The Two Witnesses (Revelation Sermon 18 of 49)
August 27, 2017 | Andy Davis
As I listened to Ben read our passage for today, I was struck by the challenge of preaching on it. Even as of this morning I was reading commentaries, wondering what I would do with the two witnesses. I worked on this sermon while I was in Bulgaria at an area group meeting; I was completely immersed in “two witnesses” all the time. The missionaries in Bulgaria were not thinking about the two witnesses and had no idea what I was talking about.
I want to begin this sermon in an unusual way with three application-oriented illustrations, though you have not even heard the sermon yet. These are more general applications on why we should read the book of Revelation, and especially chapters like this which have difficult sections with have so many details that are hard to understand.
The first illustration comes from the story of Rebekah when she was pregnant with twins. The twins were jostling inside her womb and she did not know what was happening to her. She inquired of the Lord, “Why is happening to me?” The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb…” [Genesis 25:22-23] He gave her a prophecy about her children, whom we know were Jacob and Esau. The first reason we should read the book of Revelation is that as we experience life, we will have trouble — anguish, persecution, affliction, trial, difficulty — and all the more as we are faithful as witnesses to Christ. The more faithful we are, the more trouble and persecution will come to us in this world. We know that. We can say, “What is happening to me?” not only in relation to ourselves but more so to our brothers and sisters around the world who are being persecuted or going through hard times. We go to the Lord and he gives us the explanation, which is far weightier and far longer lasting than we can possibly imagine. Reason number one to read about the two witnesses is to understand our own life.
Second illustration: My father was from Miami, Florida and when I was a child, we went one time for Christmas down to Miami from Massachusetts, my home state. I forget how old I was, but I was little. We got packed up in the car and started rolling south. As we crossed the state line into Connecticut, I asked the famous question of that age child: “Are we almost there?.” That is an irritating question for a father who knows we are nowhere near almost there. I have no idea what my dad said to me. We made a similar trip to Daytona Beach for Spring Break when I was at MIT with Campus Crusade. I knew that we were almost there as the weather got warmer and warmer. Traveling from New England, from Massachusetts, you could tell as the trip unfolded where you were.
My point is that we Christians believe in a linear view of history. We do not believe in karma and endless cycles. We believe there is a point A and a point B. In Revelation 22:13, Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” We are going somewhere, and the Lord has, in his wisdom, given us this incredible book to tell us details about where we are going, that we might know the things that must soon take place. That is what it says at the beginning of the book. We can know the future. You might wonder what this has to do with you for today or tomorrow. Perhaps nothing directly, although studying the book of Revelation tends to shape and color the way you see your everyday life. So it does have an impact on whatever your day holds tomorrow, whether you are a student, a stay-at-home mom, or a man with a certain job working with your hands or with your mind.
Whatever you do tomorrow, the book of Revelation, as you immerse yourself, your mind and soul in it, will color the way you see things. You will see the world differently, realizing how temporary everything is as we move to a final Omega day. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end, has already figured that day out. He had it planned out before the foundation of the world, and he has chosen to give us some details about what it will look like. It is very powerful.
The third illustration comes from a question I wrestle with a great deal, and that is, “Why is this book so complicated and difficult?” The image in my mind is of a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. I do not know that I have ever done a 1000 piece puzzle, but I have done some big ones. The way I approach jigsaw puzzles must frustrate my family — I set all the pieces out in a matrix and go through systematically like a machine. It is boring and awful.
Most of you would likely look at the cover to see what the final picture looks like — there is a sky, a sea, one of those old mills, some trees. You would collect all the tree pieces together, all the river pieces together, all the stone pieces together, and fit the smaller elements together first. So today, we will try to gather together like pieces and start to fit them together. We are not going to cut off little nubs or fill in little empty spaces with speculation or imagination; we will try to make them fit like they should.
So I am asking you this morning to work hard with me on this text. It will not be easy, but we will try to assemble some sub-pictures and then see how they fit together with other sub-pictures and the big picture. I could take the easy way out and look at only the big picture on the two witnesses, as you heard Ben read about. There will be two witnesses (or are now, depending on how you look at it) standing before the Lord of all the earth, proclaiming and prophesying in the power of God. They have a hard time; they are persecuted and put to death, but they rise and ascend to Heaven and glory.
The big picture is this: We are called on to witness to Jesus Christ. The ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We are still set in a hostile world. Satan, whom we will talk much about in the next number of weeks, will oppose us, will fight us, using government for that purpose, so the church will be witnessing to Christ in a hostile world. We will have a hard time but we will be faithful, and in the end our enemies will be judged by the wrath of God if they do not repent, while we ourselves will be in heaven. That is the big picture, and I do not know any evangelical that would not sign off on that big picture.
Here is one additional illustration. We are flying at 35,000 feet. There is the sun — the bright round yellow ball; there is the blue sky; there are the white puffy things — clouds. Through the occasional break in the cloud, we see some green down there — earth. That is the big picture. But friends, are you interested in the details? Do they matter? Yes, they do. We will exegete these 14 verses to look at the details. I cannot agree with many conservative Calvinistic commentators that discuss the big picture and say, “This is a representation of the church in its suffering witness in the world and of the final judgment of the enemies of God.” I do not think the details line up with that big picture.
It is literally about two individuals who at some point will stand on the Earth in Jerusalem, testify before the Antichrist, and die at his hand, but will rise after three and a half days to ascend to heaven. That will have a certain impact, specifically on the Jewish nation, that I will talk about today. Do your best to follow with me — if all I am covering is the big picture, then the sermon would be over and we would be going into applications now, such as “Be faithful witnesses, be praying, etc.” That would be easy to do, but I will not do that. The details say that there will some day be two individuals. I have already answered why you should care about them, though I will add to that application at the end.
God’s Messengers Throughout Redemptive History
Two Messengers who Speak the Words of God
Before I walk through this, understand what we mean by the prophetic witness of the world, the fact that the ministry or message of reconciliation has been entrusted to us, the disciples of Jesus Christ. This is significant because salvation of lost people depends on this. This is what we heard from Jonathan’s baptism today, what we believe — we are surrounded by lost people everyday. Every one of those sinners is under the wrath of God right now. Those who are not Christians are presently under the wrath of God, which abides on them (John 3:36). The only answer is the gospel of Christ.
[Romans 10:13-15] “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? [That’s the point.] And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” The key to our salvation is the ability to accept the word of God through human messengers. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says to the Thessalonian believers, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” The Bible and sermons are not merely human words but a living active powerful word from God. It can change your heart and soul.
What is a Prophet?
What is a prophet? These two are prophets with power to prophesy. A prophet is an individual who stands up, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and says, “Thus says the Lord.” He says the words of the Lord directly. The office was instituted for the nation of Israel after they had come out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea. They came to Mount Sinai where they received the Ten Commandments, the Law of God. As God descended on Mount Sinai in fire and cloud, shaking the ground beneath them, he spoke the Ten Commandments. The people were so terrified to hear the voice of God that they pleaded with Moses. “Please, would you go up the mountain and stand in the presence of God and hear His words and come down and tell us? We will listen to you.” God said, “What these people have said is good.” The prophet would stand in the presence of God. God said in Deuteronomy, “I will raise up a prophet like you, and he will speak to the people.” God actually raised up many prophets — Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel — who spoke the word of God.
Israel Refused to Listen
But consistently the Jewish people would not listen to them. Again and again the Jewish nation refused to heed the Word of God. Stephen charged Israel with this crime in Acts 7:51-52. He said to the Sanhedrin representing the whole Jewish nation, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? And now you have betrayed and murdered [the Son of God].” That is the culmination of their rejection of the message, the word of God through the prophets: they killed Christ, together with the Gentile leader, Pontius Pilate.
Throughout the Old Testament we have clear evidence of the Jewish nation refusing to listen to the prophets whom God sent. As the Northern Kingdom of Israel was about to be deported by the Assyrians, this summary statement happens in 2 Kings 17:13-15: “The LORD warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: "Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees... But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the LORD their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.” All the more, as Stephen pointed out, when the culmination of the prophetic ministry, Jesus, stood before them. They would not heed him but handed him over to the Gentiles to be killed.
Two Witnesses Are the Final Prophetic Warning
I believe these two witnesses are a portion of God’s final warning to the Jewish nation to turn and trust in Christ, and I believe that they will be effective. In the end, God will take hardness or blindness away from the Jewish nation, and they will turn and believe in Christ. That has to happen before he appears in the clouds. It has to happen by hearing the word preached. I think that these two witnesses will stand at a key final moment with a final opportunity to testify, and I think it will be effective.
The Temple Measured: God’s Meticulous Control
Let’s begin with Revelation 11:1-2, in which the temple is measured. We see God’s meticulous control here. “I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, ‘Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.’”
John Involved in Action
As often happens in the book of Revelation, John is drawn into the visionary, apocalyptic action. In Revelation 4, he is invited to go up through a doorway to heaven. In Revelation 5, he weeps and weeps because no one is found worthy to take the scroll from the right hand of God until Jesus appears and takes it. In Revelation 10 he is commanded to take the scroll which lay open in the hand of the mighty angel, and to eat it. He is likewise involved here, given work to do.
He is given a reed like a measuring rod. The task here is of measuring and counting. The Greek word for reed implies a tubular long plant that would grow in marshy areas, sometimes used as a measuring stick. It could grow as long as 10 feet, very lightweight and stiff. He is told to measure the temple of God and the altar, and then he is told to count the worshipers there. In the vision of Ezekiel, in chapters 40-48, which I consider to be nine of the hardest chapters in the Bible to interpret, the prophet is present while an angel measures an idealized prophetic temple with a measuring stick. He also measures the walls, the courtyards, the land surrounding the temple, and the river of life flowing from that temple, which gets deeper and wider as it goes, and Ezekiel reports those measurements. Here in Revelation, we do not hear the results, only that John is told to measure.
The “Temple of God”
What is this temple that he is to measure? It is a very difficult question to answer. I believe that Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written. Most scholars put it at the very end of the first century, around 80 or 90 AD. John was a very old man. By that time then, the Jewish temple would have been destroyed two decades prior by the Romans, so there is no earthly temple in John’s day.
Those who hold to a literal view say that this temple is built by the Jews under the reign of the Antichrist. Some call it the tribulation temple, which will be built during the last seven years of human history and is where the Jews will renew the animal sacrificial system. Though I do believe that will happen, it is very important to realize that it is repugnant to God. I do not hold with dispensational theology that say there are two tracks, one for the Jews and one for the rest. When Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. God signified by doing so that the new and living way into the Holy of Holies is open through Jesus, and therefore, animal sacrifice was obsolete and aging and would soon pass away (Hebrews 8). The blood of bulls and goats has never taken away sin. It was symbolic. The need for symbolism is done now that Jesus has come.
But someone at some point sewed that curtain back up. I guarantee Jewish hands did it. They re-established animal sacrifice for at least several decades after Jesus, through the 40s, 50s, 60s, on to 70 AD. Why? Because they did not believe in Jesus, that he was anything but a deceiver of the people, or that the animal sacrificial system was finished. They killed Stephen for saying so, and they would do the same to the Apostle Paul for saying that the animal sacrificial system had been fulfilled in Jesus. It is obsolete; we do not need it anymore. Hebrews 9:26 says, “…now [Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Once. For all. Done.
The temple in Revelation 11 is called the Temple of God. That is significant. I do not think God wants his name attached to that physical temple in the Book of Revelation. This must be a heavenly sanctuary, the true temple in Heaven. This is the way the word “temple” is usually used in the book of Revelation. The tabernacle (the tent) and Solomon’s temple (a physical building that was built) both were built according to a heavenly pattern that was shown, first to Moses then to David, of how to build it. Those were earthly copies of a heavenly reality. The author to Hebrews says in 8:5, “They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” The true temple is up in heaven. Revelation 11:19 says, “Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.”
That is the heavenly temple. If this is a heavenly temple, what is the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, that will be trampled by the gentiles for 42 months? I believe that is the earthly version, Jerusalem. I will talk more about that in a moment.
Measuring = God’s Knowledge and Protection
Measuring implies God’s careful knowledge and protection and his provision of scope and limitation. God is a God of details and mathematics. Some may argue that God is only artistic to the exclusion of precision mathematics, or vice versa. Both are true. There is so much beauty but also order and precision. Scripture says even the very hairs of your head are numbered.
In this context, John is telling believers not to fear their persecutors. God knows the numbers of hairs on your head and will protect you. This also refers to election, that there is a specific number of people whom God will save; none will be lost. This is reassurance, not random, as though God does not know what is happening. God knows exactly by name all that he will save, all whom the Father gives to Jesus, who will com to Christ. There is also a sense of delimitation, of provision through boundaries which he has set that up for all of creation. Job 38:8-11 says, “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”
When you go to the seashore in North Carolina or Cape Cod or anywhere in the world, you see a thin boundary of sand and dune grass —that is not protecting you from flooding. It is the will of God by the word of God that puts a limit to things. Here in Revelation 11 is a sense of the limitation and protection of the people of God versus the satanic forces that will engulf the earth at that point. John says that the Court of the Gentiles has been given over to them to be trampled for 42 months, referring to the worst part of the reign of Antichrist.
Here is my big picture interpretation. Revelation 11 has two parts. The measurement of the temple and the counting of the worshipers — part one. The work of the two witnesses in Jerusalem — part two. Many take a figurative approach, saying it is in general talking about the witness of Christians in the world and the persecution they endure, their final glory, and the final judgment of the enemies. All of those things are true, but I think that is insufficient to explain the details of this chapter. Therefore, I will take a literal interpretation here.
The details, for example fire coming out of the mouths of the prophets or their ability to strike the earth with plagues, do not line up with general Christian witness over 20 centuries. Nothing like that has happened. Our desire usually is the conversion of our enemies, so we turn the other cheek, not consume them with fire. Therefore, I believe this is a final phase of witness in which God is openly displaying His wrath. Verse 14 is situated between the second and third woe, which lines it up with the seven trumpet judgments. I will talk more about that in a moment.
Another key in interpretation, especially regarding Jerusalem and the temple, comes from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, which is not apocalyptic, not prophetic visionary language, but rather an epistle written to a New Testament church by Paul. The Thessalonians were being told by false teachers that the end had already come and they had missed the day of the Lord, they'd missed it like a train like a ship that had sailed. The people were greatly discouraged, having missed the day of the Lord. No — it is not possible to miss the Day of the Lord, so Paul says this to the Thessalonians: “…that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed… the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”
It is interesting phraseology. The phrase “God’s temple” is used differently than in Revelation 11. Antichrist will set himself up in, supposedly, “God’s temple”, proclaiming himself to be, supposedly, “God”. I put those in quotes because they are equally invalid. He is as much God as he is in God’s temple. It is significant and meaningful. The end will not come until that happens. The man of lawlessness is the Antichrist that is coming of 1 John 2:18. “… you have heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” There are many dress rehearsals but one final Antichrist coming who is the focus of Revelation 13. This one specifically rises up and kills these two witnesses. Based on prophecy from Daniel and on Jesus’ statement here, at the end of the world a powerful ruler will rise up and make a covenant with the Jews for the rebuilding of the temple and the establishment of the animal sacrificial system. I am walking a middle ground between Reform commentators that do not talk about details of the future at all and dispensational types that talk about many details (allowing for a separate plan for the Jews), to say that this temple will be in no way pleasing to God, but it will be built at some future point.
The tribulation temple is the place where the Jews will resume animal sacrifice, but halfway through the final seven year period, the Antichrist will break His covenant with them and put an end to animal sacrifice and set himself up as God within that temple. The true temple is in heaven where Christ went to present his own blood. It will culminate in the second coming of Christ, in which Jesus will destroy the Antichrist by the breath of His mouth. 2 Thessalonians 2:8, “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.” This is an epistle, telling you what will happen; it is not apocalyptic.
The Two Messengers: God’s Powerful Warning
Now we focus on the two witnesses in verse 3: “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” They are sent by Almighty God to prophesy, to speak forth his words. God is sending them to planet earth, which is hurting and reeling from being judged. They are situated between the second and third woe. As we saw in Revelation 8 and 9, the seven trumpets came from the seven seals. Six of the seven trumpets have been blown at this point in the account.
The first trumpet was hail and fire mixed with blood, burning up a third of the earth and the trees and all the green grass. The second trumpet was a huge blazing mountain that fell into the sea, turning a third of the sea into blood and killing a third of all living creatures in the sea and destroying a third of the ships. The third trumpet was the blazing star named Wormwood, which fell on fresh water and poisoned a third of the water supply. The fourth trumpet was the sun, the moon, and the stars, darkened to a third of their usual illumination or intensity. The fifth trumpet was demons pouring up out of the abyss, the abode and place of punishment of demons, released to afflict and torment human beings for five months, like a plague of locusts but stinging like scorpions. The sixth trumpet resulted in a (likely) mixed demonic and human army spreading over the surface of the earth, which killed one-third of the population of the earth. These events have been absolutely staggering. But without someone interpreting them for the people, saying, “This is happening because of your sins”, they will not know to view it as a religious event. Thus, these two witnesses are a grace from God to unbelievers, who do not have the Bible, to explain what is happening.
Their task will be difficult. They will tell suffering people who are in agony and torment that they are suffering because of their own sins, but the God who is sending these afflictions will welcome them back and forgive them if they will only turn to Christ. That is the message. You can imagine it will not be well-received. It will be a hard message to give.
Not only that, I believe there is an additional wrinkle that fits into the overall eschatological scheme. The two witnesses will tell the Jews that the temple that is being rebuilt is worthless, and that they should turn from these vain things and from animal sacrifice and trust in Jesus. That will not be popular with the Jews. Needless to say, the Antichrist, the ultimate control freak, will not appreciate these two telling the truth about who he is and pleading with people to come to Christ. He will do what he can to assault them. When they are finished prophesying, the Antichrist, the beast from the abyss, will rise up and kill them.
These two are sent out as a pair, patterned after Jesus sending out his disciples two by two. They reflect the general pattern in the Bible that every matter must be established by the testimony of at least two witnesses. They are also able at the human level to encourage one another. It is hard, day after day for 1260 days.
In verse 3, God empowers them: “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days.” This is like Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.” The real power of the prophets will be in their words from their mouths. Jeremiah 23:29 says, “‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” God’s word is powerful like a fire and a hammer. The two witnesses will have a powerful presence. They will be bold and unafraid and will stand firm though surrounded by rage and hostility. It reminds me of the ministry of Jeremiah, who was sent with a very unpopular message at the end of that phase of Judah’s history. In Jeremiah 15:20-21, God says to Jeremiah, “‘I will make you a wall to this people, a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will save you from the hands of the wicked and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.’” How much more these two witnesses? God also gives them supernatural powers to do miracles, as we will see in just a moment.
Where are they located? For me this is one of the easier parts, though not every commentator agrees. They will be ministering in the city of Jerusalem. Verse 8 says, “… where also their Lord was crucified.” Given that Jesus, who was their Lord, was crucified, there are only two options: it refers either to planet earth or the city of Jerusalem. Yes, he was crucified on earth, but it seems to be more specific. This refers to the city of Jerusalem. Why is it called Sodom? At that point it is a wicked immoral place. Why is it called Egypt? Again, the same thing. The Jews remember their bondage, their slavery in Egypt. As the Apostle Paul says, the physical Jerusalem is in bondage with her children. Thus, the location of the witnesses is a symbol of wickedness and bondage and where their Lord was crucified. Furthermore, the Antichrist will be there. Commentators say that it is not Jerusalem because of the term “great city”. They usually interpret that as Rome, the city of military power. The Antichrist definitely has a military-governmental power aspect, that's true, but he also has a religious aspect. He wants to be feared and obeyed, but also worshiped as God. That puts him, in the providence of God, in Jerusalem.
They will prophesy in the city of Jerusalem for a certain length of time. The time measured out for their ministry is 1260 days. That same span of time is given to us in four different ways: 1260 days; 42 months, with the standard solar month being 30 days; time, times and half a time, meaning three and a half years; and Daniel’s 70th week — he describes 70 “sevens” in which Jesus is cut off in the 69th “seven”, then one last “seven” at the end of time. The Hebrew translation of Daniel 9 uses the term “halfway”: “In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice…” Half of seven is three and a half.
Elijah shut up the sky for three and a half years. We see this number again and again: time, times and half a time, in Daniel 12:7; the woman in Revelation 12 who gives birth to the male child flees into the desert to be protected for 1260 days. In Verse 2 of this chapter, the Gentiles “trample on the holy city for 42 months.” This is a consistent length of time.
The only question is whether this length of time occurs in the first half or the second half of the seven year period. It makes sense that it is the first half. They prophesy in relative peace, while the temple is being built, while things are being established. Then the Antichrist clamps down on them and the horror starts in the second half.
Their Clothing and Demeanor
Verse 3 says they are “clothed in sackcloth.” Sackcloth is a sign of mourning and grieving over the seriousness of the sin of the nation, of the people. Elijah wore it continually as he prophesied to the people, as did Isaiah.
Their demeanor is also serious, in keeping with their clothing. They will preach a message something like this:
“Hear now, you inhabitants of the earth, listen to what we have to say. You are suffering as no generation has ever suffered in history. You are suffering ecological disasters, torment and death — a third of earth’s population has died. None of these things is accidental. They are sent as judgments from Almighty God, the God who created Heaven and earth, the sea and everything in it, the earth and everything in it, the sky and everything that flies through it. This God you have offended by your violation of his laws. You are idolaters, wicked and sinful."
“But God, in his grace, is giving you an opportunity. You are not dead; you are alive and can hear what we say. He sent his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, under the wrath of God, to take away the penalty of sin. If you believe in him, trust in him, all your sins will be forgiven; you will not suffer the real torment, eternity in hell."
“And you Jews, who are here for the building of the temple, do not think that God is pleased with this. This is an abomination of desolation. The temple itself is displeasing to God. God sent his son as the final sacrifice. The blood of bulls and goats will not save you. You do not need to turn to these vain empty things, or to go back to an obsolete law that has passed away. Come to Christ and trust in him. Do not trust in what this ruler is doing. He is deceiving you. Believe in Jesus.”
Their Prophetic Heritage
Verse 4 calls the witnesses “…the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” The Lord of the earth is either God or the Antichrist. They stand before both, in a sense. They stand before God and truly serve him, but they also stand in front of this wicked man and boldly proclaim the truth. The image of the two olive trees and lampstands is from Zechariah 4. The message is a symbol of Israel’s ministry in the world to be a light, a golden lampstand, to the world, an oil flowing. The real message is this: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” [Zechariah 4:6] Only by the Spirit of God and by the Word of God will any transformation and salvation happen. They stand there in the power of the Lord, and by the power of the Spirit they preach.
Who are they? John MacArthur has said that he would volunteer to be one of the two. The simple answer is the text does not tell us who they are. The way they are able to judge the earth and strike it with various plagues points to two key individuals: Moses, who is able to turn the water of the Nile into blood and strike the land of Egypt with plagues; and Elijah who calls down fire. In 2 Kings 1:9-10, wicked king Ahaziah sends a captain with 50 men to capture Elijah. The captain says, “Man of God, the king says, ‘Come down!’ Elijah answered, ‘If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!’ Then fire fll from heaven and consumed the captain and his men. A second captain goes with the same demeanor and attitude, yielding the same result. The third captain sent by the king is a wiser man. I picture him on his knees saying, “Elijah, if you wouldn’t mind, please have respect for my life. I have a wife and kids. I want to eat dinner at my home tonight. Would you mind coming?” Elijah complies and gives the hard message to the king. Given the fire Elijah calls down from heaven, many people think the witnesses must be Moses and Elijah. Those two also appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. At this point it is all speculation; however, they will definitely be real individuals.
Verses 5-6 say, “If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.” Again, this is not the character and nature of Christian witness for twenty centuries. Christians, such as John Hus and William Tyndale, are the ones who are burned at the stake, persecuted and killed, not the ones who bring the fire. In the book of Luke, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire when a Samaritan village would not let them enter. But Jesus rebuked them. In his Incarnation, the son of man did not come into the world to destroy lives but to save them.
That is not the case with his Second Coming. At that time, he will come to judge and kill, as Revelation 19 makes clear. Prior to that, there is a clear display of God’s wrath as a final warning to the sinful human race. These two fit into that display. Their ministry is different than ours. We are like Stephen — as we are stoned and sink to our death, we say, “Lord, please do not hold this sin against them. Please let some of them come to Christ” — some like Saul of Tarsus. We want our persecutors to come to Christ. But at that time, those who physically attack these two (not simply those who mock or do not believe their message), fire comes out of their mouth to consume their attackers. Whether literally (which will be possible) or figuratively, (I do not think a literal sword comes out of Jesus’ mouth to slay his enemies), they have the power to do so either way.
They also have the power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain. This is a grievous plague — after Wormwood has polluted a third of the water, now they are not getting rain. This is the final prophetic warning to the Jewish nation: “…so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” [Romans 11:26-27]
Verse 7 says, “Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them.” We will meet the beast again in Revelation 13, where he is not called the “Beast from the Abyss" but the “Beast from the Sea”, though I think they are one and the same, the Antichrist. John already knows who the beast is but he gives us a foretaste here. The beast that we meet two chapters from now is the one that rises up, overpowers them and kills them.
God is in the process of raising up monsters, mighty Leviathan sea creatures and dragons, Goliath figures, and then defeating them. The final monster that will rise up, humanly speaking, will be this Antichrist. His power will be evident in that he defeats these two witnesses, actually able to kill genuine people of God. But this is not the final word. He himself will be destroyed by the breath of Jesus’ mouth and by the splendor of his coming. How great will our joy be when Christ’s power is displayed at that time. This will be the fulfillment of the horn in Daniel 7:21 that “was waging war against the saints and defeating them.” It says “saints,” plural. He will wage war not only against these two, but against all the saints on earth at that point. That does not preclude a literal interpretation here. He will wage war on these two and defeat them, and they will die.
The witnesses will then be dishonored. Verses 8-10: “Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days men from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.” This wicked world, so filled with hatred for God and his people, will overflow with dishonor and disrespect by not letting these two be buried, and with joy such that they actually send each other gifts to celebrate their death. One commentator, who interpreted this text figuratively, said mockingly, “What, will the whole world watch by television?!” At the time that person, who is a good brother and scholar, wrote his commentary, television was the primary medium for news. Now we can livestream any event, any time for all to see on their phones. That is a big part of 21st century culture. It is not so hard now to imagine that the death of these two will be captured on livestream and that the whole world will be able to gaze on their bodies in some sense and celebrate.
After three and a half days, they rise again from the dead. Terror seizes those who see their resurrection. Verses 11-12 say, “But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.”
Why are they resurrected? To vindicate their message. Jesus, it says in Romans 4:25, was raised to life for our justification. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ and everyone who believes in him.
Verse 13 says, “At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed [clear judgment on that part of the city]. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and [here is the point] the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” Praise God. Some people will get the message. Who? Let’s start with the Jewish nation. Something must turn them. They are bitterly disappointed by the Antichrist, and the animal sacrifice will not happen now. Perhaps they are able to listen to the message that these two have been preaching now for 1260 days and will turn to Christ.
Finally, Revelation 11:14 says, “The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.”
Come to Christ!
First, I have preached the Gospel to you this morning. You will go outside, as we do every week, and everything will look normal, like it always does. You must decide if you believe the Word of God that says these things will happen. How will understanding the details of the two witnesses help you in your life tomorrow? I don't know, but if you are lost, I would urge that you flee to Christ. You do not know when the Antichrist and all these details will happen, but you also do not know when you're gonna die. This very day might be your last day on earth, so come to Christ, trust in him while there is still time.
Second, for those who are already Christians, having crossed over from death to life, our job is to witness to those who have not crossed over yet. We show a striking lack of courage and boldness. Pray to the God who will give these folks incredible boldness to give you boldness this week to share the Gospel, to say something to somebody. Try asking someone at work or school if they have ever read the Book of Revelation. Have a conversation, talk about the Gospel.
Apply the Illustrations
Finally, understand my three illustrations: When we ask why something is happening, recognize that God is at work. The suffering we go through is part of God’s plan. When we ask where we are heading and if we are there yet, recognize that crossing the border into Connecticut is not the same as arriving in Miami. We have a long way to go, but in time, perhaps within our generation or our children’s, it will come. So parents, tell your children the details things to prepare them. And start to put the puzzle together. Reread this passage and all of this book. There is a blessing given to everyone who reads and understands the words of the Book of Revelation.
Close with me in prayer. Lord, thank you for the time we have had to go through these very complicated challenging verses. I thank you for the things that we have learned. I thank you for the celebration that we have had in worship. I thank You for Wes and his wife Annie being with us today. Thank you for the grace we see in their lives. Thank you for the baptism. And Lord, I pray that as we go from here, that you would please enable us, Lord, to be witnesses, enable us to be bold and courageous. We know that we will not be as bold and courageous as we could be, but Lord, give us more boldness than we have ever shown before. Help us to reach out to the perishing and to share the message of life. We thank you for these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.