In Revelation 10–11, John not only sees visions from God but also participates in them. John ate a scroll in Revelation 10. Today’s passage says that John participated in a vision by measuring “the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (11:1–2).
What is this “temple of God”? Many dispensational interpreters have taken it to mean a literal, physical temple in Jerusalem that will be rebuilt at the end of time. However, that reading is unlikely. John has to measure the worshipers in this temple as well, an unusual request if he is seeing a physical structure (vv. 1–2). Furthermore, the word “temple” frequently appears in the New Testament, and even in the book of Revelation itself, as a metaphor for God’s people (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 1 Peter 2:4–8; Rev. 3:12). Almost certainly, the temple described in Revelation 11:1–2 symbolically depicts the people of God.
John’s measuring recalls Ezekiel 40–48, where an angel measures the new temple and city. The temple and city in Ezekiel are eternally secure, so John’s measuring of the temple, the people of God, apparently serves as a metaphor for the Lord’s eternal protection of His sons and daughters. In other words, John’s action informs us that God will safeguard His church forever.
Yet, John does not measure the entire temple, for he is forbidden to measure its outer court. That place has been given over to the nations, who will trample it for forty-two months (Rev. 11:1–2). Under the old covenant, the outer court was reserved for foreigners to the covenant of salvation with Israel. In light of the symbolic depiction of God’s temple, then, this seems to refer to the persecution of the church by the nations. Yes, God will keep His people safe in an ultimate sense, for the interior of the temple is measured and protected (the inner court). However, at the same time the church will suffer at the hands of the nations (the outer court). This is the paradox of the church’s life—we are secure forever in God’s hand, yet until Jesus returns, God’s enemies will war against the church.
The holy city and temple suffer for forty-two months (Rev. 11:2). Some see here an allusion to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, which took forty-two months according to the Jewish historian Josephus. If so, this text might also speak of God’s protection of Jewish Christians at that time while Jews who rejected Christ rebelled against Rome and died. In any case, we can be sure that Jesus will protect His people forever in the new heaven and earth.