Who are the two witnesses in the book of Revelation?

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Question: "Who are the two witnesses in the book of Revelation?"

Answer:
In Revelation 11:3–12 is a description of two individuals who will help accomplish God’s work during the tribulation: “I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth” (verse 3). Nowhere does the Bible identify these two witnesses by name, although people through the years have speculated.

The two witnesses in Revelation will have miraculous powers to accompany their message (Revelation 11:6), and no one will be able to stop them in their work (verse 5). At the end of their ministry, when they have said all they need to say, the beast will kill them and the wicked world will rejoice, allowing the bodies of the fallen prophets to lie in the streets (verses 7–10). Three and a half days later, however, God’s two witnesses will be resurrected and, in full view of their enemies, ascend to heaven (verses 11–12).

There are three primary theories on the identity of the two witnesses in Revelation: (1) Moses and Elijah, (2) Enoch and Elijah, and (3) two unknown believers whom God calls to be His witnesses in the end times.

(1) Moses and Elijah are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses due to the specific miracles that John says the witnesses will perform. The witnesses will have the power to turn water into blood (Revelation 11:6), which duplicates a famous miracle of Moses (Exodus 7). And the witnesses will have the power to destroy their enemies with fire (Revelation 11:5), which corresponds to an event in Elijah’s life (2 Kings 1). Also giving strength to this view is the fact that Moses and Elijah both appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3–4). Further, Jewish tradition expects Moses and Elijah to return, based on the prophecy of Elijah’s coming in Malachi 4:5 and God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18), which some Jews believe necessitates Moses’ return.

(2) Enoch and Elijah are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses because of the unique circumstances surrounding their exit from the world. Enoch and Elijah, as far as we know, are the only two individuals whom God has taken directly to heaven without experiencing death (Genesis 5:23; 2 Kings 2:11). Proponents of this view point to Hebrews 9:27, which says that all men are appointed to die once. The fact that neither Enoch nor Elijah has yet experienced death seems to qualify them for the job of the two witnesses, who will be killed when their job is done. In addition, both Enoch and Elijah were prophets who pronounced God’s judgment (1 Kings 17:1; Jude 1:14–15).

(3) Two unknowns are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses because of the lack of specificity in Revelation 11. Scripture does not identify the two witnesses by name, and no well-known person is associated with their coming. God is perfectly capable of taking two “ordinary” believers and enabling them to perform the same signs and wonders that Moses and Elijah did. There is nothing in Revelation 11 that requires us to assume a “famous” identity for the two witnesses.

There is an interesting passage in Zechariah 4 that gives us a prototype of the two witnesses of Revelation. Zechariah has a vision in which he sees a solid gold lampstand. On top is a bowl of oil, and an olive tree stands on each side (verses 3–4). The lampstand gives its light without human maintenance, being constantly supplied by the olive oil flowing from the trees into the bowl. God’s message to Zechariah was that God’s work (rebuilding the temple) would be accomplished “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (verse 6).

Zechariah asks about the meaning of the olive trees and the branches supplying the oil, and the angel who speaks to him says, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14, ESV). In other words, God’s power to sustain His work is flowing through two individuals set apart for the task. In Zechariah’s context, these two individuals are Joshua (the current high priest) and Zerubbabel (the current governor of Judah). We can also see a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ here, as the Messiah would combine the offices of priest and king. Then we come to Revelation 14:4. In the description of the two witnesses, John says, “They are ‘the two olive trees’ and the two lampstands, and ‘they stand before the Lord of the earth.’” John quotes from Zechariah 4. The two witnesses of Revelation, like Joshua and Zerubbabel, will have God’s power flowing through them to accomplish God’s work.

So who are the two witnesses of Revelation? The Bible does not say. All three views presented above are valid and plausible interpretations that Christians can have. The identity of the two witnesses is not an issue Christians should be dogmatic about.

Recommended Resource: Understanding End Times Prophecy by Paul Benware

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