Revelation 17:17-18 – Identifying the Great City

(17)  for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 

                   Revelation stands as witness that this was the plan of God and the fulfillment of his will. All the players involved, whether Jews, Romans, Vespasian, Titus, the client kings, and even that dragon who is the Devil, all are working diligently in accordance with God’s will.

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1).

                   “Until the words of God are fulfilled.” The context of this book has never shifted from its purpose. It was a revelation of the mystery which would be fulfilled in the “things that must soon take place” (1:1, 22:6); this mystery was the words which the prophets had spoken long ago (see 10:7). This statement, “until the words of God are fulfilled,” reminds us that we are still in the context of God fulfilling all that he had spoken long ago. Jesus made this same point, saying, “these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.” (Luke 21:22). And afterwards, Peter said, “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:21; for notes, see the introduction to this commentary). The taking away the old that he may establish the new (Hebrews 10:9), was an enormous theme which the prophets spoke, and it is now unfolding in the book of Revelation, to be accomplished shortly in the days of the first century.

(18)  And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” 

                   The identity of the woman is given here as a city; and not just any city, but the “great city.” This text has been the convincing factor for many who accept the harlot to be Rome; after all, Rome is a great city. But what is “the” great city in the context? That’s the question that we must ask. Does anything in the context fit Rome? All of it would have to in order to convince me. I have been of the opinion in the past that the harlot is Rome, but now reject that idea because there are too many inconsistencies with it in the context of chapter seventeen and indeed the whole book.

                   The great city is Jerusalem, it cannot be any other city than Jerusalem. This is the city that, within the context, is destroyed by the Roman beast (they didn’t destroy their own city), in order to fulfill that which was spoken by the prophets Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others. Such a city was taken away so that the “new Jerusalem” could make its entrance as the restored people of faith, in chapter twenty-one.

                   Earlier in the book, the identification of “the great city” was given to the place “where their Lord was crucified.” (11:8, see also 16:19). Notice, back in the context of chapter eleven, that “the great city” is also called “the holy city” (11:2). Later, after the destruction of “the holy city,” or “the great city” or “where their Lord was crucified,” the new Jerusalem, the church is called “the great city” and “the holy city” (21:10). So, I hope we all can see these indicators in the book; 17:18 should not be considered alone.

                   The greatness of Jerusalem is also undisputable. It was where king David reigned a thousand years before the Roman Empire. It was where Solomon make silver as common as stones (1 Kings 10:27). But most importantly, it was where God put his name, his king, and his house; thus, making it “the great city” until he removed his house from it. Yes, it was God, himself, who chose Jerusalem, saying, “I have chosen Jerusalem that my name may be there” (2 Chronicles 6:6). Can we argue that Rome is a greater city than the city of God? Certainly not!

                   In terms of Jerusalem’s literal greatness in the first century, Titus does a good job of summing up the circumstances, even stating that Jerusalem was richer than Rome,

“what is our chief favor of all we have given you leave to gather up that tribute which is paid to God790 with such other gifts that are dedicated to him; nor have we called those that carried these donations to account, nor prohibited them; till at length you became richer than we ourselves.” (Josephus, Wars, 7.6.2).

                   “That has dominion over the kings of the earth.” It had a history of many kings, some of them great kings; and it was a tremendously powerful city, having representation in every piece of the world (Acts 2:5, 9-11). But I don’t think that’s the main point of this verse. It has dominion over the kings of the earth because it was the seat of God and God’s house. God reigns over all the kings of the earth; therefore, if God’s throne is in his temple in Jerusalem, then this is “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” If we spoke similarly about Rome, we could talk about the city’s great dominion; but we know that we aren’t talking about the city itself, but the throne in the city and the man on that throne. So what city is greater, Rome or Jerusalem? A better question would be, who’s dominion is greater, the emperor or God? This description is not fitting for Rome, but only for Jerusalem.

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