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Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: Witness


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


            To bear witness is to attest to the reality of an event by giving the affirmation of it. A trial or legal action is the natural setting for witness. Certain objects can fill this role by virtue of a convention: thus, the cairn of Galaad for the treaty between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31:45-52), and the pledges received by Tamar when she was accused of misconduct (Genesis 38:25). But it is especially the witness of men with which the Bible concerns itself by underlining its seriousness. The Law regulates its use: there is no condemnation possible without the evidence of witness (Number 5:13); to prevent error or ill will, there must be at least two of them (Numbers 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15; cf Matt 18:16); and in capital cases, involving the responsibility for condemnation, they must be the first to execute the sentence (Deut. 17:7; cf Acts 7:58). But a lie can slip into that act by which a man pledges his word: the psalmists complain of false witnesses who overwhelm them (Psalm 27:12; 35:11), and there are instances of tragic trials where they have played an essential part (1 Kings 21:10-13; Daniel 13:34-41). From the time of the Decalogue, false witness is strictly forbidden (Deut. 19:16ff; Deut. 5:20); Deuteronomy punishes it according to the law of talion (Deut. 19:18ff); the teaching of the wise men condemns it, for it is a thing which God abominates (Prov. 6:19).

            Beyond the witness of men, there is that of God, which no one can contradict. At the time of marriage, He is a witness between a man and the woman. In the same way, He is the guarantor of human contracts made before Him (Genesis 31:53ff; Jeremiah 42:5). He can be taken as a witness in a solemn affirmation (1 Sam 12:5; 20:12). He is the supreme witness to whom appeal can be made to refute the false testimony of men.

            Jesus’ baptism itself, to which two of today’s readings refer, was considered last Sunday, which was also the first Sunday in Ordinary Time. In today’s first reading Jesus is the beloved servant of God, who was “anointed” by the Spirit that descended upon him (anointing-chrismation-Christ-Messiah). Today’s Gospel deals with John the Baptist’s testimony to this event. It is so concerned with giving testimony that John the Gospel-writer, for whom “testimony” is a central concept (testimony of the Father, of Moses, of the Baptist, of the disciples of Jesus; Jesus’ self-testimony), does not even mention the baptism itself. The Baptist is so intent on his testimony about the Greater One that he does not consider his own action worth mentioning: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). All his action and being point to the future, to the being and action of Another; he himself is comprehensible only as a functional servant of another.

            John the Baptist is a model of “witness” and he was unafraid to speak the truth about his identity and his ministry to officials from the religious establishment. In these verses, John boldly announces the truth to any who will hear. John 1:29-34 (today’s Gospel) is structured to highlight John’s testimony. First, the passage is dominated by verbs of witness: “see” (vv. 29-30,32-34), “witness” (vv32, 34), “say” (vv. 29-30, 32, 34). Second, this passage consists almost entirely of direct discourse. The inspired writer does not talk about John’s witness, but allows the Gospel readers to hear John’s witness for themselves. In John 1:23, John identified himself as the voice of witness, and in John 1:29-34 the reader hears that voice. Jesus first appears in the Fourth Gospel in v. 29, but in this scene, he will stay on the sidelines and say nothing. The focus is on John’s witness.

            John identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29). The singular of “sin” – hamartia in v. 29 emphasizes the world’s collective brokenness, not individual human sins. “Lamb of God” is rooted in Old Testament imagery, but scholars are divided about its precise referents. In the mouth of John the Baptist, “lamb of God” might have referred to the conquering lamb found in post-biblical Jewish apocalyptic (for a Christian adaptation of the symbolism, see rev 17:14).

            John also testifies to Jesus’ pre-existence, but his words sound more like a riddle than direct announcement. This verse echoes the testimony attributed to John in the Prologue (John 1:15) and express the Christological claims of the early church, more than the testimony of a first-century Jewish prophet. John is thus confirmed as a valid and reliable witness because he testifies to the truth of the claims of the Church.

            The words of John the Baptist in 1:29-34 offer a rich witness to Jesus: He is the lamb of God, the one who takes away the world’s sin (v. 29), the pre-existent one (v. 30), the Son of God (v. 34). The inspired writer’s focus on John’s role as witness contains an important theological affirmation, because witnessing is one beginning point of faith in this Gospel. The Gospel reminds us that discipleship is about witness; but what do some modern-day Christians wish to bear witness to?

            Bearing witness in Church has become very central in many Christian Churches. Some churches use “bearing-witness” to attract members to their Church. People bear witness to fake miraculous healings and claim the extraordinary healing powers of pastors to attract people to their church. Others when given the opportunity to bear witness talk extensively on their wealth as a sign of God’s favors and blessedness. This form of witness cannot be totally Christian especially when it is used as the main yardstick of bearing witness.

            Using today’s Gospel, it means that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken away our sins in advance, even before we were born. We are not helpless, weighed down by the burden of our sins. We need not be enslaved, shackled by our sins. We can break loose from them, and soar as high as the sky, spiritually. Jesus has done all that for us in advance.

            But we now must take it our own, we must appropriate it into our lives. The salvation Jesus won for us is there for the taking, but we must reach out and take it. If not, it will not become our own. It will still be out there, but we will not have it. The way to reach out and take the salvation Jesus has won for us is by being obedient to him, or, as he himself put it, by “keeping his word” (John 14:23). His word is his entire Gospel, the Good News. We have to be obedient to the Gospel by living in accordance with the Gospel, all of it, not just any part of it. Only then will the salvation Jesus won for us become really ours. Only then will the sacrifice of the innocent Lamb of God for the world result in our personal salvation. Let us always remember to bear witness to the saving works of Jesus because by our witness, others may also come to know the Lord.


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