As we may know, the Book of Revelation belongs to a kind of literature called "apocalyptic." In fact, our English word "revelation" translates the Greek word "apokalypsis." Other examples of apocalyptic in the Bible include Daniel, Ezekiel, and perhaps even Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Apocalyptic writings flourished particularly from about 200 B.C. to about 200 A.D., first in Judaism and then Christianity.
Apocalyptic literature relies heavily on symbolism to convey its meaning. Often the symbolism seems bizarre and extreme, especially to modern readers. A thorough understanding of an apocalyptic text may require considerable study and assistance from other resources to plumb the meanings of the symbolism.
We do not have time and space here to explore the symbolism of today’s passage from Revelation. Even if we tried, it would require extensive explanation and assistance from scholars in the field. Yet we can discern the core meaning as it centers on the two witnesses who figure into the passage.
The two witnesses represent those who remain faithful to Jesus in word and life despite calamity, persecution, and martyrdom. Here we should point to the Greek word "martys" which we translate as "witness." We get our English word "martyr" directly from a form of the Greek "martys." In today’s passage, the two witnesses stand for those who hold fast and testify to Jesus as savior and lord in the face of all false claimants to healing and power in the world – even when such claimants rise up to afflict and kill those who faithfully follow Jesus.
With this in mind, despite what may be initial confusion at the strange symbolism, we can take to heart a strong and encouraging message from this reading in Revelation. Trust God. Hold fast to God as known in Jesus. Stay true to Jesus, whether we experience relative peace and well-being or conflict and suffering. The Lamb who was slain – the focus of Revelation – cares for us with love as no other love we can know. By his suffering and rising, this Lamb, who is Jesus, will bear the world’s history and his people through all turmoil, strife, and affliction to a glorious new heaven and earth, populated by his witnesses from all times and places. Whether we live or die, then, let us stand fast and true for Jesus, as he stands fast and true for us – past, present, and future.