Many Christians through the ages have wondered who the "two witnesses" of Revelation 11 happen to be. The two witnesses are among the most dramatic characters of Scripture. They prophesy before the world for three and a half years (1,260 days) (11:3). During this time, they can strike the earth with whatever plague they desire, and cannot be harmed by their enemies (11:5-6). Ultimately, they are killed by the beast (11:7) but they rise to life in three and a half days (11:11). How are we to understand the two witnesses and the unusual happenings surrounding their lives?
Are they two actual people who prophesy before Jesus’ return? Do they symbolize the church in an aspect of its gospel preaching? Commentators have found Revelation 11 quite difficult to interpret and have identified the two witnesses in more than a dozen ways. Let’s see what the book of Revelation tells us.
John does not name or specifically identify the two witnesses. However, some indicators point the way towards at least their symbolic identification. Revelation describes the two witnesses as two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the Lord (11:4). Not surprisingly, an Old Testament passage contains these images. Zechariah saw a vision of a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at its top containing seven lights. By the bowls, one on each side, were the two olive trees (4:2-3).
Zechariah asked the angel for the identity of the two olive trees. The angel’s answer was: "These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth" (4:14). That is, they are witnesses or prophets of God.
The subject of Zechariah’s book was a call to God’s people to repent (Zechariah 1:3). As did their ancient predecessors, the two witnesses wear rough sackcloth, a badge of the office of a prophet who calls people to repentance. In ancient times, sackcloth was the garment depicting mourning and contrition (Jeremiah 4:8; Matthew 11:21).
In Zechariah, the two olive trees stand beside the lampstand that has seven lights. Revelation uses a lampstand as a symbol of the church (1:20). Perhaps John was trying to tell his readers that the two witnesses were to be identified with the church, perhaps as its representatives or leaders. Through them the divine light of God reflected by the churches is made evident to the world (Matthew 5:15-16).
Moses and Elijah as models
It’s also possible that the two witnesses are symbolically modeled after Moses and Elijah. They "have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain" (11:6). This power was associated with Elijah, whose prayer caused a terrible drought in Israel (1 Kings 17:1).
Elijah’s deed was proverbial among Jews in the first century. James mentioned the drought as an example of the power of a righteous person’s prayer (James 5:17). He said that Elijah’s prayer caused a drought of exactly three and a half years — the time referred to in Revelation in various forms. Luke also referred to the famine in Elijah’s time, and said it had a length of three and a half years (4:25). Interestingly, in 1 Kings the time of the drought is said to be "the next few years" (17:1) or about three years (18:1).
As did Moses, the two witnesses "have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague" (11:6 with Exodus 7:14-21). This recalls Moses’ role as God’s agent, who through ten plagues — including turning the Nile and the waters of Egypt into blood — brought down the most powerful kingdom of the day.
Also, like Elijah, the two witnesses can consume their enemies with fire, if they try to hurt them (11:5 with 2 Kings 1:10). This fire is said to "come from their mouths" (11:5). Such a literal occurrence would be an odd sight, indeed!
It seems clear, then, that the two witnesses are portrayed as coming in the power of both Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest prophets of the Jewish nation. The writer appears to be creating a symbolic universe for his readers in which he is making a connection between God's acts in Jewish history and through the church.
Literal or symbolic?
Perhaps there is a literal aspect to the fire from heaven or other elements, but we cannot neglect their metaphorical meaning. Fire coming from the mouth is a symbol used for powerful preaching. The image was used of Jeremiah’s witnessing: "I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes" (5:14).
However, Jeremiah did not do any miraculous works. He was a prophet who spoke God’s word. That was the only "fire" that came out of his mouth. He "tormented" Judah with his spiritually sharp words, which his hearers could not bear.
We must be careful, then, how we interpret the images of Revelation. Is the preaching of the two witnesses the "fire" that "kills" their enemies by being unbearable? Or do they actually call down real fire from heaven, which is said to come from their mouth — at their request? (To repeat, it would be strange, indeed, if actual fire came from the mouth of two human beings. Yet, that would be the conclusion of a literal interpretation of this image.)
In any case, the imagery of Revelation 11 is so carefully worked out to coincide with the most noteworthy accomplishments of Elijah and Moses that it cannot be accidental. John is giving his hearer - readers a message. When you think of the two witnesses, think of Moses and Elijah.
Why was he doing this? Here is one possible answer. The Jews commonly expected that Elijah and Moses would somehow "return" before the end-time (Mark 9:11). This idea was based on Old Testament texts. The prophet Malachi had written in God’s name: "I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (4:5). Of course, Jesus had already pointed out that Malachi’s "Elijah" was a symbol for a great prophet, in this case John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11-14). So had the Gospel of Luke (1:16).
Thus, the church should have understood that "Elijah" had already come, and he was symbolic of John the Baptist. Perhaps, because of some Jewish thinking to the contrary, a question about this had arisen in the church.
In the same way, the Jews expected a Moses to come on the scene at some point in the future (John 6:14). This idea may have come from Moses’ prophecy of Christ ("I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers"), which was sometimes misunderstood to refer to Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Christ himself seemed to play on this important symbolism. It was Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration (Mark 9:4). Apparently, the disciples who saw this associated the vision with the kingdom to come at the end of the age.
Why these two prophets?
But why bring up Moses and Elijah in particular, or at all? We have to see the early Christian church as struggling with Judaism over the question: Who are the true people of God? The Jews expected Moses and Elijah to appear before the kingdom could appear — and come to them because they were its children. Because of this controversy it was necessary for Christ and the church leaders to say something about these two Old Testament giants in terms of their relationship to the church.
They implied that these two prophets are to be associated with the church and not with Judaism. The Gospels are keen to connect the prophets with Christ, not the Jewish authorities. But the question — Who are the true people of God? — continued through the decades.
Now, in the last decades of the first century — with only John left of the original witnesses — what we might call the "final statement" is made about this matter.
(Assuming a late date for the writing of Revelation.) He makes his point by first associating Elijah and Moses with the faithful church, and then by casting the church in the image of the two ancient spiritual giants of faith.
This is obviously a symbolic interpretation of the two witnesses. Some, of course, interpret the material in Revelation 11 in a literal matter. The two witnesses are said to be two individuals who will create real plagues. The problem is that this interpretation demands that a real temple must exist in Jerusalem, with sacrifices being offered (11:1). There must also be a real temple in heaven containing the ark of the covenant (11:19). Precisely seven thousand people must be killed in an earthquake (11:13). And, fire must come from two human mouths (11:5).
A symbolic interpretation avoids these problems of interpretation. The temple, for example, could be the church and not a physical building. Indeed, that is the New Testament meaning of the temple. Could we not, then, also see the two witnesses as symbolic of — or at least representative of — the church universal in the end-time?
Revelation pictures the church as a martyr church. It is the souls under the altar — representing the church — who were "slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (6:9). This is precisely what happens to the two witnesses — they are martyred for their testimony (11:7).
That the two witnesses are called lampstands indicates how Revelation understands their role. In the words of G.R. Beasley-Murray, "They represent the churches fulfilling their vocation to bear witness to Christ in the final time of tribulation," (The New Century Bible Commentary, "Revelation," p. 178).
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Revelation had already introduced the martyr Antipas of Pergamum (2:13). He was called a "faithful witness" and was a representative of the church as a whole who had remained true to Christ's name. Perhaps that is the sense in which we should understand the two witnesses.
It seems possible, then, to explain the two witnesses as symbols of the witnessing church. Certainly, that was the role of the church in the days of the apostles. Based on the commission given by Jesus, that responsibility remains the continuing role of the church until "the very end of the age" or his return (28:19-20). In the words of Robert W. Wall: "The two witnesses symbolize the entire worshiping community which bears collective witness to God and to God’s Christ" (New International Biblical Commentary, "Revelation," p. 150).