Note: This article is part of a series.
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, "Rise 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 the holy city for forty-two months. (Revelation 11:1-2, ESV)
It is not an easy time to be a Christian. In some parts of the world, believers operate in secret, seeking to avoid the intrusive arm of governments committed to controlling or eliminating the church. In other places, hostile citizens burn and kill to terrorize Christians into leaving or quitting. In our own country, believers face extreme societal pressure in the form of cancellation or public attack for holding to biblical norms on a whole host of issues. In the wake of the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many of our cultural elites are openly questioning whether any person of true Christian faith could be qualified for the highest court.
The book of Revelation reminds us that the hostility of the world toward Christians is nothing new. In fact, that hostility is a hallmark of the entire period of time between the Advent of Christ and His Second Coming. Revelation uniquely uses symbols drawn from the Old Testament to communicate the reality of the battle in which the church exists throughout the entire church age. The symbols are not reality; they are pictures of reality. The visual nature of Revelation is designed to press these realities home to us with greater force. In this series of posts, we have been looking particularly at how the images of Revelation portray the church. Revelation shows us how God views the church, reminding us that the view from God’s perspective often differs that the view from our perspective.
In Revelation 11, we have two wonderful images of the church. The second of the two (the two witnesses) is one of the more complicated passages in the whole book, and we will save our discussion of that until next time. For this article we will take up the first image in the chapter – that of the measured temple.
Chapter 11 begins in a way that is reminiscent of Zechariah 2 and Ezekiel 40-48. The recipient of the vision is invited to participate in the measuring of the temple. Significantly, in each of these cases, the physical temple is not actually standing. The temple is a picture of something else. Here in Revelation, John is handed something like a long cane pole of a known distance. John is to use this “measuring rod” to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (v. 1). At the same time he is told not to measure the court outside the temple as that is to be “given over to the nations” so they can “trample the holy city for forty-two months” (v. 2). Given the fact that the temple is a well-established image for the people of God in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21-22; and 1 Peter 2:5), that the “holy city” (New Jerusalem) is a reference to the church used in the book of Revelation (see 21:2), and the fact that the vision actually mentions worshipers, it seems clear that this is another picture of the church.
Referring to the people of God as the “temple of God” points to the all-important truth that the people of God is the place where God dwells in a special way. Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV), “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?” This insight probably does not seem earth-shattering because you’ve heard it before. It should be earth-shattering every time we are reminded that it is true. God says it is true. The world says the church is the repository of narrow-minded bigots (or worse) but God says, “That’s my house.” It truly is incredible.
Now, think with me about what the picture in Revelation 11:1-2 is telling us. When John is asked to measure the temple, he is being told to mark it out as secure. The specific dimensions of the property you own are in the deed. The measuring of something is meant to indicate God’s secure ownership. The people of God are eternally secure in Christ. At the same time, part of the temple courts are not measured and, in this vision, the holy city is not protected either. What is going on?
God seems to be giving John an image showing the great paradox of being a Christian in a fallen world. We are at the same time, completely secure in Christ and exposed to the attacks of the world. Commentator Dennis Johnson describes it well: “… the unmeasured courtyard, given to the Gentiles, and the holy city, trampled by the Gentiles, balance the portrait of the church as the measured sanctuary: though protected from apostasy and God’s wrath, the church is exposed to physical coercion, social contempt, and violence” (The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 169). This is what it means to be a Christian – it means complete and total security and at the same time vulnerability to the external hostility of the world.
The reference to the time period of 42 months is important too. This period of security/vulnerability has a finite duration. Many people who struggle to understand Revelation seem to think that while the images portrayed in the book are symbolic, the numbers are to be taken literally. The numbers are symbolic too! 42 months is the same as 1,260 days (Revelation 11:3) figuring lunar months of 30 days. This would also equal three and a half years, sometimes given in the Bible as “times, time, and half time.” (Daniel 7:25; 12:7; Revelation 12:14). So these are three different ways to count the same amount of time depending on whether we count in days, months, or years. What could this mean? As we discussed in an earlier article, seven is the biblical number of perfection or completeness. If seven is a complete amount of time, three and a half would be half a complete time. In other words it is a significant but finite amount of time. It is not going to last forever. That is good for us to hear, but we might wonder when it is going to end!
If we look at how this time reference is used in the book of Revelation and in the book of Daniel, it seems to be a description of the entire church age. In other words, this arrangement of the church being eternally secure and at the same time vulnerable to constant attack is going to continue until Jesus returns. This is not a description of a brief period of time that will occur in the distant future. It is not a reference to a brief period of time that happened in the past (i.e., around the destruction of the temple in AD 70 – years before the book of Revelation was actually written). No, it describes something that has been happening as long as God’s people have been in the world. It will continue to happen until Jesus comes again. Commentator G. K. Beale writes, “…the point is that there is no time in which the church is ever in a peaceful relationship with the world…” (The Book of Revelation, p. 567).
How does this help you if you are a believer? When you see the active and sometimes violent opposition to Christ and His church in the world, you should not be surprised. In fact, you should be surprised when you do not see it! When you experience opposition from the world for your faith, you and I must remember that we are completely secure in Christ Jesus. The temple has been measured. He knows the dimensions. Not one square inch will be lost. The Lord will never let His church perish from the earth, and He will never lose one of His children. He will guard and keep you and all who find shelter in Christ eternally secure so that you do not have to fear those seeking to trample the church underfoot. Thank Jesus for making you part of His temple, and ask Him to help you to see how secure you are in Him – no matter what the world is throwing at you.