Who are these end-time representatives of God predicted in Revelation? What will they do? Why are there two witnesses? Why will people rejoice when they die?
In the book of Revelation, God says: “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (Revelation 11:3).
There is much speculation about who these two representatives of God will be and their 3½-year ministry. Let’s see what the Bible—the only one true source of information on the subject—says about these special individuals.
Connection with Zechariah
The passage in Revelation goes on to explain, “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth” (verse 4).
This statement seems to be a continuation of a prophecy God gave the prophet Zechariah to show that God accomplishes things through the power of His Spirit (Zechariah 4:2-10). Olive oil symbolizes God’s Holy Spirit, and God encouraged Zerubbabel—the one who led the rebuilding of the temple—to remember that spiritual things would be accomplished by God’s Spirit and not by his own doing (verse 6).
After explaining this important principle about how His work is done, God then returned to the vision of the olive trees Zechariah had seen: “These are the two anointed ones, who stand beside the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14, emphasis added throughout).
In the book of Revelation God reveals that these two individuals, who will be full of God’s Holy Spirit in order to do His work, will arise prior to Christ’s return to fulfill their ministry as a light to the world. Just as God accomplished things through the power of His Holy Spirit during the time of Zerubbabel, He will do the same through His two witnesses during the end times.
Why two witnesses?
Throughout the Bible, we find that God often works with pairs of individuals. During the time Zechariah was writing, Zerubbabel served as governor and a man named Joshua served as the high priest (Zechariah 3:1). Earlier, God had used Moses as the leader of the ancient Israelites and his brother Aaron as the high priest.
In the New Testament, Christ sent His disciples out “two by two” (Mark 6:7). Although they occasionally had others traveling with them, Paul and Barnabas worked together to take the gospel to the gentiles.
When two people work together, they can often be more productive than when working alone. Recognizing this principle, Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 states: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.”
Another indication why God will have two witnesses is because of the importance of having at least two people to testify in judicial matters. As Deuteronomy 19:15 states: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (also see Deuteronomy 17:6).
By having two witnesses, God is following His own law as He, through the two witnesses, warns people to repent of their sins prior to punishing them if they do not heed His instruction.
The work of the two witnesses
The account in the book of Revelation gives clues about the work of the two witnesses: “And if anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire” (Revelation 11:5-6).
As these representatives of God witness to the world that all people need to repent of their sins, they will have access to God’s Holy Spirit to produce miracles reminiscent of other prophets of God. Like Elijah, they will have the power to stop the rain (1 Kings 17:1) and kill anyone who tries to harm them (2 Kings 1:9-12). Like Moses, they will have the power to turn water to blood (Exodus 7:17) and strike the earth with plagues (Exodus 7:14 through 12:30).
But making people suffer is not their primary mission. Instead, like Elijah, their goal will be to encourage people to turn their hearts to God (1 Kings 18:37). Elijah served during a time when ancient Israel had become exceedingly corrupt under wicked King Ahab and his idolatrous wife, Jezebel. Biblical prophecies show that the whole earth will become corrupt prior to the return of Christ (2 Timothy 3:13), and this will be the environment in which the two witnesses will minister.
Through the years, many explanations regarding the two witnesses have been proposed. Previous prophets are often cited as biblical types of what the two witnesses will do. Expositor’s Bible Commentary says, “Identifications range all the way from two historic figures raised to life, to two groups, to two principles, such as the law and the prophets. Tertullian (d. 220) identified the two with Enoch and Elijah” (comments on Revelation 11:3).
While we’ve already seen that Elijah’s powers to stop the rain and kill those who attempted to do him harm were a forerunner of the powers that the two witnesses will have, there is still another reference to Elijah to consider.
Speaking of John the Baptist’s ministry, Luke 1:16-17 says, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
This passage shows that God can send additional representatives, such as John the Baptist, with a similar ministry and powers as the prophet Elijah.
While John the Baptist was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Luke 1, indicating that John the Baptist would do an Elijah-like work (Matthew 17:11-13), Malachi 4:5-6 indicates yet another fulfillment of an Elijah-like work at the end of this age. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
Sometimes prophecies can have multiple fulfillments, and this prophecy regarding the work of Elijah seems to be one that falls in this category. John the Baptist was clearly a type of Elijah, and the account in Malachi 4 indicates that another “Elijah” will arise at the end of this age. As for the identity of this end-time Elijah, Scripture indicates that an Elijah-like message to repent and obey God will be preached by the Church of God (Matthew 24:14; 28:19-20) and by the two witnesses as they complete their ministry with Elijah-like powers (Revelation 11:5-6).
The explanation of the two witnesses that seems to best fit the Scriptures is that they will be two humans who will prophesy in the spirit and the power of Elijah during the Great Tribulation and Day of the Lord. They will come to warn the world to repent of breaking God’s laws and will call for plagues as punishment for disobedience during the 3½ years of their preaching.
Counterfeits of the two witnesses
In the book of Revelation, God reveals a prophecy concerning two individuals called “the beast” and “the false prophet,” who will be opposed to the work of the two witnesses. The beast will be the civil leader who all people of the earth, except those faithful to God, will follow (Revelation 13:8). The false prophet is the head of the religious system supporting the beast.
One tool used to understand prophecy is the type-antitype principle. The account in Exodus 7:10-12 provides a preview of things to come at the time of the two witnesses. It begins with the first of several encounters between Moses and Pharaoh. Under Moses’ direction, Aaron threw down the rod and it became a snake. The magicians (Jannes and Jambres) also did the same thing with their rods (Exodus 7:11-12). Water was turned to blood, and the magicians did the same thing (verse 22). These miracles were performed in the presence of Pharaoh.
During the Great Tribulation, the false prophet will also perform miracles. “The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
Speaking of this same person, Revelation 13:11, 13-14 says, “Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. … He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men [an Elijah-like miracle]. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast.”
Satan will use the beast and the false prophet as counterfeits to the two witnesses. As a result, Satan will continue to deceive the whole world through “signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9) and false religion (also see Matthew 24:24; Revelation 12:9).
Why will people rejoice over their deaths?
After the two witnesses complete their 3½-year ministry of preaching the gospel to the entire world, their divine protection will be removed and they will be killed.
“When they finish their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. Then those from the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days, and not allow their dead bodies to be put into graves. And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them, make merry, and send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 11:7-10).
Why will the world rejoice over their deaths? Most in the world will not like their message of repentance. People do not want to be told that what they are doing is wrong, that they are sinning and need to change. They will be angry because of the plagues being brought on them as punishments for not repenting of their sins, and they will blame the two witnesses for the torment so many will suffer.
The rejoicing over their deaths will be short-lived. After 3½ days, God will resurrect them from the dead, and their enemies will see them ascend to heaven (Revelation 11:7-12). As for their ascending to heaven, this occurs at the end of this age and is not something that has been happening to good people when they die. For further explanation, see our article “What Is Heaven?”
What’s the point?
The overall lesson we learn from the two witnesses is that God will send these two special representatives to warn people to repent and change their evil ways—to turn their hearts toward God. We also see that we need to beware of the false prophets that are prophesied to come and we must be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to be deceived. It is far better for us to respond to God now, when we become aware of His expectations of us.
To learn more about how to further your relationship with God, see the “Change” section of this website. We are also always pleased to receive questions and input from our readers. A form for sending an email is conveniently located below.