Then, after the three and a half days, a spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet, and great fear fell upon those watching them.
And they heard a great voice from the sky saying to them, “You ascend here,” and they ascended into the sky in the cloud, and their enemies looked on.
Then, in that hour, came a great earthquake, and the tenth of the city fell, and seven thousand names of people were put to death in the earthquake, but on the rest there came a terrible fear and they gave glory to the God of heaven.
“The second woe has gone: Behold, the third woe comes swiftly.”Revelation 11:11-14
To the watching world, it seemed as though God had abandoned these two prophets to their foes. At last, or so they must have thought, God’s opponent had gotten the upper hand. What glee! What giddy excitement! But also what despair.
As we read about this scene two thousand years later, what do we see? What do we think it all means?
Scholars who see fulfillment of these passages in history take the long view. Rather than actual twenty-four-hour cycles, they count a year for each day. That being the case, the two prophets would have lain exposed for three and a half years.
Uncannily enough, the amount of time between the Lateran Council which announced victory over all opposition to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg Church door is … three and a half years.
Symbolically, then, the witnesses of all those who had tried to reform the Church, who had rejected unbiblical practices and precepts, who had all been tortured and killed by religious authorities, now seemed to rise up once again. The Spirit of Life, the Holy Spirit, had revived fervent faith in those who keened after the Gospel.
Historicist interpreters give three reasons to read the text this way:
- Testimony: The story line matches: it is the same kind of testimony, the same truths are being upheld, and it is the same dark evil that opposed this faithful witness to the Gospel.
- Spirit: The witnesses bore the same noble character and the same Holy Spirit. In the same way, those who opposed the witnesses also had the same base character and were inspired by the same base spirit.
- Courage: The witnesses shared the same undaunted bravery, faced the same relentless, bitter opposition, and suffered the same brutal persecution.
The people of Luther’s day also saw in him the same Spirit Who had filled the martyrs who came before him, particularly Jerome of Prague, and Jan Hus. In fact, in referring to previous heretics and their punishments, Pope Hadrian was even quoted as saying,
Council of Constance’s condemnation of John Hus and Jerome of Prague « who in the person of Luther seem to have returned to life ».Robert E. McNally, “Pope Adrian VI (11522-23) and Church Reform,” Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 7 (1969): 253–85.
- God’s call to ascend can be understood as Protestantism’s ascendancy, having God’s divine power and favor.
- The great earthquake represents the political and religious upheavals caused by the truth being vindicated by God.
- A tenth of the city, or rather a tenth of the Roman Church’s wealth and power, crumbled.
- Seven thousand people dying references seven provinces that moved from Catholicism to Protestantism—Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Frieseland, Groningnen, Overyssel, and Guiderland which today embody most of the Netherlands
If concentrating on the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, then the two witnesses symbolize religious and political order. Death of that order happened at the cross, and for a short time it seemed the Sanhedrin had won. Their plan, brewing during most of Jesus’ ministry, culminated in Caiaphas’s response to hand-wringing over Jesus’s popularity.
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”John 11:49-50 (NRSV)
But their seeming triumph was short-lived. Over the space of fifty days, Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to over five hundred people, and devoted five weeks to instructing His followers in the scriptures, prophecy, and what was to come. On the Day of Pentecost, the Heaven’s gates were sprung wide as the Spirit of Life filled Christ’s own with the fire of evangelism.
Jesus had in reality risen up into heaven on a cloud, and now His disciples and apostles were figuratively positioned in heaven with Christ. But also, the enemies of Christ watched in fear as the Jesus movement swiftly spread throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and beyond. What had begun as a twelve disciples, and another hundred or so close followers had—literally overnight—become a throng of thousands.
- The great earthquake is associated with the first siege of Jerusalem, as only a tenth of the city falls, and there is a trumpet left to be sounded.
- Seven thousand people dying may key on the word “seven” as the number of completeness. Perhaps this was meant as an ironic reversal of God’s preservation of seven thousand during Elijah’s time.
Josephus recorded events which seem to eerily align with John’s oracle.
there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake.
These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.
… And now the outer temple was all of it overflowed with blood; and that day, as it came on, they saw eight thousand five hundred dead bodies there.Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Chapter 4:6, Chapter 5:1.
Commentators looking to the future read this text as a literal prophecy. There will be worldwide media coverage of the witnesses’ hair-raising resurrection. Before their horrified spectators, they will stand up, then surrounded by a cloud, they will rise up into the sky in response to God’s command.
Even as mouths gape and eyes forget to blink, a massive temblor will rock the city of Jerusalem. Media coverage will pivot to the collapsing cities, and the aftermath of searching for survivors. Seven thousand named people (known people) will die.
Those who remain will acknowledge the supernatural nature of what happened, giving glory to God, whether as converts or not. Futurist scholars are divided on whether it is this episode which will bring about a revival of faith in Israel.
Over the course of the past two millennia, God’s faithful witness have been martyred, churches have been expunged, and Christianity has been suppressed—as is happening to this day. But again and again, God vindicates God’s Own, even as Jesus was vindicated in His resurrection.
Without any doubt, the mystery of godliness is great:
He was revealed in flesh,1 Timothy 3:16 (NRSV)
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
In a very real way, every time martyrs are honored and remembered, they live on in our lives here on earth, and their martyrdom is their final triumph, for their lives still cause others to give glory to God. Some spiritual expositors will point out how in antiquity, those of Jewish faith honored the very prophets their ancestors had slain.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”Jesus, Matthew 23:29-31 (NRSV)
One day, the church really will rise up with the clouds to meet Jesus in heaven, as the impact of God’s Judgment brings cataclysm to the cosmos.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg