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3.11.3.1 - Who are the Witnesses?

Now we reach the second fork in the interpretive road: having established that the two witnesses are best understood as historic individuals, which individuals might they be? The most popular suggestions include: (1) the return of Moses and Elijah; (2) the return of Enoch and Elijah; (3) two future prophets who minister in the power and character of Moses and Elijah.

Identifying the Witnesses
IdentityReasons ForReasons Against
Moses and Elijah1 “Based on the miracles they are to perform, some have said they are Elijah (commanding fire to devour enemies and shutting up the sky so that it does not rain, Rev. 11:5-6+; cf. 1K. 17:1; 2K. 1:10-14), and Moses (water turned to blood, the earth smitten with every plague, Rev. 11:6+; cf. Ex. 7:20; 9:14 ; etc.).”2 “Some writers argue that Moses and Elijah must be the two witnesses because their return is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-18 and Malachi 4:5-6.”3 “Both [Moses and Elijah] left the earth in unusual ways. Elijah never died, but was transported to heaven in a fiery chariot (2K. 2:11-12), and God supernaturally buried Moses’ body in a secret location (Deu. 34:5-6; Jude 1:9).”4 “Moses appeared with Elijah at the transfiguration (Mat. 17:13) . . . the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) would be joining in witness unto Christ during the announcement of the coming of the King.”5 The transfiguration is connected with the second coming (Mat. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) which these prophets help usher in. Some claim that John the Baptist already fulfilled the coming of Elijah but, “The Lord’s statement that John was Elijah was a statement based on contingency. John was Elijah ‘if ye will receive it’ (Mat. 11:14). The Lord indicated that if they received the offered kingdom John would be the one to do the work of Elijah. But they rejected this offer (Mat. 17:12) and therefore John is precluded from being the one to fulfill the prophecy.”6 John himself indicated he was not Elijah (John 1:21). “There is nothing in Scripture that limits miracles such as these to Moses and Elijah. Elijah raised a person from the dead (1K. 17:17-24); but so did Jesus (Mark 5:35-42; Luke 8:49-56; John 11:14-44), Peter (Acts 9:36-41), and Paul (Acts 20:9-12). To argue that Moses and Elijah must be the witnesses because of the miracles mentioned, then, is weak.”7 “The expression ‘like me’ in Deuteronomy 18:15 seems to preclude using that verse as a means of identifying the witnesses in Revelation 11:3+ [as Moses and Elijah], for the promised prophet was not Moses, but one ‘like’ Moses. Also, Jesus said, ‘For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come’ (Mat. 11:13-14). Christ later said, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished?’ (Mat. 17:11-12 ). These statements of Jesus show that John the Baptist was, in a real sense, the anticipated Elijah of Malachi, though there may yet be a future fulfillment of that prophecy. The point is that while the prophecy does speak of a literal witness, the person need not be Elijah himself but one who is like Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17). This apparently is the Lord’s interpretation of Malachi’s prophecy (Mat. 17:11-12). In view of this, it is not necessary to insist that Elijah the Tishbite must be one of the two witnesses.”8 “The likelihood that Elijah and Moses appeared in glorified bodies (Luke 9:30-31) on the Mount of Transfiguration is a problem for the return of Elijah as well, for since Elijah has already received a glorified body, he cannot die. An exponent of the Elijah view might respond that Elijah’s appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration was not in a glorified body, for which death could never be a possibility, but ‘in glory’ (i.e., some other state such as the glorious characteristics manifested in Christ’s own natural body at that time). It might also be argued that Moses had died and that Scripture never records a special resurrection and glorification for him, so that he may have appeared at the Transfiguration only by some act of God’s power to visualize his old body in a ‘vision’ intelligible to the disciples (Mat. 17:9), or as Samuel was made to appear, though still actually in the state of death (1S. 28). By this logic, Elijah, like Moses, was on the Mount of Transfiguration in a vision and not a body at all. However, since Elijah was caught up into heaven in his natural body, it seems more likely that he appeared in that body (presumably glorified) on the mount. If Elijah was glorified, it would then be most appropriate to interpret Moses’ body as also glorified (though some may say that this requires the assumption of a resurrection for Moses, which Scripture nowhere records, and that this is too large an assumption). If Elijah was still in his mortal body preserved for centuries by powers known only to God and enabled to appear on the mount, then, in the interest of consistency, Moses also was there in person in his mortal body. However, the fact that Moses died, and his body was buried (Deu. 34:5-8; Jude 9), makes it less likely that he reappeared in that mortal body. It seems then that both Elijah and Moses probably have already received glorified bodies of some kind and so could not die. This rules them out as candidates for a future return.”9 “An objection to this interpretation is that those blessed departed servants of God would have to submit to death (Rev. 11:7+, 8+), and this in Moses’ case a second time, which Heb. 9:27 denies.”10 “No second coming of Moses is anywhere promised in the Word.”11 “While the transfiguration is identified with the millennial age (2Pe. 1:16-19) it is nowhere identified with the tribulation period or the ministry of the witnesses.”12
Elijah and Enoch13 “Some, on the basis of Jewish tradition and the wider context of Scripture, interpret the two witnesses as Elijah and Enoch. One reason is that according to an early rabbinic opinion it is believed that Enoch will rejoin Elijah for a ministry like that of the two witnesses (1 Enoch 90:31; cf. 4 Ezra 6:26). But this is simply an ancient Jewish opinion, not necessarily correct. Also there are many statements in 1 Enoch that are bizarre and questionable. Another reason for saying these witnesses will be Elijah and Enoch is that neither of these two men saw death but were translated to heaven (Gen. 5:24; 2K. 2:11). Since Hebrews 9:27 says that ‘it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment,’ God, it is argued, must have reserved Enoch and Elijah as His witnesses for this future time. The merit of this argument is that it helps rule out Moses and others as possible candidates, for they have already died.”14 “Neither [Enoch] nor Elijah were given immortal bodies when they were translated, however, because it was necessary for Christ first to die for their sins and rise again. . . (1Cor. 15:22-23). Thus Enoch and Elijah have been waiting in heaven in their natural bodies through all the intervening ages since their respective translations.”15 “In Revelation 11:4+ the word ‘standing’ suggests that they were already there in John’s day, and must be two people who have already been translated. Thus, it is held, only Elijah and Enoch could meet this requirement.”16 “Even after His incarnation, on the mount with Peter, James, and John, [Jesus] was much arrayed in heavenly glory as Elijah who there appeared in converse with him; yet, from that holy mount, and glory, and sublime transfiguration, he came down, and suffered, and died. Paul was once in heaven, caught up, he knew not how, and saw and heard things he dared not tell; and yet, he came back, and preached, and suffered, and died. John was called up to heaven, to behold the wonders that are described in this Book; yet he also returned, and suffered, and died.”17 “It should be pointed out, however, that since there will be a whole generation of believers who are raptured and thus will not die physically (1Cor. 15:51-57; 1Th. 4:16-17), the idea that Enoch and Elijah must return in order to die once to make Hebrews 9:27 absolutely all-inclusive, is without basis. It should also be noted that Hebrews 11:5 says that Enoch was translated ‘so that he should not see death.’ To allow a future return and death, then, would nullify God’s promise.”18 “Those who claim them to be Enoch and Elijah base it on the fact that these two men never died, and so they will return to die in the Tribulation. Often, Hebrews 9:27 is used as evidence for ‘it is appointed unto men once to die.’ But it is a general principle and not an absolute rule. For example, take the word once: some people have died twice, namely, all those who had been resurrected in the Old and New Testaments apart from Messiah. Furthermore, what about the living Church saints? If indeed Hebrews 9:27 is an absolute rule, it would mean that all living Church saints at the Rapture will also have to die at some time. Both I Corinthians 15:51 and I Thessalonians 4:15-17 show that Hebrews 9:27 is only a general principle. Also in the light of Hebrews 11:5 [‘By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death. . .’], it cannot be that Enoch will die in the future.”19 “Enoch is clearly said to have been translated, and this involves corruption putting on incorruption and mortality putting on immortality (1Cor. 15:50-58). Since Elijah has already been taken into Heaven, the same is true of him, for no man in his physical state can enter Heaven (1Cor. 15:50). This means that neither Elijah nor Enoch can die, for they are now immortal.”20 Enoch seems an unlikely candidate on the grounds that he is a type for the Church which is removed prior to the Tribulation as Enoch was taken before the flood.21 “It is the stated purpose that Enoch was translated ‘in order that he might not see death’ (Heb. 11:5). In view of this it could hardly be stated that he will be returned to die. . . . It would seem that an antediluvian prophet would not be sent into a time when God is dealing with Israel.”22 If the nature of their ministry serves to identify the individuals, and it may not, then we have no indication for Enoch: “A further difficulty for this view is Enoch’s failure to match the criteria assigned to the two witnesses.”23
Two Future Prophets24 The two witnesses are taken as two unknown Jewish prophets who will minister at the time of the Tribulation. This view avoids the various problems which attend the other views. The passage does not positively identify the individuals so there is no need to find fulfillment in previous individuals having already died or been translated. “If God wished us to know He could have told us. The fact that He has not done so ought to stop our mouths.”25 “There are great difficulties in all points of view identifying the two witnesses with historical characters.”26 Although Jesus indicated that John the Baptist served in a capacity like that of Elijah who would come prior to the day of the LORD (Mat. 11:14), John himself indicated he was not Elijah (John 1:21). If Malachi is to be taken literally, then it is necessary for Elijah to come, not his likeness (Mal. 4:5). Both Moses and Elijah are connected with the coming of Christ in His kingdom (Mat. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) by their appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mat. 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30). The character of the ministry of the witnesses seems to intentionally recall that of Moses and Elijah.


Notes

1 So [Donald Grey Barnhouse, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971)], [John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999)], [Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995)]. See [J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 248-249] for a summary of the writings of various church fathers in support of the coming of Elijah prior to the end.

2 Daniel Wong, “The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 154 no. 615 (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, July-Sep 1997), 349.

3 Ibid., 349-350.

4 MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Rev. 11:3.

5 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 306.

6 Ibid., 311.

7 Wong, The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11, 349.

8 Ibid., 349-350.

9 Ibid., 351-352.

10 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 11:3.

11 Arno C. Gaebelein, The Revelation (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1961), Rev. 11:3-6.

12 Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 306-307.

13 So [Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983)], [Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation], “The ancient church, including such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, were consistent in identifying the two witnesses as Enoch and Elijah.”—Thomas, Revelation 8-22, Rev. 11:3. See [Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation, 248-249] for a summary of the writings of various church fathers in support of the coming of the Elijah prior to the end.

14 Wong, The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11, 350-351.

15 Morris, The Revelation Record, Rev. 11:3.

16 Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 307.

17 Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation, Rev. 11:3.

18 Wong, The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11, 350-351.

19 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 234-235.

20 Ibid., 235.

21 Barnhouse, Revelation, Rev. 11:3.

22 Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 307.

23 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), Rev. 11:3.

24 So [Wong, The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11], [John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966)], [Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 308].

25 E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), Rev. 11:3.

26 Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Rev. 11:3.


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