Powerful Witness in Tribulation
Eleven is another challenging chapter to interpret. Some have said it’s the most difficult in Revelation. I might agree, but I still have eleven more to go—so we’ll see. Some details may puzzle us, but I think the main point will stand out, especially with some help from the Old Testament.
Remember that chapter 11 belongs to a pause in John’s narrative. He did this once in chapter 7. Before Jesus breaks the final seal, John pauses to reassure the church in tribulation. So also here, before the final trumpet, John pauses to reassure us.
Some of that assurance came with chapter 10. John’s vision of the mighty angel reassured us that Jesus has all dominion. God’s saving purpose will prevail. At the same time, we learned that God’s saving purpose includes bitter tribulation. Chapter 11 develops that bitter tribulation. For a time, the church will suffer greatly for its powerful witness. Nevertheless, God will vindicate his people. That’s the message of chapter 11. Let’s read verse 1-14 and make some observations…
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, 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.
Occasionally, we sing these words: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand / And cast a wishful eye / To Canaan’s fair and happy land / Where my possessions lie / I am bound…I am bound for the promised land.” Christians from all over sing that song. Yet none of us literally stand by the Jordan River. We’ve borrowed Old Testament imagery to depict our current state. Like Israel, we endure a wilderness on our way to the true Promised Land in the new heaven and new earth.
We get that from the way John often borrows from the Old Testament. In chapter 7 he borrowed the sealing of God’s faithful in Ezekiel, the census of God’s people in Numbers, the Feast of Booths in Exodus—all to depict the church as this mighty army that God preserves through the wilderness of tribulation. In chapter 11, John borrows more images to picture or typify our present mission.
The “1,260 Days” and Present Tribulation
Now, to say that John pictures our present mission means I’m approaching chapter 11 a particular way. You likely noticed that verses 2 and 3 describe an interval of “forty-two months” or “1,260 days.” Elsewhere, John uses “time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14). They all mean the same interval: three and a half years. The question is what does this interval represent? Should it be taken as a literal three and a half years? Or is it a symbol like most other numbers in Revelation?
The language comes from Daniel 7:25 and Daniel 12:7. Both are prophecies that describe an interval when God’s people suffer intense persecution from enemy nations but are then vindicated by God. Now, some will take those prophecies from Daniel and push this intense persecution of God’s people to the very end of history. They would take the three and a half years literally, and then limit them to the final three and a half years of a Great Tribulation that end history as we know it.
I take a different approach and have found great help from 12:5-6. There, John indicates when the 1,260 days begin. He’s describing Satan’s attempt to conquer Jesus. Verse 5 then says, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron [i.e., Jesus], but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” When was Jesus “caught up to God and to his throne”? At his ascension. That’s when the 1,260 days began. Then in 12:14-17, that same interval is seen as the days that began when God ousted Satan from heaven and Satan started warring against the church on earth. Again, that started at Jesus’ ascension.
In other words, I don’t think John uses “1,260 days” literally. He uses it symbolically. It represents the present age, which is a time when God’s people suffer tribulation from enemies. It begins with Jesus’ ascension and Satan ousted from heaven; and it ends with Jesus’ return and Satan vanquished forever.
Safe in God’s Presence Though Temporarily Trampled
All that to help you understand how I’m approaching chapter 11. I see chapter 11 portraying our present experience in tribulation as well as our future vindication. Think of chapter 11 more like a parable that uses Old Testament imagery to tell the story of our mission in one sitting. The first way John tells the story of our mission is with an embattled city in verses 1-2; and from this we learn that the church is safe in God’s presence though temporarily trampled.
He’s given a measuring rod in verse 1. John must “rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there.” That comes from Ezekiel 40 and Zechariah 2. Both prophecies come at a time when enemy nations have destroyed the temple. They have oppressed God’s people. But in those awful trials, God sends visions of angels measuring a new temple as a sign of hope. A new day was coming when God would retore the people’s security in his presence forever.
Something similar occurs in Revelation 11. But there’s more to the picture. God also asks John to measure “the altar and those who worship there.” Last time we heard about the altar, the martyrs prayed for justice under the altar. Christians worship the Lord by giving their lives to his service. By measuring the worshipers, God promises not only to restore his people’s security in the future; but even now the Christian belongs to God’s temple and is safe in God’s presence.
Taken that way, I don’t see this measuring to anticipate a future rebuilt earthly temple in Israel. John’s Gospel and Hebrews would find that to be a serious regression in God’s saving plan—Jesus and all united to him are the new and better temple. But also, we’re in a book that views Christians as “pillars” and “lampstands” in God’s temple. We’re also in a chapter that explicitly tells us in verse 8 that he’s speaking symbolically. So, when I put these things together, I see the temple in verse 2 as portraying Christians who already dwell with God in safety. Much like the prophets did, John uses old covenant images to portray the better new covenant realities.
We need to see this picture of our security in God’s presence, because we live in a time of trampling by the nations. Verse 2 forbids John from measuring the court outside. Why? Because “it’s given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.” From Jesus’ ascension to his return, enemies oppress the church.
John compares our current state to an embattled city. Let me zoom out for a minute and explain it this way. Revelation is a story about two cities. You have the Holy City, which is God’s city, the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2; 22:19). Then you have the Great City, which he calls “Sodom and Egypt” in verse 8. In chapters 16-18 he calls the Great City “Babylon.” Sodom, Egypt, Babylon—all enemies of God’s people in the Old Testament. So, the Great City is the Beast’s city. It’s the rebellious city.
Those are your two cities in Revelation. Before the end of time—before the New Jerusalem is complete and wholly secure—there is a time when the Beast’s city rages against God’s city. We live in a day when the nations trample God’s city and seek to destroy the people of God who already belong to that city.
Now, that’s under God’s control. Notice the passive verb: “[the city] is given over.” God is sovereign over this trampling. God also limits how long it will last—1,260 days. Yet for as long as it lasts, the Christian need not worry. Even in our suffering, nothing will shake you from dwelling in God’s presence. If you worship Jesus and give your life to his service, God has already measured you and included you in his dwelling place. Nothing can separate you from God’s presence. That’s the point.
Bold in Witness Though Temporarily Opposed
Here’s another way John tells the story of our mission. The church is bold in witness though temporarily opposed. Verse 3 introduces two witnesses: “I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days.” Some read this as two individuals raised up in the final days just preceding Christ’s return. Sometimes they identify them as Moses and Elijah returned from the dead. I take a different approach—in part, because of how I view the 1,260 days. From what I laid out earlier, the ministry of these witnesses lasts from Jesus’ ascension to his return.
Also, when John identifies the two prophets in verses 4-6, the imagery about Moses and Elijah applies to both witnesses, in addition to imagery from Jeremiah and Zechariah. His point isn’t to identify which two Old Testament witnesses will return. Rather, like he did in chapter 7, John mounts up numerous Old Testament witnesses to paint a picture of what our witness is like. So, I take the two witnesses to represent the church. The Law required the testimony of two witnesses before rendering judgment. That’s why we find two witnesses here before judgment.
John also calls them “two lampstands” in verse 4. Revelation 1:20 identified the church as lampstands. He also mentions two olive trees. That’s from Zechariah 4:11-14. Olives had to do with anointing oil. The two olive trees stood for the two anointed ones—Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the stand-in king. Get this: God anointed priestly and kingly figures to mediate the blessings of God’s Spirit in a day of hostility from pagan nations. John borrows that picture to say that through union with Jesus, that’s who you are. You are a priestly and royal people who mediate the blessings of God’s Spirit in a day of hostility from pagan nations.
He also includes imagery from Jeremiah. Verse 5, “If anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes…” That comes from Jeremiah 5:14. The Lord says, “Behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them.” Read the rest of Jeremiah—he wasn’t literally breathing fire. It’s a metaphor—the same way a sword from Jesus’ mouth is a metaphor. Jeremiah delivered words of judgment. The false prophets spoke nothing but wind. But Jeremiah’s words powerfully achieved judgment on the wicked.
John also pulls from Elijah’s ministry: “They have the power to shut the sky,” he says, “that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying…” You can find this in 1 Kings 17-18. Elijah was in a face-off against Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal. God cursed the land by shutting up the skies, but he did this through the message and the prayers of Elijah. Elijah was like a covenant-enforcer. God worked powerfully through his words and prayers in the face of false leaders and false prophets.
Moses gets included. Verse 6, “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.” A while back I mentioned how Exodus 12:12 views the plagues on Egypt. It wasn’t simply judgment on the people; it was also judgment on their false gods. When Moses spoke God’s word, God defeated the false gods of Egypt and simultaneously delivered his people from slavery. God worked through Moses’ witness to accomplish his will in judgment on false gods and in the salvation of his people.
Now, weave all these images together. How does John want you to see yourself? Like Joshua, Zerubbabel, Jeremiah, Elijah, Moses—we live in a time of intense opposition from oppressive nations, false prophets, and false gods. Yet God has made us a royal and priestly people, anointed by his Spirit to proclaim his truth. God has made us witnesses, and through our words he will defeat false gods and save those who identify with Jesus. Your witness is no small thing. Like he used the prophets before, he will use your witness to accomplish his will in judgment and salvation.
Vindicated in Resurrection Though Temporarily Conquered
Of course, as we learn in verse 5, there will be those who seek to harm you. Jeremiah, Elijah, Moses—none of them had easy ministries. When you don’t compromise your witness before God, the world hates you. That’s where John goes next in verses 7-10. In telling the story of our mission we see lastly that the church is vindicated in resurrection though temporarily conquered.
Verse 7, “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 called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.” “Where their Lord was crucified”—he’s talking about Jerusalem, but he calls it Sodom and Egypt. What’s going on?
He’s pointing out that when Jerusalem crucified Jesus, that city showed its true colors. They proved to have more in common with God’s enemies. Sodom and Egypt are the kinds of cities that hated God’s ways and hated God’s people. The Spirit of Christ did not have their allegiance; the spirit of Antichrist did. The Beast was their master. The “great city” isn’t one you can pinpoint on a map right now. He’s talking in cosmic terms; and this city represents all who hate Jesus and hate Jesus’ followers.
He continues the parable in verse 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, 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.” As it looked when Jesus was crucified, for a time things will look like evil has won the day.
But then comes verse 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. 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. 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.”
The church will experience great defeat in some ways. The Beast’s kingdom will persecute and kill them. But in the same way that God vindicated Jesus, God will vindicate his church. Much of the language in verse 11 comes from Ezekiel 37:10, when God’s Spirit resurrects God’s people. So also, God will raise his church.
God will also judge our enemies. That’s the earthquake in verse 13, and we’ll see it again at the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl. Some see the people’s response in verse 13 as a kind of forced allegiance. They do not glorify God from heartfelt sorrow but utter dread. On the other hand, giving glory to God in Revelation is usually a sign of repentance. The point may simply be that whenever God vindicates the church’s witness, it will lead to the judgment of some and the repentance of others who give him glory. In other words, even if we’re killed for following Jesus, our witness will achieve what God intends for it—judgment on some and the repentance of others. That’s the picture.
So What? Our Powerful Witness in Tribulation
Where, then, does this portrait of the church’s mission leave us? How should it affect us? One, John’s polarizing vision forces us to evaluate our allegiances. The portrait seems extreme, doesn’t it? Many of us don’t go to work and feel the nations trampling us. Some bad things happen, sure. But in general people aren’t as bad as they could be. We seem to get along with the non-Christian world okay. But in that environment, our allegiances to Jesus often go unquestioned, unchallenged.
Revelation rips off the veil and forces us to see the world as it is. There really are just two cities. Either you belong to God’s city and worship Jesus, or you belong to the Beast’s city and hate Jesus. The vision jolts us awake.
If you’re not a Christian, it forces you to ask, “Do I belong to God’s City or to the Beast’s City?” Perhaps you look at the church and find it weak. Maybe you watch popular atheists mock Christianity and find yourself laughing with them. Maybe you watch Christians scatter when persecution hits and think the church will fall. But this vision tells the whole the story. In the end, God’s city prevails. Don’t be deceived by the temporary victories of the Beast. Give yourself to the worship of Jesus in his city. Through the cross, Jesus has already conquered. Turn and give your allegiance to Jesus.
If you are a Christian, we’re also forced to check our allegiances. Why don’t I experience much conflict for Jesus’ sake? Is it because I’m living for the same city as the rebels? Why do few people take offense at my Christianity? Is it because I’ve made too many compromises? John’s vision forces us to check ourselves at the most fundamental level, to make sure our allegiance belongs to Jesus alone.
When Jesus has our total allegiance, do not be surprised by intense opposition. We live in an affluent context, where being comfortable is the norm. We also live in a country whose founding principles, at some points, overlap with Christian morality and that contributes to relatively peaceful communities. We ought to give thanks and not take that for granted. At the same time, we can get so accustomed to this more comfortable setting that we act surprised when anything disturbs it. It catches us off-guard.
But persecution shouldn’t surprise us. Chapter 11 reveals that it’s the norm. The nations will seek to trample the church until Jesus returns. You need to know that, so you don’t quit at the first whiff of hardships. Think of 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…”
Did you notice the parallels between Jesus and the two witnesses: both are faithful; both are hated; both suffer and die; both rise from the dead. Faithful witnesses follow in the footsteps of Jesus. That means intense opposition from the world. But it also means that when we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory.
Also, rest assured that God has secured you. If you belong to his worshipers, then he has measured you for protection. Nothing will strip you from God’s presence. We’re reminded of this truth when we read testimonies from the persecuted church. In the worst persecution, they remind us of how near God was to them in the prison, during the lonely night, before the courts. He will never leave you or forsake you.
Let that truth then give you further confidence to challenge others with the claims of God.[i] When opposition intensifies, you might be tempted to hide. You might be tempted to retreat, to stay quiet when you should’ve spoken. The other temptation is to make compromises with the world. Didn’t we observe this in chapters 2-3? Some in Pergamum made compromises with the teaching of Balaam. Others in Thyatira were tolerating Jezebel, following her into idolatry. Interesting, isn’t it? When John portrays our witness, he chooses a prophet that challenged Jezebel?
Jesus had rebuked several churches for being weak in their witness, for compromising with the world. We ought to look like the Spirit-filled ministry of Joshua and Zerubbabel. We ought to look like Jeremiah and Elijah who were faithful to God in the face of false prophets and false gods. A great test is before us. There’s intense pressure on Christians to compromise. Compromise on abortion, for example. The Pregnancy Help Center emailed supporters yesterday asking for prayer—abortion advocates have planned a night of destruction against pro-life pregnancy centers.
There is also intense pressure on you to compromise on homosexuality and gender—the pressure comes with slander campaigns and companies forcing employees to sign statements about pronouns. Others flip the script on morality calling good evil and evil good, such that you’re the bad guy for protecting children from gender reassignment surgery. Others are pressuring churches to compromise on women being pastors. Others compromise on pastoral integrity to save face. Others compromise on the exclusive claims of Jesus as the only way for salvations.
When it comes to the claims of God in Scripture, though, this vision reminds the church to stay faithful. We must not cower or compromise but challenge others with the claims of God. We do this not with swagger but with the spirit of those in Scripture who wore sackcloth. We come brokenhearted and pleading for repentance.
Finally, be patient, your vindication will come. Your story doesn’t end in death, just like our Lord’s story didn’t end in death. When we take up our cross and follow him, our story ends with resurrection hope. Our story ends with God raising us from death with new bodies in his glorified City forever. How can we be so sure? Jesus has gone before us. God raised him from the dead as the firstfruits. In other words, there’s more fruit coming from the harvest. Set your hope there, beloved; and let’s feast on that truth further in coming to the Lord’s Supper.
[i] I’ve based this section of application on the comments by Craig R. Koester, Revelation, ABC 38A (New Haven: Yale, 2014), 509.