Reflecting on the text

Yesterday we learned a lot, but we nevertheless left many questions unanswered: How do we know John is talking about the church? If he is talking about the church, what exactly is he saying? What’s going on with the bittersweet scroll?

But before we get to our questions of this text, I have a different question: As we attempt to be faithful to God in 21st century America, what things do we wrestle with on a daily basis?

We can easily notice the great gap between John’s hearers then (first century Christians living as a persecuted minority in Asia Minor) and now (in our case, twenty-first century Christians living in America).

Think about the questions  they were asking on a regular basis, and the problems or issues they were dealing with. They had to face the fact that their friends and family were being persecuted all around them. To put it bluntly, they would have been asking things like: When the government kills my sister or fires my dad, who has won?

As we can see at the end of chapter 11, John’s goal in this passage is to show that Jesus’ followers do, in fact, win in the end.

Let’s walk through some of the details of this text, kind of like we did yesterday.

John begins by talking about the Temple. Since by the time John wrote Revelation the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, John is most likely speaking figuratively here.

But if the Temple is not the Temple, then what is it?

Throughout the New Testament we hear the Church being spoken of as “the Temple” (1Cor 3.16-17; 2Cor 6.16; Eph 2.20; 1Pet 2.5). It would make sense to assume, at least at first, that John is doing the same thing. And in this passage, John is saying that the church will be partially protected, but not completely safe from persecution at the hands of her enemies.

John then shifts metaphors and begins to speak of two witnesses, who prophesy, calling people to repentance (sackcloth in the OT is always associated with people repenting; see Jonah 3.4-10).

He immediately identifies these witnesses as lampstands, showing that he still does, in fact, have in mind the Church (see 1.12,20).

But why two? And why witnesses?

According to John, Jesus himself is “the faithful witness” who, by being obedient unto death, testified that only God is God (1.5). John likewise testifies to God and Jesus (1.2,9), and it is through Christians’ testimony or witness that they defeat Satan (12.11). (By the way, the English words witness testimony, testify, and martyr all come from the same Greek word family).

And the reason for the two of them is the well-known biblical requirement that evidence can be acceptable only on the testimony of at least two witnesses (Numbers 35.30; Deut 17.6; 19.15; Matt 18.16; John 5.31; 8.17-18; 2Cor 13.1; Heb 10.28).

The time periods John mentions—42 months and 1260 days—are the same amount of time. They add up to 3½ years, or half of seven (which represents totality). In apocalyptic literature three and a half years was a common way to designate the limited amount of time that pagans would rule over God’s people. It is not a prediction about an exact number of days; it was a way of asserting that God has ultimate control even over his enemies. To put it in plain language, God will not allow them to reign supreme forever.

Since we now see that John is talking about the church (and specifically her call to witness to God), let’s explore the rest of what John teaches.

Grabbing an image from Zechariah 4.14, he calls the two witnesses “two olive trees.” In Zechariah the two olive trees were Zerubbabel and Joshua, the anointed king and the anointed priest. Would John use a royal and priestly metaphor to refer to the Church? Well, he already told us that Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (1.6; 5.10).

(I hate to keep interrupting myself with parenthetical notes, but we must notice that John simply cannot be speaking literally here. How could witnesses literally be lampstands and literally be olive trees?)

John rounds out his picture by meshing together images that remind us of some of the great Old Testament prophets:

  • Jeremiah spoke often of God’s message being like a fire forcing its way out from within him (5.14; 20.9; 23.29).
  • Elijah once prayed for God to close up the skies so that there would be neither dew nor rain (1Kings 17.1-6; see James 5.17).
  • During the Exodus Moses turned the water of the Nile into blood and sent numerous plagues (Exodus 7-10).

Let’s step back for a minute, and put this all together.

John is talking about the church. Specifically, the two witnesses represent the whole church in its faithful witness to the world. And just as God worked powerfully through his prophets in the past, he promises to work powerfully through his church in the present.

So far, so good.

But things get real ugly real quick, beginning in verse 7.

Just like in the first half of chapter 11, John is here using numerous figurative images to communicate a very real message. The world will not always take kindly to the testimony of the church. In fact, they will often treat the church exactly like they treated Jesus.

John is saying here exactly what he said in his Gospel:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ (John 15.18-20; see also 16.1-4)

As goes the Messiah, so go his followers. We often say, “Like father, like son.” John is saying, “Like Jesus, like his church.” (This is the bittersweet nature of this revelation.)

But just as Jesus had his Easter, so God does not abandon his people to meaningless death. He vindicates them, and through their testimony and martyrdom people finally bow down and worship God.

Living what we learn

Here is what I’m trying to say in a nutshell:

The Church is called to be God’s prophetic witness to the world.

Old Testament prophets both hoped for and promised a day when all God’s people would share in the task of speaking and acting for God (Numbers 10.24-30; Joel 2.28-29 & Acts 2).

In other words, it is through the church that God aims to bring people through repentance and back into harmony with himself.

So how do we live out the vocation of being God’s “prophetic witness” in the world, calling people to worship the one and only true God? That is the question John’s hearers had to wrestle with back then, and the question we cannot ignore today.

Quite frankly, for them it meant dying. That was often the result of faithfully witnessing to the One True God. And historically it proved true that martyrdom made the Church stronger. In the famous words of the early Church leader Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

For most of us, however, this won’t ever be the particular trial we face. So what does it mean for us to prophetically witness to the truth about God and his Messiah?

I think the answer can be found in an much-neglected aspect of the prophetic task. Prophets were often called to symbolize their message with particular types of behavior. They not only spoke, but enacted their messages from the Lord.

See Ezekiel 4; Hosea 1.2-11; 3.1-5

In a similar way, we are called to live out the truth that there is a God in heaven who loves all people, and that through Jesus he has opened the door for us to know him and live in harmony with him.

We don’t force our message down people’s throats; we live out what we believe, allowing God to work in people’s hearts. Here are just a few examples (from John Howard Yoder):

  • As medical or social workers we transform “cases” into persons, taking time to listen to a person’s story and share their pain.
  • As businessmen we place effective community service above immediate profits, refusing to bow to the god of “the bottom line.”
  • As teachers we pass on to younger generations our sense of what really matters behind the details of our curricular material.
  • As husbands and wives we place our spouses’ needs above our own, not allowing selfishness to govern our attitude & actions.

If we witness with our lives, over time people will began to ask questions. And then, when the time is right, we tell them the truth.

Once again, when the time is right, we tell them about the Truth.

We tell them of the great story of God, and how our small story fits right into it. That is what we aim for in making outreach one of our core practices at Real Life. That is what it means to be God’s prophetic witness to the world around us. But again we must stress that the two are both sides of a single coin: direct action that manifests God’s radically counter-cultural kingdom, and spoken words that invite others to become a part of God’s great renovation project.