Note: This article is part of a series.
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. (Revelation 11:3, NKJ)
Chapter 11 is one of the more challenging passages in the entire book of Revelation. There has been much debate regarding the identity of the two witnesses introduced in verse 3. The two witnesses are given power (authority) to prophesy, are killed (v. 7), rise again from the dead (v. 11), and ascend to heaven (v. 12). Furthermore, all these events are witnessed by a watching world. Hal Lindsey suggested that this must surely mean that this passage refers to two, particular people who are going to be martyred sometime in the future on international television! Sadly, when we fail to interpret the book of Revelation in light of the Old Testament (OT) and when we fail to see that the book applies to Christians living in every age, we rob the book of its relevance to our lives right now. A proper, biblically-based interpretation of the images of Revelation is meant to encourage and strengthen your faith if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. The image of the two witnesses is meant to increase your resolve as a believer in the world today because it reminds you that no matter what opposition the church faces, the world-changing witness of the church is invincible.
To understand who or what the two witnesses are, we need to identify the OT background for the passage. In this case there are several references in view. There are two witnesses, indicating that they are authoritative. Deuteronomy 19:5 tells us, “…by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” The witnesses are described as OT prophets (v. 3). They have been given authority by God to prophesy for 1,260 days. This is a time marker used throughout Revelation, which is drawn from Daniel’s reference to three and a half years as “time, times and half a time” (Daniel 7:25; 12:7). It is a symbolic way to describe the entire church age – the time we are living in now – until Jesus returns. In Revelation, the reference to three and half years is presented as 42 months (the duration of the siege of the people of God in Revelation 11:2) or, as it is in Revelation 11:3 as 1,260 days. These are complementary ways of describing the exact same amount of time and refer to the current time in which we are living. Since the two witnesses are going to be speaking over the whole period of time until Jesus returns, they cannot be a reference to any two particular individuals. To what, then, is this image referring?
Verse 4 tells us that the two witnesses are also the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the all the earth. Here is a reference to the vision described in Zechariah 4. There the two olive trees, which provide a perpetual supply of oil for the lampstand, represent the “two anointed ones” (Zechariah 4:14). Most commentators think the two anointed ones are the Davidic King (Zerubbabel) and the Aaronic priest (Joshua). In Zechariah this is a promise of God’s Spirit leading the people through king and priest. Since Revelation describes believers themselves as kings and priests in several places (Revelation 1:6; 5:10), it appears that the two witnesses in John’s vision are a reference to the church. According to commentator Louis Brighton, “… the two witnesses are symbolized by the two lampstands because they represent the church in her royal, priestly, prophetic witness to the Gospel message of Christ to the world.”
If you accept the premise that the two witnesses are a reference to the church functioning in its capacity as a prophetic witness to the world, the significance of the rest of the vision starts to fall into place. We are told that fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies (v. 5), that they have power to shut up the heavens so no rain falls (v. 6), that they can turn water into blood (v. 6), and that they can strike the earth with plagues (v. 6). These are clear references to Elijah, the great prophet who brought fire from heaven upon his enemies (2 Kings 1:10) and caused a three-year drought (1 Kings 17), as well as to Moses, the author of the great plagues that ultimately led to the liberation of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 7-12). Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets were the two great witnesses that joined Jesus at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
The profound truth on display in this vision is that the same power that was at work in the ministries of Elijah and Moses is at work in the church today. The prophetic, gospel witness of the church conquers enemies and brings deliverance to the people of God. The church is the repository of the power of God. It often does not look like that from our perspective, but Revelation shows us heaven’s perspective on our situation. The real truth is that we’ve been given the power of God to turn the world upside down.
Revelation 11:7 tells us that when the witnesses finish their testimony, they will be overcome by the beast who comes out of the bottomless bit to make war against them and kill them. The dead witnesses, then lie in the streets in open view (v. 9). The text tells us that this happens in the “great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (v. 8). These references to long-standing enemies of God’s people and to the Jews who rejected Jesus point to the unbelieving world that stands in opposition to God and His church. The power of Satan is manifested in a beast that relentlessly tries to silence the church and its witness. The demise of the church’s witness is cause of great celebration by the enemies of God (v. 10). We see this happening all around us today – just as it has been throughout history. A suicide bomber blows up worshippers entering a church and certain enemies of God celebrate. Crosses are pulled off churches as the doors are shuttered and certain party officials celebrate. You need to recognize that the demonic forces of our world will relentlessly try to silence your witness as well.
Gloriously, the vision reminds us that the church’s witness can never be silenced! The two witnesses rise from the dead (v. 11) and ascend to heaven (v. 12). Afterwards, judgment falls on the enemies of God (v. 13). This picture is a graphic way to depict the ultimate fate of the church’s witness and of the individual believers who make up the church. Again, quoting Brighton, “Thus the picture given by the scene of the two witnesses is that the Christian church – composed of individual Christians – is always living in witness, dying for that witness, and being raised again for further witness.”
The witnessing church is invincible. The history of the Christian church displays this truth. Wherever Satan seems to have wiped out the church, it pops up somewhere else even stronger. In a sense, it is like a cosmic “Whack-A-Mole” game. The church seemed nearly eliminated in the Middle Ages and then came the Reformation. China thought it had wiped out the church in the 1940s, and today there may be more than 100 million Christians in China. The locus of God’s activity may change, but the church’s witness will never stop.
You, as an individual Christian, are also invincible. You will serve God as long as He has work for you on the earth. You cannot be taken out of the world one second earlier or one second later than God’s design for you. When you complete your work, you will follow the same trajectory as your Lord did – namely, resurrection, ascension, and glory. Because Jesus’ witness was never silenced and because He has overcome death for all His people, you who are united to Him by faith will never be silenced. You will either be proclaiming the Lord’s glory on earth or you will join the heavenly choir and proclaim the Lord’s glory in heaven. Your voice will continue eternally!
Take the message of Revelation 11 to heart. Don’t silence yourself out of fear. Realize that in Christ, you are an invincible witness and that you are part of a church that wields the greatest power in the universe – that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.