“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
The first public words issued by Jesus were prophetic in scope. They announced God’s imminent regal action in history to judge and restore his people. As we might expect then, Jesus’ precursor John preached an equally prophetic message of imminent judgement (cf. Matthew 3:2).
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… [Christ’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:10, 12)
The Christian kerygma therefore begins not with theories on christology, atonement, or ethics, but with Jesus and John, two Hebrew prophets of the coming kingdom; a kingdom, as the earliest sayings and parables attest, about to be established on earth through a divine manifestation of justice (Matthew 6:10, Mark 12:1-12). Or in the words of Paul, the Christian message concerned first and foremost the submission of all nations to the obedience of the faith (Romans 1:5, cf. Psalm 82:8).
This prophetic heart of the New Testament, however, is routinely neglected. For those on the Left, Jesus’ teachings and kingdom of God vision work not in the service of apocalyptic prophesy, but of human social action. For those on the Right, Jesus’ importance lies almost entirely in his unique ability to remedy existential guilt on the cross. Though these two modern and ideologically-driven interpretations of Jesus’ life address our own concerns, they also divest the New Testament of its prophetic moment by putting more weight on particular Biblical texts than is due and by sweeping the central story about the impending kingdom under the rug. Our most beloved passages—the Sermon on the Mount, the Logos hymn, the parables of the Lost Son and Good Samaritan, the crucifixion and resurrection stories—lack historical credibility as long as they are estranged from Jesus’ chief prophetic announcement: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” As long as these components remain outside the apocalyptic and prophetic framework provided by Jesus and John the Baptizer, they will continue to serve our concerns rather than the concerns of the first Christians.
So how do we get back to that original prophetic framework? Well, as is often the case, those passages we have the most trouble incorporating into our thinking tend to be the ones most able to put us back on track. So among those New Testament passages which can reorient us is John’s vision of the two witnesses in Revelation 11. As I will show below, the whole of the aforementioned prophetic framework rests within this obscure parable-vision of the two witnesses—symbols of Jesus and the early Christian martyrs. The passage exhausts the whole of the prophetic narrative commenced by Jesus and John, leading us along a well-worn path from prophesy to judgement to kingdom. Here is the vision in outline.
- God authorizes his two witnesses to prophesy looming judgement upon Jerusalem (11:2-4).
- Signs of doom reminiscent of Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah testify to the truth of their prophetic message (11:5-6, cf. Exodus 7:20, 1 Kings 17:1, Jeremiah 5:14).
- The Beast (pagan power), along with the holy city itself (which John calls Sodom and Egypt), executes the two witnesses; a cause for international celebration (11:7-10).
- God in turn vindicates his servants, resurrecting them to heaven in the sight of their enemies (11:11-12).
- With the witnesses now at the right hand of God in heaven, their enemies in the holy city are put under their feet. Divine judgement strikes the people in the form of an earthquake (11:13-14).
- As declared by heavenly voices, God’s action against Jerusalem heralds the beginning of his reign over all the nations which rage against his servants (11:15-19).
As becomes readily apparent, Jesus and his churches recapitulate much of the pattern of divine judgement present in this parable-vision. Like the witnesses, Jesus will announce judgement in Jerusalem, his message attested by miracles. Jesus will be rejected and killed. God will raise him from the dead and exalt him to heaven. Some forty years later calamity will visit Jerusalem on Jesus’ behalf (Luke 21:20-24, Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 22:1-10). The installation of Jesus on a heavenly throne, and the consequent desolation of Jerusalem, will ignite the process by which God annexes the pagan nations to the acclaim of angels.
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah… We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath has come… (Revelation 11:15, 17-18)
Consistent with longstanding Biblical pattern then, and as proclaimed by the prophets, God’s wrath will fall first upon the Jew and then upon the Greek (Romans 2:8-9). Through these judgements God will exert his rule over the nations and exalt his people (11:18).
Running parallel with Jesus’ story and John’s vision of the two witnesses is the story of the early church. Like Jesus, the churches will be witnesses, first in Jerusalem, and also to the ends of the earth. They will testify against the Beast from the heart of pagan empire. Some of them will be martyred for their prophetic testimony about the coming kingdom (Revelation 13:5). But like Jesus they will be resurrected to heaven. From there they will reign over the nations with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-6).
In sum, John’s vision of the two faithful witnesses presents in microcosm the whole prophetic narrative; a narrative that begins with John’s fiery preaching on the banks of the Jordan, moves into the tumult of Roman-Jerusalem on a fateful Passover, twists onward to the destruction of Jerusalem, and ends in the collapse and conversion of the whole pagan political apparatus. Before the New Testament is a treatise on christology, atonement, or ethics, it is this story of how God realigned the socio-political landscape of Roman antiquity through the witness of his prophets.