October 7: Revelation 11:1-2

Revelation 11:1-2

Many commentators regard the first two verses of chapter 11 as belonging more properly with chapter 10; in my view, it is best to treat them as a separate (transitional) scene set between 10:1-11 and 11:3-13.

Rev 11:1

“And there was given to me a reed (which was more) like a staff, saying ‘You must rise and measure the shrine of God and the place of (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] (God) in it’.”

The reed (ka/lamo$) refers to any stick which might be used as a measuring tool; the further description of it as being “like a r(a/bdo$” means that it is larger/longer and firmer, like the staff held by a shepherd or ruler. The possible royal/Messianic allusion adds to the idea that this is no ordinary measuring-stick.

The command to measure is a visionary detail which echoes a number of Prophetic passages, such as Amos 7:7-9. The Old Testament idiom involves a measuring-line (plum-line), and usually refers to the application of judgment—cf. also 2 Sam 8:2; 2 Kings 21:13; Lam 2:8. The most immediate reference comes from Zech 2:1-2, which involves the vision of a man (i.e. heavenly being/messenger) holding a measuring-line, who has been tasked to measure the dimensions of Jerusalem. This passage is part of a visionary promise of Israel’s restoration and return to Jerusalem, presented in eschatological language. Also relevant is the vision of the new Temple in Ezek 40-43ff, where the building’s dimensions are described in detail; the prophet also sees a heavenly/divine being holding a measuring-stick in his hand (vv. 3, 5). Taking all these prophetic passages together, we see that there is a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of measuring:

    • Negative—determining the portion/people which are to receive the judgment
    • Positive—demarcating the space marked for deliverance/restoration

Both of these apply to the visionary scene here in the book of Revelation.

Rev 11:2

(The heavenly voice continues:)
“And the open court(yard) th(at is) outside the shrine you must throw out and you should not measure it, (in) that [i.e. because] it was given to the nations, and they will tread (over) the holy city (for) forty-two months.”

Here the Temple is envisioned as having a simpler structure than the Herodian (Second) Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. It is closer in design to the ancient temple-pattern of the Israelite Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)—an inner sanctuary surrounded by an outer court (cf. Exodus 26-27). This indicates that it is typological—while it draws upon the historical Temple in outline, it should be understood here as a figure or symbol. The Herodian Temple did have a “court of the Gentiles”, marking a division in the Temple-complex past which non-Jews were not supposed to enter (Josephus Wars 5.190ff). This historical detail probably factors into the imagery here as well. Some commentators would infer from this passage that the Jerusalem Temple was still standing when the book of Revelation was written, indicating a date in the 60’s A.D. This is possible, but, I think, rather unlikely; other factors point to a time somewhat later in the 1st century. The reference here involves the (historical) Temple as a basic type-pattern, and really cannot be used for a dating of the book.

The contrast in vv. 1-2 is clear: the inner sanctuary (shrine, na/o$) is to be measured, but the outer courtyard (au)lh/) is not. The people (of God) are worshiping (vb. proskune/w, lit. “kiss toward”) within the shrine, but the outer court is given over to the nations (i.e. foreigners, unbelievers). This results in a religious division within the Temple itself, marking off the sanctuary from all that is outside.

This, too, draws upon historical memory and tradition, as interpreted and given shape in Scripture, set within a distinctive eschatological setting. Two main (historical) events are involved:

    • The violation and profanation of the Temple by the Syrian/Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) in 167 B.C., generally recognized as the primary point of reference in Dan 9:27 (cf. the earlier study on Dan 9:24-27).
    • The destruction of the (Herodian) Temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D., after which the Romans exercised more direct control over Jerusalem. Even prior to the Temple’s destruction, the emperor Gaius (Caligula, c. 40 A.D.) introduced policies which seemed to echo those of Antiochus IV.

Both of these events are reflected in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13:1-2, 14ff par)—indeed, the Lukan version combines them together, presenting the prophecy in Dan 9:27, and the time of distress associated with it, specifically in terms of the siege/destruction of Jerusalem (Lk 21:20-24). The wording, and the idea expressed, in verse 24 is quite close that here in Rev 11:2:

“…and Yerushalaim will be (be)ing tread (down) under the nations, until the (moment at) which the times of the nations should be fulfilled.”

Here Jesus (along with the Gospel writer) is clearly referring to the conquest of Jerusalem and, with it, the destruction of the physical/historical Temple, which occurred in 70 A.D. After this, there will be a period of time when the “nations” (i.e. Gentile Romans) exercise control over the city and the Temple. This seems to parallel precisely what is declared to the seer (John) in Rev 11:2, and yet, if the book was written after 70 A.D. (as most commentators believe), it cannot refer to the same event(s) prophesied by Jesus. Moreover, in this vision, the sanctuary itself (the inner shrine or “holy place”) is not destroyed or desecrated. Modern-day commentators who wish to retain verse 2 as a concrete historical prophecy, require a situation whereby the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt at a future time. Yet there is nothing of the kind suggested here in the text, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter. The idea derives almost entirely from a specific interpretation of Ezek 40-43ff, harmonized to fit the eschatological references to the Temple in 2 Thess 2, etc. As an interpretive method or approach it is highly questionable, though popular as a way of navigating certain historical/chronological difficulties related to New Testament eschatology. I discuss this approach at various points throughout this series.

The idea that the Temple in Rev 11:1-2 refers to an actual historical/physical building would seem to be rather flatly contradicted by the fact that all other references to the Temple in the book are either (a) symbolic of believers, or (b) are part of a setting/locale in heaven; mainly it is the latter7:15; 11:19; 14:15ff; 16:1, 17; 21:22, while 3:12 also indicates the former. Moreover, the final reference in 21:22 identifies the Temple with the person/presence of God and Christ (the Lamb) together. Numerous other passages in the New Testament use the Temple as a symbol for believers (collectively) as the body of Christ—1 Cor 3:9ff, 16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5.

As would be expected in a vision such as those in the book of Revelation, the Temple as an image is a concrete symbol or pattern for something else. A proper interpretation should begin with the idea of the Temple as symbolizing believers as a group or body (community). If this is correct, then what is the meaning of the distinction between the sanctuary (nao/$) and the outer court? The key is found in verse 1, where John is commanded to measure the shrine, including specifically the altar and the ones worshiping God there. Above I translate qusiasth/rion literally as the “place of (ritual) slaughter”; however, the context clearly shows that this is not the altar for animal sacrifice (which was in the outer court), but the altar for offering incense (which was inside the sanctuary). This is the altar-type assumed throughout the book (except possibly in 6:9), and the incense is associated specifically with the prayers of believers (8:3). I would say that the persons inside the sanctuary, worshiping at the altar, are meant to represent true believers, those following Jesus faithfully even unto death (6:9ff). By extension, this would imply that any persons in the outer court, outside the sanctuary, are not true believers, but false disciples or believers in name only who do not remain faithful in the time of distress. This is very much the theme of the warning/exhortations in the letters to the Seven Congregations (chaps. 2-3), and follows the clear symbolism in Jesus’ own eschatological teaching (esp. the parables in Matt 13 [vv. 24-30, 37-43, 47-50]).

What, then, of the motif of the nations treading/trampling the “holy city” (v. 2)? The “nations” (e&qnh), in the basic traditional/religious sense of the term, refer to all those who are not part of the people of God (i.e. not believers in Christ). The “nations” are fundamentally synonymous with the “wicked”. As part of the end-time Judgment, in its initial phase(s) at least, the nations/wicked will war against one another, bringing about suffering and destruction on humankind. This is expressed in the first four seal-visions (6:1-8), with the same idea also found in Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:7-8 par). The time of warfare precedes, or is part of, the great distress (1:9; 2:22; 7:14; Mk 13:19 par; cf. Dan 12:1ff), which will even engulf the faithful.

The measuring of the sanctuary is a sign that those in it (believers) will be protected from judgment (cf. above). Traditionally, a temple, and, in particular, the area around the altar, due to its sacred character, was a place where persons could seek (and find) protection or asylum (Exod 21:13-14; 1 Kings 1:50). Similarly, here, we have the idea that the believers worshiping in the sanctuary (at the altar) will be protected from the Judgment. This does not mean that believers will not suffer any harm, or even be put to death, as is clear from 6:9-11 and Mk 13:9-13, 20-22 par; however, the promise is that, ultimately, the true believer will be saved from the (final) Judgment (2:7, 10-11 etc; Mk 13:13 par), while those outside, among the nations, will be destroyed. God’s Judgment does not only mean punishment for the wicked; it is also a time of testing for the righteous, and is to be endured by believers as part of our coming salvation (1 Pet 4:12-19, etc). The time period involved—forty-two months (= 3½ years)—comes from the book of Daniel (9:27; also 7:25; 12:7, 11f); here, like the rest of the vision in vv. 1-2, it is best viewed as symbolic, reflecting a short but intense period of suffering and distress at the end-time. For those seeking to preserve a concrete literal/historical fulfillment, it would mean a period of precisely 3½ years (42 months), as written. Rev 12:14 uses the same idiom as in Dan 7:25; 12:7 for this duration—”time, times and half and a time”.

It should be pointed out that not all commentators would interpret Rev 11:1-2 exactly as I have above; I note here a different approach, which still treats the Temple image as symbolic in more or less the same sense (Koester, p. 485):

“{The} outer court as the vulnerable aspect of the church. The enclosed temple (naos) that is measured signifies the worshiping community, which God preserves on earth. The open court (aule) signifies the church, as it is vulnerable to affliction in an unbelieving world. The same community is both preserved and vulnerable…”

I have already mentioned above the line of interpretation which would view vv. 1-2 as a vision of the historical/physical city and Temple, to be fulfilled (literally) at a future time, parallel with a similar modern/futurist interpretation of Mk 13:14ff. For more on the Temple in New Testament eschatology as a whole, see the separate study on this subject.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).