"Witnesses" Part Two

Written by Drew on July 17th, 2006

More than one person has contacted about my post entitled “Witnesses,” saying that Christians should not be speaking of “witnessing” today. As I understand it, their position is that the word “witness” is used in the Bible to refer only to eyewitnesses, which would rule out anybody living in the 21st century. All we can do today, according to this view, is share the “testimony” of those who walked with Jesus.

After reading through the 90 some odd references to witnesses in the New Testament, I have to concede that in almost every case the word is used with reference to eyewitnesses. However, there are some exceptions. See Luke 11:48, where Jesus called the Pharisees witnesses against themselves because they had built tombs for the prophets their fathers had killed. These men could not have possibly seen their forefathers kill the prophets, yet Christ called them “witnesses.” Additionally, Revelation 11:3 speaks symbolically of two “witnesses” who prophesied. No indication is given in the text that they were prophesying of things they had literally seen. They might have been preaching that which they had received by divine revelation. Evidently the word “witness” is not limited to the eyewitness, although that is how it is usually applied in the Bible.

The word translated “witness” belongs to a family of words used frequently in the New Testament. According to Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, they are defined as follows.

  • Martureo – “bear witness, be a witness, declare, confirm.”
  • Marturia – “testimony, testifying, martyrdom.”
  • Marturion – “that which serves as testimony or porrof, testimony, proof.”
  • Marturomai – “testify, bear witness.”
  • Martus (the word in question) – “witness. lit., in the legal sense…fig. of anyone who can or should testify to anything of God…of any kind of human witnessing by eye and ear…Of witnesses of events which they know about, without having experienced them personally…of witnesses who bear a divine message…In the usage of the persecuted church martus became one who witnessed unto death, a martyr” (pp. 492-494).

By looking strictly at the lexicological evidence, here is what we can conclude: Witnesses have learned certain information regarding God and His ways, either by direct or indirect experience, and when that information is shared with others it is called “testimony.” You’ll notice that, in defining martus, Bauer even went so far as to say, “Of witnesses of events which they know about, without having experienced them personally.” So if we’re testing these words strictly on the basis of their meaning during the first century, a “witness” could refer to the Christian who shares testimony he has learned from the inspired Word of God.

A lot of this boils down to semantics. While the discussion is interesting, I don’t want to debate this issue for very long, because, basically, I am in agreement with those who question the use of the word “witness” today. I am just extending my definition a little farther than where they are comfortable. We all agree that God’s communication with man stops with the New Testament. Modern-day revelations and miraculous experiences have ceased (1 Cor. 13:8-10).

However, I am concerned that many Christians live a detached spiritual life, not considering what God has done for them personally. They can preach the gospel plan of salvation, but they are unable to answer the question, “What has God done for me?” We may not be able to share experiences like those of the apostles, who were literally with Jesus, but that is not to say that God has not personally changed our lives.

Here is the kind of testimony the apostle John encouraged:

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn. 5:9-12, emphasis added).

No, we cannot claim to have experienced Christ in person, but has God given us eternal life? As Christians, this is what we have witnessed, and this is our testimony to the world.

Thanks to everyone who has shared their input. I appreciate all the comments; they spurred me on to further study. Let’s keep the dialogue open.


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