Come Out of Her My People… But Who Is She?

Christians must come out of “Babylon”, wherever Babylon-like powers may be found. Our allegiance should belong to Jesus alone. If we misplace our allegiance, we risk facing the same judgment that the wicked will eventually suffer.

And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.” I heard another voice from heaven, saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”– Revelation 18.2-5

We are clearly supposed to “come out of her”, but who is “Babylon the Great” in the book of Revelation? What are the different ways people have interpreted Revelation? How have these different interpretations impacted the way people read Revelation 18.2-5? With so many different interpretations of these verses, found within such a complex book, what application can the church draw from the command to “Come out of her”?

Context, Context, Context

As with studying any other Biblical text, our goal is to seek the author’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) original intent. The primary meaning of these verses is what John intended them to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood.

Revelation is a difficult book, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Before surveying the most popluar approaches to the book, it is helpful identify some contextual landmarks to guide us on our journey.

  • Revelation identifies itself as apocalyptic literature, which is highly symbolic in nature (1.1). Babylon the Great symbolizes something which necessarily must bear some resemblance and have some sort of similar qualities with the ancient Babylonian empire, otherwise the image wouldn’t make any sense.
  • The text identifies “Babylon the Great” as “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17.18).
  • John says the book is a prophecy regarding things which “must soon take place” (1.3).
  • The book is addressed to the seven churches of Asia (1.4).
  • The church’s confrontation with persecution is clearly a major theme throughout the book.
  • This great city, Babylon, is presented to us in Revelation 17-18 as a contrast with the holy city, the New Jerusalem, described in Revelation 21-22. The former is described as a prostitute (17.1-13), thus forming a contrast with the pure and righteous marriage of the Lamb (19.7-10). The former city is judged (17-18), thus forming a contrast with the saints who are rewarded (21.22).

As we survey different approaches to Revelation we must continually ask if the path they suggest makes sense in light of these contextual landmarks.

Babylon The Great is Rome

This understanding comes from what is often called a “preterist” approach towards Revelation. The word “preterist” simply means “gone by”. The preterist view holds that the events referred to in Revelation were specifically fulfilled in the first century or shortly thereafter.

According to the most common version of the preterist approach, the book of Revelation was written to warn and encourage the church in light of Roman persecution. The book served to encourage Christians to persevere by reassuring them that God was in control, even over the Roman government. Babylon, “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” would therefore be Rome. The command to “come out of her” would thus be read a command to the church to withdraw their allegiance and trust from the Roman government. The church must not support the state, align with the state or seek to reform the state. They are to withdraw from the state, and maintain an attitude of submission to the state, even if that means death.

Those who suggest that the book should be read in this way point to several of the landmarks we identified earlier. They insist that we must attempt to read Revelation from the perspective of first-century Christians to whom it was originally written. Revelation was written to the “seven churches of Asia” (1.4), about “things which must soon take place” (1.1), because “the time is near” (1.3). Throughout the book there is an urgency for the readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20). These statements require that we look for fulfillments during the lifetime of the original audience.

However, according to this view, there are timeless lessons which Christians can take from Revelation. For example, from the passage we have just examined, Christians should continually view the state as a “Babylon,” a “prostitute” who is continually attempting to seduce Christians by the pleasures she offers. The state should be viewed in contrast to God’s kingdom. Since all earthly kingdoms will be destroyed just as Rome was (1 Cor. 15.24), Christians should continually “come out of her” lest they share in that destruction.

Babylon the Great is Jerusalem

This is a different variation of the “preterist” view and shares many of the same strengths. Those who hold this view contend that Revelation was written at a very early date, prior to the fall of Jerusalem, and was written with specific reference to that event. This view is based largely on the similarity of the vivid language used in Revelation with that used by Jesus in Matthew 24. Since Matthew 24 was almost certainly written with reference to the fall of Jerusalem, Revelation most likely refers to the same event. “The great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” was written in reference to the city of Jerusalem. Of course Jerusalem never actually reigned over the kings of the earth in the same way Rome did, but according to this view, that’s part of the point of the accusation. The Jewish authorities had come to think so highly of themselves that they had essentially become like the wicked Babylonians.

These verses would thus be understood as a call for Christians to flee the doomed city of Jerusalem before she was destroyed by the Romans, just as Jesus had commanded them to flee the sudden destruction of the city in Matthew 24.16-18.

This view is thus dependent on proving that Revelation was written at a very early date. Most scholars have concluded that the evidence for an early date of the book is lacking. This view is also called into question in that it was addressed to the seven churches in Asia rather than to Judean Christians. Asia Minor was a hot bed for emperor worship, which seems to me to support the Roman government view of Babylon. If, however, the “Jerusalem” view is correct, the modern applications would not be drastically different. Christians still must withdraw from aligning themselves with wicked Babylonian-like authorities, wherever and whenever they may be found.

Babylon the Great is a Spiritual Paradigm

Many Christians throughout history have held to what is referred to as the “spiritualist” view of Revelation (sometimes called the “idealist” view). This particular approach to Revelation denies that the events and figures found within the book have any direct correlation with actual events or figures, either in the past or in the future. To search for the specific fulfillment, they argue, is to misunderstand the apocalyptic genre of the book.

According to this view, “Babylon the Great” is just a spiritual paradigm that encourages Christians to withdraw from aligning themselves with wickedness, wherever and whenever it may be found. The verses were to be applied to Christians whenever they find themselves in spiritual conflict.

This perspective has some strengths. It strongly affirms the symbolic nature of Revelation (1.1), and with it, the absurdity of trying to interpret it literally (6.13; 8.12; 12.4). This view reminds its readers to maintain humility as they read the book. If the book doesn’t specifically tell us what it refers to, we can at best rely on human wisdom when we try to “interpret it.”

The weaknesses I see with this view is that the book itself claims that it contains actual prophecy (1.3; 22.7, 9-11), which referred to events which would soon take place (1.1). It was addressed to specific historical churches (1.4), and it doesn’t easily account for the repeated warned or readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20).

Babylon the Great was (and is?) a Future Empire

This futurist view contends that “Babylon the Great” referred to something well beyond the era of the Roman Empire. Some believe the events of Revelation have already begun to unfold, while others believe all the events remain in our future.

Many protestant reformers and also the early leaders of the restoration movement believed that Babylon the Great referred to the Catholic church, and the book prophecies the great reformation movement. Others have believed that Babylon the Great refers to Communist China, America, or some other empire that will yet arise one day in the future. According to the futurists approach, Christians are expected to somehow identify Babylon once it arises, and then withdraw from her.

A big problem I find with this view is that it seems to contradict the book’s own claim that it was written about “things which must soon take place” (1.1). If the futurist view is correct, it necessitates that we know later history to be able to understand the book. Therefore this approach wouldn’t have made any sense to John’s original readers.

Come Out of Her!

If we keep in mind the landmarks found in the historical and literary context, I am convinced that we can have a pretty good idea about how we should read and apply Revelation 18.2-5.

I personally find the “Babylon is Rome” view most compelling. The “Babylon is Jerusalem” view is also a possibility. I also believe that the vagueness of apocalyptic literature makes it easy to draw spiritual principles that can be applied to Christians in any era as the idealist suggest. The futurist view doesn’t impress me at all. In fact, it concerns me since it leads so many people to try to read the book as some sort of horoscope telling the future, an approach which becomes dangerously close to the sin of divination.

But regardless of what conclusions you draw from Revelation 18, the modern application remains essentially the same. It is the same basic admonition Paul made to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6.14-18), encouraging them to cut all ties that would bind them to unbelievers.  Christians must not align themselves with wickedness.

Babylon the Great

Written to Christians suffering persecution under the Roman Empire, the book of Revelation encourages Christians to be patient and faithfully obedient to Christ. Reading the book, however, can prove to be a daunting challenge for most modern Christians. Revelation reads completely different from the kind of literature we are accustomed to. It speaks of heavenly creatures, terrible plagues, and multi-headed monsters. It’s a very weird (yet fascinating) book to say the least!

Consider for a moment the strange scene described in Revelation 14.6-13:

And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, and having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and springs of waters.”

And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.”

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or in his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

And I heard a voice from heaven, saying “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “So that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” – Revelation 14.6-13

Why are the angels pronouncing judgment on “Babylon”, a powerful world empire that fell hundreds of years before Revelation was written? What on earth (or in heaven?) is going on here? Apart from a couple of phrases we usually associate with hell (vs. 10-11), and an encouraging verse about those who “die in the Lord”, which we sometimes hear read at funerals (v. 13), these verses sound very strange indeed!

In order to get what is going on with these verses, in order to feel the full force of the strange imagery, and in order to understand the reality to which it points so that we can begin to apply it to our lives, we must first consider Babylon through the lens of the Old Testament, especially the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Babylon in Isaiah

The poetic writings of the prophets are sometimes complex, but being familiar with Isaiah is vital to understanding Revelation 14.

One of the major themes in the book of Isaiah is the superiority of the LORD over Babylon and her “gods”. The first 39 chapters contain Isaiah’s message of judgment on Israel, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in exile in 597 B.C. In Isaiah 40, the tone of the book begins to change from judgment to hope for Israel.

In Isaiah 41-48 we read a series of poems written to remind us that God is greater than Babylon and her gods. Even in the exile, God was still in control (41.2-5), and was orchestrating the exile for Israel’s good (43.22-28). In chapters 47-48 we are reminded that God is faithful to His people no matter what evil Babylon may do.

In Isaiah 49-55 we are introduced to a mysterious character known as “God’s Servant”, who will rescues Israel from Babylon and bring justice. Yet this strange rescue plan necessitates that the Servant will suffer and die at the hands of the nations. It is through this suffering and death that the Servant will bring salvation for Israel and bring God’s justice into the world.

Surrounding these poems are announcements of doom against Babylon. One such warning is found in Isaiah 51.22-23:

Thus says the Lord, the LORD, even your God
Who contends for His people,
Behold, I have taken out of your hand the cup of reeling,
The chalice of My anger;
You will never drink it again.
I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
Who have said to you, ‘Lie down that we may walk over you.’
You have even made your back like the ground
And like the street for those who walk over it.”

God will take the cup of wrath that Babylon made Israel drink, and he will make them drink from it. In other words, God is going to give Babylon a taste of her own medicine! They will fall victim to the same evil that they brought on others!

It is in this context that the “good news”, the “gospel” is proclaimed:

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces peace
And brings good news of happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” – Isaiah 52.7

Today we use the word “gospel” in many different ways. We have “gospel singing” and “gospel meetings”, and we refer to faithful preachers as “gospel preachers.” The word “gospel” is often used as synonymous with God’s plan of salvation.

Although Isaiah doesn’t detract from God’s plan of saving individuals, here in Isaiah, the word “gospel” specifically refers to Israel’s prophesied victory over Babylon. For Isaiah, there are three elements of this “gospel” he immediately mentions:

“Your God reigns!”

And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”…

The LORD has comforted His people,
He has redeemed Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52.7, 9)

This message, announced to Israelites in exile, means that God has won the victory and now reigns over Babylon, and the Israelites are free to go home!

God Himself is coming to restore Zion.

Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices,
They shout joyfully together;
For they will see with their own eyes
When the LORD restores Zion. – Isaiah 52.8

Jerusalem had been destroyed. But now, the “gospel” was the message that the LORD would restore Zion in a public, visible way.

God is going to bring salvation from Babylon, and all the nations will see.

Break forth, shout joyfully together,
You waste places of Jerusalem;
For the LORD has comforted His people,
He has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God. – Isaiah 52.9-10

As history rolled on by, Babylon did indeed fall, and the Israelites returned home from exile. But nobody concluded that Isaiah’s prophecies had been fulfilled. Instead of God reigning, other empires rose to reign in Babylon’s place. There was never any evidence that God Himself ever returned to Zion. Rather than being saved from oppression, the nation of Israel continued to live under oppression for hundreds of years.

So what was Isaiah speaking of? When would Isaiah’s prophecy be fulfilled? The early Christians concluded that God’s victory, His personal return to Zion, and deliverance from Babylon was finally experienced when Jesus died on the cross as an innocent lamb (Is. 53.7).

Babylon in Jeremiah

A second key text to understand is Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians, and spent much of his life under the shadow of their power.

At the end of his book (Jeremiah 46-51), Jeremiah has a long list of poems about how God is going to bring judgment on all of the earthly kingdoms that surround Israel (Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, the Ammonites, and Damascus).

He saves the longest poems for last. Chapters 50-51 form the climax of the book as Jeremiah describes how God will bring judgment on the biggest and most evil of all the earthly kingdoms. God is going to judge Babylon.

Babylon in Revelation 14

After reading the prophets we can finally start to see why the image of “Babylon” was so important in Revelation and why this book would provide so much encouragement for Christians living under the yoke of Roman Empire. And once we grasp that, we can see why this book can be encouraging for Christians today as well.

The first angel announces that God is going to bring judgment:

And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.” – Revelation 14.7

The second angel announces that Babylon is fallen:

And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality” – Revelation 14.8

In judgment, Babylon will be made to drink of the wine of her passion. (Remember what we just read about this cup in Isaiah 51.22-23?)

The third angel warns that this judgment will be thorough and complete, and it will be for all those who have allowed themselves to be seduced by Babylon’s appeal.

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he will also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image and whoever receives the mark of his name.” – Revelation 14.9-10

This “good news” about the fall of Babylon is described in verse 6 as “the eternal gospel.”

What does the “Gospel” in Revelation 14 Mean for Us?

First of all, the gospel cannot be separated from judgment – specifically judgment upon Babylon, the image and ultimate example of an earthly nation. For Christians who were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, this most certainly would be a message of “good news!” When Christians see all the wickedness happening in their country, in their government, and in the world at large, they can take courage. They can know with confidence that judgment is coming upon Babylon, no matter what form Babylon may take in our day.

Secondly, for John, this is a call for endurance.

Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” – Revelation 14.12-13

The book of Revelation encourages Christians to resist the temptation to place their trust in Babylon. Babylon has been judged. Babylon has been defeated. Therefore, no matter how wicked earthly nations may grow, Christians can rest assured that their deeds will follow beyond the evil of Babylon, beyond the grave itself. We must therefore remain patient and faithfully obedient to Christ.