Though Revelation 11:1-13 is a difficult passage with much potentially confusing imagery (lampstands, olive trees, and symbolic numbers), the message of this chapter is simple: the Lord will preserve His Church through persecution as we witness to a sinful world.
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to My two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
- Revelation 11:1-3
John draws from imagery in Zechariah and Ezekiel for his description of measuring the temple.
The measuring of the temple in both contexts leads to the presence of God in the midst of it. In both places also the measuring of the temple signifies God’s protection. Ezekiel 40-48 contains long and detailed descriptions of the measurements of an eschatological temple, but in the center is this verse: "The Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple." – Ezekiel 43:5
G. K. Beale, in his commentary on Revelation, explains it like this: “In the prophecy of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-48…God promises that His presence will be reestablished forever. In Rev. 11:1 the focus is now on the whole covenant community forming a spiritual temple in which God’s presence dwells.” Zechariah prophesies for the people of Israel during the rebuilding of the temple following the Babylonian exile. One of the central themes of Zechariah is the dwelling of God in the midst of His people: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be My people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as His portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” – Zechariah 2:10-12
We have corroboration that the temple represents the Church, or stated another way, that the people of God make up His dwelling place in passages earlier in Revelation (Revelation 3:12), as well as other places in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-9). With this in mind, we can understand this passage with an assurance of God’s presence.
A time period of 42 months throughout the Old Testament signifies a time of tribulation or a period of judgment (1260 days is another way of expressing this same time period – 360 days times 3.5). For example, compare the “time, times, and half a time” from Daniel, the Exodus wanderings (there were 42 encampments in the wilderness, and with the understanding that the people of Israel were in the wilderness for two years prior to the 40-year wandering, they were in the wilderness for 42 year total), and the judgment of Israel and the evil King Ahab by Elijah, who withheld rain for 3 years and 6 months. Beale writes, “The three and a half years reveals two perspectives about the saints’ destiny: they undergo tribulation, but are nonetheless protected from ultimate spiritual harm.” They are preserved until the coming of Christ in order to fulfill their calling to be a witness.
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. – Revelation 11:4-8
The two witnesses represent the Church in its prophetic role. “Prophetic” in this context refers not to predicting the future, but rather to confronting sin by preaching against it. The world’s response is hatred of the testimony and the testifiers. (“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” – James 4:4; “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:11-12) That the witnesses refer specifically to the Church universal in its prophetic role is a matter of interpretation. It is not absolutely required in a plain reading of the text, but is justified given context, and especially the thematic similarities to Moses and Elijah. Also, compare the language that John uses in representing the churches at the end of Revelation 1. The Greek word for lampstand there is exactly the same word used here in chapter 11.
The temple measurements harken back to Zechariah 2; similarly, the olive tree and lamp imagery refer to Zechariah 4. In that context the olive trees and lamps are the two “anointed ones” who stand in the newly-built temple of the Lord, and represent the leaders of the people, the covenant heads of the nation.
Already the 42 months had brought Elijah and Moses to mind, but here in verses 4-8 are more references to these same two prophets: the plagues (specifically turning water into blood), and the shutting of the heavens to prevent rain, mentioned earlier. Sodom is the symbolic type of wickedness and perversion, judged by God; Egypt is the symbolic type of oppressors and persecutors of the people of God, also brought under God’s judgment. Verse 8, “where their Lord was crucified,” calls to mind the words of Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:34-37, in the context of His seven woes to the leaders of Israel:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! (See also Luke 11:47-52)
In all cases, we see the hostility of the world to those who are the witnesses of God, whether Moses, Elijah, all the prophets, or Christ Himself. The world, in fact, seems to win. The two witnesses have been slain. Pharoah hardens his heart again and again, and Israel remains captive. Elijah complains to the Lord in 1 Kings 19:10 “For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified, died, and buried, and he was laid in a tomb.
For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. – Revelation 11:9-13
When the church seems utterly defeated, and “the wicked world rejoices,” when the two witnesses lie dead, when Moses and Elijah do not see any salvation for the people of Israel, when Christ lies dead in the tomb, and the disciples hide in fear, then is salvation at hand. The two witnesses are brought back to life. God leads Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. God preserves a remnant in Israel, seven thousand, “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” This shows that when the saints pray in Revelation 6:10, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth,” the Lord hears and answers, and the answer is our victory. Our victory is utterly complete. We should not read the first half of Revelation 11 without reading the second half:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying,
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
who is and who was,
for You have taken Your great power
and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
but Your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding Your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear Your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
- Revelation 11:15-19
The nations may rage, the people may plot, the kings of the earth may set themselves against the Lord and against His anointed, but our God has given His Son the nations as His heritage, and through His Son has given us all things.