Revelation (Part 17): The Two Witnesses
As 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 tells us, we are the sanctuary of God. Yet, Revelation 11:1 is not meant simply to inform us that the measuring has to do with individuals getting saved in this interadvental age. That first verse instructs John to go measure, not to build. John is not building something new, but rather he is measuring what is already there. The idea has more to do with identification and security than coming into salvation. That idea becomes clearer as we couple it with verse 2. In verse 2 John is told not to measure the outer court because it is given to the nations (Gentiles). Therefore, not measuring is associated with giving it up while the part being measured is meant to be secured. Looking at the overall picture of the temple, we find that the outer court surrounds the inner court. The inner court(s) includes the court of women, court of men, court of priests, the altar, the holy place, and the holy of holies.
But why would John be instructed not to measure the outer court? It is not simply a matter of identifying true worshippers from false. The idea for the outer court as seen in the OT was to have a place not for Gentiles to trample but rather for believing Gentiles to come worship. And considering that we are God’s temple yet part of the temple (the outer court) is given to non-believing Gentiles to trample urges us to consider this picture a little more deeply. Rehearsing what we know so far we find (1) measuring God’s the inner courts means identifying and securing the heart of the Zion relationship—the community of God; (2) the outer court is given to the nations to be trampled; (3) and yet, the outer court is still part of the temple.
So if the temple relates to the people of God, but distinction is made between the inner and outer parts of the people of God, we can begin to see the point. How does God establish relationship with us now in this age? He transforms our spirits. He saves our souls—our inner being. On the other hand, our outer being, our bodies are as yet still sinful (Romans 7). Since we know part of the purpose for the book of Revelation is to encourage us in our suffering in this age, we find coordination with the measuring metaphor. The point is that God firmly holds our hearts-souls-spirits as his own (the measuring of the inner sanctuary). But we still live in this age alongside unbelievers who will persecute us, bringing suffering and pain to our bodies (the trampling of the outer court). This was the point of Christ’s admonition in Luke 12:4: “Don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” They can do nothing more because our spirits are measured—identified and secured—by God for his Zion purpose.
The next several verses add to the metaphor by speaking of two witnesses. This is no abrupt break from what has been going on in the discussion. John, representing us the people of God during this interadvental time that will be testifying again, had eaten the scroll to have the message and mission a part of him. That scroll tasted sweet (the blessing for believers) but made his stomach bitter (the curse of non-believers). As we’re introduced to the two witnesses (who also testify of Christ’s redemption), we are told that they wear sackcloth as they witness. In other words, the bitterness John felt is the bitterness of their witness in realizing that though their message is that Jesus is Lord, the selfish world that will reject that message will have that same Lord come to judge.
Why two witnesses? We see in this, first, the requirement of the Law. Two witnesses were required to verify and validate testimony. Who are these two witnesses? They are not literal people. We are in a highly figurative section here, even for the book of Revelation which is mostly figurative. But we have several clues in this passage helping us understand the point.
Verses 5 and 6 give us some immediate hints. In those two verses we learn that these witnesses have (1) power like fire in their words, (2) power to close up the sky withholding rain, (3) power over waters to turn them to blood, and (4) power to strike the earth with plagues. We have seen these four powers before. Elijah was the prophet of fire, calling down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38; 2 Kings 1:9–12). Elijah also, by God’s direction, shut up the skies from raining (1 Kings 17:1). Moses turned water to blood (Exodus 7:14–21). Moses struck Egypt with all sorts of plagues (Exodus 7–12). It would be very easy, then, to assume that the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11 would be Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah were also the two who represented all the OT progressive witness of God to Christ in their joining Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17). They represented the Law and the Prophets. Would they not seem a perfect fit for our two Rev 11 witnesses?
But we also notice some of the same ideas in the dedication of Solomon’s temple. We’re told in 2 Chr 7:1, “When Solomon finished praying, fire descended from heaven and consumed” the burnt offering. Later that night, the Lord appears to Solomon telling him, “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a temple of sacrifice. If I close the sky so there is no rain, or if I command the grasshopper to consume the land, or if I send pestilence on My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land” 2 Chr 7:12–14.
But to further complicate matters, we also read in the Rev 11 passage, after being introduced to the two witnesses, that “these are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” (11:4). This is a reference to Zechariah 4 in which Zechariah sees a vision of a lampstand with two olive trees. The time depicted in Zechariah is of the building of the post-exile temple. We find that Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the king, are the olive trees in coordinated work—“the anointed ones . . . who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech 4:14).
So who are the two witnesses? Are they Moses and Elijah or Joshua and Zerubbabel? Several scholars have voted for one set or the other. And yet, my contention was that the witnesses were figurative and not literal. Am I blindly disregarding the OT evidence for specific people?
Here’s my idea (which is not mine exclusively, of course). The reason for the hints in Revelation 11 are precisely to see more than one exact set of OT characters that fit the idea. The figurative idea of the two witnesses does draw on the work of Moses, Elijah, Joshua, and Zerubbabel. It also does coordinate with the building up of the temple of God (Solomon’s and the post-exilic one). But all those characters and structures, which were literal people and structures, had a figurative interpretation as well. As Jesus explained to his disciples on the road to Emmaus, all of the OT scriptures—the literal people and literal events—pointed figuratively to him!
This discussion of two witnesses is not unique to Revelation 11 in the Bible. In the Gospel of John, chapter 5, Jesus embarks on the same topic as he says, “If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not valid” (John 5:31). He says this in conjunction with the Hebrew law of having two witnesses. He goes on in that passage to say that God’s words through the OT Law and prophets, which he also speaks, and the God’s instructed works that he does both testify to him. Therefore, the words and works of God through Christ are the two witnesses—which Christ himself connects with scripture: OT Law and prophetic pronouncement. So, yes, Revelation 11 intends to call to mind Moses, Elijah, Joshua, and Zerubbabel, but it does so for their figurative purposes. Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets, Joshua the priesthood, and Zerubbabel the king. And all those represent Christ—pointing to him by the Law who is our prophet, priest, and king.
These two witnesses (the words and works of God through Christ for redemption) are connected with a time period of 42 months (11:2) and 1260 days (11:3). Of course, both those time designations encompass the same amount of time—3½ years. If 7 is the number of completion, perfection, and fullness, specifying half that time indicates partial, unfinished period with something else yet to come. And so we find it with this 3½ years.
Notice first that this is another tie to Elijah’s ministry. Luke 4:25 tells us that Elijah had shut up the sky for the 3½ years of his ministry. But perhaps more importantly we need to add to our view what is happening in Revelation 11:7–14. Briefly, we find that after the two witnesses complete their 3 ½ year ministry, they are killed (11:7) but are resurrected after 3½ days (11:11). And that should ring some bells. Who else had a ministry of about 3½ years followed by death for about 3½ days and then resurrection followed by going to heaven in a cloud (11:12). Well yes, it is Jesus. The details are not meant to match exactly (3½ days rather than 3 days in the tomb), but the pattern is surely intended so that we can relate the two witnesses even more strongly to the mission of the Redeemer Christ.
The picture in Revelation 11 has the witnesses (the words and works of God through Christ) at some point dying. We have already discussed a bit of the end of this age when the hard-heartedness of evil humanity has sheared off sensitivity to the gospel. This is the point depicted in Revelation 20 when Satan is loosed for a short season (which is the 3½ days of Revelation 11). But as you can imagine, with evil rampant and unrestricted, the horror it produces cannot not be noticed by the world. Remember that we’re told the witnesses have not been buried and forgotten. They were left on display (much like Samson was brought out to be made sport of). When looking at the contrast of the unbridled evil of the world with the words and works of God through Christ, some hearts are touched. Those last remnants who will come to God do so. And though the earthquake begins, there are survivors (11:13). But the end is in sight.