The subject of witness recurs in different contexts throughout the pages of the Bible. I want to consider 4 verses far apart in scripture that together present a remarkable development of divine thought and purpose.

Firstly then let us consider the ninth commandment: “Do not give false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). As one among the ten commandments and in a passage that was to become perhaps the most famous in the whole Bible, we might have expected the more general prohibition, “Do not tell lies”, rather than the command not to bear false witness, which is just one of many forms of lying. Why then the emphasis on this particular form of lying? Witness is critically important in the sight of God. His people must first learn not to give verbal misrepresentations about those who were close to them. Hence the instruction was, “Do not give false witness against your neighbour”. Man must first learn to give true witness about man. Later he must bear witness to God.

So important was true witness that a false witness could be put to death (Deut 19:18-21).

Centuries later the concept of witness takes on a whole new dimension. Through Isaiah God declares to his people: “You are my witnesses”, (Isaiah 43:10). What an awesome responsibility! If it’s a serious thing to give false witness against one’s neighbour, how much more so to give false witness about one’s creator and God. Who could bear such a responsibility?

With more context the text reads: “You are my witnesses”, declares YaHWeH, “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. I, even I, am YaHWeH, and apart from me there is no saviour”.

This was a new revelation. The people of Israel had believed since the time of Moses that their God was greater than all other gods. Now he was declaring through the mouth of Isaiah that there were no other gods. He was God alone. The people of Israel were to be his witnesses to the world. They must bear witness to the only God and saviour.

Israel as a nation failed in their calling. They themselves turned away and worshipped idols and the gods of the surrounding nations, to whom they should have been a witness. They had become false witnesses. However there remained a faithful remnant within Israel and through them eventually the message of one God passed on to Christians and to Muslims and throughout the earth.

Again centuries passed and Jesus spoke on the subject of witness. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). These were his last words on earth, but even to those who knew him well they must still have been a shock. He was using almost the very words of Isaiah, but with himself taking the place of God! What an offence to Jewish minds!

The words of Jesus were like those of Isaiah, but with one great change and with one great addition. The witness was now to him instead of to YaHWeH, and there was a new power to give it: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”. What was impossible by human power becomes possible by the power of God. The indwelling Holy Spirit alone can enable us to be true witnesses to Jesus.

Filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped with his power, the disciples went out, and turned the world upside down. The words they spoke were the word of God, and they had an irresistible power. The New Covenant succeeded where the Old Covenant had largely failed.

Lastly in Revelation 1:5 we read of “Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness”. In Rev 3:14 this expands to “the faithful and true witness”. What a glorious climax to our theme! Jesus was and is the perfect witness to God. How did he bare this witness? Every word he spoke was perfect life-giving truth. Yet his witness went far beyond the witness of words. His every thought and action expressed the nature and character of God. His whole life was a continuous and total witness. His own description of his witness: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. He was a visible demonstration of God.

That was the witness of the firstborn son of God. The whole creation now groans and travails, so Paul tells us (Romans 8:22-23), for the manifestation of those further sons who are to follow in the footsteps of their elder brother.

May our Father number us among those who are his faithful and true witnesses like his firstborn son.

Writings relating to other commandments: