Home > Book of Revelation, Interpretation, The 3 ½ years, two witnesses > G. K. Beale on the two witnesses

G. K. Beale on the two witnesses

July 4, 2013

Gregory K. Beale is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. In his commentary on Revelation he says the two witnesses of chapter 11 represent the whole church, not two individual humans. Beale wrote: [1]

The two witnesses are not two individual prophets, whether Moses and Elijah, Enoch and Elijah, Paul and Peter, or the two Jewish high priests killed in A.D. 68. Neither are they only a part of the Christian community, whether Jewish Christian or Christian prophets or martyrs. One indication that prophets here and elsewhere in the book are not limited to martyrs is the fact that the angel (!) who refuses John’s attempts to worship him in 19:10 and 22:9 also identifies himself respectively as “a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who hold the testimony of Jesus… the spirit of prophecy” and a “fellow servant of yours and of your brothers the prophets.” μάρτυρα (and its word-group) in Revelation has not yet taken on the technical definition of “martyr.” It means only “witness.” The two witnesses also do not represent concepts like “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” because they are portrayed as people who perform actions and speak words.

Beale’s a priori approach rules out several other possible interpretations of the two witnesses. His claim that the two witnesses represent the whole church introduces enormous difficulties, especially concerning their deaths, and the exposing of their dead bodies in the street of the great city for three days an a half.

Nothing in the prophecy itself declares that the witnesses speak audible words. If they do then the question of what language they speak becomes pertinent. The people of all tongues and nations “see” the corpses of the witnesses, which are silent.

And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves. [Rev. 11:9]

Their identification with olive trees and candlesticks presents a problem for the view that identifies the two witnesses with the church. Neither olive trees nor candlesticks have mouths, but the two witnesses have a mouth that emits fire upon those who would hurt them.

Candlesticks are sources of light, and in the prophecy, which alludes to similar imagery in Zech. 4, olive trees are sources of oil, that provides fuel for lamps.

Beale rejects the idea that the two witnesses could represent concepts like “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus,” but the reason he cites seems invalid: “because they are portrayed as people who perform actions and speak words.”

The Word can speak, and the Spirit can speak, and both are sources of light.

Beale pointed out that Joel had foretold that the spirit of prophecy would be poured out on the church in the last days. The apostle Peter said this occurred at Pentecost. Beale wrote: [2]

Rather, they represent the whole community of faith, whose primary function is to be a prophetic witness. Just as John the Baptist was not a literal reappearance of Elijah, but came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), likewise the witnesses are not Moses and Elijah reincarnated. Nevertheless, the two witnesses are patterned after these two OT figures (see on vv 5-6). The witnesses are called “lampstands” because their word is to burn like a lamp, just as Elijah’s “word burned like a lamp” (Sir. 48:1) and as John the Baptist’s word was like a “lamp that was burning and was shining” (John 5:35). The witnesses have the prophetic mantle of these two prophets. It is improbable that the witnesses represent both the church throughout the age, and then two individuals who are to come at the end of the age. The OT had prophesied that the entire eschatalogical community of God’s people would receive the Spirit’s gift of prophecy (Joel 2:28-32). The early Christian community understood that Joel’s prophecy had begun fulfillment in their midst (Acts 2:17-21). This prophetic gift would be the means by which the entire church would “witness” to the whole world! (Acts 1:8)

Beale outlined six arguments in support of his identification of the two witnesses with the church. [3]

The corporate identification of the witnesses is warrented by six considerations.

1. The witnesses are called “two lampstands” in v 4, which should be identified as the churches. Similarly Sifre Deut. 10 and Pesitka Rabbati 51.4 liken righteous Israelites of the end time to the lampstand of Zech. 4:2-3, and Pesitka Rabbati 7.7 interprets the same lampstand as representing “all Israel.” More important is the explicit identification of the lampstands in Rev. 1:20: “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” It is unlikely that the lampstands are different here than in ch. 1. And just as the lampstands there are identified as “a kingdom and priests,” as is the entire church in 5:10, so 11:4 associates the witnesses with kingly and priestly functions (see on 11:4).

It seems hazardous to defend an interpretation of the two witnesses prophecy based on the opinions of unbelieving Jews. Wikipedia says Pesitka Rabbati is “a collection of Aggadic Midrash (homilies) on the Pentateuchal and prophetic lessons, the special Sabbaths, etc.” that was composed around 845 A. D.

The seven golden candlesticks of Rev. 1 are seven churches. Are the two candlesticks (or lampstands) and two olive trees in Rev. 11 meant to be understood as two sets of lampstands and olive trees? That is a quite different figure than seven candlesticks.

“These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the lord of the earth.” [Rev. 11:4]

Who is the ‘lord of the whole earth’? The biblical answer is Adam, or mankind. [Gen. 1:26] But most commentators say the two witnesses stand before God. Yet He is Lord of all, not the earth only. Why would God need two candlesticks? He is the light, and the source of truth; He has no need of candlesticks. Man, not God, needs the light of the gospel that shines from Scripture, when his mind is illuminated by the Spirit. To say the two witnesses stand before God seems backward; God has provided himself with two witnesses for man’s benefit. They witness to man.

Beale wrote:

2. Verse 7 says that “the beast…will make war with them and overcome them.” This is based on Dan. 7:21, where the last evil kingdom prophesied by Daniel persecutes not an individual but the nation of Israel.

The beast in verse 7, which ascends from out of the bottomless pit, is identified with Satan in Rev. 20:2. The war between Satan and the two witnesses may be the same as the war mentioned in Rev. 12:7. Both refer to spiritual warfare. The saints are involved in it. Paul wrote, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” [Eph. 6:12]

In Dan. 7, the saints, those who worship God, are persecuted by the little horn which emerges in the fourth beast. They are the “thousand thousands” and the “ten thousand times ten thousand” who stand before Christ, in verse 10. They are not necessarily ethnic Jews, but come from all nations. [Isa. 2:1-3]

“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.” [Dan. 7:9-10]

The “fiery stream” is no doubt God’s word and the gospel going forth from the throne of Christ and from the church like a flowing river. Jesus said, “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?” [Luke 12:49]

Beale wrote:

3. The corporate interpretation is pointed to by the statement in vv 9-13 that the entire world of unbelievers will see the defeat and resurrection of the witnesses. This means that the witnesses are visible throughout the earth. But this argument has no force for those like Lindsey who think that John has in mind an episode that will be seen on worldwide television!

The notion that the two witnesses who are overcome by the beast from the bottomless pit, and killed, and whose dead bodies are left unburied in the street for three days and a half, applies to the whole church seems to imply that Christians are to again suffer martyrdom. On the other hand the prophecy may refer to a spiritual kind of death, like the spiritual condition of the “dead” Christians in the church at Sardis. [Rev. 3:1] The great city called Sodom and Egypt is not the earthly Jerusalem, because Jesus was crucified outside the city; he “suffered without the gate.” [Heb. 13:12] Instead, it refers to the whole world apart from the heavenly city. John identifies the worldly system with Babylon. Beale continued:

4. the two witnesses prophesy for three and a half years, the same length of time that the “holy city,” “the woman, and “those tabernacling in heaven” are to be oppressed (11:2; 12:6, 14; 13:6). If these texts speak of the persecution of a community, then it is plausible to identify the witnesses likewise. If the image of an individual woman signifies the community of faith existing during the three and a half years, then the image of two individual prophets might also represent the same reality during the same period (similarly an individual harlot represents the ungodly community in ch. 17). If it is correct to see 11:3 continuing what is in the preceding two verses, then the two witnesses are another depiction of the true Israel, “the holy city,” during its time of distress. As already noted, the period of three and a half years is based on Dan. 7:25; 12:7, 11 (and perhaps Dan. 9:27), which prophesies a time of tribulation of Israel as a community. The number represents a concept rather than a literal enumeration, as with other numbers throughout the Apocalypse (see the comments on, e.g. 1:4, 12, 16, 20; 2:10; 3:10; 4:4-7; 5:1, 6; 6:1-8; 7:1-9; 9:5, 10, 14-15). Here the figurative emphasis is on the true covenant community experiencing tribulation, irrespective of how long the tribulation lasts in literal time.

I agree with Beale’s comments about the symbolic character of the three and a half years, but it is confusing to say that the woman of chapter 12 and the two witnesses have the same symbolic meaning. If the woman in chapter 12 is the church and the heavenly Jerusalem, then the two witnesses must represent something else.

To say the two witnesses are a community (or a church) does not fulfill the requirements of the prophecy because they shut heaven, withhold the rain, kill their enemies, and smite the earth with all plagues, none of which are Christian activities. These powers apply neither to individuals nor to churches, although some misguided people have foolishly supposed themselves to be one of the two witnesses.

Beale wrote:

5. Often elsewhere in the book the entire community of believers is identified as the source of “testimony” to Jesus (6:9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4).

The real source of the saints’ “testimony” is not the church, but the Spirit, which leads them to understand and believe the Word of God. None of the scriptures that Beale cited above clearly identifies the church with two witnesses. The saints are those who “hold the testimony of Jesus,” [Rev. 12:17] and Rev. 19:10 says “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” IMO, the spirit of prophecy, and the Scriptures are two witnesses.

Beale wrote:

6. A final hint that these prophets are not two individuals comes from observing that the powers of both Moses and Elijah are attributed to both the two witnesses equally, and not divided among them. They are identical prophetic twins.

The notion that the two witnesses are human individuals who are overcome by the beast from the bottomless pit, and killed, and whose dead bodies are left unburied in the street for three days and a half, assumes that the great city is the earthly Jerusalem. But Jesus was crucified outside the city; he “suffered without the gate.” [Heb. 13:12]

Beale argued that the “fire from their mouth” is not literal, and compares the figure to the sharp sword proceeding from his mouth of Christ in Rev. 19. Beale wrote: [4]

Now the fire of the Spirit burning on the two lampstands is seen to be unquenchable, which makes the lampstands themselves spiritually invincible. The souls of the witnesses cannot be harmed because they are protected by the invisible sanctuary within which they dwell. “If anyone wishes to harm them” because of their prophetic witness, then such people themselves will be harmed by the witnesses. God’s assured presence among his people guarantees that they will not be harmed in any ultimate, eternal sense. Therefore, the powers given to them in vv 5-6 do not demonstrate outwardly their prophetic legitimation but indicate rather God’s protection of them. They may undergo bodily, economic, political, or social harm, but their eternal covenant status with God will not be affected. One reason they were measured was so that they would prosper in their prophetic witness despite persecution. Though they may suffer and even die, they will invincibly and successfully carry out their spiritual mission for which they have been “measured” and commissioned, to which v 7a attests (“when they complete their testimony”). Their witness focuses on the redemptive history of Jesus …, especially his death, resurrection, and lordship …. V 5 portrays those who reject the witnesses’ message and oppress them. Rejection of the testimony lays the basis for the future, consummative judgment. When hostile repudiation of the witness occurs, the final judgment of the oppressors is set in motion by the truth of the prophetic message, which includes warning of the judgment (cf. John 12:48: “the word I spoke is what will judge him on the last day”).

The initial legal and spiritual phase of the last judgment is expressed by the concluding clauses respectively of v 5a and v 5b. The first such clause, “fire proceeds from their mouth and consumes their enemies,” is not to be taken literally. It is best viewed as the legal pronouncement of the ensuing judgment of the enemies. This indictment is actually a beginning phase of that judgment and so, at least to that extent, sets it in motion.

This figurative understanding receives support elsewhere in the Apocalypse. In 1:16 (cf. 2:12, 16) and 19:15, 21 John figuratively portrays Christ judging his enemies by means of “a sharp sword proceeding from his mouth.” The same picture in 2:16 alludes to some form of temporal punishment, whereas 19:15, 21 has to do with the defeat of Christ’s enemies at the parousia. The sword in Christ’s mouth is a metaphor for his pronouncement of the truth, including condemnation of sinners through his word (as implied by 19:10-13; cf. 2:23 with Heb. 4:12). The fire from the witnesses’ mouth in Rev. 11:5 has the same condemnatory sense but is spoken at the consummation, as is Christ’s indictment. But it may be temporally parallel in part with the metaphorical indictment issued by Christ in 2:16.

Some reasons why the two witnesses represent the Spirit, and the Word:

1. Jesus identifies these as two things that will “testify” of him, and one who testifies is a witness:

“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” [John 5:39]

“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:” [John 15:26]

2. The scriptures have spread throughout the whole world. They are translated into every language and the work of preservation, translation and distribution of the scriptures has been a major activity of the church throughout its history.

3. The scriptures need to be properly interpreted, especially the prophetic scriptures. This requires the gift of the Spirit of God. Apart from the Spirit, prophecy is not understood. Daniel said,

“And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things? And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.” [Dan. 12:8-10]

4. Because of controversy about various interpretations of prophecy, the scriptures have become notorious. The controversies about the Bible are depicted by the war between the two witnesses and the beast from the bottomless pit, which results in the defeat of the witnesses. [Rev. 11:7] The true interpretation of prophecy is widely rejected and flawed interpretations prevail.

5. Only the Spirit and the scriptures together have the power to shut heaven, withhold the rain, kill their enemies by fire, turn waters to blood, smite the earth with all plagues, etc.


1. Beale, Gregory K. The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text. W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. pp. 572-573.

2. Ibid.,  p. 573

3. Ibid., pp. 574-575.

4. Ibid., pp. 579-580