(Rev. 11:1) Is this a literal Temple and city, or does this represent the church?

Amillennial and historical pre-millennial commentators argue that “the Temple” (v.1) must be symbolic of God protecting the church through the tribulation. Jesus said, “The gates of Hades will not overpower it [the church]” (Mt. 16:18). Therefore, this must be an apocalyptic way to explain how God will protect his church in the future. They offer two primary biblical arguments in support of this view.

ARGUMENT #1: John uses the term “Temple” and “holy city” to refer to believers—not a literal building.

John writes, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name” (Rev. 3:12). John also uses the term “holy city” to refer to believers (Rev. 21:2, 10; 22:19; c.f. 3:12; 20:9). Here, John seems to be equating the church with “the Temple” and the “holy city.” Thus these should be taken symbolically.

However, dispensational interpreters make a number of rejoinders to this argument:

First, John also writes that there is a spiritual Temple IN HEAVEN—not ON EARTH. For instance, John writes that believers “serve Him day and night in His temple” (Rev. 7:15). Of course, the context for this passage is heaven—not earth. Even in Revelation 11, we see that John sees both an earthly Temple (vv.1-2) and a heavenly Temple (v.19). At the end of the chapter, John writes, “The temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple” (Rev. 11:19). Clearly, two temples are in view here.

Second, there are worshippers IN the Temple. This doesn’t seem to fit with the believers being the Temple. To fit the symbolism that believers are the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21), we would need to believe that the Temple is identical to Christian believers. But the passage states that believers are separate from the Temple.

Third, Paul refers to a literal Temple at the end of history. For instance, Paul writes, “He [the antichrist] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess. 2:4 NIV). Sometimes amillennial interpreters argue that the book of Revelation was written in an apocalyptic genre. Thus the mention of a Temple is highly symbolic (i.e. the antichrist blends in with believers in the church). However, here we must note that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was not written in an apocalyptic genre. This is an epistle. And Paul believed that there would be a literal Temple at the end of human history.

Fourth, Jesus directly implied that there would be a literal Temple at the end of human history. He said, “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains” (Mt. 24:15-16). Here we must note that Jesus was referring by to Daniel 9:27 (“spoken of through Daniel the prophet”). In Daniel 9, we read, “The people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary [i.e. the Temple]. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate” (Dan. 9:26b-27; c.f. 12:11). This entire prophecy makes no sense, unless there is a literal Temple in Jerusalem.

Preterist interpreters claim that this prophecy refers to the destruction of Herod’s Temple in AD 70. However, this prophecy in Matthew 24:15 takes place after the gospel reaches all nations (v.14) at the end of history. In fact, Jesus characterizes this time period as the most intense level of destruction and slaughter in the history of humanity. He writes, “There will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. 22 Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved” (vv.21-22). Clearly, this could not describe the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 (for comments, see our earlier article “A Critique of Preterism”).

Fifth, Jesus directly implied that the city of Jerusalem would be reoccupied by the Jews at the end of human history. He said, “They [the Jews] will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). This statement directly implies that the Jews will regain Jerusalem once the Gentiles are taken out of the way. This would make sense of John’s comment that the nations “will tread under foot the holy city for forty-two months” (Rev. 11:2). The phrase “holy city” typically refers to Jerusalem in the OT (Neh. 11:1; Isa. 48:2; 52:1; Dan. 9:24) and the NT (Mt. 4:5; 27:53).

Are we to believe that this city is symbolic—even though there is a Temple and it is described as the place where the “Lord was crucified” (v.8)?[1] While this is certainly possible, we hold that the evidence favors a more literal interpretation here.

ARGUMENT #2: The measuring of the city is symbolic in the rest of the Bible for God either protecting or destroying a particular location.

Amillennial commentators argue that the concept of measuring in the OT is often a symbolic act of God designating a certain area for himself. For instance, Zechariah saw someone measuring Jerusalem in his day, and this was symbolic of God protecting the city (Zech. 2:1-5). Other passages in the OT use measuring to imply judgment and destruction (2 Kings 21:13; Isa. 34:11; 2 Sam. 8:2; Lam. 2:8). In either case, this implies that the territory belongs to God—whether by destruction or preservation.

Dispensational interpreters do not disagree with these symbolic motifs from the OT. However, they do not believe that this nullifies a literal city. For instance, when Zechariah sees a man measuring the city of Jerusalem, this was still a literal city that was being measured—even if the act had a symbolic meaning (i.e. God protecting the city).

Moreover, in this passage, John is clearly recreating one of Ezekiel’s visions. As in Revelation 10:8-10 (where John eats the bitter scroll; c.f. Ezek. 3:1-3), John’s act of measuring the Temple harkens back to Ezekiel’s vision of measuring the third Temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 40:3, 5). Advocates of a more literal interpretation point out that Ezekiel spends nine chapters measuring the future Temple (Ezek. 40-48). If this Temple was just symbolic of the church, why did God need to explain so much detail on the physical dimensions of the Temple? (For why God would reinstitute a Temple again, see comments on Ezekiel 40-48)[2]

[1] Amillennials retort that this statement (“where also their Lord was crucified”) should be taken symbolically, because John writes that this should be “mystically” (NASB) or “figuratively” (NIV) interpreted (see verse 8). However, this word (Greek pneumatikos) modifies “Sodom and Egypt”—not the later statement about “where also their Lord was crucified.

[2] The word “temple” (Greek naos) in the gospels always refers to the literal Temple. Johnson writes, “The word for temple (naos) always refers to the Jerusalem temple in the Gospels with the single exception of John’s Gospel, where it refers to Jesus’ own body (John 2:19–21; cf. Rev 21:22).” Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (500). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. However, even here, we can point out that in this one case, the Jews still understood Jesus to be referring to the literal Temple (Jn. 2:20). Outside of the gospels, the Greek word naos (“temple”) does not always refer to a literal Temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). So, counting the uses of the word shouldn’t carry too much weight.