Much of the book of Revelation leaves us scratching our heads and wondering what’s going on. It’s a difficult book to interpret, because of all the images and pictures and symbols which John uses when describing the visions he received. And this chapter — chapter 11 — is particularly difficult; and nearly every detail in the chapter is interpreted in different ways by the Bible commentators. However, we should bear in mind what I said the last time when we were studying chapter 10 where John referred to a scroll which, when eaten, was both sweet and bitter. Do you remember? The scroll represented God’s word and it’s both sweet and bitter. It’s sweet because it speak to us of God’s grace and mercy and of the good news of the gospel. But it’s also bitter because it speaks to us of sin and guilt and the judgment to come. And it’s bitter too because those who proclaim it must often experience the bitterness of rejection and persecution from those who will not accept it.
And the last time I said that chapter 11 deals with the bitterness of declaring God’s word, because chapter 11 is about the church’s faithful witness and the opposition it will encounter. So, although this is a difficult chapter, that’s really what this chapter is about. And there are three parts to our reading today. First of all, in verses 1 and 2, John is commanded to measure the temple of God. Secondly, in verses 3 to 6, he tells us about the two witnesses. And thirdly, in verses 7 to 14 he tells us about this beast who attacks the witnesses.
Verses 1 and 2
In verses 1 and 2, John is commanded to measure the temple of God. He wrote:
I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, ‘Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshippers there.’
There are different interpretations of this verse. Some interpret it to mean that by asking John to measure the temple, the Lord is announcing that at some point in the future the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. But that makes no sense when we remember that the temple in Jerusalem was for the time being only; it was to make do until the coming of Christ; and now that Christ has come, there’s no need for a temple in Jerusalem, with an altar for sacrifices, because Christ has brought all of that to an end, when he offered himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sins. So, it’s more likely that the temple in verse 1 represents the church. And that makes sense, because in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere the Apostle Paul describes the church as a temple: just as God once dwelt in the temple, so he now dwells in the church by his Spirit.
If the temple is the church, what is the significance of measuring it? Well, when I was Clerk of the Dublin and Munster Presbytery, I often had to go down into the basement of one of the churches in Dublin where all the property deeds for the churches in the presbytery were kept. And with the deeds were plans which defined the boundaries for the properties. Someone had carefully measured the area around the churches and had made a note of their measurements, so that it was clear how much of the land the congregation owned. And these boundary maps were there to protect the property so that no one could build on what belonged to us. And that’s probably what’s going on here in chapter 11: measuring the temple, or measuring the church, was a way of making clear that the church is under God’s protection. And so, the measuring of chapter 11 is similar to the sealing of chapter 7: God’s people are sealed and measured, because we’re under God’s protection.
But look now at verse 2. Having been told to measure the temple, John was told to exclude the outer court:
But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.
What’s this verse about?
If you think about the temple in Jerusalem, only the Jews were allowed to go into the temple; the Gentiles had to remain outside, in what was known as the Court of the Gentiles. But John isn’t really looking at the temple; he’s looking at the church. So, what’s the outer court? Well, some of the commentators suggest that the outer court of the church represents those people who come to church on Sundays, but who don’t really believe. They’re nominal Christians: Christians in name only, but not in reality. And since they’re not really believers, then they’re not under God’s protection. However, another view — and this is the one I prefer — is that the outer court is also the church. After all, the person who was speaking to John referred to the outer court as part of the holy city; and the holy city, like the temple, is a picture of the church. And those commentators who think the outer court is also the church suggest that what we have here are two sides of the church: the church is both protected by God and exposed to danger. The measuring of the temple is a picture of how the church is protected; but the way the outer court was excluded is a picture of how the church is exposed and is vulnerable to attack.
You see, we’re protected in the sense that our salvation is safe and secure; no one can take that away for us. But we’re exposed because the Devil and the world are against us and the church is often persecuted. Think of the opening of 1 Peter where Peter writes about how our inheritance is kept in heaven for us and it can never perish, spoil and fade; and believers themselves are shielded by God’s power. So, the church and our salvation is under God’s protection. However, Peter also wrote about the grief and the trials his readers were suffering. So, while their salvation was safe, they were also being persecuted. And that’s what verses 1 and 2 of Revelation 11 are also about: the church is both protected by God and also exposed to attack.
Verses 3 to 6
And then in verses 3 to 6 John tells us about the two witnesses who will prophesy for 1,260 days. Now, look back to verse 2 briefly where we’re told that the holy city will be trampled on for 42 months. If you can do a little mental arithmetic, you’ll work out that 42 months is 1,260 days: 42 times 30 is 1,260. So, during the time when the church is being trampled on, these two witnesses are prophesying.
Who or what are the two witnesses? Many of the commentators suggest that the two witnesses symbolise the church on earth which has been called by the Lord Jesus to bear witness to the truth of God’s word. The reason there are two witnesses, rather than one witness, is perhaps because the Lord Jesus sent out his disciples, two by two. Or perhaps it’s because, in the Old Testament, any charge or accusation in a court case needed to be confirmed by two witnesses.
We’re told in verse 3 that they wore sackcloth, because the church’s message is one of repentance and its a message which speaks of judgment on those who will not repent and believe.
The two witnesses are also described as being two olive trees and two lampstands. If you read the commentaries, you’ll discover that there are all kinds of ways to explain what that means. However, perhaps the simplest explanation is that the two witnesses which represent the church are like lampstands because the word of God which we proclaim is to burn like a lamp in a dark world. Furthermore, because olive oil was used as fuel for lamps in biblical times, the two olive trees in John’s vision signify how the church’s witness will never go out.
And look: according to verse 5, fire will come from the mouths of these two witnesses to devour their enemies. And according to verse 6 their witness is patterned after the ministry of Moses and Elijah, because Elijah prophesied that it would not rain on the land; and Moses turned the water in Egypt into blood. In other words, the message which the church proclaims is a message about sin and guilt and the coming of God’s judgment, when God’s enemies will be judged and condemned as they were in the days of Moses and Elijah. The message of the church is also, of course, a message of salvation for all who repent and believe. However, for those who will not believe, it’s a message of judgment to come.
So, that’s the work of these two witnesses which represents the witness of the church. But go back for a moment to verse 2 and the 42 months; and to verse 3 and the 1,260 days. For 1,260 days, the church is prophesying, which means it is bearing witness for the Lord and proclaiming his word. And for 42 months, which is the same period of time, the church is being trampled on. You see, the Lord is revealing to John what life will be like for the church in these, the last days. While we wait for the Saviour to come again, the church is to bear witness to the truth of God’s word; and at the same time, the church will be trampled on, which means it will be disregarded and ignored and opposed and persecuted. That’s the way it will be in these, the last days. So, when it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Verses 7 to 14
When we move to verses 7 to 14 the opposition to the church intensifies. According to verse 7, when the witnesses have finished their testimony, the beast from the Abyss will attack them and kill them. We’ll come back to the identity of this beast another day. But after the witnesses are killed, their bodies are not buried or treated with respect and honour; instead their bodies are left in the street of the great city. We’re told that this great city is figuratively, or symbolically, called Sodom — which was famous for its wickedness — and Egypt — which was famous for oppressing God’s people — and it’s where the Lord was rejected and crucified. These are symbolical names to represent every place where the Lord and his people are despised and rejected.
And for three and a half days men will gaze upon their dead bodies and will refuse to bury them. Instead they’ll gloat over them and will celebrate, by sending each other presents. In other words, they’ll have a great big party to celebrate the fact that the witnesses are dead. And look at the end of verse 10 where it tells us that the reason they celebrated the death of the witnesses is because the witnesses who were also prophets used to torment those who lived on the earth. Now, the expression ‘those who live on the earth’ is a technical term in the book of Revelation for those who don’t believe and who belong in the world and not in heaven. And what we’re being told here is that those who don’t believe view the witness of the church as something which torments them, because its a message of judgment and condemnation on all those who will not believe and bow before the Lord. Bearing that in mind, it’s little wonder that people will not listen to us when we go to them with the good news of the gospel and they close the door to us when we go around the district. Because they do not believe, it seems to them that we are tormenting them.
But let’s go back now to the three and a half days in verse 9. Three and a half days refers to a short period of time. In fact, go back to the 42 months and the 1,260 days: 42 months and 1,260 is roughly three and a half years. And so now, not for three and a half years, but for only three and a half days, the witnesses will be dead. Does that mean the church will be dead? Well, it cannot mean that, because the Lord Jesus will not let the Devil triumph over his people and he will not let his church on earth perish. So, perhaps John’s vision is to convey to us the idea that the church will become so small and insignificant and will be so disregarded and ignored that it will seem to the world that it no longer exists. And certainly, while there are times of great blessing, when the church grows and is a powerful force in society, there are many other occasions when the church seems very small and barely alive and where it is scorned and rejected by society.
But in John’s vision, he goes on in verse 11 to write about how a breath of life from God entered the witnesses so that they stood on their feet; and fear struck those who saw them. And the witnesses were summoned to heaven. Perhaps John is referring to the coming of the Lord, when the members of the church will be raised from the dead and will ascend to heaven, while the wicked will be condemned for ever. Or perhaps we’re to think of how, from time to time, the Lord blows his Spirit through his church to revive it so that it can continue to bear witness and to proclaim the word of the Lord.
So, while we face trouble and strife and persecution from those who will not believe, the church is to continue to proclaim the word of the Lord in these, the last days. Sometimes the church will become so weak and small that it might even seem to have died, but the Lord continually revives his church; and in the end, in the end, his people will dwell with him in glory.
And this passage ends with the news that there was a great earthquake and seven thousand people on the earth were killed, whereas those who survived were forced to do something they had never done before: they were forced to acknowledge the glory of the Lord. Well, the great earthquake here reminds us of the great earthquake back in chapter 6 which signified the coming of the Lord to judge the world and to punish those who refused to believe in him. And so, it seems that here in chapter 11, John is once again receiving a vision of the coming of the Lord to judge the living and the dead. And finally, finally, those who refused to yield to Christ in this life will come to see and to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And so, what’s the message of this difficult passage? That the church is both under God’s protection and yet the church is also exposed to danger. Our salvation is safe and secure and can never be taken from us. But while we proclaim the word of the Lord and bear witness to Christ, an unbelieving world will hate us and despise us and will say we are tormenting them. However, in the end, those who refuse to believe will be condemned, whereas the members of the church will live with the Lord for ever in glory.