The Enduring Witness of the Church (Rev. 11:3-14)
Symbolism in apocalyptic literature is not meant to soften the impact of the passage. Revelation is filled with pictures and illustrations of the truth that magnify our sense of purpose and deepen our confidence in God’s plan.
John is recording this Revelation from exile on the island of Patmos around A.D. 95. He had been banished there by the government. Whether he was preaching against the idolatry of the people in Asia Minor or openly rebuking the Roman Emperor, Domitian (who promoted the imperial cult to new levels), John was exiled for causing religious and social disruption.
Last week we transitioned from the re-commissioning of John to proclaim the revelation that God had given him (Rev. 10) to the commission of the church to serve as witnesses (Rev. 11). We focused upon the fact that the people of God are never separated from the presence of God. However, that promise does not eliminate persecution.
Jesus warned his disciples that Jerusalem would be “trampled underfoot by the Gentiles” and that his covenant people would “be led captive among all nations” (Lk. 21:24). That was partially fulfilled under Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but it did not exhaust the prophecy. We should expect ongoing persecution throughout this present age.
If the original audience was reading this just prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, then it would seem rather odd that the promise to protect the temple in Jerusalem (the only temple they would have in mind) was not fulfilled. That would seem to annihilate any confidence the original audience would have in the rest of this Revelation.
On the other hand, were the original audience reading this some 25 years after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, then they would assume John is speaking of a symbolic temple. He does not allow the reader to take everything he writes about in a literal fashion (v.8).
Whether we read “forty-two months” (11:2; 13:5), or “1,260 days” (11:3; 12:6), or “a time, and times, and half a time” (12:14; cf. Dan. 7:25), each of these phrases equals three and a half years. But they seem to function as a description of a season in which the church is both protected and persecuted. The numbers symbolically represent the relationship between the church and the world throughout this age.
John’s vision continues to employ symbolism of a church that is both protected and persecuted due to its ongoing witness. The church is called to testify of God’s grace and wrath in the face of hostility.
Read Rev. 11:3-14
THE WITNESS OF THE CHURCH (3-6)
God promises to send two witnesses to prophecy for 1,260 days clothed in sackcloth (3). Their clothing implies a posture and message of repentance. Sackcloth is a heavy fabric made of thick goats hair. It was worn directly on the skin causing discomfort and irritation. The Old Testament often depicts individuals and nations repenting in sackcloth. It was meant to symbolize a sorrowful heart for committing an offense against God.
These two witnesses are “the two olive trees and the two lampstands” (4). If these witnesses are literal prophets, as many futurists believe, why are they called lampstands and olive trees? This isn’t Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast. The prophet Zechariah saw a vision of two olive trees flanking a lampstand (Zech. 4:3, 11). The lampstand represented the building of the temple, which would be completed in the face of opposition.
The trees supplied the lampstand with oil, which is the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit (Zech. 4:6). Zechariah was informed that these two trees represent two anointed individuals—Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor—who stand with the Lord (Zech. 4:14). The point of the passage is that the temple would be completed because the work was enabled by the Holy Spirit and it had kingly and priestly oversight.
In Revelation, these witnesses “stand before the Lord of the earth” just like the seven lampstands which represented the church before God’s heavenly throne (Rev. 1:20). The role of the church, as kings and priests, is mentioned several times (1:6; 5:10; 20:6). There is no reason to suggest John is using “lampstand” any differently here than he did in chapter 1. Here in 11:4, the two lampstands coincide with the number of witnesses needed to validate testimony (Deut. 19:15); a principle repeated by Jesus and Paul (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1).
These witnesses had the ability to kill anyone who attacked them (5). They would devour them with fire from their mouths. The Lord tells Jeremiah “I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them” (Jer. 5:14). God was not promising to turn Jeremiah into a fire-breathing dragon, but suggesting that his proclamation of God’s judgment would speak of their destruction. The fire, coupled with the supply of oil, might imply the unquenchable quality of the lampstand’s flame. Just as the work of building the temple was unstoppable, so the testimony of the church is invincible.
These witnesses could also prevent the rain which would enforce a drought and famine upon the land (6). This is what Elijah was able to do (1 Kgs. 17:1). Like Moses, these witnesses were able to turn the waters into blood and “strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire” (Ex. 7-10). Although the allusions clearly point us to Moses and Elijah, it is the pattern of their ministry that is in view.
The Church has a gospel message that will be proclaimed for salvation as well as judgment. Their testimony is fueled by the Holy Spirit so that it is ongoing and invincible. The gospel goes forth in power to save so that we ought never be ashamed (Rom. 1:16; 2 Cor. 2:15-17). Let this passage challenge you to evangelize with confidence! Ask God to provide an open door, and to fill you with the confidence to walk through them.
In light of the protection promised to the church in the face of persecution, it is shocking to read of…
THE DEATH OF THE CHURCH (7-10)
After these witnesses finish proclaiming their testimony, they will be killed by a beast that rises from the bottomless pit (7). Here again, John alludes to Daniel’s vision of a beast’s horn that “made war with the saints and prevailed over them” (Dan. 7:21). The beast is a demonic imposter who successfully makes war against the church (13:7), deceives people from every nation (17:8), and increases the intensity of his attack at the end of the age (19:19-21; 20:7-10). The authoritative role of the beast suggests that he has the power of the state to persecute the church. Anytime the forces of evil successfully silence the church we see something of this vision playing out.
The slain bodies of these witnesses will remain untouched in the streets of “the great city” whose corruption is symbolically called “Sodom and Egypt” (8). Some have supposed this is a reference to Jerusalem because it is “where their Lord was crucified”, but, every other occurrence of “the great city” is in reference to Babylon (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). The great city represents anywhere that attempts to silence the church and rejoices over her destruction.
Of course, this does not depict the literal death of the church, but her apparent demise. The people of God face a corruption that is worse than Sodom and an opposition that is worse than Egypt, because these two symbolic nations have been combined into one demonic state power later called “Babylon”. The church will be treated with such disdain its influence will seem insignificant.
If John had literal Jerusalem in mind, then we would likewise have to assume that he literally saw representatives from every nation gathering to mockingly gaze upon the dead bodies of the two witnesses over the course of three and a half days (9). The inhabitants of the city refuse to honor the bodies with a proper burial. Hal Lindsey suggests the fulfillment of this verse will be the worldwide broadcast of their death on television. But, certainly a simpler and more applicable understanding is that the church faces opposition throughout the world throughout this present age.
We have already seen the phrase “those who dwell on the earth” several times (10). It is an idiomatic expression of people who are opposed to God and his people. Instead of a funeral, they throw a celebration. The torment of these witnesses had reached its apparent conclusion.
Resseguie The paradox of a vulnerable yet protected community of believers is developed by the images of two stock characters who are invincible yet conquered.
This vision is fulfilled anytime state opposition overpowers the church, whether it be Rome, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia (Poythress).
Does the witness of the church or its opposition tend to occupy more of your attention? Do you tend to strategize how you might avoid conflict or winsomely speak the truth in love? Do you operate out of a sense of fear or confidence?
As long as Satan is roaming about like a roaring lion, opposition to Christianity is inevitable. That is equally true on a personal level as well. That doesn’t mean we should delight in conflict or seek to enter into every contentious debate that is relevant to the church, but it does mean that we should trust that: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).
Those called to proclaim the gospel should know that death is followed by…
THE RESURRECTION OF THE CHURCH (11-14)
God breathed life into his two witnesses who stood on their feet (11). Only the breath of God can grant life to a dead corpse (Ezek. 37:5-10). This brought a great sense of fear upon their mockers. But instead of consuming their persecutors with fire, the witnesses are taken up into heaven in a cloud (12). There is nothing secret about the ascension of these witnesses. God calls them to “Come up here!” And, just as the disciples watched Jesus ascend into heaven, the enemies of these witnesses were able to watch them ascend. We see this anytime persecution ironically leads to the church’s growth.
As we near the end of this age, that persecution will increase, and the cataclysmic earthquake will rock the city killing 7,000 people. This large but not devastating portion leaves the rest terrified. We have already seen the partial description of this earthquake in the sixth seal (6:12-17), and we will see further description of it in the seventh bowl (16:17-21). It is the earthquake that Ezekiel prophecied would accompany the day of God’s “blazing wrath” (Ezek. 38:19-20).
The question is whether or not their final reaction is a sign of genuine repentance. The language of giving God glory is typically positive, but the context suggests that the resurrection of the church will be accompanied by the forced acknowledgment of God’s power and glory by her opponents. We know that “every knee will bow” before their Lord, whether or not they acknowledge him as their Savior (Phil. 2:9-11).
This devastating judgment on those who “dwell upon the earth” is a depiction of the second woe (14). The first woe was associated with the blast of the fifth trumpet which contained the release of demonic spiritual forces who inflicted harm upon mankind (9:1-12).
All of this ought to sound quite familiar to you by now. These witnesses are essentially reenacting the gospel message. The church is made up of people who have died with Christ, and will therefore be raised with Christ in victory.
The French philosopher Voltaire disdained the Bible and sought state opposition to Christianity. He praised the wisdom of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church who forbade the reading of the Bible. It is ironic that a century after his death, Voltaire’s house in Geneva became the storage site for Bibles.
When Madame Mao saw the Communist revolution of the 1960s, she announced the death of Christianity. Ironically, within fifty years the church in China is larger and stronger than ever.
The church is called to testify of God’s grace and wrath in the face of hostility.
Whenever the witness of the church is silenced by state opposition, her impact increases. Instead of shrinking back in fear these examples remind us of the resurrection power of God. They fill us with hope that God can bring life out of death (Ezek. 37:1-14).