Revelation is an apocalypse. Not just in the sense of recording an unveiling but also in terms of its composition in what might best be described as a language system or matrix deeply embedded in the Old Testament. As such, to rightly identify the two witnesses of Revelation 11, it is crucial to have the background music of the Old Testament coursing through our minds. We must neither attempt to draw exact parallels between the apocalyptic imagery and their Old Testament referents nor attempt to press the language system of Revelation into a literalistic labyrinth such that the two witnesses literally turn their mouths into blowtorches.
First, the two witnesses are a metaphorical reference to Moses and Elijah. Old Testament jurisprudence mandated at least two witnesses to convict of a crime (Deuteronomy 19:15), and in this case the two witnesses accuse Israel of apostacy. The imagery also harkens back to a familiar Old Testament passage in which Zechariah sees two
olive trees on the right and the left of a lampstand which symbolize “the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth” (Zechariah 4:14). The two witnesses in Zechariah were identified as Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who returned to Jerusalem to lay the foundation of a second temple, and Joshua, the high priest commissioned to preside over its altar. In Revelation this imagery is invested in two witnesses who preside over the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple. Like Moses the witnesses have power to turn water into blood. And like Elijah they have power to call down fire from heaven to consume their enemies and to shut up the sky so that it will not rain for three and a half years (1 Kings 17; Luke 4:25).
Furthermore, the mission of the two witnesses can rightly be identified with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like Jesus they are sacrificial lambs. Indeed, their corpses unceremoniously litter the streets of Jerusalem—the very city in which their Lord was crucified. The city is figuratively called Sodom in that it epitomizes human wickedness and heavenly wrath, and Egypt in that it is emblematic of the slavery from which only Jesus Christ can emancipate. Their resurrection after three and a half days parallels the resurrection of Christ in much the same way that their three–and–a–half–year ministry mirrors that of Messiah.
Finally, the description of these witnesses as “clothed in sackcloth” (Revelation 11:3) identifies them with the tradition of Hebrew prophets from Elijah to John the Baptist who wore sackcloth in mourning over Israel’s apostasy (e.g., 2 Kings 1:8; Isaiah 20:2; Matthew 3:4). As such, the two witnesses form a composite image of the Law and the Prophets culminating in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of a Prophet and Priest who is the earnest of all who are his witnesses and who will reign with him in a New Jerusalem wherein dwells righteousness.
In light of biblical imagery, the two witnesses are revealed not as two literal people, such as a future reincarnation of Moses and Elijah, but rather as literary characters in John’s apocalyptic narrative representing the entire line of Hebrew prophets in testifying against Israel and warning of soon-coming judgment of God on Jerusalem.
For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2007); see also David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Ft. Worth,Tex.: Dominion Press, 1987): 276-8.
“And I will give power to my two witnesses,
and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed
in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the
two lampstands that stand before the Lord of
the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes
from their mouths and devours their enemies.”