We are familiar with the concept of being a witness and testifying either from experience with legal issues, academic study or even from exposure to courtroom classics like “A Few Good Men” – You want the truth? Works from the ancient near east, such as the Code of Hammurabi, give us an early idea of law and order, but the Bible has much to say about testifying in particular.
In the Old Testament, a fact had to be establish by witnesses. It was not enough that one person could testify to an event, but two or three witnesses were necessary to verify that something had happened. The right to give a testimony was not limited to men or to wealth, as many things were in those days. The poor, the dispossessed, women – even women who engaged in prostitution (II Kings 3:16-18) – could stand before the king and tell their story.
A quick survey of the word “testify” in the Bible Gateway online tool reveals an interesting pattern. There are 30 times that “testify” shows up in the English Standard Version. The usages split 4 to 1 between the Old and New Testament. For the most part, the Old Testament references are courtroom related. They range from testifying to one’s own innocence (Deuteronomy 21:7; 1 Samuel 12:3), testifying to the guilt of another (Job 15:6; Psalm 50:7), testifying of one’s own guilt (Isaiah 59:12) and the sin of not testifying, despite having been a witness to an event (Leviticus 5:1).
The term makes an intriguing turn in the New Testament, however. Rather than being a word about guilt or innocence, the New Testament usages are primarily in the form of validation. In particular, the books that come after the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus begin to use “testify” more like the explanation an attorney might give the press after the trial to explain why his client was victorious. For example, Acts 10:42 testifies to the uniqueness of Jesus: “And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” Later, Paul explained his ministry by saying, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass” (Acts 26:5). Paul would later discuss his purpose in life and ministry by saying “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:26).
In churches that practice call and response preaching, one might hear the preacher ask, “Can I get a witness?” People might begin to testify or to endorse what God has done in his or her life: He gave me peace, He healed my broken heart or He answered my prayer. The preacher is not looking for courtroom testimony, because the case is closed and the verdict is in. He is standing on the courtroom steps and letting everyone know that the outcome is having an impact in the lives of real people. May the verdict of God’s truth be proclaimed and may our lives give testimony to His grace and mercy.
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