The Identity Of The Two Witnesses - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
Behold He Cometh - Chapter 26
(Revelation 11:3, 4)
3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
The portion of the Book of Revelation which we are now discussing speaks of .the famous two witnesses. Of these the chapter tells us who they are, what they must do, who rises against them, and what finally becomes of them. In connection with the verses now under discussion, we must answer the first question: who are these two witnesses. Our answer to this question is important: for it determines, to an extent, our answer to the other questions about these witnesses.
Various Theories As To Their Identity
The text says: "And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days." There can be little question but that it is Christ Who is here speaking. In the first place, the close connection of this chapter with the preceding, where the mighty angel with his feet on the earth and on the sea was the speaker, leads us to this conclusion. But above all, the fact that the voice speaks not of two witnesses, but definitely of "my two witnesses" makes it plain beyond a possibility of error that the Christ is speaking. And the meaning of the peculiar Hebraistic construction of the text is: "I will give that my two witnesses shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days. I will give unto my two witnesses all that they need so that they may not keep silence, but witness for me and my cause in the midst of the world which has no knowledge of me and of my cause."
Numerous are the answers given to the question as to the identity of these two witnesses. In fact, you can hardly conceive of a question with a greater variety of answers than this. All the ingenuity of man has sometimes been brought into play in order to find an answer to this question. Now it must undoubtedly be admitted that this is one of the most difficult questions in the Apocalypse, and that it behooves us to start out with the confession that without the aid of the entire Word of God and the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit we shall never be able to find certainty and satisfaction in regard to it. But on the other hand, our faith that the Book of Revelation must be explained by the rest of the Word of God and that the Holy Spirit will indeed enlighten our minds if we will diligently seek aid from Him is also in this case by no means disappointing. It will be well that we pause for a moment to find out what answers have been given to the question by different interpreters throughout the history of the church.
There are, in the first place, a number of interpreters who take this chapter to refer to the literal destruction of Jerusalem, but then as being an ideal picture of the judgment in the last days. But we do not have to pause very long to discuss this interpretation, seeing that it is an established fact that at the time when John received this revelation Jerusalem and the temple were already destroyed. Nor can one easily understand how this could be a picture of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D., since nothing that is depicted in the chapter before us was realized at that time. Not only a tenth part of the city was destroyed, but the whole of it. Nor was it thus, that only the city and the outer court were trampled under foot; but the temple proper was destroyed as well. Besides, where in this time do we find even an approximation to the two witnesses who are here mentioned in that awful destruction. And therefore we may safely conclude that this interpretation is surely not the true one.
On the other hand, there have been a large number of interpreters who have found in this chapter a reference to the period preceding the Protestant Reformation. The two witnesses are the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. The thousand two hundred and threescore days must be taken in the prophetical sense of the word, a day standing for a year, and therefore referring to a period of twelve hundred sixty years. And this period is found to be realized in the years of struggle preceding the Reformation. Jerusalem is the city of God, but represented by papal Rome. For a long time the witnesses of the Old and New Testament sound their testimony against the gradually growing corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is all in vain. The corruption grows and develops,
till finally it reaches its climax a few years before the Reformation. The testimony is actually silenced for a time, and the two witnesses are killed. In the year 1513 a papal bull is issued which apparently finishes all opposition to the Romish Church and silences every voice of truth. But three and a half days, that is, exactly three years and a half later, in the fall of 1517 Luther nails his theses to the church of Wittenberg; and the witnesses are raised from the dead, while, at the same time, they are taken to heaven, that is, placed in a sphere of safety, so that the enemy can silence them no more. This interpretation naturally finds its origin in the reformers, who had to fight such a hard battle and were so bitterly oppressed and persecuted by the power of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the favorite explanation of all who see in the pope the Antichrist and in the Roman Catholic Church his power.
Now we must not be too hasty in condemning this view. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in it. Throughout the history of this dispensation, as we know from the Word of God, Antichrist exists. Already John tells his contemporaries that Antichrist is in the world. He is not a power that arises all of a sudden while it has not been in the world before, but a power that always is in the world, always opposes the church and the development of the kingdom, always sneaks behind the heel of the seed of the woman, and gradually develops in power, till in the latter days it shall display a power as never before manifested. And so we may safely admit that in the days of the Reformation the pope and the papacy was one of the manifestations of the beast of the abyss at that time. The Roman Catholic Church was indeed the false church of the time, and those who stood openly for the truth indeed were the two witnesses at that period. But the error of this interpretation is exactly that it limits itself to that one period. It is not true that the pope is the only manifestation of the Antichrist. Nor is it true that he finds his power only in the Roman Catholic Church. This is indeed a dangerous view to maintain. Also now the Antichrist is in the world. Yet it must not be maintained that he appears most vividly in the Roman Catholic Church of today. Also the false church is in the world. Yet we would deceive ourselves and please the devil if, to find it, we would merely look at the Romish Church. And therefore, although there is an element of truth in such an interpretation, nevertheless its limitation to one period of the history of this dispensation is at the same time its condemnation.
The early church fathers and also many interpreters of today who follow them explain the two witnesses as referring to Enoch and Elijah, who shall return to earth in the literal sense of the word. Those who hold this view maintain that the text speaks very definitely of two individuals, persons, not indefinitely to be spiritualized into either powers or institutions. Christ says very definitely "my two witnesses," and therefore speaks of witnesses which He already has, of witnesses who are well-known and who shall come to earth to bear testimony of His name. And no two known individuals of Scripture better fit the requirements than Enoch and Elijah. The Scriptural references on which this interpretation is based are found both in the Old and in the New Testament. In the prophecy of Malachi, 4:5, we read: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." And in the New Testament we find repeated reference to Elijah and his coming. The people of Israel, the scribes especially, clearly expected his return. And in Matthew 17:10, 11 we read that the disciples come to the Lord with the question, "Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?" And the Lord answered: "Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things." And therefore it would seem plain that Scripture actually teaches a literal return of Elijah to the earth and that in this portion we have that return pictured to us. True, we do not read of the return of Enoch. But, in the first place, there are many sources outside of Scripture that express the expectation of the return of Enoch as well. And, in the second place, there is but one person who in the days of the old dispensation was like Elijah and shows all the characteristics of these two witnesses. Both Enoch and Elijah were witnesses in a time of general apostasy. Both Enoch and Elijah spoke of judgment and evidently did terrible things. Both Enoch and Elijah escaped death and were taken into heaven. And so these interpreters have it that both these great witnesses will return to the earth bodily, that they will once more witness of the name of the Most High in a time of great apostasy, that they, however, shall finally be killed by Antichrist, shall be raised from the dead, and shall ascend to heaven,-all in the literal sense of the word.
Again I would say that there is an element of truth also in this interpretation. I think that in Enoch and Elijah we have clear types of these two witnesses and what shall happen to them. But the mistake also in this interpretation is exactly that it is limited to these men in the literal sense of the word. This limitation makes the interpretation, in the first place, in the highest degree improbable. For I cannot imagine that Enoch
and Elijah, who have not only been taken to heaven, but who have also been translated and who are now in glory, shall once more return in corruptible bodies to this earth of corruption, testify and suffer and be killed, and then rise again and go to heaven. But, in the second place, this limitation makes it to be in conflict with Scripture. True, the Lord says that Elijah cometh, but we must not forget that in this same portion He also says: "But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done ,unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them." And the clear remark is added: "Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." And in the eleventh chapter of the same gospel Jesus says with reference to John the Baptist: "For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee." And again, "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come." If we take into account these Scriptural references, clear in themselves, we have no difficulty. Then we shall no longer maintain the strange notion that in the literal sense of the word Enoch and Elijah shall return; but we shall understand that these men, and especially Elijah, were types. They were powerful witnesses themselves, in the first place. In John the Baptist Elijah returns again as a powerful witness to the people. And so also it must be expected that again such witnesses shall come, according to our chapter, who shall sound their testimony before a perverted generation. Also in this interpretation, therefore, there is an element of truth. Not, indeed, as if these two prophets of the old dispensation shall return literally, but in the sense that Enoch and Elijah, and, in fact, Noah and Moses and many others, must be taken as types of the witnesses who are mentioned in the words of our text.
The Key To Their Identification
There are still other interpretations. But these are the most important. And we rather turn to the text, to see whether it can be ascertained with a reasonable amount of certainty who are meant by these two witnesses.
We then remind you of our explanation of the first two verses, in the first place. Jerusalem stands for Christendom in the broadest sense of the word. Outside of the court and the temple it symbolizes the false church, that part of Christianity which still claims to belong to it, but in the meantime tramples under foot the blood of Christ and denies the great truths of atonement and redemption in the blood of the Savior. The outer court stands for the show-church, or the hypocrites, who indeed enter the temple in the outward sense but never worship in spirit and in truth. These two essentially belong together. And the temple proper stands for the true church of Jesus Christ. It is in that condition, and during the period when the church is in that condition, that the two witnesses give their testimony, that is, during this entire dispensation, as we have seen. It is, therefore, a testimony which arises from the true church, from the midst of the true, spiritual children of God. It is a testimony which must serve two purposes, no doubt. It must testify against the wickedness of the false church and the show-church, a testimony which preaches hell and damnation to all who, do not believe in Jesus Christ as the King and Redeemer. And, at the same time, it is a testimony which must serve to strengthen the true believers. And that the time of their testimony, although being of the same length as the forty-two months and the three and a half years, is nevertheless expressed in terms of days, twelve hundred sixty days, shows that it is a continual testimony which they give.
Hence, from the context we gather the following. First of all, the testimony for which we must look is a continual testimony all through this dispensation, from the exaltation of Christ to His second coming. It is during this period that the false and the show-church, as well as the true church, exist. It is during this same period that the testimony of these witnesses is heard. It is a testimony which is naturally heard from the true church of Christ: not from the city at large, not from the outer court, but from the temple building proper. It is a testimony of repentance and sin against the false church and the show-church. And these witnesses are preachers of repentance, as is at the same time indicated by their being girded with sackcloth. It is a testimony for the truth of Christ and for the strengthening of the true believers.
But we must now turn to the fourth verse of the chapter, for there, evidently, we have the key to the entire explanation. There we read: "These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth." The plain reference here is to Zechariah 4. For there we read in the fourteenth verse, in answer to the question of the prophet concerning the identity of the two olive trees: "These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth." Here, therefore, is the key. The two witnesses are the two olive trees and also the candlesticks there mentioned, so the text tells us. Hence, the answer to the question as to who are the two olive trees and the candlesticks in
Zechariah 4 is at the same time the correct answer to the question who are meant by the two witnesses.
Zechariah the prophet receives a vision. He beholds in the vision a candlestick with seven lamps. Above the candlestick he sees a golden bowl, or reservoir, filled with oil. This bowl of oil above the candlestick is connected with the lamps by means of seven pipes, through which they are supplied with oil from the bowl in order to give light. He beholds, further, on each side of the bowl an olive tree. These olive trees are again connected with the bowl above the candlestick, so that from them the oil continually pours into the bowl, and from the bowl into the lamps. That is the vision: a candlestick receiving its oil from a bowl above it, which in turn receives its oil from the two olive trees.
What is the meaning of this vision? Also that is given in the chapter.
The general meaning is a message to Zerubbabel: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." After the captivity Zerubbabel must be instrumental in the rebuilding of the temple. But in this work he meets with opposition from the imperial or world power. He can make no headway. And now this vision tends to instruct Zerubbabel that by the Spirit of the Lord the opposition of the world power shall be brought to nought, the temple rebuilt, and the kingdom of God restored. Still more in general, the meaning of the vision is that although the Lord employs human instruments, nevertheless the completion of His kingdom is not the work of human hands, but of His own Spirit. If the candlesticks are to give light, the bowl and the olive trees and the pipes are necessary indeed; but what would they be without the oil? And so it is with the church and the kingdom of God. The church as such and the servants of the Lord and the means of grace are all necessary. But what would they be without the Holy Spirit? They could not shed light of their testimony in the church and the world.
But now we must still further ask the question: what is the meaning of the details of the vision? What is meant by the candlestick, and what by the olive trees?
We need not be left in the dark as to the answer to this question. The candlestick in the temple and tabernacle was symbolic of the people of God as shining, with their knowledge of God and their testimony, in the midst of a world of darkness. That was Israel of the old dispensation. And so in the new dispensation it is symbolic of the church of Christ letting its light shine in the midst of the world of darkness and unbelief. The church is a light, a testimony of the truth of God. That this is true is clearly proved by the first chapter of this Book of Revelation, where the seven golden candlesticks are the seven churches.
But who are the two olive trees? In Zechariah 4:14 we read that they were the two anointed ones, standing before the Lord of the whole earth. From this we learn, in the first place, that they are servants of God. They stand before the Lord of the whole earth. They are, therefore, ready to serve. And that they stand before the Lord of the whole earth also implies that they are especially the ones who are ready to serve the Lord before the whole world with their testimony in word and deed. But, in the second place, we learn that they are anointed servants of the Lord. They are therefore officially called and ordained for service. They are divine media through which the people of God receive the blessings of God's grace, especially the blessing of the knowledge of God, so that they may let their light shine. In the Old Testament there were but two who were thus officially anointed to be servants in the theocracy, namely, the king and the priest. And there is for that reason no question among interpreters generally but that by the two olive trees, in the first place, Zerubbabel the prince and Joshua the high priest are meant. But, in the second place, a general reference is made to the royal and priestly office in Israel. And in the words of our text, therefore, the olive trees are evidently none other but the divinely ordained and called true ministers of the Word, who must serve as media to supply the church with light.
If in this light we turn once more to the words of our text, the whole is convincingly clear. The two witnesses, as our text has it, are not only the two olive trees of Zechariah 4; nor are they only the two candlesticks; but they are both. John identifies them. The olive trees and the candlesticks cannot be separated. They belong together, and together they are the two witnesses of Christ in the world. That John speaks of the two witnesses is also plain. It is not because two individuals are meant, but it is simply because the entire reference of the text is to the two witnesses of Zechariah 4. And the Lord means to say: "Just as in the Old Testament I had two witnesses, just as then I had my people as a shining light and testimony in the world in my people Israel and the servants I appointed over them, so also in the new dispensation, during the forty-two months that the false church and the show church shall exist and defile the sanctuary, I shall have my two witnesses who shall bear testimony before all the world." The candlesticks and the olive trees in Zechariah 4 are none other than the people of God as lights shining in the world together with the divinely anointed and appointed servants of God. So also in our portion we conclude, on the basis of Scripture, that the candlesticks and the olive trees together are the church of Christ throughout this dispensation, together with the divinely ordained servants of the Word, the true ministers of the gospel, who must serve the Lord as media to supply the congregation with light.
If we understand this, the whole is rather clear. We have in the words of our text, in the first place, again a word of comfort and warning. A word of warning: for not all is Israel that is called Israel, and not all is Christendom that calls itself by that name. On the contrary, by far the widest area is left out when God's people are measured. There is a large mass of so-called Christians who laugh at the truths of Christianity and of Scripture, who renounce the Christ, and who crucify Him anew. In the second place, there are in the visible church proper the hypocrites, scattered and hidden among the true people of God, - dangerous people, who really belong to the enemy, who shall ultimately openly unite with the power of the Antichrist, but who cannot be detected. And the question might well be asked by God's people: but is not the whole cause of God a lost cause? If that is the condition of the church, shall there be a true church in the future? Who shall stand? And our text gives us the assurance that throughout this dispensation the two witnesses shall stand. The church shall let its light shine in the midst of the world and in the midst of the apostate church. The Lord shall keep His church even to the end of the world as a shining light. Still more. Not only the candlestick, but also the two olive trees shall remain. The Lord shall not leave His church without its faithful servants. These faithful servants, in the first place, shall instruct the congregation in the full truth of the Word and thus shall serve as media to supply the congregation with the oil of knowledge necessary to let their light shine. But, in the second place, it shall be especially through them that the church shall testify. The church and the servants of God belong together. The servants are the mouthpiece of the church. They shall above all testify and witness in the midst of the world and in the midst of the apostate church. They shall testify against the wickedness of that apostate Christendom and testify for the name of Christ, testify also against the hypocrisy of the hypocrites and the false church.
This condition is to develop in extreme features toward the end of the world. Apostasy shall increase. Jerusalem shall turn once more wicked. False Christianity shall become more openly false. Days of persecution shall arise. The show church shall unite itself with the false church in the days of persecution. But still the candlestick shall shine. Many shall fall away, according to the words of our Lord. Many also of the servants of God shall become unfaithful. But always Christ shall have the two witnesses, His church and His servants,-yea, to the end of the world. And the more the lines are sharply drawn and the greater the apostasy becomes and the more clearly Antichrist develops, the louder and the more clearly and the more definitely the testimony of the faithful church, with its faithful ministers, shall resound throughout the world.
If we bear this in mind, we shall also understand that there have been many types in history of these two witnesses. Types of these were men like Enoch and Noah and Moses and Elijah. Types of these also were Zerubbabel and Joshua. And types of these were the martyrs of the early church, as well as of the church of the Reformation together with the faithful servants of their time. Huss and Wyclif and Luther and Calvin represent these faithful witnesses. Types of these witnesses at the final stage of history are the churches and the servants who sound the trumpet today and who will know of nothing but Christ and Him crucified. And through them all we have the realization of the comfort expressed in our portion: "I will give my two witnesses, throughout this dispensation, that they may prophesy. The candlestick shall shine; the olive trees shall supply with oil, all the days of this dispensation, even until the end of the world."
But at the same time we have in our text a word of admonition and calling, a word to the church as such. She must be a witness of Christ. She must let her light shine boldly, fearlessly, testifying against the apostasy of the age with all her might and main. Not according to the imagination of man, but according to the light of the Word of God must she live and speak. Regardless of what the world may say, we must witness. Regardless how beautiful the world may look and however sweet the world may speak of Christ and Christianity, the great question that must always again be asked: do you believe in Christ, the Son of the living God, in the blood of atonement and the redemptive value of the blood of Christ Jesus? If not, the world stands condemned by our testimony. For it, and it alone, is the truth. In the second place, a word of admonition is in order with regard to the relation of the church to its ministers. They are the olive trees. They must enlighten the minds of the congregation with the light of God. The congregation must receive this light. Do not be satisfied with a little siren-song of gospel that cannot establish you in the faith, but be eager to receive the whole Word of God. For you will need its full, abundant light. And, in the third place, a word of warning and admonition to the servants of God in the church: they are the olive trees. They must bring the light of the Word and nothing else. They, first of all and above all, must stand and be faithful. They shall have a hard time in the day of judgment if it should be proved that they have given the congregation stones for bread and serpents for eggs. Many have been the false prophets of all times. Many are the false prophets today. Fearful wrath and condemnation, no doubt, there will be in store for those who have pretended to preach the truth of God and have filled the pipes of the bowl with the darkness of hell.