In courts of Law, if you have ever been in one, the parties involved eagerly desire and hope that all the witnesses will be good witnesses, that they will be truthful witnesses and that their testimony will be without bias, slant and any hint of falsehood. The hope of a good witness or two can bring about the victory of one party or the other.
The same is true in God’s world. A good and faithful witness can establish the truth of God’s claims in a way that the world will be without recourse as she is judged and found wanting. In today’s passage we meet two faithful witnesses who proclaim the truth of God’s word to the nations and establish beyond a doubt the guilt of the unbelieving world.
The vision begins with John being called to measure the temple of God and the altar and count the worshippers but exclude the outer court…because it has been given to the Gentiles (Rev 11:1-2). To understand what God is saying you need to understand a little bit about the architecture of the Temple and have some understanding of a similar passage in Zechariah 2:1-5. The Temple complex at its center had the actual Temple building with the Ark, the incense altar and such. This was a place only the priests could enter. Outside of this was a courtyard where the Priests and Levites would work and minister. Beyond this was a court called the Court of Men where only, you guessed it, circumcised Jewish males could enter. Then there was the Court of Israel for Jewish males and females and surrounding all of this was the court of Gentiles where anyone interested could come to take a peak, ask a question, or hear some teaching.
I mentioned that there was a similar passage in Zech 2:1-5. Let me read it: Then I [Zechariah] looked up — and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand! 2 I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.” 3 Then the angel who was speaking to me left, and another angel came to meet him 4 and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. 5 And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within.’
In Zechariah’s vision, God reveals to the prophet that the city is to be measured but it will actually be so large that the people of God will be innumerable and God himself will be their protector. In Zechariah, Jerusalem is pictured as the prophetic image for the people of God, the church, dwelling in the shadow and protection of the Lord Almighty. In Revelation, God takes this imagery and narrows it down to show John that not everyone who comes to the church to worship is in fact a true worshipper under the protection and provision of God.1 In Revelation, it is the temple that represents the people of God and the city of Jerusalem is a symbol of the gentile world in opposition to Christ and his people, even though they may come to the temple grounds [repeat].
Remembering that Revelation is a highly symbolic text, lets talk about what God is saying here. He is telling John to measure the temple and count the worshippers, but exclude those who are merely navel gazers and gawkers. Exclude those who haven’t really committed themselves to living a life of complete devotion to the Lord. Exclude those who aren’t witnesses. Truth be told, those who simply want to experiment with the faith or dabble in godly worship will actually be the ones who will trample on the holy city, the people of God. In fact they will even celebrate the destruction of the true worshippers, those fully committed to the Lord and his word as verse 10 makes clear: The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate [their death] by sending each other gifts… (Rev 11:10).
In light of this truth, that there are true worshippers completed devoted to God, and there is everyone else (some who come to church, some who don’t), “What is God’s message to the church?”
God declares to his church that there are 2 powerful witnesses (Rev 11:3) who will proclaim his word during the time of the antichrist, the last days, in which we are currently living. I would be lying if I told you the identities of these 2 witnesses were cut and dried. The truth is that good scholars who are devoted to biblical truth have catalogued over 25 different possibilities.2
I want to propose that we can significantly narrow that list of options if we read the very next verse. These [two witnesses] are the two olive trees and the two lampstands who stand before the Lord of all the earth (Rev 11:4). Again, this is prophetic imagery drawn from Zechariah 4 where God is revealing hope to the Nation that through two anointed ones, the temple of God will be rebuilt. One of those anointed people is Zerubbabel; Zech 4 makes that very clear, for this is a message for him, the current king/ruler of the nation. The other anointed one is Joshua, the High Priest who was met in Zechariah 3.
So behind the witnesses of Revelation is a back-story of a priest and a king in Zechariah who will rebuild the temple and the right worship of God among the people. But revelation also says that these two witnesses prophesy with the full power of God like Moses and Elijah. It was Moses who turned the water to blood and brought the plagues (Exod 7-9) and it was Elijah who shut up the sky of rain (1Ki 7:1) and who called down the fire at Carmel and later called fire upon King Ahaziah’s men trying to arrest him (1 Ki 18:38, 2Ki 1:10-12).
Given all of this, the two best options for the identity of the witnesses now are as follows:
- An Anointed Priest and a King
- The Law and the Prophets, symbolized by the activities of Moses and Elijah being stated as typical actions.
But there is one other option that I would like to propose and to understand it; we need to ask why there are only two witnesses? Might it be that like all the other numbers in Revelation, the number two is symbolic? I believe it is, because in Deut 19:15 we are told One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Taking this into account, the two witnesses are a rhetorical device God is using to declare that the world is guilty as charged in her rebellion against the Lord and his Christ. There are not going to be two literal men in the future, rather, these two prophets are already present on the earth doing their work. So, we must ask, who are these prophets who testify to the Word of God in this world and who are the anointed ones who stand before the Lord of all the earth (Rev 11:4)? Isn’t it every true believer who is filled with the Spirit and who proclaims the Word of God to the World? Doesn’t this make sense of all the symbolism?
Every believer marked and sealed with the Holy Spirit is anointed as a prophet, a priest and a king to this world. Furthermore, ever true believer is compelled to proclaim the whole counsel of God that is represented in the activities of Moses and Elijah. You see the Word of God is fondly known as the Law and the Prophets.
Like the two witnesses, the Christian must prophesy, testify to the truth. We must preach Christ and repentance and the judgment of God upon all who flaunt his reign and rule. We preach it in the temple and we preach it in the “great city”, Jerusalem, which is the entire earth. And when we preach, the symbols of judgment come. People are forced to confront their sin and frankly they hate it. In fact, God tells us the preaching of his Word “tormented those who live on the earth” (Rev 11:10). But most importantly, when the word is proclaimed, the fire of the Lord burns upon those who are unrepentant.
Jeremiah 5:14 declares it this way, “Therefore this is what the Lord God Almighty says: “Because the people have spoken these words, [declaring God will do nothing, nor judge us] I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.”
Let me back up a bit, “Did you notice the way the witnesses are dressed?” They were dressed in sackcloth. Sackcloth is the visual cue that someone is in mourning in the Bible. The faithful are pictured as mourning, even though they preach and proclaim and enjoy the very presence of God. Why? Because they see the response of the world to the Word of God. There is a stubborn refusal to repent. There is a constant trying to eradicate the Word from public life. There is a constant war being faced by the faithful from the world, even those in the outer courts of the church. And this causes great grief. It causes the church pain, to know that the judgment of God is coming and so many are going to be lost.
And in fact there is even the mourning that goes with seeing the church being defeated, slowly but surely. Did you notice that the church is actually extinguished for 3 ½ days? The church is overcome and destroyed for a very brief moment compared to her 1260-day mission. Nietzsche’s belief that “God is dead” will appear to be reality for ever so brief a time.
So what is God’s message for his church on this 4th Sunday of Advent, as we long for the return of our Savior Jesus Christ? I think the message is simple. Keep longing for the coming King. This world is not your home. Lament the brokenness, mourn the unrepentance, and cry out for the pain you see, but also faithfully testify to the truth that God is coming. Faithfully testify to the truth that Christ saves. Declare boldly the need to repent and live anew. And do not shy away from speaking of the judgments of God for you can be assured, this is not the end. God’s spirit is still at work and out of the grave, the church will be resurrected, judgment will be rendered and God will be glorified and the new heavens and the new earth will come!
1 Ladd, Revelation, Eerdmans, p.151
2Daniel Wong, The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11, Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (July-Sept 1997), p344-47 provides a cataloging of these 25 options and their supporters. Two of these options are critiqued by me as follows: The Christ and Spirit option and Christ and God the Father option cant be true because Rev 11:8 says the two belonged to “their Lord who was crucified.” The literal Moses/Elijah option fails to take into account the symbolism of the number 2 and all numbers in Revelation as do the other options positing two individual and literal people.