Studies in Revelation—Lesson 19
by Reta Halteman Finger
Revelation 11 comprises the rest of the interlude between the fifth and sixth trumpets, as well as the blowing of the final seventh trumpet when God and God’s Messiah take over the kingdoms of this world. After the measuring of the temple (11:1-2, discussed in the last lesson), two witnesses appear as olive trees and lampstands. They prophesy to the people of the world, but are eventually killed and then resurrected. This is followed by an earthquake, when some people repent and recognize “the God of heaven,” after which the seventh trumpet sounds (Revelation 11:3-19).
But where did these two lampstand/olive-tree witnesses come from, and how do they fit into the story? Let’s first keep in mind some of our interpretive principles: the visionary, dreamlike nature of this apocalypse; the repetition of symbols in new contexts (intercalation); the repetition of meanings in new symbols (recapitulation); allusions from the Hebrew scriptures; and, finally, the current political situation of John and his seven churches living in the Roman Empire.
The prophetic role of the church
Commentators like Grimsrud, Boring, Metzger, and Resseguie generally agree on the identity of the two witnesses, although James L. Resseguie’s narrative commentary is the most detailed. (See “Sources used” at the end of this lesson.) The overall theme of this interlude is about the church’s prophetic role during the interim time before the end of the age (11:15f). John has a special gift of prophecy, but the entire church is called to witness to the world that Israel’s God is the only Lord, who will eventually rule the earth counterintuitively as the slaughtered Lamb (see chapters 4-5).
In Revelation 11:1-13, John combines previous symbols from his narrative with a thicket of allusions from the Hebrew Bible, and even teases the reader with glimpses of images to be developed in later chapters. Here are some examples:
- 11:1-2—those inside the Jerusalem temple are counted (measured) and protected by God. But the outside courts and the entire “holy city” (can also mean Babylon, Rome, or the whole earth) belong to “the nations” ( 2), who will trample it for 42 months. This equals three and one-half years, which is half of the perfect number seven. It represents human time when evil reigns and God is not honored.
- 11:3—the two witnesses represent the entire church. “Witness” is a legal term (martureō in Greek), from which we get our English word “martyr.” Where the gospel is preached, opposition follows. The 1,260 days equal 42 months, the same time period as above. The witnesses wear sackcloth as a sign of mourning (Jacob, in Genesis 37:34) and repentance (Nineveh, in Jonah 3:5-6). Why two witnesses? Because two are needed for valid testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15; 17:6; John 8:17, and others).
- 11:4—the lampstand and the olive tree. We recognize the lampstand from Revelation 1:12 and 20, which refers to the church. But lampstands and olive trees also echo the setting in Zechariah 4. “As olive trees are a plentiful source of oil for burning lamps, so the two olive trees supply the lampstands with an abundant supply of oil. Despite the hostile threat from outside, the church’s witness is in no danger of being extinguished” (Resseguie, p. 162).
- 11:5-6—the two witnesses also echo two Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. Elijah called down fire on his enemies (2 Kings 1:2-17) and shut up the sky (1 Kings 17:1). Moses turned the Nile river into blood (Exodus 7:14-19), as well as hurling other plagues on Egypt. But fire from these witnesses’ mouths is verbal, just as the sword in Jesus’s mouth in Revelation 1:16 represents speech, not literal violence.
- 11:7—the “beast from the bottomless pit”—a mini-preview of the beasts that will show up in Revelation 13. John will sometimes name an object and then clarify it later.
- 11:7-12—the two witnesses are killed by the beast, who represents worldly domination. Sodom and Egypt symbolize immoral and oppressive cities of this world, “where their Lord was crucified” (v. 8). This identifies Jesus, the original faithful martyr, with the suffering martyrdom of the church throughout the world. All “peoples and tribes and languages and nations” vilify the witnesses and refuse to bury their corpses (v. 9). But after three and one-half days they are resurrected and raised to heaven, while their enemies watch. After enduring another earthquake, the survivors finally glorify “the God of heaven” (v. 13). Judgments alone do not bring repentance, but “when judgements are combined with the church’s call to repentance, the results are positive” (Richard Bauckham, p. 86).
The second woe and the seventh trumpet
The three woes were announced in Revelation 8:13. The fifth trumpet plague was the first woe, apparently the sixth trumpet plague of 9:13-21 was the second woe. Mention of the third woe heightens the expectation that the end is coming “very soon” (11:14).
And indeed it does, as the seventh angel blows his trumpet, and voices in heaven announce the divine takeover of the kingdom of this world. John does not mean that this is happening in his first-century time, or in our time today, but it is happening in his vision. It portrays God’s spiritual protection even through death and God’s vindication of faithful witness. The elders sing the traditional line, “God Almighty, who are and who were…” (v. 17), but they omit the third phrase, “and who are to come,” because God has already come in fullness. The song includes triumphal lines from Psalms 2:5, 110:5, and 115:13.
The heavenly temple is opened, and the long-lost Ark of the Covenant resides within (v. 19). This precious chest over which had hovered the feminine Shekinah—the glory of God (e.g., 1 Kings 8:6-11)—was lost when Solomon’s original temple was destroyed during the Babylonian Conquest in 587 BCE. The builders of the Second Temple (standing in Jesus’ day but not in John’s) had left an empty space in the Holy of Holies. Now both temple and ark are restored.
Because the language of finality is used in Revelation 11:15-19, we cannot view chapters 12–22 as following chronologically. Rather, these upcoming chapters will recapitulate the same story in different symbols. John will elaborate in thrilling detail the triumph announced at the end of chapter 11.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Some Christians ignore the Hebrew Bible as no longer relevant since the coming of Jesus. How does Revelation 11 challenge that assumption?
- Do you believe a witnessing, suffering, non-violent approach is truly effective in conquering the “kingdom of this world”?
- Hurricane Harvey of August-September 2017 has proved more violent and destructive than any previous storm in North America. How is this storm in part a judgment on human behavior that is heeded by some, but not by others?
Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 1993. P. 86.
Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, 1989. Pp. 142-149.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987. Pp. 85-89.
Metzger, Bruce. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Abingdon Press, 1993. Pp. 69-71.
Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 161-168.