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In Revelation 11:3-12, God says he will appoint his two witnesses - "two olive trees", "two lampstands" - as prophets for 1260 days. They end up being overpowered and killed by the beast, seemingly in Jerusalem. The fact that they have the power to shut up the heavens suggests they're somehow connected with the ministry of Elijah and the mention of a turning water into blood and plagues is suggestive of Moses.

Are these witnesses supposed to be actual men? Or are they symbolic of something else? Is there any way from the text to tell?

I'm also curious if there is any OT connection for the fire from their mouths, like the allusions to Elijah and Moses.

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4 Answers 4

Questions on Revelation are extremely difficult to answer because they are so highly based on your view of Revelation, which is too hard to argue for in one post. I don't have the expertise to give a great answer to this question, but I thought I might as well give it a shot since no one else has.

As someone who tends towards a partial preterist position, I would be inclined to say that these were two real men. Who they were, I do not know (though I intend to by Greg Beale's Revelation commentary soon, and perhaps that will shed light on the question).

John Gill held that they represented a faithful few ministers of Christ down through the ages. He notes that the metaphor of the two olive trees is drawn from Zechariah 4:3, where they represent Zerubbabel and Jeshua, two faithful witnesses. This interpretation would likely be favored by many postmillenialists and amillenialists.

Possible Old Testament parallels to the fire going out of their mouths:

  • Yahweh's word (i.e. what comes out of his mouth) is like fire.
  • God told Jeremiah that his words were like a fire; later, he complained that that was so, and that he couldn't hold it in.

For this reason, Gill holds that the fire is the witnesses' faithful speaking of the Word of God.

Sorry for such a bare-bones answer. I will post more if/when I know more.

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I was reading the Zechariah passage the other day and realized that chapter 4 provided the background for this passage in Revelation (verse 14 caught my attention). Still not sure what to make of that, though, since Joshua and Zerubbabel are themselves symbols. –  Soldarnal May 9 '12 at 18:33
    
@Soldarnal Symbols of other men also..Just as Elijah was a symbol or type of John the Baptist.! –  John Unsworth Nov 10 '13 at 8:52

There is another interpretation taken in the light of the Biblical Feast calculated with the Hebrew calendar. It is interpreting the revelations as the map of the redemption given by God, knowing these feasts makes an easier interpretation.

By example, the seventh month of the Bible is the time to celebrate the feasts of trumpets. Tradition dictates sounding Shofar or Trumpet, also known as the day of judgment, or the day of the coronation of the king. This day begins on the first day of the month, is the only Biblical festival that begins a first of the month.

Because the biblical calendar is lunar, "the months were set by observation of a new crescent moon". This means that the moon is hidden. In the ancient world, to determine which night is a new month is needed two witnesses, they announced to the Sanhedrin the arrival of the new month, in the seventh month it means to start the Feast of the trumpets. The witnesses are:

These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth (Rev 11:4)

Thus, if you read the book of Revelation, first are two witnesses (Rev 11:3-12) and then the seven trumpets (Rev 11:15). The two witnesses (will prophesy for 1,260 days - Rev 11:3) so I think they are those who announce to repentance for the blowing of the Trumpets, the coming of the Messiah! Thinking about the author of Revelation (the Apostle John), he knew and lived these feasts, and knew about these two witnesess.

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Short Summary

The two witnesses are a symbol of the people of God fulfilling their prophetic role during the period of wilderness/tribulation.

Fuller Explanation

It is difficult to give any interpretation of a single part of Revelation without risking having to explain the whole. With that in mind I shall attempt to interpret the nature of the two witnesses in the context here of Revelation while limiting remarks on the related ideas of the temple and the eschatological time.

The beginning of Revelation 11 should not be separated from the end of chapter 10 as there is no "And I saw" formula dividing the two. At the end of 10 we find a scene reminiscent of Ezekiel 3 where the prophet it given a scroll to eat. So here John is given a scroll to eat and told that he must prophecy many things. Immediately then in chapter 11, John is given a reed to measure the temple in similar fashion to Ezekiel 40 and following.

It would deviate too far from the original question to explore the full symbolism of the temple and courts, etc... but I would mention two things:

  1. The temple, the holy city, and the people of God are all tightly connected elsewhere in the book of Revelation. (See e.g. 3:12 and 21:2f, where the bride of the Lamb, i.e. the people of God, the new Jerusalem, and the temple are all interwoven and identified together).

  2. The length of the period during which the holy city is trampled is the same as that during which the two witnesses prophecy.

Again, it would run too far afield to explore the meaning of the Danielic period of times, time, and half a time - 1260 days, 42 months, 3.5 years - but Revelation seems to link a period of wilderness (cf. 12:6), the 42 month period in which Elijah ministered, and the times, time, and half a time from Daniel 7 during which the holy people of God are oppressed.

These points then lead us to connect the two witnesses with the holy city, which is connected with the people of God. While they are called to bear witness for a fixed time, they do so during a fixed time of oppression.

Zechariah

The reference to the two olive trees and two lamp stands takes the reader back to Zechariah 4. The prophet there is encouraging the people to rebuild the temple after the exile. In a vision he sees a lamp stand and two trees, which represent Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the Governor. God's Spirit (verse 6) will empower the two of them to rebuild the temple. So here, the people of God are to build the new (spiritual and eschatological) temple of God through the power of God's spirit, by bearing witness in the world. (The theme of God's people as kingdom and priests - which here we can link to Joshua and Zerubbabel - is prevalent throughout Revelation, but as an example see 1:6.)

Jeremiah

The reference to the fire from the mouths likely comes from Jeremiah 5:14 where we read (ESV):

Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts:
“Because you have spoken this word,
behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire,
    and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them.

In other words, it should not be understood as a real fire consuming the enemies of the people of God, but the word of their testimony will result in their destruction. Again, this is a well-developed theme in the book, but in particular see the battle in Revelation 19 in which it is by the sword of his mouth that the white rider slays the kings of the earth.

Moses and Elijah

Finally, the shutting up the heavens and turning the rivers to blood again emphasizes the prophetic nature of the two witnesses, linking them to the events in the lives of the prophets Moses and Elijah. Note that these powers are not given to them as individuals as though one were Moses and the other Elijah, but they are given to them both as though they were indistinguishable.

Two Witnesses

So why two witnesses? Most likely this refers back to the law's requirement that any testimony be given on the basis of at least two witnesses. For John, it is the corporate testimony of the people of God together that bears witness to the Lamb.

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The book of Revelation is full of signs and symbols.The two witnesses are symbols of Moses and Elijah.They have the power to turn water into blood and to shut up the sky, for 1260 days(three and one half years). The two olive trees are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the two lampstands (two witnesses) are fueled by the Holy Spirit who gives light to the world.

Oil is used to anoint the people of God and the Holy Spirit is usually given to the anointed one after this.In 1:Sam 16-13 it is written,

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers,and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.

In John 8:12 it is written,

When Jesus spoke again to the people,he said, "I am the light of the world."

In Revelation 19:10 it is written,

"The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

This scripture helps us to understand the two olive trees and the two lampstands.

The witnesses have received the anointing of oil (Lamp-stands) because they hold to the testimony of Jesus, and because of this testimony,the "Spirit of Prophecy" has been given to them.

In James 5:17 we read,

Elijah was a man just like us.He prayed earnestly that it would not rain on the land for three and one half years

**The above quote (because of the three and one half years-1260 days), the same period as mentioned in Revelation,surely reinforces the view that Elijah is one of the witnesses

Are these witnesses supposed to be actual men.

In Rev 11:8-10 we read,

Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city,which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt,where also their Lord was crucified. For three and one half days men from every people,tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts,because those two prophets had tormented those who live on earth

To understand the symbolism of the two witnesses we must look to the above scripture.

The men from every people ,tribe, language and nation represent followers of God.

The inhabitants of the earth represent followers of the beast.

To help understand the above two statements we must read Rev 14:6,

Then i saw another angel flying in mid-air,and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth-to every nation,tribe, language and people.

Also Rev 17:15,

Then the angel said to me," the waters you saw where the prostitute sits,are peoples,multitudes, nations and languages.

Also Rev 19:6 to confirm that the peoples,multitudes,nations and languages are the people of God.

Then i heard what sounded like a great multitude,like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder,shouting:"Hallelujah! for our Lord God Almighty reigns."

To help us understand the meaning behind the death of the two witnesses and why the people from every tribe,language, nation refuse burial,it is imperative to distinguish between the inhabitants of the earth and understand that one group are followers of God and the other group are followers of the beast.

The inhabitants of the earth follow the beast and this is confirmed in Rev:13 8-9,

All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast-all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.

He who has an ear,let him hear.

*Note:The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life will worship the beast. The people from tribes, nations and languages have their name written in the book of life but are also called the "inhabitants of the earth."

And again Rev 11:8-10,

For three and one half days men from every people,tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.

And then it reads,

The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts,because those two prophets had tormented those who live on earth.

Conclusion:

The two witnesses are not actual men but they are a symbol of "Testimony."It would appear that there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at this time.

In Acts 2:17-21 it is written,

"In the last days,God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people.Your sons and daughters will prophesy,your young men will see visions,your old men will dream dreams.Even on my servants,both men and woman,i will pour out my Spirit in those days,and they will prophesy.I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,blood,fire and billows of smoke.The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Two=testimony.According to the inhabitants of the earth the"testimony is dead"

The men of every people,tribe,language and nation know that "the testimony is alive."

The men of every people ,tribe, nation and language will refuse to accept that the "testimony of God" is dead (the two witnesses) and this is why they will refuse burial.They will not bury what is still alive.

The inhabitants of the earth are happy because they think that the"testimony of God" is dead.No more will they be tormented by the testimony of God and they will now trample on the holy city for a period of 1260 days.

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