REVELATION 11:3-14: THE CAREER OF THE TWO WITNESSES
Abbreviations: NIV: New International Version; ESV: English Standard Version; NIVSB: NIV Study Bible; ESVSB: ESV Study Bible
Revelation 11:3-14 gives a coherent narrative of “two witnesses.” These two prophesy for a period of 3 ½ years. Then, they are killed by the “Beast.” Their bodies lie in on a street for 3 ½ days. Then, they are resurrected and are carried up into heaven in a cloud. An earthquake follows, and people give God the glory. This narrative completes the description of the second of three woes (See 8:13.) I shall summarize my own and the commentator’s conclusions and then give a verse-by-verse analysis.
There are several issues or questions that reading this narrative gives rise to. Among these are the following:
- Identity of the 2 witnesses
- Their purpose
- The city
- The Beast
- Degree of symbolism
The Identity of the two witnesses:
· Metzger: the church
· Rist: Elijah and Moses
· Morris: the church, possibly the two faithful churches in chapters 2 and 3, or the martyrs of the church
· Ladd: 2 literal people who will witness in the last days to Israel; they also represent the witness of the church to Israel throughout history
· Myself: They seem to be individuals. Note that the people of God seem to be described in 11:1. The court and city outside are not to be measured. Then, God grants prophetic ministry to two people. The implication is that they will prophesy in this area outside the measured-off area. Although they are of the people of God, they are unique individuals with unique ministry and power. Their powers are reminiscent of Moses and Elijah, but there is no claim that they those prophets. In the same way that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of Elijah to be a forerunner of the Messiah as he was prescribed in Malachi, these witnesses act as forerunners to the return of Christ.
The purpose of the two witnesses:
· Metzger: the church is to give faithful witness to the truth
· Rist: to be a forerunner to the return of the Messiah (Elijah) and to prophesy to the wicked
· Morris: to give Christian witness
· Ladd: to bring Israel to repentance and conversion; to “bear witness of the law and the prophets to the Lordship of Jesus as Messiah and therefore to the sin of Israel in rejecting him.”
· Myself: We are not told much specific. They are “witnesses” or those who give testimony. Jesus describes the apostles as witnesses in Acts 1:8. They implication is that Christian witnesses testify about Jesus and His gospel. They also are known to torment the earth-dwellers, so this indicates that they are not shy about speaking about the sins of people and the need to repent.
· Metzger: Jerusalem, “but the vision is enlarged to include the entire world.” (70)
· Rist: In verse 8, the city “would certainly be taken to mean Rome” except for the last clause. He quotes Kiddle, who solves this by Sodom and Egypt being said to “constitute the evil ‘great city’ of this world order, the earthly and temporal in contrast to the heavenly and the eternal.” This “city” is the place of Jesus’ death, of persecution, and of the death of the two witnesses. (447)
· Morris: the city is not Jerusalem, but “is every city and no city. It is civilized man in organized community.”(150)
· Ladd: He believes that the literal city of Jerusalem is being referred to. He notes that the narrative would not have any meaning in John’s day, since Jerusalem had been destroyed about 20 years before. Therefore, he believes this indicates that Jerusalem will become important and a center of Beast activity in the last days. It will be “rebuilt and inhabited by Jews.” ((157) In reflecting on the use of “Sodom” and “Egypt” to describe Jerusalem, he asserts that Jerusalem is wicked because it is where Jesus was crucified and it “has thus far rejected the witness of the two prophets sent by God to turn Israel to her Messiah.” (158)
· Myself: The city seems to be Jerusalem. However, it definitely is Jerusalem in league with the world. It is what is outside that measured-off area where the people of God are. It has been trampled by the Gentiles—probably both physically and spiritually. It will join the rest of the world in leaving the bodies of the witnesses exposed and in rejoicing over their death.
· Metzger: The “demonic monster” from the bottomless pit is the one described in chapters 13 and 17.
· Rist: “This beast is the first of four of his kind in Revelation: the others are…Satan (12:3); the beast…(13:1); and the beast with two horns…(13:11). These beasts are different, and yet they are all incarnations…of Satan, and all are determined enemies of God, Christ, and the Christians. Further, those in ch. 13 are identified with the deified emperors, and with the dead Nero, who will come back to life to slay the faithful. The beast in this chapter partakes of the character of these and for convenience may be termed the Antichrist.” (446)
· Morris: He considers “the beast” to be the same as the beast that “is prominent throughout the second part of this book.”
· Ladd: He refers to the beasts of Daniel 7 and to the Abomination of Desolation of Matthew 24:15. He also refers to the description in II Thessalonians 2. (155-156) He sums up and describes the beast: “He is primarily an eschatological figure in whom will be concentrated the centuries-long hostility to God manifested in the history of godless nations; but this hostility is also foreshadowed in Rome and its emperor as it was in Antiochus Epiphanes.” (156) The beast in chapter 11, he says, represents all the powers that persecute God’s people, but especially the Beast of the last days. (156)
· Myself: It seems certain that this is a mention of the Beast/Antichrist of chapter 13 and following. It anticipates the fuller explanations that will follow.
Degree of symbolism:
· Metzger: Summary: “What John is concerned to bring out…is that the church, whose lot is to suffer persecution..., will nevertheless continue to give faithful witness to the truth.” The safety of the Temple symbolizes the security of the church’s “true life.” (70) The death and resurrection of the witnesses are not “historical events” but symbolize the resurrection of the church, which seems at times defeated but will live. (70-71)
o Identity of witnesses: literal—Elijah and Moses
o Purpose: forerunner(s) and witness to truth
o Beast: Emperors, esp. Nero revived
o City: this world order
o Message: martyrs ultimately triumph
o Identity: symbolize the church
o Purpose: Christian witness
o City: civilized man in organized community
o Beast: somewhat a combination of symbolism and a real antichrist
o Message: He takes their resurrection as purely symbolical: “History has often seen the church oppressed to the very verge of extinction, but it has always seen it rise again…” but also believes their resurrection and ascension is the rapture of I Thessalonians 4
o Identity: not symbolic, real people
o Purpose: witness to Israel
o City: literally Jerusalem
o Beast: foreshadowed in Rome, but a real eschatological person
o Message: “The conversion of Israel is to be accomplished by a miracle of resurrection.” He states that this reminds one of the revival of Israel described in Ezekiel 37:10 (when the dry bones are resurrected). (158) He rejects those suggestions that this narrative is symbolic of the perseverance of the church under persecution or that it describes the rapture of the church. (158-159)
· Myself: There is constantly a spiritual message in Revelation that does not detract from a non-symbolic interpretation. The witnesses certainly represent all who are martyred for their testimony. The city of Jerusalem as spiritual Sodom and Egypt represents the anti-Christ civilization of all people. The beast is a symbol of all of Satan’s henchmen, especially those who gain great power and who persecute the people of God. The message of the ultimate victory of all Christian martyrs and of all Christians should not be ignored. These symbolic or spiritual interpretations do not undercut the literal anticipation of last-day events.
11:3. Their commission: The unnamed voice of 11:1b-2 continues: “I will…” This seems to be God speaking. The Greek does not have “power” (NIV) or “authority” (ESV). It just says “I will give.” Dictionary says “appoint” is a possibility for didomi. God is granting the full responsibility and powers of the office of prophet to these two. They are described as prophesying while they are dressed in sackcloth. Sackcloth is a sign of mourning. (Rist, 444) We should keep in mind that they are in mourning. This is important as we consider their powers. The 1260-day duration of their prophetic activity corresponds to 3 ½ years (with 12 30-day months). (Rist, 444-445)
11:4. Their identity as “olive trees”: First they are referred to as “two olive trees” and “two lamp stands.” These both are probably references to Zechariah 4. Zechariah saw a vision of a lamp stand with two olive trees that poured oil into the lamp stand. The vision was interpreted, first, to mean that “’not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) Second, the olive trees are said to be “the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:14) The wording in Revelation 11:4 is almost exactly the same. The literal translation of “anointed ones” in Zechariah 4:14 is “sons of the new oil.” (ESVSB) That is: the trees are the sources of the oil that flows freely into the lamp stand.
The following table sorts out the two interpretations:
Location of interpretation
Vision of two trees and lamp stand with bowl and channels to the lights
This is the word to Zerubbabel: Not by might nor by power but by might Spirit…
The two trees are the anointed who stand by the Lord of the whole earth
Thus, the total picture we get is that God will work in the rebuilding of the Temple through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some interpret the two olive trees as Zerubbabel and Jeshua—the governor and the High Priest. (NIVSB) Others interpret them as Haggai and Zechariah. (ESVSB) The latter seems more logical, because they are the prophetic conduit. They announce the word of the Lord to those who have the responsibility, i.e., Zerubbabel and Jeshua.
Now, in Revelation 11, two last-day olive trees and lamp stands are predicted. They will be a prophetic conduit announcing the word of the Lord. The word creates light, just as a lamp stand does. The fuel for the lamps is oil, which comes from the olive trees. (See also Morris, 148.) They are God’s anointed ones, or sons of the new oil. They stand before the Lord of the whole earth. Prophets—in fact all people of God—stand before the Lord. They live out their lives with a consciousness that they do so before God. Those who live carelessly, who have not spiritual sensitivity—they live out their lives oblivious to what God thinks or is doing. Rist takes a negative view of the allusion: “John…completely discards the meaning of the symbols for Zechariah. For him the…lampstands and…olive trees are the two witnesses…” (445) I do not see the reference in a negative way. I understand that John is using the reference to Zechariah’s vision to enhance the reader’s understanding of the two witnesses.
Morris draws detailed conclusions from the symbolism that is used. He notes that lampstands were the symbols of the churches in Revelation 1:12-20. From this reference, he concludes that these witnesses represent the church. The fact that there are two witnesses rather than seven, which is the number of churches in Revelation 1-3, plus the fact that the witnesses are eventually killed (11:7), leads him to believe that these witnesses represent all the martyrs of the church. (Morris, 148) I disagree with this analysis. First, the reference is obviously to Zechariah 4. In that context, the olive trees are individuals, and that fact cannot be ignored. The use of lampstands is also a reference to Zechariah 4, although only one lampstand is mentioned in Zechariah. Thus, the lampstands point to the same persons as the olive trees. The use of lampstands to symbolize churches in Revelation 1 does not seem to apply here. The statement is made that these are unique individuals who stand before the Lord (11:4). Again, this is language very similar to Zechariah 4:14: “Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’” This latter verse seems to apply to individuals, and so Revelation 11:4 also seems to apply to individuals.
Ladd’s analysis of the identities of the witnesses flows from his theory that verses 11:1-2 are evidence that the passage is focused on the nation of Israel. Thus, the role of the witnesses is to proclaim the message of Jesus to Israel and to bring about her conversion. He considers these witnesses to be symbolic of the church’s witness to Israel throughout history, but he also considers them to be two specific men who will prophesy in the last days. (Ladd, 154) The references to Zechariah 4 affirm the “divine authorization of the two witnesses and the source of their prophetic utterances.” By the “source” he means the two-fold source of the Law and the Prophets. (Ladd, 154-155) I disagree with the role that Ladd assigns to the witnesses. He is imposing a viewpoint on the entire passage (11:1-14) that does not seem warranted. Although the chapter begins by focusing on Jerusalem, eventually the whole world is involved. This we can infer from two facts. First, the Beast—who is a world dictator—becomes the archenemy of the witnesses (verse 11:7). Second, people from many nations are involved in the decision not to bury them (verse 11:9), and they—the earth-dwellers—celebrate because the witnesses are dead (verse 11:10). Thus, the prophetic ministry of the witnesses is not specified as being directed toward Israel, but the implication is that it is directed toward all peoples.
11:5-6. Their powers: These prophets have remarkable power:
- Fire can come out of their mouths and consume their enemies.
- They can prevent it from raining.
- They can turn water into blood.
- They can bring about any plague to harm the people of the earth.
Although the fire reminds many people of Elijah, it really is a somewhat different type of power. Elijah called fire down from heaven, whereas these prophets can spew fire out of their mouth. (See Ladd’s interpretation below.) Elijah did prevent it from raining for a period of years. Moses brought about a plague in which water was turned to blood. Moses also brought about nine other plagues. Thus, these two remind many of Elijah and Moses, and some have speculated that they are those exact persons. Jesus and the disciples discussed the idea that Elijah would come before the Kingdom came. (Mark 9:11ff, Matthew 11:14 and 17:11-13) The origin of the discussion of Elijah is in Malachi. In Malachi 3:1 a messenger is promised who will go before the Lord. In Malachi 4:5-6 the coming of the Day of the Lord will be preceded by the coming of Elijah. John the Baptist fulfilled the promise of this messenger by his ministry. He denied he was Elijah (John 1:21), yet Jesus said he was Elijah. Most likely, John denied that he was literally Elijah who had come back to life. Jesus confirmed the prophecy of the angel who spoke to John’s father Zechariah (Luke 1:17): “And he [the son who was being promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth] will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
The idea that these prophets have an Elijah-like ministry comes from two ideas. One is that their powers (fire and stopping the rain) are similar to those of Elijah. The other is that Elijah is connected to the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5-6). Pentecost discusses this extensively (309-313) and concludes that one or both of the two witnesses will come in the spirit and power of Elijah and not personally. This seems a reasonable understanding.
Rist gives the background that both Jews and Christians believed that three Old Testament persons were residents of heaven—Enoch, Moses, and Elijah. Malachi had prophesied concerning Elijah (4:4-6 and 3:1) that he would return before the Day of the Lord and that he would be the forerunner of the Messiah. (Rist, 445) Moreover, the “clues” from the witnesses’ powers lead many to believe they will be “Elijah and Moses returned to the earth.” (Rist, 445)
Morris ignores the allusions to the powers of Elijah and Moses. He believes that the fire from the mouths of the witnesses is figurative. “The word of the faithful witness is a consuming fire.” (148-149) On the other hand, he takes the other powers more literally, though in a roundabout way: “…the faithful performance of the church’s duty is itself one of the ways in which the judgments of God are set in motion against an evil world…” (149)
Ladd refers to Elijah’s calling down fire but believes that the reference is “more clearly to Jeremiah,” whose words were “a fire devouring a rebellious people (Jer. 5:14). Thus, he interprets the fire as figurative: they destroy their enemies “by the words they utter.” (Ladd, 155) The description of their powers suggests to him that they are Elijah and Moses. They are not the prophets returning to earth, but they will be the “embodiment” of them. (Ladd, 155)
Metzger writes that the powers of the witnesses “brings to mind Elijah (2 Kings 1:10) and Moses (Exod. 7:17, 19).” (Metzger, 70)
11:7. Their death: I believe that English translations cannot fully convey the meaning of the dependent temporal clause (“And when they have finished their testimony…”). The verb is in the subjunctive, which is “the mood of moderate contingency.” It expresses what is “objectively possible.” “It is the mood of probability.” The introductory temporal adverb is hotan, which means “whenever.” (All quotations are from Brooks and Winbery, 122.) In this case the clause is not expressing doubt, but
contingency. A paraphrase of the clause might be: “Once they have completed their testimony…” So, the Beast/Antichrist will not be able to kill them until they have finished their testimony. The “Beast” is identified immediately: he is the one who is coming up out of the Abyss. The Abyss, or “Bottomless Pit,” was introduced in Revelation 9. In that chapter, demonic locusts who are led by the “angel of the Abyss” came up out of the pit to torment people. The Beast will be described in chapters 13 and 17. Those descriptions, together with the material in II Thessalonians 2, create a picture of the person that most of us refer to as the Antichrist (from I John 2:18). He is referred to as the “Beast” in Revelation (actually the word—therion—can be translated as “animal”). Incidentally, no commentator seems to identify the Beast with Apollyon, the “angel of the Abyss,” who is the leader of the demonic locusts that come from the Abyss. In verse 11:7, the brief mention of the Beast is an anticipation of the fuller descriptions in Revelation 13 and 17. This kind of anticipation is found elsewhere in the book. See, for example, the promises to the conquerors in chapters 2 and 3.
There are three stages that lead to the death of the witness: the Beast makes war on them, he defeats them, and he kills them. Notice that they have the ability to spew fire out of their mouths and burn up anyone who attacks them (11:5). However, they have completed their testimony, so now they no longer use this defense. This may be because they no longer have that power, they no longer are allowed to use it, or they choose not to use it. As a consequence they are defeated—perhaps this means that they are overpowered. Without much detail, we are told that they are killed. One assumes that all of this is done by the Beast’s agents and not him personally.
Rist notes that the word for “martyr” and for “witness” is the same in Greek. The witnesses become martyrs, for “a demonic beast” will kill them. Rist’s understanding is that there are four different beasts in Revelation, including the beast of 11:7: ”the others are…Satan (12:3); the beast…(13:1); and the beast with two horns…(13:11). These beasts are different, and yet they are all incarnations…of Satan, and all are determined enemies of God, Christ, and the Christians. Further, those in ch. 13 are identified with the deified emperors, and with the dead Nero, who will come back to life to slay the faithful. The beast in this chapter partakes of the character of these and for convenience may be termed the Antichrist.” (Rist, 446)
Morris considers “the beast” to be the same as the beast that “is prominent throughout the second part of this book.” He concludes that the witnesses are a “mighty host” on the basis that the beast makes war with them. He comments on the victory of the beast: “When Christ’s martyrs have completed their task they are removed from the scene. The words have relevance to every persecution the church has suffered.” He quotes W. Hendricksen, who applies the idea to the church in Russia. This, of course, is a very dated commentary (I do not have an original copyright date—the reprint date is 1980), and Hendricksen wrote in 1962 (He was referring to the Soviet Union.). (Morris, 149-150)
Ladd discusses the beast, which he says was familiar to Jewish-Christian thought. He refers to the beasts of Daniel 7 and to the Abomination of Desolation of Matthew 24:15. He also refers to the description in II Thessalonians 2. (Ladd, 155-156) He sums up and describes the beast: “He is primarily an eschatological figure in whom will be concentrated the centuries-long hostility to God manifested in the history of godless nations; but this hostility is also foreshadowed in Rome and its emperor as it was in Antiochus Epiphanes.” (Ladd, 156) The beast in chapter 11, he says, represents all the powers that persecute God’s people, but especially the Beast of the last days. (156) Ladd says that one should not make too much of the mention of “war.” It is “simply conquest by whatever means, not necessarily military weapons.” (Note above that Morris interprets “war” to mean that the witnesses represent a host.) (Ladd, 157)
It seems clear that the Beast of 11:7 is the same as the first Beast that is described in chapter 13 as well as chapter 17. This is the Beast/Antichrist, a prominent figure in Revelation. The prophetic ministry of the two witnesses opposes the program of the Beast/Antichrist, so he kills the two witnesses. These events should be interpreted, I believe, with a futurist understanding: these are last-day events. At the same time, as the other interpreters have remarked, these witnesses are part of the great tradition of martyrdom among the people of God. Jesus declared a blessing on those who are persecuted for doing the right thing and for being associated with His name (Matthew 5:10-11).
11:8. Their bodies are exposed: To add to their defeat and death, the witnesses are disgraced by not being buried, but having their bodies lie in the streets of Jerusalem. This was great indignity for the ancient people of the Middle East. I am not sure what is involved, but one can assume what anyone of any day would feel. A dead body is a defeated body. It has been overcome either by violence or natural disease processes. Such a body cannot create any dignity for itself: it cannot stand erect or sit with head held high. It cannot move itself nor clothe itself nor speak for itself. It is at the utter mercy of those who have possession of it. In this case the witnesses’ enemies are in charge, and they have decided there will be no burial.
The bodies lie in the city that has the spiritual characterization of Sodom and Egypt. Sodom was known as a center of homosexual perversion and known as the place that sought to rape visitors (Genesis 19:1-11). Egypt was the oppressor of God’s people before the Exodus (Exodus 1:8-22). The city is further characterized as the place where the witnesses’ Lord was crucified. This, of course, makes certain that the identity of the city is Jerusalem. The implication is that, since their bodies end up in Jerusalem, they were killed in Jerusalem. The facts that the city was the site of the crucifixion of Jesus and will be the site of the execution of the two witnesses are evidence of the spiritual character of that city and the people it represents. To those facts probably was added the persecution of Christians in the first century. Note also that the city appears to be in league with the Beast/Antichrist. Thus, the capital of the people of God, the location of Mount Zion, the Temple, the city of David, the place where pilgrims gathered over the centuries to demonstrate their loyalty to God—this great city is now described as anti-God and anti-Christ. Yet, one must keep in mind that it also is called, in verse 11:2, the “Holy City.” It was beloved by Jesus, who wanted to gather its people as a hen gathers her chicks (Matthew 23:37). And it will someday give its name to the great city of God, the New Jerusalem.
Metzger believes the martyrdom of the two witnesses “is likened to that of Christ in Jerusalem.” (Metzger, 70) He interprets the comparison of Jerusalem to Sodom and Egypt as reference to “moral degradation” (Genesis 19:4-11) and “oppression and slavery.” (Metzger, 70) “To deny proper burial was considered a great disgrace and insult to the dead.” (Metzger, 70)
Rist comments that the city that is described in verse 11:8 “would certainly be taken to mean Rome” except for the last clause. He refers to Kiddle who believes that the “great city” is not a specific place, but rather a symbol of “the evil ‘great city’ of this world order, the earthly and temporal in contrast to the heavenly and the eternal.” This “city” is the place of Jesus’ death, of persecution, and of the death of the two witnesses. (Rist, 447)
Morris agrees with Rist’s analysis. Egypt and Sodom stand for “wickedness and oppression.” (Morris, 150) He argues that the city is not Jerusalem, but “is every city and no city. It is civilized man in organized community.” (This also is his understanding of Babylon. See Morris, 202-203.) (Morris, 150)
Ladd, however, interprets the verse more literally. He believes that the literal city of Jerusalem is being referred to. He notes that the narrative would not have any meaning in John’s day, since Jerusalem had been destroyed about 20 years before. (This assumes Revelation was written in the 90’s.) Therefore, he believes this indicates that Jerusalem will become important and a center of Beast activity in the last days. It will be “rebuilt and inhabited by Jews.” (Ladd, 157) In reflecting on the use of “Sodom” and “Egypt” to describe Jerusalem, he asserts that Jerusalem is wicked because it is where Jesus was crucified and it “has thus far rejected the witness of the two prophets sent by God to turn Israel to her Messiah.” (Ladd, 158)
I believe that the explicit designation of the city as where Christ was crucified cannot be spiritualized; Jerusalem is being designated. At the same time, the characterization of the city—not as the “holy city” but as a city that is spiritually akin to Sodom and Egypt—links Jerusalem to what is going on throughout the world. It is certainly a part of Babylon (chapters 17 and 18) and of the same nature of Rome. Jesus characterized Jerusalem of His day in a similar way: “your house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:38)
11:9. The nations gaze on their bodies: As the bodies of the witnesses lie in the main street of Jerusalem, people from many nations and ethnic groups are able to see them. They make the decision not to bury the corpses.
Metzger considers that the mention of nations and ethnic groups means that the vision is “enlarged” from Jerusalem to the entire world. Morris believes the mention of the nations and ethnic groups is evidence for his belief that a certain city was not in mind, but all of sinful humanity (see above). (Morris, 150) Ladd infers from the mention of people from all over the world that the Jews are in alliance with the Gentile nations that surround them. He comments that 3 ½ days or years is symbolic of a time of trouble and is not to be taken with strict literalness. (Ladd, 158)
I think that this verse is key to understanding the role of the witnesses and how they fit into the narrative of Revelation. People from peoples, tribes, languages, and nations look on the corpses of the witnesses. These same people make the decision not to allow them to be buried. I think this is good evidence that the prophetic role of these witnesses is to all peoples rather than to Israel. No doubt their ministry will have an effect on Israel, but their role is to call all to repentance.
11:10. The earth-dwellers gloat: The people take the death of the two witnesses as an occasion to celebrate. It is Christmas in July, so to speak. They party, send gifts, and have a good time. They are utterly relieved that these witnesses are dead. The two witnesses had tormented them. This word is used in cases of “torture,” extreme pain, and torment—such as a woman in childbirth or demons suffering in hell. We can infer that the suffering that the witnesses inflicted came in two ways. First, their powers—to burn people up, to bring about drought, and to inflict plagues—would certainly cause torment. Second, they were “prophets” and “witnesses” who spoke the word of God to the people. No doubt this brought about feelings of guilt and defensiveness that tortured them.
The people who were tormented were the “earth dwellers.” This expression (it can also be translated: “those who dwell on the earth”) is found in Revelation 3:10, 6:10, 8:13, 13:8, 13:12, 13:14, 17:2, and 17:8. It is more than a description of where these people lived. It is a characterization of their spiritual condition. For example the earth-dwellers worship the Beast/Antichrist (13:8, 12). They are deceived by the False Prophet (13:14). They are intoxicated with the wine of the adulteries of Babylon (17:2). They are astonished at the Beast/Antichrist (17:8). Very likely the following characterization—which Paul wrote to describe the people who will be deceived by the Man of Lawlessness—applies to the earth-dwellers:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (II Thessalonians 2:9-12)
Metzger considers that the torment that the people suffered was the vexing of their consciences when the prophets called people to repentance. (Metzger, 70) Rist agrees with this analysis. (Rist, 448-449) Ladd (along with other commentators) remarks that “those who dwell on the earth” is an “idiom” for the pagan world. He infers that the witnesses not only call Jews to repentance but also rebuke the Gentiles and this leads to celebration of their death. (158)
Ladd consistently imposes his view that the major mission of the witnesses is to call Israel to repentance and conversion. He recognizes that verses 11:9-10 imply that the witnesses’ ministry has had an impact on many other nations besides Israel, but he seems to downplay that role. It seems to me that there is an almost total absence of support for his thesis about the role of the witnesses. He bases his thesis solely on the mention of the Temple in verse 11:1. It strikes me that the information in verse 11:2 should be more “controlling” in understanding the context of the witnesses’ mission. The “nations” or Gentiles will trample the holy city for 42 months. That time period is also the time period of the ministry of the two witnesses. Thus, it seems that the witnesses will be sent to rebuke the trampling Gentiles. For this reason, they rejoice when the Beast—their hero—kills the witnesses. In all of this, Israel is hardly in view.
11:11. The resurrection of the witnesses: The time frame for the bodies to lie in the street is 3 ½ days. This was already given in verse 9. This kind of anticipation is typical for the style of Revelation. The period is slightly longer than Jesus’ wait for resurrection. Perhaps, this is to defer to Jesus as the First Fruit of the Resurrection. The witnesses are resurrected when the “breath of life from God” enters them. In Genesis 2:7, God formed man from dust and breathed into him the “breath of life.” The Holy Spirit is called the “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” in Romans 8:11. Keep in mind that the word for “spirit” and “breath” are the same in Greek. So, it is not incorrect to think of the Holy Spirit as being the agent of the resurrection. The witnesses demonstrate their resurrection by standing up. And that really scares people. A moment before, these people were having a party because their tormentors were dead. Now, they are standing on their feet.
Morris notes that in verse 11:11, the tense is past tense, because John believes the events are so certain that he can refer to them as already completed. He takes their resurrection as purely symbolical: “History has often seen the church oppressed to the very verge of extinction, but it has always seen it rise again…” (However, he understands their ascension literally—see below.) (Morris, 151) Ladd, however, asserts that this description of the resurrection of the witnesses is intended as a literal statement. He further states: “The conversion of Israel is to be accomplished by a miracle of resurrection.” He states that this reminds one of the revival of Israel described in Ezekiel 37:10 (when the dry bones are resurrected). (158) He rejects those suggestions that this narrative is symbolic of the perseverance of the church under persecution or that it describes the rapture of the church. (158-159)
In most of the visions that are described in Revelation, one can see possibilities for symbolic interpretations. Nevertheless, within the context of the book, these visions are understood to be descriptions of future events. Thus, the witnesses will literally be resurrected. The issue of whether this is a description of the rapture of the church is not so easily dismissed. Those holding to the Mid-Tribulation Rapture theory believe that the experience of the witnesses, including their ascension, represents the experience of Christians in the church as it is described in I Thessalonians 4:13-18. (Pentecost, 186) They believe the rapture will take place in the middle of the seven-year period that is generally called the Tribulation period. I believe the entire narrative of the two witnesses consistently depicts two individuals and not the church. Moreover, I think there is good evidence that a chronology of Revelation would put the events of 11:3-14 close to, but not quite concurrent with the Second Coming of Christ. I believe that the description of the seventh trumpet is a brief statement of the Second Coming (11:15-19). Thus, it appears that the two witnesses are killed shortly before the end of the seven-year Tribulation and not in the middle of that period. I believe that the Rapture will not occur until the Second Coming. Therefore, the witnesses are killed—and resurrected—shortly before the Second Coming and the Rapture. This chronology for Revelation is taken largely from Pentecost (Pentecost, 187-188).
11:12. Their ascension: A loud voice speaks and tells them to come up to heaven. There is some ambiguity as well as some textual divide on this sentence. It could be “they heard” or it could be “I heard.” The latter would mean that John heard the voice. This does not track with the narrative, since the focus has been on the scene and not John’s role. However, such a consideration does not decide the matter, since John jumps in and out of the narrative throughout the book. If “they heard” is the correct reading, then the question is: does “they” refer to the spectators or to the witnesses? That cannot be answered for certain. None of this is particularly important. The important thing is that they go to heaven in a cloud. There is the ironic notation: their enemies see this happen. Their death is not permanent, and their defeat is temporary. The fear of all who see this is, no doubt, intensified.
Metzger understands the death and resurrection of the witnesses not to be “historical events” but symbolize the resurrection of the church, which seems at times defeated but will live. (Metzger, 70-71) Rist considers that the resurrection and ascension of the witnesses is a “great triumph.” Their victory is a “sure pledge” that Christians who suffer and die for their testimony will also triumph. (449) Rist takes the fact that Elijah and Moses (which he considers to be the identity of the witnesses) are not mentioned again as evidence that “John has inserted an apocalyptic tradition which he has not thoroughly integrated and harmonized with what is to follow. (Rist, 448-449) I do not see why there is any necessity to mention the two witnesses again. They recede into the background much as John the Baptist did.
Morris goes in two directions in interpreting the ascension. First, he asserts that it will be literally fulfilled “in the rapture Paul describes (I Thess. iv. 17).” But he also asserts that the ascension of the witnesses can be interpreted symbolically: the honor that eventually is paid to those who are martyred for their testimony—this is a kind of rapture. (Morris, 151) Ladd notes that the wording of their ascension is almost the same as John’s entrance into heaven in 4:1, but that the events are different. John “was caught up in spirit, in ecstasy,” but the witnesses will go bodily into heaven. (Ladd, 159)
The resurrection and ascension of the two witnesses is a complete victory over their enemies. First, they are brought back to life, and this action reverses their murder. Then, they ascend into heaven, just as Jesus did. Their dead bodies have been left in the street to be mocked and partied over. But now their living bodies are carried with triumph into heaven. The consequence is that “great fear fell” on those who witnessed these events. This is powerful proof of the validity of their ministry and the validity of who they are. But more than that, it is proof of the reality of the living God.
11:13. An earthquake: The story of the two witnesses ends with an earthquake. The location of the earthquake is “the city.” Since the bodies of the two witnesses are in Jerusalem, their resurrection would also be there. So, we have no reason to believe that the location has changed and assume that the earthquake strikes Jerusalem. A tenth of the city falls. I take this to mean that a sector of the city, amounting to one-tenth of its area, is destroyed by the earthquake. Most translations say that “seven thousand people” or “men” are killed. However, the Greek has an odd expression: “seven thousand names of men were killed by the earthquake.” This probably was just an idiomatic expression, but it does highlight the idea that death has a way of wiping one’s name off of wherever it might be recorded in the lists of the living. The “rest were terrified…” The “rest” would be those left in the city. Although there is a world-wide perspective in this passage, there is also a local perspective. The Beast/Antichrist is an international figure, and he makes it his business to make war on the witnesses. When their bodies lie exposed, people from various nations and ethnic groups rejoice over their deaths. Yet they lie in the street of a specific city, and it is struck by an earthquake. Those of that specific city now are in awestruck terror. Their response is to give the glory to God. The context implies that this praise is a grudging praise (see various commentators below for various opinions). Very likely it is the testimony of these two that has set the stage for the praise of God. In other words, they have testified to the true God and his rightful claim on people. When they are resurrected from the dead and translated to heaven, their testimony is verified and the people of Jerusalem are now willing to give God the glory.
Metzger notes that, after the earthquake, the survivors are “shocked out of their lethargy…and give glory to the God of heaven…How often the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church! (Tertullian).” (Metzger, 70)
Rist states that the devastation by the earthquake is “but a token of the total annihilation which is to occur.” He does not explain what he has in mind in this context. (Rist, 449) He does not consider the fact that the survivors gave glory to God is evidence of their repentance. (See other interpretations below.) The apologists of the second and third centuries hoped for a change of attitude among the heathen authorities, but “John was convinced that no such transformation would occur; consequently Rome must and will be destroyed.” (Rist, 449) He considers that John wrote the “little book” (10:2, 8-11) and that its contents are probably the narrative of the two witnesses (11:1-13). (Rist, 449)
Morris points out that the report of the devastation of the earthquake is, for him, not consistent with the rest of the book, for two reasons. First, the proportion of the city destroyed is one-tenth, rather than the usual one-fourth or one-third. Second, the number of deaths is given as a number rather than a fraction (7,000). He refers to Martin Kiddle, who believes that 7,000 represents one-tenth of 70,000, which is a perfect number (7 X 10 to the fourth) and represents the whole human race. (Morris, 151-152) He takes the giving of glory to God at face value: “even sinful men could not forbear from ascribing glory to Him.” But he does not equate this with conversion. (Morris, 152)
Ladd notes that an earthquake is one of the “convulsive events that presage the end.” (Ladd, 159) The 7,000 deaths is a “limited catastrophe.” He estimates the city to have a population of about 100,000, and thus about 10% are killed. (I do not know where he comes up with the 100,000.) He asserts that the “rest” refers to the rest of the Jews of Jerusalem. He infers that their giving glory to God is a “symbolic way of describing the final conversion of the Jewish people as a whole.” He rejects that the “rest” could refer to the Gentiles, who are always depicted as unrepentant in Revelation. He says that the giving glory to God “suggest repentance, not merely remorse.” (159) He rejects the suggestion that they gave glory out of fear and terror but did not repent. He cites the following uses of the phrase (“give glory to God”):
- Joshua 7:19 Achan is told to give glory to God and confess his sin.
- Isaiah 42:12 In the first “servant song”: nations are called to give glory to God
- Jeremiah 13:16 a call to repent under threat of captivity
- I Peter 2:12 a call to live lives that will cause “Gentiles” to give glory to God—implying their repentance
- Revelation 14:7 The angel with the eternal gospel calls people to fear God and give him the glory
- Revelation 15:4 In a praise to God the question is asked: who will not fear and give God the glory and worship Him
- Revelation 16:9 People did not “repent and give Him glory”
- Revelation 19:7 a multitude rejoices as the marriage of the Lamb comes and calls all to rejoice and give God the glory
- Revelation 21:24 kings will come to the city and bring their glory into it
I have highlighted those references that are doubtful in support (one might say borderline support) of the thesis.
I think that one cannot draw strong conclusions from the brief statement that after the earthquake people give God the glory. It could imply conversion, but it could be a grudging acknowledgment of God’s power. I think that the giving of glory to God does not represent a wholesale conversion of Israel. First of all, though the location is probably Jerusalem, the people who are described as giving glory to God are not necessarily limited to Hebrew people, since many ethnic groups are involved in these events, as verses 11:9-10 indicate. Second, the conversion of “all Israel” is predicted in Romans 11:26, Zechariah 12:10-13:1, and Jeremiah 31:33. This conversion seems to be very close to or simultaneous with the Second Coming (Zechariah 12:10). These events—the death, resurrection, and ascension of the two witnesses and the earthquake that follows—do not seem to correspond to the Second Coming. It may be that the career and ultimate victory of the two witnesses will have a powerful effect on the Hebrew people who observe those events and play an important role in Israel’s ultimate conversion.
Metzger’s summary of the narrative of the two witnesses: “What John is concerned to bring out…is that the church, whose lot is to suffer persecution..., will nevertheless continue to give faithful witness to the truth.” The safety of the Temple symbolizes the security of the church’s “true life.” (70) The death and resurrection of the witnesses are not “historical events” but symbolize the resurrection of the church, which seems at times defeated but will live. (Metzger, 70-71) Metzger’s assessment comes from a presupposition that Revelation is not predicting literal events, but is using the “apocalyptic” to give a message to the first century church. Certainly, we should recognize the “spiritual” or symbolic message of this narrative. God is more powerful than our enemies. Our faithful witness in the face of opposition will be honored by God. There is a final victory for the Christian. However, the book is not written as a parable, metaphor, or other literary device. It proclaims that the events that it describes will “soon take place.” (1:1 and 22:6) So, I believe that one should interpret this book from a futurist perspective with due regard for the spiritual messages that it gives us.
11:4. Enumeration of the woes: One more piece of information completes the narrative: This completes the second woe, and the third woe is coming. In 8:13, an angel announces that the final three of the trumpets are “woes.” The events of the fifth trumpet are described in 9:1-12. Those events constitute the first woe. Rist believes that the earthquake is the second woe of 8:13 and that the third woe will be described in 11:19. The commentaries do not further elaborate on verse 11:14.
Contrary to Rist, I believe all of the events following the sixth trumpet make up the second woe. The sixth trumpet sounds in 9:13. The events associated with that trumpet are given, for the most part, in 9:13-21. The narrative of 10:1 through 11:13 is generally classified by an “interlude.” However, the announcement of 10:14 brings us back to the framework of the “woes” and seems to include in the second woe all that has been described after the blowing of the sixth trumpet. That is not of great consequence. One can think of the events of 9:13-21 as the major events of the sixth trumpet—and the second woe. The narrative of 10:1-11:13 functions as an interlude but, structurally, is also part of the second woe. This brings us “up to date” and prepares us for the seventh trumpet and the third woe.
CONCLUSION: The narrative of the two witnesses follows the command to measure the Temple and its worshipers and the information that Jerusalem would be trampled by the Gentiles (or “nations”) for 3 ½ years. These witnesses have a powerful prophetic ministry to all peoples that pricks their consciences so that they hate the witnesses. Finally, after they have completed their ministry, they are killed by the Beast/Antichrist in Jerusalem and their bodies are allowed to lie exposed in the street. The earth-dwellers, who are determined enemies of Christ and the people of God, rejoice over the sight of their dead bodies, because the prophetic ministry of the witnesses has tormented them. Suddenly, God’s Spirit revives them and they stand to their feet and then are translated to heaven in a cloud. This greatly frightens those who see it happen. Then, an earthquake kills 7,000 people in Jerusalem. In their fear, the survivors give glory to God. This may be a grudging admission of God’s power, or it may be an expression of genuine repentance and conversion. It does not appear to be wholesale conversion of the nation of Israel that is predicted in Romans 11:26. This narrative completes the second of the three woes that are predicted in 8:13. We are now prepared for the seventh trumpet and the third woe.
Brooks, James A. and Carlton L. Winbery. Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1979.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code. Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 20.
R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ. House, 1958.
Rist, Martin. “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII.
Nolan B. Harmon, Ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 2002
Post a Comment