By Christopher VanDusen
As God’s witnesses on the earth, the church proclaims judgment to the unbelieving world around them, as well as salvation. This invites persecution from the world, and Christians suffer from it. At times, it seems as if the church has lost its witness in some parts of the world, and that it’s losing the battle for the truth. In such times, how do believers stay encouraged, and assured that victory will eventually be theirs? Revelation 11:1-14 answers this question.
In Revelation 11, the apostle John has just seen a vision of a divine Messenger standing on the sea and land, with a scroll in His hand. He’s taken this scroll from this “Angel”, and has been commissioned by God to prophesy about many people and rulers. Now, he’s about to begin the last major section of his prophecy of Revelation.
Before this commission, John has seen six visions of six judgments on God’s enemies, each announced by the blast of a trumpet. Most of these judgments picture God’s regular punishment of His enemies through natural means, as well as through Satan and his demons. The last of these six shows the climactic judgment on unbelievers immediately before the second coming of Christ.
Having shown him the judgment immediately before the last judgment, which will be introduced by the seventh trumpet, God prepares John for this last trumpet through the Messenger in chapter 10. Since this Messenger announces that the last trumpet is imminent, John now knows that he’s about to see the final, climactic judgments brought on the earth. Therefore, in the first 14 verses of chapter 11, God shows him that the church will be protected from these judgments, and will triumph through persecution before then:
“Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2 but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. 3 And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. 6 They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. 7 And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, 10 and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. 11 But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. 13 And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
14 The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.” (ESV)
In this passage, John experiences nine things that show us God’s protection and work through the church in this time before the coming of Christ:
- God Instructs John to Measure the Temple (v. 1)
- God Impedes John from Measuring the Court (v. 2)
- God Empowers His Martyrs to Prophesy (v. 3)
- John Identifies the Martyrs as Prophets (vss. 4-6)
- The End of the Martyrs is Persecution (vss. 7-10)
- The Enlivening of the Martyrs Paralyzes (v. 11)
- The Ascension of the Martyrs is Perceived (v. 12)
- An Earthquake Massacres Persecutors (v. 13)
- The Extreme of Mourning is Previewed (v. 14)
God Instructs John to Measure His Temple
After being commissioned to prophesy about many more things, John is now equipped and instructed on how to begin his prophesying in verse 1:
“Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, ‘Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there . . .’”
What is the purpose of a measuring rod? To discover the dimensions of a physical object, so one knows either how much space it takes up, or how many people it can hold. Why? Because the person measuring it wants to use it. In the same way, God tells John to measure “the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” because He wants to use His temple, His altar, and the worshipers in the temple.
But what does He mean by these things? Well, He can’t be speaking of the literal temple that was in Jerusalem at that time, since the church was now His temple (see 1 Corinthians 3, Ephesians 2, etc.). Further, He can’t be speaking of literally measuring these things because He adds that John needs to measure the worshipers in the temple. This wouldn’t make any sense if God was speaking literally. Why would He tell John to measure people with a measuring rod?
Instead of speaking literally, God is speaking figuratively. By His “temple”, He means the gathering of His people, or the “church” — which meant “assembly” at that time. By “the altar” He means the lives of His church, in which they “sacrifice” themselves to Him. And obviously He means His individual people by the worshipers.
So when God commands John to measure these elements of the church, He’s picturing the fact that He intends to use the church. And since He forbids John from measuring the “court outside of the temple” because it will be “trampled” by “the nations”, He’s also symbolizing that the church won’t be trampled by the unbelieving nations, but protected from their destructive actions.
God Impedes John from Measuring the Court
So, God next explains why John is to refrain from measuring the court of the temple:
“‘. . . but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.’”
If God’s temple represents the church, what does the courtyard outside it represent? According to the New Testament, there are only two groups of people in the world: believers and unbelievers; Christians and non-Christians; those in the church, and those outside the church. Therefore, the courtyard of God’s temple must represent the world.
God says that John isn’t to measure the courtyard because it’s “given over to the nations”. In the Old Testament, “the nations”, or “Gentiles”, are those who aren’t God’s people. Thus, God is saying that unbelievers have dominion over the world. As such, God doesn’t intend to protect it from His judgment, but to destroy it in His final judgment on earth.
But what does God mean by the nations trampling “the holy city for forty-two months”? Well, just as God’s temple in Revelation doesn’t refer to the physical temple in Jerusalem, so also “the holy city” doesn’t refer to the physical city of Jerusalem. In the only other two places in Revelation where John uses this title, it refers to the church, which is the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2; 22:19). Thus, God is saying that unbelievers will “trample” the church for “forty-two months”. As seen in many other places in Revelation, this number of months isn’t a literal duration, but figurative. “Forty-two months” is the number of months in three and a half years, which is half of seven years. If seven is the number of completion or wholeness, then half of that must be a number representing unwholeness and destruction. In other words, the church will be crushed and oppressed by unbelievers during a time of destruction and suffering.
God Empowers His Martyrs to Prophesy
Although the church will be greatly persecuted during this time before the return of Christ, it won’t be weak and useless, but strong and powerful, according to verse 3, which says,
“‘And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.’”
Who are these two witnesses? Are they two literal people, or do they represent people, or a thing, as the rest of the characters in Revelation do? The answer lies in John’s description of them in verse 4, which calls them “the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth”. This is a clear reference to Zechariah 4, where the governor and high priest of Israel at that time are likened to two olive trees, while a lampstand pictures the remnant of Israel that had gone back to their land.
Now, clearly, the two witnesses that John sees can’t be these two leaders from Zechariah, since they’re dead. Rather, these two witnesses must represent the people of God in some way. The first reason for this is that they are represented by “two lampstands”. In Revelation, lampstands represent local churches, not individual people. The second reason for this is that the Old Testament background of the lampstand is a symbol for Israel, God’s people. Just as a lampstand gave light to the room in which it stood, so God’s people were to shine the light of God’s truth to the world around them. In the same way, the people of God now are called “the light of the world” by Jesus. The third reason for seeing the two witnesses as a picture of the church is that Revelation consistently describes Christians as witnesses of “the testimony of Jesus”, or the gospel.
But why are there two of them? The reason for this is that they are witnesses, and according to the Old Testament requirements for bringing a legal charge against someone, there have to be at least two witnesses. Likewise, the testimony of God’s Word requires at least two witnesses, and it’s the church that bears witness to its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. So the image of two witnesses symbolizes the trustworthiness of the church’s witness.
However, not only is the church trustworthy, but it also has authority to “prophesy”. The word “prophesy” simply means to proclaim God’s message on His behalf. The church has the authority and ability to do this because God has given these things to it.
God further says that the church will prophesy “for 1,260 days”, which is the equivalent of forty-two months. Thus, this prophesying is done during the same time period that the church is trampled by unbelievers. What’s different about this symbol is that it consists of many days, rather than months. The message conveyed by this is that the church’s witnessing will be done daily, and therefore constantly.
Finally, God describes the church as doing this while “clothed in sackcloth”. In the Old Testament, people wore sackcloth when they were mourning. Hence, the fact that the church is clothed in sackcloth shows that it’s message is one that includes judgment to those who refuse to repent and believe the gospel.
John Identifies the Martyrs as Prophets
In verses 4-6, John adds his own description of the two witnesses, confirming that they’re prophets:
“These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.”
Again, John alludes to Zechariah 4 to begin his description. The fact that he calls the church “the two olive trees” recalls the description of the olive trees in Zechariah’s vision. In this vision, both the governor and the high priest of the remnant of Israel are pictured as two branches of two olive trees, from which oil pours on to a lampstand, providing fuel for its flames. The oil symbolizes God the Holy Spirit, and the power He supplied. Secondly, the fact that the oil came from the branches, and fueled the lampstand, symbolized that the two main leaders of the Jews were instruments through whom the Holy Spirit empowered the community to shine the light of God’s truth to the Gentiles around them. In a similar way, John calls the church “two olive trees” to show that its power to prophesy and be a witness to the world comes from the Holy Spirit, the “oil” of the trees. Second, the fact that the church is called “two lampstands” represents its function as the communicator of truth to the world. Finally, it stands “before the Lord of the earth”, just as the Jews’ governor and high priest did, serving as the mediators between God and the community. In the same way, the church works as the mediator between God and the world.
The second main characteristic of the witnesses is that anyone who attempts to harm them is “consumed” when “fire pours from their mouth”. This pictures the church’s invincibility against any attempts to silence its witness. Any attempt by unbelievers to completely stop the church from testifying about Jesus only eventually ends in their destruction.
Third, the witnesses wield the power of God when they prophesy. This is what’s expressed by their “power to shut the sky”, and “power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague”. In the Old Testament, prophets did these things to show their unbelieving audiences that they were speaking on God’s behalf. In the same way, the church has the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to live lives of Christlike love and righteousness, demonstrating to the world that it speaks on God’s behalf.
The End of the Martyrs is Persecution
In verses 7-10, John describes the church’s persecution from the world:
“And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.”
Now, John seems clearly to be describing a specific event in the history of the church. This is suggested by the fact that all this happens when the witnesses “have finished their testimony”. In other words, the church has testified to the truth for the predetermined period of time, and to the predetermined people.
After the church has completed its witnessing a beast comes from “the bottomless pit”, and fights against it so its “conquered” and “killed”. John has previously mentioned the bottomless pit, or the “abyss”, when he described a vision of Satan releasing demonic forces from this pit onto the unbelieving world. Now, John sees a “beast” come from this pit. John has yet to see a beast in his previous visions, so what it symbolizes is unclear. However, it’s obviously a power that’s under the control of Satan. Somehow, it will silence the church’s witness in the world through violent persecution.
However, the church’s remains will somehow linger, since the witnesses’ “dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt”. In the Old Testament, the cities of Sodom and Egypt are representative of the unbelieving world as a whole. Thus, “the great city” represents the unbelieving world that’s under the control of Satan. It’s in this “city” that the witnesses’ “Lord was crucified”. In other words, just as Jesus was murdered by the world, so also the church will be persecuted to such an extent that it’s witness is silenced.
Although the church will be silenced, John sees it as only being silenced “for three and a half days”. This is another symbolic number, since it’s exactly half of seven. Just as the last two numbers represented a time of destruction, so also this does. However, since it’s only a few days, it represents an extremely short period of time.
During this time, “some” from the various peoples of the unbelieving world will “gaze” at the church, and “refuse to let them be placed in a tomb”. In the Jewish world, being refused a proper burial was one of the most dishonoring and insulting things someone could do. Similarly, the world won’t sympathize with the church’s demise, but will delight and boast in it. Therefore, those hostile to the church, represented by “those who dwell on the earth”, will “rejoice over” the church, “make merry”, and “exchange presents”. Why? Because the church had “been a torment” to them.
The Enlivening of the Martyrs Paralyzes
According to verse 11, the church’s demise will soon be followed by its revival:
“But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.”
Somehow, the church will be restored to spiritual life from God and “stand up” on its “feet”. This will strike the unbelieving witnesses with “great fear”.
The Ascension of the Martyrs is Perceived
Not only will the church be revived, but it will also be taken into heaven:
“Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.” (v. 12)
Just as Jesus ascended into heaven, so also the church will ascend into heaven. According to this verse, this ascension won’t be a secret, but clearly seen by the church’s “enemies”.
An Earthquake Massacres Persecutors
The ascension of the church to heaven triggers the beginning of the last judgment on the unbelieving world:
“And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
Just as the church visibly rises to heaven, there will be a great judgment on its enemies. Here, this judgment is described as “a great earthquake”, causing “a tenth of the city” to fall. This is the city of the world that John has said was where the church was destroyed. Since its destruction only consists of “a tenth”, this judgment isn’t complete, but partial. However, the number of people this judgment will kill will be complete, since it’s symbolized by “seven thousand”. Again, “seven” symbolizes a complete number. In addition, this number is extremely large, since it’s multiplied by a “thousand”, a common figure in the Bible.
Although a great number of people will be killed by this judgment, the survivors will be “terrified”, and will therefore give “glory to the God of heaven”. This means that they’ll recognize who He is, and that He was the One who judged the world, and took His church out of it.
The Extreme of Mourning is Previewed
John has previously heard the final three “trumpet judgments” called “woes”, and John has just witnessed the completion of the second to last judgment. Thus, he concludes this vision with,
“The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.”
This marks the end of the first half of Revelation, with the beginning of the last judgment on the earth.
Expect Protection and Persecution as a Witness for Christ
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how does this passage apply to you?
First, we need to remember that as long as there isn’t a “beast” that arises from the world to unite it against the church (the “antichrist”), the church will continue to exist on this earth to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and His work. We ought not to worry about the presence of Christians in the world. The Lord will place them right where He wants them.
Second, we must never forget that even while the church is protected from extinction, we will be persecuted by the nations. In fact, this persecution is so severe that it can be described as being “trampled”.
Third, we’ve been given authority to proclaim God’s Word to unbelievers by God Himself. We are His witnesses, and He has empowered us through His Spirit to testify about Christ. We confirm our witness by living lives of Christlike love and righteousness through the Spirit’s power.
However, we shouldn’t expect the church to have complete victory in making disciples on this earth. Eventually the church will be overpowered, and appear as though it’s dead. Nevertheless, the Lord will accomplish full and complete victory in the judgment of His enemies, both before and through His second coming.
If you aren’t a witness to the truth of the gospel through your lifestyle, then you are still one of those who dwells on the earth, and are heading for God’s punishment because of your rebellion against Him. The good news is that God is now urging sinners to be reconciled to Him by repenting of their rebellion and trusting in Jesus. God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to demonstrate that He was God’s Son, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. How now commands everyone to change their minds and to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His forgiveness, mercy, and peace. He’s doing this because He’s going to eventually judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His rebellious enemies for eternity in a place of torment. Please make sure you’ve done this. If you have, then Jesus requires His people to be baptized under water as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.