On the heels of John’s prophetic commission in Revelation 10:8-11, he is tasked with measuring the temple of God but not its outer court. The prophetic message of Revelation 11 envisions a period of time when God’s people will faithfully witness before the nations. Indeed, the “two witnesses” will imitate the pattern of the Lamb–they will prophesy, they will be martyred, and they will be vindicated through resurrection and ascension. The faithful witness of the church follows the pattern of the Lamb and God does not abandon the witnesses.
Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals focused on sealed but suffering believers (Revelation 7), so this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets reveals a measured but suffering church. The interludes address the situation of the church in the midst of a hostile but collapsing empire. The hope of believers is victory and their role is faithful witness.
There are some difficult problems of interpretation in Revelation 11. What is the temple? What is the outer court? Who are the “two witnesses”? What is the “great city” that, in part, collapses? One’s general approach to Revelation will, in large measure, determine the answers to these questions. There is little need to argue this in detail in a brief blog, but it is important to understand the flow of the drama pictured it.
The first moment in the drama is the measurement of the temple. This imagery is drawn from Ezekiel 40:3 and Zechariah 2:1-5. God declares ownership; the temple belongs to the one who sits on the throne. The owner measures the temple. But where is this temple? The only other use of “temple” is in Revelation 11:19 which places the temple “in heaven.” Temple imagery in Revelation is always located “in heaven,” that is, in God’s throne room. Much like Revelation 7:9-17, God’s temple and its worshippers are protected and victorious. Nothing will assault the throne room of God. The temple, then, is–analogous to the 144,000 in Revelation 7–are the sealed people of God whose suffering will overcome the enemy.
However, the “outer court” is unmeasured. Rather, it will be given over to the nations who will trample not only it but the whole “holy city for 42 months.” The adjective “holy” indicates that we are still talking about the people of God. In one perspective, they are protected and victorious (in the throne room of God), but from another perspective they are under attack. Indeed, the beast from the Abyss kills the two witnesses (11:7). The imagery is drawn from Daniel 7:21-25. In the second century B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes waged war against the saints and trampled the temple in Jerusalem for a “time, times, and a half” (or 3 and 1/2 years; cf. Daniel 12:5-6). In Revelation 11 the beast makes war against the outer court and the holy city, including the two witnesses. This war will last only for a limited time (1260 days is half of seven years, which is a complete number). The beast wages war against the church and is able to inflict suffering (martyrdom) upon it. The beast (the nations) trample the people of God (the outer court) but the beast cannot destroy the temple (the inner court or sanctuary).
The “two witnesses” are clearly prophetic figures (called “prophets” in 11:10). Their description draws heavily on prophetic images in the Hebrew Bible. Like Elijah (and John the Baptist) they wear sackcloth. Like Moses they turn water into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah they stop the rain. Like Jeremiah they breathe fire (Jeremiah 5:14). Like Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest they are God’s anointed olive trees to serve the whole earth (Zechariah 4). They are lampstands. They are the church. The number two is chosen because the Torah required two witnesses for convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The church has a prophetic role in the world.
Their testimony, however, comes at a cost. The two witnesses are killed by the beast and their bodies are left exposed in the “great city.” Every use of the “great city” in Revelation refers to the hostile empire that oppresses the followers of the Lamb (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). This “great city” is not the “holy city.” The “holy city” is the church which is trampled by the nations while the “great city” is the hostile empire–empires like Sodom, Egypt and Rome. The reference to “where also their Lord was crucified” does not mean the literal city in which Jesus died but rather the “great city” that killed Jesus, that is, Rome. The two witnesses will suffer the same fate as their Lord; they will die at the hands of a cruel empire, Rome. Just as Rome crucified the Lamb in Jerusalem, so Rome will display the death of Christian martyrs as spectacles of its power within the empire (the “great city”).
“The inhabitants of the earth,” that is, the followers of the beast, who come from every “people, tribe, language, and nation” (like victorious believers in Revelation 7 who also come from every people, tribe, language, and nation) rejoice over the death of the two witnesses. They glory in the death of the martyrs. It is part of their festive activities as they give gifts to each other. One might hear an allusion to the games in which Christians were martyred during the Roman empire.
One also might hear in Revelation 11 the echo of the cry of the martyrs. “How long, O Lord” (Revelation 6:9-11). Some believe that Psalm 79 provides a backdrop for the theology of this chapter. The Psalmist laments the destruction of the temple and asks “How Long, O Lord?” They plead for God to pour out wrath upon the nations and to “pay back” their “neighbors seven times.”
Indeed, in Revelation 11 one tenth of the city collapses and seven thousand are killed. 7,000 is a symbolic number (perhaps an allusion to the 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal during Elijah’s prophetic ministry). The city suffers a major disaster but it is not complete. God judged the “great city” (Rome) for its injustice and it appears many turned to God as a result (“feared and gave glory to the God of heaven”). The witness of the faithful martyrs in the context of God’s transformative work of judgment has a positive effect on some.
But the church itself–the two witnesses who ae martyred–is vindicated. The dead witnesses are raised and they ascend into heaven in a cloud. The witnesses follow the pattern of the Lamb–witness, death, resurrection and ascension. In other words, like the 144,000, as they pass through the trials and overcome through faith, they are received into the throne room of God as victors (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). The witnesses defeat the empire through martyrdom. The witnesses join the assembly around the throne in God’s heavenly temple. This is their “resurrection.” This is not a picture of their literal bodily resurrection, but–like Revelation 7–the movement of the witnesses from earth to heaven, from suffering to victory in the throne room of God (that is, the heavenly temple).
The church is God’s prophetic witness against empires. This is part of its role in the present chaotic world. The witness is not about predicting specific facts or imperial history about the future, but it is a witness that proclaims that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. It is a witness that opposes violence, idolatry, and immorality. It is a witness that God will judge the empires because of their greed, violence, and oppressive power.
But empires kill peacemakers. Rome crucified Jesus and martyred his followers. Empires still kill peacemakers. Empires still oppose the church’s witness. Unfortunately, the church often silences its own witness in the wake of imperial holidays, pledges of allegiance, and imperial benefaction (giving credit to the empire for peace and safety rather than to God).
Followers of the Lamb oppose empires and bear witness against its imperial designs. Like the Lamb, they may suffer and die for that witness, but like the Lamb, God will vindicate them and receive faithful witnesses into the throne room as victors in the conflict between good and evil.