In Chapter 11, John comes to the center of his book.
John is told to measure the inner sanctuary of the temple but not its great outer court. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in A.D. 70 during the disastrous rebellion of Judea against Rome. Before then it had consisted of a huge outer area, the Court of the Gentiles, which was open to all, and an inner area reserved for Jews. It is this area that is measured, comprising the Courts of Women and of Men and the Holy Place itself.
John is not interested in the literal temple, because it was long gone. So what does it mean to say that the inner sanctuary will be preserved but the outer court and holy city will be trampled by the nations? The temple, of course, is a symbol of the Church. The Church is to be kept safe in its core, its inner spiritual being, but the forces of the world will ride roughshod over it in its physical manifestation, its outer being. God will preserve the spiritual life of the Church, keeping his people safe in their relationship with him. At the same time, they will undergo persecution and suffering for his sake, and will face the martyrdom that will result in their heavenly triumph.
Nowadays we hear a lot about the victory of the Church. There are those who tell us that we should expect success – usually couched in terms of packed pews and fat collections if only we “claim the victory” that is ours in Christ. Anything less is deemed a failure. John’s message should warn us to be very careful in our use of such language. The trampling of the temple points in another direction. The Church may not always, or even often, be expected to be powerful in the worldly terms of number and riches. The immediate result of faithful witness is not always growth and plenty. It can provoke a trampling down by the forces of the world. Yet there is a victory, and there is the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31-39). We must learn to see that victory in God’s terms rather than ours.
For the same period of time that the world is trampling down the people of God, that is, during the end times that are the history of the Church, God’s two faithful witnesses will be active.
The miracles performed by these witnesses remind us of Elijah and Moses, traditional heralds of the coming of the Messiah. These, though, are not those prophets literally returning, for each shares the characteristics of both. The clue to their identity is found in their description as olive trees and lampstands.
The prophet Zechariah had seen a lampstand between two olive trees, which stood for the Spirit of God illuminating the rightful king Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (Zechariah 4). These are all combined in John’s two witnesses to give us figures who stand for kingship and priesthood and the light of the Spirit. We have already met this combination of images in the royal priesthood represented by lampstands, which is the Church. The two witnesses, then, are the whole Church. Deuteronomy 19:15 lays down that two witnesses are the minimum number for a valid testimony.
During the time of persecution, then, the world does not have everything its own way. The Church is called to active witness, and will afflict the consciences of humanity with words and testimony to Jesus that flow like fire from the mouths of its messengers.
A great beast arises, which will play a prominent part in the following chapters. Here all we are told is that it successfully wars against the Church and lays it waste. The two witnesses lie dead and unburied in the streets of the great city, while all their opponents rejoice and even exchange gifts. Christmas has come for those who despise the words and works of God.
The city in which the witnesses die is a place of many meanings. It is not literally Jerusalem, for that lay ruined in John’s day and he does not see its rebuilding on earth. Jerusalem next appears as the heavenly city. Yet it is Jerusalem in the sense that it is anywhere that murders the prophets of God (Matthew 23:37) and rejects his anointed. It is Egypt in that it is anywhere that imprisons the people of God, and Sodom in that it is wherever the law of God is flouted.
It is here that the witnesses proclaimed the word of God, here that they prepared for the coming of the Lord, and here that they were defeated and died.
But not for long. In a joyful parody of the time of persecution their bodies lie for a mere three and a half days before they rise again and are transported to heaven. Then a final warning judgment falls, and the unexpected happens. The surviving majority (a startling reversal of the usual biblical idea of a small remnant) give glory to God. In other words, they repent and are converted.
If 11:1-13 is the main message of the book of Revelation, to which the first ten chapters lead, and which much of the rest of the book elaborates, it may well be a good idea to take stock of the story so far.
John has written his book to the seven churches of Asia Minor, and through them to the whole Church everywhere. The message is that a time of persecution is approaching, and that this time is not to be seen as exceptional, but as the normal experience of the Church.
The Church, by definition, lives in the end times, for the coming of Christ signals the final phase of God’s plan of salvation for his rebellious creation. It does not matter whether that final phase of history is only a few months or many millennia in duration. It is not the length of the end times that signals their urgency, but the fact of the coming of Christ. Since the incarnation, God has been the coming one, whose victory is at hand.
The possibility of redemption has been opened to the world by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb who was slaughtered, and who now shares the worship of God himself. Human destiny now depends on Christ, and the response of the world to him.
The followers of Jesus have a key role in the world’s response, for it is through their witness that redemption is offered. It is the testimony of the Church that interprets the travail of the world as the call to repentance and offers hope though faith in Christ. Such a testimony will find itself in opposition to the systems of the world, for they are founded on the human quest for self-reliance, and the denial of God. As a result, the Church will find itself caught up in a conflict with those systems, and will suffer persecution and martyrdom.
John, in fact, presents us with a picture of a church composed entirely of martyrs. To be the Church is to suffer the fate of the Church’s Lord, and to lie dead in the streets of the city that slew the Lamb. Does this mean that John really expects all Christians to be martyrs? Surely not. The language he uses is a vivid metaphor for the dedication to Christ, which he does expect of the Church. There are to be no half measures about being a Christian. The Church is called to wholehearted commitment to its Lord, and to bold proclamation of the gospel. Anything less earns the condemnation that was aimed at Laodicea.
The Church’s attitude of hope in the face of death itself is its most powerful witness. The overcoming of the fear of death, the denial of death’s power to remove hope, is its greatest weapon. So, too, is the perpetual resurgence of the Church. In various times and places the Christian faith has apparently been stamped out, only to resurface. Resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian faith, and its continuing experience and testimony.
The hope of salvation for the world is the new message that the scroll brings when it is eaten by the prophet, and is the center of Revelation’s message. Hope, not judgment, lies at the heart of the book.
The real triumph of God is not that evil is destroyed, for evil is self-destructive. His victory lies in the rescue of so many, for this chapter visualizes the salvation of most of humanity.