The biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Linguistically, the biblical term principally derives from the Hebrew yaad, ud, anah [h"n'a] and Greek marturein [marturevw] word groups; conceptually, it broadly influences the thought patterns, truth claims, and theology of nearly all of Scripture.
Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses ( Deut 19:15 ).
Thus, within Scripture an inseparable bond exists between the message and its historical reliability on the basis of sound testimony. The message is as trustworthy as the events themselves. In the Old Testament, the truth claims have to do mainly with God and the revelation of himself to Israel; in the New Testament, this picture is greatly deepened with the additional revelation of Jesus Christ, and now to all the world.
Testimony in the Old Testament. Testimony as the Revelation of God. The idea of testimony is intrinsic to the idea of biblical revelation. The content of biblical revelation, whether general or special, stands as testimony to its Giver. Furthermore, God has unveiled divine truth to people within the matrix of secular history. This means that people were able to verify divine revelation. Paul proclaims that the coming of Jesus and the worldwide spread of the gospel were "not done in a corner" ( Acts 26:26 ). These events were well observed by many. This assessment holds true for most of biblical revelation.
Concerning Old Testament general revelation, the psalmist praises the created order for revealing and bearing witness to God's glory and supremacy ( Psalm 8:1-4 ; 19:1-6 ; 29 see Job 36:24-33 ; 37:1-13 ). The sun/moon and day/night cycles appear as eternally established faithful witnesses, affirming Yahweh as a promise-keeping God ( Psalm 89:35-37 ; Jeremiah 33:20-21 Jeremiah 33:25 ).
Concerning God's special revelation of himself to Old Testament Israel, the Ten Commandments are called the Testimony ( Exod 31:8 ); as the revelation of God's legislation, they testify to his person and work and to his expectations for Israel. The ark and the tabernacle are also occasionally called the ark of the Testimony ( Exod 25:22 ; Num 4:5 ; Joshua 4:16 ) and the tabernacle/tent of the Testimony ( Exod 38:21 ; Num 10:11 ; 2 Chron 24:6 ). In these instances, testimony more specifically refers to the revelatory self-witness of God to his people. Here, by the ark in the tabernacle, God testifies to his own existence in the act of revealing himself to Moses ( Exod 25:22 ; 33:9-11 ; Num 7:89 ) and to future generations ( Exod 29:42 ).
The Old Testament prophets also reveal God's mind and will when testifying against Israel ( 2 Chron 24:19 ; Amos 3:13 ) and the nations ( Zep 3:8 ). All instances of this kind of prophecy in the Old Testament of which there are many appear as divine testimony against unrepentant peoples. The content of the prophetic testimony is often directly inspired revelation. Its truth claim lies ultimately in its fulfillment. But the history of prophetic fulfillment also guarantees its reliability.
Testimony and the Lawcourt of God. The seat of justice in Old Testament Israel was the legal assembly, which usually met near the town gate. Here the accuser and defender presented their cases before the town elders, who presided over the assembly as judges. The litigants often called in witnesses to substantiate their cases.
Old Testament writers frequently use the language of the lawcourt to express God's disposition toward various individuals and groups of people. He appears as defender, accuser, and judge. As defender, God is beseeched to take up the cause, to testify on behalf of an aggrieved party. Job, for example, appeals to God to defend him as his witness, advocate, intercessor, and friend ( Job 16:19-21 ). Elsewhere, God defends the cause of the poor, sick, and disenfranchised ( Deut 10:18 ; Psalm 10:18 ; 72:4 ; 82:3 ; Prov 23:10 ), the righteous ( Psalm 119:154 ), and Israel ( Jer 50:34 ; 51:36 ). As accuser, God testifies against Israel because of their sin ( Psalms 50:7 Psalms 50:21 ; Isa 57:16 ; Hosea 4:1 ; Micah 1:2 ; 6:2 ; Mal 2:14 ); as judge, he reaches a just verdict on the basis of his own testimony ( Hosea 12:2 ; Micah 6:2 Micah 6:9-16 ; Zeph 3:7-8 ; Mal 3:5 ). But even as accuser and judge, God's gracious love is still in force: "He will not always accuse, nor will he treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" ( Psalm 103:9-10 ). God's desire for justice establishes a precedent for his people to follow. To defend the cause of the powerless and to testify against injustice reflect knowledge of God's ways and personal obedience to him ( Isa 1:17 ; Jer 22:16 ).
Testimony also appears in the Old Testament as the legal proof of God's trustworthiness. Certain visible evidence existed within Israel attesting to the trustworthiness of God's revelation of himself to them. The Song of Moses ( Deut 31:14-32:44 ) and the Book of the Law ( Deut 31:26 ) stand as testimony against Israel; these documents contain God's prediction that Israel will one day rebel against him and turn to idols. Israel's legacy of apostasy verifies the reliability of God's predictions that they would forsake him. More broadly, the fulfillment of these predictions in Israel's history endorses the trustworthiness of God's entire revelation given through Moses.
Testimony appears, moreover, as a visible reminder of God's supremacy. The Transjordan tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh built a replica of the Lord's altar near the Jordan, not for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but as testimony to Israel that they would remain faithful to God's law given to Moses and that they had a continuing legal right to worship at the Lord's tabernacle even though living outside of the promised land ( Joshua 22:27-28 ). They named the memorial: A Witness Between Us that the Lord is God (v. 34). It stands as visible evidence that Yahweh is supreme. The prophet Isaiah apparently takes up the altar and memorial ideas of Joshua 22 in describing a significant future conversion of Egyptians to the Lord. At that time, they too will have a legal right to worship the sovereign God of Israel at his tabernacle/temple ( Isa 19:19-20 ).
Furthermore, to invoke God as witness in oaths and binding agreements in the Old Testament implicitly indicates the participant's complete confidence in God as irreproachable, and thus as utterly reliable. For this reason, he is called "the true and faithful witness" ( Jer 42:5 ).
Testimony as the Proclamation of God as Lord and Savior. In Isaiah 43:8-13, the prophet depicts the nations as forming a legal assembly to proclaim the superiority and saving work of their gods. But their case proves groundless. Their gods are blind and deaf, mere idols made of the commonest materials; their makers are nothing but men. Hence, their message is nothing but a lie ( Isaiah 43:10 Isaiah 43:12 ; 44:9-20 ). The nations ultimately have no case, because they lack any evidence to support their claims ( 44:11 ).
In the same assembly, Israel takes the witness stand ( Isaiah 43:10 Isaiah 43:12 ; 44:8 ) to proclaim Yahweh as the Lord and that apart from him there is no savior ( 43:11 ). Their case, in contrast, is undeniable. Israel's history proves it. God has historically, time and again, revealed himself to Israel and redeemed them from oppression ( 43:12 ). God's revelation of himself to Moses, his giving of the law, his abiding presence in the tabernacle (and temple) and his redemption of Israel from Egypt provide the Israelite witnesses with solid evidence to support their claims. In defending Yahweh, Israel proclaims to the nations God's lordship and that salvation can be found only in him.
Here testimony is equivalent to proclamation. It presents historical evidence attesting to God's unique person, position, and work. It simultaneously is evangelistic: the message of God's saving work in Israel's history becomes itself an offer of salvation to those listening.
Testimony in the New Testament. The New Testament takes up the Old Testament concept of testimony and greatly expands it in light of God's special revelation in Jesus Christ. Here again the content of the testimony is certifiable, objective evidence ( John 3:11 ; Acts 1:21-22 ; 1 John 1:1-4 ), and for this reason, it is considered true ( John 3:33 ; 5:32-33 ; 19:35 ; 21:24 ; 3 John 12 ). The association of Christian witness with suffering and martyrdom, on the other hand, is mostly a post-New Testament Christian development.
Testimony Concerning the Divine Identity of the Earthly Jesus. Biblical and early nonbiblical writings indubitably affirm that Jesus truly lived. But the New Testament explicitly and implicitly testifies that the earthly Jesus considered himself as God incarnate.
John's Gospel, in particular, offers a wealth of Jesus' self-claims concerning his divine identity (see the numerous "I am" sayings). In fact, the entire Gospel ostensibly appears as a legal defense of Jesus' divine sonship. Jesus regarded his personal testimony as valid ( 8:14 ), but knowing that, according to Jewish law, appearing as one's own witness without confirmation invalidates the testimony ( 5:31 ; 8:13-18 ), he summoned other witnesses, whose testimony he also considered beyond dispute. Jesus stressed that his miraculous works affirmed his divine status ( 5:36 ; John 10:25 John 10:38 ; 14:11 ; 15:24 ). He could not have performed them if he were not from God. This unity implies, furthermore, that the Father testifies to his divine identity as well ( John 32 37 ; 8:17-18 ). In the same sense, Jesus declares that the Old Testament Scriptures testify about him ( 5:39 ), as will the Holy Spirit, whom he will send to his followers from heaven ( 15:26 ) and the apostles ( 15:27 ). John the Baptist also offers testimony endorsing Jesus' self-claims about his divinity ( 3:26 ; 5:32-33 ): Jesus is the true light through whom all people can be saved ( 1:7-9 ), is preexistent ( 1:15 ), will baptize with the Spirit ( 1:32-33 ), and is the Son of God ( 1:34 ).
Jesus as Testimony about God. Scripture uniformly asserts that no one has seen God ( John 1:18 ; 1 Tim 6:16 ). God is spirit ( John 4:24 ; 2 Cor 3:17-18 ) and invisible ( Col 1:15 ; 1 Tim 1:17 ). Jesus, on the other hand, declares that his purpose for coming into the world was to testify to the truth ( John 18:37 ). According to John 14:6, Jesus is the truth. Only he has seen the Father ( John 6:46 ) and for this reason has come to make God known ( John 1:18 ). Jesus' testimony, therefore, is about God as revealed through him.
Thus, to see Jesus is to see what God is like: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" ( John 14:9 ). Jesus is the image of the invisible God ( 2 Cor 4:4 ; Col 1:15 ); he is the exact representation of God's being ( Heb 1:3 ).
The theological importance of this reality is that Jesus' person, qualities, attitudes, and behavior expressly image the Father's. For Jesus willingly to have given up his life that we might live not only depicts the lowest point of his earthly career and describes the depth of his love for us ( Php 2:8 ), but it correspondingly reveals what it means when John says that God is love ( 1 John 4:8 1 John 4:16 ): God so loved the world, that he gave of himself in giving Jesus ( John 3:16 ). Because of the incarnation, we have now received "the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" ( 2 Cor 4:6 ).
Testimony and the Gospel. The legal sense of testimony as the presentation of evidence plays a decisive role in the New Testament church's propagation of the gospel. In the New Testament, reliable historical evidence is a handmaiden to the theological significance of the gospel message. Eyewitness testimony is of utmost importance. The New Testament church's confidence in the gospel as saving is directly proportional to its confidence in the historical reliability of the gospel events themselves. It would have been untenable for Jewish Christians to use the Old Testament legal procedure for establishing the legitimacy of the gospel via the testimony of multiple witnesses, if all the while knowing that historically the events had not transpired in the way they had so claimed. Jewish opponents of Christianity would, otherwise, have been able to find bonafide witnesses of their own (something historically they were unable to do) to refute the legitimacy of the Christian claims.
The New Testament two types of witness as legal testimony. First, it appears as a literal courtroom defense of Jesus and the gospel. It stems from Jesus' own teaching. Jesus announced to his followers that they will stand trial before Jewish and Gentile authorities as witnesses to them on account of him ( Matt 10:18 ; Mark 13:9 ; Luke 21:13 ; John 15:27 ; Acts 10:42 ). In the New Testament, the Book of Acts especially attests to the fulfillment of this promise. Luke recounts numerous occasions when believers appeared in court settings bearing witness to Jesus as savior before Jewish, Greek, and Roman authorities. Second, witness as legal testimony frequently appears as a way of presenting the gospel. In its technical usage, it strictly refers to Jesus' followers who witnessed his entire earthly ministry, from John's baptism to the ascension. They vouched for the certainty of the gospel message from their firsthand knowledge of the events of Jesus' earthly career, and provided able sources for the contents of the Gospels. In a more general sense, it also refers to the way believers appealed to Jesus' life, the Old Testament Scriptures, the Spirit's presence and personal testimony to substantiate the legitimacy of the gospel message.
Furthermore, in the New Testament the historical reliability of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is intrinsic to the preaching of the gospel. The interrelation between testifying and preaching in the New Testament closely resembles the Old Testament example in Isaiah 43-44. Paul, for instance, while at Corinth "devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ" ( Acts 18:5 ). For Paul to present evidence that Jesus was the Messiah was at the same time intended to induce a believing response from his Jewish listeners. Proclamation in the New Testament means bearing witness to the historical reliability of God's saving work in Jesus. The authenticity of the message preached is what grants the message its authority. To preach the gospel to the nations is to challenge them with the fact of Jesus ( Matt 24:14 ; Mark 13:10 ; Luke 24:48 ; Acts 1:8 ).
Another New Testament form of testifying to Jesus and the gospel is through proper Christian conduct. Jesus tells his disciples ( John 13:34-35 ), "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." The command to love is not new (cf. Lev 19:18 ; Deut 6:5 ). What is new is the revelation of God's love through Jesus. As Jesus bore witness of God's love to the world by his life and death ( John 3:16 ), his followers by loving as he has loved will reveal a Christ-like love to a world that has never seen him. Any inquiry into the reason for this selfless love will encounter the good news of Jesus' saving work an event historically reliable and theologically certain. Proper Christian conduct, therefore, provides timeless testimony to Jesus' perfect and final expression of God's love.
The Witness of the Spirit as the Testimony of God. According to 1 John 5:6-11, the Spirit's witness appears as God's testimony that Jesus is his Son. The witness the Spirit bears is recognizable outwardly to all people and inwardly to believers. Outwardly, "the signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit" appear as God's testimony to the salvation first announced by Jesus and then confirmed by eyewitnesses ( Heb 2:3-4 ). The tangible evidence of the Spirit's presence is displayed both in Jesus' life and in the experience of the church. The Spirit's ministry in the church becomes, in effect, incontrovertible evidence to Judaism (and to the nations) that the church's message about Jesus comes from God. Jesus foretold that the Spirit will testify about him ( John 15:26 ). Inwardly, the Spirit testifies to believers that they are God's children ( Rom 8:16 ; 1 John 3:24 ) and have God's testimony about Jesus in their hearts ( 1 John 5:10 ).
The forensic language of these New Testament passages is historically and theologically important. The Spirit's witness yet visible to us even now! verifies that, historically, Jesus did not receive his divine sonship by adoption. The witness by water and blood ( 1 John 5:6-7 ) indicates that Jesus already was God's Son at the time of his water baptism by John and his death on the cross. The Spirit of Truth ( John 15:26 ; 1 John 5:6 ) affirms this. Therefore, as witnesses the water, blood, and the Spirit unanimously agree that Jesus was God's Son by divine nature, not by divine appointment ( 1 John 5:8 ).
The Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus. John's Apocalypse marvelously depicts the unity of God and Jesus in the compound designation "the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ" ( Revelation 1:2 Revelation 1:9 ; 6:9 ; 20:4 ). The separate titles mean the same thing. Both refer to Jesus. John envisions Jesus at the time of his glorious return as "dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God" ( 19:13 ). God's final word of revelation and redemptive act were consummated in Jesus' passion work. The phrase "the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus" does not refer to a concept but to an event: the incarnation. The historical reality of Jesus' life and passion is central to Christian confession and lies at the heart of the compound designation. Its usage in the book's introduction ( 1:2 ) indicates its thematic importance for the entire work. Jesus is the true and enduring witness of God's love ( 1:5 ; 3:14 ). He is the slain Lamb of God who, vindicated by God, presently reigns supreme by his Father's side. Therefore, to believers facing persecution and possible martyrdom for bearing witness to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus in a human court of law, John reminds them with the Book of Revelation that their ultimate destiny is as assured as the reliability of the message they preach: the Lord Jesus himself will vindicate them in the heavenly lawcourt.
H. Douglas Buckwalter
See also Confess, Confession
Bibliography. J. Beutler, EDNT, 2:389-91; L. Coenen and A. A. Trites, NIDNTT, 3:1038-51; H. Strathmann, TDNT, 4:474-514; A. A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Testimony'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".