As we continue through the book of Revelation, I want to caution us again about trying to put together a timeline of events. This was not John’s purpose for writing and if we try to do this today, we will be more confused than enlightened. Though John’s Revelation seems to follow a basic path of chronology (first the seals, then the trumpets, then the bowls, then God’s completion of His own redemptive work), there are interludes where John’s description is panchronistic and in which he describes various timeframes with one vision. We saw one in chapter 7, when the saints of the earth were sealed and when the multitude coming out of the tribulations of this earth were comforted by God as they served Him. This did not happen all at once, but as the events described in the seals unfold throughout time. We arrive at another interlude in John’s revelation (chapters 11-12). These are panchronistic and possibly overlap both the trumpets and the pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath.
While John’s purpose is not to establish chronology, it is to offer hope to a church in persecution. When the entire world denies Christ and turns its back on God, what is the place of God’s people? What is the church to be now, in the current tribulations of the world, and as Christ comes closer to declaring Judgment upon the earth? What are we to do and how are we to go about pursuing the work of the Gospel in an age when people have little regard for God and little interest in the church?
Revelation 11:1-14 HCSB
Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and count those who worship there. But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months. I will empower my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, dressed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone wants to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and consumes their enemies; if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. These men have the power to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the days of their prophecy. They also have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every plague whenever they want.
When they finish their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, conquer them, and kill them. Their dead bodies will lie in the public square of the great city, which prophetically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. And representatives from the peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will view their bodies for three and a half days and not permit their bodies to be put into a tomb. Those who live on the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and send gifts to one another because these two prophets brought judgment to those who live on the earth.
But after 3 1/2 days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet. So great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” They went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies watched them. At that moment a violent earthquake took place, a tenth of the city fell, and 7,000 people were killed in the earthquake. The survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. The second woe has passed. Take note: The third woe is coming quickly!
Who are the two witnesses?
This portion of the text presents some interpretive difficulties. The particular question is asked, “Who will the two witnesses be?” There are many scholars who believe that the two witnesses will be Elijah and Moses and a case can be made for that, but the case is based largely on speculation. There is a more natural and basic reading of the text. Throughout John’s revelation, the church has been described as a lamp stand and the oil by which the lamps burn has represented the Holy Spirit. If we read this text in the context of the rest of the book, then the two witnesses would be the church because they are also described as lamp stands empowered by the oil from olive trees (the Holy Spirit). There is also the fact that in verse 4, God states that when the time comes, He will grant His authority to His witnesses. There is no mention of God sending special witnesses, but instead using the witnesses that He already has present on the earth. There are two witnesses depicted because that is what was required by the Law to bring an indictment against any person (Deuteronomy 19:15). It could also represent the two-fold church (true Israel) consisting of Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus on the earth during this time.
Role of the witnesses
As John writes to the churches in persecution, there is a very clear message that the church will receive from this part of his vision: the world is corrupt, is blind to God, and therefore needs witnesses to call the world to repentance. In verses 5-7, John describes the awesome power that will be given to God’s people during this time specifically for the purpose of testifying in this court setting against the kingdoms of the world.
I sometimes think about what life would be like if I had super powers. The super power that I would choose for myself would be telekinesis so that I wouldn’t have to actually walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water. I guess it would be cool to be able to breathe fire, stop the rain, turn water into blood or cast any plague upon the earth as often as I desire; but those aren’t really abilities that I think of. Throwing locusts at my enemy doesn’t really strike me as that attractive. The point of the church receiving this authority from God, though, will not be so that it can be attractive. It will be so that, in the age of judgment, the church can deliver their testimony as part of God’s indictment against the world.
The world will hate the church and will even make martyrs out of the people of the church. This is what we saw God looking forward to in Revelation 6:9-11, when he told the martyrs coming out of the current tribulation that He was waiting until the number of His people who were going to be murdered was completed before He set things right and judged the whole world.
Just as this served to encourage the seven churches as witnesses to God, it also serves to encourage us as we live in the current age. The seven churches did not have the authority of God to inflict plagues upon the earth and neither do we. John has already encouraged the church to represent Christ even to those persecuting them. We have already learned that this is something that we need to be doing without condemnation because we do not sit as judge, Christ does. He is the only one who has authority to condemn. The authority given to the church in these verses will not be authority to condemn, but authority over the natural elements, specifically as the Holy Spirit directs. We know, then, that we need to be witnesses and that the church will always be a witness to people who have not yet repented and turned to God. What precisely does it mean for us to be a witness in our current age?
First of all, it does not mean that we have the right to condemn. We are in the business of lovingly calling people to repentance for their own sake. Second, the whole of the church is represented in the two witnesses. This means that the giving of testimony is the work of the whole church and not only certain individuals.
Third, the prerogative of God’s people cannot be entertainment. Music in the church must, first and foremost, be testimony to God. When we either accept or condemn music based on the style or the talent of the musicians, we are guilty of pleasing ourselves rather than God. When we try to draw people in using primarily entertaining music rather than the testimony that God has given the church, then we are guilty of pleasing other people rather than God. All of the sudden, people become the primary focus of the church. While we do need to strive to meet people’s needs, the primary focus of the church needs to be God and the delivery of the testimony that God has given to the church. The same goes for every other aspect of the church meeting. We are not to be concerned with our own entertainment or the entertainment of others. Through all things, the testimony that God has given the church is to be delivered in its fullness as we fellowship, as the message is delivered in whatever manner it is delivered, and as we find our place of service and plug in.
Fourth, we share the testimony that God has given us with the expectation that most people will refuse the testimony and hate the people of God because of that testimony. The work of a church after God’s own heart is simple: to deliver its testimony without reservation and without condemnation. The responsibility of the church is not to change to match society. We do not want to look like the world. While there are practical things that we can do to better get the message of the Gospel into our community and world, we are not to try and force the church organization to look like the world. We are to give the testimony of God in a way that the testimony is heard and clearly understood.
Here is what this means: We don’t have to worry about people liking us. We are to strive for a good reputation and live at peace with everyone as much as it depends on us (Romans 12:18). If people choose not to like us because we deliver the testimony of a living and loving God, it is not counted against us. If church numbers do not skyrocket but we have been faithful to deliver God’s testimony, then we are blessed by God as His witnesses. The church is to be a witness. If the church (God’s people) is not a witness, then it does not perform the function of the church in the current age.
Character of the witnesses
When these witnesses are depicted by people in the world, they are usually depicted with fierceness, especially in the popular Left Behind series. They are depicted with no mercy. They are described as cold-hearted wrath bringers who will utterly destroy anyone who approaches them (other than Kirk Cameron). In contrast, as we read the text of Scripture, these witnesses (most likely representing the church itself) are dressed in sackcloth. In John’s time, sackcloth was worn during times of mourning and weeping. In Luke 19, we even see this in Jesus as He looked on the unrighteousness of the Jews in Jerusalem. Jesus wept because of the consequences of their sin before going into the Temple and sternly correcting that sin. This is a great indication of God’s character. God weeps bitterly because people will have to suffer the consequences of their sin. God wants to save sinners but does not do so without their repentance. God loves people so much that He actually weeps over unrepentant hearts. As God’s witnesses, we should not lord our morality over people as we give the testimony of God and draw people to repentance. Quite the opposite. If we have truly given ourselves to Christ, unrepentance in the world ought to cause us to weep because there are people who, because of their unrepentance, will suffer the consequences of their sin. We should not desire that anyone have to suffer such an eternal fate.
We ought to love others so much that we weep on their behalf, not condemning them but calling them to repentance before holy God. We need to come to a place where sinfulness, both in our own hearts and in the world, breaks us and brings us to our knees weeping for those who have not believed in Christ. A Christian witness is not pompous or condemning like some who call themselves followers of Christ are. We must love people so much that we weep on their behalf.
There is this false conception about church out there that presumes we are part of an organizational church body to have our happiness and our pleasure served or that we are in a church building to hear good music or to have great events. The fact of the matter is that we are not here together for us at all. We are here for Christ. We live to be witnesses of Christ. While the rest of the world seeks entertainment, happiness, pleasure, and worldly success, we are called to love so deeply that it draws us to tears for the brokenness of the world.
So, the witnesses used their superpowers as they wept for the people. This gives some great insight for us as we live. When we punish children, we should do so as we weep: punishing to make them better, not out of our own anger. The same is true as we address employees. The same is true with church discipline. The same is true in our ministries. The same is true as we engage politics in our day. The same is true even in our recreation. We interact with the world as God does: with great mercy and with genuine concern for the well-being of every person, especially as it regards eternity.
Power of the witnesses
As we might notice, the two witnesses in this passage of Scripture are not operating on their own power. There are two olive trees that are providing the oil by which the lamp stands (which are the witnesses) burn. If the witnesses are representative of the church, then the olive trees are representative of the Holy Spirit. We cannot be witnesses without the Holy Spirit enabling us to be so. We cannot communicate the testimony of God in a way that is meaningful and impactful without both the leadership and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We cannot have a church service in which the testimony of God is paramount without each member following the direction of the Holy Spirit. I am under the impression today that the Holy Spirit is still working with great power. Perhaps this does not look like many today claim it looks, but John, here, would not have included the symbol of the olive trees if we, God’s witnesses, could be good witnesses without the empowering and the gifting of the Holy Spirit.
I am living proof of this. I am certainly more introverted than many people. Being around people just makes me tired. I have to be by myself to rest and regain energy so that I can be around people for the purpose of the Gospel. Me introducing myself to someone new or calling someone on the phone is exhausting for me. It is exhausting for me when people are around me all of the time. It is so ironic that God has called me into the position that He has called me into. I prove every day, though, that in my weakness God’s strength shines through. I prove every day the need for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in all of our lives. Introvertedness is not an excuse that we can use so that we don’t have to share the Gospel. Praise the Lord that as witnesses we are directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit within us! I can no longer hold myself down and we no longer have an excuse. We have the Holy Spirit!
I wonder what this means as we meet together. If the Holy Spirit is the one leading us and empowering us in our singing, then we have no excuse when it comes to offering ourselves to God in song. We can clap and we can lift holy hands before the Lord! If the Holy Spirit is the one leading us and empowering us as we engage God’s Word together, then our limitations do not keep us from gleaning something. When the Spirit moves as His testimony is given from the Word, we are free in the Spirit to give a loud amen! Just be ready, when you say amen, your preacher gets more excited because then he knows the Spirit is moving in your heart. When we make our engagement known, it may even inspire someone else to open their heart and mind to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We all contribute as witnesses when we engage the Word together in worship.The power of the church’s witness depends only on the church’s submission to the direction and enabling of the Holy Spirit.
So, the church is to be a witness. She is to share the testimony that has been given to her by Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. She is to weep for the unrepentant hearts of those in the world and to love sinners so much that she is drawn to tears. Let us live in such a way as this. Let us be good witnesses for our God and Father no matter our age, no matter our stage of life, and no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in in this life.