Lighting Up the Apocalypse 19: On Measuring, Not Measuring, Witnessing, and Woes

Revelation 11:1-14; Ezekiel 40; Zechariah 4

We finished the last session by hearing that the scroll eaten by St. John would be digested, so that he would prophesy concerning many things—including concerning the fate of the nations.  Chapter 11 begins those prophecies catalyzed by the eating of this little scroll, a scroll described by the angel as “bitter-sweet.”  And the next few chapters will indeed be both bitter, and sweet.

John is first given a double task—to measure, and not to measure.  For us this perhaps simply seems mysterious, but those who know the ancient traditions and the Scriptures will recognize the purpose of measuring. It is helpful to notice that the instrument for measuring in the Apocalypse is the staff of a shepherd or a ruler:  obviously this action has something to say about the rule of the King of kings, the great Shepherd of the sheep.  John, after all, is told: “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there.”

Sometimes, of course, in the OT, measurement shows the weakness of an individual or of a people.  But there are two poignant passages in the prophets where God measures that which He will possess, protect, and glorify.   In Ezekiel 40, a glorious “man” from God (who is described much like the Son of Man in Revelation 1) brings a measuring stick, and before the eyes of Ezekiel measures the whole Temple precinct, and its surrounding courts, showing the largeness of the holy city as God promises it to be in the future.  What John sees is a little different, however.  First, HE does the measuring! Then, his action, though sweet, is also bitter: he is told not  to measure beyond the sanctuary and those worshipping in it.  Clearly John’s measurement concerns identity, and the true people of God. For the moment, John’s eyes are trained upon those who are recognizably following the Shepherd whose staff he wields. These, and their dwelling, he measures, for they belong to God; but not “the court outside the temple; leave that out” (he is told) “for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.”

Ancient commentators like Victorinus and Tyconius (fourth century) as well as Primasius (6th century Africa) interpret this as God’s exclusion of the unrepentant Gentiles, as well as of Jews who don’t believe in Christ and of heretics. (These last two groups may seem connected in some way to the Temple, but are not under the Shepherd’s staff).  All three groups will attack God’s people and holy place, and so God does not “measure” them among the worshippers.

A second prophet of the Old Testament also tells us about God’s measurement of blessing. In Zechariah 2:1-10, another “man” with a measuring line goes “to measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.”  Zechariah is told that “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it.” Moreover, the LORD will be for them “a wall of fire all around…and… glory in her midst.” At the same time, the LORD of hosts will send His messenger “to the nations who plundered” His people, “for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.”  These plunderers will be judged so thatyou will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me.” Only at this point does the vision expand, and do the people hear: Sing and rejoice,” for  “I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.”  At some distant point, we learn “many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.” John’s measurement and vision are similar, yet different.  His measuring of the Temple’s holy place corresponds to the man’s measurement of true Jerusalem, but it is not until later in Revelation 22 that we hear about the expansive nature of the new Jerusalem, once all is said and done.  At this point, the vision concerns the true people of God, surrounded by the godless, and how God will protect them.

Some, then, are measured, and others are not.  And it is to those who are not measured that God will speak by the witness of two brave figures who John, and we, see: “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”  Well, that is interesting!  The time that they prophesy (1260 days) is the same as the 42 months that the city will be trampled upon.  The time of persecution of God’s people, and authority of the two witnesses is the same.  And, by the way, this time frame is also 3 ½ years, which we will hear about in the next few chapters.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is a symbolically temporary time, not the fulness of time, as seven would indicate. Persecution and faithfulness under fire are indicated, but God has this under his control.  If you like, the time, too, is measured!

And what about these two witnesses?  Who are they?  What are they doing? The second question is easier to answer than the first.  They “stand before the LORD,” they are protected by God in miraculous ways, they prophesy God’s word with fiery mouths, and they have authority to stop rain and to summon plagues of warning. All this they do in sackcloth and ashes, calling those who hear them to repentance. Then they suffer persecution at the hand of the “beast from the bottomless pit,” and are outrageously displayed for mockery in the city streets for three and a half days, before they are resurrected, and caught up to be with the Lord in glory.  Theirs is a bitter-sweet lot:  to witness courageously, to be persecuted, to die, to be raised, to be exalted. They follow the Lamb where He has gone!

So, who are they?  Well, John has his own explanation: “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.”  In so saying, he reminds us yet again of the prophet Zechariah, who has a vision of two trees by the lampstands of the congregation by the altar, and is told: “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (Interestingly, Zechariah also speaks of a measuring tool, a plumb line, in chapter 4 of his prophecy). But this still does not identify them clearly for us.  We discern likeness with Moses (turning water to blood) and with Elijah (stopping rain), and by their special treatment from God.  But there are differences, as well—Moses is not persecuted after he leaves Egypt, and Elijah does not die.  These witnesses both “cannot be harmed,” yet are martyred, and then glorified by the LORD. Many church fathers declined to identify them in a particular way, saying that they typified the faithful Church, of whom Jesus said, “not a hair on your head will be harmed,” even while also warning His followers that they might be slaughtered, just as He would be. There may have been a time when the godly could circumvent death, by an act of God—Enoch and Elijah, for example.  But since Jesus has trampled down death by death, all who follow him must also die—even our dear Theotokos.  (I am reminded of C. S. Lewis, who in Perelandra,  says that all rational persons, from the time of the Incarnation on, must now take the form of the God-Man—no more hrossa or pfifltriggi  on strange planets, but now always persons bearing the image of the Holy One.) The church fathers also note that the vision is in the PRESENT, not the future tense, and so describes present events. The point of the vision is that these are the ideal witnesses, standing both in the holy place, and in the streets of the godless city, and that God will provide for them, and use them.  The vision brings home to us the inevitability of suffering if we follow the Lamb wherever He goes—and the sure promise of glory!

Notice that the city in which they prophesy is also ambiguous.  It is, says John, “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.”  Here is an example of John’s complex use of symbolism.  Rarely are his symbols decodable one-to-one, meaning only one thing, but they spin off in various directions, ringing different bells.  In two short phrases, the “city” is likened to Rome and Babylon (both called the Great City), to Sodom and Egypt, and to Jerusalem—wherever the ungodly range themselves against God, His anointed, and His anointed ones, the “City” is present.  And God has not left Himself without witnesses there!

The final exaltation of these two makes for the shaking of the earth, the destruction of a tenth of the city, and a destruction of some, that leads to the conversion of others, who “give glory to the God of heaven.”  All this, John tells us, is the “second woe”—that is, what follows after the sixth trumpet.  (Remember we have been counting trumpets five, six, and seven, also called the “three woes?”). “The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.” But we are not going to hear about the final woe for some time.  John focusses his gaze, and ours, upon the present intermediate time, the time before the end, for that is the time in which our drama is taking place.  It is the forty-two month time, the 1,260 day time, the three-and-a-half time, in which a bitter-sweet scroll sets out the path for God’s people.  This is the time of our witnessing, this is the time of our protection, this is the time of our persecution, this is the action by which God continues to speak into our rebellious world.

We are in Babylon, Rome, Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem—and all those who remained firm in those places are our brothers and sisters.  We are linked across time and space together, and also with the One who was crucified in Jerusalem, and exalted from the Mount of Olives to fill all things.  Perhaps some of us little ones will not have the honor of dying like these two, and have smaller lights to shine—but our witness, together, points to the One who trampled down death by death.  We have been measured, we too are called to witness, and we can expect woes. Yet we can be assured, no matter what comes our way, that He will not allow us to be harmed in such a manner that removes us from the family of God, or from Himself.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.