After the sounding forth of the first six trumpets in Revelation 8-9, we have an interlude before the sounding forth of the seventh and final trumpet in Revelation 11:15ff. The interlude is found in Revelation 10:1-11:14, and it concerns the nature of the church, even as she finds herself in the midst of the mighty trumpet blasts.
The mighty trumpet blasts are sounding forth. As trumpets one through four sound forth, the created order itself is shaken and undone. But what of the church? As fifth trumpet sounds forth, the hordes of hell are unleashed upon the inhabitants of the earth. But what of the church? As the sixth trumpet sounds forth, wars and rumors of war ravage the earth, killing a third of mankind. But what of the church? These mighty trumpet blasts sound forth as harbingers, warning of the last trumpet that will sound on the great and coming day of the Lord when Christ Himself shall descend on the clouds of glory to judge the living and the dead. As we await the sounding of that last great and terrible trumpet: what of the church?
Measuring the Temple
The church has already been set before us in this interlude in 11:1-2. There we learned that a measuring is taking place—a measuring not so much for dimensional purposes, but a measuring that effects separation—a measuring between the true church and the false church. John is commanded to measure the temple, the altar, and those who worship there. The temple is the church of Jesus Christ. Here you might remember Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, where he calls the church the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Spirit. The altar is the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the means by which we enter into the very presence of God. Here you might remember the book of Hebrews, where again and the again the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ is set before us, the author even telling us that we have an altar from God, Jesus Christ Himself. Those who worship there are the elect of God, those who have been brought into union with Christ, now bound to God Himself (Ephesians 1).
John must measure the temple, the altar, and those who worship there, but he is commanded to leave the outer court unmeasured. The outer court is given over to the Gentiles, to non-Christians. That outer court is the false church. Its location is significant: the outer court is before the temple, it even surrounds the perimeter of the temple proper. Thus we see something of the nature of those who belong to the false church: they find themselves in the proximity of the temple, in the proximity of the true church, they may even have the appearance of the true church. They have the form of godliness, but know not the power thereof. How do the wolves come into the church but dressed in sheep’s clothing?
What is it then that ultimately separates the true church from the false? The answer is simple: the altar—the altar of Christ—His sacrifice. Here we learn something of the nature of the true church. The true church is made up of those who by God’s sovereign grace—and by God’s sovereign grace alone—cling to the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The true church loves the Lord Jesus Christ. She knows no other message than the message of Jesus Christ. She stands upon Scripture alone. She knows no other gospel than the glorious gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. She has always before her the great and consummate calling of the glory of God, and of God alone!
We also we see something of the nature of the false church. The false church does not cling to Christ. She may pay Him lip service, but He is not the life of that church. She may claim to love Him, but her actions prove that her love lies elsewhere, namely upon man, and because her love lies upon man, her worship follows suit. Her worship is not centered upon the throne. Her worship is centered upon man. “Give me what I want in worship. Make me feel good. Give me those warm fuzzy feelings.
Give me those spiritual pep talks. Speak to my felt needs. Here I am, entertain me!” Such is the nature of the false church: she does not worship Christ, for ultimately she does not love Christ.
This measuring is even now taking place. The true church clings to Christ, the false church does not. That is Revelation 11:1-2. Now as we turn to 11:3-4, we have the church set before us once again, albeit under a different heading. Now the church is set before us in terms of the two witnesses. Those two witnesses are described as those who have been given power from on high, those who prophesy for 1260 days, those who are clothed in sackcloth, those who are identified as the two olive trees, and as the two lampstands, standing before the God of all the earth.
The Two Witnesses in Zechariah 4
If we are to understand Revelation 11, we must understand that its background is found in Zechariah 4, a chapter which is no less enigmatic than Revelation 11 itself. Perhaps the background of Zechariah 4 will help. In the year 538 B.C., Cyrus, king of Persia, had issued the edict that the Jews could return to Jerusalem, in order to build once again the temple of God. Many of the Jews left the city of Babylon and returned to Jerusalem and began to build the temple.
Very quickly opposition arose. That opposition was mighty; it was powerful, and it was strong. You can read about that opposition in Ezra 4:1-5. Not only was the opposition mighty, powerful, and strong, the opposition was also quite successful. The building of the temple ceased. No work was done on the temple for nearly seventeen years, so intense, so powerful, and so mighty, was the opposition.
In the year 520 B.C., the temple once again began to be rebuilt. It was in that year that Zechariah began to prophesy, having received a series of night visions from the Lord. This, then, is the background of Zechariah 4: the temple is being rebuilt, but the opposition remains—it is still strong, mighty, and powerful.
Undoubtedly, the Jews were discouraged. Will the temple ever be rebuilt? Will they finally be overcome by their enemies? In Zechariah 4 the great question is: “What of the temple? What of the temple? What of the temple?” And the answer to that question is given in the night vision of Zechariah 4.
Zechariah is awakened at night, and he sees a vision, a vision of a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps; two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left. Understandably, Zechariah does not understand the vision. Three times in this one chapter he asks the question, “What is going on?” “What are these my Lord” (v. 4)? “What are these two olive trees at the right of the lampstand and at its left?” (v. 11)? “What are these two olive branches that drip into the receptacles of the two gold pipes from which the golden oil drains” (v. 12)? Zechariah did not understand the vision but the angel revealed it to him.
The angel revealed to him the significance of the two olive trees. The two olive trees are the two anointed ones of the Lord, they stand beside the Lord of all the earth. Still we must ask the question, who are these two anointed ones? Commentators agree that the two anointed ones to which Zechariah 4 is referring are none other than Zerubbabel and Joshua.
The Joshua that is in view in Zechariah 4 was a high priest in the line of Aaron. This Joshua was a priest who ministered among the people of God in the days of Zechariah as the temple was being rebuilt. Note that, and note it well: Joshua is a priest.
And what about Zerubbabel? Zerubbabel was of the tribe of Judah; he belonged to the line of David; he was a prince; he was a governor. Indeed, if Cyrus had allowed it, Zerubbabel would have been set up upon the throne as king of Judah. This Zerubbabel was a ruler of the people in the days of Zechariah as the temple was being rebuilt. Note that, and note it well: Zerubbabel was a prince.
The two anointed ones that stand beside the Lord of all the earth are Joshua and Zerubbabel: Joshua the priest, Zerubbabel the prince, these are the two anointed ones of the Lord, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out the rebuilding of the temple even in the face of great and powerful opposition.
In Zechariah 4:7 the opposition to the building of the temple is represented to us in terms of a mountain. This opposition was setting itself up against the great and mighty mountain of the Lord—Mt. Zion itself—that mountain upon which the temple was being rebuilt! Over against this great, powerful, and mountain-like opposition, the rebuilding of the temple seemed impossible. And yet Zechariah was assured that this great mountain-like opposition would be leveled and brought low. The temple will be rebuilt! Zerubbabel will lay the capstone with shouts—shouts of “Grace! Grace to it!” It may seem a small thing; it may seem insignificant in the face of the great, mighty, and powerful world empire. But Zechariah must not despise the day of small things (verses 9-10). He must finish the work. The temple must be built! Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts (Zech. 4:6).
The vision of Zechariah 4, then, sets before us the mighty working of God by His Spirit, through His anointed ones, to accomplish the building of His temple, and that in the face of great, mighty, and powerful opposition. That is Zechariah 4 in a nutshell.
The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11
Having considered Zechariah 4, we are now ready to understand Revelation 11:3-4 and the two witnesses that are set before us. Together, Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the prince set before us the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. Joshua was a priest—one who served God and the people of God in the worship of God. Zerubbabel was a prince—one who governed the people of God in service to God and in service to the people of God. Joshua and Zerubbabel set before us the office of priest and prince. Joshua and Zerubbabel set before us the offices of ministry and governing.
Joshua, the priest, lines up with the office of the minister of the Word. Zerubbabel, the prince, lines up with the office of the elder. Joshua the priest serves God and the people of God in the worship of God. What is the role of the minister but to serve God and the people of God in the worship of God? Zerubabbel the prince serves God and the people of God in governing the people of God. What is the role of the elder but to serve God in the service of the people of God in governing? The minister lines up with Joshua the priest. The elder lines up with Zerubbabel the prince.
The two witnesses are the offices of the minister of the Word and the eldership. Such are the two witnesses. But let us push things still a step further. Why are the two witnesses—the office of the minister of the Word and the office of elder—now set before us in Revelation 11 in terms of two olive trees and in terms of two lampstands? What is the significance of those two olive trees? What is the significance of those two lampstands? The olive trees and the lampstands are indicative of the work of the Holy Spirit!
Here remember the vision of Zechariah chapter 4: the oil flowed from the olive trees into the lamp stands, thereby giving the lampstands their light. And so it is with the ministry of the church today, in the office of the minister of the Word and of the elder. As the oil flows from the olive trees into the lampstands, so the power of the Holy Spirit must dwell in the ministry of the Word and in the rule of the elders. The ministry of the Word and of the eldership draws its strength and power from the Holy Spirit. Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts. As the lampstands were useless without the oil from the olive trees—no oil, no light—so the offices of the minister of the Word and of the elder are powerless without the effecting work of the Holy Spirit—no working of the Holy Spirit, no power in those offices.
But with the power and strength of the Holy Spirit these offices shine forth as light in this dark world, illuminating the way to God Himself. Consider the implications then, of these two witnesses. Note that they are given power by Christ Himself. It is Christ who gives the authority and power through His Spirit both to the minister of the Word and to the elder. The authority and the power reside not in the men themselves, but in the offices. That power is given from on high. No minister of the Word nor any elder has the right to arrogate to himself such power. It belongs to the offices, not to the man, and it is the Spirit’s to give.
We are told furthermore that the two witnesses prophesied for 1260 days. Do the math: it works out to be the same as the 42 months of Revelation 11:2. In other words, the ministry of the church, and that through the proclamation of the Word and the rule of the elders, continues from the first coming of Christ to His return on the clouds of glory. The church will endure! Why is it pictured to us here in terms of 1260 days? In order to emphasize that ministry must go forth each day—each day the gospel must be held forth as light shining in the midst of darkness! Each day that gospel must go forth even in the face of great opposition. You remember the mountain of Zechariah 4:7! Still that gospel must go forth!
To be sure, that gospel ministry is a glorious ministry, but lest we might be deceived into thinking that it is only a glorious ministry, we are reminded here that the two witnesses are clothed in sackcloth, the garments of mourning. The church knows the sweetness of the gospel, but she knows as well the bitterness that it brings as the world hates the gospel and persecutes the church.
The church on earth is a militant church. She wears sackcloth as she awaits the great and glorious day when she shall stand triumphant, robed in white apparel!
The ministry of the Word and that of the elders is to proclaim Christ in the face of great opposition to a dark and dying world. The two witnesses are the witnesses of Christ, after all! He calls them My witnesses! The ministry of the church, then, is the ministry of summoning the lost to salvation in Jesus Christ. The ministry of the church is the ministry of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. The ministry of the two witnesses, the ministry of the preacher, the ministry of the elders, the ministry of the church is to stand upon Scripture alone, proclaiming salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone!
No other ministry will do. The Reformers had it right. No other ministry will do in the midst of a dark and dying world. No other ministry will save a dark and dying world. No other ministry will bring light in the midst of a dark world. No other ministry will bring life in the midst of a dying world. No other ministry will do for a church that knows her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A ministry that does not proclaim Christ cannot rightly be called a ministry of the two witnesses, for a ministry that does not proclaim Christ is no ministry at all.
The ministry of the church, then, does not consist of social action, as important as that may be. Nor does the ministry of the church exist in political action, as important as that may be. Nor is the ministry of the church to speak merely to the felt needs of the people, as though the religion of the church were little more than an opiate for the masses. The ministry of the church, let it be clear, is nothing less than the glorious ministry of Jesus Christ and His Gospel!
The ministry of the church is the proclamation of the glorious gospel. That this is the church’s ministry is evident finally from the place of the lampstand in the temple. Do you remember the furniture of the tabernacle and of the temple? Do you remember the place of the lampstand? Do you remember where it stood? It was there in the holy place. It stood in the holy place between the altar of sacrifice in the outer court and the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. Between the outer court and the Holy of Holies—between the altar of sacrifice and the ark of the covenant—you have the lampstand in the holy place. In fact, in the Solomonic temple, there was not only one lampstand in the holy place, but ten, five lampstands on the south, five lampstands on the north, forming a passageway from the sacrifice of the outer court to the glory-throne of God in the Holy of Holies. The way from Golgotha, the place of sacrifice, to the Holy of Holies, the Presence of God, is only through the One who proclaimed, “I am the Light of the World!” And the ministry of the church is to bear forth that Light! To illumine the way into the presence of the living God: such is the ministry of the two witnesses. Such is the ministry of the church. She proclaims Christ, the Light of the World.
And so, what of the church? What of the church? Does she seem insignificant? Does she seem powerless? Does she seem weak? Would you despise the day of small things?
Let the message of Rev. 11:3-4 be clear. God is presently at work building His church, and that work goes forth, not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Make no mistake about it. The church is being built even in the face of great opposition. When the last trumpet sounds, and the opposition is finally struck down, you may be assured, that the church will still stand! Do not despise the day of small things. Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts!
1 I wish to express my indebtedness to both Charles Dennison and Meredith
Kline for many of the insights in this article: Meredith Kline for the insights on Zechariah, and Charles Dennison for the connections between Zechariah and Revelation.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.