[This post is mainly me just exploring some words and is quite in-depth for, to be honest, such an obvious conclusion. It follows my line of thinking from my initial reasons for studying into this topic, then moves onto things I think I learned. Read it all if you dare!]
Growing up in the Church of God, I never really witnessed the other styles of church services that are out there. In fact, the church seemed to go to great pains to denounce any practices that were reflective of common stereotypes of false worship of Jesus Christ. This included the choice of words that those churches typically used. As a result, I always got a chuckle out of anyone that could do a good Southern preacher impression, saying something along the lines, "Ah have ex-or-cized the de-mons!" or "Have you found Jesus, son?"
There were many common sayings in Protestantism that just seemed to get overused to the point that they became common to my ears as a kid, but I never really knew what they meant; words like "justified", "providence", "redemption", and the list goes on and on. Other words like "holy", "good" and "true" have been hijacked by the human language to be more man-centered than God-centered, which leads to philosophical questions like "What is truth?" and "Whose version of good?" Once I came to this realization, I had to go back to re-learn what all these words meant in their proper context.
Enter in the words "testimony", "testify" and "witness", which are used over 300 times in the New King James Version of the Bible. I knew the meanings of these words in the context of a courtroom, but to me, they didn't seem to mean the same thing in a religious setting. I mean, if a defense attorney stood up in the middle of trial and asked, "Can I get a witness?" he'd probably lose the case.
"Testify, sister! Testify!" is cried out at some church services. But outside of that setting, I'm curious as to why that would be something worth praising another over. Really, it seems as though the only time appropriate to use these words is when we're taking someone to trial or having our own deeds put under the microscope of judicial review. I rarely get too happy when I'm seated before a judge.
Perhaps I’m just being purposely obtuse…
So I decided it was time to look into the definitions of these words. After all, they are used throughout the Bible in ways not commonly phrased in today's courts, right? My findings were not as surprising as I thought they might be. First, the technical dictionary definitions. To "witness" simply means to provide firsthand evidence of. "Testify" simply means to make a statement based on personal knowledge or belief, generally to be used to as evidence or proof. This is exactly what I would attribute to these words from the standpoint of a courtroom.
In churches everywhere today, it takes on a similar meaning, but—to me, anyway—it's completely different in context. In these cases, Webster's dictionary and others state that "witnessing" and "testimony" are more of an expression of "a strong belief, especially to make a declaration of faith".
My question is to whom? For what purpose? On a street corner banging your Bible on a soap box? Who's going to listen to you? I suppose in decades and centuries gone by, this individual may have gotten more attention than the kooks who do this today. [It did work for the Apostle Paul's in Athens: see Acts 17:17.]
If "testifying" occurs in a church, well, this is simply preaching to the choir. I mean, do those present in church need more proof? I'm not saying this is all bad, mind you. We do the same things by announcing miracles and healings which are meant to increase our faith. But if this is a major portion of your church service, it feels more like patting each other on the back for continuing to believe in Jesus for one more week. Hallelujah!
So as I read through the list of examples of the word "witness" throughout the Bible, I find, in most cases, that it is indeed the "evidence" context of the word. For example, the concept of "bearing witness" in a trial-like setting is used somewhere around half of the time in the Bible. Back before they had forensic evidence like we have today, a person's word and some scant evidence was all that could really be held against anybody.
[Exhibit A: This bloody coat of many colors is evidence of the victim's death along with the testimony of the victim's brothers. Exhibit B: The prosecution witnessed the defendant's hairy arms through touch alone and the defendant testified that he was Esau.]
In God's law, we find that He requires at least 2-3 eye-witnesses to testify against someone in order for them to be found guilty. It is up to the judge, perhaps, to determine if they were delivering false testimony. Even in Jesus' trial, the stories of the false witnesses had to somewhat agree before the Sanhedrin—who wanted Christ dead—even thought about handing Him over to Pontius Pilate. Really, it wasn't until Jesus Himself affirmed that He was the Son of God that they convicted Him.
Elsewhere, I find unusual statements like, "For God is my witness..." and "I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit" and so on. What kind of witnesses are these supposed to be if they're not technically present to tell us? Should I believe your conscience?? John writes about an equally perplexing exchanging in chapter 8. I mean, could you imagine the following discourse taking place in a court of law today?
13 The Pharisees therefore said to Him, “You bear witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true.”
14 Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from and where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 And yet if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent Me. 17 It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true. 18 I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me.”
19 Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?”
Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.”
Christ established that He had two witnesses of His authority, but then follows that up with the fact that the Father wasn't known to the party He was trying to convince. How was this expected to convince the highly skeptical Pharisees? Yet Jesus was performing amazing miracles that were unlike anything anybody had ever seen or written about up to that point, so His witnessing was backed up by strong evidence.
Also, in many places in the Bible, inanimate objects are said "to be a witness" for something, generally a promise or covenant. This is the case with Abraham and Abimelech over the area of Beersheba in Genesis 21, and between God and Israel in Deuteronomy 4:26.
"So what's the point, Mike?" you may ask yourself. Good question. Let's summarize what we've learned up to this point. The words "witness" and "testimony" are used in the Bible as firsthand evidence in a trial. But they are also used to bind agreements, build faith among the people and exhort others that what God or His servants are saying is true.
God has predestined a small group of people to be His followers at this time. Being omniscient, He knows the time in our life that we will most likely receive His word, hear His witnesses and come to the conclusions He desires us to come to. Naturally, we go on to a lifetime of learning to find out what is RIGHT, GOOD and TRUTH (capitalized to mean God's perfect version of these words). Of course, it's not the TRUTH that is changing, but rather we are continually uncovering more of it and throwing out the counterfeit versions Satan and this world has deceived us with.
Because we are only eyewitnesses of evidence of godly GOOD, and not its entirety, we must be mindful in how we witness to others. And this is where God instructs us to obtain a sound mind—the mind of Christ—to rightly divide the TRUTH from the stuff people merely call truth. So how do we convince someone else that our mind is sound and our message is worth listening to?
We could compare witnessing the TRUTH of God to somebody new to believing someone who's claiming to have seen a UFO. Both God’s TRUTH and UFOs are equally foreign to this world, but many claim to have some belief in them to one degree or another. So if someone claims to you that they've seen a UFO, what would convince you that they had? Would it be just their word? How detailed their story is? How about the sober-mindedness of the individual? Would you require physical evidence, like pictures or video? In practice, UFOgraphers have produced all of the above and more, yet there are still many more skeptics than believers.
The Church of God’s function of preaching the gospel is kind of like this. We are presenting material that to most will just seem odd or just flat-out wrong. Even Mr. Armstrong initially reacted to the Sabbath with incredulity. Some will find the Gospel fascinating whether it's our take on prophecy, Biblical truths they didn't see before, or how it answers questions they've always had. But as with the parable of the sower, many of these individuals stay interested for a time until some other distraction, the cares of this world or Satan pull them away. But it does serve a purpose: to get people's attention directed to the Truth of God so their minds are primed to receive it when the time is right.
Back to our UFO example, what if you went out and saw what the other believers did? That might be pretty compelling. Even the greatest skeptic would have a hard time explaining that away, but they may look for every scientific argument they can find to cast doubt on what they experienced. Most people would be compelled to share their story—far more so than the average believer who hasn't witnessed a UFO.
God's calling is more like this example. In my own calling, he began doing things that were beyond natural explanation. The Bible began to come alive to me in a way it hadn't before. I begin to get angry at the actions of this world, and I was sad at its ignorance. Then I got angry with my own inability to live up to God’s commandments. My prayers seemed to get answered over and over and questions I had in my mind got answered by a conversation I had with someone the next day. Coincidental and weird things!
It's here where the average person being called begin to sense there's a little more to this whole Sabbath/Holy Day/unclean meats/tithing/10 Commandments thing. However, they have to understand that this calling isn't happening to everybody else. But now we're at an impasse. Like the guy who didn't believe in UFOs before he saw one, we have a choice to make: Do I tell others or do I keep my mouth shut and let it drive me nuts? Do I seek out others who have seen similar things? What do I do? You know that it would appear crazy to everyone else, but you saw it with your own two eyes! Surely I'm not crazy, you say.
The Developing Witness
God tells us that His Holy Spirit produces in us a sound mind (II Tim. 1:7) rather than the blinders those trapped in this world have over their eyes. We shouldn't fear this new knowledge even though we will likely appear freakish to others. Over time, we come to see that we must fulfill the requirements Paul outlines in Romans 12:1-2:
"1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."
Here, we’re given the purpose of why God is working specially with us. We have to prove that His way of life that we're witnessing is real. And yes, it will be a sacrifice, but one that's highly acceptable and notable to God—you know, the One who rules the entire UNIVERSE.
So we ask, as Paul did on the way to Damascus, "What will you have me do, Lord?" The rest of Romans 12 gives us that answer. We are to join His body, the church, and serve within it. This says that God, having called us for a specific role in His body, must begin training us to fulfill that role. At first, we are students. But over time, the Holy Spirit may lead us to various other roles. The whole way, we cannot forget to continue to "prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God".
In other words, no matter what position we receive, from babe in Christ to apostle, we must recognize that we haven't been shown the entire TRUTH yet, just the pieces needed to do our job. We grow—or read about a portion of God's eternal nature, take time to figure it out and practice it, and then see how it really works in real life. Another part of our role in the body is learning to care about the people of this world so much that we provide them with evidence of God working in our life, whether through example or by explaining. We must learn to do these things both individually and within the greater context of Christ’s body—the church.
It's a learning process. Others will challenge us and we will receive trials to refine our understanding. Step by step, we'll remove our feet from walking with this world, and that will cause others to take notice. We are showing evidence of Christ living within us. Paul makes this point in Romans 5-7 where he discusses that keeping God's word is proof of its authenticity because it creates the perfect man. Our mistakes and missteps of following God's perfect word will also be used as a witness. Paul states that our inability to keep the law proves its righteousness, too, in that our carnal nature couldn't begin to ascribe to the perfection of God’s law and character without His help.
This is why we must remain humble. We really don't know whether the evidence we're presenting in each moment of our life is really the Truth or just carnal self-righteousness. That is, until the Holy Spirit which is working and living within us lets us know. Over time, we'll begin nailing down those things that keep get hammered into our minds and they become readily-accessible knowledge and understanding. Other times, we'll just think figured something out, but will be proven wrong when we find we actually just stepped out on our own understanding.
Paul gives us good advice in how he chose to witness to others. He tells us in I Corinthians 2:
" 1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."
This is just after he rebukes the Corinthian church for being sectarian. Are we representing Christ in the way he would want, or are we showing off like mere men? Either way, we are an example and people are watching.
A Spiritual Witness
Let’s look at John 15. “I AM the True Vine…” What does this have to do with witnessing? Read further to verse 5:
“5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered…”
If we really think about what’s being said in John 15, we see that our spiritual growth is directly tied back to Jesus Christ. We bear spiritual fruit only by being attached to Him. Even His body—the church—is Christ’s, which grows through His direct intervention. Spiritually-speaking, our ability to sustain anything in a spiritual manner comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and Christ leading and guiding that growing process—not other human beings.
Peter, Paul, James and John spend much time talking about how contentions, strife, poor examples and sin can inhibit spiritual growth because they are distracting and destructive to our physical mind and body, which can take our thoughts and hearts away from focusing on God. That is, they have an effect on our emotions, stress levels, etc. But it’s only when we choose to let these things affect us that we remove ourselves from the True Vine and degrade spiritually. In other words, if other people attack us, that is not a valid reason in God's eyes for us to fall away.
Romans 7-8 explains this a little more. The spiritually-discerning nature of the Holy Spirit can use contentions and strife to demonstrate sin’s awful power over us. For example, if contentions arose between brethren, the Spirit may use that opportunity to point out that the source of the problem is one with attitude. This will resonate far more clearly and personally than just reading about fighting in the Bible. After experiencing it firsthand, we are repulsed by our actions. This is certainly not promoting sin, but rather shows how the Holy Spirit magnifies sin’s effects in our own lives and on humanity as a whole. It is at this point that we can begin seeing sin as horribly as God does and begin to destroy it. However, if we refuse to repent and continue to provide a home for sin—nurturing rather than destroying—we will be distracted by it and wither away from the True Vine.
We see that no other member of mankind other than our own self can distract us away spiritually from Jesus Christ; not a parent, a friend nor a minister. This idea is bolstered by I Corinthians 10:13 in that God will not allow us to be tempted more than we can handle. Matthew 10:28 tells us to not fear man, but God. Psalm 118:6 and Hebrews 13:6 ask, “The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”
It is in this way that the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ are a spiritual witness to us—when we accept their help and surrender to their will.
The apostles were firsthand eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ's life, teachings, death and resurrection. They were most qualified to accurately describe what He had said and done because they were right there with Him. And Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit to remind them of Christ’s words and to further show how they were to teach others. If miracles, signs or teachings were done through them, these actions were evidence of God's power. The prophets also spoke and performed similar miracles for ancient Israel’s sake through the Holy Spirit and God speaking through them. All of God’s servants’ roles throughout the Bible were to provide evidence that God exists and that He has specific instructions for mankind to follow.
Yet what I find interesting in no matter what any of them say, mankind still has the freedom of choice to do whatever they want. We all agree that if a witness testifies something, that testimony doesn't somehow become the de facto truth and all must agree in its correctness. Rather, it is simply placed in front of somebody and that’s it. No matter how much persuading, reasoning, logic or evidence that's there, it is up to the other person to accept or deny it as fact.
WOW! Or perhaps... "Duh!" But this is key: YOU don't have any power over what that person chooses. And even crazier still: neither do the prophets, the apostles, the Bible, Jesus Christ nor God. Now, it is true that Christ can be awfully persuasive when He chooses to be. Pictures of a mountain quaking with awesome lightning displays and trumpets shouting louder and louder might get your attention in a way that O.J.'s bloody glove might not. But even then, people can choose to reject God—and He has allowed for this in His plan.
The point for you and I is that we—when it concerns others—can ONLY be a witness to them. We can do no more. In my mind, this takes a great deal of the weight off my shoulders, similar to Jesus saying how His burden is light. We are not responsible for other people's decisions—they are.
We are not off the hook, though. Our testimony to others is required by God once we surrender our will to Him. And this testimony must take the form of a tireless and lifelong pursuit to a) provide ample evidence of God's existence, b) prove that the Bible is His Word, c) teach the correct way to understand and study it, d) reason with and exhort others to change their lives, e) live our lives as an example to our neighbors, f) and proclaim the Good News of the wonderful Kingdom of God to come to all nations, etc. But it ends where our words and example meet other people's eyes, ears and brain.
Those called by God are witnesses to the Truth, and these witnesses can only state the things they've seen and experienced. Others, who may or may not have experienced such things, can only guess if their word is true. Christ—the Word, Truth and Light—declared that His witness is TRUTH because He is the only one who knows TRUTH, outside of His Father. This is precisely why we need Christ living in us at all times. It is also precisely why—the moment we realize we're trying to take over—we need to stop ourselves and return to Him. No one else, if we are firmly planted on the foundation of Christ, can take that away from us unless we allow it.
When Jesus, Peter, Paul, Stephen and many others spoke in front of mass audiences, before kings, councils and judges, Who was witnessing? Likewise, when we are speaking to others, or just simply living our lives in the midst of other people from any background, who is witnessing? What evidence are we putting forth? The testimony that resonates the most with any one individual isn't important—that's for God to worry about. Our job, simply put, is to be a witness. But it must be accurately based on the powerful witness of God the Father and Jesus Christ testifying about a kingdom of love, joy and peace for all who are a part of it.
“Can I get a witness?” The whole world will soon desire one.