The witness - John 15:26-27
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
"I swear by by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Even if you have never been in a situation where you have had to utter those words yourself straight away you will be able to recognise then as the oath sworn by someone called to be a witness in a court of law. There are three things required for someone to be a witness. First, they know something which is relevant to the case in question. It may be they are an ‘expert’ witness having a speciality which will help a jury make up its mind about a disputed fact. Or they were eye witnesses to something which could be revealing. Second, what they know is to be related truthfully. A false witness simply muddies the waters and can lead to a miscarriage of justice. No, you want truthful witnesses. But thirdly, the witness is required to tell the judge and jury what they know. A silent witness might be a good title for a TV series but is nigh on useless for the purposes of settling a case. Why is it that the Mafia only put out contracts on witnesses who are going to speak out, because they don’t have to bother with the ones who are too scared to testify?
But why are witnesses necessary? Well, for the simple reason that there is a dispute, facts are being contested. Some claim that Fred Blogs is guilty of a crime. Fred Blogs claims he is innocent. If Fred Blog confesses a crime, then there is no need to go to a lengthy trial. It is because there is contention that witnesses are called in on both sides of the conflict so that a just and impartial assessment can be reached.
Now what has all this to do with the passage we are looking at tonight? Everything! Because it is a passage which is concerned with witnessing to the Truth in the courtroom of life, a courtroom full of accusation, a courtroom of conflict and a courtroom full of downright hostility. And to settle matters witnesses are needed- three of witnesses in fact: the Holy Spirit; the apostles and all Christians.
First of all let’s look at the context.
Here we are in the upper room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. The disciples are beside themselves with worry, what is going to happen? How will they cope with Jesus gone? And so Jesus both warns them and prepares them for what is to come. And part of that preparation involves teaching about the promised Holy Spirit, the ‘Paraclete’ or, as it is translated in the church Bibles, the ‘Advocate’. And Jesus makes it quite clear that his followers are going to have to face what he has faced and for the same reason, v18, “If the world hates you [and it will], keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you [present tense]. The ‘world’ in John’s Gospel is the whole apparatus set up by humankind in rebellion against God. It is the outworking of the great lie which would deny God’s loving rule, his justice and his truth and set up of an alternative world order, a rebellious world order. And no one likes their lifestyle and way of thinking to be questioned; they will feel threatened by it, especially when they are threatened with judgement by their rightful ruler. Anyone who comes in and speaks the Truth against the lie will be hated. That, of course is what Jesus did. He was a witness to God’s Truth. Not only Jesus of course, but John the Baptist before him as well as God the Father and the whole of Scripture are witnesses testifying to the Truth. This is what we read in John 5 after the healing of the lame man at the pool of Siloam, Jesus says, ‘I have testimony [witness] weightier than that of John [the Baptist]. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ So you can see how the theme of witnessing is a major one in John’s Gospel.
And do you think that people were delighted by what Jesus said? Hardly, they hated him for it. Jesus extended to them God’s saving love, and he was despised for it and pretty soon he is going to be crucified for it. So one the one hand Jesus is like a prosecutor pointing out people’s rebellion and their need for reconciliation. At other times he is the advocate for the defence, defending himself and God against the accusations of others by calling witnesses in his defence like John the Baptist, his miracles, his Father’s voice, the OT scriptures. In the courtroom of life a case is raging and Jesus followers are caught up in it. They too will be hated; they too will be accused, as well as doing some of the accusing by proclaiming the Gospel.
Now when you are being battered for your beliefs-in some cases quite literally- how are you going to keep on witnessing? It must be pretty awful being put on the stand and cross examined by an aggressive lawyer, it takes a special something to stand up to that kind of thing, not least having a good defence lawyer. Well, how are Christians going to stand up to what sometimes seems relentless hostile cross examination by the world? Jesus tells us in these couple of verses.
And so we come to the comfort.
Look at verse 26, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.’ We have been hearing over the last few weeks about this one Jesus calls the Paraclete, literally -the one who comes alongside to assist. Sometimes this word is translated as Comforter, in the sense of strengthener. Or as with the NIV it is taken as a legal role, an advocate or counsellor, in the American sense of legal counsellor. This fits in with the context and the way John as a whole frames his Gospel in terms of a legal battle involving witnesses, accusers and judgements. But whatever word you choose we are talking about the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father. But notice what Jesus says about his authority in all of this, namely that he will send him. What an astonishing thing to say! Here is this thirty year old Jew sitting opposite these other Jews around a table and he says that he will send the Spirit of the Lord! Only God can send the Spirit of God. And this is utter blasphemy if Jesus is not divine. So the whole Trinity is in the witnessing business to the Truth. We have already seen in John 5 how both the Father and the Son witness to the Truth that this is a world in rebellion and under judgement needing God’s special saving touch, and now the Holy Spirit will continue as a witness to the same Truth. More specifically, witnessing to the truth that is in Jesus, ‘he will testify or witness to me.’ The Holy Spirit’s role on earth is not to draw attention to himself through spectacular spiritual fireworks; his role is to testify to the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as that light over there is shining not in order for us to look at it and say, ‘Wow what a fantastic light’, but to illumine those here up front, so the Holy Spirit does the same with Jesus, and just how he does that we shall see in a moment. But this is important because sometimes we will be accused of ‘neglecting the Holy Spirit’. If Jesus Christ is being proclaimed in all his redeeming majesty that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now in order to see how the Holy Spirit acts as a witness, we need to think about how a Hebrew Court of law works which is not the same as ours.
In the Jewish system you had a judge, a plaintiff- that is someone who brings an accusation- and a defendant. You didn’t have a jury. What would happen is that the plaintiff would present his case, bringing forward witnesses against someone accused of doing something wrong, and the defendant would argue his case, bringing forward his witnesses and this would go on back and forth until one of the parties decides to withdraw, admitting defeat by placing a hand over his mouth. This is the kind of pattern you see operating in the book of Job. If the plaintiff withdraws then the defendant is declared by the judge to be ‘justified’- in the right.
So how does the Holy Spirit act as a witness in the courtroom of life with God saying one thing and the world saying another, especially about the person and work of Jesus? Well there will be times when he will go on the attack against the plaintiff, the world charges Christians with being disruptive and stupid, but he will show that they are in fact the guilty ones as we shall see next week, Chapter 16:8, ‘When he [the Advocate] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.’ So forcing the plaintiff to stop , to cover their mouths, admit defeat and acknowledge Jesus to be Lord.
But here in v26 he is a witness for the defence, demonstrating the Truth about Christ in several ways.
First, his role as Witness overlaps with his role as Teacher which we looked at last week, for he is the one who brings to remembrance all that Jesus did taught and so what we have in the Gospels is a true and reliable account of the life and teaching of Jesus, i.e. reliable evidence. The Scriptures act as a witness. We can say to people who are accusing us of believing in something which is equivalent to the ‘Tooth fairy’, no look, here is some historical material we can look at together to see what is being claimed by those who were actually there. And it is so important that God did not leave it to the faulty memories of mere mortals, he sent his Holy Spirit (who himself was a witness to the events, for he was there too), to enable the apostles to remember and record what they saw and heard.
In the second place he acts as a witness to Jesus by his converting work in bringing men and women and boys and girls from all sorts of backgrounds to a saving knowledge of Christ. Amongst the Christian leaders in Jerusalem when some were questioning whether non-Jews should be admitted into the Kingdom, the apostle Peter draws on this work of the Holy Spirit in defence of his actions, ‘The apostles and the elders came together to look into matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified [or witnessed] to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.’ How else do you explain that spread of Christianity from such unpromising beginnings, how else do you account for people today from all over the world embracing the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour, but by the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit as the Gospel is proclaimed?
But he also witnesses to Jesus in a third way, namely as Christians struggle in the face of conflict. As we have already seen it is not easy being a witness when faced with an aggressive, hostile prosecutor. The temptation not to speak and keep your faith private and so ceasing to be a witness will be great in those circumstances.
The Greek word which we translate ‘witness’ or ‘testify’ is from the verb ‘martureo’ from which we get our word ‘martyr’. This sense came to be applied to Christians after the New Testament times when persecution became more widespread. And why were they called martyrs? Because they died not for being Christians per se, but for testifying, speaking out about their faith. The quiet ones will be left alone, it is the ones who are speaking out who will be targeted.
Let me tell you something: in 178 AD a Gallic slave girl, Blandina, who was a recent convert to Christ was brought before the local authorities for her faith and said, ‘I am a Christian woman, and nothing wicked happens among us.’ She was then forced to watch the murder of her Christian friends, then was heated on a gridiron and, thrown to the wild dogs and finally impaled on a stake. Totally true to her Christian character she died praying for her persecutors. And you know what? Her death nerved a 15 year old boy, Ponticus, to follow her example. As one of the early church leaders, Tertullian put it, ‘The oftener we are mowed down by you the more we grow in number. The blood of Christians is seed.’ And so it is today. In one the most evil regimes in the world with its own form of Emperor worship, in North Korea, there are between 200-400,000 Christians, of whom around 70,000 are in labour camps- but the church keeps growing. How do you think that happens? Are these people simply extraordinary individuals who are a cut above the rest of us in the courage department? They wouldn’t have said so. No, they were especially endowed by the Holy Spirit to make ‘the good confession’ as Paul puts it. Do you wonder if you will be able to make a stand when you are called to witness in a hostile environment, tomorrow morning maybe at work or college? In yourself, the answer will probably be no. But if you are humbly dependent upon the Holy Spirit, don’t worry because he will give you the right words to says in the right way at the right time as Jesus promised. He has done it with me plenty of times when I have felt quite out of my depth and to be honest, scared. He will do it with you too.
But there is another way the Holy Spirit witnesses to Jesus when we face conflict and that is not just when we encounter external opposition, but internal struggle. Don’t you sometimes find that when you are struggling with sin and fail, that you begin to wonder if you are a Christian at all? Don’t you sometimes feel so weak and at the end of your tether you wonder if you can keep on going any longer? You’re very different to me if you don’t. Well, it is here that the Spirit comes to our aid as Paul spells out in Romans 8, set in the context of struggle and suffering, v 16 ‘The Spirit himself testifies [witnesses] with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ He then goes on later to say in verse 26, ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.’ In other words, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us of the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But finally and more briefly, the call.
As well as the Holy Spirit bearing witness to Christ, his followers are to do so as well, v 27, ‘And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.’ This is a specific command to the first disciples, those who had been with Jesus ‘from the beginning’. Why? Well, Jesus needed people who were eye witnesses to everything he said and did, including what is soon to follow, his resurrection. And in this culture eye witness testimony was valued far more highly than written testimony. But once the eye witnesses were gone, then it was important to have their testimony written down, which is exactly what the Holy Spirit enabled them to do. But although these are the foundational witnesses without which we would know next to nothing about Jesus, we too are to witness on the basis of their witness. This is what Jesus prays for a few chapters later, ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (17:20-21) Jesus is actually praying for you and me. Isn’t that moving?
So we are all called to be witnesses to Jesus. But we must understand, from what we have been looking at tonight that we witness in the midst of conflict, that is why we need witnesses because the world does not agree with the Bible and Jesus about a whole host of things and will hate us when we contradict them. The question is: are you willing to be a witness? Not just talking to your Christian friends about Jesus and the Christian faith- they by and large will agree with you so that isn’t really witnessing- but speaking into the conflict knowing you will be hated for it? The Holy Spirit will be there with you when you do that, but will you do it? Will you be willing for the sake of the glory of Jesus to forsake this desperate tendency we all have of wanting to be liked and speak lovingly but clearly that some things are right and some things are wrong, that Jesus is the Saviour who is worth forsaking everything for, and we witness to that having done it ourselves? Testifying means knowing the truth and speaking the truth to settle the truth.
Let us pray.
 See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008)
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.