I agree with Tom Wright that it’s best not to take these two witnesses as either allegorical or literal people. Chapter 11 is something like a parable, or a short story, designed to instruct us how to be the church. “Witness” is an interesting word choice, by the way, since its primary connotation is the courtroom. The witnesses are not on trial, since the appropriate word for that would be “defendant”, but are instead testifying on behalf of someone else.
Who? Jesus, of course.
Christ is “on trial” for claiming to replace the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of our God, for subverting the status quo, for claiming that he has been given all power and authority in heaven and on earth and under the earth. He is on trial because, to all outward appearances, he is deluded. Caesar is Lord in the 1st Century, by all accounts, not Christ. Evil has dominion over the world, according to the headlines of the age, not Heaven. So in his defense, Christ calls his witnesses, his temple, his people, to give evidence that he is Lord and has conquered.
What kind of evidence do they bring? Power. Power to work miracles. Power to testify in the midst of oppression. Power to change lives and bring glory to God. Power to overcome death. Power, in other words, that defies earthly limitations and neither cowers nor capitulates to evil.
This chapter contains of the contents of the scroll from chapters 5 and 10. God’s plan to heal the world and eradicate evil, then, revolves around his people taking up his example in witness, suffering, and resurrection. Where the plagues and the trumpets failed, the martyr-witness of the church will succeed. Christ conquered through his suffering witness and death, and means for us to do the same.
The two witnesses call to mind the ministry of Moses and Elijah, prototypical of the Law and the Prophets respectively. The Law is the revelation of God’s truth, and prophecy the application of that truth in our history. What the two witnesses represent, then, is the call to live “revealed truth.” But this is not a popular proclamation, and so the witnesses are killed in the street. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” said Tertullian in AD 225, and that altruism continues to hold. It is only after their resurrection that the onlookers give glory to God. Preaching without power, it seems, only gets you killed. But preach anyway, trusting God with the power. South African theologian Allan Boesak’s words ring true here, spoken first in opposition to Apartheid but equally true in the context of Revelation 11: “there are some things for which a man ought to die, and others for which he must die.”
What are we to make of this bewildering short story?
God’s plan to heal the world requires God’s people to do their part as his witnesses. That will cost us, dearly, just like it cost Christ. But God will reward us, infinitely, just as Christ was rewarded. And the net result of our faithful witness—even should it cost us our very lives—will be the turning of men’s hearts to God as they give him glory.