The Two Witnesses - Who Are They?
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., April 1979
Edited and expanded by David Sielaff, July 2005
Read the accompanying Newsletter for July 2005
Hardly any personalities of the Bible have been more difficult to ascertain than the two witnesses mentioned prophetically in Revelation chapter 11. The interpretations concerning their role in future events have been numerous and contradictory. Their identities are clear if they are allowed to play the part assigned them by the Bible. When this is done we can know the general commission of these two important individuals. The information in this article could reveal some significant biblical truth.
The Two Witnesses are individuals who are commissioned to do a 3½ year service just prior to the reign of the Beast and False Prophet. The Beast will claim to be Christ Jesus returned to earth. Since Christ will come in flaming fire (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8), fire will be brought down from heaven by the False Prophet to mimic a Second Coming (Revelation 13:13). All the world will worship the Beast (the Antichrist) for a further 3½ years. At the end of this seven year period (prophesied in Daniel 9:27 as the last “week” of seven years before the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth), Christ will come from heaven in a glorious Second Advent that cannot be duplicated. The Two Witnesses have an important part in all of this.
For generations theologians have tried to find out their identities. Some have said they are angels. Others thought they were symbolically the Old and New Testaments, or the Mosaic “church” and the Christian “church.” Several biblical people have been suggested as the Witnesses: Jeremiah, Moses, John the Baptist, Elijah, Zerubbabel. Many modern people have been mentioned, especially those who head organizations which claim to be the “true church of God.” Some today unashamedly say they are the Two Witnesses. Several hundred people have no doubt claimed their exalted identification, but there are only two of them, and they are yet to appear. Who are the Two Witnesses? The Bible gives some clear identifying signs.
The Book of Revelation says they represent “the two olive trees” (called candlesticks, lampstands) “standing before the God of the earth” (Revelation 11:4). These symbolic “olive trees” are certainly the two olive trees which stand on either side of the bowl containing olive oil that fed the seven branched candle–stick [lampstand] which the angel showed Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4:2–3. These were called “the anointed ones [or sons of oil], that stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14). These were associated with Zerubbabel when he held in his hand “the plummet” which was for measuring the dimensions for a new temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Two Witnesses also come on the scene when John was given:
“a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise and measure the temple [inner temple] of God, and the altar [incense altar within the inner temple], and them [the persons] that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple [the inner temple] leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city [Jerusalem] shall they tread under foot forty and two months [3½ years].”
Though there is much symbolic language associated with the description of the Two Witnesses, there is enough literal teaching to show they must be human beings. After all, they are able to be killed by crucifixion (Revelation 11:7–8). The fact that they will meet their deaths by crucifixion is shown by the phrase “where also our Lord was crucified” (verse 8) — they will also be killed by crucifixion. People on earth will be able to see their exposed dead bodies for 3½ days. This could hardly show that they were angels or the Old Testament and New Testament churches. They will be men!
The Two Witnesses were also able to “stand before the God of the earth” (Revelation 11:4) — “these are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14). And since they stand on each side of the seven branched candlestick which was to be located in Zerubbabel’s temple here on earth (Zechariah 4:2–3), they must be Levites. Even the phrase “to stand before the Lord” was a biblical indication connected with a role of the Levites in the temple.
“Then he shall minister in the name of the Lord his God, as all his brethren the Levites do, which stand there before the Lord.”
In fact, only those Levites from the Aaronic family were allowed to enter the inner temple wherein was the seven branched candlestick and the altar of incense (Exodus 30:27 — see context for proof). Since the “two olive trees” (that is, the Two Witnesses) stand before the Lord and stand on each side of the candlestick in the place reserved for priests, this shows they must be either Aaronic priests (or higher in rank — the only human being while on earth higher than the priests was Moses, Exodus 4:14–17). Remember too, this temple is earthly, not heavenly (Zechariah chapter 4).
The first rule in identifying who the Two Witnesses will be shows that they must be two men having the rank of Aaronic priests or someone like Moses who had the exalted privilege of standing before God and seeing “Him” face to face. No Gentile of any race — nor any Israelite unless he is a descendant of Levi — could possibly be one of the Two Witnesses. This rule completely disqualifies all modern Americans, British, or Italians that might think they are (or might become) one or both of the Two Witnesses. Only those who can show Levitical (priestly) descent could stand next to the seven branched candlestick in the holy place of a temple in Jerusalem.
There are several signs that could show who they really are intended to be. The powers that the Two Witnesses will manifest for the first half of that seven year period before the return of Christ are very reminiscent of two Old Testament personages: Moses and Elijah. They have authority to turn water into blood (Revelation 11:6) as did Moses in Egypt (Exodus 7:17) and to cause a devastating drought (verse 6) as did Elijah (1 Kings 17:1). They are also similar in the sense that both Moses and Elijah were Levites. Elijah is not called a Levite but he built an altar and sacrificed animals without intermediaries — and this was reserved only for priests at that time (1 Kings 18:31–38). Also, Christ said that John the Baptist was a type of Elijah (Matthew 17:12–13), and he was certainly a priest (Luke 1:5, 13).
There is reason to believe that one of the Two Witnesses could be the prophesied Elijah to come. Malachi said “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). And though John the Baptist was a type of Elijah when he introduced Christ to His earthly ministry (Mark 9:13), the commission of John the Baptist did not exhaust the prophecy about a new Elijah to come. Even after the death of John (Matthew 14:1–2, 6–12) Christ was saying “Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things” (Matthew 17:11). The restoration by Elijah just before the Day of the Lord was, to Christ, yet future. Even the apostles reckoned the same thing. Peter said that “the heaven must receive [Christ] until the time of restitution [the restoration under Elijah] of all things” (Acts 3:21). It must be observed that Peter said that the restoration would occur before Christ would return — and this is exactly what Elijah was prophesied to do (Matthew 17:11). It involves the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6), the Law of Moses (Malachi 4:4–6), plus “all things” which pertained to that restitution (Acts 3:21).
Could one of the Two Witnesses be coming in the power of Elijah to fulfill these prophecies like John the Baptist did in a limited way before Christ’s first coming? It may be so. The apostle John said they would come on the scene at the exact time that he was given, in vision, “a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God” (Revelation 11:1). Such “measuring” was used for the purpose of constructing new buildings. Recall that the same two “olive trees” were associated with Zerubbabel when he stood with a plummet in his hand to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem (Zechariah. 4:1–14).
The Bible shows very clearly that a new temple be in existence just prior to the Second Coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:4–8) , it then stands to reason that the man ordained of God to “restore all things” will be a prophesied Elijah to come just before the great and dreadful day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). Thus, there will be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, with sacrifices, just before the Second Coming. Those animal sacrifices will last for the first half of a seven year period (Daniel 9:27) — during the precise time when the Two Witnesses are prophesying for 3½ years (Revelation 11:2–3).
The Two Witnesses, however, will then be killed, and the Beast (the Antichrist) will soon emerge (Revelation chapter 13), abolishing the ordained sacrifices in the rebuilt temple. He will proclaim himself God (as Christ returned from heaven — falsely, of course, 2 Thessalonians 2:4–8). This evil will last almost 3½ years. The true Christ will then return from heaven (Revelation 19:1–21).
Since the prophesied restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) — which includes the rebuilding of the temple (it will be “measured out” with a “plummet”) — it follows that the person called “Elijah” will do this. And it fits the role of one of the Two Witnesses precisely.
There was Jewish tradition that a person holding the position of Moses would also accompany the Elijah to come. Just as Moses led the children of Israel up to the border of Canaan, but it was Joshua (Jesus) who actually led them into the land, it was felt that Moses would once again be in the service of Israel just before the nation would be led into “the true Canaan” — the Kingdom of God. In an official Midrash (Commentary) written a few hundred years after Christ we are told the tradition. God reportedly told Moses: “In the world to come when I bring unto them Elijah the prophet, the two of you [Moses and Elijah] shall come together.” 1 Evidence has been shown that this tradition goes back at least to the time of Christ. 2 It was based on the belief that a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15–19) would also come to Israel — as well as Elijah.
The Jews not only expected the Messiah to come, but they thought two other supernatural beings would accompany the Messiah. One was Elijah, and the other “the prophet” like Moses. The Jewish leaders asked John the Baptist about these three personages. They wanted to know if he was the Christ (Messiah), Elijah, or “the prophet” (Moses). See John 1:20–21. This tradition that Moses with Elijah would come near the time of the Messiah was well recognized. Even Christ acknowledged it.
At the time of His transfiguration (indicating the period of His Second Coming — Matthew 16:27–28), there was a vision given to three of the apostles of Christ with Moses and Elijah. This was a sign that Moses would be with Elijah. One like Moses, as well as Elijah, was expected. 3 They do not have to be the actual Moses and Elijah because John the Baptist was “Elijah” only symbolically (Matthew 17:12–13). He came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), not that he was Elijah himself. So it could be with the “Moses and Elijah” to come.
It is possible that the Two Witnesses are given the identification of these two early men because their roles will be so similar to Moses and Elijah. Recall that Moses was the one responsible for giving the Law (with great miracles accompanying it), and Elijah was commissioned to protect the Law and the worship of the true God (also with great miracles), and the Two witnesses will be responsible for “restoring all things” (Acts 3:21): the restoration of the Mosaic Law with temple services, the Aaronic priesthood, animal sacrifices.
It may seem strange that the Book of Revelation (which, of course, is a Christian book) would speak about Two Witnesses having a part in the prophesied “restoration of all things” — the restoration of Moses’ teachings — but John the apostle is simply relating what Christ told him would happen. Nowhere does John recommend that Christians have to take part in the temple services and animal sacrifices.
It is made abundantly clear that such things for Christians are not necessary (John 4:21–23; Ephesians 2:14–15; Colossians 2:11–16). The meats, drinks, holydays, new moons, sabbaths, temple services, circumcision, sacrifices may be “shadows of things to come” (and they will all be restored in the future for Israelites), but none of these things is now essential for the Christian in having an intimate relationship with God through Christ, our only mediator. Indeed, no Gentile Christian could partake in the restored temple services, with the animal sacrifices, in any legal way because only the circumcised Israelites were allowed to approach the altar of burnt offering (Ephesians 2:11–12). 4
The temple at Jerusalem is prophesied to be rebuilt. The “measuring rod” and the “plummet” are associated with the Two Witnesses (Revelation 11:1; Zechariah 4:10). Animal sacrifices will be reinstituted. Having a temple without sacrifices is like having a home without a table for food. The Two Witnesses will “restore all things” to Israel. Though the “restoration” will not be perfect (because the Gentiles will be allowed to come into the outer courts — an illegal thing), most of the Mosaic Law will be put back into action. After 3½ years, the Beast (the Antichrist) will call himself God (Jesus Christ returned to earth), and cause the sacrifices to cease. But after another 3½ years, the true Christ will actually return in glory. The Beast will be destroyed, and the work of the Two Witnesses will finally see a proper fulfillment.
Ernest L. Martin, 1979
Edited by David Sielaff, July 2005
1 Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel (Naperville, IL: A.R. Allenson, 1963), p. 69. ELM
2 Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, p. 27. ELM
3 True, “the prophet” was really Christ (Acts 3:22), but Moses was also expected. And the Two Witnesses fit Moses and Elijah very well. ELM
4 However, when the Two Witnesses are here on earth, the outer court of the holy temple will have Gentiles approaching it (Revelation 11:2). All of the Gentiles will have access to the altar — it will be given up to them while they tread under foot the city of Jerusalem. Such activities cause the Two Witnesses to be clothed in sackcloth (verse 3). These are illegal actions. No uncircumcised Gentile should ever come near the altar in the outer courts of the temple at Jerusalem. It is hoped that no Gentile Christian (if one were in Jerusalem at the time) would ever think of violating such precincts because no Christian needs any physical temple with its sacrifices as a means to worship God (John 4:21–23). The restoration of the Mosaic type of worship — even though reestablished by the “Moses and Elijah to come” — will be intended for Israelites who will then
“remember ... the law of Moses ... behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”
They will turn their minds to Mosaic Law once again. They will turn (repent) of their previous abandonment of Moses. Just as John the Baptist (who came in the spirit of Elijah) caused many Jews to return to the ways of their fathers (and even priests and Pharisees flocked to John to express their repentances), so will the future “Moses and Elijah” come to Israel “to restore all things” (Acts 3:21). This will occur just before the Second Coming of Christ. And the roles of the Two Witnesses (who are very much like Moses and Elijah) will be the main ones in the restoration. However, it will not be a thorough repentance on the part of the Israelites because they will allow the outer courts of the rebuilt temple to admit Gentiles. This is illegal. The Two Witnesses will dress in sackcloth because of this and other things, but they will realize (from what the Book of Revelation prophesies) that God allows it to be done to accomplish His purpose. ELM
© 1976-2017 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions