"One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, 'Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters.'" NIV translation
Now, one of the angels that had poured out the bowls of wrath came to John. This starts the vision of the punishment for the "great prostitute" which is also the counterfeit "church".
At this time, the true believers in Jesus Christ (the church) have been removed from the earth and all that is left are those that had a form of religion but did not have Jesus. The leader of this religion is called the "great prostitute". Just as the true followers of Jesus are called His bride, the people who did not accept (marry) Jesus are called prostitutes or harlots. They are called this because they chased after all kinds of false religion instead of having a relationship with the one true God through Jesus Christ. In Revelation 3 and the letter to the church in Thyatira, Jesus warned the church about allowing Jezebel (a woman with false teaching) to get in the church and lead people astray. This is what has happened but it has happened on a worldwide scale.
"'With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.'" NIV translation
This leader of the world church has been working with the political leaders to set up this system. The people of the world fell in love with the message that was being shared instead of the Word of God. This message is that "we are all ok and we are all going to heaven". That message is being preached all over the world even today as there is this effort to blend all of the world religions together so that nobody is offended or left out.
"Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns." NIV translation
Now, John is shown a vision that contains a beast that he has seen before, in chapter 13, and a woman on his back. This is talking about how this religion has been working with the political forces of the world. They used each other to deceive the people and to gain power and that is exactly what is happening even now in this world. The desert (wilderness) is a sign of trials and temptations throughout the Bible and this is the greatest desert (trial) of them all. This "religious" idea that we are all ok and going to the same place on different paths sounds good to the people's ears but has led the people astray. We must recognize that this is not of God but, in fact as we see here, it comes from the devil and his unholy trinity.
"The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries." NIV translation
The woman is finely dressed and wealthy which speaks to the fact that by cooperating with the political forces she has gained this wealth. She has the appearance of serving God (the golden cup) but what is in the cup is detestable to God. That reminds us that we need to know what the Word of God actually says as there will be those that twist the Word for their own purposes (see 2 Peter 2).
"This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH." NIV translation
We recognize the woman as the religious system of the day by this title. This system has not only gotten away from the worship of God but has produced many other false religions which is why "MOTHER" is in the title. The title also reminds us that it started in Babylon at the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11) when man wanted to make a name for themselves instead of God.
"I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished." NIV translation
This worldwide religious system tolerated every form of religion except for those who testified to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. This system convinced its followers that they were in fact doing the work of God by killing Christians. It may seem to us that this could never possibly happen but even now, in many parts of the world, this is being taught.
Revelation 17:7 & 8
"Then the angel said to me: 'Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.'" NIV translation
This is the same beast that was described in chapter 13 and now the angel explains how those that are not in Christ will be deceived by the beast. Satan wants to imitate the things of God and this beast imitates the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Those that do not have the Holy Spirit in them (names written in the book of life) will be deceived by this imitation. The angel explains to John that this beast was with Satan during the fall but is now bound until the time that God will release him into the world. After a brief time on the earth, the angel says that the beast will go to his destruction.
"'This calls for a mind with wisdom. the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.'" NIV translation
The angel continues to explain the vision to John and, as we know, God is in charge of details. We remember that seven is the number of completion and this tells us of the fact that all of the world leaders have embraced this false religion that teaches that there are many paths to God. Five is the number of grace and we see that five of the kingdoms have stumbled over grace and fallen. That grace is based on the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and this is unacceptable to them. We see that there is one leader that is in place and working to spread this false teaching. Six is the number of man and this tells us of the fact that these human leaders are all in place but the seventh leader is not coming in human strength but in the power of the devil. This is what we saw in chapter 13 as the unholy trinity was being assembled. The beast that the woman rides is the eighth leader and the leader of this world religious system. The number eight is associated with the beginning of a new era and this leader will come in the power of the devil declaring a new dawn for the earth.
"'The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast." NIV translation
Throughout God's word, the number ten is associated with earthly completion of the divine order. God has had a plan from the beginning and this number is a symbol that the cycle is complete. In this case, there are ten men that will become kings because of their partnership with the beast. As we see here, with "for one hour", it is going to be a very short reign.
"'They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast.'" NIV translation
These ten leaders will have power and the simple reason for them is that they are going to turn over that authority to the beast. This is a part of the devil's deception in that, if he just showed up and told the people to vote for him, they would not. Therefore, these leaders gain the confidence of their peoples and are elected but they quickly give the power to the beast.
"'They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings - and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.'" NIV translation
All of these kings and kingdoms are going to come together to oppose Jesus. We, as Christians, will stand with Him and demonstrate that He is in fact the King of kings. Since we see that we are going to be a part of the battle, we must ask ourselves if we are in training for it. A soldier's main duty is to train and be prepared for war even as they hope for peace. As we see, the battle is going to be won by Jesus so we do not have to physically train for it but we should be prepared for the spiritual warfare. The apostle Paul gave us a training plan to prepare for our daily battles as well as this final battle that is to come.
"Then the angel said to me, 'The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.'" NIV translation
The aim of this religious system (and the devil and the beasts) is to make it universal. This "prostitute" wants to be at the center and that is what Satan has wanted since the beginning of time. They will work together to make this system universal but, as we shall see, this desire to be the center of worship will bring conflict to their relationship.
"'The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.'" NIV translation
This world religious system will not last as God causes the beast and the world leaders to turn on the system. They use the religious establishment to gain power so that they could give that power to the beast but now they are through with it (her). Satan has wanted to be at the center of worship since his fall and he is not willing to share that position with any religious system or other individual. They will bring shame and ruin on these religious leaders and their final judgment is that they will spend eternity in hell.
"'For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God's words are fulfilled.'" NIV translation
God can use godless things for His glory and that is what is described here as He will use the beasts to judge this religion. The time of their power is limited and will be used to fulfill His word. This has happened throughout the history of God's people (see Isaiah 10).
"'The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.'" NIV translation
All major religions have a city or cities that are their holiest places and the center of their worship. This city is going to be judged as well and is destined for destruction. There are those that have said that this city refers to one place or another but there really is only one city that exists and fits this description. That city is Mecca and it is located in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.