Protected, Persecuted, Vindicated: Revelation 11:1-19
By Thomas Schreiner–
We come today to one of the most controversial chapters in Revelation, one where sincere and good believers disagree on some of the details. I really only have time to explain to you how I understand the chapter. Again I say, “Test all things and hold fast to what is good!”
We are reminded by Revelation 11:1-19 that we need to stand up against the world. Right now in America that means that we have to stand up for truth. We must not be silent but raise our voices in defense of the gospel and truth. So many want to shut us up. I thought of this as I read Jay Nordlinger’s biography of Albert Einstein.
I was reminded of a story (says Jay) I learned from Tony Daniels . . . . It’s sometime in the 1930s, I believe, before the Reich has really gotten going. A hundred “Aryan” scientists sign a letter against Einstein, saying that the theory of relativity is a Jewish hoax (or whatever). Asked for his response, Einstein says, “If what they are saying were true, one signature would have been enough.”
Einstein was saying that truth isn’t decided by majority vote. What is popular should not be equated with the truth. And as Christians, we have the vote of the only person we need. God himself has told us that his word is truth.
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. 15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” 16 And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” 19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
1. Protection of God’s People (11:1)
John is told to measure the temple, the altar, and the worshippers. The language of measuring comes especially from Ezekiel 40-48. But what does John mean by measuring the temple, the altar, and the worshipers? Some think John has in mind a literal temple, which will be rebuilt. But I think this is unlikely, for two reasons. First, we are given a clue to what John means by the last thing he mentions: measuring the worshipers. We don’t literally measure people, and so this suggests that John is speaking figuratively. John is telling us that the temple, the altar, and the worshipers all refer to the same thing: the people of God.
Our second clue is the reference to the temple. The temple refers, as is often the case in the New Testament, to the people of God—to the church of Jesus Christ. For example, in 1 Cor 3:16 Paul says about the church, “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you.” Also, I don’t think it is convincing to say that John restricts his meaning to Jewish believers. As we find elsewhere in the NT, God’s temple refers to the whole people of God—the church of Jesus Christ. God indwells his people by the Holy Spirit. The altar probably signifies that the church lives wholly for God. Their lives are a living sacrifice to him. But what does the measurement of the church mean? That which is measured is guarded and protected. So, the measurement means that the church is protected. God watches over his people. He protects us from spiritual harm. He guards us so that we will not fall away from him. He will preserve us from Satan and in the midst of persecution and as we suffer trials.
2. Persecution of God’s People (11:2)
In v. 2 John says, “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.” Some think John refers literally to the city of Jerusalem and to the court of the temple. But as in v. 1, I think the language is figurative. The holy city in Revelation is the new Jerusalem (the heavenly Jerusalem), and in Rev 21 it is linked with the new people of God. So John is saying that the church of Jesus Christ will be persecuted by the nations, i.e., unbelievers for forty two months. They will be trampled so to speak by unbelievers. John draws on Dan 7:25 here, which says that God’s people will be worn out by those who oppose them for three and a half years (“a time, times, and a half of time”). But what time period is meant by the 42 months here? We are told in Rev 13:5 that the beast exercises authority for 42 months. And another way of speaking of 42 months is 1260 days. 1,260 days is 42 months multiplied by 30. We are told in Rev 11:3 that the two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days. And in Rev 12:6 the woman is preserved in the wilderness for 1,260 days.
I understand this time period to extend from the cross and resurrection to the end of time. In other words, the time period is not a literal period of three and half years, during a final tribulation period. Seven is the perfect number, but 42 months, 1,260 days, or three and a half years is half of seven, denoting a period where evil reigns instead of righteousness. Therefore, the number should not be read literally. In other words, the persecution John speaks of started in the first century and continues today.
So, John is teaching us two truths in these first two verses. First, the Lord protects the church spiritually. He watches over his own. But secondly that doesn’t mean we are protected from persecution. Too many Christians are taught today that we are “King’s Kids,” that we will be spared suffering, sickness, and poverty. God doesn’t promise us that we will not go through the valley of the shadow of death. What he promises is that he will not forsake us in the valley, and that he will be with us and help us. Isaiah 43:20 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
3. Ministry of God’s People (11:3-6)
Starting in v. 3 we read about the ministry of the two witnesses, but we are immediately plunged into another difficulty. Who are the two witnesses? Again, many think John is literally talking about two individuals (Moses and Elijah/Enoch and Elijah), and that is possible, but I think it is more likely that he has in view the church of Jesus Christ in its prophetic ministry.
We have to remember again that Revelation is full of highly symbolic language. When we read in v. 7 that the beast made war against the two witnesses, it is quite unlikely that he thinks of the beast only killing two people. This is confirmed by the parallel in Rev 13:7 which says that the beast “was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” In other words, the two witnesses are just another way of speaking of God’s saints. Rev 13:7 helps us understand who the two witnesses are. And there are two because the Old Testament emphasizes the importance of two witnesses to confirm the truth of what is said.
The reference to the two olive trees and the two lampstands goes back to Zechariah 4, where Joshua and Zechariah are olive trees. They were the two anointed ones (as priest and king), according to Zech 4:14. In other words, John is describing the church as a kingdom of priests, John emphasizes in Revelation that believers are priests and kings (Rev. 1:6; 5:10: 20:6). John also uses the picture of olive trees from Zech 4 because the church is empowered in its witness by the Holy Spirit. Remember that Zechariah was reminded, “Not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:6).
Similarly, the lampstands show that the church is to be light of the world. The church exercises its prophetic ministry for 1,260 days—from the resurrection of Jesus to his second coming. The church is given a prophetic authority from God himself, and it is clothed in sackcloth because it proclaims a message of repentance and mourning.
Those who desire to harm the church face judgment, as v. 5 says. Fire comes from the mouth of God’s witnesses and destroys those who oppose them. I think it is quite obvious that this is not literal language. We have no other example in the Bible of fire literally coming from someone’s mouth. Remember that earlier in Revelation that a sword came from Jesus’ mouth, and no one thinks that is literal. So, we should not think the fire here is a literal fire. It teaches us that those who oppose the gospel and the church’s messengers will be judged by God.
The judgments are compared to the judgments inflicted by Elijah and Moses. Under Elijah rain did not fall for three and a half years. Also, Moses turned water into blood and many other plagues occurred under his authority. Again, I take these to be symbols of the judgment of God that is proclaimed by the church of Jesus Christ. If the fire coming out their mouths is not literal, there is no need to think that John describes literal judgments here. The OT judgments function as types of greater judgments to come.
What is the task of the church here? It is called upon to proclaim God’s word of salvation and judgment by the power of the Spirit. Faithfulness to the gospel means especially that we do not shrink back from declaring the judgment of God on sin. Don’t you feel uncomfortable doing that? Who are we to judge? Well, we are nothing. I have no authority to judge, for I am a sinner. But we are not declaring as a church our own judgment and our own opinions. We are proclaiming the word of God. We are saying that all those who worship false gods will be judged. All those who find their security and significance and meaning in something besides God will be ruined. Only those who trust in God’s salvation in Jesus will be spared. Only those who give up their own pathway and yield to Jesus as Lord and Savior will be saved.
4. Persecution of God’s People (11:7-10)
Even though the church proclaims God’s judgment, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fierce opposition. Notice how these verses move back and forth from: protection to persecution, and now from our declaration of judgment to our persecution.
We read earlier in v. 7 that the beast rises from the pit and puts the two witnesses to death. We saw that this fits with Rev 13:7 where the beast puts the saints to death. The Beast will persecute the church to such an extent that the church seems to be defeated by the powers of evil. The wicked in the world are filled with joy and celebrate the death of believers as if it were a birthday party. What profound hatred there is of our Christ and his followers among those who are children of the devil.
When v. 9 speaks of their corpses lying in the street, we should understand this figuratively. The refusal to bury someone in the ancient world was a great dishonor. The world despises and mocks and scorns those who trust in Christ. It kills believers and throws them out on the streets as if they were trash. So, John is not literally thinking here of the city of Jerusalem as the place where the corpses of the two witness lie in the streets. He compares Jerusalem to Sodom and Egypt, for Jesus was crucified there. He thinks of the city of man which opposes the city of God. Just as the world hated Jesus and killed him, so it kills and mocks believers. The city of man is opposed to the city of God, and it rejoices when those from the city of God die. We should expect to be scorned by the world. The problem is that there is a lust for the approval of the world and the values of the world that is pervasive in the evangelical world today. Revelation reminds us that the world is radically opposed to us, that it celebrates our demise.
5. Vindication of God’s People (11:11-14)
John picks up the language of Ezekiel 37 in vv. 11-12, which is the language of resurrection. The world rejoices over the death of God’s people, but God will vindicate them. We see again the truth taught in v. 1. The people of God will be spiritually protected, even if they will be physically assaulted. Ultimately, the world will know that we belong to God, and we will receive vindication from him, for we will be raised from the dead. Believers will be taken to heaven in a cloud, which symbolizes God’s presence. While believers are vindicated and raised from the dead, unbelievers will be judged. The earthquake indicates that the end has come and it is the final judgment. Hence, the 7,000 refers to unbelievers who are judged by God. The number 7 multiplied by 1,000 probably represents the full number of unbelievers.
It is difficult to be sure what John means in speaking of those who are terrified and give glory to God. It seems most likely to me that he is saying that at the end of time, there will be a great number who turn to God in repentance and belief. This seems to be the most likely way to understand the reference to giving God glory, for we read about the wicked in Rev 16:9 that “They did not repent and give him glory. So, it seems that those who do give God glory are converted.
The lesson I see here is that we should not give up on unbelievers. You may have friends and family members whom you have been speaking to for a long time. I know I have, and it is easy for me to get discouraged after so many years. But God has still more that he will save. We can be encouraged that his word will not return to him void, that the gospel is always bearing fruit and increasing.
6. The Longing of God’s People (11:15-19)
We see the end of history in the 7th trumpet. Just as the end came in the 6th seal now it arrives in the 7th trumpet. Revelation 10:6-7 teaches us that when the 7th trumpet sounds, then there will be no more delay: the final judgment has come, and God is wrapping up history. As v. 15 says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.” The wicked will be judged, and the righteous rewarded.
The opening of God’s temple and the appearance of the ark symbolize God’s presence and power. There is no literal temple or ark, for the ark was lost forever, never to be found. But only those who love the Lord and belong to him can enter into his temple. Those who don’t know him will experience “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” So, what will it be? Some persecution now or judgment forever? Some people rejecting us now, or the Lord rejecting us forever?
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.
Read blog posts by Thomas Schreiner here.