Editor’s note: This sermon was preached in January of 2020, as Covid-19 was just beginning to spread across the world. In this first part of his apocalyptic sermon, Preacher Yang explains that the mysterious two witnesses of Revelation 11 represent the church. Although the witnesses — i.e., the church — will experience persecution, God is with them. No matter what happens, God will protect his precious people from harm. As we pray this month for Chinese Christians to hold fast to the kingdom, we are reminded that the Lord will guard us and help us to endure. Christians can persevere under difficult situations because we belong to a better kingdom and a better king.
This excerpt has been edited, condensed, and rearranged slightly for clarity and length.
“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, 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. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” Revelation 11:1-3
The Same Thing, More Fully
Today we are speaking about the church. In the Book of Revelation, there are seven cycles. The climax of each cycle is God’s judgement and God’s reward. Each of these seven cycles concludes with the end of the world.
The first cycle – Chapters 1 to 3 talk about the seven churches. In the end, Christ leads each church before the judgement throne of God.
The second cycle – The next cycle, chapters 4 to 7, is the Lamb and the seven seals. In the end, people from all tribes, nations and tongues will come before God, who will wipe away their tears.
The third cycle – Revelation 8 to 11 talks about the seven trumpets. At the end of the seven trumpets, the kingdom of the Lord will fully come on earth, and he will be king forever and ever. Judgment and reward will also come to the world.
The fourth cycle – Chapters 12 to 14 show us the woman and the dragon. By the end of this cycle, the perfect number of 144,000 saints are on Mount Zion. The sickle is thrown down, and judgment comes to earth.
The fifth cycle – Chapters 15 to 16 concern the seven bowls of wrath. When the last bowl is poured on earth, we hear the proclamation, “It is finished.”
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The sixth cycle – Babylon is fallen. This cycle ends with God’s people married to God and the wedding supper of the Lamb.
The seventh cycle – In the last cycle, chapters 20 to 22, Christ has gained eternal victory over Satan the dragon. Christ will come again.
These seven cycles are like a road going up a mountain. Every time the road goes around, you see almost the same thing, but you see it more fully. We must interpret Revelation through what we know about the genre of apocalyptic literature.
In Revelation, numbers represent something. Seven is the number of perfection, and the number 12 belongs to the heavens. The number 144 is 12 times 12, representing the perfection of the Old and New Testament people of God. The meaning of 144,000 is to warn humanity.
The four horsemen are a warning about the disasters which will come to earth from the four directions of north, south, east, and west. When Revelation speaks of “time and time and time and a half,” this represents three and a half. The 1,260 days are also approximately three and a half years. When doubled, this is seven, and represents ongoing salvation history, which is not yet at its end.
The Apostle John did not have the whole New Testament as a reference. He only had the Old Testament, and perhaps some epistles. Because of this, much of his imagery comes from the Old Testament. To interpret Revelation, you must be familiar with the Old Testament.
As we look at this passage verse by verse, we must first understand that the two witnesses in this passage represent the church.
The Church Will Be Protected
When the church goes through persecution, God will protect her.
Verse 1 says a measuring rod was given to John to measure the temple, the altar, and the people who worship there. John wrote Revelation during the rule of Domitian, who called himself God and declared that Christianity was treason. If people refused to say Caesar was lord or to worship him, they were executed. But even in these circumstances, God gave John a promise of protection.
God shows that he cares about the church. John is measuring the temple spoken of in Ezekiel: Revelation is an extension of Ezekiel’s vision. Ezekiel was also ordered to measure the temple, but in Ezekiel’s time, the temple had been destroyed. At the time of John, the Temple had again been destroyed. (John wrote Revelation in 90 A.D., but the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.)
In Ezekiel’s vision, the temple is God’s inheritance. Ezekiel is measuring the temple to show that God will protect and revive his worship. When you buy a house, you measure the house, because that is your property. God asked Ezekiel to measure, because God will protect his property. The church is God’s inheritance, and he will not give an inch. He measures those who worship there, because his protection extends to each one of his people.
The second verse says the outer court does not need to be measured, because the outer court is for the Gentiles. Here, the Gentiles are those who antagonize God. Throughout Revelation, John repeatedly insists that the real Jewish people are those who truly believe.
These Gentiles want to trample the temple. This shows that world will persecute and antagonize the church, but this persecution happens in time: in this passage, the time is 42 months. Throughout redemptive history, the church will face endless rounds of persecution. This passage is telling those who read that, if you are not persecuted on earth, your experience is not normal. The church must go through persecution.
Yet although Gentiles and the world will attack, God will protect his church. Our souls and our hearts will be protected to the end, but this does not mean our flesh will be comfortable. We will be persecuted. This is consistent with what Jesus taught, as he said his people will be protected, but the world will hate us. He is sending us out as sheep among wolves. Christ’s witness, the church, will continue to go through persecution. This is the framework of the two witnesses.
Preacher Yang is the pastor of a house church in Xiamen, China. He received his Master of Divinity from Singapore Theological Seminary.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Christians actively experiencing persecution to find rest and peace in God’s ultimate protection.