Revelation 11:3-14 – The Two Witnesses

(3)  And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

                   We are now introduced to two witnesses of God who will prophesy during this time of suffering (42 months/1,260 days). If they prophesy, then they must be prophets! Yes, but let’s remember what book we are reading; for I’m surprised at some who acknowledge that this book is symbolic but make these two witnesses out to be literal prophets who were living before the fall Jerusalem. But we know that the witnesses are not two actual people because they are signs; and the signs cannot also be the reality.

                   “Two witnesses.” God has always said that “two witnesses” are needed to establish rightful judgment (John 8:17).

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

In the old law, two witnesses were needed to provide evidence against an evildoer; by two witnesses a person would be found guilty and put to death (Deuteronomy 17:6; Hebrews 10:28). Under the new covenant, two witnesses were still needed to establish truth in a situation (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19). The two witnesses in Revelation are a natural part in this great deliberation over the judgment of the house of Israel.

                   Who exactly are the two witnesses? As we will see, the details to come in the chapter draw an unmistakable picture that the two witnesses and prophets are Moses and Elijah. Not that Moses and Elijah were literally there for the destruction of Jerusalem; but what these two represent was there until the end. Moses, the great prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22-26) who delivered the law to the people; and Elijah, the great representative of all the prophets to John the immerser (Matthew 11:14), are the fitting representatives of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 17:2-3). It was the Law and the Prophets which still stood in the last days of the house of Israel. It was the Law and the Prophets which were the continual witnesses against the people and their sins. We will see this developed as we progress further into the chapter.

                   “They will prophesy for 1,260 days.” On the idea behind this number, see comments on 11:2. The numerical symbolism establishes that the final evidence against the people will be during the dark days of suffering. The 1,260 days are the same as the forty-two months in 11:2 and speak of the dark days of the city Jerusalem while it is trampled by the Romans.

                   “Clothed in sackcloth.” Sackcloth was not a common garment; it was usually worn in times of sorrow and mourning (Genesis 37:34; Psalm 30:11; Isaiah 15:3). However, it was customary to see the prophets of God wearing sackcloth daily; I’m sure this was a prophetic gesture by itself, to mourn the sins of the people. Elijah is well known as the prophet who wore sackcloth (2 Kings 1:8); but others did too (Isaiah 20:2). Even false prophets, to make themselves appear as real prophets of God, wore sackcloth (Zechariah 13:4). So, the figure of the two witnesses (the law and the prophets) being clothed in sackcloth is keeping with the picture of them as prophets of God indicting the people by the authority of God’s word.


(4)  These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.

                   This is a beautiful illustration of the two witnesses (the law and the prophets) ever producing the light of God’s glory and truth. These witnesses are like lampstands that never run out of oil to burn, for they are also olive trees. They continually produce the oil to burn in the lampstands. They never go dark; but are a constant source of God’s true revelation; and therefore, a constant source of indictment against the Jewish nation.

                   This figure is reflective of Zechariah chapter four, where Zechariah saw a vision of a lampstand, with a bowl on top which constantly collected oil from pipes connected to two olive trees which stood on either side of the lampstand. Of these olive trees, Zechariah is told “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:14, now reread Revelation 11:4 and you’ll immediately notice the parallel). The whole picture depicts the power of word of God which comes through faithful men by his Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). It is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (ibid); that statement was just as true in the days of the book of Revelation and the fall of Jerusalem. Safety was not “by might, nor by power” (there were seditious political parties in Jerusalem who were using force of arms to conquer the people); but it was by faithfulness to the word of God that one would overcome those days.

(5)  And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed.

                   These details are in harmonious keeping with the picture of these witnesses as Moses and Elijah, representing the words of the law and the prophets. By the mouth of Moses, at the rebellion of Korah, the Lord commanded the people to separate from the rebellious families and fire came from the Lord and devoured the 250 usurpers of the company of Korah (Numbers 16). By the mouth of Elijah, fire came down from heaven and consumed the military men which Ahaziah sent (2 Kings 1:9-12). In general, the words of God were said to be a consuming fire to the rebellious Jews (Jeremiah 5:14, 23:29).

(6)  They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.

                   The witnesses have the power to stop the rain “during the days of their prophesying,” which is 3.5 years (v.3). This is a reference to Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-7), who prayed that it would not rain; his prayer was answered and there was a terrible drought for 3.5 years (Luke 4:25; James 5:17). The witnesses also have the power to send great plagues upon the people, such as turning water to blood. This reflects Moses sending the plagues upon Egypt.


(7)  And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them,

                   The witnesses are not taken away until their testimony is complete; that is very significant! This chapter shows both the passing away of the witnesses (the law and the prophets), and the sounding of the seventh (the last) trumpet. Remember, in the last chapter, the angel said “in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” (10:7). Everything is wrapping up; its all over. The long-lit words of the law and the prophets are passing away as the final trumpet is blown against Jerusalem and the walls come tumbling down.

                   “The beast that rises from the bottomless pit.” This is the first time that the term “beast” is used in the book, though the identity of the beast has been a major player in the book already (9:13-21; 11:2). The figure of the beast will pick up in chapter thirteen and will be a major theme for the rest of the book. We will see a tremendous amount of detail relating to the beast’s true identity later (especially in chapters thirteen and seventeen); but for now, it is not too challenging to understand the identity of the beast. After all, this is the first time that the seven churches in Asia have read the word “beast” too, but I suspect that they could deduce who is being spoken of. The beastly appearance who came up against Jerusalem could not be anyone else but the Romans (who were referenced in verse two). This “bottomless pit” is distinct from the “bottomless pit” which an angel came out of in chapter nine; while the English translation looks identical, the Greek is not (see comments on 9:2). This beast rises from the deep (abussos, i.e. abyss), and will be identified later with the deep sea (see comments on 13:1).

                   “Will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.” This is further confirmation that the two witnesses are not two literal prophets, for Jesus said that is not possible for anyone else to be responsible for killing prophets other than Jerusalem.

“It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Luke 13:33-34).

It wasn’t the Romans who were killing the prophets of God, nor is it the Romans who are held responsible; it was the Jews.

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. (48) So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. (49) Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ (50) so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, (51) from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.” (Luke 11:47-51).

So, what is this here about the beast killing the two witnesses? These aren’t literal prophets, because Rome didn’t kill the prophets, nor were any even sent to her; Jerusalem (the Jewish people) were responsible for killing all the literal prophets. But as I’ve commented before on this whole section, the two witnesses represent the whole system (the law and the prophets), and not two individual people. It was the beast which forced the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and all it’s services and ordinances. It was the beast which brought on the fall of the whole old covenant system. Of course, this is not about the beast, it is all about Jesus; this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1)! The beast is only the utility, fulfilling the word of Christ. We can look back and see how God used other beasts like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece, to fulfill his purposes; and now he is using Rome. The Lord was using Rome for the passing away and vanishing of the old testimony (Hebrews 7:12; 8:7-9, 13; 9:9-10, 26).

(8)  and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.

                   The figurative “dead bodies” of the Law and the Prophets (inclusive of the whole covenant system) have fallen on the street of “the great city” (see comments on 17:18). This is not an insignificant city, but a great one; much history has occurred in this city up to this point. The city is “symbolically” identified as “Sodom and Egypt.” Jerusalem had been long called “Sodom” by the prophets, because of her spiritual sexual immorality against her spouse, the Lord (Isaiah 1:9-10, 3:8-9; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:44-58; Matthew 11:24). She is called Egypt because she has been the oppressors of God’s people (see the testimony of the book of Acts; and Hebrews 10:32-33) whom he purchased with precious blood. Therefore, God is bringing upon Jerusalem all the plagues that he sent through the land of Egypt to cause them to relent (8:6-9:12, 15:1; 16:1-21; 18:4).

                   “Where their Lord was crucified.” This figure is easy enough to determine; for the Lord was crucified outside the great city which is held responsible for the killing of all the prophets, even including the Lord of glory (Luke 13:33). This is Jerusalem!

(9)  For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb,

                   This is a horrifically fantastic picture of the complete lack of reverence that the people had for the word of God. The historian Josephus does a great job describing the inhabitants of Jerusalem before the fall of the city. These were so overwhelmed with sin, that they defiled everything imaginable, including setting up a fort in the temple of God! This utter lack of fear and reverence for God is displayed in this picture of the people refusing to place the bodies of the two witnesses of God in a tomb.

                   This irreverent attitude of the seditious Jews is certainly reflected in Josephus’ account of that period:

“Along all the roads also vast numbers of dead bodies lay in heaps, and even many of those that were so zealous in deserting at length chose rather to perish within the city; for the hopes of burial made death in their own city appear of the two less terrible to them. But these zealots came at last to that degree of barbarity, as not to bestow a burial either on those slain in the city, or on those that lay along the roads; but as if they had made an agreement to cancel both the laws of their country and the laws of nature, and, at the same time that they defiled men with their wicked actions, they would pollute the Divinity itself also, they left the dead bodies to putrefy under the sun” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4.6.3).

(10)  and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.

                   The imagery continues and is amplified. The people begin to rejoice over the death of the two witnesses (the Law and the Prophets). These reminds me of what Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). They take joy in their supposed victory over the lovely things of God. This attribute of hating what is good and rejoicing in what is vile is illustrated in the picture of them making merry and exchanging gifts. This illusory victory over goodness was a cause for great celebration. Today, the wicked act similarly in their disgust for what is godly; Paul wrote about the mind of the wicked to the church in Rome, saying,

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (29)  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, (30)  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, (31)  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (32)  Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:28-32).

(11)  But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.

                   All miracles were for the confirmation of God’s word as the truth; but the resurrection of Jesus was the greatest confirmation of his word. So, the figurative resurrection pictured here demonstrations the confirmation of the Law and the Prophets as true.

                   “Great fear fell on those who saw them.” This is included in the highly symbolic illustration of the two resurrected witnesses. There would come the day when their laughter would be turned to mourning and their joy to gloom. For some, this newly developed fear for God will cause them to repent (see comments on 11:13).

(12)  Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.

                   This verse confirms the completion of their task; they are ready to be taken up into heaven. For thousands of years the Law and the Prophets testified of the glories of God and the curses of the covenant; now, in these final years of darkness (symbolized by the 3.5), they are persecuted for the last time. Their testimony is complete; their work is done, and all things which they spoke about are being fulfilled in those days (Revelation 10:7; Luke 21:22; Acts 3:21).

                   “And their enemies watched them.” This statement symbolizes the realities of the victor. All the witnesses who were faithful under the old covenant and bravely spoke out against the sins of the house of Israel are symbolized here as a public spectacle. The enemy sees the victory of the faithful in this ascension into heaven.

(13)  And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. (14)  The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.

While the two witnesses ascend safely and victoriously into the heavens, there is great terror back on earth. This “great earthquake” is a sign of judgment (see comments on 6:12-17) and the wrath of God upon the people he tried so long to redeem.

“A tenth of the city fell.” At this point, God takes a tithe of the city. This is only a fraction and relates to the fact that we are still in the trumpet (warning) portion of the judgment. But as the seventh and last trumpet is about to blow in the following verse, we see that the warnings are over, and the divorce of God’s old covenant people is accomplished.

“The rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” Jesus told a story one time (Matthew 20:1-16) about a vineyard owner who hired laborers early one morning. He also brought on more laborers at 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm. When there was but one hour left to work in the vineyard (the eleventh hour – 5:00 pm), the owner hired more workers. At the end of the day, the owner paid each laborer the same wage, whether they worked for twelve hours or just one. These individuals, in Revelation 11:13, are the right fit for the eleventh-hour laborers; who, by the grace of God, could receive the same blessed salvation as their brethren who have long endured the hardships of persecution by both Jewish and Roman sources.

“The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.” This completes the second woe of warning, and for the first time, we saw a positive response from some of the Jews. That’s a wonderful thing! But for the many who refused to repent, God will give them one last woe. But where in the book is the third woe? Some say it begins in 12:12, because that is the only other place that the word “woe” is used. However, after the fourth trumpet, the eagle had specifically said, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (8:13). So, it is evident that the three woes are in the last three trumpets; therefore, the third woe begins in 11:15 and continues through the full desolation of the people.

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