In last week’s post we looked at the trumpet judgments and the 144,000. The final trumpet ushers in the next judgments—the thunder judgments, which John is told not to write down. John then introduces us to the “two witnesses,” although formal introductions probably aren’t necessary.
The identity of the “two witnesses” can be a flashpoint in discussions of the End Times. Folks who look at Revelation literally, see these two as real-life characters, but can we truly expect them to pour fire from their mouths to consume their enemies?
There’s much to suggest that these are real men whose testimonies and warnings are the symbolic fire that spiritually consumes their enemies. That’s how I looked at these witnesses for years. Some believe these two men to be Elijah and Moses based upon the judgments they issue during their 1,260 days and the fact that it was Moses and Elijah who appeared on Mount Hermon at the transfiguration of Christ. However, my money was always on Elijah and Enoch, as they are the only two who never tasted death. Also, it seems right to me that mankind from both before and after the great flood should be represented. But that’s my two cents worth.
While I would not be shocked to see “breaking news” about two old guys in sackcloth preaching on the streets of Jerusalem, I’m no longer convinced that the two witnesses are two real, literal persons. If we look at the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were there to be witnesses to God’s declaration that Jesus is His son. There they stood for the law and the prophets. Jesus has now fulfilled the law and the prophets, so do these two need to return?
So, what if there was another way to interpret these verses? As I’ve stated before, I’m not strictly a literalist who sees all of Revelation literally nor an idealist who sees all of this as symbolic. John could well have seen two real men, but I think he would have known who they were. After all, he actually saw Elijah and Moses during the Transfiguration. Thus, what if this is symbolic?
Most scholars see the witnesses as representative of the universal church. Why number them at two? Well, the Word makes it clear that no one is to be put to death on the evidence of just one witness.
6 On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. [Deu 17:6]
28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [Heb 10:28]
And we are talking about the deaths of the multitude of nonbelievers. God’s justice is fair.
Is it so hard to think of the two witnesses as representative of God’s people? In the OT, the prophets often represented the people. On some occasions, they spoke on behalf of God to the people and at other times they spoke to God on behalf of the people.
Let’s look at the first handful of verses about the witnesses:
3 And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. 6 They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and 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. [Rev 11:3-6]
Here we see the two witnesses identified as the two olive trees and lampstands. What’s that all about?
Scholars point to Zechariah 4 when referencing the two olive trees. In Zechariah 4:1-6 and 11-14 we see reference to two olive trees, or “anointed ones.” The story in Zechariah 4, however, begins in Hosea 1 where we see God forsake His people Israel while prophesying their restoration. It’s that restoration through Zerubbabel and Joshua that we see in Zechariah where the two olives trees represent the “word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” There, the two olive trees represented all of Judah, whereas now, in Revelation, the two witnesses represent all of God’s people as we stand by the Lord, preserved by His Spirit.
However, for us, Zechariah 4 has another emphasis. In it, God was telling the prophet that Joshua and Zerubbabel had divine protection from their opponents and would complete the temple. Likewise, we have His divine protection against our foes.
The lampstand imagery is thought to point back to Revelation 1 in which the lampstands represent the churches. There we saw seven lampstands as a symbol of the completeness of the church. Now, only two are needed to testify against and witness to an unrepentant world. Some scholars point to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, the only two for which Jesus found no faults. Indeed, if you look again at Revelation 3:10, Jesus promises not just that He will “keep” us from the hour of trial, but that He does so in order that we shall “try those who dwell on the earth.”
Or, did Jesus give us the example to follow: two by two? When He sent out His 72 disciples, He sent them in pairs. They were to spread the word, accompanied by signs and wonders. If a household refused them, they were to shake off the dust from their feet. Perhaps, the two witnesses represent pairs of believers going out into their towns and elsewhere to share the gospel.
What about the “superpowers” being displayed by the two witnesses? Note first that these “powers” apply to both witnesses, i.e., all of us. I look around our world, and I find it is oh so tempting to call down fire from heaven right about now. Zap! Sign me up for the Sons of Thunder fraternity. Oh wait, maybe Elijah could do that against the captains of fifty (2 Kings 1:8-15), but Jesus chastised James and John for wanting to imitate that prophet. (As a side note, Ahab sent three squads of fifty against Elijah and only one was spared. We’ll look at that as we look at the famous number of the beast: 666. Stay tuned.)
Of course, the literalists see these powers as an instant replay of the prophets’ judgments in the OT. The idealists, however, see these as symbolic. Dr. Gregory Beale, author of perhaps the most complete commentary on Revelation, weighing in at over 1,000 pages, states:
“The purpose and effects of the “measuring” are explained further. Now the fire of the Spirit burning on the two lampstands is seen to be unquenchable, which makes the lampstands themselves spiritually invincible. The souls of the witnesses cannot be harmed because they are protected by the invisible sanctuary within which they dwell. “If anyone wishes to harm them” because of their prophetic witness, then such people themselves will be harmed by the witnesses. God’s assured presence among his people guarantees that they will not be harmed in any ultimate, eternal sense. Therefore, the powers given to them in vv 5–6 do not demonstrate outwardly their prophetic legitimation but indicate rather God’s protection of them. They may undergo bodily, economic, political, or social harm, but their eternal covenant status with God will not be affected. One reason they were measured was so that they would prosper in their prophetic witness despite persecution. Though they may suffer and even die, they will invincibly and successfully carry out the spiritual mission for which they have been “measured” and commissioned . . .”
Rats! Fire falling from heaven would be so much more impressive.
It should also be noted that those who would kill the witnesses will themselves be killed. This is Biblical, as it says in Deuteronomy 19:19 that “then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” By this point in the judgments, the events taking place are no longer meant to induce repentance but are punishments for those who have hardened their hearts, just as we saw with the plagues of Egypt.
When our testimony is complete, the “beast who rises from the abyss makes war on,” conquers, and perhaps kills us. Or so the beast believes. We’ll discuss this beast in an upcoming post but suffice it to say that it represents the governments of the world—the Deep State, as many would call it today. They will think that they’ve snuffed out the Christian witness for good. For many scholars, the three-and-a-half-year period of the witnesses’ torment corresponds to what they believe was Christ’s three-and-a-half-year ministry on earth as well as Elijah’s ministry during which the “the heavens were shut up three years and six months.” (Luke 4:25, James 5:17) Elijah’s ministry saw devastating famine, as we’re beginning to see again. As with Christ’s resurrection, three and a half days later, we’re resurrected and ascend to the Father. For Elijah, “Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 5:18) We are that fruit.
While possible, it’s unlikely that the “beast” literally kills the entire church. Instead, this appears to be hyperbole to indicate that the true church has been “defeated.” The “great city” mentioned is the entire world, as every use of “the great city” in Revelation refers to Babylon the Great, not Jerusalem, Rome, or some other prominent city. As with “the beast” we’ll take a look at Babylon the Great later.
At that point, a great earthquake rattles “the great city” such that a tenth of it is destroyed and 7,000 people die. For the idealist, this portrays a great upheaval that portends the immediate return of Christ. As with the seventh seal and seventh bowl, this group sees the upcoming seventh trumpet as symbolic of the final judgment that comes with the parousia, the Second Coming.
I mentioned the forty-two months above. That’s equivalent to three-and-a-half years, but not necessarily 1,260 days. When John wrote of 42 months, he did so referencing the Hellenistic lunar calendar of the time. 1,260 days is 19 days short of 42 months in that calendar. However, in the Enochian calendar of Daniel’s days, a solar calendar, 1,260 days was equal to three and a half years. It’s likely that John referenced this period in days to link his prophecy to Daniel. This becomes more important as we get to the reign of the beast from the sea.
Have we already entered that period in history? I’m beginning to think that maybe we have. The beast is certainly working overtime to cancel the church. We’ll look at this time period in the next post.
 Beale, G.K. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, the Book of Revelation, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, 1999, pg. 488-9