Thursday, April 16th, 2020
Perhaps in a moment of private candor or a slip of indiscretion, someone might admit that the following passage from the Book of Revelation comes across as, well, wildly bizarre:
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told,
“Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
These are the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their corpse will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.
How about you? What do you think of this passage, really? Does it come across as bizarre to you? Is it not wildly weird? If this were not from the Bible, might you be inclined to just write it off as a wild hallucination or as indecipherable gibberish?
As for me, I would readily agree with anyone who calls it bizarre. For many years, I was perplexed and bewildered by its weirdness. Simply said, I could not even begin to comprehend what is meant here.
Then I read some books. Reading books can save you a lot of time, years even. Sometimes other people have surprisingly good ideas and convincing explanations; And it’s well worth listening to what they have to say.
Humility listens. Humility listens to what others have to say.
Alternatively, some books are misleading and unhelpful. Sometimes other people have lousy ideas and convoluted explanations; and it’s a complete waste of your time to listen to what they have to say.
Discernment considers and weighs. Discernment considers competing ideas and weighs alternate explanations. Discernment recognizes what is worthwhile and what is not. Discernment is developed through discipline and frequent use, a lot like a muscle.
Of this passage, some writers say we should see the two witnesses as two individual people who will appear in the last days. These two individuals will be like Moses and Elijah, or will literally be Moses and Elijah. The two witnesses will walk the streets of literal Jerusalem in burlap bag attire, preaching and witnessing. If and when their adversaries attempt to harm them somehow, the two witnesses will literally consume said adversaries with literal fire from their mouths. Literally, literally, literally. This is intentionally a literal interpretation. And out of deference to Scripture and its authority, a lot of Christians are willing to accept this reading, literally.
It is a rather bizarre scenario, though, is it not?
This literal interpretation poses a lot of problems, though. To start and most significantly, no one actually takes this passage literally, all the way through. You cannot. It’s impossible.
The two witnesses are said to be olive trees and lamp-stands. So, these human witnesses are also literal olive trees? Are they also literal lamp-stands? No, they are not literal olive trees nor literal lamp-stands, most will admit. We know for certain that elsewhere in Revelation lamp-stands are not literal, but symbolic. According to Revelation 1:20 the lamp-stands there symbolize particular local churches, at least in that context. So is it not likely that the two lamp-stands in Revelation 11 also symbolize Christian congregations? Yes, consistency would say it is likely.
There are other problems with reading this passage literally. If these are two individual people, who are they? Why is it okay that they burn their opponents to a crisp? Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27)? Why is it different for these two witnesses? In response, the literalists might say that in the Old Testament it was okay for prophets to physically kill their opponents. So the New Testament rules don’t apply to these two re-incarnated, or re-introduced, or resurrected Old Testament-era witnesses.
But why would God revert back to Old Testament rules and ways at the very end? The answer, the literalists say, is that the Church is gone. It has already been vacated from the scene here in Revelation 11. Then the Church will no longer be God’s mean of witness. Instead, these two Old Testament-era prophets are God’s last ditch means of witness.
But hang on… I thought elsewhere the New Testament teaches that the Church is God’s final, ultimate, and best means of witness (Ephesians 3:10, among other passages). So why would God revert to something inferior at the very end, if the whole point is to effectively witness?
Another way to read this passage is as referential symbolism. In my estimation, it works far better to read it as referential symbolism. And theologically, it is much more coherent. This chapter is all about the Church. Revelation 11 speaks symbolically about the Church of Christ, the whole way through. It uses multiple symbols for the Church, all of which refer to other scriptural passages. And that’s a crucial interpretive insight, by the way. All of these symbols reference explanatory scriptural passages. If studied, the references help explain what is going on. Invariably, these references can be spotted as a few key words and or a key phrases.
Thus, the Temple of God at the beginning of the chapter is not the physical temple that once stood in Jerusalem, nor a latter-day rebuilt physical temple, but instead a spiritual building. The Temple is the Church of Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22). The Holy City is not earthly Jerusalem, but a heavenly city (Hebrews 12:22-23); that is, the Church of Christ.
The Two Witnesses are not two Old Testament prophets that somehow re-appear, but are the Church of Christ, which is the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies.
The Church is spoken of as two witnesses because it is comprised of Jewish Christians and also Gentile Christians (Ephesians 2:11-22). These are two distinct ethnic/religious groups that merge to become one. Therefore the Church is spoken of as two witnesses.
The Two Olive Trees are the Spirit-powered Church. The Two Lamp-Stands are the Spirit-illumined Church (Zechariah 4:1-14). Follow the scripture references through. You will find that all of these symbols can and do apply to the Church of Christ.
Admittedly, there is some symbolism in this passage (like the consuming fire = the word of God) that I am not explaining here. That’s simply because I don’t want to go too long here. But if a symbolic and referential interpretation is embraced, chapter eleven and other passages in Revelation go from being bizarre, indecipherable, and theologically problematic to being comprehensible as a kind of parable. These are apocalyptic parables that are theologically consistent with the rest of the New Testament, and — surprise! — even practical.