Someone has quite aptly said that chapter 11 is the “graveyard” of commentators and their explanations. And so it does at times seem.
A cemetery is usually a rather solitary and silent place. But by no means always. Graves have to be dug; bodies placed in them and covered. Then at times these are exhumed for further inspection and re-burial. This is likely what that person had in mind. Nowhere in all the books on Revelation are the differences more pronounced than here. Many interpretations have been stated with emphasis, then discarded and buried out of sight for a while, only to be resurrected within a decade or two.
Admittedly there are difficulties, and these should not be overlooked.
These difficulties do not lie with the chapter itself; rather with us who are called upon to explain. The “historicist,” often insisting on a literal interpretation, hardly knows what to do with the details. Here, however, he must resort to some symbolical explanation. The “futurist” also finds himself at a loss. Since this is prevalent among our premillenial and dispensationalist friends who want to be as “literal” as possible, they—to save the chronology which they cherish with respect to Christ’s return to rule visibly and physically from Jerusalem—often shift back and forth between the literal and the symbolical especially on “temple” and “the holy city” mentioned here.
Or, and this we find inexcusable, some of them skip over the difficulties. At the root of some of these problems lies the tendency to study each section apart from its connections. Only by following a “parallelistic” approach in interpreting Revelation, so we are convinced, will its unity be maintained and also the message of chapter 11 become somewhat clear. What this requires is that we see chapters 10:1 through 11:14 not as an“ interlude,” somehow to be placed chronologically in the course of world history, but also with its details running concurrently with the “seals” and the “trumpets” and even the “golden bowls,” each in its own way. And that again from the time of Christ’s ascension to His return. It is the “story,” told largely in symbolical language, of the calling and course of the church throughout this long period. Here is “power” which prevails, but at the same time“"persecutions” which will be endured. Only when this is received in faith can the church be truly comforted. Then it will also understand better the message of the seventh trumpet and what follows.
The measuring commanded
What we find here is a continuation of chapter 10. Nowhere is there any indication of change or shift, as if something new and different is being revealed.
At first glance the message given is strange, indeed.
John, you will remember, is on the island Patmos. He has received “the little scroll.” His commission is to witness to its content about many peoples. But suddenly “in the Spirit” he is ordered to take up “a reed like a measuring rod.” As our yardstick it was a useful instrument. By such measuring, one piece of property would be separated from another (ef. also Ezek. 40:5; 41:8). In this way no one need doubt who the owner was. So far, so good.
But now comes the difficult part. He must “go” and “measure the temple” and “altar” and “them that worship.” Nothing is said about counting them. Nor is “temple” here the entire complex set aside for Israel’s corporate worship. The “outer court” is not to be measured. Only the “sanctuary,” (“naos”), the place where the priests conducted their ministry but separated from the waiting people (Luke 1:21).
Here is something radically different. The “worshipers” are now in that holy place. No mention is made of any priests. Also a reason is given why the “outer court” is not to be measured. It has been handed over to the “Gentiles” (or “nations”), those who are not in covenant with the Lord God. In this connection “the holy city” is also spoken of. It will be “trampled” by those nations for “forty-two months.” In a few rather simple phrases we receive what all must acknowledge is a very complicated picture. But the distinctions are to be clearly discerned. The Holy Spirit through the apostle wastes no words.
The question now arises whether this measuring is to be physically undertaken by John. Few have ever suggested that. What then? Is John in a purely symbolical way, while still sitting on some hillside or in some cave on Patmos, to carry this out? If so, then what of the temple and of the worshipers? Are these to be understood “literally”? We do well to remember that when John wrote this book about 95 AD, the city with its temple had already been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Many, while admitting that John himself did not actually return to Jerusalem to carry out this assignment, nonetheless by pushing the fulfillment of this vision into the future, insist that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s millennial reign on earth. All this will happen after the New Testament church is “raptured.” And this, of course, will be preceded somehow by a literal return of the Jews to the land of promise. Here appeal is made to Ezekiel 40–48 where we find an idealized picture of the temple and its worshipers. Unless we take all this and much else “literally” and “physically,” so the argument runs, we are unfaithful to God’s Word which cannot be broken. But let us not hesitate with our response. If this temple and holy city are to be explained as physical, tangible realities here, then what about the “Jerusalem” in chapters 21 and 22 with all its earthly beauties and immense dimensions? Or again, if there is no literal “altar” in the heavens before the throne now, then why must this of necessity be physical? Even on many of the details these fellow-Christians do not agree among themselves.
Why, you will ask me, spend so much time on this? It is not to arouse controversy; it has been dividing believers for many years. And it should be faced head-on. It concerns not only the book of Revelation but even more our understanding of the entire Scriptures as a unity. Their views have become extremely popular especially in the United States. They appear in many a best-seller on future prophecy. They are presented regularly over radio and TV as the only faithful way to explain the Bible. They create the impression again and again that not the New Testament “church” and the “church age” as they speak of it—which is only an “interim” in God’s plan—but the Jewish people, together with all the Old Testament promises given to them, are the determinative and decisive concern of the Lord God in world history. And this we openly disavow. Nowhere did Jesus or His apostles ever announce a physical restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. Instead, our Lord affirmed that “the kingdom would be taken away” from the Jewish people because of their rejection of Him as Messiah “and given to others.” Whether Paul in Romans 9 teaches a wholesale “conversion” of the Jewish people some day before the end of the world is an issue on which even amillenarians are not always agreed. But that has little to do with this chapter where the term Jew is not so much as hinted at. If that is to happen, then such Jews will also be incorporated with all believers from every nation into “one body in Christ.”
Instead of reading the Old Testament which was a period of “shadows” in the light of the New Testament which is far clearer and richer, we are convinced that these brothers and sisters in Christ interpret the New Testament in the light of the “shadows” which according to the epistle to the Hebrews was already “nigh unto vanishing away” in the day when it was penned. And appealing to the establishment of Israel, a political unit, as the fulfillment of prophecy on Israel’s “restoration” to serve the Lord, can only mislead the unwary who dismiss too lightly the extreme secularization and irreligion of those who returned to that land, as well as our Lord’s own teaching that all believers “shall be one flock under one Shepherd.”
The measuring explained
What, then, are we to make of these few verses which have led often to a hodge-podge of confusing interpretations? This we hope to do in the light of the Biblical teaching on the unity of all believers, whether jew or Gentile, in our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Measuring” has several meanings in the Bible. Each should be explained in the light of its setting. At times it points to the Lord preparing for judgment (Amos 7:7–9). Here, what is measured, because this is connected with the “altar” belongs to the Lord Jesus who is our “sacrifice” and our “altar.” Through Him alone are we acceptable to the triune God of salvation. By this symbolical act, ordered by Christ Himself, the “true” church is separated from those who do not belong to Him. John “sees” the temple with its worshipers and does the assigned work as a single event. There is, however, sound reason for applying its reality to the entire time before the second coming of Christ. Always, according to our Lord’s promises enunciated so often, the “boundary” between the faithful and all others will be preserved by Him. Even hell’s gates cannot prevail againstthe church (Matt. 16:18). This, to us, seems unmistakably plain from what the next verse and section say about “the two witnesses.” And remember who these “measured” people are. They “worship” in that sanctuary (“naos”) where once only the priests could minister. No longer does a temple “veil” hang between them and their God. At the Savior's death it was “rent” from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51).
And what about that “outer court” and “the holy city”? Both of these are spoken of in direct connection with the temple and its “worshipers.” We should, therefore, in attempting an explanation, keep them somewhat together. They are clearly distinguished from the “Gentiles” who do the trampling. We are convinced that here Christianity and the church, which is in focus in this chapter, is depicted in a threefold way.
The temple with its worshipers are the “true church” consisting of those who have been redeemed by the Lord Jesus and have access through Him to the heavenly Father. They are alsways under His very special care.
The “outer court” has its own focus. Let us remember that under Israel even “proselytes,” who had not completely accepted God’s ordinances for His people, could enter it. For them the “inner court” with its altar of burnt offering was not accessible. Here, then, in the outer court, are people who have made some profession of Christ but are not truly His own. In this company are Christians by name only, hypocrites, the unfaithful who confess Him with the lips but do not walk in His ways. Let us call them the “unconverted” in the church, the “tares” who grow among the wheat. Like Sardis they have a name of being “alive” but the Savior-King calls them the “dead.” They are not under the special care and love of the Lord Jesus because they are not true worshipers. By showing in a vision the church through the centuries, the Holy Spirit has something to say about them. Both the Old Testament and New Testament state unequivocally that it “is not all lsrael that is called Israel.”
And “the holy city,” distinguished clearly from the “Gentiles,” is a picture given of Christianity and the church in an even broader form. It then includes all the institutional and organizational forms which have sprung up in the course of history. In a sense, these can be called “holy” as having been consecrated to the cause of Christ and His gospel. But these will be “trampled.” Not necessarily does this mean that they will be destroyed. Rather, and later chapters corroborate this view, these can and will be misused and abused throughout the centuries. Often has the world without Christ so “trampled” them, using schools, hospitals, printing presses, even evangelism and preaching in the churches for its own sinful ends. Here church history, from earliest times and more during the present century, provides abundant evidence. Involved in this “trampiing” will be people in the “outer court.” Because of their lack of wholehearted loyalty to the Savior according to the Word, they have compromised and so opened the way for the “world” to take control of what was begun in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
All this will continue for “forty-two months.” Again, this is clearly a symbolical number. It compares with 1260 days and times and time and half a time. It is also identical with three and a half years used elsewhere. While “seven” is the number used for the course of history embracing both the Old Testament and the New Testament dispensations, the other signifies clearly the New Testament period. John, you see, does not have to use the same phrase to disclose the same idea. But he does not, like many a sect which proliferates on the edges of orthodox Christianity, “play the numbers game” to confuse us.
The dividing line of all history is the coming of Jesus Christ into the world to accomplish salvation for His elect people. And as we shall soon see, proclaiming this is the call of “the two witnesses.” Here we ought not to expect mathematical precision like that demanded in high-tech industries. The Lord God as Holy Spirit reveals the abiding truth in language which can be grasped by ordinary people. So we need not worry about leap years either. The message sent from above is crystal clear to all who are enlightened by the Spirit.
Here again is a word intended to comfort and to challenge. All who read should examine heart and life as to whether they belong to the true “worshipers.” They will be living in a dangerous world. Much of what they hold dear may and will be “trampled.” But belonging to the Savior-King they have been “measured,” consecrated to His service in which is their joy and strength. And in the light of all this the following section will also be as clear as it is challenging.
Questions for discussion
1. Show clearly the connection between this section and chapter 10.
2. Look up and diagram the arrangement of the Old Testament temple with its altars and courts.
3. Is it appropriate to call our church buildings “temples”?
4. Mention several parables and other passages in the New Testament which distinguish "true" believers from those who hold only a form of the Christian faith.
5. Which are the “marks” of a true church; of a true believer?
6. Why do you think John also had to measure the “altar”?
7. When, why and how did Ezekiel in chapters 4048 prophesy about the temple? Is this fulfilled in the days of Zechariah, the times of Herod the Great, the new “Jerusalem” as described in chapters 21 and 22?
8. What did Jesus actually prophesy about temple and city (d. Matt. 24 and other passages)?
9. Can you give evidences of how Christianity and its institutions with people have been trampled through the centuries?
10. How do you explain the “forty-two months”? Do you know of other explanations?