The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11
William Branham taught that the two witnesses of Revelation 11 were Moses and Elijah who were coming back to earth to minister. But is this what the passage is saying?
What the Bible says
The passage in Revelation 11 reads as follows:
- 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 lampstands 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 dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.
- But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.
Who are the two olive trees?
The reference to the two olive trees is clearly taken from chapter 4 of the book of Zechariah:
- I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it.
- And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?
- ...Then I said to him, “What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?” And a second time I answered and said to him, “What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?” He said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” Then he said, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”
The two anointed ones is literally the two "sons of oil" in Hebrew, meaning ‘full of oil’.
Commentators in general agree that the two men are God’s appointed officers for his people Joshua the high priest, and Zerubbabel the governor, the representative of the Persian King and a descendant of David.
Who are the two witnesses?
The dispensationalist view is that the two witnesses represent Moses and Elijah.
But rather than Moses and Elijah, it appears more reasonable to view the two witnesses as representing the prophetic witness of the church.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- They are “lampstands” (Rev 11:4), which Revelation elsewhere explicitly identifies as churches (see Rev 1:20).
- Joshua and Zerubbabel were the high priest and king seeking the restoration of their holy city; what could better symbolize the saints as a kingdom and priests (Rev 1:6; Rev 5:10) seeking their new Jerusalem?
- Like John in this context, they prophesy (Rev 10:11; Rev 11:3, 6), fulfilling the standard Christian mission of testifying for Christ (Rev 19:10).
- If the time period is symbolic for the entire Christian era, which may well be the case, the witnesses would need to be symbolic for something of equally long duration.
- The cumulative adaptation of diverse Old Testament prophetic references, such as fire coming from the witnesses’ mouths rather than from heaven, suggests a broader symbolic interpretation.
I appreciate that message believers will likely argue that the literal details, such as lying in the street for three days, do not fit the church. But this presupposes that all details in Revelation’s narratives must be read literally, a premise that contradicts much of what we find in the rest of the book.
William Branham clearly wants us to take the figure of two witnesses as two literal individuals; but in Revelation, it is difficult to apply a literal interpretation with consistency. For example, are the women in Revelation 12 or 17 representative of literal individuals?
If the witnesses represent the church, one can view the 1,260 days as a symbolic number (fitting the symbolism in much of the book), in which case Revelation reinterprets this Jewish symbol as it does many others.
In this case, Revelation is borrowing Daniel’s figure not to tell us the length of time but to inform us of the kind of time, that the era of the church is characterized by great suffering, as in Daniel’s tribulation.
John uses 1,260 days for the church’s time and the equivalent figure of 42 months to describe the beast’s time. The 1,260 days represent 42 months or three and a half 360-day years.
That the witnesses lie in the street (Rev 11:8) indicates that they remain unburied, receiving what was considered the most shameful treatment in the ancient world, normally reserved for the most vile of criminals. The world’s celebration and mockery of the martyrs is deeply ironic - the three and a half days of the bodies’ defilement indicates that their corpses will be rotting, but probably also alludes to the three-and-a-half years of their ministry (Rev 11:9, 11).
The witnesses are protected for the duration of their ministry (Rev 11:5) but die at the end (rev 11:7). This shows that God will preserve his church throughout the age for the sake of their witness, but that as the universal proclamation of the gospel is fulfilled, the world finally appears to crush the church through massive martyrdoms. In John’s day, believers probably expected such events to follow immediately in the Roman empire, but they are no less believable in today’s volatile world.
Thus the church will follow in the steps of its Lord: Christians will die but should look for the hope of the resurrection (Rev 11:11; Rev 1:5; Rev 2:8–10; Heb. 11:35–12:4). The “breath of life” (Rev. 11:11), which can also be translated “Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:2), alludes to God’s care in Genesis 2:7 (as in John 20:22) and contrasts with the false life imparted in Revelation 13:15. Like Jesus at the beginning of the era of hardship (Rev 12:5), these witnesses are caught up to heaven at its end (Rev 11:12), a sign of vindication and ultimate deliverance (Rev 12:5). In contrast to the “come up here” cited in 4:1, this instance of the phrase is a “rapture”; but in contrast with William Branham's teaching, it occurs immediately preceding the end of the age, not several years before (Rev 11:15).
Quotes of William Branham
It is interesting to note that William Branham completely ignores the references to the Book of Zechariah contained in Revelation 11:4:
- Look at them two witnesses in Revelations 11, "I'll give power unto My witnesses, and they'll close the heavens in the days of their prophecy. They'll send plagues upon the earth as they will." There they are, the two witnesses in the last days.
- I know modern teaching is that that's the Old and New Testament. That's wrong. That's wrong.
- Here's the two witnesses; that's absolutely a return of Moses and Elijah. You notice back there, neither one of them... Moses, he died, but where did he go? He had to raise again. And Elijah was translated even without death. He will have to die, 'cause every mortal has to, so he will have to return back again. And there's the two witnesses.
- And they laid on the street for three days and nights. And then at the end of the three and a half days, the spirit of life come into them and they rose up. They had to die like other mortals; they had to do it. And when they killed these two preachers...
- They preached against wrong, and they brought fire out of heaven. Who did that? See? They brought plagues out of heaven, and smote the earth as quick as--any time they wanted to. And they brought fire out of heaven. And they stopped the heavens from raining, as long as they wanted to. Who was that? Exactly Moses and Elijah. And there's them two witnesses.
- This great thing that is about to happen will carry over to Revelation 11 and pick up those two witnesses, those two prophets, Moses and Elijah, turning the Gospel back to the Jews. We're ready for it. Everything is in order. As the Jews brought the message to the Gentiles, even so the Gentiles will take it right back to the Jews, and the Rapture will come.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 11:3–12.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Zec 4:2–4, 11–14.
- Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 28, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 132.
- John L. Mackay, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: God’s Restored People, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 117.
- David J. Clark and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Zechariah, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 2002), 146.
- Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 295–296.
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