Interpreting the Book of Revelation: Part 3

Rev blog photo

Interpreting the Book of Revelation: Part 3

The Two Witnesses

In Revelation 11 we are introduced to two seemingly enigmatic characters described as the two witnesses. John, in his vision, is told to measure the temple of God, the altar and those who worship there. He is not allowed to measure the court outside the temple. That area is to be oppressed for a period of 42 months (1260 days).

Who are these two witnesses? Is the temple the literal temple that stood in Jerusalem until AD70 or is it a symbolic temple? Why is there a division made between the primary structure and the outer court? Is the time period of 42 months literal or figurative?

So many questions! I will start with the last question regarding the period of time. Unfortunately, I will only prove my position in the next article. In the meantime, please bear with me. I believe that the period referred to as 42 months, 1260 days, and 3 and a half years is the same period. This period is a reference to the church on earth between Christ’s first coming (Specifically His death, burial, resurrection and ascension) and His second coming.

Let’s return to the first question, who are the two witnesses? They are described in verse 4 as olive trees and lampstands. We know from chapter 1 verse 20 that lampstands are used to represent the church. The reference to two olive trees reminds us of Zechariah 4. While there is some debate it is generally acknowledged that the two olive trees in Zechariah are Joshua and Zerubbabel. Joshua was a priest and Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah in the line of king David. These two represent the offices of Priest and King. In verse 3 of Revelation 11 we see that these witnesses prophesy. This gives us the munus triplex, the threefold office of prophet, priest and king. In the Old Testament law no individual was allowed to hold all three offices. Jesus Christ is the consummate fulfilment of all three of these offices. Christians (the church), however, derivatively are also prophets, priests and kings (small letters) (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9).

The olive tree reminds us of olive oil which was used for anointing those in office. Anointing with oil is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. According to 1 John 2:27 all Christians have the anointing. This again reinforces the view that the two witnesses represent the church on earth.

The witnesses have power, they are able to bring judgement on those who persecute them. As argued in my first article the imagery is symbolic (cf. Rev. 1:1). Jesus rebuked His disciples for wanting to call literal fire down on their enemies (Lu. 9:54-55) so I don’t think that there will be two individuals walking around dropping napalm on the enemies of the church.

The fiery imagery represents the judgement that the church proclaims upon all who reject her message. We proclaim the Gospel and all who reject it are condemned already (John 3:18). What is bound on earth is bound in Heaven (Matt. 16:19 & 18:18).

Interestingly the witnesses wear sackcloth. Sackcloth was the attire of the penitent and sorrowful. This is not a picture of the church in glory when every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). This is not the church triumphant, rather it is the church militant, still at war, suffering persecution and grieving over rebels who will not lay down their weapons and submit to Christ.

Just before the return of Christ we see that things look very bleak for the church. According to verse 2 the nations are allowed to trample the church and will seem to be victorious at the end. The church on earth will seem to die (verse 7). She is dead for a symbolic period of three and a half days as opposed to the much longer three and a half years. The difference emphasises the shortness of this victory. Whatever victory the world thinks it has over the church they will soon realise that it is a pyrrhic victory.

The witnesses are raised to life and ascend to glory and the wicked are judged. All the way through Revelation we see that the church follows in the footsteps of her Master, “demise, disgrace, and vindication.”[1]

With John’s use of imagery throughout Revelation we should not take the temple as literal. GK Beale notes, “Christians, that is, those who are identified with Christ, are also presently identified with the temple. Without exception ναός elsewhere in Revelation refers to the present heavenly temple (7:15; 14:15, 17; 15:5–6, 8; 16:1, 17) or to the temple of God’s presence that will dominate the future new age (3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 21:22).” [2]

The Apostolic teaching is very clear that the church is the temple of God (cf. 1 Cor 6, 2 Cor 6) and so it would be very strange in a book full of symbolism to suddenly refer to the literal temple.

Why is the Temple divided? In the various cycles John often looks at events on earth and then at events in Heaven. The part of the Temple that is measured, a picture of sealing, represents those who have already died in Christ, the Church Triumphant, while the outer court represents the Church Militant.

But why is the church represented by only two witnesses? Surely if the Lord wanted to represent the universal church then the number seven would have been better, after all seven is symbolic of completeness? The reference to two witnesses reminds us of all the judicial passages in Scripture revealing that an individual can only be prosecuted when there are two or more witnesses (cf. Dt. 17:6; 19:15; Mat. 18:16). The church has a judicial function, just as eyewitnesses would publicly declare the sins of the accused so the church declares the sins of the world, calling individuals to repentance and faith in Christ or else to face the righteous judgement of the Judge.

To sum up, the two witnesses are a symbolic representation of the church on earth during this period between Christ’s epiphanies. The church is called to intercede, shepherd and proclaim in the midst of persecution. Near the end Satan will be released and will wreak havoc upon the visible church but the true church will be vindicated and preserved by the Lord.

Lord bless,





[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 605.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 562.