PART ONE: Chief of Sinners; A Reflection
Leaving is rarely pleasant. From the moment of first contemplation through to the final execution of it, it is often a process fraught with pain and reticence. Sometimes leaving is unforced and perfectly voluntary. At other times is necessary, or even mandatory. Whether under necessary circumstances, such as the need to travel away from family and loved ones, or under literal force and compulsion; eviction form a cherished home, arrest or banishing, it is rarely pleasant.
The great call to God’s people to leave Babylon, then, cannot be an easy call to heed. To think so would be to betray a lack of appreciation for the nature of their bonds to this ancient, albeit metaphorical city. It would be to discount the near-perfect assimilation of their persons, lives and work, with the spirit of the place. This is the first great outing of Revelation. Hear the angel.
With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “‘Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
– Revelation 18:4 (NIV)
It is clear from the text that Babylon is a metaphor for sin in its two egregious forms: first the rejection of truth, and second the unrestrained indulgence it permits and fosters in the life. It is also a metaphor for the institutions of church (the woman) and state (the kings) that prop it up. What would it be then to come out of Babylon, this dwelling place of every impure spirit? What would it be to reject the offer of her intoxicating wine?
Most of us read the book of Revelation with the most sober of attitudes. This is a good thing. The words of the book give us a sense of the ultimate. It is a superlative book. Satan is at his strongest in the book of Revelation, Christ is at His most fearsome and majestic, angels are at their most serious and urgent business, righteousness is at its purest and most exalted form, and sin is at its wickedest and most desperate state. The metaphor of Babylon is a case in point.
It is easy – indeed natural – to read these words then with a subconscious distancing of ourselves from the idea of it. We do not easily read ourselves in as belonging to this wicked city, as living within her walls, as trading in her markets, as eating of her produce, as playing on her streets or as bearing her very name. That is for the wicked people, the worst of sinners in the world, the Babylonians.
It is at this realization exactly that we must pause and reflect. We are not always aware of this subconscious gradation of evil, in which we place ourselves near the most benign of sinners. Indeed we are very seldom aware of it. We must pause and think about it then. Babylon indeed is the worst of cities, but are we truly the worst of sinners? Are the veritable Babylonians of the world, or do we find our home in some distant suburb?
Consider the famous universalization that Paul applies to the dominion of sin in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Just how short do you think we have come of it? What is the extent of our sin? How much of His image do we retain in us? We rarely seen ourselves as completely bereft of the glory of God after reading this. In our minds we have never been entirely ‘gloryless’. We’ve only been vaguely short of the full measure of it. My contention is not that this is a wrong way to see the text, but merely that realizing this should invite us to see our true condition before God with perhaps greater humility that we have been able to in the past. We must also then be prepared to see the ugliest reflection of ourselves in the mirror of Christ’s face.
Paul’s words to Timothy are useful in this process of introspection: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” – 1 Timothy 1:15. Paul makes this evaluation in the context of his past life (see vs 12 – 14), but makes present tense expression of it. There is a sense in which Paul sees himself as still unworthy, because of the person he has been. This is a very humble posture. It is not the persistence of the guilt of past sin, but it is an enduring awareness of where one stands in relation to a holy God.
Isaiah’s self abnegation in the face of God’s throne is likewise instructive: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” – Isaiah 6:5.
In both cases, it is after seeing God in His holiness that the contrast of the human condition becomes its clearest and most vivid. This is hardly possible without such privileged vision. One cannot, I think, own their sin fully until they have seen God fully, and experienced Him on some level. It will probably not be on the road to Damascus, or in heavenly vision, but it is always nevertheless the full force of the entrance of light into a dark room.
There is a second dimension, which we will consider only briefly. Babylon has its citizens, but it also has its rulers and institutions of leadership. Here is where sin reaches its roots of false teaching. When government (often uniting with religion) establishes, promotes or imposes idolatry (the abandonment of God for the principles of other powers), then it becomes Babylonian in its spirit.
By this I do not have in sight such principles as freedom of speech and religion; rather I have in sight the tyranny that comes in embracing a worldview that is opposed to the revealed will of God, his commandments included (perhaps paramount) and them imposing this worldview through the vehicles of culture, media, law, and participation in the civic sphere.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.
Error has a way of spreading. The sin it engenders is often linked with mankind’s basic pleasures, and the spectrum is broad, encompassing our necessary food and our wildest of hedonistic enjoyments. Babylon spreads her wares by cultural conditioning and seductive marketing, yes, but also by political alliance and international influence.
The line of prophecy flows down to a second outing, a forceful ejection which your will as a Christian will have little to do with. It is an outing that the kings decree, and will be the focus of our next reflection.
This first coming out of Babylon, though, is first both in terms of prophetic chronology and importance, as relates to our salvation. It is a lifelong process, but it is one in which the first step, all clichés aside, is literally the most important one. It is at the point of realization, confession and surrender that we are justified. At that very point, like the thief on the cross, like the lip-scorched Isaiah, and like the blinded, prostrate Paul, we are justified before God. It is at the point where there spirit is poorest, as with the confessing publican of Luke 18, beating his chest with all the weight of his guilt of sin, that the releasing verdict of justification is pronounced, and all the riches of the Kingdom of God are bestowed. But it starts with a realization of our sin.
Jesus said in Luke 7:47 that “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little”. This is to say that those who feel their debt to God (which is another biblical metaphor for sin) is only a small one have a correspondingly small appreciation of the value of His grace and salvation. It is those, then, who see themselves as owing the greater debt, that are most thankful for the gift of forgiveness and justification. Reflecting on the blessing Jesus bestows on the poor in spirit one writer put it this way:
“Those who are rich and honorable in their own eyes do not ask in faith, and receive the blessing of God. They feel that they are full, therefore they go away empty. Those who know that they cannot possibly save themselves, or of themselves do any righteous action, are the ones who appreciate the help that Christ can bestow. They are the poor in spirit, whom He declares to be blessed… All who have a sense of their deep soul poverty, who feel that they have nothing good in themselves, may find righteousness and strength by looking unto Jesus.
– Ellen White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, pages 7,8
The point is made, and I am reminded of the words of a famous hymn:
Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed His blood for me…