I was recently asked about the identity and significance of the two witnesses described in Revelation 11. Let’s first examine what the text says about them and then seek to understand who they are and why they are mentioned.
The Description of the Two Witnesses in Revelation 11
In Revelation 11, the Apostle John is instructed to measure the temple, the altar, and those who worship there (but not the outer court since that was given over to the nations to be trampled on for 42 months-see 11:1-2). The measuring of the temple recalls Ezekiel 40-48; however, the measuring of those who worship is a bit unusual since you don’t typically measure people, you count them. John is told about two witnesses wearing sackcloth (a garment that symbolizes mourning over judgment) who have been given authority by God. Their ministry lasts 1,260 days, which is the same period of time as the 42 months (3.5 years) noted before. This number also has connections to the number of years the people of Israel were in the wilderness (2 years and then 40 years of wandering) and Daniel’s prophecies of a period of tribulation (Daniel 7:25; 9:27; 12:7, 11-12). Verses 6 and 14 of Revelation 12 also use this number to describe how long the woman (representing the community) will be protected from the dragon’s (Satan’s) attacks, and Revelation 13:5 has this as the period of time of the beast’s blasphemy. (Interestingly enough, we will see later that their bodies will be left unburied for three and a half days – showing that number seems to have some significance. God protects these two witnesses during this ministry, as those who attack them are killed (11:5). The language of their defense recalls Elijah who calls down fire (2 Kings 1:10-17), but is probably a closer parallel to Jeremiah 5:14 which does not refer to literal fire but rather how the words of a prophet are like fire.
The two witnesses are further described in many different passages from the Old Testament. For example, they are said to be “two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth,” recalling how the political leader and priest during Israel’s return from exile were described as olive trees in Zechariah 4:4, 11-14. Their description recalls Elijah, as it is said that they “have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying” (11:6), and Moses, as “they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire” (11:6).
At the end of their ministry, the beast (this is the first reference to the beast in Revelation) who comes out from the bottomless pit “will make war on them and conquer them and kill them” (11:7), with their unburied bodies lying in the street for three and a half days while people from all nations celebrate their death because they had been tormenting the people (11:8-10). The location of their bodies is said to be “the great city …. where their Lord was crucified,” which is symbolically connected to Sodom and Egypt (11:8). After those three days, though, they will be resurrected by God and taken into heaven in front of their enemies (11:11-12), with an earthquake happening that will destroy a tenth of the city and kill seven thousand people; their vindication will lead to people being in fear and terrified, giving glory to heaven (11:11, 13).
Who Are These Guys?
As you might imagine, there has been no shortage of theories about the identity of these two witnesses. How one reads the Book of Revelation as a whole and the time of the events that it describes is something that leads to these different views. Some read the book as describing events that happened in the first century and thus find identifications related to that day; this is not a widely-held view in our circles so I will not spend time discussing it. Some scholars view them as being two literal figures who will minister in the future, at the end of time. Some of those who hold to this view see the imagery describing the two individuals as pointing to them being Elijah and Moses (or potentially Enoch) who have returned to the earth. Elijah and Enoch did not die but were rather assumed into heaven (with some traditions viewing Moses’s body as being assumed up into heaven), and some Jewish traditions viewed them as having to return to die. That said, the use of language reminiscent of these figures does not necessarily mean that they literally are them. Moreover, the return of Moses and Elijah could be seen in the ministries for Jesus (who is a prophet like Moses) and John the Baptist (who was in the spirit of Elijah), pointing against a literal return of these figures before the end. It should also be noted that the language describes both witnesses as doing things like Moses and Elijah, not one doing things like Moses and one doing things like Elijah. Therefore, if one has a futuristic view of the events of the book, it would seem best to view them as carrying on the ministry of these figures who spoke truth in the midst of opposition and doing this for a time at the end, but not literally these figures.
Those who have a futuristic view differ a bit on when these figures are ministering. Some see their death as the midpoint of the tribulation (with their ministry happening during the first half of the seven year tribulation), with it ushering in the final half (known as the Great Tribulation). Others, however, would see them ministering at the end of the tribulation period, with their death right before the third “woe” described at the seventh trumpet, which makes the end, though the language describing the earthquake at their death does not seem as strong as the language of the cosmic events at the end. Some of the difficulty comes from the fact that there seems to be various interludes or historical reviews in Revelation, making it tough to plot out a sequence of events.
The other predominant view is that these figures are symbolic of the ministry of the church in this time as we experience suffering. Before dismissing this as being too confusing or not wanting to read the text closely, one should note how the two witnesses are identified as “two lampstands.” This is interesting because the allusion to Zechariah about two olive trees only mentions one lampstand, not two. Revelation earlier describes the seven churches as lampstands; could the reference to the lampstand be a way of connecting the witnesses to the church, with it being two instead of seven here either because only two of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are faithful or because two was the number of witnesses to prove a case? In addition, Jesus sends out his disciples two by two to witness to him. Further support for these witnesses representing the church as a whole is the reference to three and half years and an attack from the beast, as that is reminiscent of Daniel 7:21, in which the saints are attacked by the “little horn” and defeated until “the Ancient of Days” comes. Another hint that these two witnesses may be symbolic is that verse 8 and the first part of 9 describe their bodies in the singular as opposed to plural. Another interesting note about the passage is that it says their bodies lay in the great city; while one would think of Jerusalem (as that is where Christ was killed), Sam Storms notes that “in every instance in Revelation where the words ‘great city’ are used, they refer to Babylon the Great (Rome?), not Jerusalem (see 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21; and possibly 14:8). The ‘great city’ is, then, the ungodly world as a whole where earth-dwellers live” (https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/revelation-11:1-13—part-ii). Their ministry also seems to be too wide and well-known for it to be two specific individuals only ministering in one place; they testify to the whole world and the whole world knows and celebrates their death (remember, this was before TVs, so the original audience would not see that as a way for all to know).
A further reason that these two witnesses are symbolic of believers is that this group is found in an interruption between the sixth and seventh trumpets (Revelation 8-11), similar to the way that the 144,000 (a group discussed last week that could also be symbolic of God’s people in this time) appears between the sixth and seventh seal. Whereas Revelation 7 can point to the fact that they are sealed and protected (which Revelation 11:1-2 could also allude to in measuring the people who worship in the temple that John saw in his vision), this reference of two witnesses could be a way to remind the church that its call is to testify to God’s truth, carrying on the ministry of the Old Testament prophets. The reference to three and a half years is less a chronological marker and more of a stock amount of time to describe suffering to show that it is limited and controlled. God will protect the church in this time and it will testify to the whole world (remember Matthew 24:14)., When that testimony is complete, Satan will attack and seemingly win (as these two witnesses will be killed), but then God will raise it up and bring His kingdom (with the seven trumpets and the remark that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever [Rev 11:15]) immediately following this, showing that the end has come
Why Are These Two Witnesses Important?
I lean toward the symbolic view based on my understanding of the whole book. I see various cycles and connections through the book and also how the message is not just about what happens at the end of time but how the church needs to be faithful right now. The description of these two witnesses is a reminder of the church’s mission, and that we are called to testify to the truth in this time even in the face of opposition. It is a reminder that there will be challenges, but in the end, we know that God will win; we need to remain faithful now. This is true, regardless of what view one holds, and a good reminder that we should not quarrel about details if it distracts us from our mission or faithful living.
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