As I think about where we are in this remarkable book I wonder why God has given it to us. The book is largely concerned with things in the future, and much of that future does not concern us directly. So why do we need to know all this detail? Right at the beginning of the book we are told that by reading it, by hearing it and by taking it to heart we will derive benefit.
We’re also told (at the end of the book) not to mess with the words.
We live in days when the leaders and most of the people in our society have turned their backs on God. As believers we find ourselves in a pretty small minority. At times it feels as though we are on the losing side: churches close and less people show interest in Christian things. Amidst this climate, John’s account of future events is a timely reminder that an eternal kingdom of peace and righteousness will surely come – the king is coming to take back what is rightfully his. As we understand how things will turn out we begin to see in the present time the scene being set. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to be alert and self controlled so that the unfolding of these things should not surprise them. We ought to remain alert and self controlled too. What great motivation for us as our awareness is raised of the nearness of these events: it’s a motivation to live lives that please God, a motivation to use our time to invest in eternal things and a motivation to care about the spiritual condition of those around us.
1. John’s task
John was handed a measuring rod and was given instructions to measure the temple of God, including its Jewish worshippers. You will recall that John had originally been observing events from the vantage point of heaven, now he is on earth and is interacting with the world. If you’ve ever planned a move to a new home, at some stage you will have done some measuring; will the sofa fit in the main room? will the curtains fit? or will new ones need to be purchased? Measuring up makes us think of future occupation. I suspect that this was God’s purpose in asking John to measure the temple. Interestingly the prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a future temple and he too was asked to measure it. The temple described by Ezekiel has up until now never been built, in spite of a remarkable level of detail described to Ezekiel (perhaps more of that later). It’s not immediately apparent to us, but John would have harboured inquisitive thoughts about this task of measuring the temple – and no doubt would have done his measuring job with great interest. Why? We need a quick review of the history of temples in Israel: at one stage there was a portable temple, the tabernacle, it was moved around as Israel wandered in the desert – and it became the centre of worship on arrival in the promised land. King David wanted to build a permanent structure, but that task fell to his son Solomon. His magnificent temple stood for several hundred years before the Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BC. On the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile a second temple was built by Zerubbabel in 515 BC. King Herod completely rebuilt this temple in about 20 BC, but this temple was completely destroyed by the Romans under Emperor Titus in 70 AD – at that time the city was destroyed and the people dispersed. And that it would seem was that! No more temple and no more nation: but here is John in 90 AD being asked to measure up the temple and its Jewish worshippers on earth. John must have been intrigued. The temple would need to be rebuilt and the people re-gathered to their homeland. As the centuries rolled on the notion of the Jews ever returning to their homeland and of a temple being re-built was considered to be fanciful and nonsense. The evil one is opposed to God’s plans and it seems to me that he has done his utmost to oppose and frustrate anything that is associated with God repossessing his kingdom on earth. Towards the end of the 19th century Jews started to make plans to re-establish themselves in the land that God had given them forever. In spite of Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the entire race, just three years after the end of the Second World War the state of Israel was re-born. The scene is being set of the outworking on these events in Revelation! But what about the temple? Remarkably in the present day there are plans to rebuild: priests are being trained and articles for use in the temple are being prepared. Humanly it still seems highly unlikely that a 3rd temple could ever be rebuilt, but God’s plans have a way of being realised! How should we respond to these events? Not by being dismissive, simply by being alert, self controlled and confident in God’s plan to repossess the earth.
John was told not to measure the outer court as it was given to the Gentiles who would trample on the Holy city for 42 months. Interestingly worshippers would be found in the inner court, but the city would be under Gentile control and it seems they would show little respect for the worshippers. The angel Gabriel specifically told Daniel of a ruler who would come from the people who would destroy the temple; “He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” We’ve seen previously that God’s dealings with the Jews will come to a satisfactory conclusion at the end of this final 7 year period. It seems that the final half of that period (3 and ½ years or 42 months) is in view in Revelation 11. The city will come under Gentile domination and disrespect.
2. The two witnesses
It seems that even in the darkest days there is always light. Noah brought a message of hope and light in a dark world and even in these darkest of times described by John, God ensures a light will shine brightly. Two witnesses will prophesy for 1260 days. Why 1260 days? Again this is the latter half of the final 7 year period described in Daniel: 3 and ½ years is 42 months and if we take each month to be of 30 days duration (as in the calendar of Israel) we have 1260 days. Two lights will shine to the very end – what a gracious God! These two witnesses have been described previously in the book of Zechariah: in that book they are described as the olive trees and lamp stand: the lamp stand is provided with a continuous supply of olive oil by the two olive trees. Zechariah is informed that “These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth.”
In spite of the provision of two witnesses who will speak God’s truth, there comes a time when people refuse to listen and become implacably opposed to truth. I feel that we are beginning to see this in our world today. We thought about Stephen Fry’s attitude to God last time: he has already positioned himself as one who is opposed to all that the God of the universe stands for. It’s rather interesting that our society calls out for fairness but it only seems to apply fairness in a highly selective way: Stonewall is free to promote a way of life that Paul described as a perversion, but if Christians refuse to participate in the promotion of that way of life they are convicted of discrimination. In a similar spirit men will attempt to shut these two witnesses up, but God will protect them. John is told ‘if anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies!’ The voice of these witnesses will be heard and none will stop them! The witnesses will also have power to stop the rain falling and to render water unusable as well as to strike the earth with plagues at will. This reminds us of God’s work through Moses as release from Egypt was negotiated with a wicked Pharaoh. You will recall that eventually Pharaoh lost the ability to respond to reason; this seemed to come about by a persistent, willful and unreasonable refusal to do what was right.
Eventually the time for the light to shine will end and these witnesses will have completed their task. At this point we are introduced to a new character: the beast. The beast comes up from the abyss; he attacks the witnesses, overpowers and kills them. The bodies of God’s witnesses lie unburied for 3 and a half days and are observed with no sorrow by people from all over the world (every people, tribe, language and nation). Everyone will hear the truth, but tragically few if any will respond. Not only did these people show no respect for God’s witnesses, they actually gloated over their bodies. Gifts were even exchanged in celebration.
God is the giver of life and Jesus has conquered death: after 3 and a half days the ‘breath of God entered them.’ What a wonderful picture: the beast kills but God brings life! The two witnesses stood up and terror filled those who observed. God then called the two witnesses to heaven: again this was observed by ‘their enemies.’ This marks the end of the second woe, but a third woe is yet to come!
3. The seventh trumpet
One almost forgets that this story is being unfolded within the structure of the opening of 7 seals, with the opening of the seventh seal a series of trumpets are sounded, the final three of which are described as the ‘three woes.’ The final trumpet is now sounded. We need to be aware that the sounding of this trumpet will in fact begin a series of seven bowl judgements. These are described later in Revelation and concern judgements to be visited on the earth. But for now the scene quickly moves from the earth to heaven and John sees the final effect of this final trumpet. And what an effect it is! As the trumpet is sounded, John hears loud voices which state the following: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ When we play charades we give clues about the thing we are getting people to guess: a play, a book a film etc. we then give the number of words and their number of syllables, but often we give a clue about the whole thing. Here in this verse we have the whole theme in just a few words: the domain of the world has become the kingdom of the Lord and his Messiah! And his reign will never end. Amidst the horror of judgements and the wickedness of the beast and the people who follow him suddenly light breaks through and we see the perfect outcome! John has much more to see and convey to us, much of it details of events in these last seven years, but for now we have this view of the end of the whole story. Whatever our circumstances, whatever the struggles we are going through, whatever the opposition to all that is right there is an end in sight and it is the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. Shouldn’t this give us some encouragement in the present; just a bit!
The 24 elders now speak. They fall on their faces before God. We hear from time to time some Christians who claim to be ‘slain in the spirit’ and fall backwards, but when we are confronted with the true God of the universe we fall on our faces before him! The elders offer thanks to God, why, because his reign has begun. All of the troubles that have befallen this world since the fall of mankind will be reversed – that’s worth giving thanks for! All those who have opposed all that is right will be dealt with: ‘the nations were angry, and your wrath has come.’
I’ve heard many people refer the return of the Lord as if everything happens in an instant and it’s all wrapped up at the snap of a finger, but that’s not what John sees. Just as when there is a change of government there is a process of change. When this last trumpet is sounded, this process begins with a time of judging. As we shall see in greater detail later on in Revelation there is more than one judgement, but for now the elders simply indicate that there will be rewards for God’s servants, his prophets and all who revere his name. What we do in the here and now will have implications for the reward we will receive at this future event. Do we revere money, the good life, self satisfaction, material possessions in our short span of time on this earth or do we revere his name? We still have time to live for Him who died for us. In the cricket match at the Oval cricket ground of 1882 where English cricket famously died at the hands of the Australians and the Ashes series began one Englishman was ‘not out’ his name was CT Studd and his name appears in the text on the famous urn. He was educated and Eton and Cambridge and was a fully paid up member of the upper class. In 1878 one DL Moody visited his family and he became a believer. He eventually gave up all of his privileged life to serve God in India and Africa, is cost him his reputation, his fortune and his health. He said the following: ‘If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.’ what an attitude, surely he will receive his reward at that time. What about you and what about me?