"Can I get a witness?" Everyone from Marvin Gaye to Run DMC has spoken these words. The origin of this phrase dates back to nineteenth century African American Christian congregations. In the midst of a culture that sorely oppressed them, African Americans would often rise to offer testimonies concerning God's work in their lives. After hearing their sometimes moving, sometimes miraculous, sometimes breathtaking stories, the pastor would then ask his congregation, "Can I get a witness?" With these words, the pastor was asking his congregation to praise God, to affirm his work, and to support their brothers and sisters in Christ, since many of them worked as slaves and were victimized by heinous discrimination and marginalization. It never took the congregation long to respond. "Amen!" they would boisterously shout. For they, in the midst of their trials, desired to be a witness and support to those testifying.
Revelation 11 opens with a story of oppression. The enemies of God are "trampling on the holy city for 42 months" (verse 2). The interpretations of what these 42 months refer to are legion. Especially notable, however, is that this time period mirrors that of the drought experienced by Israel under the reign of the wicked king Ahab. As the prophet Elijah declares to Ahab: "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word" (1 Kings 17:1). Jesus later specifies the precise length of this drought: "In Elijah's time, the sky was shut for three and half years and there was a sever famine throughout the land" (Luke 4:25). Three and half years, of course, is 42 months. Thus, for three and a half years, John says, there is a time of misery similar to that experienced by Israel during its terrible drought. But in the middle of this terrible drought, there appear two witnesses. As God declares:
And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want. (verses 3-6)
The actions of these two witnesses are remarkable. They can call forth fire to devour God's enemies, much like Elijah did with pagan prophets in 1 Kings 18:22-40. They can also call for drought conditions just as Elijah did with King Ahab's Israel. Not only that, but they can also turn waters into blood and call down plagues, intentionally echoing Moses' actions in the exodus. In the midst of oppression, God gives his people a witness to his great work. Indeed, he even gives them witnesses. That is why John calls them "lampstands" in verse 4. For their mission is to shine God's light in a dark world.
Perhaps you are in suffering oppression and tragedy right now. Maybe you are living through a period of "42 months." Indeed, many scholars believe this reference to 42 months simply refers to the time span between Jesus' ascension into heaven and return on the Last Day, during which the people of God are regularly persecuted and oppressed by those who hate them. If you know the sting of persecution and oppression because you are ridiculed at work or scorned at school or ostracized even by your own family because of your faith, then you probably want a witness. You probably want someone to recognize, affirm, and sympathize with you in your pain. You probably want someone who can relay to you God's great works. You probably cry out, "Can I get a witness?" The good news of Revelation 11 is that God's answer is, "Yes. I will give you Christian brothers and sisters - lampstands in a dark world - to stand beside you and celebrate my might works. You can have a witness. Indeed, you can even have witnesses. You are not alone." Praise be to God.