Revelation 11 Says What?
Last Sunday we dealt with a complex passage (Listen or Watch). Revelation 10:1-11:14 is not easy. I want to make sure we all understand these verses before we move into Revelation 12 this coming Sunday. This blog will provide some deeper exegesis and hopefully a clear explanation and application of those verses. I think chapter 10 is relatively clear. Chapter 11 is where a lot of the confusion sets in. I will focus my attention there.
The seals (6-7) and the trumpets (9-11) describe the same events but from different perspectives. The seals are concerned with history from the vantage point of earth. The trumpets, on the other hand, view the same history, but this time from the vantage point of heaven looking down upon the earth.
The two visions of chapters 10-11, provide us with an interlude before the description of the Day of Judgment which is signaled by the blowing of the 7th trumpet (11:15ff). These chapters are not meant to be understood as chronological, as though these visions describe something taking place after the blowing of the 6th trumpet Just as chapter 7 was an interlude prior to the opening of the 7th seal, an interlude in which we are given assurance as to the security of God’s people despite the revelations of God wrath.
Chapter 10 has parallels to Daniel 10:5-6 and Ezekiel 2:1-3:11. In this chapter John is being empowered to continue to prophesy the purposes of God. Although John’s role is unique he is in many ways an example for us to follow. We must take in the message of God, live it out and bring it to those around us, both believers and unbelievers.
Let me briefly overview how this passage is typically interpreted by dispensationalists. The temple that is being measured is the actual physical temple in Jerusalem. This is done to “indicate the apostasy of the nation of Israel and their need for revival and restoration.” (Walvoord) The desecration of the temple will take place for the final 3 ½ years of the 7 year tribulation. The two witnesses are two actual people sent by God to minister on his behalf as prophets during this time. They have unusual power in service of God, but eventually they are killed by their enemies. Their bodies are left in the streets of Jerusalem for 3 ½ days viewed by the entire world. [“In the modern world with television capability, this becomes something that could be easily fulfilled.” (Walvoord)] But after this time God raises them up, judges Jerusalem with a severe earthquake in which 7000 people are killed and the survivors give glory to God. The final trumpet blast happens in heaven alone. It is an “ominous preparation” for what will happen when the bowls of God’s wrath (chapter 16ff) are unleashed at the end of the tribulation.
There are a number of reasons why this is not the correct interpretation of this chapter. Most of which I have already covered in earlier sermons (Listen or Watch) and in my blog series on dispensationalism (find it here). At this point we need to remember two key things. First, this is an apocalyptic book which uses symbolism to communicate. Finding literal fulfillments of these symbols is a dubious way to interpret this genre. Second, Revelation is not chronological. It is progressive parallelism that revisits the same events from different perspectives. There is a better way to understand this chapter, but given our predisposed dispensational thinking it is not easy to follow. But let me try.
11:1-2 -- The Measuring of the “holy city”
Once again we see the ministry of John parallel somewhat the ministry of Ezekiel. (40-48) First John was told something, he must prophesy (10:11), and now he must do something (11:1-2), he is given a rod to measure the temple of God and the people within it, but not the outer court, “for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.” Everywhere else in Revelation the “temple” and the “altar” are in heaven, not on earth. There is no reason to think they are anywhere else in these verses. Thus John is told to measure the heavenly temple or sanctuary, not the earthly one. The outer court refers to earth.
What do we do with the numbering in these verses? Once again remember that numbers are symbolic in Revelation and in this case they have an Old Testament connection. These time references echo Daniel 7:25, 9:24-27 and 12:7 so we need to go back to Daniel before we can truly understand Revelation 11. In Daniel 9 God sets out a period of 70 weeks during which he will accomplish his purposes of redemption. This period of time builds on the earlier period of 70 years of exile prophesied by Jeremiah. (Daniel 9:2; Jeremiah 25:12; 29:10) The prophecy in Jeremiah refers to the time in which God’s people will be exiled in Babylon something which Daniel believes is coming to an end in fulfillment of those words, hence his prayer in light of reading Jeremiah. After this 70 year period of exile, God promised to restore his people to the land and to Jerusalem. We see this fulfillment taking place in the pages of the Old Testament. (cf Ezra 1:1-4; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). But, God reminds Daniel, this restoration of Israel is only preliminary. The final redemption of which God is working will actually take place at the conclusion of another 490 year period (symbolic in nature). The primary focus in Daniel 9 lies in the last of these symbolic weeks. This is the time inaugurated by the first coming of the Messiah, when Jesus came to earth to accomplish redemption (Daniel 9:26a). In the middle of this last week the sanctuary is destroyed (Daniel 9:27), which took place symbolically on account of the work of Christ and was physically completed in 70 AD. The period from the first coming of Christ / 70 AD to the 2nd coming is the last half of the week of Daniel’s prophecy, a period of trouble and persecution.
Now to Revelation 11. The 1,260 days, then, cover the entire interadvental period, the time between the 1st and 2nd comings of Christ, viewed as a time of persecution and distress. (cf 2 Timothy 3:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-8) This means that John is seeing what Paul speaks about to Timothy “There will be terrible times in the last days” for God’s people. (2 Timothy 3:1) In order for the church and its members to “conquer” and to receive the eternal promises of God they must be aware of the difficulty they will have to face.
11:3-14 -- The Two Witnesses
Now for the really tough verses. Let’s deal with the first and most obvious question -- Who are the two witnesses? Let’s look at the biblical evidence.
The context suggests that in some way the testimony of the two witnesses mirrors that of John. In 10:11 he is told to prophesy and in 11:3, 6 he describes the two witnesses doing exactly that.
By referring to them as “the two olive trees and the two lampstands” (v 4), John recalls the vision of Zechariah. (4:2-3, 6)
There is a connection between olive trees and lampstands that we must not miss. The allusion here is to the temple and its lampstands which are powered by the oil of the olive trees. The lampstands represent the presence of God (Numbers 8:4; Exodus 25:30-31; Zechariah 4:2-5). The oil of the lampstands from the olive trees is an allusion to the prophecy in Zechariah 4 in which is described the assurance of the completion of the temple “not my might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” (4:6)
As we just saw, in Zechariah God promises that the temple will be built and that opposition will be overcome - “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” (4:6). John has just spoken about the establishment and preservation of the true temple (11:1-2), despite opposition. The message is the same. As Beale notes “Just as the priest and the king here [in Zechariah 4] were the Spirit’s key means for the establishment of the temple against opposition so here [Revelation 11] two witnesses are likewise empowered by the Spirit to perform the same role in relation to the temple of 11:1-2.”
We have already seen lampstands in Revelation as a metaphor for the seven churches to which John writes. [Kittle notes that it would be “a defiance of common sense to use the same distinctive symbol for two different ideas, within the compass of one book.”]
But there is more…
We are told in v 7, that “when they [the two witnesses] have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them, and conquer them and kill them,” a statement which is virtually repeated in 13:7 when we read that the Beast “was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The 13:7 text is a clear reference to the beast’s assault upon the church. This connection suggests that 11:7 and 13:7 both refer to the church
When we consider that these two witnesses minister during the same period of time as the outer court of the temple is trampled by the Gentiles (1260 days/42 months), it is clear that these two witnesses are symbolic of the church upon the earth during the entire church age as it proclaims the gospel while warning the inhabitants of the earth of the final woe, yet to come
So who are the two witnesses? They are the church; they are us as we witness to the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit to a world that opposes both the gospel and its messengers. These verses contain a great promise. Since the church possesses the power of the Holy Spirit there is an invincibility about their witness (11:5). They cannot be ultimately harmed in any way until after their prophetic mission is complete. God’s church may be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, but not crushed or forsaken or destroyed (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
But it also contains the truth about how things will end in this world for God’s people. When the mission of the church is done, the Beast, the figure of v 7 who will be seen in a much more significant way in chapters 13 & 17, will seemingly gain the upper hand. There is a direct connection between the “beast that arises from the bottomless pit”, and that of “Apollyon” in 9:11. Satan energizes false worship and stirs up opposition to God’s people and the gospel and seeks to destroy them both. But this only happens when God allows it and only to the extent that he allows it.
The end, whenever it comes, is characterized as especially difficult for the people of God. They will be killed and their ability to witness ended. The picture given in v 8 of the bodies of the witnesses lying in the streets of the “great city” for 3 ½ days is particularly gruesome. Refusing to bury the corpse of one’s enemy was, in the ancient world, the ultimate sign of contempt. As the world’s inhabitants rejoice at the death of the witnesses, their bodies are left in the street unburied, a symbolic sign of just how much the world hates them and their message.
The “great city”is Babylon and not the “holy city” of v 2. We know this based upon the usage of this phrase in the book of Revelation. (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21) Babylon in Revelation is not a literal place, but is symbolic of all that opposes God.
This “great city” is symbolically understood as Sodom, Egypt and Jerusalem. The structure of v 8 needs to be properly understood in order to read it properly. (cf. Beale for an in depth explanation of the grammar and syntax of this verse) The last phrase, “where their Lord was crucified” is not a modification or explanation of “the great city” at the beginning of the verse as it is often taken, but an additional city in the list. So we understand this “great city” in symbolic terms that are associated with Sodom, Egypt and Jerusalem. It is like Sodom in the depth of its wickedness. It is like Egypt because it persecutes God’s people. It is like Jerusalem in its contempt for the Messiah and the gospel.
Verses 7-9 describe the end. It is the time before the Second Coming of Christ; a time of intense persecution and difficulty for the people of God. But it is not to last long; it is only for 3 ½ days that God’s people will suffer and appear defeated. Finally, God calls to his people to “Come up here!” and he takes them up in a cloud (cf. Ezekiel 37:10) and there is no power on earth that can prevent it. As Beale states, “God causes his people to triumph by restoring them from defeat and executing final judgment on their oppressors.”
Following the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the saints that accompanies it, there is the immediate sound of the 7th and final trumpet (11:15). The end has arrived. And there is rejoicing in heaven – “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his X, and He will reign for ever and ever” (11:15)
Though the closing days of this age will be troublesome, the victory of God's people is assured. What great encouragement to us as we continue our battle against every scheme and ploy of the devil (Ephesians 6:11, 13; cf. 1 Pet. 5:8) and continue in our faithful witness no matter the cost.
Soli Deo Gloria
For further study check out the sources I used for the above exposition:
J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation
Derek Thomas, Let’s Study Revelation
Vern Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Highly recommended)
Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation
Gregory Beale, The Book of Revelation (a working knowledge of Greek is needed in order to use this commentary to its fullest)