The New Testament Meaning of “Witness”
“Witness.” It is a word of great importance to the Christian Church. When I embarked upon a study of the word, I discovered, to my sorrow, that many Bible Dictionaries do not even list the word “witness.” Some others give only limited consideration to the topic.
From respected commentators I have learned that there are basically three words in the Greek New Testament which are translated “witness.” Two are nouns and one is a verb.
One noun refers to a person who bears witness. The verb means the act of bearing witness–the activity of witnessing. The other noun means the bearing of witness and, also, the witness that is borne.
The word witness comes to us from the legal sphere and is derived from a root meaning “to bear in mind;” “to remember;” “to be careful.” Thus a witness in the field of law is one who has knowledge of something by recollection and experience, and who can tell about it accurately.
The implications of the word witness in the legal framework are obvious. The most common usage of the word witness in the Old Testament is in this legal setting and, therefore, is religiously neutral. When the term moves into the religious world its legal connotations are never completely lost. Thus God can speak of his “witnesses” (in a legal sense) in his great law suit against the world.
For example: Isaiah says, “Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled. Who among them can declare this, and show us former things? Let them bring out their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear and say, ‘It is truth.’ ‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, nor shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and besides me there is no saviour. I have declared and saved, I have proclaimed, and there was no foreign god among you; therefore you are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘that I am God. Indeed before the day was, I am he; and there is no one who can deliver out of my hand; I work, and who will reverse it?’” (43:9-13).
There are those who speak on behalf of the idols, and such witnesses are put to shame because their gods are impotent. Isaiah 44:8-11: “Do not fear, nor be afraid; have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are my witnesses. Is there a God besides me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one. Those who make a graven image, all of them are useless, and their precious things shall not profit; they are their own witnesses; they neither see nor know, that they may be ashamed. Who would form a god or cast a graven image that profits him nothing? Surely all his companions would be ashamed; and the workmen, they are mere men. Let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; yet they shall fear, they shall be ashamed together.”
The noun that means “one who bears witness” is used 24 times in the New Testament. Some of these references are also religiously neutral. They simply refer to the person who is a witness to facts and who can speak about them from his own direct knowledge–especially in legal proceedings.
One example comes from Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:63: “Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses?” Here it is used in a legal sense–not religious at all. It has nothing to do with the witnessing of Acts 1:8.
Confessional Witness of the Apostles
Now, in the New Testament an interesting development takes place as the word witness comes to be used religiously. That is, the term is employed to refer to those who were witnesses to the earthly facts and the resurrection facts about Jesus. Such individuals spoke about these facts from direct knowledge. Only those who saw Him alive qualify for this kind of witness.
At first this use of the term witness was restricted to the twelve apostles who, through first-hand knowledge, could bear witness to the facts of our Lord’s history. This might be called a confessional witness. Examples include Peter’s confession, “Thou art the Christ” (Mt. 16:13-17) as well as that of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Such was the usage of the term in the post-resurrection statement of Jesus in Luke 24:46-48: “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day. And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are my witnesses of these things.” Confession of the facts. This is the task of a confessional witness (cf. John 15:27 and Acts 1:21, 22).
This confessional usage is restricted to the apostles. We could call them “eyewitnesses.” But if the term had been restricted to this usage then it would have easily gone the way of the term “apostle,” that is, it would have been confined to the first century.
With Paul the term took on another dimension. “Witness” was cut loose from the first-hand, eyewitness of the history of Jesus, and came to refer to the first-hand experience of the risen Christ (post-ascension witness). We see this very clearly in Acts 22:14, 15 at the time of Paul’s arrest when he makes his defence to the people. He describes his encounter–his experience–with the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road and his subsequent meeting with Ananias. Paul quotes Ananias: “And he [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.’” This was a confessional experimental witness.
The Witness of Martyrs
We see the third step of development in the term witness in the life of Stephen. He was a confessional witness (though not an eyewitness) who dies for his faith. Stephen is not a witness because he dies, he dies because he is a witness. In his experience the ground is being prepared for the second century, and the following centuries, when, in the midst of persecution, the first Greek noun for “witness” comes to signify Christian martyrs. It retains no legal connotations at all. The book of Revelation uses this term to describe those who faithfully proclaim the truth of the gospel and who, by the sincerity of their witness suffered death. They are called faithful witnesses. In Revelation 1:5 we learn that our Lord is also called a faithful witness.
The Witness of the Gospel
The other noun meaning “the act of witness and the content of the witness” and the verb meaning “to bear witness” should be treated together. They designate the evangelistic confession of the New Testament. We are now thinking not so much of the historical, and factual data of our Lord’s life, but rather the eternal nature and significance of his Person.
In fact, the entire written gospel assumes the character of a witness. See this in passages like John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness concerning these things and has written these things, and we know that his witness is true.” What is this “witness?” The written gospel of John.
The gospel is itself an evangelistic confession designed to bear witness and thereby win converts. This is expressed in John 20:30, 31. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and in order that by believing you may have life in his name.” The Evangelist, upon the basis of the witness borne in his gospel, wants his readers to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” In the gospel of John witness is borne to the eternal nature and significance of our Lord’s Person and Work.
Six Specific Witnesses
Along with the development of the general idea of “witness,” the New Testament also reveals some specific examples of different witnesses.
1st. John the Baptist confesses that he is not the Light, but has simply come in order that be might bear witness concerning the Light. “The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe” (John 1:7).
2nd. The scriptures also add their mighty voice in witness to Jesus. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39).
3rd. Witness to the Son is also borne by the Father, as Jesus says in John 5:7, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me.”
4th. In John 5:36, Jesus declares that “the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear witness that the Father has sent me.” His works were a witness.
5th. There is also the self-witness of Jesus to his own divine mission and life. In John 8:13ff the Pharisees chide him, “You are bearing witness to yourself, your witness is not true” (N.I.V.- “Here you are appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid”) Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness to myself my witness is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going. In your law it is written that the witness of two men is true; I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me.”
6th. After Jesus leaves this earth, the witness will be made by the Spirit, in and through His followers, the disciples. As Jesus declares in John 15:26, 27, “But when the Comforter comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, He will bear witness of me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
Following His resurrection Jesus appears in the Upper Room, and there declares: “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21, 22).
It is significant that in this passage as in Acts 1:8, the witness of the disciples is closely linked to that of the Holy Spirit!
It is also important to note that in all six who bear witness there is no salesmanship decisionism connected with witnessing.
Summary of New Testament Teaching
We turn now to a more general summary of what the New Testament teaches about Christian witnessing.
The word “witness” speaks of the nature and function of every true believer individually. Collectively, it speaks of the nature and function of the Church. This is the New Testament way a church is built.
This means that witnessing is first of all concerned with being, that is, it is embedded in the nature of the witness himself. You must be a witness before you can witness. As the words of the Risen Lord make abundantly clear, “Ye shall receive power after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you and ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8).
It would be a distortion of the New Testament to say that Christian witnessing does not involve the activity of witnessing. But it would also be a distortion to lose sight of the fact that prior to the act of witnessing there must be the change whereby one becomes a witness. The word becomes flesh! One becomes the substance of the gospel as well as a spokesman of it.
A witness is born when one is born again, that is, when he experiences the power of God in his own personal death, burial and resurrection. In this sense Christian witnessing is not optional, nor is it mandatory. It is inevitable. Perhaps the words of Emerson are appropriate, “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying!” And in another way, Jesus affirmed the same idea: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” He did not say, should not, but cannot.
Let it also be emphatically noted that, in the New Testament, though being precedes doing, being does not exclude doing.
We are called upon to add the dimension of actually witnessing to our being witnesses. And this too should be inevitable. “We cannot help but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Peter and John could speak with such boldness to the Jerusalem officials because they (though “uneducated, common men”) had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Where this fact is absent, you have nothing to say! The question, then, is this: Have you been with Jesus?
One commentator underscores this need of the verbal witness when he says, “There has to be a verbal witness because there cannot be communication of important convictions without language. We must use words because our faith must be something vastly greater than ourselves. We make a witness by telling not who we are but whose we are.”
Further, it should also be noted that both the being and the doing of Christian witnessing are inseparable from the effective working of the Holy Spirit. That divine power makes the witness.
First, in the being: “You shall receive power after which the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8). “Shall be” is the inevitable.
Then in the doing: “And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:10, 11), and “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13, 14).
The Spirit makes one a witness (being). The Spirit empowers one to witness (doing). Further, it is only by the Spirit that the goal of the witness is achieved. Speaking of the Spirit, Jesus says, “when he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment” (John 16:8). Only through the power of that Spirit are men “born again” and resurrected from “death to life.” That is the end of Christian witnessing, and it is also the beginning!
Jesus stood before Pilate and said, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). It was the vocation of Christ to bear witness to the truth; and it is our vocation to bear witness to Him.
The three things needed by the apostles for carrying out their mission to the world, are also needed by every Christian and Church to carry out their mission to the world:
- Assurance that He is alive (Are you sure that He is alive?)
- Instruction (Have you sat at His feet for instruction?)
- Empowerment (Have you been empowered from above?)