Various Old Testament texts serve as the background for much of the imagery in the book of Revelation, with the symbols found therein often reapplied in new ways to our new covenant context. Revelation 11:3–14 overflows with Old Testament allusions in its description of the two witnesses.
John tells us in Revelation 11:3 that these witnesses minister for 1,260 days. Since the ancient world assigned thirty days to each month, this period works out to forty-two months or three and a half years. Importantly, this is the same period of time given for the church’s ultimate protection by God and trampling by foreigners, that is, the current era (vv. 1–2). In other words, the witnesses apparently work during the present church age, which ends with the return of Christ.
Revelation 11:4 explains that these two witnesses “are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” This takes us back to Zechariah’s vision of two olive trees, where the olive trees represent the postexilic leaders of Israel, Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest (Zech. 4). In turn, these leaders pointed forward to Christ, who would serve as both King and Priest of His people. In Revelation, the olive tree imagery is applied to the two witnesses, giving us a picture of the faithful church. Remember that these olive trees are also lampstands, and Revelation 1:20 says that lampstands represent churches. Furthermore, in Christ, Christians are a kingdom of priests (5:10), tying us back to the original referents of Zechariah’s vision.
The two witnesses are apparently the church that ministers in the period between Christ’s ascension and return. This church is to have a prophetic witness. We see this in 11:5–6, which speaks of the witnesses in ways that recall the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Moses (Ex. 7:1–11:32; 1 Kings 18:26–38). Like the prophets of old, the church is tasked with proclaiming the coming judgment of God and the need for people to turn from their sin and trust in Him for forgiveness and salvation. Such preaching torments the souls of the impenitent (Rev. 11:10), so it is not surprising that they seek to kill the church and rejoice when God’s people are martyred (vv. 7–10). But even when the church seems defeated, it is only for a short time (three and a half days; see v. 11), for the church cannot finally be vanquished. She is protected by her husband, Christ Jesus, and she will accomplish her mission.