What does “witness” mean for Christians?

Most of my life has been spent in churches that don’t talk much about witnessing or sharing your testimony. I remember thinking it was so strange the first time I was in a congregation where they paused halfway through the service for people to talk about what God had done in their lives the previous week. It was strange, but also encouraging to hear how God protected, blessed, and answered prayers.

When I started attending a Messianic congregation, sharing your witness seemed a part of many people’s everyday lives. If someone had a testimony to share, there was time during most services to do that. Sometimes, those testimonies were about opportunities someone had during the week to pray with a police officer, share their faith with a neighbor, or a similar encounter. I liked hearing these stories, and it seemed a good thing to include in church.

At that point, I started to wonder why we don’t do this in my other congregations. So I asked. It seemed the consensus was that we should share the work that God is doing in our lives, but the middle of church services isn’t the place to do that; it disrupts the format and, depending on the person sharing, it can take quite a bit of time. We should share in conversations, people said, rather than as part of the service. And this seemed a reasonable response, particularly since there were a few times when the congregations I attended that did offer time to share your testimony had to take the mic away from someone and get things back on track.

After pondering the question, it seemed these were just two different ways of doing something. One didn’t seem better or worse than the other; rather, it came down to how the leadership in that congregation decided to manage church service format. I’m ashamed to say I’d never thought to study into this topic in all the years I’ve been noticing the different ways people talk about witness/testimony. I’m only just now looking into it after hearing someone say that “witness” in the New Testament is translated from a noun (person, place, or thing) rather than a verb (action). I’d been studying and teaching English grammar at the time, and it made me curious about how the word is used.

Image of a man reading the Bible overlaid with text from 2 Tim. 1:6-8, NET version:  “Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and 
self-control. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me, a prisoner for his sake, but by God’s power accept your share of suffering for the gospel.”
Image by Creative Clicks Photography from Lightstock

Background Definitions

When you think about Christian witness today, you probably think about things like telling the person next to you on the airplane about Jesus, or about the people who go door-to-door and leave books and pamphlets about their churches. You might also think about living your life as a witness or about the type of testimony-sharing I talked about in the introduction to this post. If you do a Google search for “what does Christian witness mean” you get results like this:

  • “For Christians, witnessing is sharing your personal experience with Jesus.” (Jesus Film Project)
  • “To be a witness to Christ is to demonstrate by our words, actions and attitude the sacred mystery that we have ‘seen’, heard and believe in our hearts about the Lord who has forgiven us of our sins and offered us eternal life.” (Diocese of Bridgeport)
  • “as Christians, we are called to be witnesses for Christ who present a testimony about the truth that we have experienced and heard.” (Raising Everyday Disciples)
  • “Christian witnessing is merely sharing our heartfelt faith in Christ – what He’s personally done to change our individual lives! We’re not called to argue or debate anyone into heaven. We’re merely called to share!” (All About GOD).

There are several things emphasized in definitions like this. Christians are described as “witnesses to Christ” (noun) who engaged in the act of witnessing (verb) by sharing their experiences and faith. If you read the full articles linked, you’d see several link this idea to courtroom witnesses who testify (which is why you’ll also hear people talk about giving their Christian testimony).

That same Google search also turned up an article from Olive Tree Blog, where they walk through a word study on the Greek word translated “witness” using the Olive Tree app. In Greek, the word is martus. It is translated “witness,” “martyr,” or “record.” Which is kind of surprising, since in English we think of a witness and a martyr as two completely different things. If they’re the same, though, that indicates a much more serious and involved thing than “merely sharing our heartfelt faith in Christ.”

A Linguistic Rabbit Hole

As I mentioned, I started this study after hearing that “witness” in the Bible is translated from a noun (person, place, or thing) rather than a verb (action). That led me down a rabbit hole as linguistically complicated as the grammar class I had to take as part of my master’s in rhetoric and writing degree.

In Greek, the root word for “witness” is a noun. Other nouns derive from that, such as the ones for “false witness” and masculine and feminine forms of “witness.” It’s also the root for several verbs, including “to be a witness,” “to testify emphatically,” and “to witness against.” I had to draw a chart to keep them all straight, and so I decided to make a more polished version to share here and hopefully help you visualize these related words as well.

The image shows a mind map chart showing the Greek word "martus" (Strong's number G3144) and related derivative words.

Part of the reason there are so many is because Strong’s numbering system treats different genders of the same noun as separate words, but it’s also because there are so many variations of the word forms. In English, for example, we have “false” and “witness” as separate words, but in Greek they’re a compound word, “falsewitness” and so that gets its own number.

That was a very meandering way to answer the question, “Are there Greek verbs for the word ‘witness’?” And the short version of the answer is, yes there are. But the context for the statement that prompted this study is that Christians are told in the Bible to “be a witness” rather than to go around “witnessing.” I still want to dive into that topic a little more, because depending on how the noun and verb forms of “witness” are used, that statement could still be correct.

Image of a woman reading the Bible overlaid with text from John 3:31-34, 36, NET version:  “The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. He
testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one 
accepts his testimony. The one who has accepted his 
testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly. ... The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

A Witness (noun)

The noun forms of martus and its derivatives are used 97 times in the New Testament (eSword search of KJV+Strong’s numbers for G3141, G3142, G3144, G5571, and G5575). Obviously that’s too many to go through them all individually, but here’s a summary of how martus is used in its noun forms (excluding “false witnesses” since I want to focus on understanding what we’re supposed to do):

Though I sorted these into bullet points, there’s a lot of overlap. It’s often hard to tell if the writer is talking about followers of Jesus sharing the gospel or of receiving Jesus’s testimony (e.g. ” When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been killed for the Word of God, and for the testimony of the Lamb which they had” [Rev 6:9]). John the Baptist indicates that Jesus’s testimony is something that we receive from Him; he said, “The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful” (John 3:33, NET). In Revelation especially, witness/testimony is spoken of as something that we have.

We also have verses explicitly linking “the testimony of our Lord” with “the Good News” or “gospel” (Matt. 24:14; 2 Tim. 1:8, WEB). If you go through all the uses of these martus-linked words, you’ll notice they’re often used in connection to Jesus. “Faithful and True Witness” is even one of Jesus’s titles (Rev. 1:15; 3:14). The focus when using these words is often on “the testimony of Jesus” or the “witness of the Lord.” If you’re going to act as a witness in the Christian sense, you’re talking about your first-hand experiences with Jesus. If you’re going to share the testimony of the Lord, you’re passing on the Good News that He brought.

Stephen’s and Paul’s story also help illustrate the many ways “witness” can be used. During the sermon he preached, Stephen linked the word witness with the tabernacle, saying, “Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness” (Acts 7:44, WEB). The legal witnesses against Stephen, who stoned him, laid their cloaks down at Paul’s feet (Acts 7:58). Later, God calls Paul and sends Ananias to say, “you will be a witness for him [Jesus] to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15, WEB). Paul reminds God that, “When the blood of Stephen, your witness, was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting to his death, and guarding the cloaks of those who killed him” (Acts 22:20, WEB), but God still chose Paul to share “testimony concerning me” (Acts 22: 18, WEB). Just in this one story, we have witness in the legal sense, in a holy sense linked with the tabernacle where God’s presence appeared, and in reference to someone called to act as a witness sharing the testimony of Jesus.

Image of four people studying the Bible overlaid with text from Heb. 12:1-2, NET version:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Image by Ben White from Lightstock

Witnessing (verb)

The verb forms of martus and its derivatives are used 98 times in the New Testament (eSword search of KJV+Strong’s numbers for G1957, G2649, G3140, G3143, G4828, G4901, and G5576). Here’s a summary of the ways it appears as a verb in the New Testament:

Witnessing is something that people do. It’s linked with teaching and sharing God’s words, but more often it’s connected to witnessing about Jesus. Also, if you cross-reference the noun and verb lists, you’ll see that there’s a lot of overlap. For example, our conscience has a testimony (2 Cor. 1:12) and our conscience/spirit can testify (Rom. 2:15; 8:16; 9:1). There was a lot of emphasis on being a witness of Jesus and having His testimony in the noun verses, and now here in the verb verses we see Jesus testifying and people witnessing about Jesus. Nothing really shocking here; it works a lot like the noun and verb forms of witness or testimony/testify in English.

What I would like to make note of here is the way testify/witness is used in Hebrews 11. This section on faith opens with these words: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. For by this, the elders obtained testimony” (Heb. 11:1-2, WEB). “Obtained testimony” is translated from one word, martureo. As we go through the chapter, we see that the faithful actions people took gave testimony about them.

By faith, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had testimony given to him that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts; and through it he, being dead, still speaks.

By faith, Enoch was taken away, so that he wouldn’t see death, and he was not found, because God translated him. For he has had testimony given to him that before his translation he had been well pleasing to God. …

These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:4-5, 39-40; 12:1-2 WEB

When the Bible writers discuss testimony, it’s often in the context of how other people would testify about us and what sort of testimony God would give about our lives. Are we living with integrity? Have we heard and taken seriously the testimony we “hear” from and about Jesus in the scriptures? Does our own conscience testify well of us? Are we prepared to give witness/testimony about Jesus when we can/should?

Wrapping Up

Image of three women talking and holding Bibles, with the blog's title text and the words "What does the New Testament say about “witness” both as something that are are and as something that we do?"
Image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

Earlier, I mentioned an article about the Greek root word for witness (martus) from the Olive Tree Blog. In this analysis, they show how martus is linked with both seeing and speaking, as well as the course of our lives. I like how that writer sums it up:

From what I gathered from the above verses, we as Christians must:

  1. Open our eyes and martus (see) the workings of God around us.
  2. Open our mouths and martus (attest) the Good News to our neighbor.
  3. Open our hearts to the possibility of becoming a martus (martyr), socially, financially, or physically.
Olive Tree Blog, “What Does it Mean to be Christ’s Witness?”

Interestingly, there aren’t direct commands for Christians in general to go out and witness (though a few people, like the original 12 disciples and Paul are instructed to share the testimony of Jesus). Most of the time, if someone in the New Testament is a witness or they are witnessing, then it’s talking about the apostles who were eye-witnesses of Jesus or it’s Paul.

For those of us who aren’t apostles, we might all be called on to act as a witness or martyr if we’re facing persecution (Luke 21:10-19). We also act as witnesses to each other, attesting to what we’ve seen God do in our lives and showing a positive example of living in the faith. Paul also talks about Christians testifying to the character they see in fellow believers (note that the times when Paul calls on people to witness to other people, it’s in a positive sense rather than testifying against each other).

Circling back to where we began, it seems that I was right that it doesn’t really matter whether we share a witness/testimony with our fellow Christians during formal church services or in personal conversations. The Bible doesn’t come down on that either way. What matters more is that we are involved enough in each others lives to be witnesses to and for each other. We also want to make sure the emphasis stays on God and Jesus when we witness, rather than getting focused on our personal stories. “Witness” in the Bible isn’t sharing your personal story; it’s sharing the testimony of Jesus–the words that He spoke and the Good News that He came to share. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing your story, but we need to make sure it doesn’t become about us (i.e. it’s not “my testimony” that’s the focus, but “the testimony of our Lord”).

Featured image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

2 thoughts on “Witness

  • This actually helps a lot! I have trouble understanding when they said Jesus and God our are witness.. but the article with this topic really clarifies things!

    Liked by 1 person

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