In the first 14 verses of this chapter we are given a vision of the Lord’s two witnesses who emerge triumphant after a life of faithful witness even as they suffer a brief and apparent defeat.
After John has the vision of the great angel straddling the whole earth with the bittersweet gospel in his hand, he is next told to measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there (v.1) This measuring is similar to that which the prophet Ezekiel was commissioned to do (Eze 40-42), but with a significant difference. In the New Testament we find that the temple of God actually becomes the people of God.
John is next told to exclude the outer court from his measurements because it has been given to the Gentiles, and they will trample on the holy city for 42 months (v.2). During this period, the Gentiles trample the holy city – that is, the people of God are persecuted. When John receives the vision, Jerusalem had already been destroyed.
John’s vision does not concern the temple in Jerusalem made of stone (which was destroyed in AD 70). Rather, his focus is on the temple made of living stones, the people of God from every race, tribe, and tongue, who are becoming the dwelling place for the Lord by his Spirit. One commentator says, the measuring commanded here is an indication to us of the ordered perfection of all God purposes and performs, as the Creator and Restorer of the universe. Its measuring may be taken to mean that God is in control of all that happens to his servants, they are well known in number and name to God.
This brings us to one of the most debated details in the whole of Revelation. What are we to make of this 42-month period of time? It occurs several times in Revelation as 1260 days and time and times and a half time. The background to this numeric symbol is found in Daniel 7:25; 9:24-27; and 12:7. The most popular interpretations of this period have been these:
We must look to the following verses for a more complete understanding of the meaning of this part of the vision. In vv.3-14 we meet the two witnesses who are raised up and empowered by God for fruitful and effective ministry during this whole persecution-filled 42-month period. They are identified by means of Old Testament imagery. Perhaps we are to be reminded of Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mar 9:4). These witnesses have the power to shut up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying. They also have the power to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want (v.6).
Perhaps the two-ness is not a limited number but rather a symbol of the trustworthiness of their witness (Joh 8:17; Deu 19:15; Luk 1:10; Act 1:8). Certainly the two olive trees and the two lampstands should remind us of the spirit-filled Church called and empowered to preach the gospel in light of all kinds of opposition and persecution, including that of martyrdom (Psa 52:8; Zec 4; Rom 11). For in the Old Testament, the olive tree was often used as a symbol of Israel, and as we have seen, the lampstand signifies the Church.
As the two witnesses continue their effective ministry among the nations, John records a fatal attack from the beast that comes from the abyss (v.7), but only after they have finished their testimony. Satan’s attack does not and cannot alter that which our Father has purposed. The gospel is running through the nations. There will be men and women from every people group populating Heaven. The kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever!
The attack of the beast on the witnesses leads to their death and a brief three-and-a-half day period of gloating, celebrating and gift-giving among the peoples of the great city, here referred to as Sodom and Egypt, which stand for hardened idolatry and rebellion. In the following chapters of Revelation, Rome (Babylon) is identified as the world in rebellion against God and his people (2Co 4:7-9; Jer 5:11,14; Joh 15:18-21).
What seemed to be the death of the witnesses of the Church actually gives rise to her resurrection and glory. But after the three-and-a-half days, a breath of life from God enters them, and they stand on their feet, and terror strikes those who see them (v.11). Should we not think of this three-and-a-half-day apparent triumph for the beast as a reflection of the three days that Jesus spent in apparent defeat after his crucifixion? The beast’s victory is hollow. God’s enemies are startled, humbled, and overwhelmed when he vindicates his servants. How much more so will be the case at the second coming of Jesus when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father?
Perspectives and Relevance
Let us now try to imagine how this vision of the two witnesses would have affected the hearts of John’s original audience. Of what practical and timely importance would this image have been to persecuted Christians in the first century if the 42 months was a reference to something that would happen only thousands of years after their deaths? On the other hand, if the three-and-a-half year period is indeed a reference to the whole interadvent period, the whole age between the two comings of Christ, then we can see great relevance and encouragement not only for Christians of the first century but also for Christians of every century.
As the people of God were known, numbered, loved and protected against all ultimate harm and loss, we are not to develop a bomb-shelter mentality in the face of great opposition and persecution. Our calling never has been to retreat into little Christian ghettos, cocoons, communes, or communities of self-protection and survival. For John’s readers in Asia Minor, there is great encouragement. They are not to fear Rome’s worst assaults. Even though there will be times and places in which it seems that the Church has been silenced and defeated – if not destroyed – the demise is only brief. The blood of the martyr has always proven to be the seed of the Church. Our God is the God of resurrection! Even if the enemies of God have a seasonal laugh at the temporary demise of the witnesses of the gospel, he who sits at the throne on Heaven laughs eternally and most loudly (Psa 2).
What about the Church of every age? What hope, comfort, and courage do we derive from this vision? Our calling is not to waste time trying to run from credit cards with ‘666’ on them. We are not to speculate on who the antichrist is. We are by proclamation and by presence to preach and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ among the nations until Jesus comes back. We the Church are the two witnesses, empowered by God himself. He is the Lord of both miracle and persecution, of both gospel advancement and apparent gospel setbacks. Our calling is not to be successful but to be faithful. This is our Father’s world. None will ultimately thwart his plans. No, we are not to be naïve about life in Sodom and Egypt. God gives us insight about the real world so that we can serve him with confidence and hope as we seek to demonstrate the radical implications of the gospel in our own context of Babylon.
A Common Mission
We are all missionaries. As such, we are to go into every nation of the world and into every sphere of life. A part of our repentance is going to require that we recognize and discard some of our non-biblical thoughts and paradigms about what it means to be a witness and to be involved in ministry.
First of all, let us repent of our pragmatism. The driving question of ministry is not what works. God alone is the one who faithfully applies the saving benefits of Jesus Christ to the lost. It is up to the Lord of the harvest how this mystery is played out. Our calling is merely to declare his glory among the nations. He alone can raise the dead, and he does.
On the other hand, we must be careful not to label some missionary or pastor or gifted layperson a superstar in the Kingdom in terms of great observable fruit. As Paul told the Corinthians, “…What do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if in fact it was a gift, why do you boast as if it weren’t?” (1Co 4:7). God gives talents and gifts, calling and fruit as he sees fit. One plants, another waters, another harvests, but it is God who gives the increase.
Next, we need to repent of separating the ministry of the Word and the ministry of good deeds. God’s grace needs to be communicated by both proclamation and by presence. I think we tend to do a far better job of preaching at people than coming alongside them as conduits of the mercy of our God. Unfortunately also, we tend to think that unless a full-blown presentation of the gospel has been given that we have failed in our calling as witnesses. May God enable us to beautify the truth of the gospel as we manifest the grace of the gospel, even as single rays of the Lord’s light.
Third, we need to be careful not to limit the concept of ministry to what we commonly refer to as spiritual activities. For instance, why is a summer mission trip taken by a business person considered ministry but his or her vocation – what he or she does for many more months of the year – simply referred to as a job? Let us understand that every sphere of life is to reflect the glory and grace of God. All enterprises are not to be graded, distinguished, or valued in terms of the evangelistic opportunities they afford.
For His Glory
God is honoured when we do all things to his glory. This is the essence of what it means to bear witness to his name. As image-bearers of God, we should want to reflect both his genius as Creator and his mercy as Redeemer. If we preach, let us do so with precision and with passion. Do not distort the gospel and do not dishonour the Lord by not preparing your sermon and your heart. And if you are a plumber, then plumb to the glory of God. Putting a little fish sign or a cross on one of the pipes you install will not make the job you performed “Christian”. Indeed, if you did a poor job, please do not put any such sign on your work. God is more honoured by a non-Christian doing a good job than when we, his people, do slipshod or half-hearted work.
One of the first heresies that invaded and affected the first century church was Gnosticism, a Greek worldview that distinguishes all of reality between spirit and matter. The realm of spirit is to be prized while the realm of the material, the created work, is to be denigrated if not despised. Such an unbiblical worldview has led Christians to almost totally disregard the revelation of God as the sovereign Creator and eternal sustainer of all things. We have compartmentalized life into categories that cannot be justified by the Scriptures. The net effect is that the gospel, and Christians, are removed from the public square and from primary contexts in our culture. Christian faith is marginalized and trivialized. What is worse, God is robbed of the glory due his name.
Until Jesus returns, we are to move courageously and expectantly into the world and into the culture where our Lord has placed us. For a day is coming when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In light of this hope, let us live well and love well in every sphere of life, all to the glory of God.