For Christians, witnessing is sharing your personal experience with Jesus. It might seem like a strange word to use in talking about your faith, but once you understand how the Bible uses the term, it makes a lot more sense-and becomes a meaningful part of your Christian life.
Becoming My witnesses
Before Jesus ascended, He gave His disciples some specific instructions. One of His most well-known imperatives has come to be known as the Great Commission:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18b-20).
Here Jesus lays out His expectations for His followers. The disciples (this includes us) are to make an effort to create more disciples in the world. But Jesus’s original disciples probably had some questions about how this would unfold. How could a dozen disciples spread this movement all around the world?
Jesus explained exactly how it would play out:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus’s words here were more prophecy than instruction. This is exactly how the message was spread. After Pentecost, there was a gospel explosion. The disciples baptized more than 3,000 people in a single day. And this resulted in strategic persecution on behalf of the Jewish authorities, culminating in the first Christian martyrdom.
Immediately after Stephen (the first Christian martyr) was stoned to death, Luke tells us, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Oppression forced the movement to explode out of Jerusalem, just like Jesus predicted it would.
But what exactly did Jesus mean when He told the disciples that they would be His witnesses?
Being a witness in the Old Testament
If you think of a person who testifies in a court case when you hear the word “witness,” you’re on the right track. In fact, that’s very similar to how the term is used throughout Scripture.
When it came to convicting someone of wrongdoing, Moses made it clear that there needed to be adequate proof:
“One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15).
When the Ten Commandments forbid bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16), it focused on not using your influence to accuse or malign others falsely. The entire Jewish system of justice was based on faithful witnesses sharing their experiences. A false witness could lead to someone being put out of the community or executed.
That’s why Moses instituted strict laws around offering false testimony:
If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. (Deuteronomy 19:16-19).
Moses says that when someone offers false testimony against another, whatever outcome was riding on the judgment should be brought against the person bearing false witness. If the potential result of their testimony was execution, then the person falsely testifying should be executed. That’s pretty heavy.
Moses is clear that this should be a warning to everyone tempted to use their influence to hurt others to acquire favor. Offering testimony was a significant responsibility, and it’s in this context that Jesus talks about being a witness.
Demonstrating God’s reality
But witnessing wasn’t just about providing testimony in criminal cases. Israel’s job was to be a living testimony to the true nature of God. They didn’t necessarily do this by making statements and declarations.
By living out God’s law and revealing His love and mercy toward their neighbors, they would demonstrate the reality of God. This was God’s plan from the beginning, which He shared when He called Abram (Abraham).
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Israel was to be a blessing to the nations because they would be a light to the Gentiles. Isaiah reiterates this plan:
Lead out those who have eyes but are blind,
who have ears but are deaf.
All the nations gather together
and the peoples assemble.
Which of their gods foretold this
and proclaimed to us the former things?
Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,
so that others may hear and say, “It is true.”
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me” (Isaiah 43:8-10, emphasis added).
As a people, Israel’s job was to reveal God’s grandeur and goodness with their words and deeds.
Christian witness in the Gospels
The Christian faith is historical. It is based on legitimate, documented events. Unlike the heroes of Roman or Greek mythology, Jesus’s story is rooted in verified and chronicled facts. Where mythology doesn’t require an accurate retelling to maintain the gist, the gospel rests entirely on its accuracy.
This is why we see the testimonial aspect of witnessing so present in the Gospels. John appeals to it when he says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
He wants his readers to understand that he isn’t passing down a tale he’s heard. He is providing a firsthand account of events that he witnessed.
But the gospel writers don’t merely tell you what happened. They also interpret the events so that their readers can understand their significance. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he points his Jewish readers back to Old Testament prophecies to help them understand how an incident fulfills a prophecy.
Another example of this comes from the most famous verse in the New Testament. Jesus has a remarkable conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. After sharing their discussion, John interprets the conversation for us:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17).
We see these two elements revealed in the way early Christians contended for the gospel. When Peter preached his first sermon in Jerusalem, he told Jesus’s story through the lens of Israel’s history. It was a perfect blend of the facts about Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection explained in a way that made sense to the audience (Acts 2). You can see the same thing in Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7).
Becoming a witness
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’ve probably heard someone say something like, “I don’t want to ruin my witness.” This points to another critical element of witnessing. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, Christians’ very lives should put God’s goodness on display.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains this using the metaphors of salt and light:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).
First-century people used salt to preserve dried meats and, like us, used it to bring out a food’s distinct flavor. But for salt to work, it needs to come into direct contact with a person or a substance. Like salt, Christians are to positively impact the people and things that we come into contact with.
Unlike salt, a lamp does its job from far away. It’s not trying to draw attention to itself, but it’s illuminating the world around it. Jesus highlights the point of this kind of witnessing when He indicates that the good deeds of Christians should reveal the Father. It’s clear that Christian witnessing isn’t just verbal testimony.
Making a case for fruit
Jesus repeatedly made the case that the lives people lead demonstrate who they belong to:
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles” (Matthew 7:16)?
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
On His final evening before the crucifixion, Jesus reiterates why it’s so critical for Christians to witness with their whole lives:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, emphasis added).
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:5-8, emphasis added).
In both of these examples, Jesus indicates that His followers’ behavior will legitimize their message. When people see the Spirit’s fruit in believers’ lives, they’ll respond more to the message.
When Paul tells us that the Spirit’s fruit is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23),” he’s talking about virtues that are obvious to the world around us. And to the degree that we walk in the Spirit, we demonstrate the life-changing truth of the Christian faith.
Watching our witness
Our Christian witness is comprised of two parts. It’s about telling others what Jesus has done for the world with an emphasis on our personal experience. But it’s also about putting our transformation on display. The fruit of the Spirit is the seal of authenticity that empowers our message.
If you’re interested in learning more about sharing your faith, check out our multi-generational survey on evangelism. We surveyed more than 1,500 Christians about sharing their faith. You will find plenty to think about in their responses.