Thursday, 15 January 2009

Testimony - Truth At Its Most Personal

The Greek word Maturia is translated in the New Testament as either witness or testimony. These words play a key part in shaping our understanding of how we communicate with people the truth of God. To give testimony is to speak what we know through what we have seen, heard and experienced – first hand.

The Bible tells us in Rev 12.11, “They overcame him (the devil) by the blood of the lamb, the word of their testimony and they did not love their lives to the death”. The blood of the Lamb satisfies God’s law. It answers to His need to satisfy justice. Sin must be judged and in Christ, God has judged the sin of the world. Like the story of the Passover lamb in Exodus, “And when I see the blood I will pass over you” Ex 12.13. For believers the blood of Jesus Christ has completely repositioned us to receive God’s blessing – the blessing of sonship. We therefore come against the enemy knowing that we are subject to a new King. We are partakers and citizens of a new Kingdom, Col 1.13

To not love our life to the death relates to our attitude of heart. Something has been settled for us. We have been baptised into Christ, Rom 6.1-3; baptised into His death, burial and resurrection. His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection. This means that we don’t view death in the same way as the world does. We have a different expectation. In fact the common NT way of describing the death of believers is ‘falling asleep’, John 11.11; 1Cor 11.30; 1Thess 4.13-15. The sting of death is sin according to 1Cor 15.56 and sin has been dealt with through the Cross. The sting has been removed and so death has lost its power to hold us captive.

In one sense we have already died, in Christ. So the death of a believer is a radically different experience to the death of an unbeliever. Paul goes so far as to say that to die as a believer is ‘gain’, Phil 1.21, because we immediately go to be with the Lord. Paul considers this departing to be with Christ, ‘far better’, Phil 1.23; 2Cor 5.8. When this understanding grips our hearts it removes the power of intimidation and threat of death. This is what Jesus destroyed at the cross, Heb 2.14-15. This is what liberates us to live radically obedient lives – “Nothing shall by any means hurt you”, Luke 10.19.

But sandwiched between what satisfies God and what releases our hearts to be bold for God is this beautiful phrase, “The word of their testimony”. Overcoming is not a question of theology alone. It is a question of speaking. Testimony is the story of how God has worked in our lives and the way we choose to tell it. Our story becomes integrated with His story. This is often what communicates reality to people. The great thing about being part of a community is that our testimonies all point to the same reality – Jesus. And in time we develop a corporate testimony – just like Israel. A testimony that can be rehearsed to a new generation to help them understand the God we love and serve, Ex 12.25-28.

We have five examples of how testimony points to Jesus in John’s gospel. This is one of John’s important themes; one that he will carry over into the book of Revelation, Rev 1.9; 6.9; 12.17; 19.10. In the first chapter of his gospel he relates the testimony of John the Baptist, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. This man came for a witness to the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light but was sent to bear witness of that Light”, John 1.6-8. I love the simplicity with which John the Baptist is introduced: ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John...’ The writer John highlights three things. He was a man! He is not introduced as a great prophet, even though from the mouth of Jesus, he is the greatest born of women, Matt 11.11. John is helping us realise the place we can have in testifying to Jesus, because like John, we too are ordinary people, men and women who love Jesus. This is what qualifies us.

Secondly he was sent. This is another important word for John. To be sent is to be commissioned; to go with authority to fulfil a call. For John the Baptist that meant he was to bear witness to the Light; to testify of Jesus. The notion of being sent and having authority are always axiomatically tied together in scripture. The last words of Jesus in Matt 28.18-19 show this; “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations....” (See also Luke 10-1, 9; Matt 10.1, 5). This sense of commissioning is repeated by Jesus in Acts 1.8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. Our testimony carries authority because it is not just a story, it’s the truth.

Thirdly he is named. God knows us all by name. In knowing us, He knows how best we can serve His purpose in creating a testimony to Jesus. This sense of who John is becomes important later in the chapter. The Priests and Levites want to know, “Who are you?” John 1.19. Three options are presented, the Messiah, Elijah and the Prophet (See Deut 18.15, 18) but John says no to all these. Here is his estimation of his own ministry, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness....” John 1.23. When we know who we are, we know where we fit into the story and we know how our story fits. We are not here to hammer people with our version of the truth – we testify to the truth we have experienced. We leave the work of conviction to the one appointed to that task – the Holy Spirit, John 16.8. Thus our words may be soft but the conviction can be strong – it is internal, it is God’s work.

Stephen is an example of this. He testified to Jesus by reminding the people about their story; their journey. Where it all began with Abraham and how God redeemed them out of Egypt. The rejection of Moses by the people – “who made you a ruler and a judge over us” Acts 7.27, clearly pointing to Jesus and His rejection by the same nation. Finally he rehearses they unfaithfulness to God and charges them with being like their forefathers. After hearing all this they were, “cut to the heart” and became angry. But Stephen was at peace. He overcame by the word of his testimony. Nobody could deny the truth of what he spoke, so they removed him by stoning him. This is the only way to continue living in a lie. The truth must be silenced. And through this experience a seed would be planted in the heart of a young Pharisee that consented to all this – Saul of Tarsus. Something he would kick against until the day he would meet Jesus on the Damascus road.

In John 5.36 Jesus points to a greater witness than John’s... “For the works which the Father has given Me to finish – the very works that I do – bear witness of Me that the Father has sent Me”. The works of Jesus were a testimony to Him. He was sent from God and His works validated this. This is true for the church today. Jesus promised, “He who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and great works than these he will do, because I go to My Father, John 14.12. Notice how inclusive Jesus language is. This is not just a word for apostles and evangelists – it is for anyone ‘who believes’! Not only are we allowed to do the same thing as Jesus but we are promised ‘greater’ things. Given the context of the passage I believe Jesus is referring to works that are greater in extent rather than greater in quality. It’s hard to top raising the dead, walking on water and feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish! But given that Jesus is now working through His Body there is a multiplication of people, all working the works of Jesus – and these point to Him.

Again let’s be clear. The word ‘works’ used in John is very comprehensive. It doesn’t just refer to the miraculous. In John 6.29 the work of God includes believing in those whom God sends. It includes the ordinary stuff like washing feet or teaching with a humble attitude, John 13.14-17; 2Tim 2.14-16. All of this is covered by this simple word. All of it is used by the Holy Spirit to direct people to Jesus.

In John 5.39-40, 46 Jesus chides the Jews, “You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.....For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me”. Imagine the impact those words would have had on His hearers. ‘The scriptures point to Me’, is His bold claim. God’s word testifies to the truth of His Son. If we read the Bible and miss Jesus, we are not reading it right. And the first century Jews give proof that it is possible to read in the wrong way. Life is in Jesus – not a book, even the most important book. Even today we can miss Jesus. He must be the interpretive key to understanding a text. Without Him we are left with the letter – and this has the power to kill. We must engage with where the text takes us and this will always relate to Jesus and the New Covenant.

In John 18.33-38 we have the account of Jesus before Pilate. Paul refers to this when encouraging Timothy in his ministry. He says that Jesus, “witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilot”, 1Tim 6.13. It is before Pilot that Jesus declared He has come to ‘bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice’, John 18.37. Everything that Jesus said and did was a witness to the truth. He validated that which was of the truth and challenged that which was of a lie. This is why He could challenge so many religious protocols that robbed people of life. He healed on the Sabbath, He didn’t perform ritual washings, He touched and talked to the social outcasts and received women as disciples. To witness to the truth is to expose the lie.

The challenge for the church today is to do the same; to expose social, political, commercial and religious injustice by modelling the truth in all these areas of life. After 9/11 George Bush in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20 2001 said, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This is a powerful statement. It has echoes of Jesus statement in Matt 12.30. The problem is that Bush is not Jesus. And America is not the Kingdom of God. It reminds me of Joshua the leader in Josh 5.13-15 when he met the Captain of the Lord’s Host. Joshua’s question has the same basic assumption that Bush’s statement has; there are only two sides – which are you on, ours or theirs? But the Lord didn’t buy this presentation of reality and says, ‘No’. He hadn’t come to take sides He had come to take over!

We live in world where reality is often framed as either/or dilemma’s; spanking/or not, capital punishment/lifers; social welfare/’on your bike’ etc, etc. Life and reality is often more complicated. As the church we must be free of any alliances that hinder us from testifying to the truth – wherever we find it. I am concerned with the modern notion that believes democracy is the most just form of government. It ignores the injustices within many democracies and justice that can be found in other forms of government. Even the church can be caught up with this way if thinking. We frame people as saved/lost; charismatic/evangelical; committed/unreliable and in so doing we go beyond the scriptural use of some of these distinctions.

Our commitment must be to testify to the truth, wherever we find it. Jesus found it in a man dying next to Him on the Cross – and He testified, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”, Luke 13.43. I have been helped by Charismatic praxis when it comes to gifts, evangelical theology when it comes to orthodoxy and Catholic solitude when it comes to devotion. I affirm the truth I have encountered in all these traditions without endorsing some of the disturbing beliefs and practices each has given in to over the years. My point is simple. Jesus testified to the truth wherever He found it. He could align Himself with the teaching of Shammai on divorce but that didn’t mean He joined their school. He challenged the Sadducees for their error on the resurrection without throwing His lot in with the Pharisees. It just happened that on this issue they were right. He affirmed the faith of a Centurion without endorsing Rome or its Ceasar. Affirming the truth that we see in any person, organisation or institution does not necessarily commit us any political, economic, ecological, or social agenda. Silence in such circumstances kills the churches prophetic witness. More on that next time!

Finally John writes at the end of his gospel, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true”, John 21.24. What an amazing claim. We find the same kind of endorsement required on many documents today. Take a simple UK grant application form that most students will complete. Before any signature there is the statement, “I confirm that to the best of my knowledge and belief the information I have given on the form is true and complete....” The Government expects that the testimony of the person applying for a grant is reliable. They have to make an assessment as to their eligibility for money based on the information disclosed. In the same way the world needs to know that what we share is what we have experienced – not just head knowledge, not just inherited orthodoxy but flesh and blood reality – to us.

John carries this thought over into his first letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, concerning the word of life – the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” 1John 1.1-4. Notice how rooted in his experience these opening words are. He wants us to know his testimony, his experience, his story, so that we too can enter into fellowship with the Godhead. This is an inclusive story that invites people to experience it for themselves. And our story is the hook.

In the past we have insisted that in order to belong we must believe. John holds out a different agenda. Start to belong and then you’ll believe! Let me give you my paraphrase on the above passage: “We’ve heard about it, we’ve followed it, we’ve seen it and we’ve even touched and handled it – first hand! Now we invite you to participate (the root of fellowship carries this idea) with us and experience it for yourself. As you do you’ll find it goes way beyond us. You’ll become a participator of God Himself and His son Jesus. It will radically change your world, filling you with unspeakable joy”.

I pray that we continue to have a growing confidence in the journey of life that Jesus has called us to. And that we boldly witness to the reality of Jesus in our own journey – making room for others to come alongside and experience it for themselves.