The Church's Witness
Chapter 11 in the book of Revelation as introduced by a writer:
“People find many books puzzling, but the Bible is often the most puzzling of all. People find many parts of the Bible puzzling, but Revelation is often seen as the most puzzling book of all. And people find Revelation puzzling, but the first half of chapter 11 – the passage before us this week – is, for many, the most puzzling part of all. (There are some other strong contenders for this dubious distinction, but chapter 11 can hold its own.) What is it about?”
At one level it’s clear what it’s about. John is told to measure the temple. Then two ‘witnesses’ emerge, doing great and strange deeds before being killed, lying unburied, and then being raised to new life and exalted to heaven. The tone of voice of the passage is quite different from much of the surrounding material. Instead of big-picture scenes of terrifying horsemen, man-eating locusts and all the rest, we seem to have a short story, albeit a strange one, about two specific individuals, their work and their fate.
But what does it all mean? And how does it fit with the rest of the book? How does it take John’s vision forward? Not surprisingly, readers of Revelation have disagreed as to what it all means. A way forward, suggests Richard Phillips, is to read it something like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He explains:
“In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian stops at the Interpreter’s House to be shown a number of visions designed to teach important spiritual lessons. First was a picture of a man looking to heaven, holding a book, wearing a crown, and pleading with men to listen. The meaning was that Christian should listen only to faithful and holy Bible teachers. Second, he was shown a large parlor filled with dust. A man came to sweep, but the dust merely flew around the room. Then a girl came and sprinkled the room with water, after which the room was easily swept clean. This vision illustrated how the broom of the law cannot clean the heart until it has been sprinkled with the water of the gospel. Further visions illustrated a variety of spiritual lessons important to the Christian life. The reader of Pilgrim’s Progress realizes that Bunyan is presenting allegories because of the way in which he names his characters. The man who witnesses the gospel is called Evangelist, the pilgrim is Christian, he is led astray by Pliable and Obstinate, and he receives his visions in the house of a man name Interpreter.
“Revelation is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress, but a book of apocalyptic visions. Still, like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Revelation functions in a way that cues how we should read it. From the very beginning, Revelation employs symbols to depict redemptive-historical realities. In chapter 1, Jesus appears in the midst of golden candlesticks that represent the churches (1:12), holding stars in his hand that symbolize angels (1:16, 20), and with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth that depicts the sharpness of his message (1:16). We are clearly to interpret these images symbolically. The same is true of John’s use of numbers, including ‘seven’ to depict the completeness of the Holy Spirit (1:4) and ‘144,000’ to depict the vast multitude of the redeemed drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ (7:4).
As we interpret the detailed visions of Revelation 11, 12, & 13, it is vital that we remember the kind of literature we are reading. Some Christians, concludes Phillips, assert that we must interpret these passages literally, as giving a more or less straightforward description of historical events either past or future. This approach forgets that ‘the very nature of Revelation urges us to interpret these visions symbolically, just as the nature of Pilgrim’s Progress compels us to interpret John Bunyan allegorically.’
This most puzzling passage in this most puzzling book, we will see, turns out to be one of the most important and central statements of what John wants to say to the church. The Lamb has opened the seals on the scroll, and all kinds of terrifying things have happened as he has done so. The trumpets have blown; terrors of a different sort have come to pass; but now the scroll has been handed to John, and John prophesies in symbolic action (measuring the temple) and parabolic story (the two witnesses). And this is how the Kingdom of God, already spoken of in chapters 4 and 5, is to become a reality on earth as in heaven.
I hope you can join us this Lord’s Day as we consider The Church’s Witness from Revelation 11:1-13. We are back in the civic center this Sunday for our service at 10:00 am. Remember to pray for our services and for those whom you are inviting to come along with you. I look forward to joining you in worship this Sunday.
Grace upon Grace,