This chapter is generally the subject of more interpretive disagreements than any other in the book of Revelation. It is also one of the more important chapters in determining the overall purpose of the book.
Let’s begin by noting the more popular interpretations not only of vv. 1-2 but of the entire paragraph (11:1-13).
(1) According to the preterist interpretation, the temple, the altar, and the outer court all refer to the literal temple in literal Jerusalem. These verses thus describe the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. The two witnesses are variously interpreted. Some say they are representative of religious and civil authority in Jerusalem; others contend they were two literal individuals executed by the Idumaeans (see below). Russell argues for James and Peter!
(2) The traditional dispensational, pretribulational (or futurist) interpretation is that the temple is the literal structure to be rebuilt in or just before the tribulation period at the close of history. Walvoord interprets the “measuring” of 11:1 as meaning that “God is the judge of man’s worship and man’s character and that all must give an account to Him” (176). The worshipers are faithful, believing Jews of the tribulation period who will have reinstituted the sacrifices and rituals of the Mosaic economy. Their activity, however, will be terminated by the Beast who will bring desolation to the temple service and subject the holy city of Jerusalem to severe affliction for the last (literal) 3 ½ years (or 42 months) of the (literal) 7-year tribulation period. Thus the “outer court” refers to Gentiles who will persecute the remnant during a literal 42-month period. The two witnesses are either Elijah and Moses themselves or individuals who are characterized in their persons and ministries by the elements and activities of those two figures as recorded in the OT narratives. Their witness will span the 3 ½ year period, after which they will be martyred by the Beast, only to be resurrected 3 ½ days later.
(3) Another view interprets 11:1-13 to be descriptive of the preservation and salvation of the Jewish people as portrayed in Romans 11:25-27. George Ladd is the most articulate defender of this view, so I take the liberty of quoting him at length:
“In John’s vision, the measuring of the temple, its inner courts, and those who worship there is a symbol of preservation and protection. . .. The key to our understanding of the passage is found in the fact that the outer court and the entire city of Jerusalem are both trampled by the gentiles. The most natural meaning of Jerusalem is that it stands for the Jewish people. When Jesus spoke of the trampling of Jerusalem by the gentiles (Luke 21:24), he meant to designate the city as representative of the entire people. When in contrast to the city as a whole, the temple proper and its worshippers are preserved, the contrast seems to be between the Jewish people as a whole and a remnant who are true worshippers of God. Historically, all Jews had access to the inner court of Israel to engage in the worship of God. Yet it is obvious that here the temple and its worshippers cannot represent all Israel, for they stand in contrast to the outer court and to the city of Jerusalem as a whole which represent the nation. This suggests a contrast between a faithful remnant of believing Israelites who, in contrast to the city as a whole will be trodden down by the nations, i.e., they will fall under the divine judgment because they have become spiritually apostate” (152-53).
The two witnesses are two historical persons sent by the Lord to Israel to bring about her conversion. Ladd believes it best not to identify the two witnesses with Elijah and Moses specifically, but to understand them as latter-day prophets whose personalities and ministry are modeled after the OT figures. Their ministry will span the final calamitous days of the tribulation period, at the end of which the Beast kills them. Their resurrection and ascension (11:11-12) are not literal but symbolic of the spiritual restoration or conversion of the nation Israel, spoken of in Ezek. 37 and again in Rom. 11:25-27.
(4) I believe that all of 11:1-13 describes symbolically the mission and fate of the Church during the present inter-advent age, culminating in the final period of opposition and persecution by the Beast. On this view, the temple or sanctuary, together with the altar and the worshipers, stands for the church as God’s people (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5). The Greek word translated “temple” is naos which without exception in Revelation refers to the present heavenly temple (7:15; 11:19; 14:15,17; 15:5-6,8; 16:1,17) or to the temple of God’s presence in the age to come (3:12; 7:15; 21:22). Thus “the people of God, the members of God’s temple in heaven, are referred to in their existence on earth as ‘the temple of God.’ Indeed, the only other use of the phrase ‘temple of God’ in Revelation (11:19) refers to the end-time heavenly temple, which is the same reality that protects believers during their sojourn on earth” (Beale, 562).
Ramsey Michaels contends that since the word naos in Revelation always refers to the heavenly temple, “the worshipers in the temple of God (v. 1) are not human beings, whether Jews or Christians, but heavenly beings, including the twenty-four living creatures mentioned in chapters 4-5” (137).
The measuring of the temple speaks of spiritual preservation from God’s wrath, but not from physical persecution and martyrdom. The people of God are sustained and protected in their faith while suffering greatly at the hands of the Beast. Thus this “measuring” is equivalent to the “sealing” of chapter seven and the “worshipers” in 11:1 are the same as the “144,000” in 7:4 (see 2 Sam. 8:2b; Isa. 28:16-17; Jer. 31:38-40; Ezek. 40:1-6; 42:20; Zech. 1:16; for OT examples of “measuring” as “protection”; for the notion of destruction see 2 Sam. 8:2a; 2 Kings 21:13; Amos 7:7-9; Isa. 34:11; Lam. 2:8).
There are three options for interpreting the protection of the inner sanctuary and the trampling under foot or persecuting of the outer court.
(1) Some say this is descriptive of the church’s experience viewed from two different perspectives. The church is spiritually protected from God’s wrath (the inner sanctuary) but is physically oppressed by pagan forces (outer court). According to this view the holy city must be yet another symbolic designation of the church. In Revelation “city” (polis) is used four times of the future heavenly city, the New Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2,10; 22:19). This is similar to what we read in Hebrews 11:10; 12:22; and 13:14. The people of God on earth are members and representatives of the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 4:26). I believe this is also the meaning of the “beloved city” in Rev. 20:9.
But is it plausible to believe that the temple, the altar, the outer court, and the holy city, here in 11:1-2, all refer figuratively or symbolically to the church, i.e., the believing community of God’s people now on earth? Yes! Let us remember that in Rev. 3:12 the church, the believing community of God’s people now on earth, are promised that they will be “a pillar in the temple” of God. They will have written on them the name of God and “the name of the city” of God, “the New Jerusalem”!
(2) Others say that the inner sanctuary refers to true believers of the church and that the outer court points to unfaithful, apostate, merely professing “members” who in fact lack eternal life.
(3) Another view is that the inner sanctuary is indeed the true church protected from the destructive wrath of God. The outer court is the unbelieving world as a whole that is left to suffer this wrath. According to this view, the holy city “is then to be understood as representing the city of the world in its opposition to God, what Bunyan called the City of Destruction, or Vanity Fair” (Beasley-Murray, 179). This would be a highly unlikely use of the phrase “holy city”.
I believe that (1) is the most probable interpretation. Thus, in the words of Bauckham, John is
“distinguishing the inner, hidden reality of the church as a kingdom of priests (cf. 5:10) who worship God in his presence from the outward experience of the church as it is exposed to persecution by the kingdom of the nations. The church will be kept safe in its hidden spiritual reality, while suffering persecution and martyrdom. This is partially a parallel, using differing imagery, to the vision of chapter 7, where the servants of God are kept safe by the seal on their foreheads, but suffer martyrdom” (272-73).
The two witnesses are not real or historical individuals, but symbolize the Church in its missionary and prophetic role during the present age and particularly at the close of history. More on this below.
What is the meaning of the 42 months in 11:2 and 13:5, the 1260 days in 11:3 and 12:6, and the time, times, and half a time in 12:14? Are these references to some chronologically precise period of time, or are they a symbolic reference to any period of time, regardless of duration, in which certain characteristic features and events are prominent?
- Dispensational (futurist) interpreters are uniform in declaring that the 42 months = 1260 days = 3 ½ years = time, times, half a time are quite literal. That is to say, they refer to a literal 3 ½ year period within the final literal 7 year Great Tribulation that precedes the Parousia.
- Non-dispensational interpreters contend that the period 42 months = 1260 days = 3 ½ years = time, times, half a time, is a reference to the whole of this present era, spanning from the exaltation and ascension of Christ to his 2ndadvent (or Parousia), during which time the beast oppresses and persecutes the people of God (others would restrict the “time, times, and half a time” to the conclusion of the beast’s oppressive reign but without limiting the period to merely 3 ½ years).
The question, then, is this: is the period 42 months = 1260 days = 3 ½ years = time, times, half a time chronological (hence, literal) or theological (hence, symbolic)?
The first thing we observe is that the expression in Daniel 7:25 is not in terms of years, days, months, weeks or any such chronological measure. Rather, we read of a “time, times, and half a time,” by which we may take Daniel to mean 1 + 2 + ½ = 3 ½. But 3 ½ what? In Revelation there are several texts in which a similar if not identical designation is found:
- Rev. 11:2= 42 months = the period during which the nations will trample the holy city.
- Rev. 11:3= 1260 days (or 42 months of 30 days each) = the period during which the two witnesses will prophesy.
- Rev. 12:6= 1260 days = the period during which the “woman” is nourished by God in the wilderness.
- Rev. 12:14= a time, times, and half a time = the period during which the “woman” is nourished in the wilderness.
- Rev. 13:5= 42 months = the period during which the beast acts with authority and blasphemes.
- (Note also Rev. 11:11 and the 3 ½ days, the period during which the two witnesses lie dead in the streets.)
One’s understanding of these time references will depend on how one interprets the events prophesied to occur within each respective period. Suffice it to say that in my view (which is always subject to change!) these designations (42 months = 1260 days = time, times, and half a time = 3 ½ years) all refer to the entire present age intervening between the two comings of Christ. In other words, they are but literary variations for the same period. It is the period of persecution, during which the people of God are oppressed and martyred. I do not believe that either Daniel or John intended us to take these references as chronologically precise periods that may be specified on a calendar. Consider the following:
(1) E. J. Young, in commenting on the use of this language in Daniel, writes:
“The purpose of the language seems to be to express both the duration and the intensity of the period during which the little horn will rule. It is first stated that there will be a time. In itself this word simply means a definite period, the precise length of which is not given. There is therefore no warrant for asserting that it means a year. Next comes mention of times which evidently signifies double the length of the preceding. We should then expect a doubling of this expression, namely four times, thus reaching a total of seven. Such however is not the case. Instead of an expression four times, we read merely of a half time. Since the precise length of these periods is not stated, it would seem as though a symbolical reference were intended. Thus, the little horn will hold sway for a time. His dominion will however increase in strength and intensity. This is represented by the word times. We should then expect that the intensity of his rule will double, but instead of that we are told merely that it will be for a half time, thus signifying that his power is cut off, just when it seemed to be increasing towards its fullness. The power of the little horn, which God will permit to exist upon earth, will increase in intensity with respect to the people of God. There is, in other words, to come a period when wickedness will be manifested in the little horn” (The Messianic Prophecies of Daniel, 52-53).
Goldingay takes a similar approach. The 3 ½ periods
“suggests a time that threatens to extend itself longer: one period, then a double period, then a quadruple period . . . but the anticipated sequence suddenly breaks off, so that the seven periods (in effect an eternity) that were threatened are unexpectedly halved. The king symbolized by the small horn has his time allotted; it is not without end. He himself is under control. The period he rules is a long one, but it is brought to a sudden termination. This way of speaking carried no implications whatsoever for the chronological length of time that will correspond to these periods” (181).
(2) There is evidence that the number 3 ½ gradually became a stereotypical or stock designation in apocalyptic literature for a period of persecution and distress, regardless of its chronological duration.
As for references to this time frame in biblical literature, note the 3 ½ years of drought during the ministry of Elijah and the rule of Ahab and Jezebel in 1 Kings 17-18; Luke 4:25; James 5:17. It was also approximately 3 ½ years that Antiochus Epiphanes persecuted the Jewish people by defiling the temple. The precise length is disputed: some say it was from June 168 to December 165 b.c.; others, from December 168 to the middle of 164 b.c.; and others say it was closer to 3 years, from Chislev or December 168 to the same month in 165 [see 1 Macc. 1:57; 4:52]. Preterists often point out that “from spring of 67 [a.d.] to August of 70, the time of formal imperial engagement against Jerusalem, is a period of forty-two months” (Gentry, 66). Other preterists think this 3 ½ year period points to the length of Nero’s persecution of the church, from November of 64 to June 9 of 68 (the date of Nero’s death). Some have even suggested that the number 3 ½ came to be symbolic of distress and difficulty in light of the 3 ½ months that intervened between the winter solstice and the Babylonian festival of Marduk. Thus Beckwith writes:
“The theory is plausible that he [Daniel] derives the number [3 ½] from Semitic tradition, that primarily it figured the three months or more during which nature is in the grasp of frost and cold and that it afterwards became a symbol of the fierce period of evil before the last great triumph, a symbol of the time of the power of Antichrist, ‘the times of the Gentiles,’ Lk. 21:24, or more widely, the symbol of any period of great calamity” (The Apocalypse of John, 252).
(3) The reference to 42 months is possibly taken from the 42 years of Israel’s wilderness wandering (the initial 2 years followed by the 40 God inflicted upon her). Or it may allude to the 42 stations or encampments of Israel while in the wilderness (Num. 33:5ff.).
(4) Others suggest that 3- ½ signifies a broken 7, and thus becomes a symbol for the interruption of the Divine order by the malice of Satan and evil men, a period of unrest and trouble.
(5) The strongest argument for interpreting these references as theological and not chronological is here in the book of Revelation. The events which occur within these periods are, in my view, such that will transpire throughout the present age. Hence the 42 months = 1260 days = time, times, and half a time = 3-½ years = the present inter-advent age.
In the light of this, many commentators suggest that the period is simply an expression for the time of tyranny until the end comes, the period of eschatological crisis, the age of persecution and pilgrimage for the people of God however long it may be. “The figure [thus] becomes a symbol like the red cross or the swastika, a shorthand way of indicating the period during which the ‘nations,’ the unbelievers, seem to dominate the world, but the ‘people,’ God’s people, maintain their witness in it” (Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened, 106).
In sum, it would seem that in describing the era of the “little horn” or antichrist as a “time, times, and half a time,” Daniel and John are not attempting to tell us how long he will hold sway, as if by 3-½, 42, 1260, etc., they were specifying a period that is chronologically precise. It is not the length but the kind of time that is meant. In other words, 3-½ and 42 and 1260 are not a description of the chronological quantity of the period but rather of its spiritual and theological quality.