Saturday of week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Rev 11:4-12

Today’s reading seems at first sight to be very obscure in meaning. After the eating of the scroll it is a second digression by the author and describes two rather mysterious “witnesses”. They are referred to as two olive trees and two lamps and had been given authority to prophesy for 1,260 day or three and a half years, a conventional period for eschatological distress.

These titles originally were applied by the prophet Zechariah to Joshua and Zerubbabel, the religious and civil leaders respectively, who restored the temple and the city of Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Here it is possible they represent the leaders of the New Temple and the New Jerusalem, namely Peter and Paul.

The descriptive images which follow link them to Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the Prophets who appeared at the Transfiguration along with Jesus endorsing his mission, his suffering, death and resurrection.

Anyone who attacks them will be consumed by fire. The fire that consumes enemies reminds us of how King Ahaziah’s emissaries to Elijah were twice destroyed by fire brought down on them by God through his prophet. (2 Kings 1)

And the power to shut up the sky refers to the great drought that came on Israel in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17). Their ability to turn water into blood and bring other plagues recalls how Moses brought the plagues to Egypt to make the Pharaoh repent and release the Israelites (Exodus 7).

But, after they have completed their task of giving witness to Christ and the Gospel, the “beast” comes from the Abyss, overcomes and kills them. Their killer is the Antichrist. His coming from the Abyss indicates his demonic origins. Some see the beast as Nero, the emperor traditionally thought to have martyred both Peter and Paul. In any case, he stands for a ruler opposed to God’s people. The death of these prophets parallels that of their Master and Lord.

Leaving their bodies to lie in the street of a “great city” was a serious violation of all decency for people in the Middle East (cf. the burial of Jesus himself).

The “great city” may be either Jerusalem or Rome. Jerusalem is sometimes called Sodom by the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) for its moral wickedness and Egypt for its idolatry and oppression. It is also, of course, the city where Jesus was crucified. However, Jesus could have been said to have been executed in Rome in so far as Jerusalem was under Roman rule and crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. (The Jews preferred stoning.) The two prophets or “witnesses”, if they are Peter and Paul, would have died in Rome.

The outrage against them is repeated as they are left lying unburied for three and a half days because the “nations” will not allow their burial. (In the Middle East and generally in the Muslim world people are buried very soon after death.)

Their death, however, is celebrated by the “world”, which found the teaching of these prophets a scourge. This, of course, was only to fulfil the teaching of Jesus about the fate that would await those who preached his Gospel (cf. Matt 10:16ff). Things have not changed in our own day.

However, this was not the end. For after three and a half days, God gave them new life. They stood up (i.e. they “rose”, “resurrected”) and all who saw this were terrified. The killing of Christians, the making of martyrs, in the whole history of the Church has only brought new life, new energy, new courage. A striking example was the killing of Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. The Church thrives most of all in time of persecution.

Finally, the two prophets are called up to the very presence of their Lord and, like him, ascend in a cloud, the very symbol of God’s presence.

Let us hope that we, too, will be able to follow them. For that we need to give witness to our faith, even in times of difficulty or when faced with opposition. That is no time to hide our light under a bushel or to bury our talent in the ground. As a risen people, we are called on to stand up. How else can the Gospel message of truth and love be seen and heard?

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