Methodist pastor William Willimon was awaiting his day in court. He would not be the one on trial, but his presence there was required as a key witness. There had been a car accident in his neighborhood and Willimon saw it happen. He has been summoned to testify, to bear witness, to what he saw. He said: “Even though I am sure of what I saw, I understand that there will be others there who will challenge my testimony. Other people saw the same event from different angles. One guy got there a few minutes after it happened and started acting like he saw the whole thing. But I know what I saw and I plan to tell what I saw. I am a witness, and my testimony is needed.”
In John 1:6-8 John the Baptist is called a witness:
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning the Light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The passage goes on to say what John said in his testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent investigators inquiring about him and his message , he told that that he was not the Messiah, but said (verse 23):
I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
This was the testimony of John, the one who was sent to bear witness to the fact that a great Light has dawned on the darkness of this sad world.
Being a witness can be unpleasant. I’ve known a few people who have had to serve as witnesses in criminal trials, and none of them enjoyed the experience. Willimon said that as the trial date got closer, he became more and more nervous. He wrote at that time: “I saw the whole thing and I am convinced of the truth of my story. But still, to have to stand before a judge, a jury, and the whole courtroom and tell what I saw will be intimidating. I’ve seen courtroom drama on television, and I know that the court rarely just sits there and takes what a witness says on face value. There are cross-examinations, questions, and challenges to the testimony of even the best and clearest witnesses.” In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the investigators ask John six questions, including the usual who, what, and why.
But unpleasant as it all might be, witnesses are needed to get at the truth so they can then reach a verdict. Most witnesses would probably prefer to just privately and quietly write down what they saw, and leave it at that. But that would never work. To bear witness is a public act, and the goal is to arrive at a verdict.
Testimony in court is not like gossip at the cafe, told just to have something to talk about, the truth oftentimes being optional and never established in any reliable way. Testimony in court has the very specific goal of arriving at the truth, and then at a verdict. It doesn’t always work that way even there, of course, but the idea of the unpleasant cross-examinations is to make one at least a bit more careful about the truth of what they say. There can be unpleasant consequences for being careless and getting it wrong. But even telling the truth can lead to an attack on your story and your character. It is hardly ever easy to be a witness.
It certainly was not easy for John the Baptist. The religious leaders who had sent the investigators to John did not have friendly intentions, but there was nothing in John’s message that led to any trouble with them. However, in bearing witness to Jesus who was the ‘Light,’ John also shed light on the dark sins of the people who came to hear him. He called on them to repentance as the way to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. Many people heard and responded to this message with faith and were baptized. But this call to repentance got John in big trouble when he publicly condemned King Herod for his adulterous affair with Herod’s brother’s wife. Herod had John arrested and imprisoned, and John was later executed without the benefit of a fair trial. No witnesses were allowed to speak on his behalf.
John had by then fulfilled his calling. He had been a witness for the One who would come after him, Jesus, the Light of the world. By the time John was arrested, Jesus had begun his ministry, and had gathered several disciples to continue on with this work of bearing witness to the truth. The rest of the New Testament is the story of this bearing witness to Jesus Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).
Just like in a courtroom, the goal is to use that testimony to arrive at a verdict. But in this case, there is no courtroom, no judge, no lawyers for and against, and no jury to hear the testimony. The testimony about Jesus Christ given in the New Testament is for each and every individual to consider, and then to come to their own verdict, to believe or not believe in the truth of Jesus. The whole ministry of Jesus, the event of his resurrection, and everything else written in the New Testament, and proclaimed about him ever since, has been to encourage you to make your verdict.
And then, as soon as you do believe in Jesus, you also become a witness to him. You may not be a witness like John the Baptist, but your every act and your every word will bear witness to your faith, positively or negatively. We must always ask ourselves, “Am I being a good or a bad witness to what I believe?” Here, as in court, it may not always be pleasant to be a good witness for Jesus in all that we say and do.
It certainly wasn’t pleasant in the first century; not for John the Baptist and not for thousands of others. In fact, so many people were killed for believing in in Jesus Christ, that the Greek word for ‘witness’ (marterion), eventually entered our language as a very different defined word, ‘martyr,’ defined as ‘one who dies for what they believe in.” This word that in Greek simply meant witness, became in English to be redefined as the word for ‘death (or suffering) because of one’s witness.’
“The day before I saw the accident, I was just somebody going to work, minding my own business with no story to tell. But now that something has happened to me, something that I have seen and witnessed, well, now I am a witness. I’ve got something to say. The event has made me a witness.”
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
–Simon Peter (II Peter 1:16)