Rev. 11:1 – Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and [count] those who worship there. 2But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months.” (HCSB)
Revelation 11 continues the interlude between the second and third woes (the sixth and seventh trumpet judgments), although we are warned at the end of verse 14 that the third woe is coming quickly. John is given a measuring instrument and told to measure the Lord’s sanctuary and altar, but to exclude the courtyard, which is given to the nations (or Gentiles) for a period of time.
He then is told that two witnesses will be empowered for the same length of time. These prophets have the ability to kill their enemies with fire, to prevent rain from falling, and to produce plagues similar to those witnessed in the days of Moses in Egypt. Ultimately, the “beast” who comes up from the abyss will conquer them and kill them. Their bodies will be on public display for three and a half days, prompting a global celebration. But then the Lord will raise them from the dead, call them into heaven, and produce a violent earthquake that kills 7,000 people and terrifies the survivors.
Why is John instructed to measure the sanctuary and the altar? Are these in heaven or on earth? Who are the two witnesses, and why are they compared with olive trees and lampstands? Why do they prevent rain and produce plagues? How does the beast manage to kill them, and why does the Lord breathe life back into them, only to snatch them up into heaven? And what does it mean that the survivors of the earthquake give glory to the God of heaven? Do they repent and become believers?
There is much imagery in these verses – and a great deal of disagreement among scholars as to its meaning. So let’s dig in.
Go and measure God’s sanctuary
John is given a measuring reed and told to measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and to count those who worship there. He is prohibited from measuring the courtyard outside the sanctuary because it has been given to the nations, or Gentiles, for 42 months. What does all this mean?
To begin, John’s instructions are to measure the naos, which is the inner temple consisting of the holy place and the holy of holies. The act of measuring may assure us that the area belongs to God. More specifically, it tells us that God knows, numbers, preserves and protects His own. He also is fully aware of those who, through their rejection of Him, stand outside the kingdom of heaven. And while unbelievers may enjoy power, success, and even dominance over God’s people for a time, they will not endure. As surely as God’s temple is measured, His grace and mercy are not poured out indefinitely, for they are balanced with His justice and wrath.
So, what are we to make of the sanctuary being measured? Many futurists read this passage quite literally and say the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem during the seven-year tribulation and that Jewish worship, including the sacrificial system, will be reinstituted there. In the middle of the tribulation, the Antichrist will take his seat “in God’s sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God” (2 Thess. 2:4). Some say that John is commanded to measure the temple for chastisement. Citing Old Testament references in which God’s servants are instructed to measure nations for destruction, they contend that Israel will be chastened during the tribulation as many Jews embrace the Old Covenant while rejecting Christ. Futurists also tend to see the rest of this chapter in literal terms as well – two individual witnesses wielding miraculous powers, 42 months, the actual city of Jerusalem, the murder, resurrection and ascension of the witnesses, and so on. They hold to a later date for authorship of Revelation, believing it is penned in the A.D. 90s, well after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Futurists further contend that those outside the sanctuary are either apostate Jews during the tribulation, or they are followers of the Antichrist who oppose “true Israel,” the church.
But there are other views. Those who argue for authorship of Revelation in the A.D. 60s believe John’s act of measuring the sanctuary is similar to Ezekiel’s action centuries earlier (Eze. 40-47). In both cases, the action defines the true spiritual temple in view of the impending destruction of the physical temple – by the Babylonians in Ezekiel’s day and by the Romans in John’s day. Measuring, they argue, is a symbolic act in scripture to separate the holy from the profane, and the protected from that which is marked for destruction. Just as there is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals, enabling 144,000 Jewish believers to escape the holocaust of A.D. 70, there is now an interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets, conveying the same thought in different symbols.
Still others contend that the temple throughout the New Testament always is the church (see 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Thess. 2:4). The distinction between the sanctuary and the court marks the difference between true believers and the professing church. Albert Barnes writes that John is instructed to do three things: a) to take a just estimate of what constitutes the true church; b) to institute a careful examination into the opinions in the church on the subject of sacrifice and atonement – involving the whole question about the method of justification before God; and c) to take a correct estimate of what constitutes true membership in the church (cited in Revelation: Four Views, edited by Steve Gregg, p. 220). Those who hold this view – mostly historicists – see the measuring rod as a symbol of divine authority given to Luther during the Reformation. More to the point, the measuring rod is the testimony of Christ and the apostles recorded and preserved in the New Testament.
Finally, some interpreters see the naos, or sanctuary, as a specific reference to the holy of holies, where in Old Covenant times only the high priest could enter – and only once a year. But now, through the finished work of Christ, the veil has been torn down and all believers have direct access to the divine presence. From the day of Pentecost forward, God’s temple is the human body, where His Spirit resides. Therefore, those inside the sanctuary are true believers, while those outside in the courts are mere professors of the faith. William Hendriksen explains: “So the world tramples upon the outside court of merely nominal Christendom. The world invades the false church and takes possession of it. Worldly church members welcome the ideas of the world; they feel themselves perfectly at home with the world” (quoted in Revelation, Four Views, p. 221).
As we can see, there are widely different views about the temple, the timing, and John’s instructions to measure the sanctuary and count its people. This may prove frustrating to those seeking the one “right” interpretation; however, it’s also deeply satisfying to see how God’s Word has spoken to people of every generation throughout the church age. The foundational truths of these verses are the same – and unchanging – regardless of our biases:
- God is sovereign over human history.
- He has redeemed a people for His own; He knows, numbers, protects and preserves them.
- He allows persecution of the saints for a time but has set a date in which all people will stand before Him and give an account; believers will be rewarded according to their faithfulness, and unbelievers will be punished according to their works against the kingdom of heaven.
- We are living in an age of grace when sinners still may come to know God.
- We are headed for a day of reckoning when unbelievers will be eternally separated from their loving Creator, by their own choice.
- Satan always has sowed tares in the wheat field of the church, and true believers should be on guard against false prophets, preachers and teachers.
- God always has kept a remnant of true believers, and that remnant always has included Jews.
- The human heart, not the holy of holies, is now the dwelling place of the shekinah glory.
We should take note of one more statement in verse 2 before moving on. John writes that the nations, or Gentiles, will trample the holy city for “42 months.” We also read in verse 3 that the two witnesses prophesy for “1,260 days,” which is the same as 42 months if we reckon months as 30 days each. Later, in Rev. 12:14, we see that the “woman” (Israel) is fed in the wilderness for “a time, times, and half a time.” This, too, generally is understood as 3 ½ years – the same as 42 months or 1,260 days. Additionally, the “beast” in Rev. 13:5 is given authority for 42 months. Are all these events happening in the same period of time? Why does John use three different terms? And are we to take these phrases literally or figuratively?
Again, there is a diversity of views. For now, let’s focus on the references in Rev. 11:1-3. Some believe the 42 months are the length of the Jewish War, which began in A.D. 66 and ended with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Others argue that this is the length of Nero’s persecution of Christians, which began in November of A.D. 64 and ended with his suicide in A.D. 68. Still other interpreters say the 1,260 days are 1,260 years, citing the year-for-a-day principle applied in Ezekiel 4; they do not agree, however, on the starting and ending dates, but generally agree that the time period relates to the reign of the papal church. Futurists contend that the 42 months and 1,260 days describe either the same half of the seven-year tribulation, or together describe the entire tribulation. Those who espouse a spiritual interpretation see the 42 months as an indefinite period of time corresponding to the church age. Other commentators avoid specificity altogether, arguing that John means to assure the church that their trials are of a finite length and will end with the coming of the Lord.
“The decision about which of these opinions is most correct will be inseparably tied to the identification of the two witnesses (chapter 11), of the beast (chapter 13), and of the events described in chapter 12,” writes Steve Gregg (Revelation: Four Views, p. 219).
Next: My two witnesses — Rev. 11:3-6