Old Testament Reading: Zechariah 4
“And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, ‘What do you see?’ 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 the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’ Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. ‘These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth.’ 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’” (Zechariah 4, ESV).
Sermon Text: Revelation 11:3-14
“‘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. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come” (Revelation 11:3–14, ESV).
Let us remember where we are in the book of Revelation. We are still considering the second of two interludes found in this book.
The first interlude is in Revelation chapter 7. There we experienced a break in the action as the seal cycle was interrupted by the vision of the sealing of the 144,000 and also the vision of a great multi-ethnic multitude worshiping God in heaven. These visions are inserted between the opening of the sixth and sevenths seals.
The function of the first interlude is clear. The visions introduced by the breaking of each of the seals have primarily to do with the judgements of God poured out upon the earth. The question left hanging is, “what about God’s people? Will they succumb to God’s wrath? Will they be caught up in and swept away by God’s partial and perpetual judgments as he pours them out upon the earth?” The interlude of chapter 7 answers that question by focusing in upon the church and portraying them, first of all, as a holy people numbered for battle and sealed by God, and then as a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” worshipping (Revelation 7:9, ESV). The seal cycle depicts the judgments of God poured out. The interlude of chapter 7 depicts the people of God protected, preserved on earth, and then brought safely home.
The second interlude is found inserted in between the sixth and seventh trumpets. In chapter 10 John is recommissioned as a prophet and in chapter 11 we encounter a vision that mirrors the vision of chapter 7. The chapters are not identical – they each have a slightly different message to communicate – but they are very similar.
If we were to set them side by side we would see that both the interlude of chapter 7 and the interlude of chapter 11 focus in upon the church. Both answer the question, what about the people of God? Will they be caught up in the judgments of God poured out upon the earth (as portrayed in the breaking of the seals) and upon the wicked (as portrayed in the sounding of the trumpets)? The answer in both interludes is essentially the same: Though God’s people will indeed suffer tribulation as they sojourn in this world, God will preserve them in the midst of it and will bring them safely home.
In the interlude of chapter 7 the people of God are sealed while on earth – possessed and preserved by him – and then seen worshipping comfortably and securely, having been brought safely to their heavenly home.
In the interlude of chapter 11the people of God are measured. They worship at the heavenly temple that is at once perfectly secure and yet vulnerable as those who worship there sojourn upon the earth in this age where “the court outside the temple… [is left unmeasured and is] given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months” (Revelation 11:2, ESV). Those who worship God through faith in Christ worship at the heavenly temple and are measured by God, possessed and preserved by him. They will suffer tribulation in the world, no doubt, but by the end of this glorious vision those faithful to Christ are seen to be vindicated and brought safely home.
So, both the seal cycle and the trumpet cycle depict God’s judgments, and both interludes – the one in chapter 7 and the one in chapter 11 – depict the preservation of God’s people in the midst of tribulation.
There are three points that need to be drawn from the text that we are considering today. I will state all three, but then we will return to consider only point one in detail; points two and three we will return to next week.
First of all, we must recognize that the job of the church, as we live in this present evil age, is to witness. We are to witness, or testify to the world, concerning Christ, his life, death and resurrection.We are to witness, or testify to the world, concerning the good news that in Christ, through faith in him, there is found the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. And we are to witness, or testify to the world, concerning Christ, that he will indeed return, this time not to accomplish salvation, but to rescue those who belong to him and to judge those who do not from amongst the living and the dead. The job of the church is to witness.
Secondly, see that the church ought to expect unrelenting, and ever increasing opposition from the unbelieving world. The world – those not given to the Son by the Father – will hate the testimony that they hear from the Christian witnesses. It will be an irritant to them, and they will respond with varying degrees of hostility. That is, unless the Holy Spirit is at work within them, drawing them to repentance. The church ought to expect opposition as she witnesses.
Thirdly, recognize that though the church on earth be trampled even to the point of death, she will in the end be preserved, rescued and vindicated, and the wicked judged.
This is the message communicated in this wonderful passage. Let us consider the first point more closely today.
The Job Of The Church Is To Witness
Brothers and sisters, consider that the job of the church is to witness concerning Christ.
Revelation 11:3 says, “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth” (Revelation 11:3, ESV).
Notice a few things about this verse:
First of all, notice that this declaration is being made by God and that it is closely connected to what has just been said concerning the measuring of the temple, the alter and those who worship there, and the leaving of the courtyard exposed to the trampling of the nations. Verse 3 goes with verses 1 and 2 – that is my point.
The question that we might ask after we have considered verses 1 and 2 is, why would God leave the temple courtyard and the holy city, which symbolizes the Christ bride, his church, as she lives in this in this world, exposed? The answer is, so that the church would witness to the world concerning Christ.The close connection between verses 1 and 2 and verse 3 makes it clear.
Jesus said to his disciples before his ascension, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV).
A witness is one who testifies in legal matters. A witness provides evidence. A witness says, “this is what I saw.” The Apostles of Christ were able to witness concerning Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection because they saw it.
Listen to how the Apostle John begins his epistle, 1 John. He says,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify [μαρτυρέω, the verb form of the noun μάρτυς found in Acts 1:8 and Revelation 11:3] to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1–3, ESV)
John is saying that as an Apostle of Christ – as an eyewitness to his life, death, and resurrection – he is able to witness or give testimony concerning Christ. You and I as Christians today are witnesses to Christ only so long as we are faithful to say what the Apostles, who were eyewitnesses, have said. The church witnesses concerning Christ only so long as she is faithful to build upon the foundational witness of the Apostles and prophets, Christ being the cornerstone.
Secondly, notice that these witness are said to have authority. “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses”, the text says. When the church testifies she does so with authority. She has authority, not because it resides within her automatically, but only so long as she testifies to the truth.
Thirdly, notice that there are two witnesses. “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth”, the text says.
The hyper-literalistic, futuristic, dispensationalist, being driven by their erroneous presuppositions and their faulty method of interpretation, believes that this verse will be fulfilled in the future when two individuals will appear to witness for a literal three and a half years immediately preceding the end of time.
According to the futuristic interpretation it will be these two, and these two only, who will experience all that is said in the passage concerning them. These two individuals will in the future serve as witnesses. These two will be persecuted. These two will be instruments of judgment. These two will be killed. And these two will be raised to life and caught up into heaven.
By the way, what do those who hold to this position say when asked, how will it be that when these two witnesses, who you say are literately two individuals, are killed, their corpses left in the street for three and a half days, as verse 9 describes to us, that people all over the world will rejoice as they gaze upon their dead bodies? What is the popular answer to that question today? It is the one made popular by Tim LaHaye, the author of the, more-fictional-than-you-know, Left Behind Series. His view is that people the world over will see these two witnesses slain on television.
I bring this up only to highlight just how much the futurist interpretation divorces the book of Revelation from it’s original context, making much of the book to be all but meaningless to it’s original recipients, not to mention all who lived prior to the days of television or the invention of modern weaponry, etc.
In other words, if the futurists are correct then all who read this text prior to the 1920’s would have been utterly puzzled, thinking to themselves, “how could it be that the ‘peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies 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” (Revelation 11:9–10, ESV).
It is far better to see that these two witnesses represent the church as she fulfills her role as witness.
The reasons for understanding the text in this way are numerous. I’ll briefly mention a few.
One, we should understand the two witness to symbolize the church because of the length of time that they are said to minister, namely 1,260 days.
I mentioned last week that this same period of time reappears in the book of Revelation over and over again, but stated in different terms. The time span is three and a half years. It is referred to as 42 months (which is 12 months times 3.5 years) in 11:2 and also in 13:5-7. In both of these passages the emphasis is upon the people of God being trampled or assaulted. The same time period is referred to as 1,260 days here in 11:3 and also in 12:14-17 (1,260 days is 3.5 years times 360 days, which his is one year according to the calendar in use when Revelation was written – 360 days times 3.5 years equals 1,260 days). The emphasis in both of these texts is the protection of the church in the face of her advisories. Also, the language from Daniel 7 of a “time, times, and a half of time”, or three and one half years, is found in Revelation 12:7.
In each instance the time designation, be it 42 months, 1,260 days, or a time, times, and half a time, stands for the church age when the people of God will be both protected and preserved spiritually by God while being pursued and persecuted by the enemies of God.
This is what the period of time of three and a half years came to sand for. It symbolizes trouble for the people of God, particularly the temple of God. The number is rooted in Daniel 7, but it finds its significance historically in the three and a half year assault of the people of God and the temple of God at the hands of Antiochus Epiphanes from 167 to 164 B.C. – he attacked for three and a half years. Even more recent was the Romans siege against Jerusalem leading to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. That all lasted three and one half years. And we have not mentioned the earthy ministry of Jesus, who was the eternal Son of God who tabernacled with us. His ministry lasted three and a half years. He, the true temple, was assaulted and, in the end, desecrated by lawless men. With all of these things, and more, in the background is it not hard to see that the time frame of three and a half years symbolizes a time of tribulation for the people of God, particularly the temple of God.
And who are the people of God under the New Covenant? The dispensationalists so misinterpret scripture that some of them will even say, “ethnic Jews!”. But the right answer according to New Testament is that it is all who have faith in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike, who are the people of God. They are the true children of Abraham, not according to their fleshly birth, but according to the their new birth in the Spirit.
And where is the temple. It is “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21) “for we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16, ESV).
This period of time refers, then, not to a literal 1,260 days or a literal 42 months, but to the time between the first and second coming of Christ – a time marked by tribulation for the people of God as they sojourn on earth. A time marked by tribulation for the temple of God, namely the body of Christ, the church. This becomes especially clear in Revelation chapter 12, I think.
So if it is true that 42 months, or 1,260 days symbolizes the church age – that is, the time between Christ’s first and second comings – and if it is true that this is the time in which these two witnesses minister, then they cannot be two literal persons (unless we believe them to be almost 2,000 years old today), but they must represent something else – some other entity that has existed for the last 2,000 years, will continue to exist until the Lord returns, and has witnessing to the world concerning Christ as it’s mission. What do these two witnesses symbolize? They symbolize the church as she witnesses concerning Christ.
There are many other reasons to think that these two witnesses are not to be taken literally, but as symbolic of the church. I will briefly mention a few more for the sake of time.
Two, Notice that the witnesses are called “two lampstands”. What do lampstands symbolize in the book of Revelation? The church!
Three, these witnesses are said to torment the whole world, the end result being that the whole world sees and rejoices over their death. It is hard to understand, especially from the 90A.D perspective, how two individual people could possibly have such an effect upon all who dwell on the earth from every tongue, tribe, and nation. But it is not hard to understand how this could be of true of the church universal. Indeed her mission was and is to “go and make disciples of all nation”. Indeed, this is the mission that she has and will continue to accomplish. And we know that as she accomplishes her mission she makes some friends – they are called the elect of God – but she makes many enemies as she testifies concerning Christ.
Four, the oppression of the two witnesses in this passage mirrors the assault of the woman and her offspring by the evil one in chapter 12. We will eventially come to this passage. For now consider verse 15 of chapter 12 where the offspring of the woman are identified as being “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony [μαρτυρία] of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17, ESV). It is the church, and not only two individual witnesses, that is oppressed for these 1,260 days.
Five, notice that while the witnesses are clearly plural, they are in this passage also referred to in singular terms. This comes through more in the Greek than in the English, but I find it fascinating and worth mentioning. There are two witnesses, but in verse 5 we read, “And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes” (Revelation 11:5, ESV). “Them” is plural, referring to the two witnesses, but “mouth” is singular. You would expect the number to match. You would expect the text to say, “fire pours from their mouths”. The oddity is meant to grab our attention, I think, to help the reader understand that these two really stand for one thing, the church. The church speaks with one mouth as she testifies concerning Christ. The same thing happens in verses 7-9, but it is hidden behind an unfortunate English translation. the text says, “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” (Revelation 11:7–8, ESV). In fact, in the Greek the word translated “bodies” is singular. The beast conquers and kills them (plural), and their body (singular) will lie in the street. Again, you would expect the plural (so much so that our English translations feel compelled to provide it), but in the Greek you get the singular, perhaps in order to indicate that the two really stand for one thing, the church as she witnesses.
More reasons could be provided for viewing the two witness, not as referring to two literal persons, but to the whole church as she witnesses to Christ throughout the church age. For the sake of time we must be content with these five.
But why two witnesses? Why not one or seven?
There are many reasons. The main one is this: According to the scriptures if a testimony to be received as trustworthy and true in a court of law, two or more witness are required. The principle is repeated throughout the Bible, but the first mention of it is found in Deuteronomy 19:15, which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15, ESV).
Notice that these two witnesses have authority. The are said to stand before the “Lord of the earth”. Not only do they witnesses concerning the good news that life is found in Jesus’ name, but also concerning the guilt of sin.
These witnesses are two in number because they are like Moses and Elijah who announced and pronounced judgments upon the idolatrous world in their day. Verse 5:
“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” (Revelation 11:5–6, ESV).
Clearly this is intended to bring to mind the ministry of Moses and the prophet Elijah.
Elijah shut the sky so that not rain would fall in 1 Kings 17. It was through the ministry of Elijah that fire came down from heaven to consume the idolatrous in 2 Kings 1. Similarly, here the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet: “Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts: ‘Because you have spoken this word, behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them” (Jeremiah 5:14, ESV). The church is to witness or testify concerning Christ and concerning sin just as the prophets did. The church is to call men and women to repentance. The church is to warn of judgment and to hold forth Christ. This was the ministry go Elijah and the prophets, and it is our top.
And the church is like Moses. These witnesses are said to “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” (Revelation 11:6, ESV). Certainly this is to remind us of Moses and the plagues which led to the Exodus of Israel.
The church is to testify to the world concerning the the glory of God and of Christ. She is to preach Christ from the law and the prophets.
These witnesses are also two in number because they are the two “olive trees” of Zechariah 4. Clearly this is a reference to the Zechariah 4 passage that I read at the beginning of the sermon. There Zechariah saw a vision of “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.”
A careful consideration of that text reveals that the two olive trees symbolize the Lord’s anointed ones (probably Zerubbabel, the governor, who was descended from David, and Joshua, the high priest). These have the task of rebuilding the temple of God. The promise is that these anointed one will be fully empowered by the Spirit of God to accomplish the task. The lamps will, through them, have a never ending supply of oil. The meaning of the passage is this: the temple will be rebuilt because God will supply for their every need. It will be accomplished, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6, ESV).
What is the meaning here in Revelation 11? The church will have all that she needs to fulfill her witnessing task. As she fulfills it, the temple of God will be built up stone upon stone until the Lord return.
There may be others reasons for the witnesses being two in number, but these are central. Two witness are required to establish a case. The two witnesses correspond to and carry on the ministry of Moses and Elijah and she preached Christ from the law and prophets. And just as the Lord promised Israel that he would, by the power of the Spirit, provide for the rebuilding of the Old Covenant temple through his two olive trees, so too will he provide for the building up of the New Covenant temple, the church, through the outpouring of his Spirit.
How is your witness?
Witnessing involves more than the proclamation of the gospel.
It involves holy living.
At home as you witness to those in your household.
In the community as you interact with Christians and non-Christians.
In the church.
It involves living a life marked by love for God, dependence upon him, and thankfulness to him.
We witness as we gather for corporate worship.
We gather on the Lord’s Day to give glory to God. People take notice of this.
We must completely shed that old superficial American evangelical thought that we go to church on Sunday when it is convenient for us and when we feel like it as if it were mainly about us.
Friends, we are to gather together on the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath, in obedience to the fourth commandment, to give worship to God. Is that not what happened at the temple? Why did the people gather there? To be encouraged primarily? No, they came to worship. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed we are encouraged when we come to worship. Indeed that is one of our objective: the building up of the body of Christ, the encouragement of the Christian. But it falls under the prime objective of giving gory to God.
When you gather for worship you are testifying to all that God is worthy of our worship and that we must come to him through Jesus the Christ. To neglect it is to communicate to all who see that God is unworthy and that Christ is of little significance.
We witness by maintaining unity with one another.
Repent and extend forgiveness.
Labor to maintain unity.
“I therefore… urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1–3, ESV)
Witnessing does not happen unless the gospel is proclaimed.
We must testify from the scriptures concerning sin.
We must testify from the scriptures concerning Christ – his life, death, and resurrection.
Having testified we must call men and women to faith and repentance, and to baptism within Christ’s church.
How is your witness?
How is our witness?