TWO WITNESSES OF THE BIBLE’S BOOK OF REVELATIONS

In verse 3, the anonymous voice speaking to John takes on a kind of personality: And I will give power to my two witnesses. This can only be the voice of God, for God is clearly the source of the witnesses’ authority, yet the voice goes on to speak in the third person of the Lord of the earth (v. 4), a breath of life from God (v. 11) and the God of heaven (v. 13). This is characteristic of many biblical oracles in which God speaks through a prophet, partly from God’s own perspective in heaven and partly from that of the prophet who delivers the message on earth. The oracle does not end after verse 4 (where the NIV and the NRSV end it with their quotation marks), but continues to the end of the sixth trumpet and the announcement of the third woe (v. 14). This is God’s voice speaking through John, as John fulfills his commission to prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings (10:11; compare every people, tribe, language and nation, 11:9).

Who are John’s “two witnesses”? Identifications have been varied and sometimes eccentric, ranging from the apostles Peter and Paul martyred in Rome (Munck 1950) to two seventeenth-century London tailors named John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton! The latter interpretation created a sect known as the Muggletonians, which lasted for three hundred years. In America, the Shakers identified the witnesses as the male and female aspects of God, linked both to Christ’s first coming (as Jesus of Nazareth) and second coming (as Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers).

The context suggests that in some way the testimony of the two witnesses corresponds to John’s own. In 10:11 he is told to prophesy, and in 11:3, 6 he describes the witnesses doing just that. By referring to them as the two olive trees and the two lampstands (v. 4), he recalls a vision of Zechariah (Zech 4:2-3), with the accompanying message, “`Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zech 4:6). Olive trees (with their oil) and lampstands (with their light) are appropriate images for the Spirit of God, and John has already used lampstands as a metaphor for the seven congregations to which he writes. The witnesses, therefore, should be understood as vehicles of the Holy Spirit, representing Christian prophecy or the church in its prophetic ministry to the world, whether in John’s time or ours.

The confrontation John describes is a virtual war (vv. 5-13). The mission of the two witnesses is to their enemies (vv. 5, 12), otherwise identified as those from every people, tribe, language and nation (v. 9), or the inhabitants of the earth (v. 10). “The inhabitants of the earth” are precisely those on whom the flying eagle in John’s vision had earlier pronounced three woes, corresponding to the last three trumpets (8:13; compare also 3:10; 6:10). There are striking similarities between the mission of the two witnesses and the trumpet series as a whole. At the sounding of the first three trumpets, fire fell to earth (8:7-11), and in the case of the witnesses fire comes from their moutes and devours their enemies (v. 5). The second trumpet turned a third of the sea to blood (8:8-9), and the two witnesses have the power to turn the waters into blood, and in fact strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want (v. 6). The implication is that all the plagues described in connection with the first four trumpets are now under the control of the two witnesses! In addition, they have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying (v. 6), a power associated in biblical tradition with the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:1; Lk 4:25; Jas 5:17). It is not hard to see why many commentators have linked the two witnesses in some way to the biblical figures of Moses, who turned Egypt’s waters to blood, and Elijah, who not only sent drought and famine over Israel but called down fire from heaven at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:36-38).

The echoes of the first four trumpets suggest that John’s prophecy of the witnesses be read as a conscious transformation of the entire trumpet series. We have had other such transformations: a lion into a lamb (5:5-6) and 144,000 Jews into a crowd without number from every nation on earth (7:4-9). Here the transformation is that the people of God themselves become the executors of divine judgments. In the trumpet series their role was largely passive: God sent judgment on the earth in response to their prayers (8:3-5), and they were protected from harm by virtue of having “the seal of God on their foreheads” (9:4; compare 7:3-4), but otherwise they were out of the picture. Now they are very much in the picture, in the persons of their representatives, the two witnesses. They have been given power to strike the earth with every kind of plague (v. 6) and have tormented those who live on the earth (v. 10).

The transformation of the fifth trumpet and the first part of the sixth comes in verses 7-13. The two witnesses are invincible during the time they are prophesying (v. 6), but when the 1,260 days are over, they become vulnerable to attack by the beast that comes up from the Abyss (v. 7). John speaks of the beast as if it has been mentioned before, but this is not the case. We will hear more of him in chapters 13 and 17, but the reference here is very abrupt, unless we recall the king of the locusts under the fifth trumpet, “the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon” (9:11). Whether or not John has consciously transformed Apollyon into the beast from the Abyss, the terminology of the fifth and sixth trumpets is echoed in John’s references to the beast’s making “war” (v. 7, NRSV; compare 9:7, 9) against the two witnesses and “killing” them (v. 7; compare 9:15, 18, 20). The deadly war of invading locusts and cavalry against the earth’s inhabitants is here transformed into a war of the beast that comes up from the Abyss against God’s people and their prophets.

In this way, John reintroduces the idea of martyrdom, which surfaced briefly in connection with the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-11; 7:14), but has played no role up to now in the trumpet series. At verse 7 the accent shifts from “testimony” to martyrdom. The English word martyr is derived from martyria, the Greek word for “witness” or “testimony,” yet ironically it is only when their martyria is finished (v. 7) that the “witnesses” are martyred. Ironically too, their goals are realized not by their power to bring all kinds of terrible plagues on the earth (vv. 5-6), but by their own violent deates at the hands of the beast (vv. 7-10). The familiar Christian “gospel,” the story of suffering and death followed by vindication–whether of Jesus or his faithful disciples–is what transforms the ending of the trumpet series from nonrepentance (9:20-21) to repentance (11:13).

The abject defeat and shame of the two witnesses is sketched in some detail in verses 8-10. Their bodies lie in public view, unburied, the most tragic of destinies for the devout Jew (Jer 8:1-2; 14:16; Tob 1:16-18). The period of their shame, three and a half days (v. 9), ironically recalls their three-and-a-half-year period of invincibility (v. 3). The witnesses lie in the main street or public square of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified (v. 8). This designation sends mixed signals. “The great city” in John’s subsequent visions (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21) is “Babylon the great” (14:8; 16:19; 17:5), used apparently as a symbolic name for Rome (17:18). Yet the words where also their Lord was crucified seem to identify the city as Jerusalem, the holy city of verse 2. If he had meant Rome, John could easily have said that the city was “figuratively called Babylon.” But he referred instead to Sodom and Egypt(v. 8), leaving the identification open.

It is perhaps wisest to think of the city more generally as one embodying the values of human culture in rebellion against God–like Augustine’s “earthly city” over against the “City of God,” or John Bunyan’s “City of Destruction” or “Vanity Fair” in contrast to the “Celestial City” in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is indeed Jerusalem, but Jerusalem understood as the center of the world (compare Ezek 5:5; 38:12) or, as one ancient Jewish book put it, “in the midst of the navel of the earth” (Jubilees 8.19; Charlesworth 1985:73). It is no longer recognizable as a holy city because it has been given to the Gentiles (v. 2). There is nothing distinctly Jewish about it, since its inhabitants are those from every people, tribe, language and nation (v. 9), or simply the inhabitants of the earth (v. 10).

The rescue of the two witnesses comes as a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet (v. 11). Their resurrection is not from the grave, like Jesus’ resurrection, because their bodies lie unburied. Their vindication is as public as their shame, for terror struck those who saw them (v. 11) and they are taken up to heaven while their enemies looked on (v. 12). Accompanying this visible resurrection is a severe earthquake destroying a tenth of the city and killing seven thousand people, with the result that the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven (v. 13). The expression gave glory to the God of heaven implies that the end of the story is repentance (compare 14:7, “Fear God and give him glory. . . . Worship him who made the heavens”; also the reference in 16:9 to those who “did not repent and give him glory” NRSV).

The transformation of the trumpet series is now complete. What could not be accomplished by six terrible plagues (see 9:20-21) is accomplished through the martyrdom and vindication of the people of God. The grimly increasing ratio of destruction on the earth, from one-fourth (6:8) to one-third (8:6-12), is now reversed. Only one-tenth of the people in the city are destroyed, while nine-tentes are spared. The extended sixth trumpet has achieved at last the purpose of the series as a whole–repentance on earth and worship of God among some at least of the earth’s inhabitants. At this point (v. 14), the eagle’s voice breaks in again to introduce the last of three “woes” (compare 8:13; 9:12). But even the meaning of woe is transformed as the trumpet series moves into its seventh and final phase, since what immediately follows is not “woe” in the usual sense, but victory and vindication for the people of God (vv. 15-18).

Previous commentary:
The Angel with the Open Scroll 

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