Home > Book of Revelation, Gospel of John, Malachi, The 3 ½ years > Elijah and the church in the wilderness

Elijah and the church in the wilderness

June 12, 2011

John identifies the wilderness of Revelation 12:6 and 12:14 with the place prepared by God for the woman, who in verse 1 of the chapter is said to be in heaven, and she is clothed with the sun. This woman represents the saints, who Paul said “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” [Ephesians 2:6] Does the fact that John puts her both in heaven, and in the wilderness, mean that that the wilderness corresponds to heaven? It is where she is nourished, alluding to the manna which God sent to nourish the Israelites in the wilderness before they entered the promised land.

Jesus claimed to be the bread from heaven, [John 6:41, 51] and he is also called the Word, and so the nourishment of the church in the wilderness is the scriptures. The table below gives a list of some of the symbols used Revelation, with the contrasting symbol, associated with apostasy.

Symbol Contrasting symbol
Temple outer court
two witnesses beast, and false prophet
12 tribes of Israel Gentiles
Jews synagogue of Satan
holy city great city, Sodom, Egypt
Jerusalem Babylon
heaven earth
wilderness serpent’s flood
1,260 days 42 months
land sea
bride harlot
Michael dragon

Peter Pett pointed out that the wilderness where the woman is nourished in Revelation 12, corresponds to the wilderness where the prophet Elijah was nourished during the three and a half years of drought. Three and half years is the time that the two witnesses prophesy in Revelation 11:3. Pett wrote: [1]

But John is concerned also with the symbolism of the wilderness, namely that it signified a time of testing and purifying (1 Kings 19.4, 15; Mark 1.12-13; Matthew 4.1; Luke 4.1). The connection with Elijah is especially important as it explains the mention of the one thousand two hundred and sixty days, which is three and a half years, for the idea of three and a half years is closely linked with Elijah as a God-appointed period in which he sought a place of refuge from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel in places prepared by God, commencing in the wilderness ( 1 Kings 17.1 with 18.1; 17.3, 9; compare Luke 4.25; James 5.17).

John has a habit of taking incidents in the life of Elijah and giving them new meaning. Compare the seven thousand killed in the earthquake (11.13) in contrast with the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19.18). The false fire that comes down from Heaven (13.13) representing an imitation Elijah. The fact that the two witnesses can prevent rain from Heaven (11.6). So he sees a similarity between Elijah fleeing into the wilderness from the wrath of the king, and being sustained there by God, and the fleeing into the wilderness of the people of God where they too will be sustained. They are the new remnant.

Three and a half years is symbolic of a period of testing and trial. We must not assume that every mention of three and a half years refers to the same period of time. The lack of rain under Elijah was recognised as lasting for three and a half years. Thus this period became a symbol of a period of trial and tribulation.

The sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness was also a period of trial. [Deuteronomy 8:2] The ministry of the two witnesses, who shut heaven so it does not rain, and the three and a half years in Revelation 12:6 and 12:14 allude to the period of famine at the time of Elijah. At the end of the 3 ½ years of drought in Elijah’s time, when Elijah prayed on Mount Carmel, there came a great rain, suggesting that a rain of a spiritual kind may also occur near the end of the symbolic three and a half years of Revelation 11:2-3, 12:6 and 12:14.

Malachi 4:5-6
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

The revival of the corpses of the two witnesses, after they lie in the street of the city for three days and a half, points to a similar event. They are not two individuals, but the two witnesses are symbolic. William Milligan wrote:

The two witnesses, therefore, are not two individuals to be raised up during the course of the Church’s history, that they may bear testimony to the facts and principles of the Christian faith. The Seer indeed may have remembered that it had been God’s plan in the past to commission His servants, not singly, but in pairs. He may have called to mind Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, Elijah and Elisha, Zerubbabel and Joshua, or he may have thought of the fact that our Lord sent forth His disciples two by two. The probability, however, is that, as he speaks of “witnessing,” he thought mainly of that precept of the law which required the testimony of two witnesses to confirm a statement. Yet he does not confine himself to the thought of two individual witnesses, however eminent, who shall in faithful work fill up their own short span of human life and die. The witness he has in view is that to be borne by all Christ’s people, everywhere, and throughout the whole Christian age. From the first to the last moment of the Church’s history in this world there shall be those raised up who shall never fail to prophesy, or, in other words, to testify to the truth of God as it is in Jesus. The task will be hard, but they will not shrink from it. They shall be clothed in sackcloth, but they shall count their robes of shame to be robes of honour. They shall occupy the position of Him who, in the days of His humiliation, was the “faithful and true Witness.” Nourished by the Spirit that was in Him, they shall, like Him, be the light of the world, so that God shall never be left without some at least to witness for Him.

They are called two olive trees, and two candlesticks. Thus they are sources of light, and oil that is the fuel for the lamps. John’s prophecy may allude to the two bronze pillars, that stood on either side of the porch of Solomon’s temple, called Boaz, and Jachin. These two pillars were 8.2 m high, and 1.8 m wide, with capitals 2.4 m high; they were decorated with rows of 200 bronze pomegranates, and each was topped with lilies of bronze. [1 Kings 7:13-22, 41-42; 2 Chronicles 4:13]

The ornamentation at the top of the pillars is thought to have given them the appearance of enormous lampstands. In the time of Hezekiah, they were overlaid with gold. [2 Kings 18:16]

The purpose of pillars in ancient times, and their role as witnesses, is indicated by two incidents in the life of Jacob, each of which involved setting up pillars. When Jacob fled from his brother Esau, he came to a place where he spent the night, and dreamed of a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven, and angels ascended and descended on it. God stood at the top, and he promised Jacob that he would give him the land, and also that in his seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed. [Genesis 28:11-14] Jacob called the place Bethel, meaning house of God, and he set up the stone which he had used as a pillow stone as a pillar. [Genesis 28:16-22] Later, Jacob dug a well near this place.

The role of a pillar as a witness is explicit in another incident, when Jacob and his uncle Laban set up a heap of stones, and a pillar, as witnesses to a covenant between them both, which said that neither Jacob, nor Laban, would pass by that place to do any harm to the other. [Genesis 31:51-52]

During his ministry Jesus visited Jacob’s well, where he met a woman of Samaria. In their conversation, Jesus told the woman that those who worship God would no longer go to Gerizim, or to Jerusalem.

In John’s prophecy, the revival of the two witnesses may represent the light of the scriptures, revealed by the spirit of God. The two things Jesus mentioned, spirit and truth, are like two pillars, which represented two witnesses. For Jesus, the word of God in the scriptures is truth. [John 17:17] Those who worship God, he said, must worship him in spirit and in truth. [John 4:24]


1. Peter Pett. The book of Revelation

2. William Milligan. The Book of Revelation