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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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The word ‘witness’ had many usages and meanings in the Bible. It was commonly used to refer to people who saw, knew or experienced something (Deuteronomy 17:6; Acts 5:30-32), or to their open declaration of what they saw, knew or experienced. Their witness was their testimony (Exodus 20:16; John 3:11).

‘Witness’ was also used to denote a person who guaranteed, or swore to, the truth of something (Ruth 4:9; 1 Samuel 12:5; 2 Corinthians 1:23); or it may have denoted that person’s oath or guarantee of the truth (Acts 10:43; Romans 3:21). Even a lifeless object could be a witness, in the sense of being a guarantee or confirmation of something, such as a verbal agreement (Genesis 31:44-50; Joshua 24:27). Actions likewise could be a witness, in the sense of being evidence (John 5:36).

The law of Israel

When God established his covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, he gave the Ten Commandments as the basis of the covenant requirements laid upon his people. The two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments were a witness, or testimony, to God’s demands and to Israel’s acceptance of them (Exodus 24:3; Exodus 24:12). They were therefore called the testimony (Exodus 25:21), the ark of the covenant in which they were placed was called the ark of the testimony (Exodus 25:16), and the tabernacle (or tent) in which the ark was kept was called the tabernacle of the testimony (Exodus 38:21).

Other uses of ‘witness’ in relation to Israel’s laws were concerned with evidence in lawsuits. The main requirement was that there be at least two witnesses if the judges were to accept or act upon any accusation (Deuteronomy 19:15; cf. Matthew 18:15-16). To discourage people from making accusations secretly or lightly, the law required them, in certain cases, to participate publicly in the punishment if the accused was found guilty (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).

It was wrong, however, for a witness to remain silent when he had evidence to present (Leviticus 5:1). If the judges found that a witness had given false evidence, they inflicted upon him the punishment that he had tried to bring upon the accused (Deuteronomy 19:16-21; cf. Mark 14:55-56).

The witness of Jesus

‘Witness’ had a specific meaning in relation to the life of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist was a witness to Jesus in the sense that he pointed people to Jesus as the Saviour who had come from God. John was a witness to the truth (John 1:7; John 1:15; John 5:33). The works Jesus did were also a witness, for they showed clearly that he was the Messiah who had come from God. The Old Testament Scriptures were another witness (John 5:36-39).

With all these witnesses, the Pharisees had no basis for their objection that Jesus had no witnesses to support his claim to be the God-sent Saviour (John 8:12-13). Jesus came from God as the one who revealed God to the world, and therefore he was a witness to the truth of God (John 3:11; John 18:37). His witness was supported by the witness of the Father, and therefore the Pharisees should have accepted it (John 8:14-18).

Those who lived with Jesus were witnesses to the truth that he was God in human form, the Saviour of the world (1 John 1:1-3; 1 John 4:14). Other believers, whether in the first century or the present day, bear the same witness to him, because of the Spirit who bears witness within them (John 15:26; 1 John 5:7; 1 John 5:10-11).

Witness in the early church

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples boldly bore witness to him as Lord and Messiah. They emphasized the facts of his life, death, and particularly his resurrection, for they were personal eye-witnesses of those events (Acts 2:22-24; Acts 2:32-33; Acts 5:30-32; Acts 10:36-43; Acts 13:27-31).

These personal eye-witnesses were the first to spread the gospel (Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8), but other believers also bore witness to Jesus when they preached the gospel (Acts 20:24; Acts 23:11). The gospel was sometimes called the witness, or testimony, of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:6; 1 Corinthians 2:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:10).

Often Christians, as well as the gospel they preached, came under attack. In these circumstances they had to bear the same testimony to the truth as Jesus had borne (Acts 22:20; 1 Timothy 6:13-14; Revelation 1:9). Some were killed because of their witness to Jesus (Revelation 2:13; Revelation 11:7; Revelation 12:11). In fact, bearing witness to Jesus became so closely associated with being killed for Jesus’ sake that the word for ‘witness’ (Greek: martyria) produced the word ‘martyr’ (Revelation 6:9; Revelation 17:6; Revelation 20:4).

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Witness'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​w/witness.html. 2004.
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