Revelation 11:1-14 tells the story of a protected yet vulnerable church with stock characters, symbolic cities, parabolic actions, a villain, and a surprising twist in the plot. This chapter gives us a major theological theme: the paradox of a community safe from harm, yet subject to danger, secured by God yet trampled by hostile forces. It is the same story as the 144,000 who are sealed yet endure danger and death (7:1-17) and the mother who is persecuted yet carried to safety in the wilderness on eagles’ wings (12:1-17). Chapter 11 uses parabolic images to develop the uneasy paradox, making this chapter “the most difficult” yet one of the most important in the whole book.
Chapter 11 has four parts. First is a mysterious voice tells John to measure the temple, altar, and worshipers, but to leave the outside Court unmeasured (1-2). Next is the story of the two witnesses and their fate. (3-13). Third is an announcement that the second woe is finished and the third woe will come (14). Lastly, is the seventh trumpet.
11:1 Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come 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 over the holy city for forty-two months.
In the previous section we noticed that John’s role as passive spectator gave way to active involvement in his own vision. He took the scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. In the opening verses of chapter 11 his participation continues. John is given a measuring rod. The act of measuring is a symbolic gesture that determines the appropriate boundaries of a space or an activity. Similar to how a surveyor establishes the limits of a lot. The portion within the limits that John measures—the temple, altar, and the worshipers—all belong to God. It is holy space. The unmeasured portions are unprotected persons and space. That is unholy space. The unmeasured portion is handed over to the nations to trample for the symbolic period of 42 months. This act of measuring and boundary creation should remind us of Ezek. 40-42 where the temple is measured to determine what belongs to God and us under his protection.
42 Months is equivalent to three-and-a-half years, a broken seven-year period. The complete or perfect seven is split in half, symbolic of the in-between times that are fractured until they are repaired by the messiah. The paradox of the in-between times is that the period of distress in which the church is subject to harm corresponds to the time set aside for the church to fulfill its prophetic task. There is also a connection in this time to the Jewish suffering under the Antiochus Epiphanies in 167-164BC. It became a standard symbol for that limited period of time during which evil would be allowed free reign.
3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6 They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. 7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up 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 is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of 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 the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13 At that moment 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.
The witnesses are modeled after Moses and Elijah. In the description that follows (vv5-6) they have the power, like Elijah, to consume their enemies with fire (2 Kings 1:10), to “close the sky” preventing rain (1 Kings 17:1), and like Moses they can turn the water into blood (Exodus 7:14-18) and strike the earth with every kind of plague (8:12). So the characters show similarity to Moses and Elijah and are modeled after them, but who really are they and what do they symbolize in John’s Vision? Some have identified them as two literal prophetic figures who will arise at the end. However it is more likely, that they are not two individuals but a symbol of the witnessing church in the last tumultuous days before the end of the age. That church is presented under the figure of two witnesses stems from the well-known law in Deuteronomy 19:15 that required a second witness for adequate testimony (cf. John 8:17).
The imagery of the two olive trees and lampstands also provides important metaphors for the church’s role as witness. As olive trees are a plentiful source of oil for burning lamps so the two olive trees supply the lampstands with an abundant supply of oil. Despite the hostile threat from the outside, the church’s witness is in no danger of being extinguished.
The outward clothing of the witness represents the nature of the church’s prophetic witness. Sackcloth was commonly worn during times of mourning. Jacob wore sackcloth, after tearing off his garments, to mourn Joseph’s presumed death (Genesis 37:34). The garment was also an outward symbol of repentance (Jonah 3:5-6).
The witnesses corpse lies unburied in the street of “the great city, which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” This is the first of eight references (11:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21); in all the other occurrence, it is an Epithet for Babylon. The use of the word the, called the definite article, indicates that the reader should already be familiar with the city. This is part of John’s literary tools, anticipation, followed by clarification. Now, some have thought that the great city is Jerusalem, for it is also called the city where the Lord was crucified. But, the description is spiritual not literal. One author points out that “where” in Revelation is never, introduces literal, but always symbolic geography. So the place where Christ was crucified shouldn’t make us think of the actual city where he died, rather that city or place that spiritually crucifies him and that place which enthrones the beast. The great city is called Sodom, which is a symbol of wickedness (Genesis 19:1-25; Deuteronomy 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14-15) and Egypt which is the place of slavery and alienation (Exodus 5:1-21; Joel 3:19).
Simply put, the great city is the antithesis of the another city we will see later, the New Jerusalem. The great city is the one of this world that opposes God; it is “humanity in chaos and rebellion against God.” Babylon, the great city, and the new Jerusalem represent the two opposing points of view of the book. Babylon is the symbolic city of oppression and alienation where the beast reigns, God is mocked and, and followers of the beast celebrate the triumph of evil over good.
The bodies of the two witnesses lie in the street of the city for three and a half days. This is a symbolic period; we again notice the broken seven, but now in the form of days not years. The number is more important than the time span (days). The church’s life and work is symbolized by the number three and a half, whether it be days or years. The broken seven describes the essential character of the church in the in-between times. It is an authoritative and powerful voice within society, but it is also beaten down, trodden upon, and killed.
Verse 11 depicts the awe and fear at the resuscitation of the two witnesses, the enemies of the great city, but we see in verse 13 that fear leads to repentance. The language here is similar to Ezekiel 37 when God sends the breath of life into the dry bones making them come to life and stand up. The two hear a loud voice and begin to ascend towards the Heaven. In that hour after the two witnesses ascend, the whole a devastating earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, 70,000 people (11:13). And so here is what’s happening, this is all part of John’s symbolic geography The number (7x10x1000) is used to symbolize the totality of the world. The shaking of the earth corresponds to a spiritual shaking that awakens those who dwell in the symbolic city. They are being shaking out of their spiritual apathy, shaken out of the reign of the beast. A tenth of the city is destroyed and 7,000 people are killed. Nine-tenths of the inhabitants are spared destruction, with the surviving majority responding with terror and giving “glory to God of heaven” (11:13). This scene is John’s surprising reversal of Old Testament judgments in which nine-tenths are destroyed and one-tenth is spared (Isaiah 6:13 or Amos 5:3). In 1 Kings 19 the 7,000 who refused the seductions of Jezebel to worship Ba’al are spared judgment.
The point of this digression seems to me to be this: The church accomplishes what judgments alone were unable to accomplish. Where the plagues are ineffectual in moving humankind in the right direction, the testimony of faithful believers is effectual. As Richard Bauckham notes, judgments by themselves are ineffective in bringing about repentance because they “do not convey God’s gracious willingness to forgive those who repent.” But, when judgments are combined with the church’s call to repentance the results are positive. The Christian’s voice is instrumental in the conversion of the nations of the world.
14 The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon.
The narrative reminds the reader where they are in the story line, the second woe has passed and the final woe coming very soon. And a quick reminder for all of us The three woes were announced to the earth’s inhabitants by an eagle lying in midheaven in 8:13. The fifth trumpet plague, the locus, was the first woe and two more woes are to come (9:12). The second woe is apparently the sixth trumpet plague of 9:13-21, although John postpones the announcement until after the story of his commissioning (10:1-11) and the tale of the two witnesses (11:1-13).
15 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 Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever. 16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 singing, “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” 19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
When the seventh trumpet is blown, we might expect yet another plague but instead we hear voices in heaven declaring that eternal sovereignty of God and his Christ. The twenty-four elders join the celebrating falling, before God in worship and praising him for having taken his great power and begun to reign. The entire scene with the seventh trumpet is simply a reminder that God will faithfully carry out his covenant promises and destroy the enemies of his people