My Understanding of Revelation 11:1-14

There are quite a few things to discuss in Revelation 11:1-13, which unfortunately, we just won’t have time to discuss on Sunday since we lost a week to the dang-blasted ice. So, here’s my take…and it’s in print so I can’t deny any of it. Quick summary: The chapter opens with John’s commission to measure “the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there.”  Following this, John is expressly forbidden to measure the outer courts for that will be given over to the nations who will trample the holy city for forty-two months. Also, John introduces two figures – the two witnesses – who are given authority and prophesy in sackcloth for 1,260 days. These two witnesses prophecy until their mission is completed; then, the beast makes war on them and conquers them. They lay dead for 3 ½ days while the world gloats over their bodies. After this short time, God vivifies them and beckons them to heaven while the world stands by in terror. Accompanying this resurrection is a great earthquake that destroys a tenth of the city and kills 7,ooo people. To unpack this chapter, we need to ask and answer three big questions. First, is this temple a literal temple reconstructed in Jerusalem at some future point in history or is it a symbolic temple? Second, what’s the deal with the forty-two months and 1,260 days? And third, who are the two witnesses?

The Temple

There are some who take the temple to be a literal, reconstructed temple in Jerusalem in which sacrifices will once again be offered (based on Ezekiel 40-42). This is not my view. I think the temple here is symbolic of the church from two perspectives – the inner and the outer (or the spiritual and the physical) Here’s why:

Context within Revelation:

·        The language of the text indicates that something symbolic is going on – John is to measure the temple, the altar AND those who worship there. ·        Throughout the book of Revelation, usage of the temple is never of a restored earthly temple. See 3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 14:15, 17; 16:1, 17; 21:22. 

Broader New Testament Context

·        Jesus refers to himself as the true temple (John 2:19; Matt 12:6). It was he as the temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. ·        NT writers refer to the church as God’s temple, by virtue of their union with Christ (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; also 1 Cor. 6:19, 1 Peter 2:5) ·        Hebrews 10:1-14 makes clear that Jesus puts an end to all sacrifices (that are of any meaning to God). He is the final, perfect sacrifice. To reinstitute animal sacrifices would be redemptive regression. Looking at the prophecy regarding a rebuilt temple in the book of Ezekiel, we ought to do so through the lens of the New Testament and especially Jesus. With Jesus, the eschatological temple Ezekiel saw has broken in and we are being built into it. We go wrong when we read the NT in OT categories. We must read the OT in light of the NT. Moreover, if we read it literally, then there are unbelievers and believers, holy and unholy, mixing and profaning the temple (The outer courts were still a part of the temple and were measured in the Ezekiel passage). This mixing seems contrary to what Ezekiel pictures in his vision. However, if we see this as a symbolic representation of the church, the temple of God in Christ, then we do not encounter this difficulty. But still, why measure the inner court and not the outer? I believe it is to make the same point that has been made consistently throughout the Apocalypse – the spiritual life of the church (inner courts) is protected by God even while the outer/physical church may be persecuted and killed.     

42 Months/1260 Days

It is said in Revelation 11 that the outer court will be trampled for forty-two months. Also, the two witnesses (discussed below) will prophesy in sackcloth for 1,260 days.  What? Again, there are those who take this to be a literal measurement of time. I’m not one of them.  This time measurement (42 months, 1,260 days, times + time + half a time = 3 ½ years) shows up here in 11:2, 11:3, 12:6, 12:14 as well as 13:5. Dispensationalists combine these in various ways to fit the seven year tribulation (Daniel’s seventieth week), asserting that some of them refer to the first half while other refer to the second half of this tribulation period. I believe all the references in Revelation to the 3 ½ years are parallel, referring to the same period of time, namely the church age from the destruction of temple to the time of Christ’s return. Here’s some background:

Israel’s Wanderings

It is likely that John is at least alluding to the 42 years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus (2 years of journey before the enforced 40 years of punishment for refusing to go into the land). There is a strong Exodus theme going on in Seven Trumpets, including this chapter (11:6-8).

Elijah’s Ministry

Also, in the background is Elijah’s ministry of judgment in which he called for a drought in the days of King Ahab that lasted for 3 ½ years (James 5:17).  Obviously there are links in this chapter to Elijah’s ministry and to the drought. 

Daniel’s Seventy Weeks

This is the most important OT background, and the most challenging. Daniel’s seventy weeks are broken down into three blocks: seven weeks, sixty-two weeks, and one week. Basically, my understanding is that the first sixty-nine weeks (7+62) take us up to the time of Christ and the final week, the seventieth, is symbolic for the entire church age leading up to Christ’s return (For more, see my long, confusing blog post here).  The case for this is strengthened when you look into the next chapter, specifically at 12:5. There, the clock (1260 days) started ticking at Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

The Two Witnesses

Who are these two figures in Revelation 11? Some have understood them to be, literally, Elijah and Moses. Their case hinges upon the statement that Malachi 4:5 that Elijah will come before the Day of the Lord. This, however, seems to have been fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist (see Matt 17:10-13 and Mark 9:11-13). More typical of the dispensationalist school are those who believe these are two individuals who minister in the spirit of Moses and Elijah – prophesying, doing signs and miracles, etc. I think it is more likely to see them as symbols for the church corporate. The role of the church as witness (Greek word martus from which we get ‘martyr’) is central to the book of Revelation. The two witnesses point to the church’s prophetic role in the world, a role which will certainly give rise to persecution. This corporate identification is warranted for the following: ·        the reference to them as lampstands, which is used elsewhere in Revelation to refer to the church (see Rev. 1:20) ·        they are also called olive trees, referring to Zechariah 4. In Zechariah, the olive trees pointed to Zerubbabel, the head of tribe of Judah and to the priest Joshua. The emphasis was on the priestly and kingly nature of Israel. Remember, the church now carries this distinction, being a kingdom of priests who reign! (5:10) ·        11:7 says the beast makes war with them and conquers them. This is connected to Daniel 7:21 where the last evil kingdom persecutes Israel (now understood to be the church, the true Israel). Moreover, in 13:5-7 the beast is given authority ‘to make war on the saints and to conquer them. The language in 11:7 and 13: 5 is nearly identical; hence, it is likely that we’re intended to link the witnesses conquered and the saints conquered. ·        In v. 9-13 the entire world witnesses their demise. While some think this refers to TV coverage of their murder and dead bodies lying in the street (i.e. Hal Lindsey), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the witnesses are visible throughout the world because the church is everywhere present. But why two witnesses? First, two witnesses were needed to bear acceptable testimony. Also, disciples were sent out two by two. These two witnesses carry on their prophetic activity during the forty-two months (1260 days or 3 ½ years, referring to the second half of the last week of Daniel, the church age from time of destruction of temple to the end of age – see appendix). They are protected by God until their mission of bearing witness is complete. Then, and only then, are they conquered and put to death. But the beast’s apparent victory is short lived, only 3 ½ days (compare to the 3 ½ years of faithful witness). After this, the text tells us that “a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet” (allusion to Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones). This causes a great fear among the people and then a loud voice calls the two witnesses up into heaven in a cloud. The world is struck by a great earthquake and a tenth of the city was destroyed and 7,000 killed (again, alluding to Ezekiel, this time 38:19). The rest were terrified and gave glory to God (though it’s doubtful this is a full account of conversion). This, I believe, is a picture of the final resurrection of all the faithful believers at the end of history. They are resurrected and caught up (raptured) to heaven. The great earthquake of judgment compels fear filled praise even from God’s enemies (see Phil 2:9-11). This prepares us for the seventh trumpet, which is the end. I know this is getting a little ahead of ourselves, but the view of the beast’s conquering of the church and the churches resurrection we are given in ch. 11 corresponds with what we’ll read later in ch. 20. The beast makes war and kills the witnesses but only after they’ve accomplished their mission and then only for a short time. This corresponds to Revelation 20:3. The witnesses (the church) achieve missional success while Satan is bound and prevented from deceiving the nations (as he is now). Then, Satan is released for a “short time” – the 3 ½ days he appears to have conquered the witnesses and gloats over them. Also, the witnesses resurrection and vindication coincides with God’s deliverance of the saints and destruction of the devil and his followers after the “short time” (Rev. 20-9-10).


This passage uses two images, the measurement of the temple and the story of the witnesses, to encourage the Christian with the same truths we’ve seen hammered home in other sections: God protects the church spiritually even though it may be trampled and even killed physically. In the end, God will destroy his enemies and vindicate the church through resurrection and eternal glory.