9 And from the people, and tribes, and tongues, and nations, they see their corpse for three and a half days, and they do not allow their corpses to be placed into a tomb. 10 And those dwelling on the earth rejoice over them and celebrate, and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell upon the earth.
We started this week with a review of verse 8, since some in the group were not clear on the symbolism of the Two Witnesses. As I stated before, it is my conviction that the Two Witnesses represent the faithful, gospel-preaching church. I get this from what we’ve discussed so far, particularly the description in 11:4, which calls them “the two olive trees” and “the two golden lamp stands.” Olive oil is a symbol of anointing, and also of the Holy Spirit. In 1:20, the seven lamp stands represented the seven churches. I think this fits with the situation described, where the church has been proclaiming the gospel, and within that gospel presentation there is not only life offered for those who trust in Christ, but also eternal death and punishment for sin promised for those who reject him. Even in our own day, we can see the “torment” inflicted upon the world by the church. For militant atheists, the mere presence of the church is a severe irritation. When the church takes a stand on issues of morality, the world derides the church as having “antiquated” ideas, and being out of step with culture. There is nothing more that the world would love than to see the church reduced to irrelevance. Better yet, mocked and disdained into silence.
And that’s what I see happening in verse 8: the world turns upon the church to the point where the church lies “dead in the street.” What is that picture trying to convey? It’s true that Jesus promised the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18), but the church of Revelation 11:8-10 doesn’t stay “dead in the street,” so, in fact, the world doesn’t overcome the church in any permanent sense. However, does “dead” in the vision mean “dead” in reality? Will there come a time when the church will be “dead”? I’m not sure we can answer that, because we don’t know what that would mean. Would dead be the same as non-existent, or simply marginalized into irrelevance? We haven’t experienced such a thing in the U.S., so it’s hard for us to imagine a society without a church. There are many places in Europe where this is, sadly, becoming a reality. And in the Middle East, for obvious reasons, there are places where the church struggles to survive against very real threats. However it comes about, I think this is picturing a time when the church is scorned into virtual silence, stripped of respect, and discredited in the eyes of the world. If we recall the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3, we can see how this would be a very real danger to the church in John’s day. It’s certainly becoming a danger for the church in our day, too.
Someone in the group made the observation that Sodom, Egypt, and the cross all share in common a situation where victory was won out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Lot’s visitors were about to be abused, Israel was suffering increasingly worse oppression, and Jesus hung dying on a cross. And yet Sodom was reduced to a pile of smoking ashes by the Lord, God inflicted plagues upon Egypt and brought His people out, and Jesus rose from the grave, vindicating his words, both in promising life, and judgment (John 3:16-18, for example).
Back to verse 9, and the world looks at the witnesses lying in the street. I note in passing that if we take the Two Witnesses to be two literal people, then we ought to take those from “people, tribes, tongues, and nations” as literal, too. That would mean, in the space of 3.5 days, representatives of all people, tribes, tongues, and nations came to look at the dead witnesses. Alternatively, we could simply see this as a picture of the world’s scorn for the church. It’s also interesting to note that the word “corpse” here is singular in the Greek (ptôma). John is referring to the Two Witnesses as a corporate unity, which to me further supports the idea that they represent the church. John was perfectly aware of what the plural form of the word is, since he uses it a little later in the same sentence, so I think this is deliberate. For another example of this kind of “corporate” language, see Acts 18:6, where Paul shakes his garments at the Jews in Corinth saying “Your blood upon your head!” The “you”s there are plural, but the noun “head” is singular. He is telling the Jews that their blood is on their own corporate head. It’s possible John reverts back to using the plural when talking about their burial (or lack of), as a reminder that this corporate body is made up of individual witnesses. Christ sees his bride as a corporate entity, but also as a multitude from all parts of the world.
Why do the bodies (or “body”) lie in the street for 3.5 days? What’s the significance of that? Some suggest a connection between the 3.5 days, and the length of time Jesus spent in the tomb. However, the Gospels seem pretty clear that Jesus was in the tomb for 3 days, so I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I much prefer the suggestion that since bodies were supposed to be buried after three days, the fact the witnesses were left in the street beyond that time frame is a further sign of disrespect. It wasn’t enough that no-one was allowed to bury them; they were left in the street beyond the time deemed respectable. There could also be something to the fact that while the witnesses were prophesying for 3.5 years, their time of defeat was only 3.5 days–a fraction of the time. In other words, though the church may get to a point where it looks like she’s defeated, it won’t last long. Indeed, the time of the church’s “defeat” will be significantly shorter than the time of the church’s ministry.
In verse 10, we see those that dwell on the earth throw a party over the slain witnesses. That term, “earth-dwellers” (Greek: hoi katoikountes epi tês gês) was used in 8:13 by the eagle pronouncing woe upon them, and we’ll see it used again of unbelievers (primarily of idolaters) in chapters 13-17.
I thought it particularly intriguing that it says they “send gifts to one another.” This doesn’t happen a lot in Scripture–perhaps the only other time we see this is with the institution of Purim toward the end of Esther (9:20-22). The practice of giving gifts goes back into prehistory. Every culture seems to include it as a way of expressing gratitude or love, or as a means of rewarding someone, or as part of a ceremonial ritual. The fact that the earth-dwellers send gifts as part of their 3.5-day celebration indicates that they were serious about this. These people are uniting in their relief and happiness that a common foe had been defeated. In their eyes, the witnesses had “tormented” them, and we saw a picture of this in the witness’ fiery breath of judgment that consumed those who opposed them. Again, this is a picture, part of a vision, and it communicates to us the nature of the witness’ prophesying: it was gospel proclamation, and warning of sure judgment on those who will not repent and turn to Christ. Clearly, this didn’t sit well with the earth-dwellers, and it caused them a lot of anguish to hear the Good News of Jesus, because the gospel reveals their guilt before a holy God, and exposes their need for a savior. This is something we see today in our own culture. And how they rejoice when that gospel voice is silenced! But not for long…
We’ll pick up with verse 11 next time, Lord willing.