Monday, April 6, 2015

Time, Times, and Half a Time

 "…but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will give authority to my two witnesses and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sack cloth" (Revelation 11:2)
In Revelation 11, John is given a measuring rod with which to measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. It is revealed to him that the space left unmeasured outside the temple is given over to the nations who will trample the city for 42 months. For the same period of time- 1,260 days (this is 42 months where a month is considered to consist of 30 days)- two witnesses will prophesy clothed in sackcloth. This period of time appears elsewhere in Revelation, specifically in 12:6 and also in 12:14, where it is described as "a time, and times, and half a time" (this phrase can be understood to mean three and a half years, which is also 42 months or 1,260 days). 

This period of time then, seems to hold some significance, and it has led many to pose the searching question of when exactly this time is, or was, or will be. It is generally agreed that it can be connected to similar revelations in the book of Daniel (if you want to read them take a look at Daniel 7:25, 9:27; 12:7, 11-12 – I recommend reading the chapters around them for context). These in turn correspond to the prophecies in Jeremiah chapters 25 and 29. For those who are interested, I’ve outlined below in bullets how this might play out in history according to Poythress' guide to the book of Revelation. I will explore how that might be relevant to us after the bullets.

If you’re really not all that bothered, the most important thing to know is that the "1,260 days, 42 months, and time, times, and half time" all symbolically represent the time of the church between Jesus' resurrection and his second coming. 
  • Jeremiah prophesied 70 years of exile after which the people were restored to the land.
  • But that restoration was only temporary, so in Daniel 9:24, we find a second period of similar length is to happen after this, which is described as a period of 70 weeks until the people will find final restoration and final rest.
  • In the very last of those 70 weeks, it is revealed to Daniel in 9:25-6 that an anointed one will come, who we now understand to be the Messiah, Jesus.
  • In the middle of the last week, according to Daniel 9:27, the sanctuary is destroyed –we know that the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.
  • So the very last half a week referred to in Daniel is the period from AD 70, after Jesus’ life as told to us in the Gospels, to the second coming and His return. It’s the time we’re in now. It’s the time, times, and half a time referred to in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7…. And it’s also the 42 months, or 1,260 days referred to in Revelation.
Is your head hurting yet? Well, you’re in good company because mine is too! It’s probably not helped by the fact that the Scripture seems to play around with years and weeks and months sometimes as though they’re all interchangeable.
When we approach these numbers, we really need to keep in mind that they are intended to be figurative; we know that the time from the destruction of the temple to Christ’s second coming is not literally half a week or 42 months, as we’ve far exceeded that already. Rather than being inaccurate, we should realize that it’s consistent with the symbolism in the rest of Revelation to say that these time periods are symbolic also. 

If you listen to the message on this chapter, for instance, David talked about how the two witnesses who prophesy in Revelation 11 are unlikely to be specific people but are rather representative of the church and as such are examples for us to imitate- we are to be lampstands, shining light into the darkness of this world, just as they are. Similarly, in verse 8, we are told that the ‘great city’ referred to here is symbolically called Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem where Christ was crucified, and so is actually representative of oppressive kingdoms and powers that have sought to crush followers of Christ in the past.
So if the numbers are symbolic what might they be meant to symbolize? What are we meant to take away from this? Well, here are a few suggestions.
First, we’ve already mentioned on this blog and we’ve heard through the messages how the number 7 is used in Revelation and occurs repeatedly to represent ‘completeness’. By contrast, what is being described here is half of 7 years (3.5 years, 42 months, 1,260 days). That’s important because this period in history, which describes where the church is today, according to Revelation 11 is both one of incredible power (in the church’s witness) and spiritual protection (in the measuring off of the worshippers in the temple), but it is also one of violent persecution where at times it will feel as though Satan has won. The witnesses are made war on, conquered, and killed, and their bodies are left in the street that their deaths might be rejoiced over, signifying the greatest depths of shame possible.
But this period of oppression and suffering is not complete – it is cut short. God has the final say, and only His purposes are brought to completion. This is highlighted in verse 11 where after three and half days God Himself acts to brings back to life the slain witnesses in an echo of the three days Jesus lay buried in the tomb before his resurrection, a powerful reminder that we as his witnesses share in this resurrection power and can look forward to its completion. The beast may rage and ‘make war’ on God’s witnesses, but with one single breath, just as He did at creation, God will restore life that has wrongly been taken. As we celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection this Easter weekend, what a powerful image of hope this is for us!
Speaking of the three and half days that appears in verse 11, Poythress puts it like this,
“Not only in the Roman Empire, but nowadays, and in the final crisis, faithful witnesses sometimes seem to go down in defeat. Christians are all in prison or dead, and apparently the idolatrous state has triumphed. The anti-Christian tyrant is in control, whether Domitian or Diocletian or the Spanish Inquisition or North Korean communism or Saudi Arabia’s Islamic state. But note: three and half days are seven days cut in half, signifying that domination that aspires to completeness is cut off halfway through.”
Second, although the numbers don’t always make a lot of sense to us, perhaps they are there to remind us that God is working to a detailed and precise plan. This, after all, is the God who is familiar with the number of hairs on our head, who knows the exact number of grains of sand on every sea shore. In the measuring off of the inner part of the temple, He is a God who measures off a place of safety for his people with incomparable accuracy and care. Just as in those instances, so too in this one- I don’t need to know the figures, or the exact measurements, I just need to know that He knows.    
Finally, as I thought about these passages, I was struck by the connections that Revelation makes back to other Old Testament visions and prophecies. It is difficult to look at these verses in Revelation and find meaning in total isolation. It challenges us to delve into Scripture and engage with what we find there. Like the witnesses in Revelation 11, Daniel too is an example of someone who refused to hide his true beliefs, even when they rubbed with what society expected of him, and at times, this put him in grave danger. At the end of Daniel he is encouraged to persevere until the end: "And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days." (Daniel 12:13). May we, like Daniel, also draw confidence to stand firm, resisting worldly pressure, that we may experience God’s promise of peace and homecoming in the fulfillment of His kingdom.

  1. "In a sense, the impressions created on the reader are as important as an understanding of the details." (Sinclair B Ferguson on Daniel) Read through Revelation 11, and ask God what impressions He wants to make on you from this passage even though you may not understand every detail.
  2. "How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:4) Even though God’s message may be unpopular to share with those around us, how can we be faithful witnesses?
  3. As we enjoy the privilege of celebrating this Easter in freedom, spend some time praying for those Christians around the world who are experiencing violent persecution for their beliefs because of an oppressive ruling government.

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