Perhaps one of the most treasured books in my library was written by W. Phillip Keller, titled, Predators in Our Pulpits. In one chapter, Keller talks about the necessity of preaching repentance. He writes:
“When John the Baptist, the greatest man born of a woman, came as Christ’s forerunner, he preached the absolute need for repentance. When Christ started out on his public ministry, he called for repentance. When the apostles of the early Church arrested the attention of their society, they demanded repentance. Yet the Christian leaders of our generation are almost silent on the subject. They are reluctant to carry out Christ’s clear command that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all the nations of the earth.”
Indeed, too many clergies today won’t boldly speak against sin and the need to turn away from it and trust Christ because it’s unpopular. They don’t want to pay the price of an authentic witness.
Revelation 11 prophesies that concurrent with a new and Third Temple in Jerusalem during the Tribulation period, God raises up “two witnesses” clothed in burlap or sackcloth. Their attire speaks of mourning, misery and misfortune. These two witnesses, facing extreme opposition, preach about God’s judgment and the urgent need for repentance from sin. Here is what the Scriptures say:
“And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will be clothed in burlap and will prophesy during those 1,260 days.
“These two prophets are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of all the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire flashes from their mouths and consumes their enemies. This is how anyone who tries to harm them must die. They have power to shut the sky so that no rain will fall for as long as they prophesy. And they have the power to turn the rivers and oceans into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they wish.
“When they complete their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the bottomless pit will declare war against them, and he will conquer them and kill them. And their bodies will lie in the main street of Jerusalem, the city that is figuratively called ‘Sodom’ and ‘Egypt,’ the city where their Lord was crucified. And for three and a half days, all peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will stare at their bodies. No one will be allowed to bury them. All the people who belong to this world will gloat over them and give presents to each other to celebrate the death of the two prophets who had tormented them.
“But after three and a half days, God breathed life into them, and they stood up! Terror struck all who were staring at them. Then a loud voice from heaven called to the two prophets, ‘Come up here!’ And they rose to heaven in a cloud as their enemies watched.
“At the same time there was a terrible earthquake that destroyed a tenth of the city. Seven thousand people died in that earthquake, and everyone else was terrified and gave glory to the God of Heaven.”
There has been considerable speculation as to the identity of these two witnesses.
Some spiritualize the text and say the two witnesses are not actual people. William Barclay, in his commentary on Revelation, notes:
“They see in the two witnesses the Law and the Prophets, or the Law and the Gospel, or the Old Testament and the New Testament. Or, they see in the two witnesses a picture of the Church. Jesus told his followers that they must be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). Those who explain the two witnesses by the witness of the Church explain the number two by referring to Deuteronomy 19:15, where it is said that if a charge is brought against anyone it must be confirmed by the evidence of two witnesses. But the picture of the two witnesses is so definite that it seems to refer to definite persons.”
Indeed, it is more proper to see these two as literal people.
The earliest Christian thought identified the two as a return of Enoch and Elijah. In his commentary on Revelation, the late M.R. DeHaan explains that this belief is based entirely on Hebrews 9:27, which reads:
“Each person is destined to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
However, DeHann rightly proceeds to refute this position, arguing:
“The statement, ‘It is appointed unto men once to die,’ leads them to conclude that since Enoch and Elijah were the only two men in Scripture who never died, they must be the two witnesses of whom Revelation 11 speaks. May I remind you, however, that Hebrews 9:27 is not applicable to all men individually; the word ‘men’ is used here in the generic sense, as applying to the race. It is appointed unto man once to die, but all men will not have to die. There will be a generation of believers who will never die … Paul tells us in I Thessalonians 4, the classic chapter which tells of the Rapture of the Church: ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.’ In I Corinthians 15:51-52, we read: ‘Behold I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.’ From these passages, you will see that the statement ‘it is appointed unto men once to die’ cannot refer to every individual but speaks of the race in general. Similarly, in Romans 11:25, we read, ‘All Israel shall be saved;’ this, however, does not mean that every individual Israelite shall be saved, but, rather, all Israel as a nation.”
Other Bible students and scholars believe the two witnesses are likelier to be Elijah and Moses because the description of their ministries is so much like theirs.
This position is held by renowned Bible teacher Dr. David Jeremiah. In his terrific book, The Book of Signs, Jeremiah says:
“Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming: ‘Behold, I [the Lord] will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:5-6). Some believe John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Luke 1:7 tell us that John came in the ‘spirit and power of Elijah,’ but this simply means that John did his work by the power of the Spirit, just as Elijah did. He was not literally Elijah reincarnated. John himself affirmed this fact. When Jewish leaders asked him, ‘Are you Elijah?’ he answered unequivocally, ‘I am not’ (John 1: 21). Clearly, Malachi’s prophecy points to someone other than John the Baptist – someone yet to come.”
“Both Moses and Elijah appeared at Christ’s transfiguration (Matthew 17:3.) By God’s power, Moses turned water into blood (Exodus 7:19-20). The two witnesses will perform the same miracle (Revelation 11:6). Moses’ body was miraculously preserved for restoration (Deuteronomy 34:5-7). Satan fought the archangel Michael for Moses’ body (Jude 9). He may have intended to prevent God’s program of restoration in the last days. Since the witnesses will minister within the nation of Israel, this connection with Jewish Scriptures will underscore their message.”
Much more important, however, than the identity of the two witnesses is the ministry they perform.
Revelation 11 indicates their ministry is one of profound influence. They call on Israel to repent of her apostasy and for the world to receive Christ. Their preaching will last three and a half years of the seven years of the Tribulation, although which half of the Tribulation period is debated.
It is most likely their powerful testimony precipitates the conversion of the 144,000 Jewish evangelists from the twelve tribes of Israel. Moreover, their preaching also results in the salvation of a remnant in Israel.
Their preaching will bring about the salvation of multitudes worldwide during the darkest period of human history. Unfortunately, most of the world will hate their witness and want them silenced and dead, but they will be invincible until their work is complete. God will have provided them with miraculous powers to use against the enemies of the Gospel.
When the work of the two witnesses is finalized, then and only then will God allow them to be conquered. The Anti-Christ, the beast coming from the abyss, will pitilessly and ruthlessly slay them. On a main street in Jerusalem, their corpses will be displayed — in a city as vile in God’s eyes as Sodom’s debauchery and Egypt’s tyranny — in the same place where even the innocent Son of God was heartlessly and inhumanly placed on Calvary’s tree.
The world will rejoice at the demise of these two witnesses. They will celebrate in a way some scholars have likened to “the devil’s Christmas.” Nevertheless, God will vindicate the two by raising them from the dead and snatching them away into heaven for the entire world to see.
A tremendous earthquake will immediately follow, killing thousands in Jerusalem. All of these sensational manifestations of the Lord’s power will terrify people so that many will give glory to God.
I hope every preacher who faithfully proclaims the Gospel of repentance and faith in Christ might be encouraged to preach fearlessly in light of this text. Your ministry is secure and protected by the Lord; no one can end or destroy it until God is finished with you. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said his authentic witnesses would “take up snakes” and “drink poison” (Mark 16:18). He wasn’t calling for a carnival show of misguided religious fanatics dancing around a church sanctuary with their hands full of rattlesnakes.
Let me finish with an additional quote by Keller explaining repentance, which is extremely important to understand. He writes:
“In essence, repentance is a disclosure to us of our undone condition before the absolute love, purity, justice, and incandescent righteousness of the Risen Christ. It is borne in upon our stained souls so smeared with selfishness, our spirits sullied with pride, our daily behavior so corrupted with evil that we are at odds with God our father. We are at enmity with God. We are rebels living in open defiance of his best intentions for us. We have set ourselves up in pride as supreme in our own affairs. So, we refuse to receive him [Christ] as Monarch in our lives. We close him out of our considerations. We live as though he were dead.”
Repentance is a change of mind, heart, and life. It is turning away from our neglect and rebellion and turning to God. It is surrendering to his Lordship and receiving his grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
Any preacher who proclaims this message should get ready to duck for cover. Repentance, an indispensable portion of God’s message of redemption, is deeply offensive to the unregenerate heart. Still, the minister must be steadfast. He may, however, rest assured that no criticism of his ministry, no attempt by the enemy of men’s souls to sabotage it, will be successful. His ministry of the Word is invincible unless God, in his wisdom, has completed his work at his present location, ready to move him onto another field, or the Master is about to snatch him away to glory.
Preach witness! Preach! God is with you!
Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.