Revelation 11 – Part Two

Yesterday we saw that although our mission to preach the little scroll to the world might get a little dangerous (involving the odd bit of metaphorical trampling-by-Gentiles), God has again measured us – his inner shrine – for protection. For we are to be his witnesses:

Rev 11:3 “And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

This verse does explain the general bad fashion sense of the church, but that’s not the main point. Here, we’re introduced to two witnesses who symbolise the church. But why two?

The two witnesses

Rev 11:4 They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.”

As with most of the imagery in Revelation, it’s multi-layered. It’s probably meant to remind us of a bunch of things:

  • The Old Testament requires the testimony of two witnesses to be valid (Deut 17:6; 19:15). This is sure, credible testimony.
  • The witnesses are described as “two lampstands,” reminding us that earlier in Revelation, two of the seven churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) were about to undergo persecution.
  • The witnesses are described as “the two olive trees,” referring to a vision in Zechariah 4, in which two olive trees provide fuel for the lights on the lampstands. This may suggest God has given the church an inherent source of fuel to keep their light burning – God’s own power indwelling his people. (But in Zech 4 the trees represent the governor Zerubbabel (the royal line of David) and the high priest Joshua (the priestly line of Levi).)

And take a look at the superpowers of these two witnesses:

Rev 11:5-6 If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.

I now want to be Mouth-Fire-Man. How has Marvel overlooked that one?

But the other stuff is reminiscent of what Moses (plagues) and Elijah (climate control) were able to do. In a similar climate: Moses (God’s people being persecuted) and Elijah (rampant idolatry.)

It reminds us that the same prophetic power is available to God’s people today. The same God who backed up the prophetic message of Elijah and Moses with miraculous displays of power will stand behind our message, too. The same God who enabled the lampstand churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia to keep burning brightly amidst persecution will make sure we keep our lampstand alight.

Joining in Jesus’ suffering

The next bit is a little less upbeat:

Rev 11:7-10 Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some 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 these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

More on the beast when we look at the second cycle of visions next year (Rev 13), but the short answer is that elsewhere in Revelation the beast symbolises the Roman emperor. There’s some serious persecution happening.

Their bodies are displayed in public, not in a creepy, tourist-attraction way like the Russians did with Lenin, but as an added disgrace. They are not just killed, but denied a proper burial, and shamed before the world. The stress here isn’t just on martyrdom, but on suffering loss and shame for the sake of Christ.

Which city are they displayed in? Although the bit about “where also their Lord was crucified” points to Jerusalem, some say it’s Rome (which also had a hand in crucifying Jesus), as Rome is also called the “great city” later in Revelation (16:19; 17:18).

At any rate, this city isn’t described in glowing terms: it’s figuratively called “Sodom” and “Egypt.” How so? There’s a bit of a tradition of painting God’s people when they’re being naughty and rebellious as being no better than the nations around, simply by using the names of their enemies. The Israelite city of Gibeah is cast as Sodom in Judges 19 by showing the parallels with Genesis 19; Judah is called “Sodom” in Isaiah 1:9-10; and in the New Testament, the dangerous situation for the infant Jesus leads Matthew to describe Bethlehem as “Egypt” (Matt 2:15). In rejecting Jesus and persecuting God’s people, Jerusalem (or possibly Rome) is behaving just like Sodom and Egypt.

The giving and receiving of gifts is a reference to an event in the book of Esther, but in an upside-down way. Then, God’s people celebrated by exchanging gifts when their enemies were killed. (Their enemies’ heads were also publicly displayed on poles.) Now, the reverse happens: their enemies celebrate as God’s people are killed and their bodies defiled.

The three-and-a-half days continues the three-and-a-half theme we find throughout Revelation. It also may be drawing on a Jewish tradition about Elijah and Enoch (found in a later source called The Apocalypse of Elijah), who were attacked and killed by a figure called “the shameless one.” Their corpses lay in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half days, and then they rise up and denounce the shameless one. Why is this significant? Well, um, God’s people are lying dead in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half days. Do you think they’ll stay dead?

Or to put it another way: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming…

(Actually, today’s Tuesday, and the resurrection bit will happen tomorrow, but in the spirit of Revelation let’s call Wednesday figuratively “Sunday.” It’s no more confusing than anything else we’ve read.)

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