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.
Revelation 11: 3-4
I long for the Lord’s return as does every disciple of Christ in heaven and on earth. So in anticipation we labor to understand John’s visions in the book of Revelation, visions that are couched in poetic form, heavy with imagery, rife with symbolism, and characterized by repetition. Truly, the eyes of our mind have to be opened by the Spirit of Christ to understand the Scriptures as once He did for the disciples before His ascension to show, as He said, “that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 14: 44-45).
If we understand that Revelation was given to us so that we may see the end of all things as being Christ’s final victory over death, the devil, and the world, we will see it is as a joyful summons to “Lift up your hearts!” a sursum corda, to rejoice in what Jesus has achieved and will achieve in the coming of His kingdom, and the new heavens and the new earth.
The images from Revelation 11 appear random but are fraught with meaning and I have written about the entire passage in “The Two Witnesses.” What I left out was a closer look at how the imagery of the two olive trees and two lampstands complement the image of the two witnesses and how wonderfully rich they are.
“God is good all the time” Sursum Corda, brother, sister!
“All the time God is good” Sursum Corda, hallelujah!
“I am my Beloved’s” from everlasting Sursum Corda, little children!
“My Beloved is mine” to everlasting Sursum Corda, Body of Christ!
For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice ….”
– Zechariah 4: 10
Anyone who hasn’t turned on the news and come away disheartened isn’t paying attention. The years that saw men and women strive for noble ideals in the interest of their countrymen, when the Constitutional Convention assembled to debate the great truths that should be enshrined as the foundational principles of a nation, those days are long past. The leaders that strode across the canvas of time – George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson – seem shrouded in the distant past replaced by the frontrunners of our current presidential primaries, a morally and intellectually bankrupt buffoon and an equally corrupt power-hungry crony capitalist.
When I first saw this painting, I was struck by the intensity of its vision, not simply the artist’s but the lingering figure of the woman by the reflecting pool. She seems oblivious to the slow burn of the golden light beyond the dark overarching trees and the darkened castle. Their shadows have won the day. She looks down, dwelling on her thoughts even as the shadows grow. She seems unaware of the fiery sunset, perhaps unconcerned. Her introspection holds her captive, there by the enchanted castle, be it memories or dreams or affairs of the heart or the world or the steady drone of the day.
The symbolism of the “two witnesses” in Revelation 11 has challenged the imagination of many a theologian. But if you go for the clearest and most simple meaning behind the text given its allusions to Moses and Elijah, it is one of the most comforting and emboldening passages for Christians during difficult times.
Revelation 11:3-13 (ESV)
“And I [Jesus] 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 symbols of the two witnesses, the two olive trees, and the two lampstands actually refer to the same thing: those belonging to Christ Jesus throughout the church age, symbolized by the “1,260 days” or 3½ years. Christians are endowed metaphorically with the power of an Elijah, who called down fire from heaven, and Moses, who decreed plagues on Pharaoh’s Egypt, because Christians are witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which in its rejection brings judgment on the world.
But why is a witnessing Christian represented by two figures, and specifically Moses and Elijah? Perhaps because together they stand for the word of God, the Bible, composed of the two covenants or testaments, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The whole of the Old Testament with its prophecies regarding Jesus is represented by Moses, through whom God gave the Law. The New Testament is represented by Elijah in whose spirit John the Baptist “came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1: 7): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). It was John who announced the coming of Christ, called the people to repentance, and baptized Him in preparation for His ministry and whose life, death, resurrection, ascension and immanent return the whole of the New Testament bears witness to. In Matthew 11: 13-15, Jesus Himself said,
“For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
So then, we as the Church, who witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, go not by our own testimony alone but testimony rooted in the Bible. In Luke 24: 45, before Jesus sent His disciples out into all the nations to proclaim the gospel, He first “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” We must pray for the same while spending much labor studying God’s word, and relying not on our own ability but in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
As has happened in various times and places throughout history, the world will rise up against the church and try to stifle the witnessing of the Gospel and will even think it has won, but inevitably, the people of God will rise up and preach the Gospel again and again because they have within them the Holy Spirit of God. And though individual Christians may be killed, as indeed Jesus suffered and died but rose again from the dead, their victory is assured because they will be taken up to heaven to await the final resurrection with the second coming of Christ and the end of the age.
In terrifying times such as these when chaos and evil seem to have the upper hand, our Lord Jesus gives us such a revelation to strengthen our faith, to remind us that He is sovereign, and to encourage us to keep preaching the Gospel, to ourselves, to each other, and to our friends and neighbors. This is not only our calling, it is the supreme honor that we have been given through the Holy Spirit, even as Moses and Elijah in their times.
Most Christians try to avoid the book of Revelation. It’s there, they know it’s there, but the images of beasts and bowls and trumpets and signs are too complicated and unreal to bother with. If this is your view as well, I encourage you to take another look at Revelation.¹ You don’t have to understand the significance of every symbol, beyond recognizing that each series of visions cover the same sweep of history from Christ’s birth to the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.
It is a revelation given by Jesus Christ, as the apostle John tells us, to strengthen us in our mission of spreading the Gospel and keep us firm in our faith by reminding us that whatever the course of human events, in the end, we will emerge victorious because of the One who is the Alpha and Omega, and holds us firmly in His hand.
Funny how the seasons go
in a gray disappearing rush
and shadows everywhere appear
to discuss how they may grow
to overtake pale light, pale cheer,
waging inconsequential war
beneath the evening’s watery gaze
on grave earth, imprisoning tomb –
I was one of those who was brought up to believe that life’s fullest purpose was to serve mankind, to do good works, that the most joyful life was the most productive life of service. Two fellows who were often quoted to me were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Rabindranath Tagore, for self-evident reasons, but here’s a sample of why:
Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait. (Longfellow, last stanza, “A Psalm of Life,” 1838)
I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy. (Tagore, 1861-1941)
Yet I had seen enough folk as I was growing up with a stoic sense of responsibility who were as joyless as the day is long, but who were happy enough to criticize those who lived for the joy of the coming life in eternity with their Lord as if their constant desire for heaven was somehow a serious flaw in their character. Escapists and weaklings, they were said to be, with no true love of humanity, living for the joy of what is yet to come when Christ returned instead of the practical demands of the day.
Textually, you can’t get more interesting than this. Depending on the biblical translation you rely upon, you will find the verse above from 1 Corinthians 6:22 written either in the preterite or the imperative sense. Doctrinally, it makes very little difference as I found when looking up the original transliterated term “maranatha,” little realizing the bird’s nest of textual criticism I had stumbled upon.
As usual, it all started with Wikipedia and this interesting comment:
“In general, the recent interpretation has been to select the command option (“Come, Lord!”), changing older decisions to follow the preterite option (“Our Lord has come”) as found in the ancient Aramaic Peshitta, in the Latin Clementine Vulgate, in the Greek Byzantine texts, Textus Receptus, critical Greek texts like Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, Cambridge, etc., and in the English translations like the King James Version, the Finnish Raamattu, etc. One reason the change from the previous scholarly view has occurred is that the P46 papyrus (ca. A.D. 200) divides it as μαρανα θα (“marana tha”).”
You see, the extant manuscripts of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians all provide a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic for this particular expression, so that depending on how the translator chooses to split the transliteration, maran ‘athâ or maranâ thâ, the meaning will be strikingly different.