1 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, 2 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. 3 And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 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. 6 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. 7 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, 8 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. 9 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, 10 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. 11 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. 12 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. 13 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.
14 The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come. – Revelation 11:1-14 ESV
There are a wide range of interpretations to this particular portion of John’s book. But most of the disagreements come over whether we should interpret what John describes as figurative or literal. There are those who interpret what John sees as symbolic in nature. And this is where the confusion arises, because it leads to a great deal of speculation and second-guessing as to what is meant in this passage. But if we simply take what John says in a literal sense, the passage becomes quite easy to understand. There is no need to guess as to the identity of “the great city” because John is commanded to measure the temple, which existed in the city of Jerusalem. And the time periods John describes should be taken as literal time periods. The two witnesses should be seen as two literal individuals whom God commissions as His witnesses. And their subsequent deaths and resurrections are literal, not figurative and representative of something else. Even the earthquake is a literal earthquake.
At the end of chapter 10, John received a commission to “prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Revelation 10:11 ESV). This is in keeping with the words given to John at the very beginning of his book, when he was told to “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Revelation 1:11 ESV). Throughout the book, John is being given additional insight and information regarding the future and God’s unfolding plan for the judgment of mankind and His restoration of His chosen people, Israel. All that John is being shown is a preface for the second coming of the Son of God. It is all preparing the way for His eventual return and the final days of the tribulation. But before Jesus can come back, there is much that will have to happen. First of all, John is given a measuring rod, a bamboo-like cane, and told to measure the temple of God. Now, it is important to note that this task assigned to John is symbolic in nature, because at the point at which John was writing his book, the temple no longer existed. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. And to this day, there has been no temple in Jerusalem. Jesus had predicted the temple’s destruction.
1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” – Matthew 24:1-2 ESV
So, when John is commanded to measure the temple, he is sent to measure what must be a future site, where the temple has been rebuilt. It is an earthly temple in the city of Jerusalem, not a spiritualized or symbolic temple. We know from the book of Revelation and from other passages in Scripture, that there will be a temple in Jerusalem during the days of the tribulation, because the Jews will be given permission by the world ruler to once again offer sacrifices in the temple. But then he will change his mind and desecrate the temple by placing an idol in the temple and commanding that everyone worship him as the one true god.
3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 ESV
11 And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days. – Daniel 12:11 ESV
John is told to measure this newly constructed temple. But he is specifically told to “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” (Revelation 11:2 ESV). This court outside the temple refers to the court of the Gentiles. John is restricted to measuring the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, the inner parts of the temple. John is told that the outer court is to be trampled by the Gentiles for 42 months. This is a literal 3-1/2 year period of time, the second half of the tribulation period, when the intensity of Gentile persecution of the Jews will reach its zenith. The Antichrist or world ruler, will come to power at the beginning of the seven-year period of tribulation. One of his first acts as the recognized world leader will be to broker a peace agreement between the Jews and the Muslims, allowing for the reconstruction of the temple on the temple mount, where the Dome of the Rock now stands. He will sign a covenant with the people of Israel, allowing them to re-institute the sacrificial system. And for 3-1/2 years, things will go relatively well for the Jews in Jerusalem. But at the midway point of the seven years of the tribulation, the Antichrist will reveal his true colors. He will turn on the Jews and desecrate their temple by erecting an idol to himself in the temple. Then he will turn his wrath on the people of God.
But John is told to measure the temple, symbolically signifying God’s ownership of this property. The Antichrist may assume it belongs to him and set up his false idol as a means of staking his claim to the temple, but God is assuring John and us, that this is His property. The temple is His dwelling place.
And God lets John know that there will be two witnesses who show up on the scene during the second half of the tribulation. They will be sent by God, as evidenced by their supernatural powers. These two individuals will have the ability to perform miracles, even exhibiting the ability to consume their enemies with fire. It is most likely that they will be able to call forth fire from heaven, not actually spew fire from their mouths. But they will be divinely endowed with supernatural powers that will protect them against the threats of the Antichrist and all those who will oppose their mission and message. While there has been much speculation as to the identities of these two witnesses, we are not told who they will be. There is no reason to identify them as Moses and Elijah or Moses and Enoch. There is nothing that requires them to be former prophets called back to perform this special duty during the end times. They are most likely men who God raises up during these last days, just as He raised up other, unknown men during the days of Israel’s past.
Whoever they will be, they will killed by the Antichrist. The beast mentioned in verse seven is most likely a reference to Satan himself. He will work through the powers that be, namely Antichrist, the one-world ruler, to see that these two witnesses are eliminated. And their deaths will be celebrated by all. Their bodies will remain unburied and on display for 3-1/2 days. The people of Jerusalem will rejoice over their demise, even turning their deaths into a holiday where presents are exchanged. It will be a distorted kind of Christmas. And John makes it clear that their bodies will like in the great city, a reference to Jerusalem. He refers to the city as “Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.” These two comparisons to Sodom and Egypt indicate the wickedness of Jerusalem and its treatment by the people of God as a place of refuge and security. Sodom was recognized by God for its rampant, unchecked immorality and eventually destroyed. Egypt was the place where the Israelites tended to turn for help and hope when facing difficulties. It had become a substitute for God Himself. And for the Jews, the city of Jerusalem had become their haven, the place where they put all their faith, rather than in the God who gave them the city in the first place.
At the end of the 3-1/2 days of celebration over the deaths of the two witnesses, God will breath new life into them, raising them back to life and calling them to be with Him. And with their departure, a great earthquake will strike the region, taking the lives of 7,000 of the city’s inhabitants. We are told that those who survive this epic event will be terrified by what they witness and give glory to the God of heaven. This does not mean that they come to believe in God or worship Him. But they most certainly will recognize that His power is great and they will marvel at what He has done. This is a similar response that Jesus encountered when He performed signs and wonders among the people. They were amazed at what they saw and gave Him glory, but they didn’t necessarily give Him their hearts and lives.
John ends this section with a sober warning that this is just the second of the three woes, and that there is one yet to come. God is not done yet. But the end is coming quickly and the return of Christ is near. The intervention of God into the affairs of men is increasing exponentially. His power is being revealed with ever-growing intensity and it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the world to argue against His reality or to reject His sovereign will. He is the God of heaven and the power of heaven is making itself progressively more apparent on earth.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.