The early 16thcentury Isenheim Altarpiece truly is a stunning work of art. Painted by Matthias Grünewald, this stunning depiction of the crucifixion causes the viewer to catch his or her breath in awed amazement. You will notice something odd as you look at the main, center panel, namely, the presence of John the Baptist. The Wikipedia article on the piece aptly describes the oddity of this particular scene:
At Christ’s left, John the Baptist is accompanied by a lamb, symbolising the sacrifice of Jesus. The presence of John the Baptist is anachronistic. Beheaded by order of Herod in 29 AD, he could not possibly have witnessed the death of Christ. This last figure announces the New Testament by crying out in Latin, illum oportet crescere me autem minui (Vulgate, John 3:30), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The inclusion of John the Baptist in this scene is symbolic, since he is considered as the last of the prophets to announce the coming of the Messiah.
What intrigues me most about this image is John’s long, boney, pointing finger. He is pointing to Jesus. Grünewald was no doubt seeking to capture the essence of John’s description of John the Baptist inJohn 1:
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
Three times there we find the word “witness.” I believe that pointing finger captures the essence of witnessing about Jesus. To witness is to point others to Jesus. In that boney finger you find your calling and the very purpose of this church. The calling of the Christian and the purpose of the church is to point men and women and boys and girls to Jesus! Toward that end we have begun the fourth section of our covenant with a commitment to sharing the gospel.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory,
living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,
giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.
We covenant to reach the nations by
sharing the gospel with those around us
Traditionally, sermons on witnessing tend to start with us and move upwards. These sermons stress our responsibility and the importance of witnessing. Furthermore, they stress the shame and scandal of Christians not witnessing. All of this has a place, of course, but I would like to start with God and move down to us.
All Heaven bears witness about Jesus.
We begin with the fact that all Heaven bears witness about Jesus! In fact, the scriptures depict every person of the Trinity as bearing witness about Jesus.In John 5, for instance, Jesus says that His bearing witness about Himself is bound to the fact that God the Father bears witness about Him.
30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true…37aAnd the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.
The Son does what the Father does and the Father, Jesus says, “bears witness about me.” If the Son does what He sees the Father doing and if the church is the body of Christ which, by definition, should do what Christ does, then the church should bear witness to Christ. Again, our argument is from above, not from below. We witness about Jesus because God the Father bears witness about Jesus. In Matthew 3:17, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father proclaims from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son,with whom I am well pleased.” In Matthew 17:5, at the transfiguration of Jesus, God the Father proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This is what it looks like to bear witness. We proclaim that Jesus is the Son and Savior. We point with the Father to Jesus and call all people to see Him, to come to Him, to listen to Him, and to receive Him.
In John 3 we find the episode of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night and of Jesus telling him that he must be born again. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ incredulity is most intriguing:
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.
The “we” there is fascinating. Is Jesus speaking of the witness that He and the disciples are bearing, or is He alluding to the fact that He speaks in concert with the Father and the Spirit? Regardless, notice that Jesus says that He Himself is a witness about Himself. When you witness about Jesus you join Jesus in the task of doing so.
Once again, in John 8 Jesus proclaims that He Himself is a witness to Himself. He argues that while the testimony of a lone witness in that day did not have weight in a court of law, His testimony about Himself was true nonetheless. Regardless, Jesus pointed out that in witnessing about Himself He was joining the Father in doing so.
14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”
Furthermore, the very life and works of Jesus are a witness to who He is, as Jesus said in John 10.
25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me”
The Father and the Son bear witness about Jesus. But in John 15 we find that the Holy Spirit’s task is to bear witness about Jesus as well.
26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.
Church, all Heaven bears witness about Jesus! It is the business of Heaven to point to the Son! The Father witnesses about Jesus. Jesus witnesses about Jesus. The Holy Spirit witnesses about Jesus. Do you see now that witnessing is not a matter of making yourself feel guilty enough to do something you consider awkward? Do you see now that when we speak the gospel to those around us, when we speak the name of Jesus to the world, we are joining in the work and business and privilege of Heaven itself? To speak the name of Jesus to your neighbor is to do what God constantly does! To point to the cross and the empty tomb is to involve yourself in divine work. You are not alone. Rather, you are a participant in the work of glory!
Jesus has invited His followers into the privilege of joining God in His work of bearing witness about Jesus.
It only makes sense, then, that Jesus, who redeems us and brings us into a right relationship with God, would call us to also bear witness. When we do so rightly, when we bear witness to the glory of God in Christ and to Christ’s saving work on the cross, we do so with the authority of Heaven. This is not only a great privilege, but also a terrifying privilege. We have been called to stand within the great choir of Heaven and proclaim the glories of Jesus Christ!
In Acts 1 Jesus calls us to be witnesses.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Notice that bearing witness is an act of divine power and that it is a manifestation of the indwelling Spirit of God. When you receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, He places His Spirit within you. We have already seen that the job of the Holy Spirit is to point to Jesus, to bear witness to Jesus. For this reason, the Spirit-indwelled follower of Jesus should desire to speak His name as the Spirit moves within him or her, changing and transforming him or her more and more into the image of Christ. And thismeans that there is something fundamentally askew with a person who professes to be a follower of Jesus but who feels no desireto point people to Jesus. If the Spirit of the living God is within you, then the Spirit who points to Jesus is desiring to point to Jesus in and through your life. Therefore, the Christian who is silent about Jesus is a Christian who has moved to silence the Spirit’s witness in and through his or her life.
Do you see the great tragedy of not bearing witness about Jesus? The tragedy is not merely that you are not doing something that you ought to do. The tragedy is that you have somehow stifled the voice of God in and through your life with which He intends to speak the name of Jesus! You have, in effect, attempted to tell God that you wish to receive the benefit of Christ’s work but you do not desire to join God in His proclamation of Christ’s work to the nations. You have become, in other words, a narcissistic consumer of Christ for your own benefit and comfort while refusing to do what Christ Himself did, namely, proclaim the name of Christ!
Dear church, if you have been saved by Jesus then how can you refuse to speak His name? If you have been transferred from death to life then how can you be silent? And if the Holy Spirit of God who is ever and always proclaiming “Jesus! Jesus! Look to Jesus!” is within you, then how on earth can you not speak the name?
In Luke 24, before His ascension to Heaven, Jesus said this to His disciples:
46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
Here is the gospel: (a) the cross of Christ, (b) the resurrection of Christ, and (c) salvation through repentance and faith. And we “are witnesses of these things.” If you are a Christian you have seen the truth of these and have received the truth of these things and have been saved by Jesus Christ. You are witnesses of these things!
It is interesting to observe the etymology of that word, “witness.” The Greek word for witness is μαρτυρία[marturia]. It is where we get the word “martyr.” To be a witness is to spend your life on the truth of the gospel, to be a martyr for Jesus.
We have seen and received Jesus the Christ! We have seen the power of the cross and the victory of the empty tomb! We have seen how Jesus can save us and change us and turn our lives around and upside-down! We have seen His glory and our lives have been forever changed as a result!
We are witnesses of these things!
Church, you are witnesses of these things!
Bear witness! Speak the name! Join God in pointing all people to Jesus! It is the greatest privilege you will ever have! It is the great calling of your life and of our lives together as a church!