The two witnesses

Revelation 10:8-11:14. At the end of the age, Gentile nations will again occupy the land of Israel, while prophets teach the Jews about their Messiah and testify against the world. After three and a half years they are killed and rise again.


And the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and said, “Give me the little scroll.” And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. And he says to me, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

The edible scroll recalls the ministry of Ezekiel, which began with a vision of God similar to that at the beginning of John’s prophecy. Following the vision Ezekiel was given a scroll with words of lamentation and woe written on both sides. Having eaten it, he had to prophesy to the house of Israel concerning their immediate future. Here John has to prophesy about Gentile peoples and kings, concerning a time much later in history.

And I was given a rod like a staff, and told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will tread the holy city for forty-two months.”

The far future was spoken about in the later part of Ezekiel’s book. He saw a new temple in Jerusalem. A man-angel showed Ezekiel round the temple and city, measuring as he went. In this way the angel emphasised that a physical temple and city would arise again after the foretold destruction. God would set his throne there, and he would dwell with the children of Israel forever. Zechariah had a similar message (Zech 2). John is to understand that, despite the first destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC and the second in AD 70, the vision seen by Ezekiel will yet come to pass.

In the rebuilt Temple, the colonnade surrounding the complex was the ‘Court of the Gentiles’. Non-Jews were allowed thus far onto the holy site but no further. In the Letter to the Hebrews, describing the original design, the distinction is between the innermost ‘Holy of Holies’ (agia agiωn) or sanctuary (naos, the more common term) and the ‘Holy Place’ (agia) in front of it (Heb 9:3-4), the latter symbolising the present age (9:9). In the New Testament, references to the ‘Temple’ are usually to the sanctuary. In John’s vision they always are. The celestial temple is the naos and the ‘court’ the agia, in which the nations can approach God and come to know him through the one who has entered the sanctuary on their behalf. The ‘holy city’ is physical Jerusalem (e.g. Neh 11:1, Matt 4:5), but also the redeemed people of God, the new Jerusalem, with God in their midst (Rev 21:2). Beyond the holy city, spiritually speaking, is the Gentile city. The nations about whom John has just been told to prophesy will persecute the saints who are the new Jerusalem for 42 months.

Whether they will also occupy the physical holy city during this time is unclear from this passage. Jesus prophesied that after the Jews had fallen by the edge of the sword and been led captive among the nations, Jerusalem would be ‘trodden by the nations until the times of the nations are fulfilled’ (Luke 21:24). He was presaging the Jews’ revolt against the Romans in AD 70: many were slaughtered, most of the remainder were sold as slaves and Jerusalem was devastated. Thereafter it was occupied and ruled by non-Jews until 1967 when the new state of Israel defeated its Arab neighbours in war and took back the city. However, some 35% of the population remains Arab, and therefore 1967 cannot be taken as the absolute end of the ordained period. Gentiles continue to tread the streets of Jerusalem.

Triumphant Romans carry the menorah, trumpets and table of showbread plundered from the Temple of Jerusalem (Arch of Titus, Rome)

That most of the land will come under Gentile occupation – as it did in the reign of Hezekiah – before the Messiah returns is clear from many Old Testament prophecies:

Deuteronomy 4:30, 32:36:
When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter [or last] days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.
The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.
Isaiah 9:4f, 30:26, 49:21, 52:1-5:
For the yoke of his [the nation’s] burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
Moreover, the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day when the Lord binds up the brokenness of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.
[Prophesying the resurrection of Israel alongside the living:] Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’
Shake yourself from the dust and arise; take your seat, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For thus says the Lord: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” For thus says the Lord God: “Earlier, my people went down into Egypt to sojourn there, and lately the Assyrian oppressed them. Now therefore what have I here,” declares the Lord, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers mock,” declares the Lord, “and all day long my name is blasphemed.”
Jeremiah 30:6-8:
Why then do I see every man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labour? Why has every face turned pale? Alas! That day is so great, there is none like it. It is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it. And it shall come to pass in that day, declares the Lord of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of him.
Ezekiel 34:12, 27:
As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. … And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.
Daniel 7:21f, 25, 12:1, 7:
As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom. … They will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.
And there will be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people will be delivered, everyone whose name is found written in the book. … And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished.
Joel 3:1-3:
In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.
Micah 5:5-6:
He will be our peace when the Assyrian comes into our land and treads in our palaces. Then we will raise against him seven shepherds and eight commanders, and they shall shepherd [rule] the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod at its entrances. And he will deliver us from the Assyrian when he comes into our land and treads within our border.
Zechariah 14:1-3:
Behold, a day is coming for the Lord, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.
Finally, Mark 13:
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.

The Jews were expelled from their land because they had rejected their Messiah. They have still not accepted their Messiah, even though their return in the years up to 1948, when the land was not a nation-state, cannot be construed as other than providential, and God was clearly with them in their wars of 1967 and 1973. He has therefore not granted them absolute title to their land. Moreover, the present land of Israel is only a fraction of that promised to Abraham, and the Palestinians who were living there before them also have land rights.

The nations and kings that conquer Israel will be a confederation of Muslim nations. As we have seen in the way the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria treated Yazidis and Christians in our own generation, they will sell the Jews into slavery, kill them, rape them, dispossess them and send them out of their land. The occupation will last ‘a time, times, and half a time’, possibly the 1335 days referred to at the end of the book of Daniel.

“And I will commission my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sack- cloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire issues from their mouth and consumes their enemies; if anyone would harm them, thus he must be killed. They have authority to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they will.”

The olive trees and lampstands recall the one lampstand and two olive trees that Zechariah saw after seeming to awake from sleep. The lampstand had the same design as the gold menorah with seven lamps that Moses was instructed to fashion for the Tabernacle (Ex 25:31-40), the tent of meeting or (as translated in the Septuagint and Acts 7:44) tent of witness. The olive trees supplied oil to the lampstand. When Zechariah asked what the olive trees were, he was told, “These are the two sons of new oil that stand by the Lord of all the earth.”

In Zechariah, and as foreshadowed in the Tabernacle, the lampstand is Christ himself. He is the light of the world, giving light to everyone (John 1:9). The seven lamps of the lampstand are the seven ‘eyes of the Lord, which range through all the earth’ (Zech 4:10), just as the seven eyes of the Lamb are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth (Rev 5:6). Shining like a lamp because of the oil that flows from the Father and the Son, the Church is also the light of the world (Matt 5:14). So, in the opening part of Revelation, John sees Jesus among the seven gold lampstands of the seven churches. Christians must have oil in their lamp if they are to shine.

Here there are two witnesses, described as both lampstands and olive trees. They appear to be anointed individuals rather than churches, sons of new oil. The fire that comes from their mouths is metaphorical, but of deadly effect (Acts 5:9). They have power comparable with that of Moses (Ex 7-10) and Elijah (I Ki 17, II Ki 1) or with that of the man-angels that visited Sodom before its destruction (Gen 19:11, 24, Luke 17:29). They represent the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, which closes with these words:
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and judgements that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

Witnessing to who he was, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus when he was transfigured, when his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (Matt 17:2). Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. Somewhat perplexed, they asked him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He confirmed the scribes’ understanding. “Elijah does come first and he will restore all things.” But it was also true that he had already come, in the person of John the Baptist. Not that John was a reincarnation of Elijah but that he had come in the spirit and power of that prophet (Luke 1:17). He ‘came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him’ (John 1:7).

So it will happen that two men will appear in the power and spirit of Moses and Elijah. They will restore Jerusalem much as Ezra restored her (Dan 9:25), by teaching from what is written (Neh 8:1-8). They will open up the words that have been sealed (Dan 12:9). They will recall the ten commandments of Moses, including the commandment not to make any carved image – for there is only one image of God. They will reconcile fathers to their children. They will warn that the Messiah is coming to clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17). Moses, a prophet as well as a law-giver, foreshadowed a greater prophet. God had told him, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among your brothers.” Yeshua, they will point out, was like Moses in many ways. In response, many among their listeners ‘shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined’ (Dan 12:10). ‘I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy’ (Zech 12:10).

Like Moses before Pharaoh, the two prophets have authority before the beast to strike the earth with every kind of plague. Because of telecommunication, the whole earth knows what they are saying. It is they who call down the disasters that come upon the world at the blast of the first four trumpets and the supernatural plagues at the blast of the fifth and sixth trumpets. But mankind does not give up worshipping demons and idols. People do not repent of their murders, witchcraft, carnality and thieving.

And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the abyss will make war on them and overpower them and kill them, and their body lie in the street of the great city that spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead body and refuse to let their bodies be placed in a tomb. And those who dwell on the earth 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 beast is a Satanic alliance of ten national leaders, led by one particular leader (Dan 7:24-25, Rev 13 and 17). ‘Make war’ suggests a campaign against more than two persons, and in parallel occurrences of the phrase the people warred against are ‘the saints’ (i.e. Messianic Jews, 13:7) and those who hold to the testimony of Jesus (Christians beyond Palestine who reinforce the testimony of the two witnesses, 12:17). They, people filled with the Holy Spirit, are the ‘holy city’, rather than physical buildings. What they have been proclaiming is a torment to the inhabitants of the earth – those who regard the earth rather than heaven as their home. So they are killed, not only in Jerusalem but also in the streets of ‘the great city’, ‘Babylon the Great,’ representing ‘the cities of the nations’ (16:19). It is the city outside the holy city (22:15), called ‘Sodom’ because of its homosexuality and ‘Egypt’ because of its idol worship and its persecution of the saints. Spiritually, the martyrs are one body, singular, and it is the body of Christ that lies in the streets (Acts 9:5, I Cor 10:17, 12:13). They suffer as the twelve apostles did, eleven of whom were martyred. Some will be crucified, even as Christians were crucified in the time of Nero – the word ‘also’ should not be omitted. Some will be beheaded (13:10, 20:4). In whole or in part, this is the ‘great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now’. The earth’s inhabitants rejoice, ‘intoxicated by the blood of the saints and by the blood of the witnesses of Jesus’ (17:6).

And 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. And they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Ascend here!” And they ascended to heaven in the cloud, and their enemies watched them. 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 became afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.
That the biblical writers counted inclusively, so that Sunday was the third day after Friday, is one of academic theology’s many falsehoods. The Romans counted inclusively (Acts 10:30); the biblical writers counted non-inclusively, in the same way as we do. This is clear from several examples:

In Samuel 5:4f, for example, 40.5 years is rounded down to 40 years, not up to 41, and in II Kings 24:8 the more precise three months ten days of II Chronicles 36:9 is rounded down to three months. Likewise the 11.25 years of Jehoiakim’s reign, from about September 609 to about December 598, is rounded down in II Kings 23:36 to 11 years.

S.J. Robinson, Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 5 (1991/92)
Christ himself was explicit: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). “After three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). When the chronology of Passion Week is reconciled with the days of the week corresponding to them in the calendar, it is apparent that Christ was crucified on the morning of Thursday 3 April, AD 30, and bodily rose again some time before dawn on Sunday 7 April. The approximately three days in the grave corresponded to the approximately three years of his ministry (overlapping with John’s, which began AD 26).

Thus here is the greatest and culminating testimony of the two witnesses, that just as the testimony of John the Baptist and the Lamb continued for three and a half years, so did theirs, and just as the Father raised Christ from the grave after three days, so he raised them after three and a half days, one day for each year of ministry, and just as Christ ascended to heaven in a cloud, while others looked on, so did they.

Despite countless funeral sermons to the contrary, the Bible does not teach that believers on death immediately go to heaven. The dead are raised corporately, at an appointed day, and nature manifests the event. At the time of Jesus’ descent into Hades an earthquake split the rocks and the tombs were opened, and the bodies of Israel’s saints were raised. So here, with the resurrection of the martyrs. There is an earthquake, during which a tenth of Jerusalem is destroyed. Those not killed by it fear God and give him glory: they respond to the gospel (14:7).

The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.

The demons released at the fifth trumpet blast, tormenting those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads (9:1-12), are the first woe. The second woe comes with the sixth trumpet blast: two hundred million demonic horses that somehow, by fire and smoke and sulphur, kill a third of mankind. The third woe comes with the seventh and last trumpet.