biblical concept of "Witness" loose from the adventuristic
confusion of the cults and sects and returning to a wholly
An in-depth yet brief look at a difficult and much abused Scripture.
J ust who are the 'Two Witnesses' of Revelation 11?
Some modern, high-profile "evangelists" have insisted that they themselves were/are one of these two 'witnesses' of Revelation 11. Now whilst many of these people are now dead (so, presumably were not what they claimed), others continue to come along and claim this exalted position for themselves. But how does this stack up with the Holy Bible?...........................................
Actually numerous explanations have been put forward over the years by various believers. Are these "witnesses" purely symbolic figures? Or are they actual people who will live, and apparently preach the gospel, just prior to our Lord's return to this earth? As with all difficult Scriptures, we need to consider such factors as context, setting and also factors which might affect us in our exegetical task and which could lead to us reading things into the text (rather than the other way around!)
The first thing which we need to take into account in our consideration of this subject is that references to the Two Witnesses are confined to just one Bible book; Revelation, and this is a book written in the apocalyptic style. This might sound immediately obvious but is amazing how often this factor is quickly lost sight of, especially, perhaps, in the case of the biblically more naive. Revelation is a book filled with symbols; we find beasts emerging from the sea, we see a 'bottomless pit' described, we find John taking a book from the hands of an angel and then......eating it! We discover the description of a fabulously beautiful 'New Jerusalem' descending from heaven to earth, a city (apparently) made of a form of gold yet which appears as glass. We also have a continual use of numbers which are multiples or configurations of seven. Yes this is a book of intriguing symbols in which eternal truths are painted in the most ravishing and compelling of colours! Yet it is patently not the sort of literal or historical account which we might find in books such as 1&2 Kings (in the Old Testament), or in the gospels or Acts (in the New Testament), this fact should immediately alert us to proceed with caution.
Upon realizing that this wonderful book is written in the genre of apocalyptic writing, our first task should certainly not be to press ahead in having a go at interpreting its often bewildering array of symbols but, rather, to initially stand back and consider just what was normally involved in this form of writing! And here all too many have gone astray - they have been careless here, preferring to apply a 19th & 20th century American adventuristic approach to this book; looking upon it as a challenge to their heroic biblicism! This approach leads to the view that this book is a sort of puzzle, but one which can certainly be solved by any “spiritual” enough to take up its challenge! But this approach is seriously flawed and has usually been slow to recognize that most of the book's symbols are firmly rooted in Old Testament teaching, and should not be cut loose from that.
Moreover, this approach has normally shown little interest in taking full account of the genre of apocalyptic writing, and what can be expected from it.
So, in considering the topic of the Two Witnesses, let us - first of all - briefly rehearse what we can expect from apocalyptic literature, then, secondly, consider what the Bible itself says about the concept of 'Witness.'
Apocalyptic writing - when placed in a biblical setting - can normally be expected to stress the battle between Satan and God in this present age. Powerful nations are immediately painted in dramatic colours and seen as servants of Satan in attacking God's people. No matter how bad things might get, however, apocalyptic thought stressed that God and His people ultimately triumph over their enemies! Everything which happens upon this earth is included within God's great plan for Mankind, His divine purposes cannot be thwarted, even though - for the present - Satan and his demons might cause havoc. When the end of this age comes, that end will bring huge cosmic disturbances which all the living will witness. Encouragement of God's people is vital within this form of writing, Christians are encouraged to look forward to the time when we will be in the very presence of God who will wipe away every tear from our eyes! The apocalyptic form normally occurred within a scenario where God's people were under foreign domination/suffering religious persecution, but the message is; it is but a blip in time and God's kingdom is truly eternal!
But apocalyptic was rarely perceived as a kind of puzzle in which every symbol was to be cunningly interpreted at every stage - usually such writing only had a few main points to get across and would be understandable to all the Godly oppressed! But we probably do need to recognize a difference here between Revelation and the other apocalyptic book of Daniel; while it may well have been the Spirit's purpose not to make much of Daniel clear to those who first came to it (Daniel 12: 4) Revelation, apparently, held no such agenda! As its name suggests, it was meant to be a revealing (Rev 1: 1) - this is quite different to being a puzzle only meant to be worked out by those smart enough! The keys to the more difficult parts of this book will be found elsewhere in the Bible - especially in the Old Testament.
But - for the most part - it is the broad brush strokes in this book which are more important than the detail (though all too many 'prophecy buffs' have seen it the other way around!)
With all of this in mind, it will now be helpful to consider the matter of the Two Witnesses to see how some of these points can be applied. (For any wanting to go right through the book of Revelation in, perhaps, a fresh study I would unhesitatingly recommend the approach of Hendricksen to be found in More Than Conquerors on Baker Books).
So let us now attempt to sweep aside the frequent abuse which the subject of the Two Witnesses has suffered (even if often by well-meaning people), and apply a truly biblical approach;
The Biblical Concept of 'Witness'
In fact, the concept of 'Witness' is a recurring biblical theme, especially in the writings of John (the Greek word, Martureo - witness - occurs 21 times in John's Gospel). When he came to pen Revelation, John returns to this theme of 'witness'. Yet it is in the Old Testament, specifically the Torah, that the vital biblical concept of 'witness' is first introduced. In the judicial procedure of Israel one witness was never sufficient to condemn. The approach was, 'By two or three witnesses let every matter be established' See Deuteronomy 17: 6 & 19: 15. This became a deeply ingrained principle of Jewish law. So, as with so many difficult Revelation sections, we find help in the Old Testament. But the concept of 'Two Witnesses' continues into the New Testament; . Note Matthew 18: 16 & 2 Corinthians 13: 1, and how this principle also came to be applied to solving disputes within the Church. Moreover, those who were sent forth with the gospel were clearly commissioned to be the Witnesses of Jesus!
"But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8 - NKJV)
In fact, the principle of Two Witnesses as testifying to the righteousness of God is clearly foreshadowed, or typified, in the ministries of Elijah and Elishah, clear types of John the Baptist and Jesus respectively! So the first Two Witnesses under the New Covenant were clearly John the Baptist and Jesus Himself!
But this principle of 'Witness' was to continue throughout the Church age; see Luke 10: 1-2. Those sent out with the gospel were to witness 'Two by two.' When Revelation 11: 3 says, "...I will give power to my two witnesses," it is speaking of the same power which was to come upon the Church when the Spirit was given, it speaks of the age of the Church just as we read in Acts 1: 8. The Two Witnesses, therefore, symbolize the witness of the Church throughout the Church age; God wishes the principle of 'Let every matter be established by two witnesses' to be used by His Church; The world will receive its adequate warning and the glorious gospel of Christ will indeed be preached 'as a witness'.(Matthew 24:14). (Hendricksen has, fairly conclusively, shown that the periods of time in Rev 11: 1-3 refer to this present age of the Church).
Many came to mistakenly see the mission of the Church as 'race against the clock evangelism' - that is: preach Christ to everybody before they die, otherwise they are lost, when no such Scripture ever says such a thing! God indeed wants His Church to preach Christ and the message of the gospel all round the world but not in some desperate arm-twisting manner of getting everybody to 'accept Christ,' but, rather, as a witness. We cannot rob God of His sovereignty!
The Witnesses and the Olive Trees
The Witnesses are the 'Two Olive Trees' of Rev 11: 4, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 4: 1-14 which so evidently looked forwards to the mission of the Church. Notice how the two olive trees of Zechariah 4 are so closely associated with the Seven Candlesticks - verses 2-3 & 11-12. The Seven Candlesticks appear, of course, in Revelation 1 to 3 where they are clearly shown to refer to the Church in its various institutions and groupings - see Revelation 1: 20. (the difference being, perhaps, that the Seven Candlesticks refer to the visible church as it actually functions upon earth - warts and all! Here we see the visible church functioning in its often flawed forms and frequently falling short - as we all do!)
The Two Olive Trees and Two Witnesses, however, seem to be representative of the pure, invisible Church as seen from heaven. Here the invisible, Spirit-filled Church is reduced to its most vital component of Witness to the Christ - its most vital function upon earth! So the Olive Trees are the Two Witnesses, first foreshadowed by the ministries of Elijah and Elisha and then initially realized under the New Covenant by John the Baptist and Jesus, but now continuing to be realized wherever Christians preach the gospel! So, in a real sense, we are all part of the mission of the Two Witnesses! It should be seen at once that this is a wholly biblical approach which does not cut Revelation loose from the rest of God's Word - which should not happen.
Once we can see that Revelation 11 is set in the age of the Church's worldwide mission, we can see that we do not necessarily need to posit any future specific individuals yet to arrive on the world scene. As specific individuals, John the Baptist and Jesus have already come and gone, yet those of us who go out and witness with the gospel continue to wear their mantle, continuing the witness of the Church - Luke 10: 1-2, Acts 1: 8. A few commentators agree that Revelation needs to be 'earthed' on the rest of God's Word and uphold the principle for a while, but then appear to suddenly cast aside the principle, indulging in all kinds of flights of fancy! But we should be cautious! This is the inspired Word of God which must be treated with respect - read the warning of Revelation 22: 18-19!
The Witnesses.......Then the End
We now need to return to our text of Revelation 11. Verse 5 speaks of the Witnesses having the power to send fire out of their mouths in order to devour their enemies, but we must realize that this book paints in colourful symbols. This may well simply refer to the power which is granted to the Church at the present time; compare this with Matthew 16: 19, Matthew 18: 18 and Luke 10: 17. Satan is angry because he cannot prevent the growth of the invisible, spiritual Church at this time. Of course, this does not mean that he is unable to keep many people in religious darkness, he certainly does that; but it does mean that nobody and nothing can snatch God's own elect out of God's hand as Jesus Himself said in John 10: 27-29 and Paul underlined in Romans 8: 28-39. Neither does this growth refer to any particular denominations of course. We just do not see the true situation from our perspective - indeed, any more than Elijah did - review 1 Kings 19: 9-10, 18. We may be assured that the true, invisible Church is growing! Verse 7 speaks of the Witnesses finishing their testimony when the 'Beast' which had emerged from the 'bottomless pit' overcomes them. This probably speaks of a future world kingdom/ruler who will stage an all-out attack on Christianity. Indeed, for a very brief time all witnessing will cease - perhaps the prophecy of Amos 8: 11-12 speaks of the same time.
Revelation 11: 10 describes global merry-making over the final complete ban on Christian witnessing all over the world and, yes, this could well be literal. This should not sound so far-fetched; even today worldwide persecution of Christians is rapidly increasing. Indeed, increasing pressure is now being placed upon Christians not to evangelize even in Britain and America (lest people of other religions are offended)! But this stopping of all Christian witnessing will only be possible because the Church will have concluded its mission and Christ's return is absolutely imminent! And this is the next thing which we see in Revelation 11; verses 11-19.
Robin A. Brace, 2000
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