“Then I was given a measuring stick, and I was told, “Go and measure the Temple of God and the altar, and count the number of worshipers. But do not measure the outer courtyard, for it has been turned over to the nations. They will trample the holy city for 42 months.”
Revelation 11:1-2 NLT
We spend a second day musing over these two verses in Revelation. John was out and about in his vision with a “measuring stick”. Looking over the Church and assessing its spiritual health and well being. If he was roaming over our increasingly secular Western societies, would he find a Church full of life and vigour impacting the very fabric of our culture, or would he find a sick and anaemic group of Christians huddled together in ever-reducing numbers, holding onto the remnants of their faith like drowning men clutch a straw. If John’s measuring stick was able to assess the quality of the worship of God in the Church, would he have found the worshippers going through liturgical motions or was there a meaningful connection with God? Spirit to spirit. Would he have found worshippers more concerned with the flowers on the altar rather than the praise and worship of our loving Heavenly Father?
Having looked for fruit in the Church, John moves on to measure the altar. When someone mentions the word “altar” a picture emerges in our minds of an ornate, cloth covered table located right at the front of a church building. The church-goers treat it with respect and often go through a process of genuflection, as though publicly declaring that God is somehow located there. But the altar is a place of consecration and it is where we meet God, declaring anew our faith in, and love for, Him. A place where we confess our sins but it needn’t be a physical place or object; for most people it is in their hearts, a place of spiritual significance in the lives of every pilgrim. It’s a place where we pause in our worldly, work-a-day thoughts and prayerfully lift our spirits into His presence. So what would John have measured here?
We consecrate our lives to the worship of God, sacrificing the other less important issues on our altars. On the altar in the Old Testament Temple, a painful and final act took place – an animal was killed as part of an expression of the covenant between God and His people. The sacrifice cost something. And the worship of God in our lives today is also a costly act. It costs us our time. It may cost us financially. But above all, it costs us our independence. A pilgrim sacrifices his or her worldly and sinful ways on God’s altar, expressing our allegiance to our loving Heavenly Father. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And amazingly, as Jesus said to His disciples in John 8:32, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Sacrificing ourselves on God’s altar frees us from a life of sin and death – true freedom indeed. We now have the freedom to do what we should, not stuck in a life enslaved to the devil’s ways.
The next task John had to do was to count the number of worshippers. Why should that matter? In our times of dwindling church congregations, we try and rationalise events by saying it is all about quality not quantity. But deep down we mourn the loss of our friends who move on to, at best, another church, or, as so many do, fall away from the faith into more secular activities. So why count the worshippers? Perhaps God is asking John to make sure that no-one is missing. I’m reminded of Jesus’s parable about the Lost Sheep, where He diligently searched for the one that was lost. It is reassuring to know that God wants no-one to be missed when it is the Time of the End.
Finally in these two verses, John is told not to bother with the outer courtyard. When thinking of this, I pictured a place full of spiritual tourists, people with no idea of who God is and with no appreciation of the awesomeness and majesty of God. On a recent visit to Salisbury Cathedral, I was touched spiritually when a member of the cathedral’s clergy asked everyone to be respectful while he offered up the morning prayers to God, joining in if they wished. But sadly, most ignored the moment, instead continuing to wander around chatting and commenting on the artefacts on display. They were the tramplers, visitors to the outer courtyards of the Church, and John was told the trampling would continue to do so for forty two months, three and a half years. The mention of the trampling of the Holy City was perhaps a reference to the verses from the prophet Daniel. We read in Daniel 7:25, “He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. He will try to change their sacred festivals and laws, and they will be placed under his control for a time, times, and half a time“. And Daniel 12:7, “The man dressed in linen, who was standing above the river, raised both his hands toward heaven and took a solemn oath by the One who lives forever, saying, “It will go on for a time, times, and half a time. When the shattering of the holy people has finally come to an end, all these things will have happened.”” Perhaps God’s people were to be persecuted for forty two months by the Gentiles, the unbelievers, present on the periphery of the Church.
At a time like this, having read of such events, we pilgrims can only shudder, fascinated yet appalled by the implication behind John’s vision. And we do what the Psalmists did. We pour out our concerns before God. I turned to Psalm 7 this morning and read, “I come to you for protection, O Lord my God. Save me from my persecutors—rescue me! God is my shield, saving those whose hearts are true and right. I will thank the Lord because he is just; I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.” (Psalms 7:1, 10, 17). A couple of pages further on we read, “But the Lord reigns forever, executing judgment from his throne. He will judge the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness. The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, O Lord, do not abandon those who search for you.” (Psalms 9:7-10). The Psalms are full of the musings and cries, the prayers and praises, of pilgrims just like us. God’s love just pours from every page, an unstoppable tide of His grace and mercy. And we can’t leave this moment without reading Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge!” And somehow, as we put our future in God’s hands, we receive the strength we need.
Dear Lord God. We once again express our gratitude that You are our loving Heavenly Father, who cares for us. Amen.