The Great Controversy - Teachers Comments

2024 Quarter 2 Lesson 06 - The Two Witnesses

Teachers Comments
May 04 - May 10

Key Text: Isaiah 40:8

Study Focus: Rev. 11:2–11; Rev. 12:6, 14, 15; Zech. 4:14; Ps. 119:105; John 5:39; Dan. 7:25; Isa. 40:8; Ps. 119:89; Isa. 54:17.

Introduction: Continuing the theme of the previous weeks, this study centers on the foundational role, authority, and power of the Word of God in the great controversy. Specifically, we will focus our attention on the Word of God as represented by the two witnesses who preached in sackcloth for the prophetic period of 1,260 years.

After Jesus ascended to heaven, the devil directed his efforts and energy against God’s Word, the Scriptures, and against God’s people. The mission of the church was to testify of Jesus Christ and His Word, which is the revelation of God’s character and will. In Revelation 11, the Word of God is represented by the Old Testament expression the two witnesses (Zech. 4:14). This metaphor speaks to the fact that the Word of God has a perpetual presence and power, being of divine origin, having been transmitted through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The parallel between Jesus and the Word is obvious: in the same way that Jesus ministered three and a half years under the pressure and persecution of His own people, who were supposed to receive Him, Scripture ministered to the world for three and a half prophetic years, or 1,260 historical years, under the pressure of the very people that claimed to be the guardians of the Word of God. Just as Jesus, the Word of God, died and was resurrected, Scripture, the Word of God, “died and was resurrected.” As Jesus was triumphant, so His Word will be triumphant, and His people also will be triumphant in Him and in His Word.

Lesson Themes: This week’s lesson explores two major themes:

  1. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 symbolize the Holy Scriptures. The two witnesses ministered in a time of persecution, during the prophetic period of 1,260 years, between a.d. 538 and a.d. 1798.
  2. At the end of this prophetic period, the two witnesses died and were resurrected, just as Jesus died and was resurrected, pointing to the fact that God will have, through Jesus and in His Word, the final victory in the great controversy.

Part II: Commentary

Prophesying in Sackcloth

Why do Adventists maintain that the two witnesses, or the Holy Scriptures, were suppressed during the Middle Ages? Did not the people of that time know about the Bible? Were not the cathedrals and churches decorated with biblical themes? Were not the scholastics teaching their students from the Bible in their university classes? The answer to all of these questions is yes. So, why insist that the 1,260-year period, between a.d. 538 and a.d. 1798, was a time of persecution, a time when the two witnesses wore sackcloth, a symbol of crisis and humiliation?

Before answering the question, let us complicate the issue a bit further. Some may be quick to point out that persecution against Scripture existed before a.d. 538. Indeed, the Romans attempted to mock or suppress Scripture during the early persecutions against Christians. The pagan emperor Diocletian (emperor a.d. 284–305) specifically targeted the Bible to be annihilated, ruling that Christians must renounce, and denounce, their holy book. While most Christians did not have Bibles, some who had biblical manuscripts surrendered them to be publicly burned and desecrated; others died for their faith instead. Eventually, the Word of God emerged honored and victorious from this onslaught. At the end of the 1,260-year prophetic period, French revolutionaries, as well as other later dictatorial atheistic and Communist regimes, also targeted Christian Scripture for annihilation, just as Diocletian had.

Unlike Diocletian, however, the French Revolutionaries succeeded in annihilating Scripture in their territory for a short period of time (Rev. 11:7–9). True, both Diocletian and the insurrectionists of the French Revolution sought to denigrate the Word of God; but the French revolutionaries did so by attempting to utterly annihilate it instead of permitting it to prophesy in sackcloth. In addition, the period of 1,260 years, during which the two witnesses suffered humiliation, far exceeds the first two or three centuries of persecutions, the ten years of persecution under Diocletian, or the few years of the French Revolution. For these reasons, we must look elsewhere in history to discover the meaning of the Word of God ministering in sackcloth.

Thus, to understand when, and how, the two witnesses or the Scriptures ministered in sackcloth, we need to emphasize two facts. One, the two witnesses ministered during a period of 1,260 years. As our lesson details, Seventh-day Adventists understand that this period spanned from a.d. 538 to a.d. 1798 and encompassed the rise, the establishment, and the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Two, the two witnesses were not killed during this period but were clothed in sackcloth.

The allusions to Zechariah (Rev. 11:4, Zech. 4:14), Elijah (Rev. 11:5, 6), and Moses (Rev. 11:6) in Revelation 11 seem to suggest that the prophetic ministry of the two witnesses, wearing sackcloth, took place within the context of the persecution of God’s people. Revelation 11 does not say that the two witnesses were killed during the 1,260 years; rather, they were empowered by God to prophesy wearing sackcloth during this time (Rev. 11:3). Elijah wore sackcloth during a time of profound spiritual crises in Northern Israel, when that nation had consciously and deliberately changed God’s law, placing themselves above, and against, God’s revelation. Likewise, the major question is not whether the Roman Catholic Church had any knowledge of Scripture, or used Scripture at all to do theology, during the 1,260 years of church supremacy and persecution. The question is: What was the church’s attitude toward Scripture throughout this persecuting period? The Roman Catholic leaders’ attitude closely resembled the attitude of Northern Israel: they knew God’s special revelation, but they deliberately placed themselves above it.

The Protestant principle of sola scriptura emphasizes that Scripture is the complete, self-sufficient, and clear revelation of God. Whenever the divine revelation is an inconvenience, or hindrance, to a human project, the devil and his false teachers introduce traditions to justify reinterpreting the inconvenient biblical passages; or they simply introduce new teachings or practices that are crassly against Scripture. Church tradition and the magisterium are portrayed as the exclusive interpreters of the Bible and as the only authority with the power to create and establish dogmas. God’s Word is diminished, denigrated, and placed under the control of the church, though Scripture clearly stipulates that it must be the other way around. In this regard, several quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) are simply astonishing.

According to the CCC, God’s revelation “through his Word in the Holy Spirit” is “present and active in the Church,” and thus church tradition is an inseparable part of God’s special revelation, just as the prophets and the apostles (CCC, p. 79). For this reason, “the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation are entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’ ” (CCC, p. 82).

True, the CCC does stipulate that the magisterium, being the only interpreter of Scripture (CCC, pp. 86, 100), “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant” (CCC, p. 86). However, the magisterium does not draw only from Scripture but from both Scripture and tradition (CCC, p. 82). Because tradition is of equal authority with Scripture, and because the magisterium (“the Pope and the bishops in communion with him”) has the sole authority to “authentically” interpret the Word of God (CCC, p. 100), the magisterium will draw materials from both tradition and Scripture, whenever convenient.

The experiences of both Northern Israel and Judah show that, when tradition is placed on the same level with Scripture, Scripture is not only relegated to a lower level, from the divine to the human, but eventually is nullified altogether (Matt. 15:3–6), having been misconstrued to suit a human worldview. Thus, its authority is annihilated. This annihilation of biblical authority is exactly what happened in the Roman Catholic Church. As the church increasingly emphasized tradition and accepted philosophical presuppositions, its teachings and practices changed so radically that the church was no longer compatible with the model of the apostolic church.

Thus, in misinterpreting and teaching directly against Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church claimed the following errors:

• That it has power to change God’s Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week, thus deliberately transgressing the fourth commandment and diminishing God’s status as Creator and King.

• That Christ left the church in the charge of the bishop of Rome and of the sacramental ecclesiastical hierarchy.

• That the church is a necessary element of God’s salvation.

• That the church and the saints can mediate for people and offer them merit for salvation.

• That Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born with a sinless nature (immaculate conception).

• That Mary has a special role in salvation being called Mediator (Mediatrix), Advocate, Helper, titles reserved in Scripture only for Christ and the Holy Spirit.

• That salvation is by works, such as penance and indulgences.

• That the soul is immortal, hell is eternal, and purgatory exists.

• That there are seven sacraments that impart salvation.

• That infants must be baptized.

• That the very substance of the bread and wine are literally changed into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass (transubstantiation).

• That the so-called laity cannot share in the cup during the Communion.

• That the priests themselves are a sacrament and impart salvation.

• That the priests of the church must not marry, having to remain celibate.

• That Christians can and, in fact, must venerate and worship images and statues, thus flagrantly transgressing the second commandment.

With such a stunning misinterpretation, or flagrant rejection, of Scripture and its teachings for more than a millennium in and by the self-professed people of God, it comes as no surprise that God describes the Scripture, or His two witnesses, as dressed and prophesying in sackcloth.

Yes, eventually, the two witnesses were killed in a secular, as opposed to a religious, context (during the French Revolution). However, the atheistic French Revolution itself was a reaction to the long-standing lawlessness of the Catholic Church against God Himself, against His special revelation, and against humanity, who is so desperately in need of salvation. The great controversy is complex. The devil aims to destroy God’s revelation in His Written Word. But he especially aims to suppress the Word of God in His church. This satanic objective has not succeeded, nor ever will it. The Protestant sola scriptura, the biblical and missionary societies, the Adventist three angels’ messages, and the loud cry will prevail. God’s Word will be ever clearer in its communication of God’s love.

Part III: Life Application

  1. Imagine you lived around year 700, some 160 years after a.d. 538, at the beginning of the 1,260-year prophetic period. Imagine also that, as a student of the Bible and as a devout Christian, you understood that the 1,260 years of persecution against the two witnesses had barely begun, and, therefore, many centuries more would pass until the persecution expired. How would you keep your hope, especially as you and your descendants faced the long prospect of at least a thousand years more of waiting? How would you keep your devotion to God burning and commitment to preaching the Word of God, knowing that victory was more than 1,000 years away? How would you prepare your family after you for such a prospective wait? How can your answers inspire your faith today as we await the return of Jesus?
  2. Although the French Revolution impacted the entire world with its worldview, spirit, and actions, this impact was felt more directly within the Western world. If you live in the West, how might you continue to celebrate the resurrection and the ministry of the two witnesses? If you live in other parts of the world, which were not impacted directly by the secular or atheist revolution in France, how has your local society or community tried to kill the two witnesses or make them minister in sackcloth? How could you and your church partake in the resurrection and ministry of the two witnesses?