The New Testament Witnesses
Part I of IV
It is quite common to hear modern-day Christians refer to themselves as witnesses in describing their personal relationship to Christ. The broadest umbrella of Christendom reveals swelling numbers devotedly engaging themselves to the task of “witnessing for Christ.” Even among elders and evangelists associated with the church of Christ, the significant role of “witness” is often presumptuously embraced as an all encompassing Christian responsibility, resulting in further erosion of the original context of “witness.”
Amid the various denominational entities, “witnessing” is proudly engaged as a means of evangelizing the lost and of securing donations. In such cases, the testimony of the “witness” amounts to the confession of personal faith in Christ stemming from a “conversion experience.” Incidents similar to that related by Paul on the Damascus Road are often recounted with only varying degrees of dissimilarity from Saul’s actual encounter with Christ. Multiple testimonies have been heard through the years, and in every case, the “witness” related the appearance of a strange light which became the catalyst for belief in Christ.
This writer has been a Christian for 35 years, and no such “light” incident attended the “obedience of faith” (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26) exercised in becoming a Christian; neither has such an experience ever been anticipated. Men and women in the New Testament became Christians by hearing and obeying the simple terms of the gospel presented to them (Acts 2:37-41; 8:12-13; 16:14-15; etc., etc.). This was true even in the case of Saul (Acts 22:16), and the same certainly remains valid today. The Lord never intended on appearing to each one individually to motivate conversion, but entrusted His message of salvation to chosen witnesses who would testify to the unassailable facts of the gospel to the people of all nations.
The call of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road by the visible manifestation of Christ was a unique experience, and Paul expresses that uniqueness while rehearsing the special appearances of Christ which followed His resurrection, stating, “and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:8; emp. added). As will be observed in a later section, Paul received a special commission to serve as “witness” of the resurrected Christ, and unless one can exhibit the same credentials as did Paul to verify his testimony, all claims of “witnessing” today must be rejected as fraudulent.
In the common denominational context, “witness” means telling something that is personal, religious, and subjective; but this is not the way “witness” is used in the New Testament. The so-called “confessional witness” of one’s personal faith in Christ (rather than an “eyewitness” report to material facts) has no precedence in the New Testament. There is not the slightest indication that any Christian of the infant church ever attempted to persuade men to believe in Christ based simply upon their own inane story of belief.
Those in the church of Christ who regard themselves as witnesses typically do so, not as relating a personal conversion experience, but in association with the general preaching of the gospel. Because the term “witness” is used with reference to the apostles who were preaching the resurrection of Christ, some today apply the “witness” motif to those presently engaged in repeating the gospel of Christ. As will become apparent in this study, the New Testament offers no basis for casting such a wide net of employment for the term “witness.”
While the sincerity of all these mentioned above to “witness” in a manner commensurate to the original witnesses is indubitable, the overriding question concerns the legitimate concept of the term “witness” as found on the pages of the New Testament. Was the term used to designate those who simply related their personal conversion experience and faith in Christ? Was it used with reference to all Christians who proclaim the gospel? Or was the New Testament “witness” of Christ something entirely different than what is enjoined today by those designating themselves witnesses for Jesus?
Defining the New Testament Witness
The noun “witness” is used thirty-six times in the New Testament. Exempting the five references in the book of Revelation where the primary sense is most certainly that of “martyr,” i.e., one who dies for His cause, the remaining instances are in reference to an “eyewitness.” The dominant idea associated with the word is that of an onlooker or observer who could “bear witness” or testify to events that occurred at a particular time and place. The witnesses of Jesus testified to what they had seen, heard, and handled regarding the resurrected Christ (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).
The “confessional witness” of denominationalism, although sought earnestly by various theologians and lexicographers intent on bolstering the modern-day practice, is non-existent amidst the witnesses of Christ described in the inspired text. Note the definitions assigned by respected lexicographers concerning the Greek martus:
E. W. Bullinger states: “witness(es), from the ‘root, amri, amarami, to remember; amrtis, remembrance…hence, lit. one who remembers, i.e. one who has information or knowledge of a thing, and can therefore give information concerning, bring to light or confirm anything’” (1999, p. 893).
Ceslas Spicq explained, “A witness is a person who was present at a material fact or at the accomplishment of a legal action. He is informed because he was there; he saw or heard” (1994, Vol. 2, p. 447).
W. E. Vine’s definition noted, “one who can or does aver what he has seen or heard or knows” (1996, p. 680).
J. H. Thayer defined the noun martus, “to be a witness, to bear witness, testify,” i.e. “to affirm that one has seen or heard or experienced something, or that (so in the N.T.) he knows it because taught by divine revelation or inspiration” (1958, #3140).
Upon calling witnesses in a court of law, the honorable judge always seeks to establish that each witness was, in fact, materially present at the scene of the incident under review. If one appears who can only testify to what he has been told or has received from another source, his testimony will be rejected as “hear-say,” and he will be dismissed from the courtroom. The “second-hand” witness is no witness at all, because they have neither seen nor heard anything from which the court may determine facts.
A true witness is one who has information derived from first-hand experience and knowledge. Paul appealed to God as witness of the constant prayer and supplication expressed by him regarding the church in Rome (Romans 1:9; cf. Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 10). Although we may read Paul’s assertion of continual prayer for these brethren on the pages of the New Testament, Christians living today could by no means “witness” to his actually having done so, but could merely point to his own written testimony which includes his appeal to God as a witness (i.e., the possession of first-hand knowledge of Paul’s activities in prayer).
The Divine Arrangement of Multiple Witnesses
The letter to the Hebrews comments that the willful apostate violating “the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (10:28). The background of this statement is the text of Deuteronomy 17:2-6: “If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, and it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. On the evidence of two or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”
The divine logic is acutely comprehensible. In serious cases of accused evil, multiple witnesses must be evaluated and their testimony determined to be truthful before judgment is passed and sentencing rendered. This was the holy mandate of God. “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any inquiry or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed” (Deuteronomy 19:15). The Lord also made special provisions to deter anyone from testifying falsely as a purported witness (see 19:16ff).
Jesus reiterated the requirement of two or three witnesses in dealing with the wayward (Matthew 18:15-17), and Paul appeals to the same principle concerning the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:1). Recognizing the opportunity of disgruntled members to engage in serious libel accusations against leaders in the church, Paul invoked the same safeguards, saying, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19).
During the trial of Jesus, many false witnesses took the stand against Him, but the high priest found their testimony to be inconsistent (Mark 14:56, 59). The “witnessing” which occurs today throughout Christendom is also egregiously inconsistent and blatantly contradictory. Each “witness” has his own method of conversion, worship practices, and designs for Christian living. Those in the church of Christ claiming to be “witnesses” are also found to be at variance with one another on a variety of Scriptural interpretations. Certainly no one would postulate that such a host of conflicting “witnesses” are all testifying to the truth?
God arranged for the truth to become evident by the valid testimony of two or three approved witnesses. The Messiah-ship of Jesus was attested by three influential witnesses. Although John the Baptist testified on behalf of Christ, Jesus affirmed, “But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John” (John 5:36a). He then proceeds to list three independent witnesses of supreme character: 1) The miraculous works (v. 36b); 2) God the Father (v. 37); 3) the Old Testament Scriptures (v. 39). These three witnesses supplied insuperable evidence that Jesus was Christ.
An additional three witnesses were later introduced by the apostle John as testifying that Jesus was the Son of God. He wrote, “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with water and with blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 John 5:6-8). John evidently alludes to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as His coming by water; His death on the cross as coming by blood; and the anointing of the Holy Spirit which He received at baptism, providing the visible demonstration of miraculous power throughout His ministry to confirm Jesus as the Son of God.
The undeviating pattern of God pertaining to the establishment of truth by the testimony of two or three witnesses is evident in both covenants of the Bible. The voice of Moses, the voice of Aaron, and the voice of miracles spoke convincingly that God intended for the Israelites to be released from Egyptian captivity (Exodus 4:1-17). Even in the final symbolic book of Revelation, it is the testimony of two witnesses that becomes the burden of the 11th chapter. The employment of two or three credible witnesses for the establishment of truth is a divine sanction against fraud and deception.
The Kingdom Witnesses
Beginning early in His ministry, Jesus selected twelve men from a multitude of disciples (Luke 6:12-19). Mark says He chose the twelve “so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach; and to have authority to cast out the demons” (3:14-15). Based upon the syntactical construction of Matthew’s account of the names (Matthew 10:2-4), the groupings are most likely indicative of the distinct “pairs” (Mark 6:7) sent out by Jesus “to proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:2). The announcement of the approaching kingdom proceeded from three witnesses: the apostolic pair along with the voice of miraculous demonstration by the Holy Spirit to confirm the oral testimony of the apostles.
When Jesus later sent out “seventy others” to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” these were also endowed with miraculous accompaniment (Luke 10:1-20). The seventy were sent out “in pairs,” and they returned “with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name” (10:17). The testimony of miraculous power was sufficient evidence that God was with these witnesses and that, as servants of Christ, their names were “recorded in heaven” (10:20). The Lord rejoiced at the successful witnessing accomplished by these men through the power of the Holy Spirit (10:21).
By the combined testimony of two or three witnesses, essential truth was circulated among the people by special witnesses chosen for the task by Christ. It should be noted that the Bible offers no indication that every disciple in the “large crowd of His disciples” (Luke 6:17) was sent forth on this mission heralding the nearness of the kingdom, but only those witnesses carefully selected and appointed by Christ.
God worked uniquely with the pairs of men that were sent forth as witnesses – not with the majority of followers who were not ordered to go. As the pairs of men sent out by Christ related their own first-hand testimony of the words spoken by Jesus regarding the approaching kingdom of God, the voice of miracles spoke in concert, providing divine witness to the veracity of the oral testimony. The rapidly approaching kingdom was witnessed by the testimony of three independent witnesses.
If one is to understand the “witness” motif of the New Testament, it is vital that he grasps the orderly design by which God authenticates truth through the testimony of two or three credible witnesses; one of which must be the “witness” of the Holy Spirit testifying through miraculous manifestations. Failure to comprehend this divine arrangement has resulted in false apostles, false prophets, and false witnesses filling the ranks of modern Christianity. Since no one today can confirm his/her teaching in conjunction with the “witness” of the Holy Spirit, it should become evident that the original testimony related by “eyewitnesses” and attested by supernatural demonstration is the truth to which the people of all nations are accountable.
The Apostolic Witness
On the night before His death, Christ conversed at length with His apostles – the twelve men chosen by Christ (cf. John 15:16) to “be with Him and that He could send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). The undergirding testimony which was indispensible to the establishment and confirmation of the gospel is that which originated from the apostles of Christ. These chosen witnesses were “appointed” by Christ to “go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). The gospel preached by the apostles of Christ would become the source of belief in Christ among all the nations (cf. John 17:18-21).
During the discourse of that last night, Jesus informed the apostles, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning (John 15:26-27). According to the pattern of multiple witnesses previously displayed in announcing the approaching kingdom of God, Christ appoints specific men to the task of witnessing the essential facts of the gospel, promising the assistance of the Holy Spirit who would likewise testify on behalf of Christ.
Subsequent to His resurrection, Christ reiterated the commission to the apostles, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for the remission of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you: but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).
The appointment of the apostles as witnesses is based upon their first-hand knowledge of the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. J. H. Thayer defined the term “witnesses” as indicating the apostles “had been eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses of the extraordinary sayings, deeds and sufferings of Jesus, which proved his Messiahship; so too Paul, as one to whom the risen Christ had visibly appeared” (Op. Cit., #3140).
It has been well stated, “Facts, not ideas or myths, are at issue. Those who bear witness to these facts have lived through them (Lk. 24:47; Acts 1:8). They have also understood them. When endowed with the Spirit, they are thus equipped to go out as witnesses to the world” (Kittel, 1985, p. 567). The apostles were “eyewitnesses” to the events significant to the gospel (cf. 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16).
In defining the noun, martus (witness), Robinson emphasized its use in the New Testament as: “Espec. of those who witnessed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who bear witness to the truth as it is in Jesus” (1836, p. 497). The apostles gave witness to every pertinent truth pertaining to Christianity. Based upon their first-hand knowledge of fundamental facts vital to confirming Jesus as Christ, the apostles were ordered by Him to serve in the capacity of witnesses.
An interesting departure from the standard conception of “eyewitness” appears at this juncture, thus setting precedence for the context of the term “witness” as it appears in the New Testament with regards to those witnessing for Christ. The apostles were under orders from Christ (cf. Acts 1:2; 10:40-42) to testify as eyewitnesses to the events they had seen and to the things they had heard. The Apostolic Commission (comprehended fully by reviewing the several instances of its occurrence) represents the special orders obligating these men to the gospel, charging them as witnesses of Christ to all the world.
Herein we discover the connotation of Paul’s exclamation, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Despite Wayne Jackson’s application of the “Great Commission” to all Christians, he nevertheless captures the essence of Paul’s words previously quoted, commenting: “While preaching Christ was a glorious task, he would not glory in such personally, for he was compelled by necessity to be involved in this commitment. The Lord Jesus had commissioned him to this vocation and he had dedicated himself to it. In fact, he felt he would be condemned if he did not (v. 16)” (2011, p. 318).
The apostles were under compulsion to witness for Christ, and failure to comply ended tragically for Judas, who turned aside from “the ministry and apostleship…to go to his own place” (Acts 1:25). The apostles were not mere spectator witnesses to His death and resurrection as others had been, e.g., Mary Magdalene, Joseph called Barsabbas, the more than five hundred mentioned by Paul, etc., but the apostles were selected, appointed, and commanded in the Apostolic Commission to serve as witnesses to the impregnable facts of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Thayer observed how the apostles were dispatched as witnesses “to give (not to keep back) testimony” (Op. Cit., #3140). The apostles were entrusted with the solemn testimony which confirmed Jesus as Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:17; 2 Corinthians 4:1-7), and they were under direct orders from Christ to proclaim it to all people (Acts 10:42).
French theologian, Ceslas Spicq, noted, “The biblical martys is not a mere eyewitness, simply present at a happening; he is active…called upon to tell what he has seen and heard, to proclaim what he knows. The mission of the Twelve is to bear witness to the resurrection of Christ: ‘You are witnesses of these things’ (hymeis martyres touton, Luke 24:48); ‘You shall be my witnesses’ (esesthe mou martyres)…The apostle testifies concerning Jesus, which is why St. John wrote his gospel and his apocalypse” (Op. Cit., pp. 448-49).
Balz and Schneider also construe the commission as signifying the special appointment of “witness” compelled upon the apostles. These esteemed scholars commented, “Luke has esp. developed a characteristic concept of witness in Acts that is of fundamental significance. One may begin…with Luke 24:48: The apostles (now eleven) are ‘witnesses of these things,’ i.e., of the suffering of Jesus (which has taken place according to Scripture), of his resurrection, and of the message of forgiveness that is to be proclaimed. The commission by the resurrected One is primarily that of ‘witnessing.’ It appears to correspond to the element of the commission, which is found in the parallel tradition of John 20:19-23. The bestowal of the Spirit there corresponds to the promise of the Spirit in Luke…Luke thus appears to reserve the title of witness essentially for the twelve, as Acts 1:21f indicates” (1991, p. 395; emp. added).
The Apostolic Commission has been, regrettably, misconstrued throughout modern-day Christendom as the primary evangelistic mission of the church; but the so-called “Great Commission” charges witnesses to testify to known facts concerning Jesus – not second-hand hearsay that one simply believes to be the truth. The men appointed by the original commission were to provide first-hand, eyewitness testimony; citing corroborating and convincing historical facts. We may read the New Testament and come to believe that Jesus is Christ, but our personal faith offers no credible testimony to the facts established by the apostles as they witnessed for Christ, testifying to known and irrefutable facts.
“The facts in question, however, are the facts of the history of Jesus, especially His resurrection, which is treated by Luke as no less an objective fact than the passion… At issue are, not doctrines, myths, or speculations, but facts which took place in the clear light of history at a specific time and place, facts which can be established and on which one can rely. Hence one must speak of witnesses. Nor are these witnesses in general. They are those who are qualified to be witnesses because they themselves lived through the events. They were indeed specifically called to be such (Lk. 24:47; Ac. 1:8, 22–26). They were given the necessary equipment for their task (Lk. 24:48; Ac. 5:32). Herein may be seen Luke’s concept of, and interest in, the witness” (Kittel, 1964, p. 492).
The “necessary equipment” essential for the successful completion of the apostles’ commission to witness was the reception of the Holy Spirit. The apostles were not sent forth relying on their own fallible faculties of remembrance or skillfully crafted words of wisdom to establish and confirm the resurrection of Christ, but the Holy Spirit was promised as an advocate or intercessor (GK – parakletos) to teach these men every truth of the gospel and to aid their remembrance of the words spoken by Christ (John 14:26).
The Spirit often supplied the appropriate sermon as the circumstance or situation necessitated (Matthew 10:19-20; cf. Acts 2:4). And in conjunction with the apostles’ testimony, the Holy Spirit also testified convincingly through demonstrations of supernatural power. Paul evinced the extraordinary witness of the Holy Spirit as instrumental when he explained, “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Every word of the gospel was confirmed by the mouth of two or three witnesses. Peter and John testified in Jerusalem (Acts 3:1-4:22) backed by the testimony of the Holy Spirit (3:6-10; 4:8). The same two apostles journeyed to Samaria and provided proof that Christians were the true sons of God by laying hands upon baptized believers, giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). They did not depart Samaria until they had “solemnly testified” to those living in the villages of that region (8:25).
On other occasions, the lone apostle is depicted as witnessing in a certain city, but the second credible witness is always present in the miraculous demonstration of power by the Holy Spirit to substantiate the gospel message (cf. Acts 9:32-43). The resurrection of Christ was confirmed by the testimony of at least one human eyewitness, along with the testimony of the Holy Spirit in signs, wonders, and miracles.
The witness of the apostles was in harmony with their unique role as ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). The witness of the Holy Spirit corroborated their testimony, placing the divine stamp or seal upon these men as witnesses of the Lord. The Holy Spirit was instrumental to the successful accomplishment of the Apostolic Commission, and without confirming testimony by the miraculous today, it is certain that the apostolic mission of witnessing resides in the written testimony known as the New Testament, and that the apostles continue to serve in the capacity compelled upon them by Jesus Christ, proclaiming the gospel to all men (for full excursus on the significance of the apostles, see article: The Incomparable Role of the Apostles).
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