Witness & Testimony in the Book of Revelation

In the last post a made the case the the placement of Revelation at the close of the canon and it’s role in bringing the grand narrative of Scripture to a close highlights the theme of mission in and of itself. But, it is not only Revelation’s place in the canon that alerts the reader to its missional significance. The theme of mission is important, though often overlooked, within the book’s twenty-two chapters.

Three repeated themes in the book of Revelation will serve as examples and alert us to the broader theme of mission in the book: the focus on Christ as the “faithful witness” and the call for the church to follow him in bearing faithful witness, the imagery of the church as lampstands, and the repeated mention of the nations (or people of every tribe, tongue, etc.) participating in heavenly worship and in the life of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Witness and Testimony

John signals to his readers at the outset that the theme of testimony will be a significant one throughout his book. John states, “He [God] made it [the revelation of Jesus Christ] known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1-2). In v.2 John draws upon the μάρτυς/μαρτυρέω word group twice: as a verb translated “bore witness” and as a noun “testimony”.

The Greek root martyrion had not, at John’s writing, taken on its nuanced significance of one who dies for the faith. However, it is likely that it began to take on this connotation largely because of how John employed the word throughout the Apocalypse. Saints were not, for John, martyrs because they had been put to death; they were put to death because they were martyrs – because they bore witness to Christ. That Jesus’ followers ought to be witnesses and bear testimony should come as no surprise, for they share in the life and mission of Jesus, the “faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5).

This theme was also evident in John’s Gospel. Jesus spoke to Pilate saying, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Before Jesus bore witness, John the Baptizer was preparing his way serving as a witness (μαρτυρίαν) – to “bear witness (μαρτυρήσῃ) about the light.” Later, Jesus reminds the crowds that not only did John bear witness to him, but so did Jesus’ own works, the Father, and the Scriptures (John 5:30-46). In addition, the Helper who will come to the disciples after Jesus’ departure will also bear witness to Jesus (John 15:26-27).

After Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit will enable the church in its mission as Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus describes this in Acts 1:7-8, “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

Bearing witness is foundational to the church’s mission. Where she fails to maintain her witness she fails in her God given mission. Michael Goheen asserts, “We would be mistaken if we were to think of Jesus’ call to witness as merely one more assignment added to an otherwise full agenda for the people of God. Witness is not one more task among others: Witness defines the role of this community in this era of God’s story and thus defines its very identity.” Goheen continues, quoting Suzanne De Dietrich, “This witnessing function of the church is not a secondary task, it is her raison d’être, her essential vocation; the missionary task belongs to the esse of the church.”

On this point, the continuity between the church’s mission and that of Old Testament Israel is important to recognize, for many tend to think about mission as going somewhere to do something and of witness as saying or telling. But, beginning with the Old Testament foundations for mission, it’s evident that the going and the doing, saying and telling, are only parts of the mission, and not the most crucial parts at that. Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra state correctly, “Mission is about being. It is about being a distinctive kind of people, a countercultural, multinational community among the nations. It is modeling before a skeptical world what the living God of the Bible is really like…what was true of Israel’s calling is also true for our calling as the church of Jesus Christ…[we are to be] a ‘display people.’”

Israel and then the New Testament church serve as God’s missional agents primarily by bearing witness to God, his character, his gracious plan of redemption and the nature of the kingdom he is establishing. This bearing witness is not to be conceived of strictly as telling others, but showing and telling.

In beginning his Apocalypse with the repeated emphasis on witness and testimony, John reminds the reader of the importance of witness to the people of God through the ages. John continues making use of this word group throughout Revelation. The souls under the altar have suffered and been put to death because they did what they were called to do – bear witness (Rev 6:9; see also Rev 20:4). Later in the book, the saints gain an ironic victory over Satan (ironic in that they have been victorious even though they have been slain) by the “blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (μαρτυρίας)” (Rev 12:11). Their testimony has become a weapon used by God in his mission to destroy Satan’s work, undoing the damage he has inflicted on God’s people and God’s world. In Revelation 19 the angel sent to John equates “your brothers” (fellow Christians) with those “who hold the testimony of Jesus.” Holding to the testimony of Jesus is a defining characteristic of true believers.

Revelation 11 makes a significant contribution to the missional thrust of John’s apocalypse. Rather than seeing the two witnesses as two literal end-time prophets, it is more in keeping with the nature of the apocalypse to see them as a symbol of the witnessing church throughout this present age of tribulation and persecution. As argued above, the role of the church as witness is central to the book of Revelation and the two witnesses point to the church’s prophetic role in the world, a role which will certainly give rise to persecution.

Beale makes a compelling case for understanding the two witnesses as symbols for the church corporate. It is significant that John identifies of the witnesses as lampstands, an image which is used elsewhere in Revelation to refer to the church (see Rev. 1:20). In addition, the witnesses are also called olive trees, referring to Zechariah 4. In Zechariah, the olive trees pointed to Zerubbabel, the head of tribe of Judah and to the priest Joshua. The emphasis was on the priestly and kingly nature of Israel, distinctions which now belong to the church, being a kingdom of priests who reign! (5:10).

Third, Rev. 11:7 says the beast makes war with them and conquers them. This is connected to Daniel 7:21 where the last evil kingdom persecutes Israel (now understood to be the church, the true Israel). Moreover, in Rev. 13:5-7 the beast is given authority “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The language in 11:7 and 13:5 is nearly identical; hence, it is likely that we’re intended to link the witnesses conquered and the saints conquered.

Finally, in v. 9-13 the entire world witnesses their demise. While some think this refers to TV coverage of their murder and dead bodies lying in the street (i.e. Hal Lindsey), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the witnesses are visible throughout the world because the church is everywhere present. It is before the eyes of the watching world that the church carries on its prophetic activity, bearing witness to Christ and suffering martyrdom as a result. And, it is before the eyes of the world that the church is vindicated by God through resurrection.

Throughout the Apocalypse, John highlights the task of the church to serve as Christ’s witnesses, bearing testimony that is faithful and true.  In this we advance God’s mission to the world.