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Ministry of The Two Witnesses (Revelation 11:3-14)

Updated on May 17, 2020
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Marcelo Carcach is the pastor of Iglesia Conexiones in Jessup, Maryland. He has a M.S. in education and a B.A. in Bible.

Two Witnesses and the Beast

anonymous Russian Old Believer / Public domain
anonymous Russian Old Believer / Public domain | Source

Identity and Ministry (Revelation 11:3-6)

In my previous article on Revelation 11:1-2, I proposed that the temple John was instructed to measure is a third temple in Jerusalem, a temple that will be built in the future (probably, a not too distant future).

On verse 3, God tells John about His two witnesses. Who are these witnesses? Why is their ministry important?

The basic information we are given about these two witnesses is as follows:

  • They receive authority from God.
  • They will prophesy.
  • Their prophetic ministry lasts 1,260 days.
  • They will be clothed in sackcloth.
  • They are (a) the two olive trees and (b) the two lamp-stands that are before God.
  • Fire comes from their mouth to consume their enemies.
  • They can shut the sky so that it will not rain while they prophesy
  • They can turn the water into blood and hurt the earth with plagues

Thus, these three verses give us a great wealth of information about these two witnesses. Let us now analyze the information.

They Are Prophets Like The Prophets in The Hebrew Scriptures

Revelation clearly identifies these two witnesses as prophets with a prophetic ministry. Therefore, they are not angels, but humans.

They perform some very powerful signs that further identify them as prophets. Like Elijah, through whom God caused rain not to fall for three years and six months, and fire to fall from the sky (1 Kings 17:1, 1 Kings 18:38, James 5:17), these two witnesses can consume their enemies with fire from their mouths and cause it not to rain throughout the days of their ministry (1,260, or three years and 6 months). And like Moses, through whose ministry God caused water to turn to blood and brought about nine more plagues over Egypt (Exodus 7:20, Exodus 8-12), these two witnesses can cause water to be turned to blood and bring about more plagues over the Earth.

There can be no doubt, then, that these two witnesses are prophets who have received authority, power, from God to perform amazing miracles.

Their Ministry Is for the Benefit of Israel

By comparing them to Moses and Elijah, the book of Revelation may be telling us much more than that these two prophets (the two witnesses) can perform amazing miracles. Moses and Elijah are two very important prophets in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).

When Moses performed the great miracles of turning the waters of the Nile into blood and of bringing about nine additional plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail with lightning and fire, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborns), it was to establish that the God of Israel is the one true God, and to deliver Israel from Egypt.

When Elijah performed the great miracles of causing it not to rain for three and a half years, and of causing fire to fall from the sky, it was to prove to Israel that the LORD is the one true God, and turn Israel back from idolatry unto worshiping God (1 Kings 18:39-40).

It is very likely that the two witnesses will be performing all these miracles for the exact same reasons.

Notice two important pieces of information: the two prophets are called witnesses, and they are also dressed in sackcloth.

These prophets are most likely witnesses of Jesus. According to the book of Revelation, Jesus is the faithful and true witness of God (Revelation 1:5 and 3:14). Nevertheless, Jesus also has witnesses about him: John is a witness (Revelation 1:2), Antipas was a witness (Revelation 2:13), and the martyrs of Christ also bore him witness (Revelation 6:9). In fact, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). It is impossible to think that these two prophets would not bear witness to Jesus.

Moreover, we are also told that these two prophets are dressed in sackcloth. In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), wearing sackcloth is a sign of mourning (Genesis 37:34, Esther 4:3, Psalm 35:3, 2 Samuel 3:31), which mourning was also associated with repentance (1 Kings 21:27, 1 Chronicles 21:16, Daniel 9:3). Why then do you suppose these prophets are dressed in sackcloth? Because Israel must repent as a nation since it rejected Jesus as their Messiah (Matthew 23:38-39; Acts 2:22-24, 36-39). Just as the prophet Daniel wore sackcloth as a sign of repentance from the nation's sins, so do these two prophets were sackcloth as a sign of repentance from the nations' sins.

Their Ministry Is Related to The Temple

The ministry of these two prophets is also somehow related to the third temple. The first time we hear about them is when John is told to measure the temple and warned that the nations will trample Jerusalem for 42 months. Moreover, according to what John is told, the two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days (that is, 42 months, 3 years and 6 months, 3.5 years). Thus, the length of the ministry of the witnesses is the same as the length during which the nations will trample Jerusalem. Once again, these numbers are a reference to Daniel's 70th week, his 70th period of 7 years, which begins when the prince that shall come makes a covenant (Daniel 9:27).

But what could the witnesses' relationship with the temple be? According to what John is told, these two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands that stand before God. This is an obvious reference to Zechariah's vision of a golden lamp-stand (Zechariah 4).

Zechariah saw a vision of a golden lamp-stand (menorah) with seven branches, a bowl over it, and two olive trees by it, one olive tree on each side (Zechariah 4:1-3). Zechariah did not know what these things represented, so the angel tells him that these are a message from God to Zerubbabel.

As we read Zechariah 4:4-10, we realize that God's message to Zerubbabel is that, even though there is great opposition to the building of the second temple, Zerubbabel will finish building temple by drawing strength not from human strength but from the Spirit of God. In effect, despite much opposition, this temple was completed around 515 B.C.

But Zechariah still wondered about the two olive trees: who were they? The angel explained to Zechariah that these were the two anointed ones (Zechariah 4:13-14). In the book of Zechariah, the two anointed ones are the High Priest Joshua and Zerubbabel himself, the governor of Judaea, who was of the Davidic line. But some scholars also believe that the two anointed ones may be the two prophets who encouraged these two men to rebuild the temple: Zechariah and Haggai.

Regardless of whether the two olive trees are Zechariah and Haggai, or Zerubbabel and Joshua, we can see how the two witnesses may be very closely associated with the rebuilding of the third temple. If they are the two olive trees, which in ancient times led Israel to rebuild the second temple, these two olive trees in Revelation may be the ones who in the future will be encouraging Israel to rebuild the third temple.

Interestingly enough, according to Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, content editor of Chabad.org, Israel needs a prophet to rebuild the temple (click here to read his article).

The Identity of the Two Witnesses

We see then that there is much evidence in the book of Revelation that indicates that the two witnesses are two prophets who will perform great signs to encourage Israel to turn to Jesus Christ and to build the third temple (possibly, in anticipation of the Lord's return). It will be a perilous time, and their signs will help protect the nation of Israel and afflict their enemies (the enemies of the two witnesses, the enemies of Israel, and people on Earth).

Their Defeat and Victory (Revelation 11:7-14)

Their Defeat

The Lord tells John that, after they have finished their testimony (their preaching ministry), the two witnesses will be defeated and killed by the beast (this is the first mention in Revelation of the beast, and we see it rises from the bottomless pit, it opposes God, and it kills God's two prophets). Who this beast is will be discussed in chapter 13.

According to Revelation, the bodies of these two witnesses will lie in the street of the city that is called Sodom and Egypt, where Jesus was crucified. This is the city of Jerusalem, which God called Sodom through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10), and which kept looking back to Egypt in their hearts (Numbers 14:4, Acts 7:39).

It is interesting that, previously, Revelation 11 called Jerusalem the Holy City (11:2), but now it calls it Sodom and Egypt (11:8). We are also told that this is the city where the Lord Jesus was crucified. Once again, this ties in to the ministry of the two witnesses: they seem to be bearing witness to the sin of Israel when it rejected and crucified Jesus.

John is then told that for three and a half days the bodies of the two witnesses will not be buried, but they will be gazed at but people from different nations; and the rest of the world will celebrate that they are dead because they had tormented the world with their signs and plagues.

Their Victory

After the three and a half days, God's breath (Spirit) of life brings the two witnesses back to life. This causes great fear on everyone who sees them, understandably so. They though the two prophets had been defeated forever, but now they are back to life. Then a voice from Heaven instructs them to ascend to Heaven, and their enemies see them ascend to Heaven.

There is no need to take any of this symbolically. Their witness about Jesus becomes even more powerful now that, after three and a half days of being dead, they resurrect as Jesus himself resurrected, and now that they ascend as Jesus himself ascended. Their enemies and the world have no excuse to suppose that the gospel of Jesus Christ (that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead) is not true. If these two witnesses who preach to Israel and the world in the name of Jesus can return from the dead and ascend to Heaven, then Jesus certainly resurrected, ascended to Heaven, is soon coming back to Earth.

A cloud then received them into Heaven: most likely, this isn't just any cloud, but the cloud of God's glory.

Then there was a great earthquake that caused one tenth of the city (Jerusalem) to fall, and seven thousand people were killed. Those who remained alive were terrified (after seeing the witnesses resurrect and ascend, and after experiencing an earthquake), and they gave glory to God.

Thus, there is now only one more trumpet left to sound.

A Timeline Begins to Emerge

Three Years and a Half

As we read Revelation 11, we notice that a timeline begins to emerge. A third temple will be built, but the court outside the temple will be given to the nations, and the nations will trample the city of Jerusalem for forty-two months. Moreover, the two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days. Both periods are the same: 1,260 days divided by 30 days per month is 42 months; and 42 months divided by 12 months per year is 3 years and 6 months, or three years and a half year. These two periods, the 42 months in which the city is trampled and the 1,260 days when the witnesses prophesy correspond to Daniel's 70th period of 7 years (Daniel 9:27).

According to Daniel 9:27 and Daniel 12:11, the prince who is to come will make a strong covenant with many for seven years; but approximately three and a half years later, he will cause the sacrifices and offerings to cease, and he will set in the temple an abomination that makes it desolate until the end.

Putting It Together

What we have thus far is a scenario that could work even in our modern age. Presently, Israel wants to build a temple; but it cannot build a temple without entering into conflict with the nations around it (along with other religious reasons).

Suppose that someone makes a peace treaty between Israel and the nations that oppose it. This treaty says that Israel can rebuild its temple, but Jerusalem must remain open to the rest of the world.

As Israel begins to rebuild its temple, two prophets begin to encourage Israel to finish the temple and to turn to Jesus Christ. They perform miracles to convince Israel, and to defend Israel from anyone who opposes it; they also preach against the other religions and nations of the world.

The political leader who facilitated the covenant does not like these two prophets. He does not like the direction in which they are influencing Israel, nor does he like their influence and effects on the world. So he decides to attack Jerusalem, kill the prophets, and desecrate the temple.

Based on the information we have thus far, I think this is the scenario Revelation is presenting to us, although some further adjustments may be needed.

Summary and Conclusion

The two witnesses are thus two prophets who perform great signs and wonders to protect Israel, to call Israel to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (the Messiah), and to encourage them to build a third temple in Jerusalem. Although they suffer martyrdom at the hands of the beast (which, as you can now deduce, I have interpreted as a political figure), their resurrection and ascension give even more convincing power to the gospel they proclaim (the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ).

Some Christians believe these two prophets are Moses and Elijah, or Encoh and Elijah, who have come back to Earth. But this interpretation has certain challenges:

  • Elijah was taken up to heaven and thus could return to Earth, but this doesn't mean he must return to Earth to experience death (as some infer from Hebrews 9:27) for (1) the prophecy in Malachi 4:5 was fulfilled by John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17, Matthew 11:14), and (b) there will be Christians who will not experience death (1 Corinthians 15:51). It is quite possible that one of these two witnesses is also only ministering in the spirit and power of Elijah, as John the Baptist did, to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi 4:5.
  • Moses died (Numbers 34:5). Why would he die again after having been resurrected?
  • Enoch, though he was caught up to heaven (Genesis 5:24), did not perform the same miracles as Moses. Nevertheless, it is possible that he would come back with Elijah and be given the same authority and power as Moses.

In my personal estimation, it is quite possible that the two witnesses are two individuals who have been given authority and power to minister as did Moses and Elijah, although I guess it is also possible that these two individuals are Enoch and Elijah returned to Earth. However, I do not think it could be Moses and Elijah, for then Moses would have to die twice.

Nevertheless, what is important to note is that the two witnesses will be a major influence on Israel and the world for approximately three and a half years after a political leader has made a covenant concerning Israel with many nations, as foretold by Daniel 9:27 and Daniel 12:11.

Target Israel - Two Witnesses of Revelation

© 2020 Marcelo Carcach

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