The difference between visions and explanations helps us solve one of the most vexing problems in the whole book of Revelation. Who are the seven kings of Rev. 17:10? They are clearly sequential, but where do they begin and when is the “one is” of the angel’s description? It is a power in John’s day, one at the very end of time, or is it somewhere in the course of history? Various Seventh-day Adventist scholars have drawn each of these three conclusions.
One popular option among non-scholars is to see the seven kings as seven consecutive popes, usually beginning with the year 1929, when Mussolini restored Vatican City to the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church, and the very last pope of earth’s history. This view has frequently suggested that a current pope is either the last or the next to last. So this view has led people into date-setting and is now stretched to the limit as pope after pope continues.
A second view is quite popular among SDA scholars. It suggests that the time of the sixth king (the “one is” of 17:10) is the time from 1798 to 1929, when the papacy had no temporal power. The five fallen kings would then be Babylon Persia, Greece, Rome, and the medieval papacy. The one that is would be the time when the church has no temporal power. The seven kings would be the situation today, the restored Vatican power. This view fits well with the overall Adventist view of the end-time.
But seeing this text as part of an explanation rather than a vision would rule out both options if applied here. The passage about the seven kings is not in the vision (Rev. 17:3-6), it is in the explanation of the vision (17:7-18). In order to make sense to John the explanation needs to be from his standpoint in history. So the “one is” king would have to be present at the time when John himself received the vision in order to make sense. If the “one is” kingdom is the pagan Rome of John’s day, the five who are “fallen” would be the five super powers of the Old Testament world; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. The seventh “king” would be the medieval papacy and the “eighth” (Rev. 17:11) king, who is one of the seven, would be the revived Babylon of chapter 17, an entity that in its fullness is still in our future.