In our modern-day vernacular, we’re used to thinking about a “witness” in the context of a trial: someone called up to the “witness stand” to tell the true account of what they have seen or experienced for the purpose of proving someone guilty or innocent.
In the Bible, believers are called to be witnesses of Jesus. Today, believers in Jesus have not seen Jesus physically with our own eyes the way the original apostles and disciples did, but we have still experienced His working and being within and around us, and we can be a witness to others, telling them about what God has done in our lives.
One word that is translated as “witness” in the New Testament is the Greek word “martyreo,” from which we also derive the word “martyr.”
We tend to think of a martyr as someone who has died physically for their beliefs, specifically belief in Jesus. We will see later that there are often adverse consequences from the world for being a witness. But we can be a faithful witness for God without physically dying for our beliefs. We are all called to be faithful witnesses.
However, the connotation of death being tied to being a witness is always appropriate, since Jesus calls us to die to ourselves, to take up our cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35,10:21; Luke 9:24, 17:33). We are to “die” to our own desires as we take up the banner of God’s mission to make His name known instead of our own
An example of a witness in the Bible is John the Baptist. In the first chapter of the gospel written by John the Apostle, John the Baptist is described:
“He came as a witness, to testify (‘martyreo’) about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, be he came to testify about the Light.”
The word “martyreo” and its derivatives aren’t just used for “witness” here but also for “testify.” John dedicated his life to being a witness and telling others about Jesus. After he baptized Jesus and received the confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah through the sign of the dove, the account says:
“John testified (‘martyreo’) saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’”
This is one aspect of what it means to testify, to be a witness: to see Jesus at work and speak the truth of it to others.
Jesus testifies about himself to the Pharisees, and invites us to join Him. According to Jewish law, two testimonies were needed in a court, so Jesus tells the Pharisees:
“If I alone testify (‘martyreo’) about Myself, My testimony (‘martyria’) is not true.”
Here, “true” is not used in the sense of the opposite of false, but rather Jesus’ testimony about Himself would not be admissible in a legal trial. But He doesn’t stop there:
“There is another who testifies (‘martyreo’) of Me, and I know that the testimony (‘martyria’) which He gives about Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has testified (‘martyreo’) to the truth. But the testimony (‘martyria’) which I receive it not from man…But the testimony (‘martyria’) which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify (‘martyreo’) about Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father who sent Me, He has testified (‘martyreo’) of Me.”
(John 5:32-34a, 36-37a)
Jesus testifies about Himself and the Father testifies about Jesus through the works that He has sent Jesus to do. We are then invited to add our witness to that of the Father and the Son. As Jesus instructed the disciples before his ascension,
“You shall be My witnesses (‘martys’) both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
We are to walk in obedience as the physical presence of God’s testimony here on Earth. As Jesus told His disciples, when they abide in Him and produce fruit, His Father is glorified (John 15:7-8). This is how to be a faithful witness—to live daily in obedience to the commands of Jesus, living in the fruit of the Spirit, and thus fulfilling the law (Romans 8:3-4).
The New Testament epistles are filled with admonitions to live in obedience to the commands of Jesus. But they rarely command believers to testify with their mouth. The primary admonition to speak verbally of our faith is found in 1 Peter 3, in the context of someone asking why you would rejoice in suffering unjustly for your faith (1 Peter 3:14-16). The emphasis is on living a life of loving service as an example, being ready to speak and give an oral testimony at the appropriate time.
However, it is important to recognize that if we faithfully bear witness to Christ, that does not mean that others will believe. Jesus was the best testimony possible, and many did not believe. As Jesus told Nicodemus the Pharisee:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.”
But there numerous accounts of people coming to faith because of the testimony of another:
“From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.”
Therefore, we are not called to determine the outcome of our testimony, only to be faithful witnesses and to continue telling others what we have experienced and know to be true about God. We leave the results to God, and we leave the reward to God, trusting Him to approve and honor us for faithful service to Him in His own time (1 Peter 5:6).
At the end of the New Testament, the book of Revelation can be summarized as providing instructions on how to gain the most fulfillment possible out of life by being a faithful witness. To faithfully testify to Christ, offering our lives to His service is the thing we can do that is most in our true self-interest.
This is asserted in the greeting portion of the message to the seven churches in Revelation. Jesus says that hearing, understanding, and heeding the words He gives in Revelation is the path to immense blessing (Revelation 1:3).
The message of Revelation is spoken from the highest possible authority:
“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness (‘martys’), the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the
kings of the earth.”
As was established in the verses from the gospel of John, Jesus testifies about Himself. But in being a faithful witness, it is important to note that this goes beyond simply speaking the truth. It requires giving your entire self over to the truth. In Philippians we are told that Jesus:
“…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus was obedient to God and continued being a faithful witness even when it cost Him His earthly life, becoming a true martyr in the way we tend to think of it today. As a result, Jesus received an immense blessing; He was elevated as the king over all the earth (Matthew 28:18). Jesus tells those who overcome seeking the rewards of this world, and instead seek His reward, that He will share His reward with them (Revelation 3:21).
Jesus faced persecution and was killed for the truth to which He testified, standing as the ultimate example for believers. The passage in Philippians 2 speaks of the reward Jesus received for His faithful testimony:
“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This passage from Philippians 2 begins with an admonition for us to adopt the same mindset as Jesus did, learning obedience, and trusting God for our reward. A primary theme of Philippians is an admonition to choose a mindset or perspective that is true, as Jesus did. What is most true is that our greatest benefit is available through following Jesus in radical obedience, as a faithful witness (“martyreo”).
Faithful witnesses will often face earthly suffering because of their testimony. But scripture presents this as being more than worthwhile, because all who live as faithful witnesses, overcoming the fear of death, loss, and rejection will receive heavenly and eternal blessing, of which Jesus is the prime example. Jesus was exalted above all names, and invites us to share in His exaltation (Revelation 3:21; 1 Peter 5:6).
Not only does Jesus gain a blessing for Himself in being exalted by His Father, but also it is testified that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This will be known to all people, Through the exaltation of Jesus, God will also be glorified. God’s ultimate glory is the result of every faithful witness. Similarly, every faithful witness will be glorified by Jesus, even as He was glorified (Romans 2:6-7). When something is “glorified,” its essence is observed (1 Corinthians 15:40-41). When Jesus rewards those who have overcome fear of death, loss, and rejection, He will be giving them glory for serving Him (Revelation 3:21).
Speaking of the end times, Jesus told His disciples:
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
This sentiment is echoed later in Matthew in the passage known as the Great Commission, which says:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
As believers, we should all make our primary focus on earth to be faithful witnesses for Jesus. To make Jesus known by our actions and words, that other people might come to follow Him and be faithful witnesses themselves. This is the very best way to bless others, because it helps them find the path to their own greatest benefit.
Our physical lives on this earth are our only opportunity to come to know Jesus and others by faith. The angels are watching humans to understand His manifold wisdom (Ephesians 3:10). This is likely because we can know God by faith and they cannot. Neither will we be able to live by faith in the next life, for we shall know God by sight.
Just as Jesus suffered and was then rewarded for His witness, so also will those who overcome and live as faithful witnesses be rewarded. Throughout Revelation are exhortations by Jesus to His servants to persevere, along with promises of future rewards for being a faithful witness. The letter is intended to bestow peace, knowing that you can make good choices as a faithful witness to receive the blessings of the overcomer. Revelation makes clear that believers will often encounter difficult circumstances, but encourages them to live faithfully anyway, and receive an extra blessing. The seven churches in Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation have various circumstances. In each case, Jesus asks of them something different. This indicates that each believer will need to seek out what faithfulness means in their particular case. The Spirit is always leading.
There is an acknowledgement that suffering will take place, such as in the letter to the church in Pergamum:
“You hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you.”
In the knowledge that there will be persecution, Revelation is full of encouragement to persevere in living faithfully, which is especially wrapped up in the instructions to read, hear, and heed in Chapter 1, a pattern that is repeated throughout the book:
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”
A special blessing is promised for those who do read, hear, and heed the words of the prophecy of John. There are a multitude of promises of blessings, such as there being rest in heaven (Revelation 14:13), the “second death” having no power over you, and being “priests of God and of Christ” (Revelation 20:6), having the “right to the tree of life,” and being able to “enter by the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).
Believers are called to join Jesus in being faithful witnesses, testifying with their words and deeds by living in obedience to His commands.
It is not easy to be a faithful witness, and many will be persecuted for their testimony. The darkness of the world hates the light of the gospel (John 1:5; Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 6:14). However, the heavenly blessings far outweigh the earthly costs to make God known to all and bring Him glory through our walk of faith (John 15:8).
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