Who are the two witnesses listed in Revelation 11?
Revelation 11 teaches that God will during the last half of the Tribulation to denounce the sins of the people and to warn of God’s coming wrath. Their ministry will lead many to Christ but will incite the wrath of Antichrist. For three years and six months God will miraculously protect them from all harm. Verse 5 states that fire will come forth from their mouths, enabling them to consume their enemies. Verse 6 indicates that they will have power to bring drought upon the earth, to turn water into blood, and to smite the earth with plagues.
Who are these two men? There are three main theories and at least six possibilities for the men’s identities.
1. They are not men. In other words, the language is figurative instead of literal. Scholars holding this position have come up with a number of guesses: the witnesses represent the church, Israel, the Word of God, the Old and New Testaments, the entire remnant of the Tribulation, or even martyrdom in church history! Those holding to this position generally take what we call the “historical” view of Revelation. They see the fulfillment of the book as continuing on in the history of the church from John to the present.
This position might have some merit if we look only at the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 and find a parallel between their spiritual condition and the state of the various periods in church should view the book of Revelation in a “futurist” light; that is, we see it as a prophetic book, a vision of things to come.
Based on the context of Revelation 11, we note great difficulty with this figurative view. The witnesses talk, they have bodies, they wear clothing, others hate them. Every detail characterizes two literal people. Further, verse 4 refers to them as the two “olive trees.” In the Old Testament, Zechariah 4 uses the same language to describe Zerubbabel and Joshua, two literal people.
2. They are two of at least four Biblical men. The following four men are the most commonly dismissed as the possible witnesses.
Elijah. Elijah is perhaps the most popular conjecture, for he has a number of supposed credentials. First, he didn’t die physically (2 Kings 2). Since it is appointed that all must die, Elijah could come back as a witness and then die, as Revelation 11:7–10 states the witnesses will. (However, we must be careful about this argument based on Hebrews 9:27. It may not be valid; after all, people who are living at the time of the Rapture are not going to die either. Hebrews 9:27 obviously doesn’t apply to various believers.)
Second, Malachi 3:1–3 and 4:5 and 6 prophesy that Elijah will come back before the Second Advent to prepare the way for the Messiah. Some have argued that John the Baptist was Elijah (see Matthew 11:14; 17:12). But the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy in John the Baptist was subject to the Jews’ accepting him, which they did not. Further, the angel told Zacharias that John would go in “the spirit and power” of Elijah; the angel did not say that John would be the literal Elijah (Luke 1:17). And John denied that he was Elijah (John 1:21).
Third, Elijah appeared to the disciples on the mount at the transfiguration of Christ (Luke 17). A potential problem with this argument is that the Scriptures do not associate the Transfiguration with the Tribulation or the ministry of the witnesses. Rather, the Bible associates the Transfiguration with the Millennium (2 Peter 1:16–19). The Transfiguration gave a miniature picture of the millennial kingdom.
Other arguments for Elijah include the fact that the witnesses have the same sign of rain as Elijah had (see 1 Kings 17:1 and Revelation 11:6) and that the period of drought in Elijah’s day was the same length as the time of ministry the two witnesses will have.
Moses. Perhaps most students of the Word who identify Elijah as one of the witnesses identify Moses as the other. For one thing, Moses appeared with Elijah at the Transfiguration. (But see argument above against using the Transfiguration experience.) Second, Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets, making for a natural tie-in. The third argument involves an Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 18:15–19. If you read this passage, you get the message that Moses must reappear.
However, this view would seem to be nullified by the phrase “like unto me,” indicating that someone like Moses, not Moses himself, would be the person the verse points to. One problem with viewing Moses as a witness is that he would have to die twice. But that possibility is not incomprehensible, for there are people, such as Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead. Most scholars believe those people would have died twice.
John the Baptist. According to this view, Elijah would represent the Old Testament and John the Baptist would represent the New Testament. However, John was appropriately a part of Israel, not of the New Testament church. Both men had a similar manner and message. To take this position, we would need to see John with Elijah, not as an alternative to Elijah. (We have already noted the problems if we consider John as a witness instead of Elijah.)
Enoch. Those making this conjecture note that Enoch did not see death, as was true of Elijah. Enoch was a prophet of judgment, as was Elijah (Jude 14, 15). However, this theory has several weaknesses. First, it is difficult to fathom how God would use an antediluvian (before the Flood) prophet to deal with Israel. From our perspective, Enoch was a Gentile, not an Israelite. Second, those espousing this view sometimes use the Apocrypha to bolster their argument. Third, Hebrews 11:5 states that Enoch was translated “in order that he might not see death”; but the two witnesses, whoever they are, will be returned to die.
3. The two witnesses are unidentifiable. Perhaps the witnesses will come from among those who will turn to Christ after the Rapture. Perhaps they will have certain characteristics that were found in men such as Elijah or Moses; in other words, they will come in the spirit and power of those men, but they are not those men. Perhaps we cannot know them, since they won’t be revealed until their time.
Probably this last view is the best one to take; and, as one scholar wrote, the answer “is best left in the obscurity in which God has surrounded them [witnesses].”
Following the witnesses’ testimony of three years and six months, God will allow their enemies to kill them. Satan will make war against them and destroy them, to the delight of the wicked who will celebrate the demise of those thorns in their sides (Revelation 11:7–10). However, after three and a half days, God will restore them to life. Then the startled people will watch as the witnesses hear a voice beckoning them and as they immediately ascend to Heaven (vv. 11, 12).
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to email@example.com or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.