What does Revelation chapter 17 mean?At this point in Revelation, the bowl judgments have been described, and all that remains of the tribulation is the second coming of Christ. Before this is explained, John is shown a vision which symbolizes two additional judgments which are spread out over the tribulation. Chapter 17 focuses on the ruin of "religious Babylon," an ungodly spiritual system which is at first supported, then ruined by the efforts of the beast. Chapter 18 will describe the fall of Babylon in a political or economic sense.
This chapter begins with one of the angels who poured out a judgment bowl calling John to see a "great prostitute." This figure is another of the commonly-known symbols of Revelation, often referred to as the "Whore of Babylon." What follows is a vision—specifically meant to be symbolic, and not literal (Revelation 17:1–2).
John's vision takes him to a wilderness, where he sees the image of a woman sitting on a strange beast. The beast and the woman are described in careful terms, to be explained later by the angel who brought John. In Scripture, sexual immorality is often used as a parallel for idolatry. Both are gratifying and temporary, but result in shame and ruin. This immoral woman is richly clothed, symbolizing her support and adoration by the world. She is also said to be "drunk with the blood" of believers. Wine and blood are often interchanged in biblical imagery—this woman is responsible for untold bloodshed among Christians. As explained later, this woman seems to represent an ungodly religious view, either something new or a corruption of the truth, which spreads worldwide at the time of the tribulation. This striking image causes John to respond in shock and amazement (Revelation 17:3–6).
In response to John's awe, the angel promises to explain the meaning of these visions. The beast is described using a peculiar phrasing, suggesting that it used to exist, does not now exist, but will exist in the future. Its heads are explained as both a series of mountains and as a group of kings. Many interpreters believe this is an additional reference to the Revived Roman Empire: a government once powerful, then extinct, and finally restored in the end times. The leaders described in this passage will make war on God, and experience sound defeat (Revelation 17:7–14).
The prostitute John saw is prophesied to be destroyed by the beast and the ten leaders. The woman symbolizes some form of apostate religion, and the beast and kings some form of government. This leads to the likelihood that this blended or ecumenical or universal world religion will rapidly go from beloved to reviled by the world, and be destroyed as a result. In the end times, Satan will not be content with any vestiges of religion other than that which worships him (Revelation 13:11–12). The religious symbol of Babylon will lose her wealth and status and be torn apart by those who once supported her (Revelation 17:15–18).