And I will deliver to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred sixty days, having been wrapped around in sackcloth.
These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks who have been standing before the Lord of the earth.
But if someone is wanting to do wrong to them, fire comes forth out of their mouths and devours their enemies, and if someone would be wanting to do wrong to them, in this very way they must be to put to death.
These have authority to close the sky in order that rain would not rain in the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every plague as often as they are wanting to.Revelation 11:3-6
Yesterday, I gave the perspectives of commentators who focus their attention on the past. Historicists see John’s Apocalypse fulfilled in the past two millennia of Church history. Preterists see John’s Apocalypse fulfilled in the Jewish War of 66 – 70 CE.
But there are two more perspectives to explore: those who look to the future, certain that John’s Revelation is about the end of human history, and those who take a broader view that John’s Revelation has to do primarily with spiritual things that believers of every era and culture will benefit from.
Theologians who see fulfillment of these prophecies as yet to come key in on the two ways John calculates timeframes in Revelation 11:1-2, and the passage above. First, John is tasked with measuring the inner rooms of the temple, the naos, but not the outer courtyard since it has been given over to the Gentiles and will be trampled underfoot for forty-two months.
Then, God introduces the two witnesses who will prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days. Futurist interpreters note the distinction, saying these are two periods of time to occur side-by-side.
Some infer the first three and a half years will be less grim than the second, for in the second time period, God’s witnesses will be in danger of their lives, will stop up the rain, befoul the waters of earth with blood, release any number of widespread plagues, and will execute all aggressors with fearsome flames shooting from their mouths.
Others disagree, saying the arrival of the Beast, which will usher in untold evil, including the deaths of the witnesses, must represent the latter half of this time of Tribulation.
Most interpreters concur these will be two actual men based in Jerusalem who conduct a preaching and prophesying ministry for three and a half years. Their miraculous powers are similar to those given to Moses and Elijah, so consensus rests on these two Old Testament men.
- Turned all the waters of Egypt into blood:
Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile; all the water in the river was turned into bloodExodus 7:20 (NRSV, emphases mine)
- Released the plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, deadly pestilence on livestock, boils on humans and animals alike, thunder and hail that decimated livestock and fields, locusts, and darkness that settled everywhere but the land of Goshen where God’s people the Hebrews dwelt.
- Caused a drought that lasted exactly three and half years.
… in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months and there was a severe famine over all the land …
… Elijah was a human like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.Luke 4:25 and James 5:17 (NRSV, emphases mine)
As with expositors from other perspectives, compelling evidence is given in the story of Jesus’s transfiguration.
And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking about his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.Luke 9:29-31 (NRSV, modifications mine)
Moses and Elijah are generally accepted as representing the law and the prophets, two highly regarded witnesses of God.
The prophet Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return is given as further support.
Some commentators consider Enoch as a reliable alternative partner to Elijah, in consideration of early Christian writers’ views.
Early church expositors pointed out how Enoch and Elijah are the only two people on record who have not died. Only they have stood in the presence of the Lord for untold millennia, waiting for their final assignment.
Enoch no doubt was translated, and so was Elijah; nor did they experience death: it was postponed, (and only postponed), most certainly: they are reserved for the suffering of death, that by their blood they may extinguish Antichrist.Tertullian (c. 155 CE – c. 220 CE), A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter L: The Absurd Opinion of Epicurus and the Profane Conceits of the Heretic Menander on Death, Even Enoch and Elijah Reserved for Death.
There come two prophets, Enoch and Elias, and these are the two olive trees he speaks ofHippolytus of Rome (c. 235 CE)
I am Enoch, who was translated by the word of God: and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot.
Here we have hitherto been, and have not tasted death, but are now about to return at the coming of Antichrist, being armed with divine signs and miracles, to engage with him in battle, and to be slain by him at Jerusalem, and to be taken up alive again into the clouds, after three days and a half.The Gospel of Nicodemus (4th or 5th century CE), XX:3-4 (emphases mine)
There are a few commentators who contemplate a possible symbolic meaning to the two witnesses.
- The witnessing Church during the Tribulation.
- A particular group of witnesses endowed with supernatural ability to authenticate their message.
- Two individuals who come in the spirit of Moses and Elijah, much as John the Baptist also came in the spirit of Elijah.
- Two converts during the time of the Tribulation, after the Rapture of the Church, who are given prophetic and miraculous anointing.
Unsurprisingly, theologians who take the broader spiritual view understand the two witnesses as signifying the witnessing Church throughout Christianity’s history. Missionaries, ministers of the word, all those who spread the Gospel and bear testimony to Jesus Christ become God’s witnesses,
John speaks of God selecting two prophets because in John’s day this was the minimum number of witnesses to verify the veracity of their testimony.
Significance of Two
On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness.Deuteronomy 17:6 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.Matthew 18:16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
Jesus Himself sent out His followers in twos to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.Luke 10:1 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
- Church Age: The ministry of the witnesses corresponds to the timeframe of the temple’s outer court being trampled by all the peoples of earth, meaning the spread of Christianity.
- Sackcloth: As with Jonah to the inhabitants of Nineveh, Christians bring a message repentance.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.Jonah 3:6 (NRSV, emphases mine)
- Olive Trees: Zechariah’s oracle referring to Joshua and Zerubbabel speaks of the restoration of God’s people.
- Deadly Fire: The fire of God’s wrath comes upon those who seek to harm God’s own, both as physical judgment and as spiritual.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg