationship has at least two parties or poles like a magnet and the energy, magnetism, exchange, whatever it is that is passing between the two parties that expresses the relationship exhibits a polarity. Think about magnets with a positive pole and a negative pole.

Both the age of decay and the age to come exhibit a relational polarity. In the age of decay one way of summing up its relational polarity is “my well-being at your expense.” In other words the relationship works for the well-being of one at the expense of the other. Now there may be a stuff going both ways, but the mindset of each side is that the relationship is maintained as long as in the judgment of the agent or actor they are getting enough to justify what they are giving. Now the accounting of each side is obviously individual. As long as each side feels that they are breaking even or coming out ahead in the cost/benefit analysis they stay in the relationship.

We all have these kinds of relationships in our lives and for many relationships it is an appropriate arrangement. Business and commerce is essentially the working out of these relationships and justice in this area means that both parties have the freedom to make sound judgments with respect to the exchange and will practice them fairly.

What happens, however, when this relational polarity is imagined to be the foundational, primary way of relating in creation? In this type of exchange the strong always wins and the weak always uses. This type of exchange so easily makes people themselves currency in the exchange. If we imagine the world basically works on the basis of “my well-being at your expense” then life is always a zero-sum-game.

What we see in this little section of the book of Revelation is the manifestation of this game. As long as the beast and the whore find their alliance mutually beneficial (at the expense of all others and for their own) they maintain it. Once the cost/benefit analysis swings one way, and the power/ability balance swings one way, the beast turns on her, consumes her and burns her. The image is vivid because both have been consuming the world.

This is an image of the logical conclusion of the relational polarity of the age of decay. As long as people are commodities and consumers, this is we end up if this relational polarity runs to its conclusion. I’m struck by a passage from CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters where one demon describes this to his apprentice.

CS Lewis in Mere Christianity talks about the goal of our salvation as being welcomed into the life of God. I see that as roughly equivalent to the relational polarity of the age to come. The hallmark of that reality is “your well-being at my expense.” Tim Keller following Lewis sees this as the dance of God, always deferring, always serving, always loving. This is actually the foundational relational polarity of the universe. It is from this that the cosmos was created. It was from this that the incarnation came. Our creation doesn’t come out of our usefulness to God, but out of God’s desire to give himself. This is the definition of love, of course and as John notes God is love.

In Revelation 13 the dragon sets up his hold-out kingdom and with the point-of-the-sword compliance of the first beast and the smooth tongue of the second establishes a context in which the relational polarity of the age of decay is assumed and an alternative unthinkable. Everyone knows that it’s dog-eat-dog and that the generosity of the polarity of the age to come is an extravagance only afforded by the wealthy and powerful as a whim of their indulgence. In this context any listener to the radical things that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount and Plain simply sounds aspirational but impractical.

Into this context Jesus announces the end of the age of decay, commands the present application of the relational polarity of the age to come and suggests that in the light of the resurrection the path of predictable suffering is well worth the cost. Jesus has the audacity to deny the blasphemous assertion of the dragon that “my well-being at your expense” is foundational and declares that “your well-being at my expense” is in fact the source of existence and in just a brief time all will see this to be simply true. The days of the dragon’s kingdom are numbered and the insanity by which he possesses his victims will be short lived.

Those who follow Jesus in this proclamation do as he did, suffer what he suffered, will die as he died and will be raised as he was raised. They will know what love is and what love isn’t.

The reasons the life of God is foundational and eternal is because it produces joy endlessly while “my well-being at your expense” to the Nth degree finally only yields the grim solitary confinement of one’s own dark self obsession.

Our inability to believe Jesus, to see the utter truth of God’s way of life and to know that ultimately and finally there is no other option for the universe than “your well-being at my expense” is of course the insanity of our sin. We fear the sword of the first beast and believe the propaganda of the second beast. Their doom, however, as Martin Luther noted is sure. Pray that the Spirit opens the eyes of our heart and brakes the grip that this blasphemous insanity has on our minds.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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