Who on earth are the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11, and how are we supposed to interpret this passage of Scripture? If you’ve come with questions, then today I’ve got answers. Let’s begin with a text. Revelation 11:3-6 says the following:
“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. 6 These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire. [NASB]
As is the case with pretty much everything in John’s Revelation, there is nothing new here, only old things—that is, Old Testament things—in new clothes, and the Two Witnesses are no different. The following seven statements will help us to identify these figures. They will also lead us to some surprising insights into the thought world of the Bible.
1. The Two Witnesses are Moses and Elijah.
Look at the text. It is Elijah who calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18). It is Elijah who shut the sky so that it would not rain. It is Moses who struck the Nile and turned it to blood. It was Moses who struck the land of Egypt with plagues. If the Scriptures are any use in identifying these two figures, then the scriptures clearly point to them being Moses and Elijah.
2. The same Two Witnesses show up in the Transfiguration.
If you are thinking, “But Moses and Elijah have already died—they won’t show up again” then you need to revisit the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17. There, Moses and Elijah show up for a pow-wow with Jesus, after which there is a cloud and a voice from heaven. Note well that in the ascension of the two witnesses in Rev 11:12 there is also a cloud and a voice from heaven. John seems to have the story of the transfiguration in mind when he talks about the two witnesses. Maybe it’s because he was there.
3. The Two Witnesses stand for the Law and the Prophets.
Why those two people? And why do they show up to talk with Jesus? It’s simple—Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. Now, in 1st-Century-Jewish-Speak “The Law and the Prophets” is shorthand for the Bible. Not parts of the Bible, but the whole Bible as they then had it (cf. Matthew 7:12, 22:40, Luke 16:16, and others). Moses was considered responsible for the five books of the Torah (the Law), and Elijah had become a typological prophetic figure (see John the Baptist’s imitation of Elijah as a further reference point). Together they summarize all of God’s testimony. This, then, is why they are on the mount of Transfiguration: they are authorizing Jesus. Furthermore, they disappear and Jesus remains because Jesus is the fulfillment and summary of all that is within the Law and the Prophets.
4. The two witnesses are ‘olive trees’ because they provide oil which lights the lamps of the Church.
This may sound about as obscure as it gets, but in Zechariah 4 the prophet sees a vision of two olive trees and two lamps. The olive trees provide constant and perpetual oil to the lamps in order to keep them lit. John has taken Zechariah’s image and applied it here. Therefore, if the Two Witnesses are the olive trees and the seven churches are the lamps then John’s point is pretty clear: it is the Law and the Prophets which provide the fuel on which the church’s light shines. If you’re not in the Scriptures, in other words, you’re light is on its way out.
5. The Two Witnesses are summarized in Jesus.
From the transfiguration we have already seen that Moses and Elijah fade while Jesus remains. He becomes, and remains, the summary of all God’s will in all of history. (See also the Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll of history in Revelation 5.)
But there is other evidence as well. When the witnesses are killed John says something a little odd in verse 8, “And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Now clearly with the death, resurrection, and ascension of these Witnesses we have Jesus in view here. But John makes it a little more explicit when he points out that they’ve been killed in Sodom/Egypt/Jerusalem.
Any maybe just to make this more explicit, it is worth stating that everything God has done in history is summarized in Jesus. He is the foil, or the solution, to the mystery of history. And therefore John feels free to tell both stories at once—the story of God’s Two Witnesses as Jesus, and the story of Jesus as God’s Two Witnesses.
6a. The Two Witnesses perform a Deuteronomic function—i.e., they stand in judgment.
Here, now, is where things start to get really interesting. We read in Deuteronomy 17:6, “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” The Two Witnesses, in other words, are fulfilling the Deuteronomic requirement before passing a death sentence against the earth. These two—Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the Scriptures—are the witnesses which confirm the sentence of death against the world.
6b. Compare with Matthew 18.
Here it is relevant to pause and consider one of the places where Jesus quotes this Deuteronomy passage: Matthew 18. There, in the context of church discipline, Jesus says, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” “Two or three” is the number of witnesses required to pass sentence—therefore this is not a passage about forming a quorum for church, but about executing proper excommunications. (Note that Paul uses the same language in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 when he talks about expelling the immoral brother.)
6c. Compare with Jesus sending out his disciples two by two.
But one more comparison is also rather stunning. When Jesus sends out his disciples two by two (see Mark 6:7-13) he commands them to perform two functions—one is to witness to the Kingdom, the other is to pronounce curses against those who reject the testimony. Matthew even says (10:15) that it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those cities in the Day of Judgment. Implication? The sending of pairs had a judicial function as much as anything else. Pairs of disciples served as the two witnesses necessary to condemn a place that has rejected the gospel. (I wonder how that might change our training of seminarians!)
7. The story of the two witnesses is the story of God’s work throughout history.
This final point is drawn from the Revelation passage more broadly. In chapter 10 John is commanded to eat a scroll that tastes good in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach. This bittersweet scroll is the word of God’s truth through history—sweet in the mouth because God’s judgments are coming true, bitter in the stomach because of the pain and death which those judgments mean for the world. (In other words, while we take pleasure in God’s vengeance, we must never take too much pleasure.)
That scroll, unrolled if you will, is the story of God’s Two Witnesses in history. They have testified since the dawn of time about God’s character and ways (see Romans 1). The people of the earth have rejected God’s ways (see Psalm 2). The people of the earth in rebellion have murdered God’s prophets—particularly, God’s special prophet, Jesus. But God’s witness, and God’s prophet, cannot be destroyed, and God’s breath (see Ezekiel 37) comes back to reanimate his messengers. The result of this (see also Ezekiel 38) is the final judgment of the earth and the enemies of God.
So, how do we summarize all of this? God’s Law and Prophets stand as Two Witnesses who pass judgment against the world. The world has rejected and still rejects God, but God’s ways will still be victorious in the end.
What does this mean for the Church? Well, it means a lot of stuff. It means that we are light for the world when we burn the oil of the Law and the Prophets—that is, when we are a Scriptural people. It means that we know the content of our witness—and its authority—is derived from our Scriptures and not ourselves. We know that if we testify faithfully we will make enemies of the world (i.e., that ‘successful’ witness is liable to get us killed). We know that, after the pattern of the Law, the Prophets, and our Lord, to speak the words of the gospel is to announce something that is both a curse and a blessing (a blessing for those who believe, a curse for those who disbelieve). We know that whether or not we are killed God will raise us from the dead with Christ, and so we have nothing to fear. And we know that, whatever transpires, God wins in the end. The word we preach comes true.
And here the bending of John’s vision takes one last turn—not only are the Witnesses the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, and the Lord Jesus Christ, but they are also you and me when we testify faithfully both to the believing and against the world. Revelation 11 isn’t so much a description of the future as it is a job description in the present. And that is something on which we had all best meditate seriously.
(Bonus Point! Revelation 5-11 is also about the Law and the Prophets.)
Seven seals and seven trumpets! Trumpets are a recurring image of proclamation and summons throughout the Bible. Here they are tied here to God’s work in the prophets—that is, of God speaking through judgment to warn the world. The seals point to the law because they both bind God’s people (i.e., the 144,000) and seal the world in judgment.