By Jeffrey L. Smith
Perhaps you’ve heard of or experienced some one “witnessing for Jesus” or giving his “personal testimony” for Jesus. Both practices involve presenting evidence for Jesus’ existence and power based on personal experience. The practices are popular with many denominations and several television evangelists. However, when the practice is examined through the magnifying glass of the Scriptures, it can be described as showing admirable zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:2).
Old Testament Witnesses
During Old Testament times, different types of witnesses were allowed in different circumstances. In both civil and criminal affairs, Deity, men, animals, and inanimate objects could all be witnesses.
1. Civil Matters. In civil matters, Deity is called on as a witness several times. God was called three times to witness between parties in civil affairs (Gen. 31:50; Judg. 11:10; Jer. 42:5). Jesus was prophesied as a witness to the people (Isa. 5:4). In the sale of property, people could be brought to watch the transaction with the understanding that they would be willing, at a later date, to bear witness to the transaction (Jer. 32:6-25,44). All sorts of animals and things were allowable as witnesses. A heap of stones bore witness between Jacob and Laban at their parting (Gen. 31:48). A song bore witness to God for the children of Israel (Deut. 31:19). An altar bore witness to all that God had done for the children of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh (Josh. 22:27). Ewe lambs (Gen. 21:30), the Tabernacle of Witness (Num. 17:7,8), and even the law itself (Deut. 31:26) bore witness in civil matters during old Testament times.
2. Criminal Matters. Criminal matters in the Old Testament had different rules and requirements for witnesses. The law for people bearing witness in criminal matters is set forth in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. One witness was not enough to convict a man concerning any iniquity or sin (v. 15). Two or three witnesses were required to convict a man. The qualification for bearing witness against another man was to have personally seen or heard the event or action in question (Lev. 5:1). Bearing false witness was a crime punishable by the same punishment which the falsely accused would have received if he indeed was guilty. True and false witnesses are contrasted in Proverbs 14:5. God bore witness in criminal matters (1 Sam. 12:5; Jer. 29:23; Mic. 1:2; 2:4; Mal. 3:5). Wicked men bore false witness against Naboth (1 Kgs. 21:13). The carcass of a torn beast born witness to its death (Exod. 22:13).
New Testament Witnesses
In the New Testament, as in the Old, different types of witnesses were used, and had to satisfy similar qualifications.
1. Civil Matters. In New Testament civil matters, God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit all bear witness (1 Jn. 5:9; Jn. 8:18; 1 Jn. 5:6). The apostle Paul called God as witness to the frequency and content of his prayers (Rom. 1:9). Jesus bore witness to the truth (Jn. 18:37). The Holy Spirit bore witness of salvation’s extension to the Gentiles (Acts 15:8). Many men witnessed Timothy’s confession of faith (1 Tim. 6:12), others witnessed the good deeds of Gaius (3 Jn. 6), while still others witnessed Paul’s teachings (2 Tim. 2:2). Things, as well, bore witness in New Testament civil matters. Rain and fruitful seasons bore witness to God’s existence (Acts 14:17). The consciences and thoughts of the Gentiles bore witness that they were under law (Rom. 2:15). Gold and silver were prophesied to be witnesses against those who esteem them higher than they esteem God (Jas. 5:3).
2. Civil Matters. In New Testament criminal matters, Jesus gave witness to himself (1 Tim. 6:13). Men were set up as false witnesses against Christ (Matt. 26:62), against Stephen (Acts 6:13), and against Paul on a number of occasions (Acts 21:28; 24:6).
Qualifications for Witnesses
Although different witnesses were permitted in different circumstances, one characteristic that all Old and New Testament witnesses have in common is presence at the event in question. Whether the witness was Deity, a person, an animal, or a thing, whether in civil or criminal matters, the witness had what we would call “first hand” knowledge. False witnesses, in the New Testament as in the Old, were those who gave testimony which was not based in fact, or testimony that they were not qualified to give. Giving false or unqualified testimony is condemned in both testaments (Rom. 13:9).
Witnesses for Jesus
With that brief overview of witnesses in the Scriptures accomplished, let’s consider what the Scriptures say about witnesses for Jesus. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all bore witness for Jesus. God the Father bore witness to Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:17) and transfiguration (Matt. 17:5). Jesus bore witness to himself before Pilate (Jn. 18:37; 1 Tim. 6:13). The Holy Spirit also bears witness to Jesus (1 Jn. 5:6-9). Qualifications of human witnesses are clearly set forth in the Scriptures. Witnesses for Jesus must have seen him from the baptism of John through the resurrection (Acts 1:22; 13:31). John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as Christ (Jn. 1:7-8). The original apostles stated their qualifications on numerous occasions (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32). Justus and Matthias were able to be considered to replace Judas because they fulfilled the requirements of an apostle (Acts 1:23). Paul the Apostle was pronounced a witness by Jesus himself (Acts 26:16), out of due season.
Witnesses for Jesus Today?
Given the requirements set forth in the Scriptures, we see that no one alive today could possibly qualify as a witness for Jesus. The testimony of qualified witnesses for Jesus is preserved for us in the New Testament, which is the only valid witness today. Belief in Jesus as Christ is not to be based on the testimony of any human now walking upon the face of the earth. Belief comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).
As we attempt to convert others to Christianity, our method should be similar to that of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. After her conversation with Jesus, she believed him to be the Messiah. She immediately went back to her village and shared her experience. Although she had seen Jesus first-hand, and was a qualified witness, she didn’t try to prove anything based on her personal experience. She, instead, encouraged her townspeople to see Jesus for themselves (Jn. 4:29). This they did. And after they had seen Jesus for themselves, they also believed. Their belief was not based totally on the woman’s testimony, but upon her testimony and the evidence they had seen for themselves (Jn. 4:42).
Our practice today should not be to ask others to believe Jesus is the Christ based only on our experience. None of us qualifies as witnesses for Jesus. Instead, when our belief in Jesus produces the zeal it should, and we desire to share the good news, let us have the zeal that is according to knowledge. Our practice should be to ask others to examine the evidence afforded us through the New Testament, the inspired record of qualified witnesses for Jesus.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 4, pp. 108-109
February 21, 1991