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).
I should remind you that there are three truths that need to be drawn from the text that we are considering today. I will again state all three, just as I did last Sunday, but then we will return to consider points two and three in detail. Points one was considered thoroughly last Sunday in part one of this sermon.
The first point was this: 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 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.
The second point is this: 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 testifies concerning Christ.
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.
Notice that these three points can be made only if we understand the “two witness” of verse three, who are called the “two olive trees” and the “two lampstands” in verse 4, to symbolize the church as she fulfills her mission to testify concerning Christ in the world. To make the three points that I have made the witnesses must be understood as symbolizing the church.
Last Sunday I tried to convince you that this is the proper interpretation. I tried to demonstrate that the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational interpretation – the one that so many of us grew up with – the one that says this text will be fulfilled only when two literal individual witness appear sometime in our future – is incorrect. And I also labored to demonstrate that understanding the two witness as symbolic of the church witnessing throughout the church age is perfectly in step with the rest of the book of Revelation, the clear teaching of the New Testament, and also the Old.
I am convinced that the two witnesses of verse 3 symbolize Christ’s church as she is faithful to witness, and I hope that I succeeded in convincing you. Honestly, if I did not succeed – if you still hold to that pre-millennial, pre-tribulational, dispensational interpretation – the three points that I have made will seem quite out of place and rather inappropriate to you. You might agree, that these three statements, when considered by themselves, are true statements. But you would not link these propositions up with this text. Instead you would have three different points to draw out of this text. They would go something like this: One, In the future two witnesses will appear. Two, in the future those two witnesses will be persecuted even unto death. And three, in the future those two witnesses will be raised from the dead and vindicated by God. What all of that has to do with you and me today, I am not sure. According to the pre-tribulational view we won’t even be here to see it, for all Christians, they say, will be raptured secretly (though the scriptures never speak of a secret rapture) before these two individuals arrive on the scene. It’s no wonder that I had little desire to preach through the book of Revelation when I understood it according to that pre-tribulational, pre-millennial scheme. Not only did the book make little sense to me, it also seemed to be of little value to the people of God yesterday and today. Of what use was it except to encourage the saints towrads idle speculation concerning the future, which was something Christ explicitly warned against.
But I have come to believe, and hope this is true of you as well, that the book is not only about the future, but that it was given for the church yesterday and today so that all who have ever read it are “Blessed… [to read] aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed… [to] hear, and [to] keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3, ESV).
The church of 100 a.d. is represented here in this text. The church of 1,000 a.d. is represented here in this text. And so too is the church of 2,017. Her mission is the same no mater the year. She is to witness concerning Christ! She is to testify to the world concerning sin, the threat of judgment, and the promise of sins forgiven through faith in Jesus the Christ. Christ gave her this charge through his Apostles, when he said, “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).
The Job Of The Church Is To Witness
Friends, please recognize that the book of Revelation was written with this purpose in mind: to strengthen the church’s witness in the world. The book reveals what it reveals, not just so that something concerning the future might be revealed, but in order to strengthen the church in her witnessing role. The objective of the book of Revelation is to make the church more faithful to Christ – to encourage her to walk in this world with Jesus as Lord. From the beginning the aim of the book has been to strengthen the church’s witness.
Remember that in the very first verse John refers to himself as a witness: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness [μαρτυρέω] to the word of God and to the testimony [μαρτυρία] of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1–2, ESV).
And remember that in 1:4-5 Christ himself is referred to as the faithful witness: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace… from Jesus Christ the faithful witness [μάρτυς], the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth…” (Revelation 1:4–5, ESV).
In 1:9 John informs us that he had been imprisoned on the island of Patmos because of his witness: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony [μαρτυρία] of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, ESV).
In 2:13 a man by the name of Antipas who was a member of the church in Pergamum was commended by Christ for being a faithful witness, even to the point of death. Christ spoke to the church in Pergamum saying, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness [μάρτυς], who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13, ESV).
And then in the letter to Laodicea Christ is again called the faithful witness. In 3:14 we read, “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness [μάρτυς], the beginning of God’s creation” (Revelation 3:14, ESV).
And do not forget the vision that John saw when the the fifth seal was broken. “When [Christ] opened the fifth seal, [John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness [μαρτυρία] they had borne” (Revelation 6:9, ESV).
We should also remember the way that the churches were symbolized at the beginning of the book of Revelation. They were symbolized by seven golden lampstands. What is the function of a lamp except to shine forth light in the darkness? The churches are symbolized by lampstands to indicate that this too is the function of the church, to shine as Christ’s witnesses in the midst of a dark world. Christ spoke to his followers saying,
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16, ESV).
The churches were symbolized by lamp stands to make this point: the job of the church is to witness, to shine forth as light in the darkness.
And how many of the seven churches were found faithful? Two were found faithful. Perhaps this is another reason for there there being two witnesses in Revelation 11:3. Perhaps the two witnesses, who are also called two lampstands, are intended to remind us of the two churches out of the seven who were found faithful in their witness to the world.
I’m trying to draw your attention to the fact that the book of Revelation says to the church over and over again, and in a diversity of ways, be faithful unto Christ in this world. Do not compromise. Do not succumb to the temptation. Do not be overrun by false teaching. And do not bend to persecution. Worship God alone through Christ, and testify – witness – concerning the life that is found in him.
Friends, this is our mission. We are to testify concerning Christ in all we do. This applies to us as individual Christ followers. It also applies to us corporately. We are individually and together to testify concerning Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. We are to testify that in him, through faith in him, is found the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.
The Church Ought To Expect Opposition From The Unbelieving World
The second truth that must be drawn from this text is that the church ought to expect unrelenting, and ever increasing opposition from the unbelieving world as she witnesses.
By “unrelenting” I do not mean to say that every Christian will constantly experience persecution. Clearly that is not the case. Nor do I mean that every local congregation church will constantly experience persecution. God, in his mercy, does give peace to his church from time to time and from place to place. By “unrelenting” I mean that the church will be constantly opposed, in one way or anther, by the evil one and those who serve him.
Indeed, that is the picture that is painted here in Revelation 11:4-6. The whole scene is that of conflict between the witnessing church and the unbelieving world. “And if anyone would harm them” the text says “fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed” (Revelation 11:5, ESV).
The language used here is meant to remind us of the ministry of Moses and Elijah. These two men knew what it was like to testify concerning the salvation of God and to be opposed by the unbelieving world at every turn. Just like Moses and Elijah, the church too will “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 11:6, ESV).
God will furnish his people with all that they need to stand in the face of opposition. More than that God has given the church authority and has promised to be with her so that she be used by God as an instrument of judgment upon the ungodly. This is true even if the church seem very weak and the world very strong.
Think of Moses standing before Pharaoh as God’s witness. There is Pharaoh with the wealth and power of mighty nation standing behind him. And there is Moses, a poor shepherd, standing before him with only Arron at his side. When viewed only from a natural perspective we would have to say, “Moses doesn’t stand a chance! He will surely fall!” But Moses stood. It was through him that a kind of salvation was achieved for God’s people. Why? Because, viewed from the supernatural and Biblical perspective, the power and favor of God was with him. So it is for Christ’s witnessing church. She will be opposed by the powers of this world, but she will stand.
Think of Elijah standing before the powerful and wicked king Ahab. “Now Elijah…said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”(1 Kings 17:1–2, ESV). Viewed from a natural and worldly perspective we would have to say, “Elijah doesn’t stand a chance! He will surely fall!” But Elijah stood. And why did he stand? Because he stood before the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives and act for the glory of his name and the good of his people.
Wherever we find the people of God testifying to the glory of God and of Christ we will find the people of God opposed. That opposition will manifest itself differently, but mark my word, there will be opposition one kind or another. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24–25, ESV).
When I say the church ought to expect “ever increasing” opposition I do not mean that Christians will face more and more opposition universally with every passing year, but that generally the trajectory will be towards more conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Christ.
If someone were to ask me the question, “will things get better or worse as human history progresses and the end draws near?” I would say “yes”. Yes, things will get better in that Christ’s kingdom will advance just has he promised it would. But “no” I do not expect to see the transformation of culture leading to some sort of peaceful relationship between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Christ. The postmillennialists hope for something like this. The Neo-Calvinists (or the Neo-Kuyperians) hope for something like this. They expect to see this world transformed for the good, in one way or another, before Christ returns. I can’t find any evidence for this in the pages of holy scripture. What I see is an unrelenting and ever increasing opposition from the unbelieving world against Christ and his church. On this point I actually think the pre-millennialists have it right.
This passage seems to portray that very thing. In verse 7 we read, “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).
When will this intense period of persecution take place? It will happen when “they” the witnesses who symbolize the church, “have finished their testimony”. When will the church be done with her testimony? At the end of time.
Jesus put it this way in Matthew 24:14:“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony [μαρτύριον] to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, ESV)
Who will be persecuted? Not two individuals, but the whole church.
And who will persecute? The texts tells us that it will be “the beast that rises from the bottomless pit [who] will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.”
This is interesting because we have not been introduced to this beast yet. The book of Revelation will eventually come to focus upon him, but here we have only a preview. He will be formally introduced in 13:1. His destruction will be portrayed in 19:19.
Take note of this, friends. This passage that we are now considering is setting us up to understand all that follows in the book of Revelation. Here the witnesses, who represent the church, are persecuted by people, but who is behind it all? In reality the persecution experienced by the church on earth and at the hands of lawless men is inspired by forces in the spiritual realm. It is the dragon, who will be introduced to us in chapter 12, who motivates it all. And the dragon uses three powers – the beast, the false prophet, and the harlot. These four will be introduced one by one starting in chapter 12, and then judged by God, one by one, and in reverse order beginning in chapter 17. Here in chapter 11 we are given an earthly perspective of the church. She is likened to the courtyard of the temple left exposed to the trampling of the nations. She is likened to two witnesses conquered and killed, “their dead bodies [lying] in the street”. But chapters 12 through 19 will show us something of the evil forces that lie behind every particular instance of opposition and persecution experienced by the church in this world.
Where will this persecution take place? The text says it will happen in “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8, ESV). Take note of the word “symbolically” which can also be translated “spiritually”. It would incorrect to say that this persecution will be isolated to one particular geographical city. Instead we have reference being made to four cities, and we are explicitly told to understand them symbolically, or spiritually. The four cities are these – Babylon (Babylon is called “the great city” many times later in Revelation), Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem (which was the city where the Lord was crucified). What do these cities all have in common? They are all locations that had become notorious for their sinfulness and their ill treatment of the people of God. These cities symbolize earthly, sinful, and persecuting world powers. The saints who read this letter in 90 a.d. would have undoubtably thought of Rome.
It is important, I think, to see that this “great city” symbolizes everything that stands in opposition to the “holy city” that was mentioned at the end of verse 2. What we have, then, are two cities – the “holy city”, which symbolizes the church and the kingdom of God, and “the great city”, also called Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem. These two cities exist in this world and are diametrically opposed to one another. The “great city” persecutes the “holy city”. The “holy city” will be trampled underfoot. The two witnesses will be killed and left to lie in the streets of “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.”
The point is this, “the church ought to expect unrelenting, and ever increasing opposition from the unbelieving world as she witnesses.” Brothers and sisters, this is not our home.
The Church Will Be Preserved And Vindicated, And The Wicked Judged
Lastly, 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.
Verses 9-13 provide us with a glimpse of the resurrection of the just when the Lord returns and also of the beginning of the judgment of the wicked.
Look at verses 9-10:
“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” (Revelation 11:9–10, ESV).
This “three and a half days” symbolizes a period of particularly intense persecution that will come upon God’s people immediately preceding the end of time.
Look at verse 11: “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” (Revelation 11:11, ESV). Here we have a reference to the resurrection of the dead. It is the same event that Paul spoke of in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 saying,
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:15–16, ESV).
Revelation has already shown us that to die in Christ is really to live. “When [Christ] opened the fifth seal, [John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9, ESV). Here that glorious truth is portrayed, that to “be away from the body… [is to be] at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, ESV) in the soul. But here in 11:11 we have a picture, not of the souls of deceased saints alive in heaven, but of the resurrection of the body. “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.”It is at the resurrection that the church will be most completely vindicated before her enemies.
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, ESV).
And notice that it is then, at the second coming of Christ, and at the resurrection, that the final judgment will begin.
Look at verse 13: “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” (Revelation 11:13, ESV).
I am not saying that this is the final judgment, only that it is here that the final judgment begins. Here we have a description of what will happen to the wicked who are alive on the earth when the Lord returns. The Lord will return to rescue his bride who will be in tremendous peril, and he will begin to pour out his wrath upon the his enemies.
Revelation will give us many other perspectives on the final judgment in the chapters that follow. Here is but one perspective. When Christ returns he will rescue his bride, and he will judge his enemies. Those who are not killed will be “terrified and give glory to the God of heaven.” This text does not say that they will repent and be saved, for then it will be too late! It only says that they will be “terrified and give glory to the God of heaven.” Indeed Paul has said that in the end, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11, ESV). This is what Revelation 11:13 portrays: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the just, and the beginning of the judgments of God poured out upon the wicked.
Brothers and sisters, let us take just a moment to apply this text before we conclude.
One, I think it is right for us to give thanks to God for the peace we enjoy in this world. It is unusual.
Two, I think it would be good for us to recognize that though we are not currently experiencing overt persecution we are not without opposition.
Three, if we are without opposition I think we should ask ourselves, “am I being a witnesses?” One way to avoid opposition is to compromise in our witness. I am not saying that we should stir up trouble. But if we are faithful to Christ in this world, opposition of one kind or another will likely come. Many churches have compromised in our day. Many Christians have compromised.
Four, it is good for us to think about eschatology. Eschatology (the study of last things) is so important because it sets our trajectory. What we think about the end determines how we go about living today. Two questions come to mind: Do you believe in the resurrection? Do you believe in the final judgment?
Five, proclaim Christ. Testify concerning him in word and in deed.