Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, we read the story of the Woman and the Dragon. It was the first in a series of the visions of God’s faithful people being threatened by Satan, the dragon and his ally the beast. In this tumultuous interlude that followed, the beast rose from the land to force the world to worship him and to receive the imprint of his name or number 666. Biblical scholars believe this to be the numerical code for Emperor Nero, the first emperor to persecute the church. Yet, in all of the ensuing terror and sorrow, the faithful are brought safely again and again to a place of victory beside heaven’s crystal seas. Now enters the Harlot of Babylon.
The Book of Revelation is filled with images and symbols borrowed from Old Testament. The city of Babylon on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia in modern day Iraq once gave birth to an empire that ruled the world and imposed its view and values upon all of its conquered peoples. Those nations Babylon did not destroy, she subverted. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah both likened Babylon to a wanton woman who would lavish herself with the spoils of nations and seduce the vain and ignoble. Babylon’s years long siege against the Kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem is documented in scripture. The Temple was eventually desecrated and destroyed and for nearly 70 years, the Israelites lived as exiles in Babylon.
Surprisingly, the Babylonian Empire, fell suddenly to the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 539 BC and all but disappeared. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, the former seat of empire was nothing more than a village surrounded by a sea of sand. And yet at the time, the name of Babylon began to reappear. St. Peter used it as a code word for Rome. He wrote that Rome is the new Babylon that would destroy us. She is the new mistress who would seduce and subvert the people of God. The seven cities of Revelation understood the significance of reference to Babylon. They also knew that just as the Babylonian Empire had once destroyed Jerusalem 600 years earlier, the Roman empire had now destroyed Jerusalem for a second time.
By the middle-ages, the common Catholic view of Babylon was no longer historical but primarily spiritual. Following the 4th century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo’s writing on the City of God, Babylon and Jerusalem referred to two spiritual cities which throughout history were spiritually at war with one another. Intentionally or unintentionally, when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the Eternal City of Rome envisioned itself as its successor, the new Jerusalem.
Corruption, greed and power, however, altered that noble perspective. In 1520 Martin Luther wrote one of his harshest critiques against the Medieval Catholic Church, and he chose to use the biblical metaphors of Revelation’s Babylon. He argued in his treatise called The Babylonian Captivity of the Church that the Pope in Rome was holding the Christian faithful hostage. Luther believed that the church was using the sacraments to subjugate the faithful. Still kings and monarchs were taken by her beauty and fell down in obeisance to worship her. That is the true spirit of the anti-Christ. So along with most of the early Protestant Reformers, Luther asserted that the Harlot of Babylon represented the world’s threat of the Anti-Christ against church. It was however, not a king or empire. It was the church itself that was the enemy. Thus, the reference of the seven trumpets directly led the reader to the seven hills of Rome, and to the Pope. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church appeared in print less than a week before the Pope issued a papal bull against Luther reached Wittenberg in October, 1520. This would effectively excommunicate Luther from the church and declared him a criminal in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire if he did not recant his writings.
On today’s bulletin cover, we see Lucas Cranach the Elder’s illustration for Martin Luther’s 1522 German translation of the Bible which was printed a year after his excommunication. Cranach was one of the leading artists and businessmen of the German Renaissance. He lived in Wittenberg and was a close friend of Luther’s playing a major role in promoting the message of the Reformation. This image from the Luther’s New Testament shows the Harlot of Babylon wearing the papal tiara to clearly identify her with the Catholic Church. After warnings that this symbolism was too controversial, the book was reprinted with the papal tiara removed.
Identification of the Pope as the Antichrist was not limited to Lutherans. It was written into the Protestant creeds such as the Westminster Confession of 1646. The identification of the Roman Catholic Church with the Harlot of Babylon is kept in the Scofield Reference Bible in 1917. Ecumenical agreements between Lutheran and Catholics have lifted many of the 16th century condemnations, but some groups continue to affirm these positions.
Martin Luther wasn’t sure how to interpret the Book of Revelation. In his own introduction he wrote, “About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion or judgment.” There were plenty of external assaults against the church in his time, increasingly from the Ottoman Turks. But he also underscored that the church could be its own worst enemy. That was John’s warning. A particular brand of the Harlot of Babylon’s seductive charm may fall into the dust and be buried by the sands of time, but just wait. Before you know it, she rises again in another place, known by another name but waging the same destructive war against God’s covenant people. My friends, the warning of Revelation is just as timely today. Every generation must choose to remain vigilant and be truthful to the truth of Jesus Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.