Searching for the two witnesses
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will." (Rev. 11:3-6)
Who are the witnesses? Are they real people or might they be people used as symbols? After praying for the guidance of the Spirit, we turn to the Scriptures. Just reading this part of the text, what comes to your mind? You can look at the rest of the description in your Bible. Various Bible characters have been pointed to as the witnesses. Bible scholars generally identify the them as either the church or the Scriptures with the majority seeing them as the church. This commentary does not take that position.
for clues and checking ideas
We notice that the witnesses had "power to shut heaven, that it rain not. . . ." and "power over waters to turn them to blood." Do these abilities draw your attention to any Bible characters? How about Elijah (1 Kings 17:1) and Moses (Ex. 7:17)? Ah, good support for our hypothesis! If we have correctly identified the witnesses, the rest of the information in our passage will fit. Let's look. First we notice from Revelation that both witnesses had power to shut off the rain and both had the power to send the plagues. Not quite like Moses and Elijah. Hmmm? What's more, our verse shows a third identification clue that applies to both witnesses. Who was it who caused fire to devour his enemies? First the sentence from Revelation, then the passage it is drawn from:
"For the house of Israel and the house of Judah have dealt very treacherously against me, saith the Lord. They have belied [lied about] the Lord, and said, It is not he [or "he is (exists) not."]; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine: And the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them: thus shall it be done unto them. Wherefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Because ye [Jeremiah] speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them. (Jer. 5:11-14)
The prophesying of the witnesses was then as the voice of Jeremiah communicating the words of the Lord by which their enemies would be judged and finally destroyed by fire. The witnesses themselves then are the word of God. Now we do have a problem with our hypothesis. We have three clues which relate to three different individuals. Revelation doesn't say there are three witnesses, so the witnesses must not represent people at all, but the word of God. Now we must go back to the other clues to see if we still have a good fit. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron struck the water and it turned to blood (Ex. 7:20) but back in verse 17 God instructed Moses to say the following to the king:
"Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood." (Ex. 7:17)
God's voice to
So in acting through Moses and Aaron God was speaking to Pharaoh who had denied His existence (Ex. 5:2). The action on the water was His message — His word — which caused the plague. The situation with shutting up heaven is parallel. Elijah declared, by Jehovah's authority, that the rain would stop. In 1 Kings 17:1 we see only Elijah's word, but God Himself was acting through His prophet to communicate His displeasure for turning to other Gods (Deut. 11:16-18; compare 31:26). The vehicle of God's communication to us are the Scriptures which are his witnesses.
Prophecy from sackcloth
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy . . .  days, clothed in sackcloth." (Rev. 11:3)
I hadn't noticed before that the witnesses prophesy. At the end of chapter
10, John, in the role of those who had been disappointed, was told he would
prophesy again 1011a
although not during the 1260 days. We may conclude here that the witnesses,
too, speak on divine authority. Hold on to this idea. It supports the identity
we will discover for them.
The sackcloth of mourning characterizes the time when millions died as heretics for holding beliefs different from the state church 1102b3. Many of these were other Christians. Sharing the gospel as it is in the Scriptures was then a covert activity. The Greek word for witnesses also means martyrs. Although I believe the translators have chosen the better word, the connection helps fill out the picture. Compare da1009.
Lamps and olive trees
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. And if any man will hurt them. . . ." (Rev. 11:3-5)
"Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Knowest thou not what these [lampstand and olive trees] be? And I said, No, my lord. Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it. . . . Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof? And I answered again, and said unto him, What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves? And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord. Then said he, These are the two anointed ones [literally, 'sons of fresh oil'], that stand by the Lord of the whole earth." (Zech. 4:5, 6, 11-14)
Lamps and oil
Joshua the priest (not Moses' successor) and Zerubbabel the civil leader were facing obstacles. God sent courage in this vision. They saw that, in the sanctuary in heaven, the oil would flow from tree to branch through the pipes to the reservoir for the lamp providing energy for light. Success would not be by the power of these men but by the oil flowing as God's Holy Spirit. The temple would be built! Can you think of another verse about a lamp or light and God's word? "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Ps. 119:105)
We are getting somewhere now.
The "light" that guides our feet is the Word of God. Or we can say that
it is the "lamp" from which the word shines. This is like the candle that
supports the flame. The oil of the Holy Spirit flows from the source to
the prophets who communicate it through the inspired word.
Now that we have the trees and the lamp, how do Moses and Elijah or their experiences fit in? According to the passage, the two anointed ones are the branches. Moses and Elijah were taken to heaven (Deut. 34:6; Jude 9; 2 Kings 2:11). There they stand "before the God of the earth" as trophies of salvation through Christ. Their testimony in the Scriptures burns with divine light as oil of the Holy Spirit flows to the candles. Let's read our passage in Revelation again:
I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand
two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two
olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and
devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this
manner be killed. These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in
the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to
blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will"
Witnesses are the word
We confirm that the two witnesses are the Word of God, received from Him through the branches and communicated to the people through the candlesticks. In thinking of Scripture as witness notice a couple of passages:
"[Ye] Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. (John 5:39, Notice the word, "testify." This is what witnesses do.) "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come." (Matt. 24:14. The gospel preached through the Scriptures as a witness). When Jesus explained that the Scriptures testify about Him, He was speaking about the Old Testament. The gospel preaching focuses on the New Testament. Thus it is logical that the Bible is represented by two witnesses.
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy. . . ." (Rev. 11:3)
Who is speaking? Looking
at the context we see it to be the one who commanded John to measure the
temple in verse 1. Earlier we saw him as Christ, the mighty angel 1001.
Taking another approach, Who would empower his witnesses? Christ said,
"All power/authority has been given to me. So go and make disciples among
all people groups . . . teaching them to be faithful to all I have commanded
you. . . ." (Matt. 28:18, 19, my paraphrase). These words are not addressed
to the Bible but to us. As instruments for His glory, He empowers the Scriptures
through our witnesses.
The OT (Old Testament) Scriptures testify of Christ (John 5:39) and the gospel of the NT is also His witness (Matt. 24:14). So again we see the OT and the NT as witnesses of Christ in Revelation 11.
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses [Old and New Testaments], and they shall prophesy [admonish the people]. . . ." (Rev. 11:3)
I present this reasoning
to strengthen the conclusion we reached from other considerations. And
I praise God for His marvelous word which presents Christ to us.
The Scriptures speak with a unified voice. Why then are there two witnesses instead of one? You might recall our discussion of Revelation 1. Here is verse 9: "I John . . . was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ."
We saw in this verse two channels of communication for truth: the established word (what we now call the Old Testament) and the contemporary testimony (the collection of writings being formed including John's last book which we are studying, here specifically testimony of Jesus). John mentions them also in the first two verses of the chapter where he describes a flow of communication similar to the one described in symbols in Zechariah. Isaiah recognized the same two channels. Notice:
"To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." (Isa. 8:20.)
The "law" was Isaiah's term
for the writings of Moses, the established word in his time. The "testimony"
would have been the contemporary writings like his own. The term "the law
and the prophets" (John 1:45) is a similar expression. "Law" and "testimony"
here correspond to the work of Moses and Elijah. See more on Moses and
Elijah below 1106. In the time of John, all of what
we know as the Old Testament was the established word. The New Testament
was in process of formation. The distinction between law and testimony,
between law and prophets, between OT and NT, is significant. You recall
the reaction of the Bereans to Paul's writing. They did not say "Oh, Paul
is writing the Bible. It must be true." Notice what Paul tells us about
them. How the witnesses help us.
"These [Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." (Acts 17:11). For the Bereans, the established witness was the Old Testament. They found Paul's writings to be inspired and it became their contemporary witness.
They did not have the perspective
of time which we do to accept the writings of Paul as inspired. To them
the "scriptures" were our Old Testament. Before accepting what Paul said,
they compared it to the established word to verify the divine signature.
Today we accept both the Old Testament and the New as established. God
has always revealed truth through two channels. Thus there were two witnesses.
If you want to look back at the two verses I quoted to show that the Scriptures
are witnesses (John 5:39; Matt. 24:14), you
will see that the first is about the Old Testament, and the second, essentially
about the New. And one more thing you might have noticed. John compared
the witnesses to two candlesticks. Zechariah saw only one. Perhaps the
additional one in Revelation is to emphasize the two parts of the inspired
word and the change from Zechariah's time in what was contemporary testimony.
And one more thought about Moses and Elijah: I believe God took them to heaven as a promise — a faith builder.
Another reason for the number of witnesses being two is seen in the following: "But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." (Matt. 18:16)
We can see that Christ will raise the
righteous dead as He did Moses, and will change and translate the righteous
living as He did Elijah. In either case, He has a plan. If our lives are
committed to Him, we may have hope and joy.
Killed for hurting the witnesses
"And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. . . . And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. These have power to shut heaven. . . ." (Rev. 11:3-6)
Use of deadly
If these witnesses are righteous people how is it that they would be killing others who disagree with them? If we say that killing a fetus is wrong, certainly killing living people would be wrong, too. This confirms our idea that the witnesses are not people — that "people" is only a symbol which help us understand them.
The witnesses testify against anyone who denies their testimony. As the Scriptures, the word of God comes out of their mouths and condemns them to death. Notice how consuming fire was to come from the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, when he would act a witness for the Lord:
"For the house of Israel and the house of Judah have dealt very treacherously against me, saith the LORD. They have belied the LORD, and said, It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine: And the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them: thus shall it be done unto them. Wherefore thus saith the LORD God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them." (Jer. 5:11-14)
"Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." (Rev. 2:16).
"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. . . . And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." (Rev. 19:11, 15).
Power to shut heaven and turn water to blood
"These [witnesses] have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will."
"But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow." (Luke 4: 25, 26)
How long was heaven
Did you notice that it was for 3½ years? The idea that heaven was shut by the witnesses certainly draws our attention to the Old Testament story of Elijah — or "Elias" as it was pronounced in the time Luke wrote the verses just quoted. The Holy Spirit in directing John to write about the witnesses certainly was making a connection.
Luke didn't say what it meant that heaven was shut. Let's see what Moses told his people in the book of Deuteronomy. "Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; And then the LORD'S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you." (Deut. 11:16, 17).
Luke reminded us that this actually happened. "And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan." (1 Kings 17:1-3). Can you imagine? Elijah went to the wicked king of Israel to give this message. Then the Lord told him to run quickly and hide. You can read the rest of the story in your Bible. After 3½ years rain came again (1 Kings 18).
Why the curse? What did Moses say would cause God to withhold the rain? If the people would choose spiritual drought, God would help them understand by sending physical drought. And the early and latter rains for the grain harvest represent the early and latter outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The first time was at Pentecost. It will happen again in the time of the loud cry of Revelation 18. 1801.
So what do we understand from our present verse about the witnesses? It was a time of the rejection of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the tool He uses to point us to Christ, and the tool had been rejected.
Elijah and Moses
Do you see the Bible (witnesses) in the story of Elijah. I underlined a phrase above to draw attention. God speaks through the Bible. It is thus His word. Did Elijah himself say anything at the time the sky was opened or shut? Yes, but it was God's word through him that was being fulfilled, and it was God's word in the case of Moses. Thus the witness isn't Elijah here but the word of God which we see as the Bible.
And for Moses: "Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood." (Ex. 7:17) The witness was God's word through Moses, too.
The Bible is precious as it reveals Christ who transforms our lives into the divine image.