how to live in babylon
Revelation should never be interpreted on its own. We must take into consideration the 65 books of the Bible that precede it.
To read Revelation without the rest of the Bible is like watching Avengers: Endgame without watching the previous 21 Marvel movies; it’s like showing up to vote on Election Day having not done any research on the candidates or issues; it’s like taking a final exam after skipping class all semester. In each case, you’re not prohibited from participating. You might even enjoy your time or produce a respectable outcome. However, your lack of prior knowledge drastically alters what you can expect from those experiences.
The same goes for Revelation. In this book, John consistently references the Old Testament and builds on biblical themes. If you know the background, it’ll completely change how you interact with the text. A perfect example of this is the city of Babylon, which is referenced in Revelation 14 but then is talked about more thoroughly in chapters 17 and 18. If we understand the biblical background of Babylon, we can better understand how Babylon is used in Revelation and how to live in our own modern day “Babylons.”
The Symbol of Wickedness
If you’ve been in church for a while, the name Babylon may sound familiar. You might not know why, but it may at least ring a bell.
The reason it sounds so familiar is because the Hebrew word babel, which is most often translated as Babylon, appears over 200 times in the Old Testament. It first appears in Genesis, when the Tower of Babel is used to mock the great city of Babylon. Then, later in the Old Testament, Israel is captured and enslaved by Babylon. Through these historic events and references, by the time John comes to see Babylon in his vision, the city had come to be a symbol of wicked societies.
Now, apply that knowledge to your reading of Revelation 17:4–6.
“The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, ‘BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.”
See? With some foundational knowledge, a text that on its own seems completely bizarre, begins to make a bit more sense. John saw Babylon as the embodiment of false religions and godless cultures. And as the end times approach, these types of societies will be prevalent and powerful. They will have cups filled with immorality, and they will be drunk on the blood of Christian martyrs. The strength and evilness of Babylon in Revelation reaffirms what we as Christians already know to be true—the world we live in is broken and wicked. In a sense, we are already living in Babylon.
Building Houses and Planting Gardens
In fact, humanity has been living in some type of Babylon since the Fall of creation. Every society is, in some form or another, a godless society. Not one city, nation, or culture has fully honored God and sought Him like they ought to. There is no golden age we can look back at and long for. Faithfulness has always had to be lived out in a Babylon-type world.
That’s not to say all societies are morally equal. Some clearly embrace wickedness more than others. The point is that as long as you live on this earth, you’re living in some type of Babylon because no place on this earth will ever be perfect.
And as healthy as it is for this Babylon to cause you to long for the New Jerusalem, if you’re still alive, then God has a purpose for your life on this earth. God has not called Christians to withdraw and wait for Heaven. He has called us to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He has called you to be a witness even in Babylon.
Jeremiah, speaking to the Israelites as they were living in actual Babylonian captivity, gave them this advice, in Jeremiah 29:4–5 and 7, for how they were meant to live:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’”
What an encouraging command! No matter where you live, and no matter how wicked that place is, find ways to seek the welfare of that city. Cultivate the land, culture, and people around you.
In the next chapter of Revelation, we’ll see God’s judgement on Babylon, which should help us realize that judgment is ultimately not our job. God is the final Judge. Knowing that, we can focus on our part—building houses and communities; planting gardens and seeds of truth; and seeking and praying for the well-being of whatever Babylon we live in.