At the end of Revelation 10, John eats the scroll that the “mighty angel” holds in his right hand, a symbolic act echoing Ezekiel 2–3, where the prophet accepts his commission to witness. Here, John is told, after he eats the bittersweet scroll, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and kings” (10:11). So, when we turn to chapter 11, we know that John is “again” presenting insights about the ways of the Lamb in the violent and chaotic world of his readers—a world dominated by the Roman Empire.
Revelation 11:1-14—The two witnesses
John is given a “measuring rod” with which to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (11:1). This seems to symbolize a kind of protection that is not offered to “the court outside the temple” which is “given over to the nations” (11:2). It seems doubtful that this “protection” means that followers of the Lamb are being promised that they won’t suffer. More likely, it’s simply a way of affirming the perseverance of the witnessing community even in the midst of suffering and trauma for faithful ones at the hands of the empire. Battered and bruised but not overcome.
Another symbol for this witnessing community is the “two witnesses” (11:3). These witnesses are actually “two olive trees” and “two lampstands”—both images used elsewhere for communities of faith. They will “prophesy for one thousands two hundred sixty days”—that is, three and a half years (or forty two months). This is the “broken time” (half of seven years) that in Revelation symbolizes time in history, the time of the plagues, the time remaining before the New Jerusalem comes down.
So, what we have is a kind of recapitulation of the plague visions (where the nations “trample over the holy city for forty months,” 11:2) but with an added dimensions. The “two witnesses” are essentially the same actors in this drama as the “conquerors” of the seven messages in chapters two and three. That is, they carry out the vocation Jesus gives to all his followers—to witness to his way amidst the plagues.
Though the imagery in 11:4-6 is rather violent (the two witnesses “consume” their foes with fire and have the power to strike the earth “with every kind of plague”), that the fire “pours from their mouth” (11:5) indicates that their “weapon” actually is simply the word of their testimony. This word indeed might be confrontive, but the “fire” is figurative, not literal. The witnesses directly challenge the lies of the Dragon, Beast, False Prophet, and Harlot that we will meet in the chapters to come.
This image of the fire coming from the mouths of the two witnesses actually underscores the significance of the speaking of truth in the context of great falsehoods. The strategy that John offers his readers in Revelation is essentially a strategy of taking care and taking courage in how they speak—to challenge the vision of life the Empire inundates its people with and present a viable alternative. This alterative must be articulate verbally (with “fire”) while of course also finding embodiment in Jesus’ followers’ lives.
We briefly meet “the Beast” for the first time here as he is the one who “comes up from the bottomless pit” to attack the witnesses and, in the moment, “conquers them and kills them” (11:7). They remain dead for “three and a half days” (11:9,11), likely another allusion to the “broken time” between Jesus ascension and descension of the New Jerusalem. Probably the idea here is to underscore the vulnerability of the witnesses and that the hostility to them originates with the evil Powers. Like Jesus, they “conquer” not by killing but by being willing to die. They were “a torment to the inhabitants of the earth” (11:10)—but in a way that was not inconsistent with their willingness to die rather than be conformed to the ways of the Beast.
They are resurrected after the “three and a half days” and are taken “up to heaven” (11:12). There there is a “great earthquake” that kills seven thousand people (11:13). This “earthquake” is probably best understood as a metaphor for the entire series of plagues we have just read about in chapters six through ten. Remarkably, at this point “the rest,” though “terrified . . . gave glory to the God of heaven” (11:13). This giving of glory contrasts with the response of the kings of the earth and others at 9:21 when in face of intense plagues “did not repent.” Maybe the difference in the account of chapter eleven is that here we have the two witnesses who offer testimony to the way of the Lamb even in the face of their own deaths. To link this point with the ultimate presence of the kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem (21:24), we could say that one reason the kings are able to be transformed is due to the witness offered to the point of death by the followers of the Lamb.
Revelation 11:15-19—The seventh trumpet
The blowing of the seventh trumpet signals the end (so it would seem) of the story. With this trumpet, the set of seven is complete. Yet the book of Revelation is actually only half way through. The story is over but the book is not. Thus, what is to follow is going back over the story that has already been told—at least up through the end of chapter twenty until the New Jerusalem comes down.
The “loud voices” celebrate the unification of the “kingdom of the world” with “the kingdom of our Lord” (11:15). This joining together is the point, not an eradication of the kingdoms of the world. As we will see, the New Jerusalem comes down. The world is transformed and healed; the good creation is redeemed.
The vision in 11:15-19 links closely with the vision of the “one on the throne” in chapter four. The twenty-four elders worship. In some sense, the implied forward look of chapter four finds its fulfillment here—though we have a number of what we could call fleshing out visions to come before the final consummation is envision beginning in 21:1.
Verse eighteen prepares us for the final judgment that will be described in chapter twenty. Again, though, we have much to see before what this verse speaks of will get fuller elaboration. Part of our question, thus, is why do we need these additional visions that will be described before the end.
One contribution the intervening visions will certainly make is to clarify more who the “destroyers of the earth” are that will ultimately be destroyed. Given that we already have been told of “the inhabitants of the earth” ultimately giving glory to God (11:13) and that we will be told of the presence of even the kings of the earth (God’s worst human enemies) in the New Jerusalem, what we will learn is that the “destroyers of the earth” are not human beings but the spiritual forces of evil (such as the “Beast” we briefly met in 11:7). This distinction between the Powers and their human agents will become important as the further visions of plagues and judgments unfold. We have not been yet given much of the sense of who these Powers are.