by Roger McCay
1 January 2023
Sermon Passage: Revelation 11:3-6
Link to Audio Version
It has been said about this passage on the two witnesses that “Commentator’s almost universally regard this as the most difficult passage in Revelation.” Perhaps so. Surely it is wise to approach the passage with humility and resist being too dogmatic in our interpretation. Yet, despite the difficulty, principles of interpretation help provide us with a reasonable understanding of the passage, so that we might be confident that our understanding is consistent with what the Lord was communicating to us through John’s vision.
Too, as this is a sermon, while identification of the two witnesses, what their mission was, and how the Lord protected and empowered them in their mission is very important for our edification, how this speaks to us today and how we apply it is essential. For even if we perfectly identify the two witnesses, so what?
Thus, today, we’re going to give some thought towards the fallen condition focus of the fear of being a witness for Christ. Such fear comes due to your and my knowing that we will face opposition from the world, like what the two witnesses faced, when we are faithful. Lots of people are just not going to like what we have to say. This is because being a witness for Christ involves proclaiming the gospel, and not only about God’s grace and love—the gift of salvation. No, it’s more than that. Essential to the message of the gospel is the call of Jesus to repent, for judgment is coming. And the call to repent necessarily means pointing out sin. And people can get rather upset over being called out for their sin, particularly when you ground it in the truth of the Scriptures, insisting that truth is universal for all people. So, if you are going to be a faithful Christian, following the Lord as his witness, you’re going to get some opposition, and they may try to hurt you (2 Tim. 3:12).
Now, in the time since we studied Rev. 11:1-2, we’ve examined a few NT passages that focused on witness. And hopefully they served to remind you of the Lord’s will, concerning the witness of his church. We’ve looked at Acts 1:1-11, with the call of Jesus to be his witnesses; Romans 10, on the importance of evangelism; Mark 1:14-20, with the elements of the gospel call of Jesus; and Acts 7 with Stephen, the first Christian martyr’s final sermon and death. Indeed, as we saw in our study of Acts 7, the very word martyr (μάρτυς in Greek) means “witness:” as someone who testifies as a witness in legal matters, one who witnesses at the cost of their life, or simply a witness. Thus, every faithful Christian is a martyr.
Now, who are these two witnesses mentioned in our passage today? Well, consistent with what I just mentioned, the proposition of Jay Rogers makes sense, in general, which is that the two witnesses were metaphors for Christ and the church. Indeed, in Revelation only two are specifically mentioned to be witnesses: Jesus, who is the faithful witness (μάρτυς), in Rev. 1:5; and then the church, in the form of the various Christians murdered for their witness. For example: the souls under the altar in heaven, in Rev. 6:9, who were killed due to the Word of God and their witness (μαρτυρία); also Antipas in Rev. 2:13, whom Jesus calls “my faithful witness (μάρτυς).” Then, and I think particularly poignant to this passage, is the great multitude, in Rev. 7, who were “the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” As we saw when we looked at that passage, these were Christians who died in the faith during the time leading up to the events of Jerusalem’s fall in AD70. And their number included those mentioned in Rev. 6:11, towards the “complete” number of “fellow servants and their brothers … who were to be killed as they themselves (the martyrs under the heavenly altar) … as they had been [killed].”
So, in general, the metaphor of two witnesses points to Christ and the church, which would have included Stephen and all those who had been killed for their faithful witness, not only in Jerusalem, but wherever they might have been, such as Antipas (who was in Pergamum). The experience of these martyrs was part of the “tribulation” (slightly different than the “great tribulation”), … the tribulation that Jesus mentioned in his Prophetic Discourse, in Matt. 24:9. This persecution was ongoing from the time of Stephen’s death through and beyond the time when John wrote Revelation (circa AD 65), when Emperor Nero was brutally persecuting the Christian church. This tribulation of persecution would then continue on up into the great tribulation (which we’ll consider in a minute). So, the two witnesses are, at least, part of the larger metaphor that includes all the martyrs, leading up to the Lord’s judgment, which came down upon Jerusalem in AD70. But as Rev. 11:3 indicates, they were not the whole, but a part, representing the whole.
Now, who were these particular representatives spoken of in Rev. 11:3? Take a look:
“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses (μάρτυσίν), and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
First off, notice how these witnesses were granted authority by God. In other words, God called them to be his witnesses. Is this something that can be said for all Christians? Of course. By the nature of the Lord’s call, all Christians have been given authority to be the Lord’s witnesses.
But then notice the time indicator, in v. 3, which serves to narrow things down, restricting who these people would be from all the martyrs of the church up to that time. Verse 3 says, “they will prophesy for 1,260 days.” This limitation is key. The 1,260 days directly corresponds with the 42 months mentioned in Rev. 11:2. They are two ways of saying the same thing. And remember, as we saw when we studied Rev. 11:2, 42 months was the length of time from Vespasian’s commissioning by Nero and his arrival in Israel to conquer the Jews (in Spring of AD 67) until the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (in August/September of 70). That was also the time of the “great tribulation,” mentioned by Jesus, in his Prophetic Discourse (Luke 21:23-24 and Matt. 24:21). And this fits, as the text indicates that the temple (which was destroyed in AD70) was still standing at the time of the two witnesses’ ministry. So, these two witnesses’ ministry took place during the time of Rome’s campaign of conquest against Israel.
That being said, where were these witnesses going about their mission? Well, the text gives some clear indicators of as to their location. First off, the language is such that the witnesses are tied to vv. 1-2, with an “and,” indicating not only harmony in time, but in location—the location being the “holy city” (where the Temple of God was still standing)—Jerusalem. Then, when the two witnesses were killed (vv. 7-8), they were located in “the great city … where their Lord was crucified.” And where was the Lord Jesus crucified? Jerusalem, of course. And that is where the two witnesses carried out their ministry.
Also, we do well to remember the symbolic nature of Revelation. What is significant about “two witnesses,” instead of some other number? It’s that the number directly alludes to the law. The minimal standard of a twofold witness was required to testify against someone in a court of law (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). As Jesus said in John 17:18, “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.” And that’s the point of the symbolism—fulfilling the requirement for truthful testimony. It’s saying that by the Jews own legal standards the two witnesses testimony was valid. It also fits with the judgment theme of Revelation against Israel, which we’ve looked at in detail going back to Rev. 1:7 (also, the judgements of the opened scroll first presented in 5:1—judgments which have been unfolding as the trumpets have been blowing starting in ch. 8, with the present passage falling within the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet, the latter which is blown in Rev. 11:15). So, the symbolism of “two” points to the legal validity of the witnesses’ testimony, and the truth of their words, concerning the Lord’s coming judgment upon apostate Israel.
So, my thought is that the “two witnesses” were Jewish Christians, in Jerusalem, who did not leave with the rest of the church when it escaped from the city. They could have been only two people or they could have been a larger group (considering the symbolism). But these were those Christians who remained in Jerusalem through the many horrors of the siege of the city by the Romans, and who were killed there due to their witness.
Which leads to the question, what was their mission in staying? Well, in a way, it’s in the name, and in the description of their message—which was prophesy. As the Lord’s witnesses, they remained in Jerusalem to prophesy in the manner of all the prophets, calling the people to repent and believe the gospel, because the Lord’s judgment was coming down upon the nation of Israel due to their apostasy. The destruction of the city and the temple was nigh. “Repent and believe the gospel before it’s too late.” Indeed, the symbol of the garb attributed to them, sackcloth, in the custom of the prophets, spoke to the dire nature of the woes they were prophesying (hearkening to Isaiah (Is. 20:2) and Jeremiah (Jer. 4:8).
So, in what other ways was their testimony after the manner of the prophets? Well, first off, consider v. 4: “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” This verse directly hearkens to Zech. 4. Zech. 4:2-3 says,
“I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”
Now, you’ll notice a particular difference in the visions is that there is only one lampstand is in Zech. 4, and there are two in Rev. 11:4. But that’s not really an issue, as we’re dealing with symbols and to what they hearken. The lamps on the lampstand in Zech. 4 represent the eyes of the Lord and his awareness of all that goes on in the earth (Zech. 4:10). Then the two olive trees are said to be “the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” And it’s generally understood that these two anointed ones (in Zech. 4) were Zerubbabel (the governor, who was of the line of David) and Joshua (the high priest).
Too, it is interesting how such identification fits the idea of the two witnesses being a metaphor for Christ (of the line of David) and the church (who are a kingdom of priests to the Lord – Rev. 1:6). Also, since Rev. 11:4 presents two lampstands (instead of just one) paired with the two olive trees (recalling how each church in Asia was symbolized by a lampstand in Rev. 1:20), perhaps the Jerusalem church is here symbolized as one lampstand and the church as a whole is symbolized as the other. Or it may simply be that the lampstands are numbered as two, in order to fit the symbolism of the two witnesses. Whatever the case, these witnesses stand before the Lord enjoying his favor and protection, indwelled by his Spirit, who sees the truth of things.
Further, as Kenneth Gentry points out, the language of the courtroom is used here. As he says, “When someone goes to court, they stand before the judge.” So, the two witnesses symbolically stood before the judge of all the earth as they testified, accomplishing their mission by proclaiming the Lord’s truth to the people of Jerusalem.
Now, these witnesses came up against considerable opposition, as the Jews did not like their testimony. Their words were much in line with Stephen’s words, and look what that got him. So, would they accomplish their mission of prophetic witness? Rev. 11:7 tells us they did. They accomplished their mission and finished their witness before they were struck down by the enemy.
It’s like, in Zech. 4:6, where Zerubbabel was assured that he would be successful in his endeavors: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts,” So it was that the two witnesses would also accomplish their mission by the Spirit of the Lord, as they spoke the truth of the Lord’s Word. Such was in the manner of the prophets who came before them.
This leads us to Rev. 11:5-6:
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. 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.
These verses hearken to several places in the OT (including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), and it also touches on the prophets Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses.
In Jer. 5:14, the Lord said, “Because you have spoken this word, behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them.” Jeremiah repeatedly called out the sins of the people of Judah, calling them to repent, and he told them of their coming doom—God’s wrath upon them. And, as it turned out, in the case of both Jeremiah and the Two Witnesses, the nation would be destroyed, leaving the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins.
And of course there was the incident with Elijah, where the king (Ahaziah) had sent for a word from the prophets of Baal as to his health. But the Lord sent Elijah to interrupt their inquiry, which ended up with the king repeatedly sending soldiers to take Elijah into custody. Yet, in each case but the last, Elijah called fire down upon them and destroyed the soldiers. As it says, “the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed the enemy” (2 Kings 1:10,12).
The point was that God is real and in charge, his prophet was under his protection, and he was angry at the idolatry of Israel and the king (whom God killed—2 Kgs 1:16). In a like manner, the sovereign Lord, angry with Israel’s unfaithfulness, was with and protecting his two witnesses.
Elijah is also hearkened to here in Rev. 11:6, in that he shut up the sky, keeping it from raining on Israel for years. The point was that the Lord was the Living and True God, and Baal (who supposedly had power over the rain) was a false God (1 Kgs 17). For it was by the Lord’s power that Elijah shut up the sky. Likewise, in the case of the two witnesses, it was by God’s power that they would testify to the truth, prophesying God’s judgment, calling the people to repentance and to believe the gospel of Christ. In both cases, God gave his prophet or witness the power to make their point, so that it was unmistakable, and effectual to salvation for those who believed.
Further, Jay Rogers draws and interesting parallel:
This image of fire falling from heaven also alludes to the story of the two angels who came to Sodom in the evening and met Lot who was sitting in the gate of the city (Genesis 19:1). The men of Sodom not only rejected God’s two witnesses, but they also sought to abuse them. As the faithful Church escaped the city, God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. Not only does John compare Jerusalem to Sodom (Revelation 11:8), but the two angels who appeared to Lot can be likened to the Two Witnesses.
Although, I should mention that in the case of Jerusalem, while most of the church escaped (many, if not all to Pella), the Two Witnesses stayed behind to continue to proclaim the Lord’s Word until the end.
As for the power to turn the waters into blood and to call down the plagues, such hearkens directly to Moses and the plagues brought upon Egypt. Once again, those plagues are invoked here in Revelation, having been touched upon through each blowing of the first six trumpets starting in Rev. 8. But what was the point of those plagues? They were to convince Pharoah to allow the Lord’s people to go free. They were towards the redemption of God’s people. And such were the words of the two witnesses, towards redemption in Christ. Even more, such was the other side of the coin of the Lord’s judgment upon apostate Israel. The testimony of the witnesses’ was such that, in the near sense, those who believed their message of Christ would, by grace, be set free from the snare of apostate Judaism, redeemed by Jesus, saved from their sin. And in the far sense, the redeemed bride of Christ (the church at large) would grow into its fulness through time until the Lord’s final coming. Of course, for those in Jerusalem who believed in Jesus, they would have the great privilege to join the company of the Two witnesses, as martyrs, and receive the blessings of the Lord’s promised reward.
Rogers also makes this insightful observation:
Just as Moses and Aaron called down plagues on the land of Egypt, and the two angels called down fire and brimstone on Sodom, so the Two Witnesses call down plagues on Jerusalem, “which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt” (Revelation 11:8). The destruction of the enemy led to the deliverance of the people of God. The Two Witnesses here condemn the unbelieving Jews in an echo of Jesus’ rebuke.
“You diligently search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which are bearing witness of Me” …
In short, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets who testify of Jesus so that the Jews were without excuse.
So it was, too, that the people that killed the Two Witnesses would quite literally experience the fire of the Lord’s wrath for their apostasy and lack of repentance. Jesus warned of this in his parable in Matt. 22:7, where the king was angry and set their city on fire. Josephus, who was an eyewitness, tells us in his book The Wars of the Jews, that when the temple was destroyed, its burning was such that “one would have thought that the hill itself, on which the temple stood, was seething hot, as full of fire on every part of it.” And after the war, Josephus then tells us that the Jews, who were taken captive to Rome, lamented that they were from “a land still on fire upon every side.” The destruction wrought by the Romans was such that it was as if the whole land of Israel burned—fire on every side.
And as to the blood mentioned in Rev. 11:6, Josephus writes in several places of how much blood was shed in the Roman conquest (including various bodies of water covered in blood and full of dead bodies). Concerning the fall of Jerusalem, he records, “The whole city r[a]n with blood, … [and] the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood.” Like water puts out fire, so many people were slaughtered in Jerusalem that their blood, like water, put out the fire of many houses.
Even so, vv. 5-6 is using symbolic examples from the OT (fire, shutting up the sky, turning water to blood, and striking the earth with plagues) in order to emphasize the deeper issues. Although Josephus’ accounts of the blood and fire makes for interesting historical turn of events. The point was that the same Spirit of the Lord who spoke through Jeremiah, destroyed Sodom, empowered Elijah against unfaithful Israel, and through Moses brought down plagues upon Egypt … The same Spirit of the Lord indwelled the two witnesses, empowering them in their mission in such a way that was appropriate for their time and circumstances. The Lord, by his Spirit, made sure the testimony of the witnesses would be given and heard with effect, infused with power, imbued in such a way that it was symbolically similar to the drought, the fire, the blood, and the plagues. Further, God made sure the two witnesses were protected until their mission was accomplished. As a result, the people of Jerusalem would have been informed as to exactly what the Lord was doing, and why, as he brought his wrath down upon them in vindication and vengeance for both the Son of God and his martyrs. And the people didn’t like it one bit. Thus, filled with anger and hate, once the witnesses had accomplished their mission, the Lord’s enemies persecuted and killed the two witnesses. Even so, killing the witnesses did not change the fact that God would destroy the Jewish nation and the very heart of their religion, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem with the temple razed to where not a stone stood upon the other. Jesus had said this would happen (Matt. 24:2 and 26:63-64). Thus, it all came to pass.
Now, considering these things provides an interesting perspective as to what is going on when we, as the Lord’s witnesses, share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their situation was not exactly like ours due to variable circumstances of time and space. But, as I said, the two witnesses were representatives of the whole. In principle and power, they are the same. We are called to be the Lord’s witness in a world that is in utter rebellion against God, and the Lord’s judgment is coming. The same Spirit that indwelled the two witnesses, empowering them in their mission, indwells us and empowers us. The Lord protects us so that we might be faithful and accomplish our mission for him. But the world will hate our message and will oppose us, even seek to hurt us. But so what? The eternal Lord enables us to continue to witness despite whatever form their protest and railing against us takes, until they gag us and throw us in a hole or kill us (and I’d argue that even in such cases, we continue to be witnesses by the Spirit). Remember the multitude in heaven, in Rev. 7, and their joy in the presence of God? If we’re faithful, that is what awaits us.
My friends, don’t let mean words or the acted-out displeasure of those in rebellion against God gag you from being a faithful witness. Not even death is something to worry about. Indeed, if they kill us for being faithful witnesses, all praise to God! What is there to fear, really? Some pain? Like the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). The world can never defeat our Lord, and in him we have victory. So, if you need a New Year’s resolution, here you go. Let us put aside fear, and share in the Lord’s victory! Let us be his witnesses, faithful until the end. Since the Lord empowers his people to be witnesses, we should be bold in our witness.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series (Chesnee SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2012), DVD 2, lesson 12.
 Jay Rogers, “Revelation 11 in Preterist Perspective,” The Forerunner, pub. 12 September 2021, https://www.forerunner.com/blog/revelation-11-in-preterist-perspective.
 Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series, lecture 12.
 Jay Rogers, “Revelation 11 in Preterist Perspective.”
 Jay Rogers, “Revelation 11 in Preterist Perspective.”
 Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 741. J.W. 6.5.1.
 Josephus, 757. J.W. 7.5.5.
 Josephus, 748. J.W. 6.8.5.