For my write-up today on G.K. Beale’s The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, I’ll talk some about Beale’s interpretation of Revelation 11:1-12, which concerns the Temple and the two witnesses.
Revelation 11:1-12 says the following (in the King James Version):
“And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will. And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them. And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves. And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth. And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them. And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.”
Essentially, Beale interprets the Temple to be the persecuted church, and the two witnesses to relate to the church’s witness to the world. For Beale, Revelation 11:1-12 concerns the church during the church age, the time between Christ’s first and second comings.
But does the church slay people with fire from its mouth, or cause plagues such as the water turning to blood and a cessation of rain? Beale views these things as symbolic—-that they relate to the church’s message and the spiritual torment that it causes to idolaters, who reject its message and thereby bring judgment on themselves. What about the three-and-a-half years or days? Beale also regards that as symbolic rather than literal, for the number three-and-a-half in the Hebrew Bible relates to the suffering of God’s people, such as the holy people in Daniel, and Elijah.
On what basis does Beale make the argument that these things are symbolic? He takes a variety of approaches. One that I’ll mention is that there are times in ancient literature when these things appear to be used in a symbolic fashion. For example, God tells Jeremiah in Jeremiah 5:14: “Wherefore thus saith the LORD God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” But Jeremiah did not literally consume people with fire from his mouth; rather, this verse is about how Jeremiah’s words bring judgment on those who hear and reject them. Moreover, Beale looks elsewhere in Revelation to support his argument. There are two witnesses who testify, and, elsewhere in Revelation, the church gives a testimony. Revelation also presents a sword in Jesus’ mouth, showing that something fearsome coming out of somebody’s mouth is not necessarily literal in Revelation. And, in arguing that the Temple symbolizes the church, Beale notes that Revelation often applies to the church concepts that were about Israel in the Hebrew Bible.
I think that Beale’s arguments here are fair, though I can understand if some might look at them and consider them to be a stretch in terms of explaining the text. One thing that I wonder: Beale talks about a Jewish expectation that Elijah or another end-time figure would return at the end of days, and I assume that he believes there were people who took that literally. Shouldn’t that be taken more into consideration when we try to determine if the two witnesses and their activities are literal or figurative?
As I said, Beale interprets the two witnesses in light of the church age. But he also appears to hold that Revelation 11:1-12 relates in some way to the first century, for Beale argues that the great city is Rome, which is criticized as Babylon in Revelation. (Beale interprets Sodom, Egypt, and the city where Jesus was crucified in a spiritual manner.) (UPDATE: On page 616, Beale says that Babylon “is a type of the eschatological world community…”) Moreover, Beale says that the spirit of the Beast has persecuted the church throughout the ages. I have not yet read Beale’s discussion of the Beast of Revelation 13, but I wonder if he believes that there will come a specific time when the Beast will arise, or that the Beast has arisen in the past (i.e., as Domitian), for Beale seems to distinguish the spirit of the Beast from the actual Beast.