Who Are the Two Witnesses in the Book of Revelation?

TODAY’S READING: REVELATION 8-11

“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” (Revelation 11.3-4)

There are many theories about the identity of the  two witnesses in Revelation 11.3. Some theories propose the two witnesses are:

  • Moses and Elijah
  • Enoch and Elijah
  • Two unknown people in the end times
  • Israel and the church
  • the Old Testament and the New Testament

You can easily find explanations of all these theories. But, I believe all of them suffer from one or both of two problems.

First, these interpretations try pin all of the symbols of Revelation to specific people, institutions, or nations in actual history. But, the symbolic world of Revelation is not a secret code to decipher actual historical events. The symbolic world described in Revelation is meant to help its readers see beyond the physical world to the spiritual world behind it so that our thinking can be changed.

Second, these interpretations believe all of the events of Revelation to take place in the future. However, if you do a careful study of the latter days, the last day, the end of days, etc. throughout the Bible, then you will find that the events described sound eerily like the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. All of God’s promises are yes in him. The completion of the fulfillment may be yet future in some cases, but the fulfillment began on the cross. On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.” This is the now but not yet nature of the kingdom of God at the present time.

Further, we rule out some of the theories based on other books of the New Testament.

We see Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ transfiguration just before his death in Matthew 17.1-13, Mark 9.2-8, and Luke 9.28-36. When Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared. Peter wanted to make Moses and Elijah equal to Jesus. But, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” At that moment, Moses and Elijah disappeared. God’s people are to listen to Jesus not Moses and Elijah. Therefore, I find it very unlikely that Moses and Elijah are the two witnesses.

Further, many Jews believed that Moses and Elijah would return. But, the New Testament indicates they already have come.

John the baptist was the return of Elijah. In Matthew 11.13-14, Jesus said, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Also, Luke 1.17 says, “And he [John the baptist] will go before him [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elijah.”

Jesus is the prophet like Moses that Moses himself prophesied about in Deuteronomy 18.15, 18. In Acts 3.20-22, Peter says, “That times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.'” And, speaking of Jesus, Stephen said in Acts 7.37, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.'”

Therefore, we can rule out any theories involving Moses and Elijah as the two witnesses.

Israel and the church are a popular theory for the identity of the two witnesses because two olive trees are mentioned in Revelation 11.4. But, Israel and the church, which is generally made of gentiles, are a single olive tree. Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree that is Israel. And, Israelites that have been cut off temporarily will at some point be grafted back into that same olive tree. (Romans 11). Further, God’s people are one. In Christ, there is no more Jew or gentile (1 Corinthians 12.13 and Galatians 3.28)

The theory of the Old and New Testaments as the two witnesses places far too much emphasis on a book. But, the book cannot be understood without the Holy Spirit. And, the world being witnessed to does not even acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Further, the book is not the witness to the world. God’s people are the witness to the world.

So, who are the two witnesses?

I think the answer is likely found within the book of Revelation itself. The seven letters to the seven churches Revelation 2 and 3 often seem to get treated as a completely separate book from the rest of Revelation. But, they are all part of the same book. There is a reason they come together.

In Revelation 11.4, we read that the two witnesses are identified as “two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” The only other time the word lampstand is used in the book of Revelation is in the first three chapters of the book in regards to the seven churches. Revelation 1.20 says “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

But, in Revelation 11.4, why are there only two lampstands, two churches, two witnesses?

The answer is in the letters to the seven churches.

Each letter follows a similar pattern. Part of the pattern is that Jesus speaks a word of commendation and then a word of judgment to each church. But, the pattern gets broken on the word of judgment.

To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2.4)

To the church in Pergamum, Jesus says, “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2.14)

To the church in Thyatira, Jesus says, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelation 2.20)

To the church in Sardis, Jesus says, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3.1)

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3.15-17)

Jesus speaks a negative word of judgment to five of the seven churches.

However, Jesus does not speak a negative word of judgment two churches – Smyrna and Philadelphia. Instead, Jesus only commends these two churches and encourages them to remain faithful to his witness despite the suffering they will endure.

To the church in Smyrna, Jesus says, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2.9-10)

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus says, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3.8-10)

The churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia are the two witnesses of Revelation. They symbolize any body of believers, any church, that holds to the faithful witness of Jesus Christ – that he suffered, died, and rose against for repentance and the forgiveness of sins – through their own suffering, even to the point of death.

In Revelation 11.4, the two olive trees are reference to a prophecy in Zechariah 4. He sees two olive trees and asks what they are. The angel tells him, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” Therefore, the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia, the two witnesses, are powered by the Holy Spirit and not by might and power. These two churches witness by their faithfulness in suffering. By might and power, war and violence, are how the kingdoms of this world make themselves known.

These two churches witness before the seventh angel blows the seventh trumpet towards the end of Revelation 11. When that seventh trumpet blows, “the mystery of God would be fulfilled.” (Revelation 10.7) Therefore, these two churches, two witnesses, witness to the mystery of God.

Where else in scripture do we see the mystery of God being revealed?

Who is responsible for making the mystery of God known?

“Assuming that you have of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3.2-11)

A mystery.

Made known to Paul by revelation.

To the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, the working of his power.

Through the church.

To the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

The eternal purpose of God realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The two witnesses are the faithful, suffering churches.

When we make the two witnesses anything other than the faithful, suffering church, then we give ourselves license to to slough off our duty to be witnesses now. We come to believe that it someone else’s duty to witness. We come to believe that the witness will  take place at a future date, in the end times.

But, the end of the age has already arrived. The kingdom of God is here now.

You are the witness now, if you are faithful to suffer for Jesus.

“Now the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12.10-11)

The two witnesses have been prophesying since Jesus was crucified. The two witnesses are prophesying now. The two witnesses will prophesy until Jesus returns.

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