Home > Book of Revelation, Daniel's 70 Weeks, The 3 ½ years > Interpreting the 3 ½ years of prophecy (2)

Interpreting the 3 ½ years of prophecy (2)

June 7, 2011

This article continues from a previous post in which several interpretations of the 3 ½ years of Daniel and Revelation, as representing the whole age of the church, completing the week in which Christ confirms his covenant with many, were examined. For the first part, go here.

William Milligan (1821-1892)

William Milligan was a Scottish theologian, and a professor of biblical criticism at the University of Aberdeen, who is known for his writings on Revelation. He found similarities in structure in the fourth gospel and the book of Revelation. John’s gospel, he suggests, omits the Olivet Discourse of Jesus which is present in the other gospels, because the book of Revelation serves as an expanded account of the things contained in Christ’s prophecy. The 42 months and the 1,260 days in Revelation 11, 12, and 13 are symbols of the church age; the three and a half years corresponds to the duration of the ministry of Jesus. He said the 1,260 days “denote the Christian era from its beginning to its close.” He wrote: [1]

One question still remains: What is the meaning of the forty and two months during which the holy city is to be trodden under foot of the nations? The same expression meets us in chap. xiii. 5, where it is said that “there was given to the beast authority to continue forty and two months.” But forty and two months is also three and a half years, the Jewish year having consisted of twelve months, except when an intercalary month was inserted among the twelve in order to preserve harmony between the seasons and the rotation of time. The same period is therefore again alluded to in chap. xii. 14, when it is said of the woman who  fled into the wilderness that she is there nourished for “a time, and times, and half a time.” Once more, we read in chap. xi. 3 and in chap. xii. 6 of a period denoted by “a thousand two hundred and threescore days;” and a comparison of this last passage with ver. 14 of the same chapter distinctly shows that it is equivalent to the three and a half times or years. Three and a half multiplied by three hundred and sixty, the number of days in the Jewish year, gives us exactly the twelve hundred and sixty days. These three periods, therefore, are the same. Why the different designations should be adopted is another question, to which, so far as we are aware, no satisfactory reply has yet been given, although it may be that, for some occult reason, the Seer beholds in “months” a suitable expression for the dominion of evil, in “days” one appropriate to the sufferings of the good.

The ground of this method of looking at the Church’s history is found in the book of Daniel, where we read of the fourth beast, or the fourth kingdom, “And he shall speak great words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.” [Dan. vii. 25.] The same book helps us also to answer the question as to the particular period of the Church’s history denoted by the days, or months, or years referred to, for in another passage the prophet says, “And He shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week He shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease.” [Dan. ix. 27.] The three and a half years therefore, or the half of seven years, denote the whole period extending from the cessation of the sacrifice and oblation. In other words, they denote the Christian era from its beginning to its close, and that more especially on the side of its disturbed and broken character, of the power exercised in it by what is evil, of the troubles and sufferings of the good. During it the disciples of the Saviour do not reach the completeness of their rest; their victory is not won. Ideally it is so; it always has been so since Jesus overcame: but it is not yet won in the actual realities of the case; and, though in one sense every heavenly privilege is theirs, their difficulties are so great, and their opponents so numerous and powerful, that the true expression for their state is a broken seven years, or three years and a half. During this time, accordingly, the holy city is represented as trodden under foot by the nations. They who are at ease in Zion may not feel it; but to the true disciples of Jesus their Master’s prophecy is fulfilled, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” [John xvi. 33.]

William Hendriksen (1900-1982)

Hendriksen was pastor to several Christian Reformed churches, and professor of New Testament literature at Calvin Theological Seminary. In his commentary of Revelation, he said the two witnesses represent the Church, and the 1,260 days in which they prophesy represents the entire dispensation of the Church. He wrote: [2]

The true Church is now represented under the symbolism of two witnesses. These witnesses symbolize the Church militant bearing testimony through its ministers and missionaries throughout the present dispensation. The fact that there are two witnesses emphasizes the missionary task of the Church (cf. Lk. 10:1). The Lord sends his missionaries two by two; what the one lacks the other supplies. Now the Church as an organization, functioning through its ministers and missionaries, will carry on this work for twelve hundred and sixty days. This is the period that extends from the moment of Christ’s ascension almost until the judgment day (cf. Rev. 12:5, 6, 14). It is, of course, exactly the equal of forty-two months, for forty-two times thirty is twelve hundred and sixty; and of ‘a time, and times, and half a time,’ which is three years and a half (Rev. 12:14). It is the period of affliction; the present gospel age. The question may arise, why is that period expressed now in terms of months (verse 2) then in terms of days (verse 3)? Here our answer is a mere guess: in verse 2 we have the picture of a city that is being besieged and finally taken and trampled upon. Now, the duration of the siege of a city is very often expressed in terms of months. In verse 3, however, the two witnesses are described as prophesying; this is a day-by-day activity. Every day they bear witness, throughout the entire dispensation. They preach repentance and for this reason they are clothed in sackcloth.

James Burton Coffman (1905-2006)

James Burton Coffman was a preacher, teacher, and scholar, and an influential minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York City; he was previously the minister of the Central Church of Christ in Houston. In 1992 he finished a 37-volume commentary of the entire Bible which was published by ACU Press.

Coffman identified the “time, times and a half” with “the whole Christian dispensation” in his commentary on Daniel. In his commentary on Revelation he said, on the 1,260 days of Revelation 12:6: [3]

A thousand two hundred and threescore days …

What can this mean? Is there a certain time-period only when Christ will be with his church? No indeed! This time-period represents every minute of the whole Christian dispensation. This is given in exactly the same form as in Rev. 11:3; and there it was understood as all of the time between the two Advents of Christ, and so it must be understood here. “It describes the period of this world’s existence during the whole of which the devil persecutes the church.” It is also called forty-two months; and someone has suggested that this was the number of the forty-two stations of the Israelites in the wilderness. Hendriksen called this time-period “the millennium of Rev. 20”; and we believe this understanding of it to be correct, despite the description of it there by use of a different figure. The saints of Christ are reigning with him now in his kingdom; and Christ already has the authority in heaven and upon earth (Matthew 28:18-20). His rule is not accepted by many, due to the freedom of the will of man; but that does not contradict the higher truth that Christ is truly reigning today in the hearts of those who love and serve him.

Gregory K. Beale (1949- )

Beale is professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He considers the time, times and a half of Daniel and the related numbers as representing the inter-advent age beginning from Christ’s resurrection and leading up to the final judgment. He wrote: [4]

John views the ‘time, times and half a time’ of Dan. 12:7 as the interadvent age beginning from the time of Christ’s resurrection and leading up to the final judgment. The identification of the threefold time formula from Daniel is deducible especially from 12:4-6, where the period begins from the time of Christ’s ascension and refers to the church’s time of suffering (so also 12.14). The same meaning is apparent for the equivalent phrase ‘forty-two months’ in 13.5, which describes the time of the beast’s blasphemous and persecuting activities.

In his Revelation commentary Beale wrote: [5]

The two witnesses prophesy for three and a half years, the same length of time that “the holy city,” “the woman,” and “those that tabernacle in heaven” are to be oppressed (11:2; 12:6, 14; 13:6). If these texts speak of the persecution of a community, then it is plausible to identify the witnesses likewise. If the image of an individual woman signifies the community of faith existing during the three and a half years, then the image of two individual prophets might also represent the same reality during the same time period (similarly an individual harlot represents the ungodly community in ch. 17). If it is correct to see 11:3 continuing what is in the preceding two verses, then the two witnesses are another depiction of the true Israel, “the holy city,” during its time of distress. As already noted, the period of three and a half years is based on Dan. 7:25; 12:7, 11 (and perhaps Dan. 9:27), which prophesies a time of tribulation for Israel as a community. The number represents a concept rather than a literal enumeration, as with other numbers throughout the Apocalypse (see the comments on, e.g., 1:4, 12, 16, 20; 2:10; 3:10; 4:4-7; 5:1, 6; 6:1-8; 7:1-9; 9:5, 10, 14-15). Here the figurative emphasis is on the true covenant community experiencing tribulation, irrespective of how long the tribulation lasts in literal time.

In Beale’s view, the prophetic three and a half year period commenced at Christ’s ascension and continues until his return. [6]

The “three and a half years” have been established as the time of tribulation predicted by Daniel 7, 9 and 12, which commences at Christ’s ascension and continues until his return. Of all John’s references to this time period, Rev. 12:6 is the clearest in identifying the temporal boundaries of the period (cf. 11:2-3; 13:5). Undoubtedly, here the limited age extends from the resurrection of Christ (v 5) until his final appearance (14:14-20). This is a conclusion similar to that of Rissi, who also argues that Christ’s death, cited in 11:8, is the beginning point of the period in 11:2 (for Christ’s death as commencing the same period in 13:5 see on 13:3). We have also seen that this period is a time of harm to believers in the earthly sphere but protection for them in the invisible realm of the divine sanctuary.


1. Milligan, William. The Book of Revelation. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889. pp. 175-177.

2. Hendriksen, William. More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1939. p. 129.

3. http://www.searchgodsword.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=re&chapter=012

4. Beale, G. K. John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation. Sheffield Academic Press. 1999. p. 263.

5. Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing, 1999. p. 574.

6. Ibid., p. 646.