Who are the Two Witnesses? Revelation 11:3-6

After measuring out the temple, God grants authority to two witnesses who will minister during the 42 months (or 1260 days) when the temple is trample by the nations. “Two witnesses” is based on the Jewish law required two witnesses to establish a fact (Num. 35:30, Deut. 17:6). Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two as witnesses to the villages of Galilee (Mark 6:6-12).

Two Witnesses in Douce Apocalypse, Bodleian ms180

The physical description of the two witnesses is drawn from various Old testament passages. They are clothed in sackcloth. Sackcloth is a coarse cloth usually made of goats’ hair and black in color and was worn as a sign of mourning (Gen 37:34; 2 Sam 3:31).

They are also described as “the two olive trees and the two lampstands.” The background for this description is Zechariah 4. Lampstand here should be understood as a menorah, a synagogue lamp that was used in the temple as well.  It had a single stick in the center with three sets of arcs out from the base, for a total of seven candles. Recall that the description of Christ in chapter one talked about seven lampstands, perhaps there was one menorah with seven lights. The image in Zechariah are identified with the “two who are anointed to serve the Lord.” In the context of Zechariah, these are most likely to be identified with Zerubbabel (the governor) and Joshua (the high priest) of the post-exilic community. One major difference is that while there are two olive trees, there is only one lampstand.

“Fire” destroys their enemies. This is a difficult point to understand since there is no Old Testament reference to fire coming out of anyone to destroy enemies (although Elijah and Elisha both call fire from heaven.) Aune 2:613 lists several extra-biblical references 2 and 3 Enoch, for example.). One possibility is to see this fire as representing the word of God, as in Jeremiah 5:14,  “Because the people have spoken these words, I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.”  In 2 Samuel 22:8-9 God “breathes fire,” a metaphor of judgement, “Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.”

These two witnesses have the power to withhold rain, cause water to turn to blood, and to strike the earth with plagues during the 3 and a half years of their ministry. The power to cause drought is punitive (Aune 2:615), as with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:1, etc. Turning the water to blood is an allusion to Moses in Exodus 7:14-19), this would also cause famine. The Egyptians were struck with “every kind of plague” (1 Sam 4:8); the implication is that the same types of plagues that were present in Exodus will be available to these two witnesses.

Two Witnesses Ottheinrich folio294rWith this in mind, who are the two witnesses? Daniel K. K. Wong surveyed a bewildering number of suggestions and sorted them into two categories symbolic, corporate and literal interpretations (“The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11” BSac 154 (1997): 344-354). As examples of symbolic interpretations, some scholars have taken these two witnesses as symbols of the law and prophets or the Old and New Testaments. Under the heading of corporate interpretations, scholars often see these two witnesses as the church as witness in the word in the present age. Sometimes the witnesses are seen as believers who suffer martyrdom (Caird, for example).

Literal interpretations of the two witnesses are two prophets active during the final conflagration, the great tribulation. Based in Malachi 4:5-6, there was a Jewish expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. In John 1 John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah. Jesus called John the Baptist “the Elijah that is to come” (Matt 11:14l; 17:10-12). Peter says some think Jesus is Elijah (Matt 16:14; cf. Mark 6:15 the crowds thought that John was Elijah).

Not surprisingly, there are many possible combinations for the identity of the two witnesses. The most common suggestion is Moses and Elijah since the plagues described in Revelation 11 allude to these two Old Testament characters. In addition, they represent the Law and Prophets, as the symbolic interpretations correctly observe. Elijah and Moses met with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt 17). Although this is associated with dispensationalist writers (Thomas, Revelation 2:88-89), Greg Beale also sees an allusion to Moses and Elijah, although in his view the text does not anticipate a literal return of Moses and Elijah.

A second common suggestion for the two witnesses is Elijah and Enoch. A second common suggestion for the two witnesses is Elijah and Enoch. this view is at least as old as Augustine. He thought Elijah and Enoch will be killed together at “the end of the world by the Antichrist” (Ep. 193.3, 5; De gen ad litt. 9.5; cited by Aune, 2:617).Aune also draws attention to the Acts of Pilate 25 as representing the view the two witnesses are Enoch and Elijah.

I am Enoch, who pleased God and was removed here by him. And this is Elijah the Tishbite. We shall live until the end of the world. But then we shall be sent by God to withstand Antichrist and to be killed by him. And after three days we shall rise again and be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord.

Since these two characters from the Old Testament ascend to heaven. In Genesis 5 Enoch walked with God and “was no more” and in 2 Kings 2 Elijah is taken to heaven in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2. This view also resonates with the belief Elijah would return before the messiah. The Animal Apocalypse implies Enoch would return, although this is far from clear in 1 Enoch 90:31. In 4 Ezra 6:26 “And they shall see the men who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit.”

Which view a better interpretation of the two witnesses? Are the two witnesses symbols (either generic or for a corporate group) or two literal people? Wong makes several points that imply that these are literal people. First, the word-group for witness is normally used for persons rather than as a symbol for something. This does not mean that John could not use the term as a symbol here, he consistently used it for people in the rest of Revelation. For example, the word is applied to Jesus and Antipas, in 2:13.

Second, witnesses prophesy, an activity implies a person. The only other place in Revelation where this particular verb is used is in 10:13, where John is told that he must prophecy to many nations. This does not necessarily the two witnesses to be individuals since the corporate interpretations also see a prophetic witness as the key function of the group.

Third, the witnesses are described as speaking (v. 3, 6), they can kill their enemies (v. 5), they are heard, handled and hated (v. 3, 7, 10), have mouths, ears, and feet (5, 11-12), wear sackcloth and have dead bodies (v. 8, 9). However, the beast from the sea in Revelation 13 is described in detail yet no one argues those details imply the beast is literally a multi-headed dragon.

Since the trumpets have been using allusions to the Exodus throughout Revelation 8-9, it seems an allusion to Moses is certain. Given the association of Elijah with the eschatological age, it seems the second witness alludes to him. Although it is always possible John is predicting the literal return of these two characters, it is more likely he is following the same method as the rest of the trumpets. The pattern of the Exodus will be repeated in the future, God will send prophets like Moses and Elijah to call his people out of nations once again.

2 thoughts on “Who are the Two Witnesses? Revelation 11:3-6

  1. John wrote Revelation during the reign of Herod Agrippa I, before Herod beheaded his brother James. John envisioned himself and his brother as the two witnesses, but like most of Revelaltion, it didn’t come to pass.

    Woodrow Nichols
    antinomianuniversalism.com

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    • Since Herod Agrippa I died in AD 44, it is almost impossible the book of Revelation was written during his reign. Since it addressed to real churches in Asia Minor, it cannot be written before those churches were founded. AD 44 is more or less before the Pauline mission, it will be ten more years at least before you have churches in the locations mentioned in Revelation 2-3.

      Unless you want to say Rev 2-3 is an addition to the book at a later date, but that would difficult since the letters are integrated into the rest of the book.

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