Happy Dead Witnesses Day
Happy Dead Witnesses Day
Main Idea: Though Christians will be persecuted for their faithfulness to Christ, God promises to vindicate His people and that His kingdom will stand forever.
- God’s Plan Marches On in Spite of Opposition (11:1-2).
- We Have God’s Promise of Protection to Complete Our Ministry (11:3-6).
- We Can Expect Persecution and Even Death for Telling the Truth (11:7-10).
- We Can Be Assured God Will Honor Our Faithful Service (11:11-14).
- We Can Be Certain God’s Kingdom Will Come and He Will Be Glorified (11:15-19).
Two of my heroes in church history are Michael and Margaretha Sattler. They were husband and wife evangelical Anabaptists in the early sixteenth century. Devoted followers of and witnesses to Christ, their lives were cut short by martyrdom in their 20s. The record of their death has been providentially preserved as a testimony of their faithfulness:
The torture, a prelude to the execution, began at the market place where a piece was cut from Sattler’s tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body twice with red-hot tongs. He was then forged to a cart. On the way to the scene of the execution the tongs were applied five times again. In the market place and at the site of the execution, still able to speak, the unshakable Sattler prayed for his persecutors. After being bound to a ladder with ropes and pushed into the fire, he admonished the people, the judges, and the mayor to repent and be converted. Then he prayed, “Almighty, eternal God, Thou are the way and the truth: because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with thy help to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.”
As soon as the ropes on his wrists were burned, Sattler raised the two forefingers of his hands giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr’s death was bearable. Then the assembled crowd heard coming from his seared lips, “Father, I comment my spirit into Thy hands.”
Three others were executed. After every attempt to secure a recantation from Sattler’s faithful wife had failed, she was drowned eight days later in the Neckar. (Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 47)
Today there is a memorial plaque at the site of Michael Sattler’s execution. It reads,
The Baptist Michael Sattler was executed by burning after severe torture on 20 May 1527 here on the “Gallows Hill.” He died as a true witness of Jesus Christ. His wife Margaretha and other members of the congregation were drowned and burned. They acted for the baptism of those who want to follow Christ, for an independent congregation of the faithful, for the peaceful message of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Baptist historian William Estep says, “Perhaps no other execution of an Anabaptist had such far-reaching influence” (The Anabaptist Story, 47).
God has had many superlative witnesses throughout history like Michael and Margaretha who have sealed their witness with their blood. His Word promises there will be many more. And He also promises that it is by their witness that His kingdom will come. The world may celebrate their death, but our God will honor their death and use it for the advancement of His kingdom and glory.
Revelation 11 is universally viewed as a challenging and difficult text to interpret in terms of the details. It is a continuation of an interlude or parenthesis that runs from 10:1 to 14:20. It provides additional insight as to what takes place during the three series of judgments God unleashes on planet Earth: the seals (ch. 6), the trumpets (chs. 8–9), and the bowls (ch. 16). However, particular spiritual lessons stand out, on which most students of the Apocalypse can agree. Duvall provides a good summary of these lessons:
- Although God’s people are protected spiritually, they are still vulnerable to persecution.
- God’s people are called to speak prophetically.
- The world will often react with hostility to the church’s prophetic witness.
- God promises to raise His people from the dead, reversing their temporary defeat at the hands of evil powers.
- The witnessing church possesses tremendous power and authority to carry out its mission. (Revelation, 149)
Our verse-by-verse study of this chapter will explore and unwrap these theological themes. Humility is again the order of the day as we encounter numerous hermeneutical landmines.
God’s Plan Marches On in Spite of Opposition
Following his recommissioning to “prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings” (10:11), John is “given a measuring reed like a rod” (11:1). He is given the equivalent of a modern yardstick. He is then told to “go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and count those who worship there.” The Old Testament background is Ezekiel 40–42 and perhaps Zechariah 2:1-5. The idea is one of ownership and protection (Osborne, Revelation, 409). However, in verse 2 John is told, “But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months” (11:2). This recalls Luke 21:24 where our Lord says, “And Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Three issues immediately confront us: What is God’s sanctuary? What is the holy city? And how do we understand 42 months?
Working backwards, I take the 42 months to be 3½ years, though those who take it to mean simply a short period of time are tracking in the right direction (see Dan 9:24-27; Matt 24:22). I also believe John’s first-century audience would have understood the holy city to be Jerusalem, though I understand why some believe it represents the church (Mounce, Revelation, 215) or even “the earthly, ‘not yet’ aspect of the future heavenly Jerusalem (see 3:12; 21:2, 10; 22:19)” (Duvall, Revelation, 149).
The big question, however, is the identity of God’s sanctuary or temple. Here we must consider both historical and spiritual realities. Historically two temples have been built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. First was the temple built by King Solomon that was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587–586 BC. The second was Zerubbabel’s temple that was later magnificently enlarged by Herod the Great only to be destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Spiritually the idea of the temple or temple theology is multifaceted and developing. Jesus used the image of the temple to refer to Himself in John 2:19-22. The church is called the sanctuary of God in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and Ephesians 2:21-22. Believers in Jesus are a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). The sanctuary in Revelation is referred to as both the place where God is present and even as God Himself (3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 14:15,17; 15:5-6,8; 16:1,17; 21:22).
So, how are we to understand the sanctuary in 11:1-2? Many fine scholars believe it represents the church, the Christian community. They see no reason for us to expect a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. However, based on what Jesus says in Matthew 24:15, and Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:4, I believe a future temple will be built during the last days. I believe there may also be a millennial temple as described in Ezekiel 40–47.
Now, who are those who worship in this sanctuary? Are these Jews who worship in belief in Jesus as Messiah, or is it Jews who worship there in unbelief? We cannot be sure. However, Ladd, who does not anticipate the rebuilding of a literal temple, has a perspective concerning the future of Jewish persons I find compelling and heartily endorse:
[Another] interpretation sees here a prophecy of the preservation and ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. In the day when John wrote, Jerusalem had been long destroyed and the temple laid waste. Just before the conflagration of AD 66–70, the Jewish Christian community had fled from Jerusalem to the city of Pella in Transjordan. This had augmented the hostility of the Jews toward the Jewish Christian community and hastened the complete break between the synagogue and church. The burning question among Jewish Christians was, “Has God rejected his people?” (Rom. 11:1). Paul devoted three whole chapters to this problem and concluded that finally the natural branches (Jews) which had been broken off the olive tree (the people of God) would be grafted back onto the tree; “and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). It is difficult to interpret these three chapters symbolically of the church—the spiritual Israel. They teach that literal Israel is yet to be included in spiritual Israel.
Our Lord himself had anticipated this. After his lament over Jerusalem, he asserted, “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt. 23:39). Again, he implied the salvation of Israel when he said, “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). . . . The prophecy in Revelation 11 is John’s way of predicting the preservation of the Jewish people and their final salvation. (Commentary, 150–51)
Regardless of the exact and precise details, one thing is certain: God’s plan marches on. Sinful humanity has its say for a day. The Lord God, the Almighty, has His say for all eternity.
We Have God’s Promise of Protection to Complete Our Ministry
God in sovereign power gives the holy city over to the nations to be trampled for 42 months. His place and His people are the objects of intense opposition (11:1). However, at the same time God will raise up His two witnesses who come in power and spirit of Moses and Elijah. They will proclaim His word and display His power (11:3-6). No one will be able to harm them until “they finish their testimony” (11:7).
To navigate these verses let’s ask and answer basic questions of interpretation. First, we should ask, Who are the two witnesses? Numerous suggestions have been given, including the following:
Old Testament and New Testament
The witnessing church
Witnesses in general
Elijah and Enoch
Elijah and Moses
Zerubbabel and Joshua
Elijah and Elisha
James and John
Peter and Paul
Law and Prophets
Law and gospel
Israel and the church
Israel and the Word
Churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia
Spirit of Elijah and Moses
Though each of these suggestions may have its own merit, it seems best to see the two witnesses as individuals or a group who come in the spirit of Moses and Elijah to fulfill a specific ministry given to them by God.
Second, we need to ask, What will these witnesses do? The text tells us they will prophesy for 1,260 days (3½ years) in sackcloth, the garments of grief, humility, mourning, and repentance.
Third, we should ask, How will they carry out their ministry? They will do their ministry as two olive trees and two lampstands that represent God on the earth. This draws from a vision in Zechariah 4 where there are two men named Joshua (the high priest) and Zerubbabel (the governor under the Persian King Darius) (Mounce, Revelation, 218). Olive trees provide oil for lamps. Lamps provide light. Mounce, therefore, concludes, “They are the bearers of divine light (Matt 5:15-16)” (ibid.). These light bearers are also olive trees in that “the oil of the Spirit . . . keeps alive the light of life” (ibid.). Their power clearly is reminiscent of the ministry of Moses and Elijah (vv. 5-6; see Exod 7:14-18; 8:12; 1 Kgs 17:1; 2 Kgs 1:10-14). There is no reason to deny their supernatural abilities and actions. God worked in these ways in the past, and He will do so again in the future.
Finally we ask, When do they come? According to this text, they minister during the great tribulation, or Daniel’s seventieth week. It was expected that Moses (Deut 18:18) and Elijah (Mal 4:5; see Matt 11:14) would come at the end of history, and here they are. They stand before the God of the earth and on the earth of God preaching His Word and revealing His power. And they are untouchable until their work is done. The Baptist missionary to China, Lottie Moon, said, “I have a firm conviction that I am immortal ’til my work is done” (Akin, 10 Who Changed the World, 64). She was right, and that is a truth every servant of God can claim.
We Can Expect Persecution and Even Death for Telling the Truth
The faithful missionary to the Auca Indians, Jim Elliott, had the same conviction as Lottie Moon. In a letter to his parents, he wrote,
Remember you are immortal until your work is done. But don’t let the sands of time get into the eyes of your vision to reach those who still sit in darkness. They simply must hear. (Akin, 10 Who Changed the World, 81)
Will these two witnesses know they only have a short time? I think so. They certainly will not let the sands of time get into their eyes. “When they finish their testimony,” they are attacked and killed by someone called “the beast.” Actually he “will make war” against them until he murders them. This beast rises from the abyss, the bottomless pit, the realm of the demonic. This is the first of 36 references to the beast in Revelation. A more detailed description of him is found in chapters 13 and 17. He is clearly the one John calls in his epistles “the antichrist” (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 7) and Paul calls the man of sin or “the lawless one” (2 Thess 2:8-9). He is a Satan-possessed and demonically inspired person who will rule the world for a brief time as a counterfeit Christ. He will murder God’s prophets and then disgrace them by denying them burial (11:7). This will take place in what John describes symbolically as “Sodom and Egypt,” the place where our Lord was crucified (11:8). Sodom, a city, represents that which is abominable, immoral, and wicked. Egypt, a nation, symbolizes idolatry, oppression, slavery, and suffering. John appears to separate Jerusalem from Sodom and Egypt in terms of symbolism. The phrase “where also their Lord was crucified” makes more sense if the identification is literal Jerusalem, though all the evil cities and nations of the world had their hand in the death of King Jesus (see Babylon in Rev 17–18). Jerusalem in this day will be no better than Sodom or Egypt. A Jew hearing this would be shocked, scandalized, angered. Yet her wickedness in that day will approach her wickedness when she crucified the sinless Son of God. These two superlative witnesses will be treated in the same shameful fashion as their Lord. The words of Jesus come to mind at this point: “A slave is not greater than his master” (John 15:20).
Peoples, tribes, languages, and nations (note again the all-encompassing fourfold division) will first see their dead bodies left in the street and exposed in shameful humiliation for 3½ days (11:9). Second, they will gloat and celebrate and send gifts (11:10)! A new holiday will be established in order to celebrate the deaths of the two men of God. We can call it “Dead Witnesses Day.” What a stunning indictment of human depravity, wickedness, sinfulness, and evil.
Remarkably, this is the only mention of rejoicing in the book of Revelation. Men and women will hate God so much that only in the killing of His precious servants are they made happy. They hated Him. They will hate us (John 15:18).
We Can Be Assured God Will Honor Our Faithful Service
In Romans 12:19, Paul cites Deuteronomy 32:35 and writes, “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord.” “Payday someday,” as R. G. Lee famously preached, is “today” for the earth dwellers (11:10). After 3½ days, “the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet.” The 3½ days recalls the entombment of our Lord. The breath of life harks back to Ezekiel 37 where God revives the valley of dry bones by His Spirit. This is resurrection language!
Not surprisingly, “great fear fell on those who saw them” (11:11), those from among the various “tribes, languages, and nations” (11:9). This is certainly one of the great understatements of the Bible! But for the earth dwellers it gets worse (though better for some). Having been resurrected, the two witnesses now ascend into heaven with their enemies watching them (11:12). This is no secret or hidden rapture. This is a historical and visible moment for the eyes of sinful humanity. Some believe this is the resurrection of the church (Mounce, Revelation, 223). Some believe this is a reference to the conversion of Israel (Ladd, Commentary, 158). While I still believe it is best to see two historical persons, the bottom line is clear: God honors His faithful saints.
Verse 13a records God’s judgment on evil Jerusalem: Seven thousand people are killed. Verse 13b records man’s response: Those who remained in Jerusalem were terrified, and they gave glory to the God of heaven. I believe this speaks of a genuine conversion of a great multitude of Jews in Jerusalem. John MacArthur points out that giving glory to the God of heaven is a mark of genuine worship in Revelation and elsewhere in Scripture (see 4:9; 14:7; 16:9; 19:7; see also Luke 17:18-19; Rom 4:20): “This passage, then, described the reality of the salvation of Jews in Jerusalem, as God fulfills His pledge of blessings for Israel (Romans 11:4-5,26)” (MacArthur, Revelation 1–11, 305).
God vindicates His saints who serve Him, and He deals with sinners who reject Him. The first group receives grace and mercy. The second group receives judgment and wrath. Verse 14 sums up the situation: “The second woe [the sixth trumpet] has passed. Take note: The third woe [the seventh trumpet, which contains the seven bowls of Revelation 16] is coming quickly.” For those saying “Happy Dead Witnesses Day,” turn out the lights. The party is over.
We Can Be Certain God’s Kingdom Will Come and He Will Be Glorified
For almost two thousand years Christians have prayed a prayer taught to us by Jesus: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). In REVELATION 11:15-19 that day has come. In words immortalized by George Frederick Handel (1685–1759) in his Messiah (1741), “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.”
Remember: the seventh seal contains the seven trumpets, and the seventh trumpet contains the seven bowls. Thus there is a sense in that the seventh seal, seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl all bring us to the end. We might say it like this: The seventh seal brings us to “the end,” the seventh trumpet to “the very end,” and the seventh bowl to “the very, very end.”
In verse 15 the seventh trumpet sounds, accompanied by loud voices in heaven and the glorious declaration that the kingdom of God has come to this world, and our God and His Christ will reign forever. Psalm 2 now finds its eschatological fulfillment! Verse 16 finds the redeemed (represented by the 24 elders) once more falling on their faces in a posture of praise and worship (see 5:8,14; 7:11; and later 19:4).
Verses 17-18 are the song they sing. In 4:10-11 they celebrated the God who created and sustains all things. In 5:8-14 they worshiped the Lamb who was slaughtered and who redeems the nations by His blood. Now they give thanks to the God who brings history to its climactic end and who begins His cosmic and eternal reign. The song begins by focusing on the person of our God. He is the “Lord God, the Almighty” (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7,14; 19:6,15; 21:22). There is no god as powerful and omnipotent as our God. And He is the One “who is and who was.” The phrase “and who is to come” is omitted because He has come and His reign is inaugurated. In other words, “You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign.”
Verse 18 reflects Psalm 2 and is a declaration of God’s righteous judgment and wrath on a defiant and rebellious world. The nations were angry, and they received God’s righteous anger in return. “The dead,” those spiritually separated from God, face their judgment at His great white throne (Rev 20:15), judged according to their works. In stark contrast, there will be rewards for those who love and follow the Lord and the Lamb. Five different categories are used to identify the people of God: (1) servants (lit. “slaves”), (2) prophets, (3) saints, (4) those who fear Your name, and (5) small and great. The song concludes by simply noting that the “Lord God, the Almighty” will “destroy those who destroy the earth.” MacArthur again points out,
This is not a reference to those who pollute the environment, but to those who pollute the earth with their sin. That includes all unbelievers, especially in the context of Revelation the false economic and religious system called Babylon (cf. 19:2), Antichrist and his followers, and Satan himself, the ultimate destroyer. (Revelation 1–11, 320).
Verse 19 closes the chapter with heaven’s response to the song of verses 17-18. The temple of God in heaven, in contrast to the temple of God on earth (11:1-2), is opened with the ark of the covenant visible for all to see. Because of the redemptive work of the Lamb, access to the ark of the covenant is no longer restricted only to the high priest. As a kingdom of priests redeemed by the Lamb (5:9-10), all believers enjoy the fullness of God’s presence and His covenant promises (21:2-7,22-27) (Duvall, Revelation, 156). Such a glorious vision is accompanied by the harbingers of judgment: “Flashes of lightning, rumblings of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail.” God is faithful to show grace and mercy (e.g., the ark). He is also faithful to send judgment and wrath. To know and love Jesus is to receive grace. To reject the Savior is to receive wrath. Are you God’s friend or are you God’s enemy? It is hard to imagine a more important question.
There is a humorous but insightful story about the sixteenth-century Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) and his wonderful wife Katie. In Reformation’s Rib: Celebrating Katherine von Bora, James Cobb recounts the event:
Katie: Doctor Luther had been in a despondent, sad mood for much too long. I don’t recall if there was a reason for such a mood but I decided on a course of action. I dressed in black . . . and met him at the door.
Martin: Katie, you are in the color of mourning. Who died?
Katie: I spoke what I felt: “Your God died. At least so you act!” I suppose it was dramatic for me, but the shock of my words and actions did succeed. We did get him back and that was the point. (12)
God has not died. An empty tomb stands as a perpetual monument that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign forever and ever!” (11:15). Yes, we will be opposed and rejected by this world. Satan will raise up enemies who will persecute us and kill us. There will be people who will celebrate and rejoice over our deaths and apparent defeat. But never forget: there is a resurrection day that awaits, a kingdom that is coming, and a reward for the servants who revere the name of Jesus. In the end our God wins! So keep on and press on as you proclaim His gospel and pursue His glory. It is worth it all.
Reflect and Discuss
- God has often used the death of His people to advance His kingdom. Where do we see examples of this in Scripture?
- How does the world view martyrs? How does this line up with or differ from the way God views them?
- How do the two witnesses of Revelation 11 fit into the overall plan of God?
- Do you share Lottie Moon’s and Jim Elliott’s confidence in their immortality? How does this truth spur you on toward faithfulness?
- Should every Christian expect to be persecuted? Should every Christian expect to be martyred?
- Why does the world rejoice at the death of the two witnesses? Do you see the same spirit today?
- How does God promise to vindicate those who serve Him unto death?
- How does the certainty of the coming of God’s kingdom shape the way we live now?
- What is the significance of the full visibility of the ark of the covenant? How does this compare with the ark in the Old Testament?
- How is God’s faithfulness shown in both mercy and wrath? Are these contradictory?