The 144,000 Jews
The book of Revelation has always presented the interpreter with challenges. The book is steeped in vivid imagery and symbolism which people have interpreted differently depending on their preconceptions of the book as a whole. There are four main interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation:
1) preterist (which sees all or most of the events in Revelation as having already occurred by the end of the 1st century);
2) historicist (which sees Revelation as a survey of church history from apostolic times to the present);
3) idealist (which sees Revelation as a depiction of the struggle between good and evil);
4) futurist (which sees Revelation as prophecy of events to come). Of the four, only the futurist approach interprets Revelation in the same grammatical-historical method as the rest of Scripture. It is also a better fit with Revelation’s own claim to be prophecy (Revelation 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19).
So the answer to the question “who are the 144,000?” will depend on which interpretive approach you take to the book of Revelation. With the exception of the futurist approach, all of the other approaches interpret the 144,000 symbolically, as representative of the church and the number 144,000 being symbolic of the totality—i.e., the complete number—of the church. Yet when taken at face value: “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” (Revelation 7:4), nothing in the passage leads to interpreting the 144,000 as anything but a literal number of Jews—12,000 taken from every tribe of the “sons of Israel.” The New Testament offers no clear cut text replacing Israel with the church.
These Jews are “sealed,” which means they have the special protection of God from all of the divine judgments and from the Antichrist to perform their mission during the tribulation period (see Revelation 6:17, in which people will wonder who can stand from the wrath to come). The tribulation period is a future seven-year period of time in which God will enact divine judgment against those who reject Him and will complete His plan of salvation for the nation of Israel. All of this is according to God’s revelation to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:24–27). The 144,000 Jews are a sort of “first fruits” (Revelation 14:4) of a redeemed Israel which has been previously prophesied (Zechariah 12:10; Romans 11:25–27), and their mission seems to be to evangelize the post-rapture world and proclaim the gospel during the tribulation period. As a result of their ministry, millions—“a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9)—will come to faith in Christ.
Much of the confusion regarding the 144,000 is a result of the false doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that 144,000 is a limit to the number of people who will reign with Christ in heaven and spend eternity with God. The 144,000 have what the Jehovah’s Witnesses call the heavenly hope. Those who are not among the 144,000 will enjoy what they call the earthly hope—a paradise on earth ruled by Christ and the 144,000. Clearly, we can see that Jehovah’s Witness teaching sets up a caste society in the afterlife with a ruling class (the 144,000) and those who are ruled. The Bible teaches no such “dual class” doctrine. It is true that there will be people ruling in the millennium with Christ. These people will be comprised of the church (believers in Jesus Christ, 1 Corinthians 6:2), Old Testament saints (believers who died before Christ’s first advent, Daniel 7:27), and tribulation saints (those who accept Christ during the tribulation, Revelation 20:4). Yet the Bible places no numerical limit on this group of people. Furthermore, the millennium is different from the eternal state, which will take place at the completion of the millennial period. At that time, God will dwell with us in the New Jerusalem. He will be our God and we will be His people (Revelation 21:3). The inheritance promised to us in Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14) will become ours, and we will all be co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
First John 2:18 speaks of the Antichrist: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” The specific term antichrist is used seven times in Scripture, twice here in 1 John 2:18 and also in 1 John 2:22; 4:3; and twice in 2 John 7. So, what is this Antichrist that the apostle John refers to?
The meaning of the term antichrist is simply “against Christ.” As the apostle John records in First and Second John, an antichrist denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22), does not acknowledge Jesus (1 John 4:3), and denies that Jesus came in the flesh (2 John 1:7). There have been many “antichrists,” as 1 John 2:18 states. But there is also coming the Antichrist.
Most Bible prophecy/eschatology experts believe the Antichrist will be the ultimate embodiment of what it means to be against Christ. In the end times/last hour, a man will arise to oppose Christ and His followers more than anyone else in history. Likely claiming to be the true Messiah, the Antichrist will seek world domination and will attempt to destroy all followers of Jesus Christ and the nation of Israel.
Other biblical references to the Antichrist include the following:
- The imposing, boastful king of Daniel 7 who oppresses the Jews and tries to “change the set times and the laws” (verse 25).
- The leader who establishes a 7-year covenant with Israel and then breaks it in Daniel 9.
- The king who sets up the abomination of desolation in Mark 13:14 (cf. Daniel 9:27).
- The man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12.
- The rider on a white horse (representing his claim to be a man of peace) in Revelation 6:2.
- The first beast—the one from the sea—in Revelation 13. This beast receives power from the dragon (Satan) and speaks “proud words and blasphemies” (verse 5) and wages war against the saints (verse 7).
Thankfully, the Antichrist/beast, along with his false prophet, will be thrown into the lake of fire, where they will spend all eternity in torment (Revelation 19:20; 20:10).
What is the Antichrist? In summary, the Antichrist is the end-times false messiah who seeks, and likely achieves, world domination so that he can destroy Israel and all followers of Jesus Christ.
Who Is The Antichrist?
There is much speculation about the identity of the Antichrist. Some of the more popular targets are Vladimir Putin, Prince William, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Pope Francis I. In the United States, former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump are the most frequent targets. So, who is the Antichrist, and how will we recognize him?
The Bible really does not say anything specific about where the Antichrist will come from. Many Bible scholars speculate that he will come from a confederacy of ten nations and/or a reborn Roman empire (Daniel 7:24-25; Revelation 17:7). Others see him as having to be a Jew in order to claim to be the Messiah. It is all just speculation since the Bible does not specifically say where the Antichrist will come from or what ethnicity he will be. One day, the Antichrist will be revealed. Second Thessalonians 2:3-4 tells us how we will recognize the Antichrist: “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”
It is likely that most people who are alive when the Antichrist is revealed will be very surprised at his identity. The Antichrist may or may not be alive today. Martin Luther was convinced that the pope in his time was the Antichrist. During the 1940s, many believed Adolph Hitler was the Antichrist. Others who have lived in the past few hundred years have been equally sure as to the identity of the Antichrist. So far, they have all been incorrect. We should put the speculations behind us and focus on what the Bible actually says about the Antichrist. Revelation 13:5-8 declares, “The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apokalupsis which means “revealing, disclosure, to take off the cover.” The book of Revelation is sometimes referred to as the “Apocalypse of John” because it is God’s revealing of the end times to the apostle John. Further, the Greek word for “apocalypse” is the very first word in the Greek text of the book of Revelation. The phrase “apocalyptic literature” is used to describe the use of symbols, images, and numbers to depict future events. Outside of Revelation, examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible are Daniel chapters 7–12, Isaiah chapters 24–27, Ezekiel chapters 37–41, and Zechariah chapters 9–12.
Why was apocalyptic literature written with such symbolism and imagery? The apocalyptic books were written when it was more prudent to disguise the message in images and symbolism than to give the message in plain language. Further, the symbolism created an element of mystery about details of time and place. The purpose of such symbolism, however, was not to cause confusion, but rather to instruct and encourage followers of God in difficult times.
Beyond the specifically biblical meaning, the term “apocalypse” is often used to refer to the end times in general, or to the last end times events specifically. End-times events such as the second coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon are sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse will be the ultimate revealing of God, His wrath, His justice, and, ultimately, His love. Jesus Christ is the supreme “apocalypse” of God, as He revealed God to us (John 14:9; Hebrews 1:2).
The False Prophet
The false prophet of the end times is described in Revelation 13:11-15. He is also referred to as the “second beast” (Revelation 16:13, 19:20, 20:10). Together with the Antichrist and Satan, who empowers both of them, the false prophet is the third party in the unholy trinity.
The apostle John describes this person and gives us clues to identifying him when he shows up. First, he comes out of the earth. This could mean he comes up from the pit of hell with all the demonic powers of hell at his command. It could also mean he comes from lowly circumstances, secret and unknown until he bursts on the world stage at the right hand of the Antichrist. He is depicted as having horns like a lamb, while speaking like a dragon. The horns on lambs are merely small bumps on their heads until the lamb grows into a ram. Rather than having the Antichrist’s multiplicity of heads and horns, showing his power and might and fierceness, the false prophet comes like a lamb, winsomely, with persuasive words that elicit sympathy and good will from others. He may be an extraordinary preacher or orator whose demonically empowered words will deceive the multitudes. But he speaks like a dragon, which means his message is the message of a dragon. Revelation 12:9 identifies the dragon as the devil and Satan.
Verse 12 gives us the false prophet’s mission on earth, which is to force humanity to worship the Antichrist. He has all the authority of the Antichrist because, like him, the false prophet is empowered by Satan. It is not clear whether people are forced to worship the Antichrist or whether they are so enamored of these powerful beings that they fall for the deception and worship him willingly. The fact that the second beast uses miraculous signs and wonders, including fire from heaven, to establish the credibility of both of them would seem to indicate that people will fall before them in adoration of their power and message. Verse 14 goes on to say the deception will be so great that the people will set up an idol to the Antichrist, “the image of the beast,” and worship it. This is reminiscent of the huge golden image of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3) before which all were to bow down and pay homage. Revelation 14:9-11, however, describes the ghastly fate that awaits those who worship the image of the Antichrist.
Those who survive the terrors of the tribulation to this point will be faced with two hard choices. Those who refuse to worship the image of the beast will be subject to death (Revelation 14:15), but those who do worship him will incur the wrath of God. The image will be extraordinary in that it will be able to “speak.” Whatever the image is (a statue? a hologram? an android? a human-animal hybrid? a clone?), it will have some kind of ability to breathe forth the message of the Antichrist and the false prophet. Along with being the spokesman for them, the image will condemn to death those who refuse to worship the unholy pair. In our technological world, it is not hard to imagine such a scenario.
Whoever the false prophet turns out to be, the final world deception and the final apostasy will be great, and the whole world will be caught up in it. The deceivers and false teachers we see today are the forerunners of the Antichrist and the false prophet, and we must not be deceived by them. These false teachers abound, and they are moving us toward a final satanic kingdom. We must faithfully proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and rescue the souls of men and women from the coming disaster.
The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in Revelation chapter 6, verses 1-8. The four horsemen are symbolic descriptions of different events which will take place in the end times. The first horseman of the Apocalypse is mentioned in Revelation 6:2: “I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” This first horseman likely refers to the Antichrist, who will be given authority and will conquer all who oppose him. The antichrist is the false imitator of the true Christ, who will also return on a white horse (Revelation 19:11-16).
The second horseman of the Apocalypse appears in Revelation 6:4, “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.” The second horseman refers to terrible warfare that will break out in the end times. The third horseman is described in Revelation 6:5-6, “…and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’” The third horseman of the Apocalypse refers to a great famine that will take place, likely as a result of the wars from the second horseman.
The fourth horseman is mentioned in Revelation 6:8, “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse is symbolic of death and devastation. It seems to be a combination of the previous horsemen. The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse will bring further warfare and terrible famines along with awful plagues and diseases. What is most amazing, or perhaps terrifying, is that the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are just “precursors” of even worse judgments that come later in the tribulation (Revelation chapters 8–9 and 16).
The Mark Of The Beast
The main passage in the Bible that mentions the “mark of the beast” is Revelation 13:15-18. Other references can be found in Revelation 14:9, 11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, and 20:4. This mark acts as a seal for the followers of Antichrist and the false prophet (the spokesperson for the Antichrist). The false prophet (the second beast) is the one who causes people to take this mark. The mark is literally placed in the hand or forehead and is not simply a card someone carries.
The recent breakthroughs in medical implant chip and RFID technologies have increased interest in the mark of the beast spoken of in Revelation chapter 13. It is possible that the technology we are seeing today represents the beginning stages of what may eventually be used as the mark of the beast. It is important to realize that a medical implant chip is not the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast will be something given only to those who worship the Antichrist. Having a medical or financial microchip inserted into your right hand or forehead is not the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast will be an end-times identification required by the Antichrist in order to buy or sell, and it will be given only to those who worship the Antichrist.
Many good expositors of Revelation differ widely as to the exact nature of the mark of the beast. Besides the implanted chip view, other speculations include an ID card, a microchip, a barcode that is tattooed into the skin, or simply a mark that identifies someone as being faithful to the Antichrist’s kingdom. This last view requires the least speculation, since it does not add any more information to what the Bible gives us. In other words, any of these things are possible, but at the same time they are all speculations. We should not spend a lot of time speculating on the precise details.
The meaning of 666 is a mystery as well. Some speculated that there was a connection to June 6, 2006—06/06/06. However, in Revelation chapter 13, the number 666 identifies a person, not a date. Revelation 13:18 tells us, “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.” Somehow, the number 666 will identify the Antichrist. For centuries Bible interpreters have been trying to identify certain individuals with 666. Nothing is conclusive. That is why Revelation 13:18 says the number requires wisdom. When the Antichrist is revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4), it will be clear who he is and how the number 666 identifies him.
The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb
In his vision in Revelation 19:7–10, John saw and heard the heavenly multitudes praising God because the wedding feast of the Lamb—literally, the “marriage supper”—was about to begin. The concept of the marriage supper is better understood in light of the wedding customs in the time of Christ.
These wedding customs had three major parts. First, a marriage contract was signed by the parents of the bride and the bridegroom, and the parents of the bridegroom or the bridegroom himself would pay a dowry to the bride or her parents. This began what was called the betrothal period—what we would today call the engagement. This period was the one Joseph and Mary were in when she was found to be with child (Matthew 1:18; Luke 2:5).
The second step in the process usually occurred a year later, when the bridegroom, accompanied by his male friends, went to the house of the bride at midnight, creating a torchlight parade through the streets. The bride would know in advance this was going to take place, and so she would be ready with her maidens, and they would all join the parade and end up at the bridegroom’s home. This custom is the basis of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1–13. The third phase was the marriage supper itself, which might go on for days, as illustrated by the wedding at Cana in John 2:1–2.
What John’s vision in Revelation pictures is the wedding feast of the Lamb (Jesus Christ) and His bride (the Church) in its third phase. The implication is that the first two phases have already taken place.
The first phase was completed on earth when each individual believer placed his or her faith in Christ as Savior. The dowry paid to the bridegroom’s parent (God the Father) would be the blood of Christ shed on the Bride’s behalf. The Church on earth today, then, is “betrothed” to Christ, and, like the wise virgins in the parable, all believers should be watching and waiting for the appearance of the Bridegroom (the rapture).
The second phase symbolizes the rapture of the Church, when Christ comes to claim His bride and take her to the Father’s house. The marriage supper then follows as the third and final step. It is our view that the marriage supper of the Lamb takes place in heaven between the rapture and the second coming (during the tribulation on earth).
Attending the wedding feast will be not only the Church as the Bride of Christ, but others as well. The “others” include the Old Testament saints—they will not have been resurrected yet, but their souls/spirits will be in heaven with us. As the angel told John to write, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). The marriage supper of the Lamb is a glorious celebration of all who are in Christ!
The Meaning of 666
At the close of Revelation 13, which discusses the beast (the Antichrist) and his false prophet, we read, “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (Revelation 13:18). Somehow, the number 666 is a clue to the identity of the beast. Revelation 13 also mentions the “mark of the beast” (verses 16–17), and popular thought often links 666 with the mark; however, the mark of the beast and 666 appear to be two different things. The mark of the beast is something people must receive in order to buy and sell. The number 666 is somehow associated with the beast/Antichrist as “his” number.
The meaning of 666 is a mystery, and it appears that the apostle John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended it to be that way. Calculating it, John says, requires “wisdom.” Some, using gematria (assigning a number value to each letter of a name or word and then combining the number values to arrive at a total number), have identified the Antichrist as various people in world history. Some of the popular targets have been “Caesar Nero,” “Ronald Wilson Reagan,” “Mikhail Gorbachev,” and various popes in Roman Catholic history. The lengths some will go to in order to get a person’s name to add up to 666 are amazing. Virtually any name can add up to 666 if enough mathematical gymnastics are employed.
Six hundred, sixty-six will somehow identify the beast, but precisely how 666 is connected to the beast is not the main point of Revelation 13:18. The Bible often uses the number 7 to refer to God and His perfection. Traditionally, 6 is thought to be the number of man, created on the sixth day and always “falling short” of God. The beast/Antichrist will strive to be like God. He will likely even claim to be God. But, just as the number 6 falls short of the number 7, so will the beast/Antichrist, with his “trinity” of 6’s, ultimately fail in his effort to defeat God.
The Seven Churches
The seven churches described in Revelation 2-3 are seven literal churches at the time that John the apostle was writing Revelation. Though they were literal churches in that time, there is also spiritual significance for churches and believers today. The first purpose of the letters was to communicate with the literal churches and meet their needs at that time.
The second purpose is to reveal seven different types of individuals/churches throughout history and instruct them in God’s truth.
A possible third purpose is to use the seven churches to foreshadow seven different periods in the history of the Church. The problem with this view is that each of the seven churches describes issues that could fit the Church in any time in its history. So, although there may be some truth to the seven churches representing seven eras, there is far too much speculation in this regard. Our focus should be on what message God is giving us through the seven churches. The seven churches are
(1) Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) – the church that had forsaken its first love (2:4).
(2) Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) – the church that would suffer persecution (2:10).
(3) Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) – the church that needed to repent (2:16).
(4) Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) – the church that had a false prophetess (2:20).
(5) Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) – the church that had fallen asleep (3:2).
(6) Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) – the church that had endured patiently (3:10).
(7) Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) – the church with the lukewarm faith (3:16).
The Tribulation Saints
The tribulation saints are, quite simply, saints living during the tribulation. We believe that the church will be raptured before the tribulation, but the Bible indicates that a great number of people during the tribulation will place their faith in Jesus Christ. In his vision of heaven, John sees a vast number of these tribulation saints who have been martyred by the Antichrist: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). When John asks who they are, he is told, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (verse 14).
The tribulation will be a time of great trouble for the wicked, because of God’s judgments. It will also be a time of great persecution for the believers—or saints—because of the Antichrist’s persecution (Revelation 13:7). Daniel saw the Antichrist “waging war against the saints and defeating them” (Daniel 7:21). Of course, the saints’ eternal salvation is secure: Daniel also saw that “the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom” (Daniel 7:22; cf. Revelation 14:12–13).
The tribulation saints will hear the gospel from several possible sources. The first is the Bible; there will be many copies of the Bible left in the world, and when God’s judgments begin to fall, many people will likely react by finding a Bible to see if prophecies are being fulfilled. Many of the tribulation saints will also have heard the gospel from the two witnesses (Revelation 11:1–13). The Bible says these two individuals “will prophesy for 1,260 days [three and a half years]” (verse 3) and perform great miracles (verse 6). And then there are the 144,000 Jewish missionaries who are redeemed and sealed by God during the tribulation (Revelation 7:1–8). Immediately following the description of their sealing in Revelation 7, we read of the multitudes of tribulation saints who are saved from every corner of the world (verses 9–17).
The tribulation saints will serve their Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of desperate surroundings. Faithful to the end, many of these believers will die for their faith. But in their death, they overcome; “They overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11). And God will reward them: “He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15–17).
We praise the Lord that the great day of trouble will also be a great day of grace. Even as God is meting out His just punishment on an unbelieving world, He will be restoring Israel to faith and extending grace to all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. God has always been in the business of saving people, and that salvation will still be available during the tribulation. Don’t wait until then, however; receive Jesus now (John 1:12).
The Twenty-four Elders
Revelation 4:4 declares, “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” The book of Revelation nowhere specifically identifies who the twenty-four elders are. However, they are most likely representative of the Church. It is unlikely that they are angelic beings, as some suggest. The fact that they sit on thrones indicates that they reign with Christ. Nowhere in Scripture do angels ever rule or sit on thrones. The Church, however, is repeatedly said to rule and reign with Christ (Revelation 2:26-27, 5:10, 20:4; Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30).
In addition, the Greek word translated here as “elders” is never used to refer to angels, only to men, particularly to men of a certain age who are mature and able to rule the Church. The word elder would be inappropriate to refer to angels, who do not age. Their mode of dress would also indicate these are men. While angels do appear in white, white garments are more commonly found on believers, symbolizing Christ’s righteousness imputed to us at salvation (Revelation 3:5,18; 19:8).
The golden crowns worn by the elders also indicate these are men, not angels. Crowns are never promised to angels, nor are angels ever seen wearing them. The word translated “crown” here refers to the victor’s crown, worn by those who have successfully competed and won the victory, as Christ promised (Revelation 2:10; 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12).
Some people believe these twenty-four elders represent Israel, but at the time of this vision, Israel as a whole nation had not yet been redeemed. The elders cannot represent tribulation saints for the same reason—not all had yet been converted at the time of John’s vision. The most likely option is that the elders represent the raptured Church which sings songs of redemption (Revelation 5:8-10). They wear the crowns of victory and have gone to the place prepared for them by their Redeemer (John 14:1-4).
The Two Witnesses
In Revelation 11:3–12 is a description of two individuals who will help accomplish God’s work during the tribulation: “I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth” (verse 3). Nowhere does the Bible identify these two witnesses by name, although people through the years have speculated.
The two witnesses in Revelation will have miraculous powers to accompany their message (Revelation 11:6), and no one will be able to stop them in their work (verse 5). At the end of their ministry, when they have said all they need to say, the beast will kill them and the wicked world will rejoice, allowing the bodies of the fallen prophets to lie in the streets (verses 7–10). Three and a half days later, however, God’s two witnesses will be resurrected and, in full view of their enemies, ascend to heaven (verses 11–12).
There are three primary theories on the identity of the two witnesses in Revelation: (1) Moses and Elijah, (2) Enoch and Elijah, and (3) two unknown believers whom God calls to be His witnesses in the end times.
(1) Moses and Elijah are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses due to the specific miracles that John says the witnesses will perform. The witnesses will have the power to turn water into blood (Revelation 11:6), which duplicates a famous miracle of Moses (Exodus 7). And the witnesses will have the power to destroy their enemies with fire (Revelation 11:5), which corresponds to an event in Elijah’s life (2 Kings 1). Also giving strength to this view is the fact that Moses and Elijah both appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3–4). Further, Jewish tradition expects Moses and Elijah to return, based on the prophecy of Elijah’s coming in Malachi 4:5 and God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18), which some Jews believe necessitates Moses’ return.
(2) Enoch and Elijah are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses because of the unique circumstances surrounding their exit from the world. Enoch and Elijah, as far as we know, are the only two individuals whom God has taken directly to heaven without experiencing death (Genesis 5:23; 2 Kings 2:11). Proponents of this view point to Hebrews 9:27, which says that all men are appointed to die once. The fact that neither Enoch nor Elijah has yet experienced death seems to qualify them for the job of the two witnesses, who will be killed when their job is done. In addition, both Enoch and Elijah were prophets who pronounced God’s judgment (1 Kings 17:1; Jude 1:14–15).
(3) Two unknowns are seen as possibilities for the two witnesses because of the lack of specificity in Revelation 11. Scripture does not identify the two witnesses by name, and no well-known person is associated with their coming. God is perfectly capable of taking two “ordinary” believers and enabling them to perform the same signs and wonders that Moses and Elijah did. There is nothing in Revelation 11 that requires us to assume a “famous” identity for the two witnesses.
There is an interesting passage in Zechariah 4 that gives us a prototype of the two witnesses of Revelation. Zechariah has a vision in which he sees a solid gold lampstand. On top is a bowl of oil, and an olive tree stands on each side (verses 3–4). The lampstand gives its light without human maintenance, being constantly supplied by the olive oil flowing from the trees into the bowl. God’s message to Zechariah was that God’s work (rebuilding the temple) would be accomplished “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (verse 6).
Zechariah asks about the meaning of the olive trees and the branches supplying the oil, and the angel who speaks to him says, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14, ESV). In other words, God’s power to sustain His work is flowing through two individuals set apart for the task. In Zechariah’s context, these two individuals are Joshua (the current high priest) and Zerubbabel (the current governor of Judah). We can also see a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ here, as the Messiah would combine the offices of priest and king. Then we come to Revelation 14:4. In the description of the two witnesses, John says, “They are ‘the two olive trees’ and the two lampstands, and ‘they stand before the Lord of the earth.’” John quotes from Zechariah 4. The two witnesses of Revelation, like Joshua and Zerubbabel, will have God’s power flowing through them to accomplish God’s work.
So who are the two witnesses of Revelation? The Bible does not say. All three views presented above are valid and plausible interpretations that Christians can have. The identity of the two witnesses is not an issue Christians should be dogmatic about.