Confusion reigns when it comes to interpreting the Book of Revelation, especially over the speculation to the identity of the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11…
And what’s at stake is the entire credibility of the Bible!
written Dr Andrew Corbett pastor of Legana Christian Church in Tasmania, Australia
I was listening to a well-known Texan radio preacher declare that very soon the whole world was going to be thrust into turmoil with the rise of a global dictator (known as the “Anti-christ”, according to this preacher) who will establish a one-world government and begin the greatest era of persecution against Jewish people ever witnessed. I used to regard this type of teaching as irrelevant guess-work, but I now regard this “theology” as incredibly toxic and dangerous. Then to my horror he went on to announce that this dictator would be challenged by two revitalised witnesses who would capture the attention of the whole world by their prophesying and miraculous powers – even being publicly slain then resurrected! There are of course millions of Christians who have innocently accepted this new theology without ever realising that this is an impossible interpretation of Revelation 11.
Firstly, the assumption that Revelation prophesies a world dictator is false. I elaborate on this in my article about the identity of the character behind 666. But I would encourage the reader to consider the text in Revelation 13 and search for any prediction about a “one-world government”. I would also point out to the reader that the Beast from the Sea is not the same beast who numbers people with the 666 seal. I would also invite investigation into the contents of Revelation for the term ‘Anti-christ’ as well as ‘one world government’. Then consider the fact that John the Apostle told his original audience that they could identify the person whose number was 666 via gematria (the adding of the value of each letter in a person’s name). It was well known to the audience of Revelation who this person was. He is identified as the person behind the fifth seal who launches State martyrdom of the Church (Rev. 6:9) and as the ‘sixth’ king in the succession of kings in Revelation 17:10 – that is he is the 6th king of Rome.
The Texan preacher implied that the two witnesses would be Old Testament characters who would miraculously appear in the “last days” to challenge this coming Antichrist. These figures are variously supposed to be Enoch, or Elijah, or even Moses. The Bible identifies these two witnesses as the “two lampstands” or the “two olive trees” (Zechariah 4:3, 10, 11; Revelation 11:4). Rather than assuming that Zechariah was prophesying the return of two pre-existing characters, perhaps we should understand that these were meant to taken as two people yet to come.
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.
The context of Zechariah seems to refer to Zerubbabel and Joshua as the two in question.
For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.
Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’ ”
The Lord had previously described Israel as an olive tree (Jer. 11:16) and the two Houses of Israel as His witnesses. Therefore the two witnesses were representatives of the Jews and, because takes place in the covenant (and they are bearing witness for Christ) Christians. This could have either been leaders from Ephraim (Israel) and Judah (the southern tribes) or of the Kingly line and the Priestly line (as indicated in Zechariah).
Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, “Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there.”
This is one of the clearest indications that Revelation could not have been written in the 90s of the first century. Since the temple and its furnishings were destroyed in A.D. 70 it would have been impossible for John to have measured it in 95AD! Since the prophetic statements about the Romans’ 42 month occupation of Jerusalem (Rev. 11:2) are so accurate, some liberal scholars have dared to suggest that Revelation was actually written in 95AD and was really history dressed up to sound like prophecy! But the jury is back and the A.D. 95 date for Revelation’s authorship is now considered impossible.
The scene of the sounding of the seventh trumpet involves our two witnesses. To some, their identity remains a mystery. Some have suggested that James the Just, the stepbrother of Christ aptly fits the description of at least one of the witnesses. Others have suggested that it refers to Moses and Elijah (since they were present at the Transfiguration of Christ, and performed the miracles ascribed to the two witnesses.) Still others claim that death must be made complete for Enoch and Elijah, so they must be the two witnesses. Again we must tear ourselves away from such speculation and anchor our hermeneutics to the principle of Scripture interprets Scripture.
But leave out the court which is outside the temple, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months
The forty-two months is most naturally associated with the historic Roman occupation of Jerusalem which commenced in 66AD. This is supported by the statement in Revelation 13:5 where the Roman Beast speaks against the “Tabernacle” for forty-two months. The twelve hundred and sixty days however, while also equivalent to three and a half years is distinguished from the Gentile occupation of Jerusalem (Rev. 11:3) because this was also the period of time when Rome waged war on the Church (Rev. 12:6). Therefore, we are dealing with the two witnesses ministering during the time of persecution against the Church, not the occupation of Jerusalem
I will be like the dew to Israel;
He shall grow like the lily,
And lengthen his roots like Lebanon.
(6) His branches shall spread;
His beauty shall be like an olivetree,
And his fragrance like Lebanon.
Of course, Paul refers to Israel’s being as an Olive Tree as well (Romans 11:17-24). These two witnesses although spoken of as two individuals, represented believers. No empire has to “make war against” two individuals.
When they finish their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them.
The Two Witnesses, which are described as the Olive Trees and the Two Lampstands can therefore only be Jewish Christians who were literally witnesses to Christ in the sense of having physically seen Him, and perhaps most importantly being prepared to lay down their lives for Him. It’s this latter aspect of the term witness that is recurring throughout the Book of Revelation. The Greek word for witness is martus from where we get the English word martyr. The Law required that a testimony be established on at least two witnesses.
Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.
During the three and a half year campaign of State eradication, the Romans thought that they would wipe out the Christians from the Empire.
The event that sparked official persecutions, however, was the fire of Rome, beginning on July 19 of a.d. 64. That holocaust, which lasted for nine days and gutted ten of the fourteen districts of the city, brought untold suffering to a population of about one million. Some of Nero’s enemies circulated a report that he had started the fire. The charge was probably untrue, but Nero diverted attention from himself by making scapegoats out of the Christian community in Rome. The penalty suffered by many of the supposed incendiaries was burning at the stake at night to light the gardens near Nero’s circus in the Vaticanus section of Rome. Some were crucified and others thrown to wild beasts or mad dogs. Paul suffered martyrdom at the hands of Nero; Peter is said to have suffered the same fate.
Howard Frederic Vos, Exploring church history [computer file], electronic ed., Logos Library System, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997, c1994 by Howard F. Vos.
Thousands of Jewish Christians were martyred in the period between the Day of Pentecost and the Destruction of Jerusalem. This period seems to be described in Revelation as equating to “three and a half days” (half of 7 – a number which symbolically means ‘complete’ – and therefore 3½ means ‘incomplete’) . The two witnesses are described as being dead for three and half days, and particularly in the city where the Lord Himself was killed: Sodom and Egypt.
And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. Then those from the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days, and not allow their dead bodies to be put into graves.
This would seem to pinpoint the prophetic arrival of the two witnesses in the past, not our future, because they witness in a Jerusalem where the Temple still exists. At the end of the 1260 day persecution against the Church (AD64 – AD66), the 42 month assault on Jerusalem began (AD66 – AD70). With the beginning of the prophesied terrible Day of the Lord coming upon Jerusalem, the two witnesses would be vindicated. Since 7 represents complete, 3½ thus represents incomplete. Rome had no been able to completely destroy the Church during the time of these two witnesses!
Now after the three-and-a-half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.
Josephus notes that at this time terrible manifestations began-
…for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continual lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and anyone would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.
The Works of Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter 4, Section 5
I suggest that Biblically, historically, and evidentially, the two witnesses prophesied in the Book of Revelation were the former sceptical opponents of Christ turned Biblical authors, James and Jude. The historical record about the attempted, then complete, martyrdom of James, the Lord’s brother, is uncannily reminiscent of what we are told would happen in Revelation 11.
Because these two witnesses have already come and gone just as Revelation prophesied, there is great danger to the credibility of the preaching of the Gospel to claiming that they are yet future and developing an enitirely fanciful array of speculation to match.
From the ministry of these two witnesses we see that Christ will ultimately triumph despite those who oppose Him. We see that God will and does empower His servants to be witnesses. We also see that faithfulness under pressure matters a lot.
Let’s not be supposing that Christianity is about escaping from this world and leaving its inhabitants “to go to hell”. This is the great danger of the kind of teaching promoted by the Texan radio preacher. On the contrary Christians should be socially engaged, environmentally engaged, politically engaged, and theeologically engaged. We should be a two-fold witness by both fulfilling the Great Commission – preaching the Good News about God’s love through Christ, and carrying out the good works that flow from the Gospel to help the poor, needy, and underprivileged. This would be a great application of the two witnesses of Revelation for today!
Consider that there are two New Testament books written by two men who are eminently qualified as unique witnesses of Christ. They spent at least two decades more with Christ than any of the 12 Disciples. The account of how they died is remarkable and matches what Revelation said about their pending deaths.
Andrew Corbett, November 15th 2006