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The holy city shall they tread under foot

August 13, 2012

In Revelation 11 & 12, there is a contrast between things of the earth, and things in heaven. In Revelation 11:2, the holy city is trampled by Gentiles for 42 months. This is not the earthly Jerusalem; rather, it is the one which Jesus called the city of the great King, [Matt. 5:35] which is established in the top of the mountains, and raised up above the hills. [Isa. 2:2] The heavenly city is the focus of prophecy, after the resurrection of Jesus; the earthly one was identified with Hagar the Egyptian bondwoman, who was cast out. [Gal. 4:25]

When Jesus ascended to his Father’s throne, the mountain of the Lord’s house was also raised up to heaven. Jesus represents this mountain. The vertical extension of Jerusalem and mount Zion was spiritual. It establishes a continuity between the Jerusalem of the OT prophets and the church. Jesus identified himself with the temple. He is the foundation laid in Zion, of which Isaiah wrote: “Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.” [Isa. 28:16] In Daniel 2:35 we see that the stone cut without hands becomes a mountain.

In Hebrews 12:22, mount Sion and Jerusalem are heavenly, which agrees with Paul’s statement that the saints are raised up, and sit together in heavenly places. [Eph. 2:6]

John’s prophecy of the two witnesses in Revelation 11:1-3 assumes that his readers are believers, who would understand these concepts, as he refers to the place “where also our Lord was crucified” in verse 8. What believer would not know that Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem? “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate.” [Heb. 13:12] The place where our Lord was crucified signifies the world, that lies outside Jerusalem. Being within the holy city signifies salvation. The Jerusalem to which this applies is the one which has been raised up to heaven in Christ, not the earthly city.

But the idea that John refers to the heavenly Jerusalem makes little or no sense to unbelievers, and skeptics, and uninformed Christians, who are among the Gentiles in the outer court. They understand nothing of the heavenly Jerusalem and temple which John was about to measure. But many Christians have understood that John was referring to the heavenly city, not the earthly one, in Revelation 11:2.

James Burton Coffman (1905-2006) wrote in his commentary on Revelation:

And the holy city they shall tread under foot …

Just as the Gentile world would tread the literal Jerusalem under foot until “the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled,” in like manner would a great host of (so-called) Gentile Christians desecrate the true church by their perversion of Christianity. This would be accomplished by their wholesale invasion of it, “in the form of a false Christianity.” The use of “holy city” here should not mislead us. “In A.D. 30, the once holy city of Jerusalem had already joined Sodom and Egypt as a typical example of all great wicked cities.” Despite this, there is, however, still a holy city, which is the holy church of Jesus Christ.

For forty and two months.

This passage makes the meaning of this expression transparent. It is the same as “the times of the Gentiles” mentioned by Jesus; that is, “the entire period of the Christian dispensation.” The mention of this specific time period reveals that, “There is a limit of the extent to which the Gentiles can do their treading under foot.” The historicists (Barnes) find this to mean that, “On the year-day principle, there is a reference to 1,260 years of Papal supremacy, ending in 1517 A.D.” We do not doubt that the apostasy of the Medieval Church, continuing until the present time, is indeed a significant part of what is here prophesied; but the “modernist” churches of Protestantism are equally also a part of it. Many of them have also rejected the word of the Lord and despised the true head of the church.

Matthew Henry wrote on Revelation 11:2-3,

2. Why was not the outer court measured? This was no part of the temple, according to the model either of Solomon or Zerubbabel, and therefore God would have no regard to it. He would not mark it out for preservation; but as it was designed for the Gentiles, to bring pagan ceremonies and customs and to annex them to the gospel churches, so Christ abandoned it to them, to be used as they pleased; and both that and the city were trodden under foot for a certain time– forty and two months,  which some would have to be the whole time of the reign of antichrist. Those who worship in the outer court are either such as worship in a false manner or with hypocritical hearts; and these are rejected of God, and will be found among his enemies.

3. From the whole observe,

(1.) God will have a temple and an altar in the world, till the end of time.

(2.) He has a strict regard to this temple, and observes how every thing is managed in it.

(3.) Those who worship in the outer court will be rejected, and only those who worship within the veil accepted.

(4.) The holy city, the visible church, is very much trampled upon in the world. But,

(5.) The desolations of the church are for a limited time, and for a short time, and she shall be delivered out of all her troubles.

Verses 3-13 In this time of treading down, God has reserved to himself his faithful witnesses, who will not fail to attest the truth of his word and worship, and the excellency of his ways.

Haymo, a Benedictine bishop of the ninth century (d. 853), wrote on Rev. 11:2:

Jerusalem was formerly called the holy city, as we read in the Gospel; ‘Many bodies of the saints which slept arose and appeared unto many in the holy city.’ In the present passage however there is no mention made of this city, but rather of the church; of which it is written, ‘Glorious things are spoken of thee, thou city of God.’ This city do they tread under foot, who press into the courts; such as heretics, pagans, Jews, and false brethren, &c.

Source for this and some of the following quotes is Augustus Clissold, The spiritual exposition of the Apocalypse, Volume 3. 1851.

Matthew Habershon wrote, in An historical exposition of the prophecies of the Revelation of St. John (1841):

All this is in exact accordance with the lamentable and corrupt state into which the outward church was described to be gradually brought, as explained in the four first seals. And further, the time which is here assigned to its duration is in equally exact accordance with the time which, in Daniel’s vision of the great wild beasts, is assigned to the duration of the papal little horn,–” forty and two months;” making, as before explained, according to the Jewish mode of reckoning, thirty days to a month, 1260 prophetical days, or 1260 literal years. From whence it follows, that these paganized Christians were those nations and peoples who acknowledged the papacy; and that the holy city, which for this long period of time they trampled upon, is the territorial platform of that part of the professing Christian church which is subject to their tyranny and apostacy.

Gagneus, Apocalypse, chap. xi.;–

The holy city, namely, the church, not having spot or wrinkle, shall they tread under foot; that is, as much as in them lies they will oppress it by persecuting and impugning the truth. Gentiles, that is, pagans and heathens, who are described under the name of the court; also Jews and heretics.

Estius, Apocalypse, chap. xi.;–

‘And the holy city shall they tread under foot,’ &c. They shall tread under foot; that is, shall afflict with most dire persecution, as if they would altogether destroy and oppress it; and yet nevertheless it shall not perish, but shall emerge from persecution the brighter, even as gold is rendered the brighter by fire.

Clissold stated, “That the holy city means the true church in contradistinction to the former, is the interpretation of Rupertus, Estius, De Lyra, Menochius, &c.”

Albert Barnes wrote:

The statement that the holy city was to be trodden under foot, ver. 2. This, as we have seen, must mean that the true church would thus be trodden down by those who are described as “Gentiles.” So far as pure religion was concerned; so far as appertained to the real condition of the church and the pure worship of God, it would be as if the whole holy city where God was worshipped were given into the hands of the Gentiles, and they should tread it down, and desecrate all that was sacred for the time here referred to. Everything in Rome at the time of the Reformation would sustain this description.

Clissold stated, about the opinions of Aretas of Caesarea, Bede, and Richard of St. Victor:

Aretas says here, that by holy city is to be understood the church; and that some regard it as signifying the true church persecuted in the time of Antichrist. Andreas also says, that it signifies the church at that period, the faithful members of which are to undergo great persecution. The same is the interpretation of Richard of St. Victor, and also of Bede, who likewise refer the events to the time of Antichrist.

James Hatley Frere wrote: [Notes forming a brief interpretation of the Apocalypse, p. 72.]

The visible Church is to be trodden under foot, or given into the power of the Papacy, during 1260 years, from the period when by the edict of 533, giving to the Bishop of Rome power over heretics, the power of persecution was put into the hands of Rome by Justinian; and ending, when, in the year 1792, the French Revolution, and the principles of liberty and freedom of opinion to which it gave scope, put an end to a power the whole strength of which lay in opinion.

The period of the 1260 years includes the whole awful history of the shedding of “the blood of saints and prophets” by the hand of the Roman Church; the whole series of judicial murders by the tribunal of the Inquisition, which, to use the words of Dr. Croly; are now beyond any accurate calculation; but which stand a fearful rivalry with the most prodigal expenditure of blood by war.

John Russell Hurd wrote: [Hyponia, pp. 171-173.]

A city or walled town is a place of safety and comfort — a dwelling furnished with the means of shelter, food, and defence. Such is the economy of grace with reference to its immediate object — the salvation of the sinner — “A city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” A self-righteous plan of salvation, on the contrary, is a city without a foundation, of which man only is the builder and maker. Here, it is said, (Heb. xiii. 14,) we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come; we have no means of salvation in any merits of our own. As it was said of the wandering Hebrews in the desert, “they found no city to dwell in.” In the wilderness of Sinai, as under the threatening of the law, their position was that of the disciple out of Christ, and unprotected by the imputation of his merits. In Christ only, we find a shelter from the wrath to come — a defence from the power of the legal accuser, and the means of obtaining and of sustaining eternal life;out of him our condition is spiritually analogous to that of the people of God during their sojourn in the desert.

This position in Christ, we suppose to be the same as that afforded by the holy city in its proper spiritual sense, that is, the economy of grace. This economy, however, has been misunderstood in proportion as the language of Revelation in respect to it has been literally construed. The new Jerusalem, it is true, has been supposed to be in some way a representation of the mystery of redemption; but the holy city has been in possession of the Gentiles. The vision of peace has been perverted by self-righteous elements of doctrine; even so much so, that, in the apprehension of many, the object of salvation (the community of disciples) has been substituted for the means of salvation, the plan of sovereign grace.

The same erroneous principles have thus perverted the language of Scripture, in respect to the views peculiar to the worship of God, and to the salvation of the sinner. The city and the outer court of the temple have been alike trodden by the Gentiles.

‘Forty and two months.’ — This is the time during which the Gentiles were to have possession of the city; and it seems to be implied that the gift of the outer court to them was to be of a corresponding duration; the term forty-two months applying to both. This period has been supposed to be equivalent to one of twelve hundred and sixty years, calculating in round numbers thirty days to the month; and various efforts have been made to assign this term of time, in a literal, chronological sense, to a certain portion of ecclesiastical history; but for the reasons already given we believe time in this literal sense is not to be taken into consideration. With those engaged in contemplating the mysteries of this vision there is time no longer. It is remarkable, however, that the several mystic terms of time, in this and in the following chapters, correspond so nearly with each other, taking the expression time, and times, and half a time, to be synonymous with that of a year, two years, and half a year; a construction now very generally admitted. These various periods all resulting, in round numbers, in a terms of twelve hundred and sixty days.

As already suggested we can only account for this peculiarity, by supposing these various, terms of an equal period to be intended to point out a certain parallelism in the predictions severally connected with them. In applying this mystic scale, we conceive it as reasonable to convert the twelve hundred and sixty days into forty-two months, as to turn the forty two months into days; and we feel the same liberty to turn the months, or days, into three and a half years, as we should in changing the years into days. As far as the parallelism of apocalyptic predictions is concerned this distinction may not be important, but it may be of service in throwing light upon other portions of Scripture; by enabling us to compare the figures of this vision with some of the historical relations of the Old Testament. At present we confine ourselves to the conclusion that this term of forty-two months is intended only to indicate the coincidence of the treading of the Gentiles, with the prophesying of the two witnesses in sackcloth for twelve hundred and sixty days; and that the two terms are designed to point out this Gentile predominance and prophesying in sackcloth, as coincident with the sojourn of the woman in the wilderness, (Rev. xii. 6 and 14,) and with the power given to the beast, (Rev. xiii. 5.)

In a literal sense, the Holy City was trodden by the Gentiles (the Romans) in the time of the apostles; and although the possession of it afterwards changed hands, there has been no time for the last eighteen hundred years that it has not been subject to Gentile power. In a spiritual sense it would be equally difficult to say when it was since the days of the crucifixion, that the mysterious truths represented by the outer court, and by the city, have not been perverted in their exhibition by the influence of incorrect doctrinal principles. It is easy to point out twelve hundred and sixty years during which the city of Jerusalem was possessed by Gentiles; but it is not so easy to point out a single hundred years of the Christian era, when it was not in the same predicament. In a literal sense, too, the temple was destroyed in the time of the Emperor Titus, not one stone being left upon another. Not only the outer court, but the temple itself, was in this sense given to the Gentiles; and there can hardly be said to have been a period admitting of discrimination between the temple and the outer court since. We seem to be shut up, therefore, to the conclusion above adopted, that the employment of these terms of time is altogether of a mystical character, designed to direct the attention to a species of synthesis, or combination, or collation of the several representations accompanied with these marks of identity, as so many different features of one picture.

The beast who ascends from the bottomless pit makes war with the two witnesses and overcomes them. This beast is not the beast that emerges from the sea, seen in Rev. 13:1, but must be the one mentioned in Rev. 20:2, namely, “the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan.”

Thus the warfare between the beast and the two witnesses is spiritual. And this fits the idea that the witnesses represent the Word of God, and the Spirit which Christ sent to guide the church to the truth, because Paul said, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” The holy city which is trampled in verse 2 is the heavenly city, not the earthly one. If it were the earthly city, no doubt the warfare with the two witnesses would be a flesh and blood struggle involving earthly armies.

The issues involved in the war between the beast and the two witnesses in verse 7 include spiritual things that belong to the saints, and understanding prophecy, such as this prophecy of the two witnesses, and determining the time periods involved, and whether the holy city is the earthly or the heavenly city, and solving the puzzle of the identity of the two witnesses.