One of the greatest interpretive challenges for modern preterists concerns the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11.
If Revelation 1-19 is primarily about the first century persecution of the Church and the Roman-Jewish War, then who were these two figures?
Were they historical individual figures?
Or are they symbolic?
The text itself doesn’t provide any obvious clues to lead us to the identities of two specific individuals. In fact, the description of the two witnesses only seems to confound the difficulty from preterist literalist perspective. We are given the following descriptions.
- They shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth (v. 3).
- They are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks (v. 4).
- Fire comes out of their mouth and devours their enemies (v. 5).
- They have the power to cause drought, waters to turn to blood and all sorts of plagues (v. 6).
- The beast from the bottomless pit shall make war against them and kill them (v. 7).
- Their bodies will lie in the streets of the “Great City,” but after three-and-a-half days, they will be bodily resurrected and will ascend to heaven (vv. 8-12).
- Immediately afterward, there will be an earthquake. One-tenth of the city will fall and 7,000 people will be killed (v. 13).
However, preterists are not alone in their inability to agree on a unified interpretation. One commentator remarked that “in scanning through my ever-growing set of 95 commentaries on Revelation, I have run across 37 different theories of who these witnesses might be” (Phil Kayser, The Two Witnesses, Part 1, kaysercommentary.com).
Futurist interpreters take the two witnesses quite literally. They are two real prophets who will appear in Jerusalem during the Great Tribulation in the end-times and perform miracles. Sometimes they are thought to be Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the Law and the Prophets, who also appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:16-18). Several Church Fathers – including Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus of Rome – believed the two witnesses are Enoch and Elijah. They held this view because these were the only two Old Testament prophets to be translated directly into heaven without dying. They reasoned that they would return to the city of Jerusalem to be killed, but then resurrected and taken up into heaven.
Historicist interpreters often have two literal figures, such as Luther and Calvin, or pairs of Reformation martyrs, such as John Huss and William Tyndale. They are also sometimes interpreted as Christian movements, such as the Waldenses and the later Reformers. Some see the French Revolution in the events of Revelation 11. They interpret the descriptions of the Two Witnesses as more loosely symbolic to fit these historical events.
Preterist interpreters of Revelation 11, as I have already mentioned, are also all over the map. Some see these witnesses as two Christian prophets in Jerusalem just before or during the Jewish War of AD 67 to 70. Others say that various figures – the Apostles Stephen and James, or James the Just – might be among the two witnesses because they were each martyred in Jerusalem. Still others interpret this figuratively as a metaphor for the martyrs who died for truth.
Preterists also point to various phenomena during this period of three-and-a-half years. There were numerous signs that the presence of God had departed from the Temple. According to Josephus (Wars of the Jews 6.289-309), from the fall of AD 62 to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Joshua (Jesus the son of Ananus) began prophesying Jerusalem’s destruction. However, there is no indication that Joshua was a Christian and there is no mention of a partner. There were phenomenal events in early AD 66. A star like a sword or comet appeared in night sky. A brilliant light shown on the altar and sanctuary of the Temple. The doors of Eastern Gate opened on their own. Chariots and armies were seen in the sky throughout Judea. A divine voice was heard from the inner court of the Temple, “We are leaving from here.” Then from the spring of AD 67 to 70, the war resumed under Vespasian – a period of three-and-a-half years. In fact, all the plagues listed in Revelation 11:6 occurred during the war. Josephus even includes a description of “amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake …” (Wars 4.5). Finally, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.
There is no doubt that these historical events exactly match some details of the prophecy. However, the main difficulty with this text from a preterist literalist perspective is that there is no record of two individuals who were witnesses for Christ. Yet there are preterists who strongly insist that the Two Witnesses must be actual prophets who appeared in Jerusalem from AD 67 to 70. There must have been two Christian men martyred by the Jews, who lay dead in the city for three-and-a-half days, after which they ascended into heaven. While it is certainly possible that this occurred, there is no historical record of it. There are numerous other events recorded by contemporary historians – such as Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius – that nicely corroborate a preterist approach to Revelation 11. However, the insistence that the Two Witnesses were two actual people in Jerusalem commits the fallacy of special pleading.
Preterist views have the Two Witnesses represented by a variety of figures.
- The Law and the Prophets
- Zerubbabel the king and Joshua the priest
- All the Old Testament prophets who preached against Israel’s sins
- Elijah and John the Baptist who preached in sackcloth
- The Old Covenant and the New Covenant
- Israel and the Church
- Jesus’ witnessing disciples who went out two-by-two
- Stephen and the Apostle James
- James the Just (the brother of Jesus) and another figure
- Peter and Paul (who were martyred on the same day in Rome according to Church tradition)
- The High Priests, Jesus the son of Gamalas, and Ananus the son of Ananus
Throughout Revelation, John uses Old Testament biblical imagery known to his hearers to describe the judgments about to occur in Judea. These are metaphors that often stand for descriptions of historical events that actually occurred. However, they do not always stand for specific figures and events, but are sometimes more general.
I interpret the two witnesses to be neither strictly literal nor symbolic, but metaphorical. That is, the theme of the Two Witnesses extends throughout the entire Bible.
My Solution: The figure of the Two Witnesses is a metaphor for the witness (martyrdom) of Christ and the Church.
The most obvious evidence that the Two Witnesses are not two specific people appears a few chapters prior to this in Revelation 6:9-11. The martyrs who had already been killed cry out for justice and are told they must wait “until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was complete.” These “yet to be killed” are the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:3-13. This promise is alluded to again in Revelation 11:15-18 when the seventh trumpet sounds and the same angel proclaims, “the time for the dead to be judged came and the time to give the reward to the prophets and saints.” In this context, the Two Witnesses are framed as those who make up total of the number of martyrs killed for the testimony of Jesus before judgment falls on Jerusalem.
The theme of two or more witnesses appears throughout the Bible. It is derived from the Law Concerning Witnesses in Deuteronomy 19:15.
“One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established (emphasis mine).
Of the New Testament writers, John uses the Greek word for “witness” no less than 35 times. The words translated as “bearing witness” and “testimony” are derived from the Greek word for “martyr” (marturia). Jesus is depicted in the Gospel According to John as proclaiming that His witness is valid because the Father also bears witness to His testimony about himself (John 5:31-36; 8:13-18; 10:25; 15:27).
The theme of multiple witnesses appears in another well-known yet controversial passage by the Apostle John.
This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son (1 John 5:6-13, emphasis mine).
There is not space here to delve into the controversies surrounding 1 John 5:7, which is one of the most significant disputed texts in the New Testament. The verse is a center of controversy since 1 John 5:7 is often used to defend the Trinity. I am sympathetic to arguments that the Latin Vulgate texts that include the Johannine Comma are more reliable than the Greek texts that omit it. Regardless, it is not necessary to look at that one verse alone. Instead let’s focus on the language that all scholars agree is part of the original, which treats the theme of “bearing witness” and “testimony.”
John begins by saying that Jesus Christ came by “water and blood.” The Holy Spirit is the One “who bears witness because the Spirit is truth.” Then he extends the analogy to the testimony of Christ preached by men. The testimony preached on earth – the Spirit, the water and the blood – is the same as the testimony of heaven. If we on earth believe the testimony of the Son, we have the testimony of God himself in heaven. Following this analogy, the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 are the testimony of Jesus Christ in heaven and the testimony of the Church on earth.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) are a group of “martyrs” of all the ages united as a corporate body by their faith in Christ. Some preterist commentators, such as David Chilton, interpret the Two Witnesses as “the dead bodies of the Old Covenant Witnesses, ‘from righteous Abel to Zechariah’ (Matthew 23:35) [who] lie metaphorically in the street of the Great City” (Paradise Restored 281). I certainly agree with this, but I include among this number Jesus Christ and the New Testament martyrs. According to a Covenantal view, the Church is united with believers of all ages (cf. Hebrews 11).
The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 is a metaphor for the witness of Christ and the Church – the earthly reflection of the heavenly witness. This solution has the least amount of exegetical problems and also entails several of the specific solutions listed above. All of God’s prophets are witnesses and are members of the Church.
Further symbolism for Christ and the Church is used in the following chapter, Revelation 12:11, where the child and the woman stand for the testimony of Christ and the Church.
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
In Revelation 19:10, we read that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” In Revelation 22:17, we again see two witnesses as “the Spirit and the bride.” These also represent the witness of Christ and the Church.
Revelation 12 unlocks many of the symbols in the surrounding chapters. The preterist interpretation of Revelation 12 must be rigorously correct. Then we can see that much of Revelation is a recapitulation of the theme of the woman and the child at war with the dragon. Revelation 12 is the hinge on which the rest of the book turns. When writing this series I began with Revelation 12 because I consider it to be a straightforward key to the rest of the book.
There is a simple interpretation of the symbolism in Revelation 12 from a preterist perspective. The story tells of the war between the dragon and the woman’s seed. Chapter 12 repeats the story three times from different perspectives, much like the outline of Daniel 7 (which I explain in my interpretation of Revelation 13 and 17). Yet the simplicity of Revelation 12 is preceded by chapter 11, which I consider to be the most difficult chapter of the whole book from any perspective. Although it might seem counter-intuitive to begin a study of the Book of Revelation in the middle and then work outward, I followed a simple rule of interpretation succinctly described by my former pastor, the late great R.C. Sproul.
It is always important to interpret obscure passages by those that are clear. Though we affirm the basic clarity of sacred Scripture, we do not at the same time say that all passages are equally clear. Numerous heresies have developed when people have forced conformity to the obscure passages rather than to the clear passages, distorting the whole message of Scripture. If something is unclear in one part of Scripture, it probably is made clear elsewhere in Scripture. When we have two passages in Scripture that we can interpret in various ways, we want always to interpret the Bible in such a way as to not violate the basic principle of Scripture’s unity and integrity (R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Ligonier.org).
Revelation 12, which is more clear, prophesies the war of the dragon versus the seed of the woman. Revelation 11, which is less clear, tells the same story in the context of different symbols. Revelation is a difficult book as shown by the wide amount of disagreement on how it should be interpreted. Although I am convinced the preterist postmillennial view is correct, I do not want to cloud the case for fulfilled prophecy with yet another novel interpretation. My approach when faced with a bewildering labyrinth of twists and turns among the commentators is to use Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is most likely the right one. When faced with competing solutions to the same problem, select the one with the fewest hermeneutical presumptions and the least amount of exegetical conundrums.
I am a literalist when I can find a biblical passage or a reliable history that uncannily corroborates the fulfilled predictions of Bible prophecy. However, when no such source exists, I use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Then I am an idealist when the same language occurs symbolically in other places in Scripture.
Revelation uses constant parallel structure. The simple rule here is that a biblical text will often interpret itself. Often the answer is nearby. A preceding verse or passage may be interpreted by the next one.
Revelation 4 through 10 is a prophetic prediction warning of impending judgment on the nation of Judea. In the next chapter to be examined, the occasion shifts to a prophecy addressed to all the nations. The last verse of Revelation 10 sets up the context and meaning of Revelation 11.
Revelation 11 Explained
The prophecy of Revelation 11 is introduced by the last verse of chapter 10.
Revelation 10:11 – And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings – Here we have the occasion of writing. The angel speaking to John states to whom the prophecy must be addressed. Preterist interpreters are in general agreement that chapters 1-3 are addressed to the seven historical churches of Asia Minor dealing with issues and events that occurred in the first half of the decade from AD 60 up until the time of John’s writing. The next section, chapters 4-10, deals with the ongoing persecution of the Church and the beginning of the Jewish War. John’s audience is the same, but his focus is on Judea, specifically predicting the false Christs, the “wars and rumors of wars … famines and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:6,7) that Jesus predicted would occur in Judea before the destruction of the Temple. The audience here is mainly Christians throughout Asia Minor and the Roman Empire. However, any Jew seeing “all these things” (Matthew 24:2,8) would be without excuse since the Old Testament is rife with prophecies concerning the judgments of God on His people when they forsake His Law-Word.
Now at the midpoint of the book, Revelation shifts to prophesy to “many peoples, nations, tongues and kings,” that is, all the peoples of the known world. This portion is intended for Jews, Christians and pagan Gentiles – all nations – throughout the Roman Empire.
This raises some questions.
How would the nations know of this prophecy?
Would John preach it openly and widely?
Would his book be expediently published in handwritten manuscripts to all nations?
The next verse gives us the answer.
John is to measure the Temple of God. As we shall see, the destruction of the Temple is the prophetic sign to all nations that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Temple is still standing
Revelation 11:1 – And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.
Rise, and measure the temple of God – Revelation 11:1-2 contains strong evidence that Revelation was written at an early date, prior to AD 70. John is told to measure the Temple, which must have been standing in order for him to do so. If John were writing at the late date of AD 96-98, this passage would have made little sense to his hearers. Regardless of the fact that this command occurs in the context of John’s vision, the immediate audience would have thought of the Temple in the present tense.
In Ezekiel 40-42, the prophet describes how he observes an angel measure the city of Jerusalem and the Temple area. After the measuring is complete, the glory of the Lord returns to the Temple (Ezekiel 43). This is a prophetic picture of the restoration of Jerusalem in the time after the Babylonian captivity, but in type it describes the expansive growth of Christ’s kingdom in power and glory. This we will see is also a general theme of Revelation. An earthly Temple is being razed and a spiritual Temple made of living stones restored.
Measure the temple of God – Taking a measurement with a rod, scale or plumb line is often a symbol of God’s impending judgment. Measurement denotes a prophetic declaration of judgment. There are other Bible passages that bear this out (Daniel 5:27; Matthew 7:2). Even today, we use the figure of Lady Justice holding a balance scale. As in Ezekiel 40-43, it can also mean measurement that results in God’s blessing as we see in the following verse.
And the altar, and them that worship therein – This suggests that the true worshipers of God who have approached the altar – those committed to Jesus Christ – are measured by God. But those who were without, in the Court of the Gentiles, are to be turned over to quick judgment. Although the Temple and the altar were real places of worship, the prophecy here is metaphorical dealing with God’s blessing on His true worshipers and His punishment toward those who reject Him.
Revelation 11:2 – But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.
But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles – Most likely, John is referring to the Court of the Gentiles.
In the year 20-19 BC, King Herod began a major renovation, almost a restructuring of the Temple of Jerusalem, the second one that had been built after the exile. In addition to the areas reserved to the members of the people of Israel, in this Temple there was a space in which everyone could enter, Jews and non-Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, members or not of the chosen people, people educated in the law and people who weren’t (What is the Courtyard of the Gentiles?).
Originally, the Temple was to be the place where the Law-Word of God and His dominion was proclaimed to the world. We see this in the pilgrimages of converts to the faith of the Jews. The most famous example of this was the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:2,10; 2 Chronicles 9:1-9), who came with an abundance of riches to offer to Solomon. She came “to prove him with hard questions,” which Solomon answered to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts and afterward she returned to her land.
The teachers of the Law assembled here to answer the peoples’ sincere questions. This was the Court of the Gentiles, in Latin the atrium gentium. By the New Testament era, the courtyard of the Gentiles was the place where evangelism of non-Jews took place. It contained “Solomon’s Porch,” which is where the Apostles preached in the years after the miracle of Pentecost and the church at Jerusalem grew mightily (Acts 6:7-15).
This echoes the command to John in the preceding chapter that “Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.” Just as the court of the Gentiles was intended to be a place of light and truth to the nations, it would now become the place where the Gentiles would put the disobedient Jews to the sword because of their rejection of God’s only begotten Son.
The destruction of Jerusalem was the greatest massacre in history. As stated above, this was a prophetic sign, not only to the Jews, but to “many peoples, nations, tongues and kings” that God’s own people had been weighed in the balance and judged.
The historian Josephus Flavius was not only a personal witness to the events, but also a military general for the Jews in the initial stages of the war before being captured by Vespasian and Titus. He then served them as an advisor having become convinced that Vespasian was the “prince” described in Daniel 9. His claim that over 1,100,000 Jews were killed is compiled from his account of each battle of the war. A remaining 97,000 were captured and enslaved. The rest fled to other areas of the Roman Empire. No modern military massacre equals these numbers and this level of suffering, although there have been larger genocides. It was so horrifying that Titus refused to accept a wreath of victory at his own triumph, saying there was no merit in vanquishing a people forsaken by their own God, according to the early third century Roman orator and biographer, Philostratus.
After Titus had taken Jerusalem, and when the country all round was filled with corpses, the neighboring races offered him a crown; but he disclaimed any such honor to himself, saying that it was not himself that had accomplished this exploit, but that he had merely lent his arms to God, who had so manifested his wrath (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 6.9).
The holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months – Although John is alluding to Ezekiel 40 in these first two verses, he does not have God’s blessing in mind, but rather a cataclysmic judgment. Ezekiel measures the city of Jerusalem and the whole Temple area foreseeing the glory of God coming to rest on His people. On the other hand, John is told to leave out the court for it is to trampled by the Gentiles for 42 months. This was the three-and-a-half year period in which Vespasian and then Titus commanded troops laying siege to the city of Jerusalem and finally destroying the Temple.
This judgment came because the testimony of Jesus was despised and rejected by the unbelieving Jews. They persecuted Christ’s Apostles unto death.
These “forty-two months” during which the nations shall tread the holy city under foot are identical with the “times of the nations” referred to in Luke 21:24: “They shall fall by the edge of the sword and shall be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by nations until the times of the nations be fulfilled” (Milton Terry, Commentary on the Apocalypse).
The Two Witnesses
Revelation 11:3 – And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
My two witnesses – There are only two figures specifically called “witnesses” in the Book of Revelation, Christ and the Church.
First, Jesus Christ is called “the Faithful and True Witness” (Revelation 1:5; 3:14).
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5).
And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God (Revelation 3:14).
Second, the martyrs of the first century Church are mentioned several times in Revelation. The word for “witness” in these verses in Greek is martus or “martyr.” The word is used in Revelation to describe the martyrs of the early Church. “Witnesses” are often martyrs, but they are also simply Christians who witness to the death, burial, resurrection and of Christ. A related word with the same root, marturia, is also translated as “record” or “testimony.” Marturia is evidence given judicially or generally.
I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth (Revelation 2:13).
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held (Revelation 6:9).
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death (Revelation 12:11).
And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration (Revelation 17:6).
The witnesses throughout the book of Revelation are Jesus Christ and the witnesses of Jesus – the Church. Antipas of Pergamum is the only individual named as a martyr (Revelation 2:13). If Antipas was a historic person, his example is used as one among a group of martyrs who are commanded to “Be thou faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:20). However, as Milton Terry argues, Antipas more likely is symbolic name, as are Jezebel, the Nicolaitans and the Balaamites (Revelation 2:14-15,20). The name means literally “against all,” as in one who stands “against the world.”
They shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth – 1260 days is three-and-a half-years. This is obviously the same time period as in the previous verse or 42 months (that is, 30-day months). On the surface, this presents a problem for a preterist interpretation as many preterists look for two individual human witnesses who walked the city in sackcloth for three-and-a-half years.
As already stated, the symbols and metaphors throughout Revelation stand for prophecies of historical events that actually occurred, but they are not woodenly literal figures. One fascinating aspect of history is that several of the Church Fathers held that there were no Christians within Jerusalem during the three-and-a-half year Jewish War from the spring of AD 67 to September of AD 70. Being warned about the siege of Jerusalem by Jesus’ prophecy, the Christians in the city knew to flee to the hills of Judea (Matthew 24:15,16; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:21-23).
How then could two witnesses dressed in sackcloth have prophesied for 1260 days if all Christians had fled the city?
One preterist interpretation has the Jewish High Priests Ananus and Jesus as the two witnesses who, according to Josephus, were killed by a radical faction of Jews during the war. However, insisting on a woodenly literal interpretation of the Two Witnesses also creates the necessity of finding literal interpretations of specific details. We read of the two witnesses being killed, lying dead in the streets for three-and-a-half days and then being resurrected and taken up into heaven (Revelation 11:7-12).
One reason I reject this approach is that there are no known historical events that can corroborate this. The witness of Christ against Jerusalem was not delivered by two specific individuals. Rather, Jesus himself witnessed against the unbelieving Jews that “upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (Matthew 23:35). The Two Witnesses’ testimony was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39 ESV).
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV).
The Book of Revelation can be understood as the proclamation of the triumph of the Gospel over all God’s enemies as prophesied by Christ himself. The angel communicates Christ’s mandate for John to proclaim this impending victory in the previous chapter.
And he said to me, “You must prophesy again before many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” (Revelation 10:11).
This mandate is followed by a short description of the measuring of the temple and the appearance of the Two Witnesses. This leads to the prophecy of the climax of history described in Revelation 11:15 – the sounding of the seventh trumpet.
John is commanded to “prophesy” to the nations about judgment on the unbelieving Jews, the destruction of the Temple and the triumph of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is then recapitulated in more detail throughout Revelation chapters 12-19. The purpose of the destruction of the Temple was to showcase to the nations that the rejection of Christ had brought judgment on His own people. This opened to way for the Gospel to be preached in the whole world.
Therefore, the Two Witnesses are understood not as two individual people, but metaphorically as the witness of Christ and the Church against the unbelieving Jews who killed the prophets and rejected Christ. Their testimony stood against the unbelieving Jews throughout the three-and-a-half year Roman War on the Jews.
Revelation 11:4 – These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
Verse 4 is a direct allusion to Zechariah 4:2-3.
“I am looking, and there is a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top of it, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps. Two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left” (Zechariah 4:2-3).
Zechariah details the image of a “lampstand” with “seven lamps” in the Temple of God at Jerusalem, supplied with the oil of two olive trees. Just prior to this, Zechariah sees a stone with seven eyes, which are the eyes of God (Zechariah 3:9). In Revelation 1-3, the Apostle John sees seven lampstands, which symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the seven churches of Asia Minor. In both visions, the oil used in lighting the lamps symbolized the Holy Spirit.
In Zechariah 4, the two olive trees, are two witnesses – and we also see “two witnesses” in Revelation 11. Although numerous explanations have been offered as to the identity of the two witnesses, the angel tells Zechariah only that, “These are the two anointed ones, who stand beside the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14).
The symbolism of Zechariah repeatedly points to the New Testament revelation of Christ and the Church. There are seven lamps in the Temple at Jerusalem and seven lampstands in the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 1-3). Here they are two candlesticks or lampstands. Simply, the candlesticks represent same figure that is symbolized by the olive trees.
Bible historian Bruce Gore argues that in Zechariah, the two olive trees represent the Governor Zerubbabel and the High Priest Joshua. John then appropriates these figures as representing the Law and the Prophets – the civil ruler and the high priest. These two figures then stand in antithesis to the Beast and the False Prophet in Revelation 13. Nero being the reprobate king and the High Priest the apostate religious ruler.
What follows in Revelation 11:5-8 is a further description of the two witnesses. This passage contains metaphors that compare the two witnesses to Old Testament prophets of judgment. While we can find literal fulfillments of each of these points in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple, the central idea is that the very judgments that God poured out on the faithless Gentiles who persecuted Israel are now being levied against the unbelieving Jews who persecuted the Church.
Revelation 11:5 – And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.
Fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies – Here we see an image of Elijah contesting with the prophets of Baal, “the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed the enemy” (2 Kings 1:10,12). This is combined with what God revealed to Jeremiah, “Behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire and this people wood and it shall devour them” (Jeremiah 5:14). Compare this also to Psalm 97:3, “A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his enemies round about.”
This image of fire falling from heaven also alludes to the story of the two angels who came to Sodom in the evening and met Lot who was sitting in the gate of the city (Genesis 19:1). The men of Sodom not only rejected God’s two witnesses, but they also sought to abuse them. As the faithful Church escaped the city, God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. Not only does John compare Jerusalem to Sodom (Revelation 11:8), but the two angels who appeared to Lot can be likened to the Two Witnesses. The image of the Two Witnesses is a typological theme throughout Scripture. God’s messengers are sent to preach repentance. When they are despised and rejected, God judges the disobedient as He rescues the remnant of His people.
Revelation 11:6 – These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.
Power to shut heaven – Elijah had the power to stop the rain causing a drought that lasted several years (1 Kings 17:1-7).
Power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues – Moses’ first plague sign was turning he waters of the Nile to blood (Exodus 7:14-25) – the first of a total of ten plagues (Exodus 8-12).
In these two verses, the Two Witnesses are typified by Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus to the Apostles Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration It is striking that this image would be revealed to the Apostle once again. John Boanerges, the “Son of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), is given a word picture of the prophets doling out the wrath of God. Ironically, Jesus rebuked John almost 40 years prior to this for suggesting that fire should be called down on the unbelieving cities of Samaria. Making this comparison, some preterist interpreters have concluded that the Two Witnesses might be Peter and John, the two surviving Apostles who witnessed the transfiguration.
Instead of looking for two individuals who performed these signs, the general meaning here is by analogy. Just as Moses and Aaron called down plagues on the land of Egypt, and the two angels called down fire and brimstone on Sodom, so the Two Witnesses call down plagues on Jerusalem, “which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt” (Revelation 11:8). The destruction of the enemy led to the deliverance of the people of God. The Two Witnesses here condemn the unbelieving Jews in an echo of Jesus’ rebuke.
“You diligently search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which are bearing witness of Me” (John 5:39, emphasis mine).
In short, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets who testify of Jesus so that the Jews were without excuse.
Revelation 11:7 – And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.
When they shall have finished their testimony – This is admittedly a problematic interpretation from the point of view I present here. A more convenient preterist literalist view might be that two historical persons would prophecy in Jerusalem throughout the Roman-Jewish War and would be martyred at the very end of the tribulation period. However, the next reference to a “beast” indicates a persecution using symbolism. If we take this “beast” symbolically as a satanic persecution, then it is consistent to take the “Two Witnesses” also symbolically as the witness of the Gospel.
The beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit – The definite article rendered as “that” here refers to the previous character of Revelation 9. The beast is the same figure as the angel that ascends out of the bottomless pit.
And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon (Revelation 9:11).
The beast’s name here is synonymous with “death” and “destruction” referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as Sheol and Abaddon (Job 26:6, 28:22, 31:12; Psalms 88:11;15:11). It is neither the Sea Beast (Rome) nor the Land Beast (Apostate Israel) of Revelation 13:1-18. Just as the Two Witnesses are symbolic of the testimony of Jesus, the beast is symbolic of Satan’s persecution of the Church.
Shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them – This refers to Satan’s general persecution of the Church throughout the whole New Testament period from the time of Jesus’ birth to AD 70. The beast here is Satan who makes war against the saints. We will see this image recapitulated in more detail in the image of the dragon and those who “loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). We will see this verse echoed again when the dragon goes to make war with the remnant of the seed of the woman that “have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17).
John’s prophecy has the purpose of comforting the Church in the knowledge that this war is cosmic in nature and that physical death cannot be the victor. Although Rome and the unbelieving Jews are the physical manifestation of persecution of the Church, the spiritual enemy is Satan.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12).
The Great City
Revelation 11:8 – And the dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
Their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city – The great city where our Lord was crucified is Jerusalem. I will argue below that “the great city” is Jerusalem each time it is mentioned in Revelation.
Yerushaláyim is a Hebrew name meaning “city of God’s peace.” According to a Hebrew Midrash, Yireh, “the abiding place,” was the name of the mountain where Abraham began to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The word shaláyim is also rendered as shalem, shalom or salem, the Hebrew word for “peace.” This is why it is an ironic affront to God that His own prophets would be murdered in the city of peace.
Which martyrs died in Jerusalem?
Jesus did not claim that all martyrs died in Jerusalem. He stated it “cannot be” (Greek: ouk endechetai), which can also be rendered as “not fitting,” “not right,” or “not acceptable,” that a prophet should die apart from Jerusalem. This hyperbolic statement is used to condemn the Pharisees’ rejection of the Son of God.
The same day there case certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk today, and tomorrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem (Luke 13:31-33 emphasis mine).
Jesus condemned the Jewish political order of His day in His “Seven Woes” sermon of Matthew 23. Jesus directed these woes at this particular generation saying that they would be held accountable for the blood of all those who killed the prophets.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar (Matthew 23:29-35).
On the surface, this statement presents a conundrum for the tenets of biblical law, which Jesus actually espouses a few verses earlier.
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not (Mathew 23:2-3).
The Law of Moses specifically forbade the death penalty for children of parents who committed murder.
The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16).
This law is reiterated in 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chronicles 25:4; Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:20. However, Matthew 23 is not a contradiction of the Law at all. Jesus is here proclaiming here is that the scribes and Pharisees would be responsible for their own sin of killing the prophets, just as the city of Jerusalem had been responsible for the deaths of God’s prophets.
The Book of Acts tells of the martyrdoms of Stephen, whom the religious leaders stoned (Acts 7:54-60) and James the son of Zebedee, who was beheaded (Acts 12:1-2) in the city of Jerusalem.
Josephus wrote about James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
With the exception of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-7, 14:6-12; Mark 1:14, 6:17-29; Luke 3:19-20, 7:18-25, 9:9; John 3:24) and Antipas (Revelation 2:12,23), the Christian martyrs mentioned by name in the New Testament and Josephus were killed within the city of Jerusalem.
The great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified – If much of Revelation 11 is the subject of wide disagreement, this one verse ought to be straightforward. John says that the “great city” is “spiritually” called “Sodom and Egypt.” In other words, the name is symbolic. Unless there be any confusion about which city Sodom and Egypt symbolizes, he writes that it is “where also our Lord was crucified.” The “great city” here is Jerusalem.
Why are Sodom and Egypt used as a symbol for Jerusalem here when in other places in Revelation the “great city” is called Babylon?
We are introduced to this pattern in the Old Testament. God uses a pagan nation to judge His own people for the purpose of discipline and redemption. Then when He is about the restore His people, He judges the pagan nation with destruction. We see this in the histories of Lot in Sodom, the Hebrews in Egypt, and the nation of Judah in Babylon. This symbolic pattern is then repeated throughout the Prophets. For example, in Isaiah 1, God speaks directly to His people revealing that all but a “very small remnant” are going to be judged with destruction.
Unless the Lord of hosts
Had left to us a very small remnant,
We would have become like Sodom,
We would have been made like Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the Lord,
You rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the law of our God,
You people of Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:9,10).
Note that the nation of Judah is called “Sodom and Gomorrah.” There is a warning to God’s people throughout Scripture not to be “like all the nations” (Deuteronomy 17:14; 1 Samuel 8:5; 1 Samuel 8:20; 2 Kings 17:11-15) or else they will suffer the temporal judgments that God has reserved for unbelieving nations who persecute His people.
For their rock is not like our Rock,
Even our enemies themselves being judges.
For their vine is of the vine of Sodom
And of the fields of Gomorrah
Their grapes are grapes of gall,
Their clusters are bitter (Deuteronomy 32:31,32).
“Sodom” is a byword in Scripture for describing not only God’s enemies, but also God’s people who several times became like Sodom, as Jeremiah states in Lamentations when describing the horrors suffered by the Jews when they were conquered and taken captive by Babylon.
The punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people
Is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom,
Which was overthrown in a moment,
With no hand to help her! (Lamentations 4:6).
The image of disobedient Israel as Sodom and Gomorrah becomes helpful in interpreting Revelation from a preterist perspective. Scripture must interpret Scripture. John writes of Jerusalem comparing the “great city” to Sodom and Egypt. This condemnation comes from the fact that Jerusalem has become guilty of shedding the blood of the Two Witnesses who have the testimony of Jesus.
The great city … where also our Lord was crucified – John refers to the “great city” in Revelation eleven times and is likely alluding to Jeremiah 22:8,9.
“And many nations will pass by this city; and everyone will say to his neighbor, ‘Why has the Lord done so to this great city?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them’” (Jeremiah 22:8,9, emphasis mine).
Jeremiah here is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Likewise, John is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in his time. In each case when “the great city” or “that great city” is mentioned in Revelation, we can interpret this as Jerusalem. The “great city” is symbolically “Sodom and Egypt,” but in other places symbolically “Babylon.”
And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication (Revelation 14:8).
And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath (Revelation 16:19).
And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:18).
Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come…. And saying, Alas, alas that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls! … And cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city! And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate…. And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all (Revelation 18:10,16,18,19,21).
And finally, the redeemed “great city” coming down from heaven is “the holy Jerusalem” – or what is also called “the city of God” and “the New Jerusalem.”
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name (Revelation 3:12).
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God Revelation 21:10, emphasis throughout mine).
Almost universally, historicists and futurists interpret “Babylon” in Revelation to be either the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages or a revived Roman Empire in the end-times. Yet if John is being consistent with his own symbolism and that of the prophetic books of Scripture, then Babylon is Jerusalem. This underscores the importance of understanding the consistent symbolism of the Prophets before interpreting the Book of Revelation.
Where also our Lord was crucified – It might seem redundant to say that the Two Witnesses are Christ and the Church when this verse states they lie dead in the great city “where also our Lord was crucified.” Note that the Two Witnesses are not two specific individuals, but this figure serves as a metaphor for the testimony of Jesus through a great host of witnesses. Jesus’ crucifixion in this context is a reminder of His rebuke to the Jews that “it is not possible for a prophet to perish out of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).
You must prophesy again before many nations
Revelation 10:11 serves as an introduction to the angel’s discourse in Revelation 11.
And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
In 11:1-2, we hear the commandment to measure the holy place of the true Temple – the people of God – for preservation from judgment. In 11:3-8, we hear a description of the two witnesses who prophesy the destruction of the Great City. In the next passage, 11:9-14, the focus shifts to the nations. John previously was told that he would now prophesy is to the nations. Revelation 11:9-14 now forms a transition that points us to the main emphasis of this passage – the prophecy to the nations.
Revelation 11:9 – And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.
The people and kindreds and tongues and nations – The persecution of the Church was a prophetic testimony to the whole world that the people of God could not be defeated even by death. During the persecution of the Church in the Roman Empire in this time period, which overlapped with the Roman-Jewish War, there was a demonic rage against Christ and an insane rejoicing over the deaths of the Christians by the Jews and Gentiles. The persecution began in Jerusalem, but by now had spread throughout the Empire.
Many preterists interpret “the people and kindreds and tongues and nations” as being the Jewish kingdoms and rulers in the areas surrounding Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, Perea, Decapolis and the surrounding regions with large populations of Jews. This is a possible interpretation. However, the ETHNE in the New Testament usually refers to the Gentile nations. This all-inclusive phrase, “the people and kindreds and tongues and nations” would certainly also include the non-believing nations populated mainly by Jews who surrounded Jerusalem. By AD 64, the witness of the Christ and the Church was opposed by the Jews and the Gentile nations as a matter of policy. However, the context is directly related to the Gentile “nations” of Revelation 10:11 and the “nations” who would trample the outer courts of the Temple in Revelation 11:2. Further, we will soon read in 11:18, “And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come.” Since this is an allusion to Psalm 2 (see below), we should interpret these “nations” consistently as the Gentile nations who were gathered to destroy the city of Jerusalem.
Shall see their dead bodies – According to Josephus, during the three-and-a-half years of the Roman campaign, many of the Jews who remained in the city of Jerusalem continued to believe that the defeat of their enemies was imminent. Keeping with the pattern of the surrounding passages of Revelation 11:1-8 and 12:1-17, the non-believing Jews were the enemies of Christ and the Church. The Christian Church had fled from Jerusalem and the absence of their living testimony seemed to the Jews to be another evidence of their victory. The testimony of the crucified Christ was to them as a dead carcass.
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness…. For the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who perish; but unto us who are saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:3,18).
Three days and an half – This period can be understood symbolically in one of two ways. First, as just a period of time, a half of a seven, which symbolizes a time of unholy persecution. Second, corresponding to a “year for a day” and synonymous with the other three-and-a half year symbols in the Book of Revelation and Daniel – especially the 42 months and the 1260 days earlier in Revelation 11:2-3. There are some problems with this second solution of having 1260 days and three-and-a-half days stand for the same period of 42 months. However, the second interpretation is not exclusive of the first. John uses “three-and-a-half” as a symbol to stand for a time of tribulation, while it was also a literal time period of 42 months.
It is easy to be misled here into a woodenly literal rendering of the image of the bodies of two martyrs lying dead in the streets for three-and-a-half days. A couple of points indicates that the dead bodies of the Two Witnesses are not human bodies, but symbolically the witness of Christ and the Church that had been despised and desecrated by the Jews.
The first point has already been stated. The resilient Church survived not only the persecution of Nero, but also the destruction of the capital city of Jerusalem where the New Testament Church was born. At first, the presumed death of the Church is a target of scorn to the Jews and the Gentile nations, but soon becomes an object of wonder and fear.
The second point is that during the three-and-a-half year war, the Church had already fled the city. This was the remaining length of the war that the Romans conducted against the Jews until the destruction of the Temple.
The fact that Christians had already fled the city may seem like a contradiction if we understand the text as a strict historical chronology and the Two Witnesses as two literal people. One one hand, the two witnesses prophesied against the Jews in the city of Jerusalem during the war. In further contradiction, they also lay dead within the city.
How shall these dead bodies prophesy?
If we hold that the “two witnesses” stand for the testimony of Jesus and the “dead bodies” signify the Jerusalem’s rejection of the prophetic witness, then the three-and-a-half year Jewish War is the time period referred to here. In fact, the Jews persecuted and killed God’s prophets until the time when they saw Roman armies surrounding the city. At that very point in history, the remaining Christians in Jerusalem fled to hiding places in the hills of Judea. Those who had rejected the Gospel were now sealed within the city. Thinking that God had vindicated them by ridding themselves of the troublesome followers of the Way, they deceived themselves into thinking they were safe, only to suffer a horrific 1260-day-long demise. Thus the language portraying prophetic truth lying dead in the streets is an allusion to Isaiah 59.
Justice is turned back,
And righteousness stands afar off;
For truth is fallen in the street,
And equity cannot enter Justice (Isaiah 59:14 NKJV, emphasis mine).
As in Isaiah, John personifies Truth as having fallen in the streets (see also: Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:1-10).
Revelation 11:10 – And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
They that dwell upon the earth – The preterist hermeneutic gives two choices on how to interpret the “earth” here. The first choice is the “land” of the Jews – Galilee and Judea. The second choice is the Gentile nations that were part of the Roman Empire where the Gospel had already been preached. Preterists make a big deal about the word “land,” or GE in Greek, meaning the “holy land” – and this is true in most cases in Revelation. Bad interpretations of Revelation assume that GE must always meant the planet earth and not specific judgments on Judea.
On the other hand, it is possible that the judgment prophecies in this context are against all the persecutors of God’s people, that the “land” applies here not only to Judea – but also to other regions of the world where the Gospel had been preached. However, the next part of this verse gives an indication that the reference is toward the unbelieving enemies of the Gospel dwelling in the vicinity of Judea.
They that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them … because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth – The rejoicing over the dead bodies is a cruel and macabre image. The sense here is that the preaching of the Truth of the Word of God was a torment to those who rejected the Gospel because it exposed the curse of sin in unbelievers. If we interpret this in the historical context of the Christians escaping the city before the trap was sprung on those within, the reference is toward the Jews dwelling in the “land” of Judea.
In fact, St. Augustine likened Jesus death on the cross to the devil’s mousetrap.
The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death (Augustine, Sermon 263, “On the Ascension”).
In a similar way, the destruction of Jerusalem was also the devil’s mousetrap. Nero, the Beast of Revelation 13, wished to rid Judea of any messianic pretenders, so he waged a total war on the Jews with the aim of moving his throne to Jerusalem and reigning as the king of the world. In doing so, he lost control of his own kingdom and died by his own sword. The object of Nero’s wrath, the Christians, had by then escaped the city that killed the prophets. The entrapped Jews then slid into a slow and horrifying demise in the military siege led by Vespasian and Titus. Thus the Beasts of the Land and the Sea doing the bidding of Satan (Revelation 13) were caught with the bait of the blood of the Lamb.
John elsewhere draws a connection between the destruction of the Temple and the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (John 2:19-22).
As in Revelation 11, here is a comparison between the death of Christ and the destruction of the Temple. Ironically, the failure of the Jews to accept the death and resurrection of Jesus is what led to their own deaths and the obliteration of the earthly Temple for all time. In contrast, the believing Jews who were martyrs for their faith were raised to new life and became part of the heavenly Temple made with living stones.
Revelation 11:11 – And after three days and an half the spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
After three days and an half the spirit of life from God entered into them – We have only to survey the historical events from AD 64 to 68, to see that the Church really did suffer the death of its leadership. After this point, we hear no more about the Apostles, with the exception of John who is said to have continued on to survive past the death of Domitian in AD 96. For all intents and purposes, truth lay dead in the streets. If we interpret the sign of the Two Witnesses as meaning the “testimony of the crucified Christ,” then Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction rose up to give a final word of judgment against the unbelieving Jews after the three-and-a-half year war.
They stood upon their feet – To “stand” as a witness is a biblical idiom meaning to stand to give eyewitness testimony in a judicial proceeding. In Scripture, God’s prophets are called to stand in His presence when receiving the Word of the Lord.
And He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.” (Ezekiel 2:1).
God’s messengers are also to stand upright in the public assembly in the Temple when delivering the Word as it was given to them.
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the Lord’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them. Do not diminish a word (Jeremiah 26:2).
“Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20).
Here the Two Witnesses give their final testimony just before the city of Jerusalem is judged.
Great fear fell upon them which saw them – The Jews still in the city saw that Jesus’ testimony against Jerusalem was about to be fulfilled and were rightly terrified.
Revelation 11:12 – And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
Here is a thought parallelism to the previous verse.
Come up hither – The Two Witnesses are resurrected and their enemies see them, but this verse adds that they ascended up to heaven in a cloud. The cloud represents the presence of the glorious holiness of God denoting that Christ stood with them as a testimony against their enemies’ unbelief.
Their enemies beheld them – The central idea in 11:11-12 is that the enemies of the Gospel “see” the vindication of the Christian witness. They see that Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Temple is about to take place. John presents this as a parallelism to the previous verse to doubly emphasize the terror that now struck the men of Jerusalem.
Revelation 11:13 – And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.
There was a great earthquake – As with the figure of the Two Witnesses, we have two choices here. We can either view the proceeding images as literal or symbolic. There is historical evidence to support something like a shaking of the city. We can look to a literal shaking as the Roman battering rams and catapults breached the Third Wall on the northern boundary of the city. Recent archaeological evidence has confirmed Josephus’ account of the breach (Israeli Archeologists Discover Titus Breached Jerusalem Walls).
On the other hand, Milton Terry insists that the earthquake and its effects are symbolic figures that “point to a great political upheaval, a signal revolution in human affairs.” Regardless, there is a great similarity between the cataclysmic events of the war and the symbolic language of the prophecy. Often the Book of Revelation depicts the physical world as reflecting the monumental state of the spiritual universe. The important point here is the spiritual revolution. The earthquake not only denotes the physical leveling of the city and the Temple, but also the removal of the old order, the burning away of the beggarly elements of false worship that focus on earthly forms and deny that Jesus is God come in the flesh. Woodenly literalist interpretations from a preterist perspective can make the same error of focusing too much on historical fulfillments of the signs in Revelation rather than the revelation that Jesus Christ is the presently reigning King of all earthly kingdoms.
The tenth part of the city fell – A general rule of numbers in biblical language is that round numbers are hyperbolic, while more specific numbers are literal. The “tenth part” is to be taken symbolically, like the “fourth part” in Revelation 6:8 and “third part” in 8:7,8.
In the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand – Most likely, seven thousand is chosen ]in keeping with the thematic numbering system in the rest of the book. Those who take this number literally, look for evidence in Wars of the Jews 4.4.5, in which Josephus describes an earthquake that took place the night the Idumeans broke into Jerusalem, the day before the High Priests Ananus and Jesus were killed:
[F]or there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake… anyone would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.
That same night the Idumeans slaughtered those who had prevented them from coming in.
The zealots also joined in the shouts raised by the Idumeans; and the storm itself rendered the cry more terrible; nor did the Idumeans spare anybody; for as they are naturally a most barbarous and bloody nation, and had been distressed by the tempest, they made use of their weapons against those that had shut the gates against them… Now there was at present neither any place for flight, nor any hope of preservation; but as they were driven one upon another in heaps, so were they slain… And now the outer temple was all of it overflowed with blood; and that day, as it came on, they saw eight thousand five hundred dead bodies there (Wars 4.5.1).
Note the similarity in the numbers 8500 and 7000. Did 7000 die in the earthquake, and another 1500 die by the swords of the Idumeans? Regardless, John’s prediction of 7000 deaths is very close to the 8500 deaths mentioned by Josephus. Furthermore, this earthquake and the deaths of Ananus and Jesus were less than 24 hours apart, certainly qualifying as taking place “in the same hour.” So goes the literalist argument.
Although Josephus’ account of an “earthquake” and “eight thousand five hundred dead bodies” is compelling and seems to fit a literal fulfillment of events surrounding the deaths of the two High Priests, I do not think this is an acceptable interpretation from the preterist view. First, the Christians had already fled the city of Jerusalem. According to second century historical sources later preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea, the Flight to Pella occurred either before or near the beginning of the Roman-Jewish War. Second, Ananus and Jesus were Jewish High Priests. Although they took a stand against the sins of the Jews during the war, there is no indication that they preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Third, there is no indication in Josephus or any historical source that Ananus and Jesus were raised from the dead and ascended to heaven in view of all present.
Rather, this verse describing the fall of the city is just that. It is a vivid reiteration of the soon-to-be-fulfilled prophecy of Jesus that the city of Jerusalem would be breached by surrounding armies and a great many inhabitants killed (Luke 21:20-24).
Milton Terry explains that this is an example of apocalyptic language.
This remarkable book is the consummation and crown of all the apocalyptical prophecies. Its author has made a most discriminating use of figures, names and symbols. His imagery belongs to Jewish modes of thought and is appropriated mainly from the Hebrew Scriptures…. [T]he prophecies of this book are an apocalypse of the fall of Judaism and the rise and triumph of Christianity. The old covenant had “become aged and was nigh unto vanishing away” (Hebrews 8:13), but its removal involved a shaking, not only of the earth, but also of the heaven (Hebrews 12:26). That transition from the old to the new was an event of unspeakable moment and is depicted as a world-convulsing revolution. The imagery and style of the Old Testament apocalyptists are most appropriately brought into use; sun, moon and stars and the heaven itself, are pictured as collapsing and the crisis of the ages is signaled by voices and thunders and lightnings and earthquake. To insist on a literal interpretation of such imagery is to bring prophecy itself into contempt and ridicule (The Apocalypse of John, “Scope and Plan of the Apocalypse”).
Thus 7000 is a symbolic number, an image of death so great that the rest of the city becomes gripped with overwhelming fear.
Revelation 11:14 – The second woe is past; and, behold, the third woe cometh quickly.
As Revelation often does between John’s visions, the perspective shifts again from the earth to the throne room of heaven. The transition between the second and third woes comes quickly. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the Two Witnesses against the city of Jerusalem would come to pass quickly at the end of the three-and-a-half year period. The events leading up to the third woe are then recapitulated in the succeeding chapters of Revelation 12-19. The third woe comes quickly when “Babylon the Great has fallen” (Revelation 14:8; 18:2).
The Climax of History
This next section (Revelation 11:15-19) is a heavenly interlude that completes the transition between the two major sections of the book. Revelation chapters 18 and 19 will later recapitulate in much more detail what is expressed in these few verses.
Revelation 11:15 – And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever – The central message of the Book of Revelation comes at the very center of the book. The great climax does not come at the end, but in the middle, because the climax of history came in the middle – the inauguration of Messiah’s kingdom.
In imitation of the Book of Revelation, Georg Handel got it right when he put the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the very center of his aria, Messiah. It is not the finale, but the central theme. Handel’s Messiah combines the name of Christ, “King of kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16) when the climax of the Lord’s victory is reiterated, to complete the lyrics taken from the center. It is fitting that the “Hallelujah Chorus” is the most performed musical piece in history. This is the prophecy to the nations that is referred to in Revelation 10:11 and 11:9. Despite the rage of the nations, Christ is King of kings.
Revelation 11:16 – And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God,
And the four and twenty elders – As in Revelation 4:4, these 24 elders are “two twelves” and symbolize the unified believers in heaven made up of both the Old and New Testament Church – or the Church Triumphant.
Revelation 11:17 – Saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned.
O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come – The mystery of God, which is the revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord over all Creation, is spoken of as a past, present and future reality.
Thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned – The kingdom is not just “at hand,” but has already appeared. Note that this idea of the presently reigning King is presented as a parallelism joined by a coordinating conjunction (usually rendered as “that” or “because”) to emphasize the final victory and greatness of Christ’s kingdom.
Revelation 11:18 – And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.
This is last description of the state of affairs on the earth before the second half of Revelation. Our interpretation here depends a lot on how we identify several words. The different figures are all jumbled up in one long compound sentence and our job is to untangle them.
Who are the nations?
Who are the dead?
Who are them which destroy the earth?
And what is the earth?
And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come – Again here, we have two choices. Just as the “land” or “earth” (GE) in Revelation can refer to either the land of the Israel or the entire earth, the “nations” (ETHNE) can mean either just the Gentile nations or all the ethnic nations of the world including the Jewish nation. The people of Israel are often called one of the “nations” throughout Scripture, although the word in Hebrew, MISHPACHA, usually refers to the unbelieving Gentile nations.
The reason why I hold this applies to “all the nations” including the non-believing Jews here is the strong allusion to Psalm 2.
Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3).
As previously noted, the book of Revelation contains the most allusions to the Old Testament that any other New Testament book. However, no Old Testament verse is ever directly quoted. It is important to understand that most Old Testament quotations and allusions throughout the New Testament are meant to be allusions to entire passages, not quotes of isolated verses. When we see such an allusion to the Hebrew Scriptures. We need read the entire passage. Then we should determine the central idea and come back to the New Testament to apply the same general meaning.
In the entire passage of Psalm 2:1-12, God is angry with the nations because they have rejected and made war with Christ. Likewise, the “nations” in in this verse are the Roman and Judean powers who persecute Christ and the Church.
And the time of the dead, that they should be judged – This is not the Final Judgment of the righteous and wicked among the living and the dead at the General Resurrection as many futurists have supposed. This refers in context to the judgment of God over the nations who persecuted God’s prophets and saints in the here and now. In fact, a clearer rendering of this sentence is to combine this with the parallel idea that comes immediately afterward.
The time of the dead (that is, the martyrs) has come /
that they should be judged (that is, rewarded and their persecutors destroyed).
The dead – These are the Two Witnesses whose bodies were slain in that great city where their Lord was crucified (11:7,8). The time has for the judgment to reward these martyrs who gave their lives for the Gospel, who “had been slain for the word of God” (6:9-11) and to avenge those who persecuted them. Of course, “the dead” are all the witnesses of Christ who were faithful unto death.
That thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great – Here is the second half of the parallelism. That “the dead … should be judged” includes God’s reward to all Christ’s witnesses.
And that shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth – God’s will also destroy all who have persecuted His servants. “Them” here refers to the enemies of God. The “earth” is the land of Judea. Preterists might want to conclude that the invading Romans are the ones who “destroy the land.” A case could be made that God’s enemies included the Roman Caesar Nero who persecuted the Church. Now God is about to turn His wrath toward the Sea Beast who we will encounter in Revelation 13 and 17. However, the primary targets are the “inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah” who destroyed the land by neglecting the care of the Lord’s vineyard. John is likely alluding here to Isaiah 5:1-7 and by extension Matthew 21:33-41.
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help (Isaiah 5:1-7).
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. [^37 ^]Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (Matthew 21:33-41).
The last verse of this chapter is a fitting and ominous transisition into the vision of the “great sign” in Revelation 12:1
Revelation 11:19 – And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.
And the temple of God was opened in heaven – In the beginning of this chapter, God’s Temple is symbolically measured off for preservation in the midst of judgment (Revelation 11:1,2). Now the eternally preserved heavenly Temple, which is made of living stones, is finally revealed at the end of the passage, “the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Hebrews 8:2; compare Hebrews 9:8-13 and 10:9).
There was seen in his temple the ark of his testament – It is significant that although the ark did not appear in verse 1, it is pictured here in heaven. In Moses day, the ark was the housing place for the Shekinah glory of God. When the armies of Israel marched to in the wilderness on their way to possess the land, the glory cloud of the Lord would lead them by day and it became a pillar of fire by night. Further, to come into the presence of the ark with unatoned sin or ceremonial uncleanness of any kind, meant death. This image is fitting for what comes next.
There were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail – We should note here that these prodigious signs are seen in heaven, not on earth. Even so, there is a remarkable similarity to the words of Josephus who described the disturbances of nature that foreshadowed the doom of the city of Jerusalem.
… there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake.
The language is so similar here that some have audaciously suggested that either John or Josephus were familiar with the other’s writing. However, the solution to this uncanny similarity is simple. Both John and Josephus were first century Jews who thought like Jews. Josephus like all historians of the ancient world interpreted natural disasters as omens. Furthermore, a Jew would use language from the Hebrew Scriptures to emphasize the portentous nature of great events to point to greater sorrows to come.
… anyone would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.
As the first half of Revelation climaxes, the angel describes impending destruction in the land. We are also reminded that the source of these great judgments are from a still-open heaven (compare with Revelation 4:1). As we read on, we may expect greater judgments to come as Christ’s victorious kingdom becomes more manifest.
In Revelation 12, we will see the “hinge” of the prophecy in which the contents of the first half of John’s visions – especially Revelation 11 – are revealed in the “great sign” of the woman, the child, and the war between the dragon and the seed of the woman.