October 8: Revelation 11:3-14

Revelation 11:3-14

As discussed in the previous daily note, the scene involving the measuring of the Temple is transitional between chapter 10 and this vision of the ‘two witnesses’ in 11:3-14. It establishes the contrast between the “holy city” (with the Temple at the center) and the “great city”, an allegorical distinction between the people of God (true believers) and the surrounding world (the “nations”, spec. the Roman Empire). In this vision, the image has shifted from the shrine (nao/$) of God to a pair of persons—two witnesses:

“And I will give to my two witnesses and they will foretell [i.e. prophesy] for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in a coarse garment [sa/kko$].”

Much ink has been spilled regarding the identification of these two persons—how are they best understood? The visionary character of this section, in context, would suggest that they are figurative, and yet many commentators believe that it refers to a pair of actual (historical) persons expected to appear, or to be active, at the end-time. It is important to begin with the language used to describe them, and the Old Testament traditions which are involved. Three lines of interpretation may be mentioned:

    • Angels—i.e. heavenly beings sent by God as a witness to humankind prior to the Judgment; the reference to the “great city” as “Sodom” would certainly bring to mind the Abraham narrative in Genesis 19, and the two (heavenly) Messengers that come to the city.
    • Messiah-Prophets—the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Prophet, expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the Judgment), according to several traditional patterns, most notably Moses and Elijah (cf. below).
    • People of God (Believers)—that is to say, as witnesses, these two persons represent the people of God, the faithful believers as a whole.

All three of these are more or less clearly present in the text; the vision draws upon the distinct lines of tradition, in various ways, and a proper interpretation must take each of them into account. Let us begin with the primary identification of the two persons/figures as witnesses (ma/rtu$, sg.). The word occurs five times in the book of Revelation, being used in two distinct, but related, ways in the other four references:

    • Of the exalted Jesus, who is given the title “the trust(worthy) [pisto/$] witness” (1:5; 3:14)—this is best understood in two respects:
      • Jesus gives witness of God the Father (YHWH), proclaiming His word and will, and acting as His representative (cf. the context of 1:1ff)
      • This witness entails, in a fundamental way, the sacrificial death of Jesus (the Lamb)
    • Of believers, who follow the example of Jesus, bearing witness of Christ and the Gospel, especially insofar as they follow him to the death (i.e. beginnings of the technical use of the term [“martyr” in English]):
      • In 2:13, Antipas, who was put to death, is given the same title used of Jesus in 1:5—”the trustworthy witness”
      • In 17:16, the believers whose blood was shed are specifically called “witnesses of Yeshua

Is it possible that this two-fold aspect is implied by the fact that there are two witnesses mentioned? The next bit of evidence comes from the parallel identification in verse 4:

“These are the two olive (tree)s and the two lamp(stand)s, the (one)s having stood in the sight of the Lord of the earth.”

This imagery is drawn from the fourth chapter of Zechariah, and, again, there is a clear two-fold aspect involved:

    • Messianic—Olive oil was used for anointing, and, in the context of Zech 3-4, the two olive trees (vv. 3, 11) refer to Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua (“sons of oil”, v. 14) according to early Messianic/Anointed figure-types—Davidic ruler and Anointed Priest, respectively.
    • Heavenly/Angelic—The (seven) lampstands in Zech 4:2-3 are identified as the “eyes of the Lord” (vv. 10-11)—personalized as (heavenly/spirit) beings who represent YHWH in the world, i.e. Messengers (“Angels”), and, one might say, also witnesses. This is reproduced in the book of Revelation (1:4, 12-13, 20; 2:1ff; 5:6). At the same time, we should note:
      • The lampstands are also identified with believers collectively (i.e. congregations/churches), 1:20; 2:1, 5
      • The exalted Jesus is at the center of the lampstands, holding/controlling them (1:12-13; 2:1, cf. also 3:1; 5:6)

Verses 5-6 bring out a number of Messianic details, especially those connected with the Prophet figure-types of Moses and Elijah (for more on this, cf. Parts 2-3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”):

    • “fire travels out of their mouths” to “eat up” the enemies of God (v. 5)—the idea of the word of God, communicated by the Prophet, as fire is found in Jer 5:14, and is specifically associated with Elijah in Sirach 48:1. Indeed, in Old Testament tradition, Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Kings 19:36-38). The more direct Messianic association comes from Isa 11:4, in which the mouth of the Messiah (vv. 1-3) slays the wicked. Paul draws upon this in a clear eschatological context in 2 Thess 2:8; as does the deutero-canonical book of 2/4 Esdras (13:10, 37-38, roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation), where the slaying power of the mouth is presented as fire. There is an interesting parallel here with the fire-breathing plague-army of the sixth Trumpet-vision (Rev 9:13-20).
    • “authority to close the heaven” so that rain does not fall (v. 6)—a clear allusion to the Elijah traditions (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; Lk 4:25; James 5:17)
    • authority to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with plagues (v. 6)—Moses and the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7:19, etc)

If verses 3-6 tend to emphasis the heavenly and Messianic character of the two witnesses, verses 7ff more clearly reflect the dual aspect of Jesus-Believers as true and faithful witnesses who are put to death. Their role as Heavenly/Messianic Prophets covers the period of 1,260 days (= 3½ years) during which they prophesy, wearing coarse garments (‘sackcloth’, sa/kko$), marking the coming of the Judgment and urging people to repent. In a sense, this period of preaching/prophesying is similar to that of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus (in his Galilean ministry), both of whom were identified in different ways as the Messianic Prophet (Elijah) who would appear at the end-time. Jesus was also associated with the end-time “Prophet like Moses”, though the Gospel tradition identifies him more closely with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff. In any case, it is after this time of prophetic proclamation/ministry, that Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is put to death. This Gospel narrative-matrix is very much at work here in Rev 11:3-14.

At the same time, verses 7ff open up an entirely separate line of imagery as well—that of the beast (i.e. wild animal, qhri/on) who attacks the people of God. It is this visionary conflict which dominates much of the second half of the book (beginning with chapter 12). It is introduced here, without any real explanation or elaboration:

“And when they should complete their witness, the wild (animal) stepping up out of the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless pit] will make war with them, and will be victorious (over) them and will kill them off.” (v. 7)

As the “beast” (wild animal) is clearly symbolic in the context of the visions which follow (to be discussed), it stands to reason that the two witness are figurative as well; this would seem to be confirmed by the description in verse 8, where several different images are blended together:

    • The body (singular) of the two witnesses is left laying in the streets of “the great city”, which is further given a hybrid identification:
      • Sodom—traditionally associated with wickedness/immorality (and the judgment which came upon it)
      • Egypt—the land of slavery for the people of God (Israel)
      • Jerusalem—here, literally, “where our Lord was put to the stake [i.e. crucified]”

Some commentators, relying on the last detail, would identify the “great city” flatly as Jerusalem (i.e. the actual city). However, I believe that this is overly simplistic, and, indeed, incorrect. In my view the designation “the great city” is meant as a specific contrast to “the holy city” (i.e. where the Temple is located) in v. 2. By comparison, “the great city” is marked by its “wide (street)s” and wickedness (“Sodom”). It is best to see it as a figure for the wider world—i.e. the “nations”, or, the Roman Empire, according to the (historical) setting of the book. By contrast, believers (the people of God, collectively) are represented by the “holy city” and the Temple-complex (cf. on vv. 1-2 in the previous note). The 3½ years (1,260 days) is also a figurative period, drawn from Old Testament tradition, and represents the coming time of distress (and persecution). During this period, believers are to serve as witness of Jesus to the world (the “great city”); many, like Jesus himself, will be put to death as a result. This is the main association in verse 8, identifying the “great city” as the place “where our Lord was put to the stake”.

The death of the witnesses—that is, the time they remain dead—parallels the period of ministry (3½ days | 3½ years). The people of the “great city” rejoice and celebrate (evoking the Roman Saturnalia festival), even as the body of the witness(es) lies dead and unburied in the street (vv. 9-10). The cruelty and wickedness of humankind could not be more simply and vividly expressed. It is possible that the public spectacle-executions of Christians under Nero is in mind here, serving as a pattern for many other early Christian Martyrdom narratives. The period of 3½ days also serves to bring out more strongly the parallel with the death of Jesus (i.e. the traditional motif of three days); like Jesus, after three days, the two witnesses are raised from the dead (v. 11). The parallel is extended, as the witnesses ascend to heaven (v. 12) in a cloud, just like Jesus (Acts 1:9-11). Their enemies look on as they go up in the cloud, even as the nations will watch as Jesus (the Son of Man) returns in a cloud at the end-time (Rev 1:7)

The vision concludes with judgment striking the people of the “great city”, by way of a “great shaking [i.e. earthquake]”. An earthquake is also tied to Jesus’ death (and resurrection) in Matthew’s version of the Passion narrative (27:51; 28:2). Here, however, the more immediate connection is with the six Trumpet-visions in chapter 9, especially the first four, in which various natural disasters and phenomena destroy/afflict a portion (one-third) of the world. In this vision, the earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, killing seven thousand people (v. 13). It is interesting to note the smaller percentage involved, compared with that in the Trumpet-visions. Almost certainly, this reflects the ministry/witness of the two figures, culminating in their death and resurrection/exaltation. That this is meant to blend together features marking both Jesus and his faithful/true followers (believers), was noted above, and must be maintained as a fundamental aspect of any proper interpretation. This work of witness ultimately has a profoundly positive effect for humankind—limiting the extent of the Judgment, and leading people to repentance and the worship of God. This shift from judgment to worship also characterizes the seventh Trumpet vision, which follows in vv. 15-19 (to be discussed in the next daily note). The closing words of v. 14 effectively enclose the visions of chapters 10-11 back within the structure of seven-vision cycle, repeating the refrain from 9:12 (following the fifth vision):

“The second woe (has) come along—see! the third woe comes quickly!” (v. 14)

This third woe refers to the seventh (final) Trumpet vision, and yet, interestingly, no “woe”, as such, is described in vv. 15-19. It functions, rather, as a literary device, here primarily indicating the end, or completion, of the Judgment visions. With chapter 12, an entirely new mode of visionary expression is introduced, one which restates the Judgment narrative along more traditional-historical lines. Before embarking on that interesting study, it is necessary to examine the final Trumpet vision, which we will do in the next daily note.