John received a rod-like reed and was told to measure God’s temple, the altar, and those worshiping at the temple. As for the courtyard, he was instructed not to measure it, as it would be given to the nations and so would not have a sacred status. Furthermore, the nations would trample upon the holy city, the location of God’s temple. (11:1, 2)
Apparently this meant that John would be measuring the area around the temple that included the altar and where worshipers would be located. This may have reminded him of Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple and the extensive measuring an angel did there. In the case of the area around this new temple, the measurements included only the portion extending to the separating wall that served to distinguish the sacred from the common or the profane. (Ezekiel 40:1-42:20) Likewise, the instructions given to John applied only to the temple and the sacred area surrounding it, with the “nations” or those not recognized as true worshipers being able to access the court at will and also to trample throughout the holy city like any other place lacking a sacred status. This seems to indicate that God’s true people would find themselves in a situation comparable to being in the midst of what only appears to be a holy city and in the proximity of a “courtyard” filled with professing believers who are no different than people of the nations or unbelievers. This would agree with Jesus’ parable that his disciples, “the sons of the kingdom,” would be like wheat among weeds and humanly impossible to distinguish from those who were like weeds. (Matthew 13:24-43)
The 42 months during which the “nations” would trample upon the holy city and the 1,260 days during which the two witnesses would prophesy seemingly apply to the same period and may be regarded as paralleling the circumstances of an earlier time of comparable length.
In the first century, as evident from the writings of Josephus, the Jews understood the suffering experienced on account of Antiochus Epiphanes to have been a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus commented on Daniel 8 as follows: “Daniel wrote that he saw these visions in the plain of Susa; and he [has] informed us that God interpreted the appearance of this vision in the following manner:— He said that the ram signified the kingdoms of the Medes and Persians, and the horns those kings that were to reign in them; and that the last horn signified the last king, and that he should exceed all the kings in riches and glory; that the he-goat signified that one should come and reign from the Greeks, who should twice fight with the Persian, and overcome him in battle, and should receive his entire dominion; that by the great horn which sprang out of the forehead of the he-goat was meant the first king; and that the springing up of four horns upon its falling off, and the conversion of every one of them to the four quarters of the earth, signified the successors that should rise after the death of the first king, and the partition of the kingdom among them, and that they should be neither his children nor of his kindred that should reign over the habitable earth for many years; and that from among them there should arise a certain king that should overcome our nation and their laws, and should take away our political government, and should spoil the temple, and forbid the sacrifices to be offered for three years’ time. And indeed it so came to pass, that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel’s vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass.” (Antiquities, Book X, chapter XI, paragraph 7, William Whiston’s translation).
According to 1 Maccabees, the unfaithful Israelites initiated the action that led to the bitter persecution of those who endeavored to uphold God’s law. “In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying: ‘Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.’ The proposal was agreeable; some from among the people promptly went to the king [Antiochus Epiphanes], and he authorized them to introduce the way of living of the Gentiles. Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the Gentile custom. They covered over the mark of their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant; they allied themselves with the Gentiles and sold themselves to wrongdoing.” (1 Maccabees 1:11-15, NAB)
Regarding the terrible persecution of faithful Israelites that followed the desecration of the temple, the account in 1 Maccabees continues: “On the fifteenth day of the month Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king [Antiochus Epiphanes] erected the horrible abomination upon the altar of holocausts, and in the surrounding cities of Judah they built pagan altars. They also burnt incense at the doors of houses and in the streets. Any scrolls of the law, which they found they tore up and burnt. Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree. So they used their power against Israel, against those who were caught, each month, in the cities. On the twenty-fifth day of each month they sacrificed on the altar erected over the altar of holocausts. Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death, in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed. But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean; they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Terrible affliction was upon Israel.” (1 Maccabees 1:54-63, NAB)
It appears that the “time, times, and half a time” (three and a half years) mentioned in the book of Daniel came to be inextricably linked to the suffering of God’s people during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. (Daniel 7:25; 12:7) Seemingly, therefore, the equivalent 42 months (1,260 days) may best be viewed as a symbol (not as a literal number of months or days), a symbol suggesting developments similar to those which faithful Israelites experienced during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. Prior to the execution of divine vengeance, devoted disciples of God’s Son would face extreme distress, with many losing their lives. This would harmonize with the opening of the fifth seal, when the souls under the altar were told that more of their fellow servants would be executed. (6:9-11)
During the 1,260 days, two witnesses would be prophesying. They are called “my witnesses,” evidently meaning that Christ had commissioned them and that they would be acting as his witnesses. (Compare 12:17.) Their being dressed in sackcloth suggests their being in a state of mourning or distress and so engaging in their prophetic activity while undergoing affliction. (11:3; compare Genesis 37:34; Jeremiah 4:8; Hebrews 11:37.)
The two witnesses are also designated as two olive trees and two lampstands standing before “the Lord of the earth” or being in the presence of the Almighty God in an approved condition as his servants. (11:4) In the prophecy of Zechariah (4:11-14), Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor are likewise portrayed as two olive trees. At the beginning of the book of Revelation (1:20), lampstands are identified as congregations. This suggests that the two witnesses represent the entire body of Christ’s witnesses who, along with those serving as shepherds in their midst (represented by the two olive trees) let their light shine like lampstands. They do so by maintaining upright conduct and bearing witness about God’s Son to others. Possibly the reason for the reference to two witnesses (with the corresponding two olive trees and two lampstands) highlights the truthfulness or dependability of the testimony. (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19)
The activity of those represented by the two witnesses could not be stopped and they would succeed in carrying out their commission despite encountering intense hostility. (Compare Jeremiah 1:17-19.) This is indicated by their being empowered to consume their enemies with fire and having the authority to cause drought during the period of their prophesying. As often as they might choose to do so, they had the power to turn water into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague. (11:5, 6) Centuries earlier, Moses and Elijah did perform such miracles, and both of them did so among those who strongly opposed them. (Exodus 7:14-11:10; 1 Kings 17:1; 2 Kings 1:9-12)
After they completed their activity (their testimony about Christ), the beast coming out of the abyss would war against them, triumph, and then kill them. (11:7) According to the book of Daniel (7:17, 23), beasts are symbols of kingdoms, governments, or political entities. Based on this identification, the ruling element of the world would make an all-out effort to silence the testimony concerning God’s Son. Many of his loyal servants would be killed and the circumstances of others would become such that their testimony would be silenced.
The corpses of the “two witnesses” would lie in the main thoroughfare of the great city where their Lord was crucified. That city would be Jerusalem and is referred to as spiritually being called Sodom and Egypt, descriptive of moral corruption and opposition to God’s people. (Compare Isaiah 1:10.) Apparently Jerusalem is here representative of God’s professed people who are actually bitter enemies of those represented by the “two witnesses.” This circumstance parallels what happened among the Israelites during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. That the portrayal in Revelation is not confined to a particular physical location is evident from the fact that peoples, tribes, language groups, and nations would be looking at the corpses of the “two witnesses” for three and a half days, not allowing them to be buried (which would denote extreme contempt). Earth’s inhabitants would rejoice, sending gifts to one another, on account of having been liberated from the torments of the “two prophets.” (11:8-10)
After three and a half days, the corpses came to life, stood on their feet, causing those beholding them to become very fearful. A voice from heaven summoned the two witnesses, and their enemies saw them ascending in a cloud. (11:11, 12) This event seemingly is a pictorial portrayal of the dead in Christ being raised to life and those alive at his return in glory being changed in order to be united with him in heaven. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52)
A great earthquake followed. One tenth of the city (evidently Jerusalem that had become a spiritual Sodom and Egypt and so representing God’s professed people who had failed in living up to his requirements) fell or was destroyed, and 7,000 perished. Filled with fear, the survivors gave glory to God. (11:13)
The number 7,000 appears to represent a considerable number and, as a complete number (incorporating the number seven), seems to indicate that none who deserve the execution of divine vengeance would escape. This number may have been included to show that the loss of human life would be considerable — something that would not necessarily have been indicated by the destruction of a tenth of the city. Faced with phenomena that left no doubt in their minds about having God as their source, individuals, on other occasions, became fearful and made reverential expressions or acted in a manner that acknowledged the living God. (Compare Jonah 1:7-16; Matthew 27:54.) The circumstance that is here depicted seems to parallel what happened in the case of unfaithful Israelites in the wilderness during certain times of judgment. Although the majority were guilty, the severest judgment befell only a portion of the nation, and the rest often manifested a proper fear. (Exodus 32:26-28, 30, 31; 33:1-6; Numbers 16:46-49; 17:2-13; 21:4-9) Although the account in Revelation does not say what the future for those who glorified God would be, possibly this is an indication that, even in the time for the execution of his judgment, individuals may still be shown mercy and be among those of the groaning creation to be set free from corruption. (Romans 8:19-21)
With the second woe (the great earthquake and associated destruction) having passed, the third one would follow quickly. (11:14)
In 11:2, the reading éxothen (“outside”) has the best manuscript support, including P47 of the third century C.E. Fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and a number of later manuscripts say ésothen (“inside”).
In 11:12, the reading ékousan (“they heard”) has the support of many manuscripts. The oldest extant manuscript (P47) and a number of other manuscripts, however, read ékousa (“I heard”).