In the Greek New Testament, the common word for “witness” or “testimony” is μαρτυρέω (martureo), which which we get the English word, martyr. There are variations of this word that can be used as a noun or communicate that there are more than one who is witnessing, but the root word remains the same.
The objective behind this word study begins with Jesus’ statement to Pilate that Jesus’ purpose is to “bear witness to the truth” or, depending on how you wish to translate John 18:37, “testify to the truth.” When I think about testifying regarding a matter, the first thing that comes to mind are the creeds and confessions of the church. I think of the Latin phrase, Credo, Ergo Confiteor — “I believe, therefore I confess…” So, when we find Jesus making a testimony — giving a witness as it were — before Pilate, it ought to draw our attention to his words.
Usually, when we see this language in John 18:37, we focus on the words before it, “for this I was born, for this I came into the world.” There are a handful of things that Jesus says he came into the world to do — something extremely important to look at — but for our purposes here, I wanted to focus on the idea that Jesus is testifying to the truth…and really, on a more significant level, to the idea of testimony in John’s writings. It should be noted that the other Evangelists also used the word “testify,” but not nearly as regularly as does John. As John carries his use of this term into his Epistles, those references have been included in this study as well.
In John’s prologue, he employs this term three times: John 1:7,8,15. What is interesting about this is that all three of these references are to John the Baptist and his bearing witness to the Messiah. John is called one who bears witness to the light so that men may believe. Without a witness, faith does not emerge from the heart of men — as Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.” Verse 15 builds doctrinally on this matter in that it introduces the preexistence of Christ. It is a reminder that for John, even in the beginning of his Gospel, the idea of witness carries with it factual content — doctrine — not just personal feelings.
As we continue into the narrative and find John the Baptist’s ministry introduced, we find three more uses of the term in verses 19, 32, and 34. Verse 19 introduces what is the “testimony” of John. What is that testimony? He testifies that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of whom Isaiah speaks (Isaiah 40:3). In verse 32 we find John’s testimony as to the anointing of Jesus as the dove descends upon him and in verse 34 we are given the definition (again a doctrinal statement) that Jesus is the Son of God.
What I want to highlight is that already we are seeing doctrinal elements showing up as part of the testimony of the believer. In this case, they are of the eternality of Jesus and of the fact that he is the Son of God. While much can be written as to the meaning and significance of these statements, I want to confine my observations here to the point that both of these ideas will become prominent in the early creeds of the church. Perhaps to present it a different way, the Creeds of the church do not teach us what to believe; they articulate for us what the True Church has always believed.
John 2:25 is the next use of the terminology. Here we are told that Jesus does not need someone to “bear witness” or to “testify” as to the nature of man. We need to say little here other than the fact that once again, we have something of the divine attributes of Christ (omniscience) being presented, though not necessarily in the context of a creed but simply mentioned in the historical narrative.
In John 3:11, we find Jesus engaged in a dialogue with Nicodemus. Jesus’ condemnation against Nicodemus is that he and his disciples are testifying to what they have seen but that the religious establishment that Nicodemus represents does not accept it. Yet, what is this testimony that has been seen? The testimony finds itself laid out in the dialogue that goes before — and it is a condemning one. No one can believe unless the Holy Spirit gives rebirth. How have Jesus and the disciples “seen” this? It is clearly seen in the rejection of Jesus by the religious establishment. It is a reminder to us today of just how much damage is done to the church of Jesus Christ when those who are not regenerated are permitted to hold positions of leadership or influence. In the case of Nicodemus, Jesus’ condemnation seems to have shaken him up as we see Nicodemus returning in John’s narrative later, but that time as a “secret disciple” of our Lord.
John 3:26 and 28 return us to John the Baptist and his testimony. The first verse again asserts that John has borne witness as to Jesus being the Messiah and in verse 28 we find John’s testimony that he is the forerunner.
Again, we find this language in chapter 3. In this case, verses 32 and 33. Here John the Apostle speaks of Jesus’ witness to what he has seen and heard (verse 34 helps clarify this that these things are from God the Father). Again, the Jews have denied this but God has sealed the testimony as being true. How has it been sealed? Arguably with the miracles but also with the Spirit given to the ones who believe (verse 34).
In John 4:39 we find the Samaritan woman testifying to the townspeople what she knew about Jesus. Again, this is more of a narrative description than a theological one, but it reminds us of two important principles. First, that we are all called to “witness” or to “testify.” What does that look like? It means we testify to others what we know to be true. How interesting that our Creeds do just that. Thus, how important our creeds are to the faithful witness of God’s people. And, if we ignore the historic creeds and confessions, what we tell others about Jesus is purely subjective.
John 4:44 is the very familiar proverb that a prophet has no honor in his own country, yet it stands in stark contrast to the words of the Samaritans that come just two verses earlier, that Jesus is “the Savior of the world,” again language that is fundamental to later creeds and confessions.
John 5 contains extensive use of the term testimony in the context of those people and entities that testify to Christ. We find the word found in verses 31,32,33,34,36,37, and 39. Verse 31 is Jesus’ statement that he is not alone in bearing witness to himself (an allusion back to the Old Testament model of needing two to three witnesses to substantiate major crimes), In verses 32, 33, and 34 we find references to the testimony that John the Baptist brought, remembering too that John was a priest and priests were responsible for the testimonies of God to the end that even the Tabernacle was referred to as the “Tabernacle of Testimony.” Verse 36 refers to the works (miracles) that God did through Jesus as testimonies of who he was and in verse 37, Jesus refers to the Father himself who had testified to him. In fact, Jesus goes on in verse 38 to say that if you deny that Jesus is who he said he is, then you deny the Father and do not have the Father’s word abiding in you. Finally, in verse 39, Jesus speaks of the Scriptures as bearing witness to him and closes the section with a blazing condemnation in verse 46 — if you deny Jesus you deny the Scriptures and you are accused by Moses (who also wrote of Jesus). Indeed, it is a reminder that the Jews (even of today) who reject Jesus also reject Moses.
In John 7:7, Jesus testifies that the world hates him because Jesus testifies that the works of the world are evil.
John 8:13,14,17, and 18 again form a unit. Even after Jesus’ statement in chapter 5 that others have testified about him, the Pharisees come back to the same notion and again accuse Jesus of testifying to himself (verse 13). Verse 14 begins with the language that he can testify to himself because his testimony is true (Proverbs 12:17) and then condemns the Pharisees by telling them that they do not know from whence he came. He indeed came from heaven, thus the Pharisees are rightly accused again of not knowing God. In their zeal to obey the letter of the Law they lost the Lawgiver himself. In verses 17 and 18, Jesus comes back to this and affirms that when he speaks, the Father is speaking through him. His testimony is the very testimony of God. This statement is not only an affirmation that Jesus is a prophet (a prophet’s job is to testify the word of God to God’s people) but also that the content of Jesus’ message, that he is the Son of God, is true.
John 10:25 echoes John 5:36 that the works he does testifies to who he is.
John 12:17 is a narrative account that those who saw Jesus raise Lazarus testified to who Jesus was. Who but God has the power over life and death?
John 13:21, at first simply looks like a simply narrative comment — namely that someone at the table (Judas) would betray him. Yet, when you once again look to the historical confession of the Christian church, the betrayal of our Lord holds itself as a prominent doctrine reminding us too that the enemies of our Lord, like Judas, will be remembered forever as accursed by God.
John 15:26 and 27 speak of the Holy Spirit testifying about Jesus to the Apostles and then of the Apostles testifying about Jesus to the world. John also testifies that those with the Holy Spirit need no teacher because the Spirit teaches them (1 John 2:27). Yet, of whom does the Spirit testify? Jesus. One of the testimonies against the prosperity preachers and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) today is that they typically only speak to build themselves up or to build up their brand of theology. That very act testifies that it is not the Spirit of God who is guiding them.
Chapter 18 brings us into the false trials of our Lord. Verse 23 is Jesus rebuking the High Priest for striking him without reason and verse 37 is his statement to Pilate that he is testifying to the truth.
John 19:35 takes us back to the language of the Holy Spirit testifying as to the person and resurrection of Christ. Again, these are essential themes to the historical confessions and creeds of the Church and in John 21:24 we find John testifying to the truth of the words of his book.
As we move into the Epistles of John, you will notice that John places more emphasis on those things that must be a part of our Christian witness — things that are reflected in the historical creedal and confessional language of the church.
1 John 1:2 — that Jesus is the source of eternal life
1 John 4:14 — that Jesus is the Savior of the World
1 John 5:6-7 — depending on your translation, that the Holy Spirit testifies to the reality of who Jesus is
1 John 5:9 — the witness of God is greater than that of men and God’s witness is that Jesus is his Son.
1 John 5:10 — the one who believes has the witness in himself (Holy Spirit) and the one who does not believe does not have this witness. Spiritual life comes through faith.
1 John 5:11 — part of the witness God has given us is that of the gift of eternal life.
3 John 3 — the witness that the church is walking faithfully
3 John 6 — the witness that the church genuinely loves the body
3 John 12 — Demetrius’ good witness
Most certainly, the witness of Jesus that is truth has to do with who he is and arguable with the idea that there is salvation in none but he. Yet, with that said, we ought to note how many doctrinal passages are included in these references. It stands as a reminder to us that the witness of the Church is not an arbitrary thing, but it includes a body of ideas and teachings that must be held if one is claiming to be a Christian. These things have historically been included in the creeds and confessions of the Church…language that the church today has largely abandoned to our great harm.