Rev. 11:3 – I will empower my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, dressed in sackcloth. 4These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5If anyone wants to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and consumes their enemies; if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. 6These men have the power to close the sky so that it does not rain during the days of their prophecy. They also have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with any plague whenever they want.
My two witnesses
In verse 3 we are introduced to God’s two witnesses, who dress in sackcloth and prophesy for 1,260 days. They are described as “the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” They are able to consume their enemies with fire from their mouths. They have the power to prevent rain during the days of their ministry, as well as the authority to turn the waters to blood and to strike the earth with plagues. The identity of these two witnesses is a matter of much debate among commentators. Noted biblical scholar Henry “Dean” Alford once said the 11th chapter of Revelation is the most difficult to interpret in all of the Apocalypse of John, and no doubt the identity of these two witnesses contributes to the difficulty.
There are many views.
Some commentators suggest these are not individuals. They may instead be seen as the two faithful churches of Revelation: Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13). Or they may symbolize the witness of the Old Covenant, culminating in the witness of John the Baptist, who is likened to Elijah. Or they could represent the Old and New Testaments as the complete witness of God.
There are problems with a non-personal view, however. The witnesses are called “men” in verse 6 and “these two prophets” in verse 10. The Greek word for witness is martus, from which we get the English word martyr. It is used 10 times in the New Testament, and every time it refers to a person. The same is true of the Greek prophetuo, referring to the witnesses who “prophesied.” The word “prophesy” and its variations appear 165 times in scripture and every time except once describe the act of a person, according to W.A. Criswell. Further, these witnesses are dressed in sackcloth; then they die, are resurrected and carried into heaven in a cloud – actions that best describe human beings.
Moses and Elijah?
But if these witnesses are two individuals, who are they? A common interpretation is that they are Moses and Elijah because the miracles performed by the witnesses are similar to those wrought by these noted Old Testament servants. Additionally, Moses and Elijah appear with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3), where the second coming is in view. And, the prophecy that Elijah will appear before “the great and awesome Day of The Lord” (Mal. 4:5) is partially but not completely fulfilled in John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13). While this is a popular view, it may not be the correct one. Moses already has experienced death (see Heb. 9:27). Some therefore conclude that the two witnesses are Enoch and Elijah, the only two persons in scripture who are translated into heaven without dying. However, these are not the only two persons who will escape death. At the resurrection, living believers will follow the dead in Christ into the air to meet the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18; see also 1 Cor. 15:51-52).
Other interpreters argue that the two witnesses are James and Peter, or those who stand as witnesses for Christ during the years leading up to the Reformation, or, generally speaking, Christ’s bold followers throughout the church age.
As for the identity of these two witnesses, it’s best not to speculate since the Holy Spirit has chosen not to reveal their names. But we can see that they perform a dramatic ministry during a challenging time for God’s people. They are likened to two olive trees and two lampstands. This is an allusion to Zech. 4:2-14 in which Zerubbabel, the Davidic seed returning from the Babylonian captivity, and Joshua, the Aaronic seed, lead the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple and the reestablishment of Jewish civic and religious life. In a similar fashion, the two Spirit-empowered witnesses of Revelation 11 will testify that true religion is established in Christ and true government acknowledges God as the ultimate authority (Rom. 13:1-5). Put another way, the witnesses will exalt Jesus the Messiah in His priestly and kingly roles.
An exceptional counterbalance
One other point should be made about these witnesses. Their ministry is an exceptional counterbalance to that of most Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, and Jesus. While there are times when the prophets and apostles bring swift divine judgment upon the wicked – Moses and the plagues against Egypt; Elijah and the fire called down from heaven upon the soldiers sent by Ahaziah to take his life; Paul striking Elymas the sorcerer with blindness – the norm is for God’s servants to be on the receiving end of violence.
The Old Testament prophets are beaten, imprisoned, threatened, and killed. The apostles are scourged, locked away, beheaded, boiled in oil, exiled, and crucified. Jesus endures unfathomable humiliation and pain without defending Himself, although at any moment He could call down legions of angels. He further tells us to turn the other cheek, expect to be hated, and rejoice when we are persecuted for His sake. The weak and powerless always have been God’s people, and the Son of God puts on flesh, endures every form of human temptation, allows Himself to be betrayed, falsely arrested, scandalously tried, mercilessly beaten, and nailed to a cross. His response to all this is, “Father, forgive them.”
But things are different with these two witnesses. Throughout their ministry, they are impervious to attack. They go on the offensive with their words and deeds. If anyone wishes to harm them, that person will be on the receiving end of a fiery blast. How different this is. Even the Old Testament prophets and the apostles rarely use their miraculous gifts to defend themselves or pay back critics. But here, the two witnesses keep their enemies at bay with their fiery breaths while they proclaim the whole counsel of God. Who are these two witnesses? We cannot say with certainty. But they are a rare blend of Old Testament prophet, apostle, and instrument of divine wrath.
Next: The beast will conquer and kill them (Rev. 11:7-10)