Is the temple in Revelation 11 an earthly, literal one?
In The Land as Covenant Backdrop, Second Draft, A. Boyd Luter responds to a statement by his former professor Bruce K. Waltke, who abandoned Dispensationalism for Covenant Theology, to the effect that the modern-day resettlement of national Israel in Palestine is not supported in the New Testament. Luter claimed that Revelation 11 “clearly presents the resettlement of national Israel in the land… .”
Luter assumed that the temple mentioned in Revelation 11 was an earthly, literal one, and since Revelation was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, he inferred that therefore the temple in Revelation 11 is yet to be built in Jerusalem. Thus, he reasoned, Revelation 11 shows that the Jews must be in possession of their land.
The question whether the temple in Revelation 11 should be understood figuratively, or literally, has been discussed by many scholars. The literal view was preferred by nineteenth century Rationalists. A critique of their position by E. W. Hengstenberg, from his Revelation commentary, is available in this pdf file.
At his trial, Jesus was accused of saying, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.” [Mark 14:58] The question whether he meant this temple literally, or figuratively, was crucial. It led to the cross. Jesus said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John explained, “But he spake of the temple of his body.” [John 2:19]
John reported in Revelation 21:22 that he saw no temple in the New Jerusalem, but that “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.”
Paul described the saints as “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” and “a building fitly framed together” that “groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” [Ephesians 2:19-21]
In Revelation 3:12, Jesus promised to make a person who overcomes “a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.”
In Revelation 11:19, the temple of God is in heaven, as is the woman in Revelation 12:1. Both represent the church.
In the book of Revelation, the 7 trumpets constitute the 7th seal. The prophecy of the Two Witnesses comes immediately before the seventh trumpet, which corresponds to the resurrection, when the prophets and saints are rewarded, and “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” [Revelation 11:15] At that time, the whole world comes under the power of Christ and the saints. So in Revelation, the seven trumpets are for the church what the seven trumpets at the taking of Jericho was in the history of Israel; in both, the trumpets are the prelude to the people of God taking possession of their promised inheritance.
Comparing the seven trumpets that were blown on seven consecutive days at the taking of Jericho with the seven trumpets of Revelation reveals that the promised land, which the Israelites inherited afterwards, corresponds to and prefigures the “rest” that is promised to the saints. This is confirmed in Hebrews.
Hebrews 4:8-11 NIV
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
The question whether the temple in Revelation 11 should be understood figuratively or literally was addressed by William Milligan, in his commentary, The Book of Revelation. He wrote:
What is meant by the temple, the altar, and the casting without of the court which is without the temple? In other words, are we to interpret these objects and the action taken with the latter literally or figuratively? Are we to think of the things themselves, or of certain spiritual ideas which they are used to represent? The first view is not only that of many eminent commentators; it even forms one of the chief grounds upon which they urge that the Herodian temple upon Mount Moriah was still in existence when the Apocalyptist wrote. He could not, it is alleged, have been instructed to “measure” the Temple if that building had been already thrown down, and not one stone left upon another. Yet, when we attend to the words, it would seem as if this view must be set aside in favour of a figurative interpretation. For
(1) The word “temple” misleads. The term employed in the original does not mean the Temple-buildings as a whole, but only their innermost shrine or sanctuary, that part known as the “Holy of holies,” which was separated from every other part of the sacred structure by the second veil. No doubt, so far as the simple act of measuring was concerned, a part might have been as easily measured as the whole. But closer attention to what was in the Seer’s mind will show that when he thus speaks of the naos or shrine he is not thinking of the Temple at Jerusalem at all, but of the Tabernacle in the wilderness upon which the Temple was moulded. The nineteenth verse of the chapter makes this clear. In that verse we find him saying, “And there was opened the temple” (the naos) “of God that is in heaven, and there was seen in His temple” (His naos) “the ark of His covenant.” We know, however, that the ark of the covenant never had a place in the Temple which existed in the days of Christ. It had disappeared at the destruction of the first Temple, long before that date. The Temple spoken of in the nineteenth verse is indeed said to be “in heaven;” and it may be thought that the ark, though not on earth, might have been seen there. But no reader of the Revelation of St. John can doubt that to him the sanctuary of God on earth was an exact representation of the heavenly sanctuary, that what God had given in material form to men was a faithful copy of the ideas of His spiritual and eternal kingdom. He could not therefore have placed in the original what, if he had before his mind the Temple at Jerusalem, he knew had no existence within its precincts; and the conclusion is irresistible that when he speaks of a naos that was to be measured he had turned his thoughts, not to the stone building upon Mount Moriah, but to its ancient prototype. On this ground alone then, even could no other be adduced, we seem entitled to maintain that a literal interpretation of the word “temple” is here impossible.
(2) Even should it be allowed that the sanctuary and the altar might be measured, the injunction is altogether inapplicable to the next following clause: them that worship therein. And it is peculiarly so if we adopt the natural construction, by which the word “therein” is connected with the word “altar.” We cannot literally speak of persons worshipping “in” an altar. Nay, even though we connect “therein” with “the temple,” the idea of measuring persons with a rod is at variance with the realities of life and the ordinary use of human language. A figurative element is thus introduced into the very heart of the clause the meaning of which is in dispute.
(3) A similar observation may be made with regard to the words cast without in ver. 2. The injunction has reference to the outer court of the Temple, and the thought of “casting out” such an extensive space is clearly inadmissible. So much have translators felt this that both in the Authorised and Revised Versions they have replaced the words “cast without” by the words “leave without.” The outer court of the Temple could not be “cast out;” therefore it must be “left out.” The interpretation thus given, however, fails to do justice to the original, for, though the word employed does not always include actual violence, it certainly implies action of a more positive kind than mere letting alone or passing by. More than this. We are under a special obligation in the present instance not to strip the word used by the Apostle of its proper force, for we shall immediately see that, rightly interpreted, it is one of the most interesting expressions of his book, and of the greatest value in helping us to determine the precise nature of his thought. In the meanwhile it is enough to say that the employment of the term in the connexion in which it here occurs is at variance with a simply literal interpretation.
(4) It cannot be denied that almost every other expression in the subsequent verses of the vision is figurative or metaphorical. If we are to interpret this part literally, it will be impossible to apply the same rule to other parts; and we shall have such a mixture of the literal and metaphorical as will completely base our efforts to comprehend the meaning of the Seer.
(5) We have the statement from the writer’s own lips that, at least in speaking of Jerusalem, he is not to be literally understood. In ver. 8 he refers to “the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt.” The hint thus given as to one point of his description may be accepted as applicable to it all.
We conclude, therefore, that the “measuring,” the “temple” or naos, the “altar,” the “court which is without,” and the “casting without” of the latter are to be regarded as figurative.
In point (5) above, Milligan implies “the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” was Jerusalem, but I disagree; Jesus “suffered without the gate” and was crucified “without the camp.” [Hebrews 13:12-13] What is outside the holy city, is for John mystical Babylon, the world.