Currently much emphasis is placed upon Christian witnessing. Gospel radio programs devote time to it. In our churches and at our mission societies we are urged “to make our witness.” On many religious television programs long intervals of dearly bought time are reserved for those who would make their witness. Sometimes we Reformed radio listeners and televiewers experience the twinge of a quickened conscience. “We admire the sincerity and fearlessness of those who speak of the effect which the Gospel has had on their lives. We feel that here we have been found wanting as individuals and as a Reformed community, Therefore it might be well to investigate the matter of witnessing. What is it? What did our Savior mean in his parting instructions as he said, “And ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This assignment comes to the church. To be sure it came first to the disciples, and from them to their successors. Without in any way desiring to minimize the significance of the public ministry of reconciliation as it takes place in our churches alas an all too frequent occurrence we shall assume throughout these articles that the order to witness come to every member of the church, each in his own situation.
But what of the substance of the witness itself? An unrepentant liberal may explain his ideals of truth, goodness, beauty, courage, kindness. The neo-orthodox may preach the paradox, the offense, the event, the stumbling block of sovereign grace. The Arminian may passionately repeat the story of his religious experience, These all engage in witnessing of a sort. “We however, must go back to the Word. There we must find out exactly what the term witness involves. It is our purpose in this series of articles to analyze the usage of the term witness as found in the Bible.
The Old Testament Usage
It need not surprise the reader that we begin this study by turning to the Old Covenant. Christianity grew out of the soil of the revelation in the Old Testament. Thus we would expect the idea of a Christian witness to be an outgrowth of witnessing as it was understood and executed in the history of Israel. That this is the case will become apparent when we turn to the New Testament later on.
The quantity of material is vast, but of a basically similar sort and thus we can limit ourselves to a few representative examples. Leviticus 5:1 ca n serve us well as a starting point. There we read, “And if anyone sin, in that he heareth the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he hath seen or known, if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.” Picture the scene. It is that of a courtroom. This is the atmosphere in which a witness functions. He makes a solemn testimony of that which he hath seen or heard. This is not merely a privilege. It is his obligation. This is his God-given assignment. God wants the individual Israelite who, since he is a member of the Covenant community, may never be an individualist, to make certain that justice has its free course in Israel. The cause of justice is the cause of the believing Israelite.
We must not forget that Israel knew no public law courts as we know them in America. Nor was there a separate law enforcement agency. Thus each Israelite as a member of the Covenant circle, call it the church, had a responsibility to the law. Whenever he saw a breach of that law he was to report it. Far from playing the role of a tale-bearer, he was concerned with his fellow Israelite only because he, too, was part of that religious and moral community with which Jehovah had established his Covenant. When a member of the community broke the laws of God’s covenant, this concerned the life and death situation of each other Israelite. And so he had to appear as accuser when God’s law was broken. In fact, the individual Israelite was so intimately bound up with the legal processes of his day that he frequently served as executer of the penalty which God has established for the various crimes committed against his people and his law. We are reminded of what we read in Deuteronomy 17:6,7: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of the people. So thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee.” Thus the witness appeared as accuser and executer. The situation was highly charged. Hence, the awful earnestness of the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The witness had to be loyal, true, giving a faithful and objective picture of what he had seen or heard.
If we return to Isaiah 43 we find a striking portrayal of the loyal witness. Jehovah has a controversy with the people. There were those who served gods who had eyes but saw not and ears but heard not. And there were the loyal believing Israelites, real children of Abraham. The prophet appears on the scene in the name of Jehovah. He summons the people together. The issue before them is simple, but one loaded with serious consequences. Who is to be acknowledged as the Maker of history, as the Shaper of destiny? Jehovah or the foreign gods? Israel, Jehovah say s in substance, ye are my witnesses. Come now, give report of that which you have seen and heard. Remember the traditions of your fathers. Speak now that I may be vindicated. Tell them about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Egypt, the Red Sea, Rephidim, the Jordan, Jericho. Give an honest report. Arraign the facts before this tribunal. This is something of the spirit of the passage. The idol worshippers shall speak for their gods. Israel shall speak for her God. The record must be kept straight. Israel appears here as witness, as counsel for the defense. Here is real theodicy. Israel doesn’t leave impressive, rationally acceptable arguments for the case of Jehovah. In child-like faith she reports the great redemptive acts of God. That was her task. This was her witness.
God as Witness
But there is more. God himself appears as witness in the Old Testament. We turn to the history of Jacob and Laban. After securing his two wives, and much cattle, Jacob finally made an agreement with Laban. God is the witness. “See, God is witness betwixt me and thee” (Gen. 31:50). “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father judge betwixt us” says Laban. God appears in the same capacity with respect to Job and his friends. We all remember the poignant controversy between those three friends and suffering Job. They had woven their arguments carefully and beautifully. Joh had sinned grievously. For what other reason would Job be so afflicted? But Job protests his innocence. He pleads not guilty. “There is no violence in my bands, and my prayer is pure” (Job 16:17). “Miserable comforters are ye all” (16:2). “O earth cover not thou my blood, and let my cry find no resting place” (16:18). Notice then how Job calls upon his God. “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he that voucheth for me is on high” (16:19). God, Jehovah, Job’s friend, was his advocate, his counsel for the defense.
But Jehovah also functions, just as the Israelite witness, in the capacity of accuser. Listen to what Micah 1:2 says, “Hear, ye peoples, all of you; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is; and let the Lord Jehovah be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple.” God spoke also through Malachi in unmistakable clarity. We read in Malachi 3:5, “And I will come near to you in judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against the false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the sojourner from his right, and fear not me, saith Jehovah of Hosts.” God knows, he sees, and he shall appear as witness in his accusations. He will execute his judgment with haste.
Things such as gifts Gm also function as witnesses. The usage here accentuates that juridicial, forensic character of witnessing. As an example we can point to Abraham and Abimelech as they contracted a covenant between themselves. Abraham gives Abimelech seven ewe lambs. Abimelech wants to know what those animals, separated from Abraham’s flock, really mean. Genesis 21:29 reads, “What mean these seven ewe lamb’s which thou hast set by themselves?” Answering, Abraham says, “These seven. ewe lambs shalt thou take of my band, that it may be a witness unto me that I have digged this well” (vs. 30).
Even a song may function as witness. This applies to that magnificent song of Moses recorded for us in Deuteronomy 32. Israel was to sing this song later on in her history. Especially after her entrance into Canaan, when things were prosperous, and Israel was prone to forget her God ; when she began to isolate her prosperity from the liberal band of the promising God; when she abstracted her faith from the facts of life, then this song was to be sung. It would serve as witness that her life was prosperous and blessed only as she kept the sacred Covenant which God made with her at Sinai. Jehovah told Moses to have the Israelites memorize the song. “Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deut. 31:19).
There is much more material which could be used in seeking to understand what the Old Testament means by witness. We can, however, already come to some interesting and important conclusions with respect to the Old Testament. A witness functions in a courtroom atmosphere. He occupies an important place in the cause of justice. His importance is in direct relation to his factual knowledge. He must report accurately, that which he has seen and heard. The more clearly he states and authenticates his case, the more significant his witness. He can function as accuser and as executer of the sentence. He can also function as counsel for the defense, as one who pleads for the case of the accused. Facts and the laws of Israel meet each other. The law, that is, God in his law, executes vengeance upon the transgressor. Just remember the many sanctions which God placed upon his law. But the law can also function in a declaration of innocence, that is, if the witness factual knowledge points in that direction. A witness deals with facts, and since the law judges upon the basis of facts, we can say that a witness functions as one who wants God’s Law to have its free course in life.
With this background material gleaned from the Old Testament, we can turn to the New. Rut this will have to wait until the next article.