John was given a reed (i.e. cane) to use as a measuring rod and told to go and measure the temple and the altar with its worshippers. Then the angel told John, “Exclude the outer court, do not measure it because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth… If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and consumes their enemies.”
The angel told John that the two witnesses would possess great power.
“They have the power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying, and they have the power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.”
The angel told John the witnesses would ultimately be killed.
“When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in a street in the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days, some from every people, tribe, language, and nation will gaze upon their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of earth will gloat over them and even celebrate by sending gifts to each other because these two great prophets had tormented those who live on earth.”
But the two witnesses would be resurrected.
“But after three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. 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 looked on.”
At that very hour, there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
The second woe has passed – the third woe is quickly coming.
What the story means to us today
God’s word spreads to the unholy
This is the second interlude between the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets. John’s instructions to measure the temple and altar likely symbolize God’s protection of his people (those located inside the temple) during the trying end-of-days.
The “two witnesses”, two prophets who preach God’s word for 3 ½ years unharmed, are apparently quite effective given the Antichrist’s desire to destroy them. At the end of 3 ½ years, they are killed by the beast. Despite the Antichrist’s attempt to subdue them, they miraculously rise back to life after 3 ½ days.
Upon the resurrection of the two witnesses, calamity strikes earth, many die, and terrified survivors give glory to God. This marks the end of the second woe.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The measuring of the temple of God and the altar
God’s instruction to measure the temple and altar resemble an event in Ezekiel 40:3 where Ezekiel envisions measurements of the future kingdom’s temple. The intent in Ezekiel’s instance is unclear – as are the similar instructions given to John.
Measuring of the temple may be God’s way of telling John that the worshippers (Christians) will be protected during the prophetic events, like the sealing of the 144,000 seen in Revelation 7. Possibly the Great Temple itself is physically protected while other nations trample the area around it for 3 ½ years. Or possibly God has some other reason for measuring the temple that we cannot foresee.
The two witnesses
Researchers have proposed various theories regarding the identity of the two witnesses. Some suggest the two witnesses are future humans acting as prophets while others theorize the two witnesses are resurrected Old Testament prophets (e.g. Enoch and Elijah or Moses and Elijah) returning to earth complete their task.
Still others construe the two witnesses as the church itself, a not inconceivable interpretation given they are referenced as always together and powerful enough to prompt the Antichrist to wage war against them. If this is the case, the resurrection of the two witnesses after three and a half days could represent the rapture of the Christian church (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
As with any biblical prophecy, especially where the views are so wildly divergent, it is best to make no attempt to force an interpretation on the identity of the two witnesses.
Where is the “holy city” that is trampled on by gentiles (other nations) for 42 months?
The verses tell us that nations (or gentiles) will “trample on the holy city for 42 months”. It is characterized (1) as a “city”, (2) a place where the prophets’ Lord was crucified, and (3) figuratively as Sodom and Egypt. No known city fits this description.
It is natural to first assume the “holy city” is Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and Revelation was written only a couple of decades after its destruction (i.e. at the time Revelation was written, there was no “Jerusalem” to be trampled upon). Thus, some believe the “holy city” may be a future city (and temple) rebuilt during the period of the tribulation.
Others believe the “holy city” refers to those who choose to follow Christ – the church itself. This falls in line with the overall tone and topic of Revelation.
Others believe the “holy city” refers to a modern-day city, possible one where Christianity lost its importance to the people (“where the Lord was crucified”), where evil runs rampant (“Sodom”) and corruption and commerce reign supreme (“Egypt”). In this light, it could arguably be any modern-day Western nation.
Note too that the verses describe the two witnesses lying in the public square (or large centralized street) of “the great city”. The verses say this is the city where the Lord was crucified but preface the description with the word “figuratively” leaving the exact location unclear.
We must also consider the description of the action taken upon the city. The verses tell us the city will be “trampled on” for 42 months. “Trampled” likely does not mean physically stomping on the city with disrespect but more likely hints as persecution of those who occupy the “city” – meaning Christians and their message. The verses could relate to Daniel 12:7 where we are told that for 3 ½ years, the power of the “holy people” will be broken.
Finally, the true identity of the “holy city” is further complicated by John’s language itself. Everywhere else in Revelation, John uses the word “city” in a symbolic-only sense.
After the two witnesses are brought back to life, an earthquake prompts praise and glory from the survivors
When the two witnesses rise into heaven, a great earthquake occurs. The versus say the survivors of the event (which could be a symbolic representation of a general catastrophe, not specifically an earthquake) were terrified and “gave glory to the God of heaven.” The response of the people is interesting. Because of what they had witnessed, some are willing to receive the one true god. However, in later verses (Revelation 16:9) we will see a similar earthquake but with an entirely different response from the people. In that instance, “they refused to repent and glorify him”.
42 months of hardship in the “holy city”
The expression “42 months” only appears twice in the Bible – in these verses and in Revelation 13:5 where it refers to the period when the beast will reign over earth. Closely related however, is mention in various verses of a time period of 1,260 days (Revelation 11:3 and Revelation 12:6) which ironically, would equal forty-two 30-day months. We see the same three and one-half year period in Daniel 7:25 described as “time, times, and a half time”. In Daniel’s story, the period is known as “the reign of the Antichrist”.
Certainly, the period of three and one-half years bears particular consideration when interpreting Revelation’s prophecy since all references, including the mentions in Daniel, may refer to the exact same period in time.
An unknown timeline of events in Revelation
The timeline of events in Revelation is difficult to ascertain. We must make sure we do not attempt to stuff a predetermined interpretation of prophesy into a box (prophesy is made clear during and after the events, not before). Taking this into account, there are various theories regarding the timeline of events referenced in these verses.
Some theorize the first 3 ½ years is the period during which the two witnesses preach while the three days of their death is the period when the Antichrist gains power over mankind. This theory proposes the 3 ½ year period is synonymous with the time of the woman in the desert (Revelation 12:6). Thus, beginning with the death of the two witnesses, the 3 ½ year (42 month) reign of the beast begins.
This and other theories regarding the timing of end-time events is further complicated by the measurement of time itself – some propose the periods of three and one-half years are not calendar years, but rather, a symbolic representation of two distinct periods of time.
The science and history behind the story
Using a reed (cane) to measure the temple and altar
We know from earlier verses (Ezekiel 40:5) that the reed used for measurement was about ten feet long. The reed acted as sort of a yardstick for measuring the temple and altar. Longer distances would be measured by a marked rope line.
Notes on Biblical translation
The temple’s outer court given to the “gentiles”
Typically, “gentiles” is used to refer to anyone who is not Jewish, but it can also be translated more broadly as “nations”. To further complicate translation of the word, early Christians began using the word “gentiles” to refer to anyone who did not believe in Christ, including unbelieving Jews. Thus, some biblical translations say “the temple court was given to the gentiles” while others may say “the temple court was given to other nations”. Regardless of the translation, the intended message is clear – enemies of God will trample the outer court of the temple for 3 ½ years.
The bodies of the two witnesses
There is an interesting language anomaly in the description of the two witnesses’ bodies. The bible tells us that their bodies will lay in the public square of the great city. Later their bodies are mentioned a second time: “For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language, and nation will gaze upon their bodies and refuse them burial.” Oddly, the first mention of their bodies uses a Greek noun that is singular (ptoma – as in a single body) while the second reference to their bodies uses the plural (ptomata – as in “bodies”). The reason for this anomaly is unknown.
11 I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. 2 But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. 3 And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.” b 5 If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. 6 They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.
7 Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. 8 Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. 10 The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on 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 terror struck 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, while their enemies looked on.
13 At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
14 The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
1–2 11 I was given a stick for a measuring rod and told, “Get up and measure God’s Temple and Altar and everyone worshiping in it. Exclude the outside court; don’t measure it. It’s been handed over to non-Jewish outsiders. They’ll desecrate the Holy City for forty-two months.
3–6 “Meanwhile, I’ll provide my two Witnesses. Dressed in sackcloth, they’ll prophesy for 1,260 days. These are the two Olive Trees, the two Lampstands, standing at attention before God on earth. If anyone tries to hurt them, a blast of fire from their mouths will incinerate them—burn them to a crisp just like that. They’ll have power to seal the sky so that it doesn’t rain for the time of their prophesying, power to turn rivers and springs to blood, power to hit earth with any and every disaster as often as they want.
7–10 “When they’ve completed their witness, the Beast from the Abyss will emerge and fight them, conquer and kill them, leaving their corpses exposed on the street of the Great City spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, the same City where their Master was crucified. For three and a half days they’ll be there—exposed, prevented from getting a decent burial, stared at by the curious from all over the world. Those people will cheer at the spectacle, shouting ‘Good riddance!’ and calling for a celebration, for these two prophets pricked the conscience of all the people on earth, made it impossible for them to enjoy their sins.
11 “Then, after three and a half days, the Living Spirit of God will enter them—they’re on their feet!—and all those gloating spectators will be scared to death.”
12–13 I heard a strong voice out of Heaven calling, “Come up here!” and up they went to Heaven, wrapped in a cloud, their enemies watching it all. At that moment there was a gigantic earthquake—a tenth of the city fell to ruin, seven thousand perished in the earthquake, the rest frightened to the core of their being, frightened into giving honor to the God-of-Heaven.
14 The second doom is past, the third doom coming right on its heels.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
11:1 Then a measuring rod like a staff was given to me, and I was told, “Get up and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and the ones who worship there. 11:2 But do not measure the outer courtyard of the temple; leave it out, because it has been given to the Gentiles, and they will trample on the holy city for forty-two months. 11:3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for 1,260 days, dressed in sackcloth. 11:4 (These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.) 11:5 If anyone wants to harm them, fire comes out of their mouths and completely consumes their enemies. If anyone wants to harm them, they must be killed this way. 11:6 These two have the power to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying. They have power to turn the waters to blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague whenever they want. 11:7 When they have completed their testimony, the beast that comes up from the abyss will make war on them and conquer them and kill them. 11:8 Their corpses will lie in the street of the great city that is symbolically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was also crucified. 11:9 For three and a half days those from every people, tribe, nation, and language will look at their corpses, because they will not permit them to be placed in a tomb. 11:10 And those who live on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate, even sending gifts to each other, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth. 11:11 But after three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and tremendous fear seized those who were watching them. 11:12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them: “Come up here!” So the two prophets went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies stared at them. 11:13 Just then a major earthquake took place and a tenth of the city collapsed; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
11:14 The second woe has come and gone; the third is coming quickly.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
11 And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. 2 But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. 3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy ia thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. 4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. 5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. 6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will. 7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them. 8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. 9 And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves. 10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth. 11 And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them. 12 And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them. 13 And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven. 14 The second woe is past; and, behold, the third woe cometh quickly.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.