One of the metaphors people like to use to describe the preaching office is the witness. One really excellent book by Prof. Thomas Long is The Witness of Preaching. What exactly does being a witness mean? Such a metaphor often conjures up the popular caricature of the soapbox preacher at the street corner or the hard-selling Christian telling others about Jesus. Some may think of using formulaic tools like the Four Spiritual Laws to talk about Jesus. The original word “witness” has been understood to mean “martyr” since the English word martyr comes from the Greek word. Yet, we have no such clear usage of this sense of martyrdom until the 2nd century. So, in the ordinary sense of the word witness in the NT, the word merely just means to testify about what one knows and experiences. The word comes from the context of the courtroom where a person’s testimony should uphold the truth. The clearest explanation in the NT is Acts (e.g. Acts 1.8; 22.15). In the book of Acts, the disciples merely told others what they knew whether the message was about Easter or about what God had done through Jesus or some other divine work from the Old Testament. What are the implications of witnessing for preaching?
First, the idea of witnessing goes beyond propositional truth. It is not about “Guess what I know? I know this set of creeds.” As important as creeds are for Christian doctrine, the NT sense of witness does not focus on a set of propositions. These days, many in the church still insist that the preacher has to preach propositions in order for the sermon to be biblical. This narrow sense goes against the idea of preaching as witness (I’m not saying that propositions are unimportant. I’m just saying that dogmatizing about propositional preaching is unhelpful).
Second, the idea of witnessing does advocate telling of the truth using truthful means. There is no manipulation element in the NT witness of the apostles. These followers of Jesus did not use seven words sung eleven times (what a friend calls the 7-11 songs) to arouse emotional decisions. The sense of NT witness merely points out what the apostles have experienced. That’s it! The rest is up to the audience to accept or reject whether the message was true or not. In fact, overly persuasive speeches were looked upon as suspicious among the first century world. The negative portrait of the Sophists among classical writers verifies what I just described here. Today, I’ve seen preachers use half-truths, made-up tales and outright lies to preach the gospel. As a result, some might come to know Jesus. The mentality among the populace in the church is, as long as the preaching generates the number of converts, even half-truths or lies are acceptable (e.g. all those involved in the Noah’s Ark hoax in Hong Kong). Both the message and the means have to be true in order for the preaching to qualify as witness. Its evidence must hold up to the most stringent legal procedures.
Third, the idea of witnessing does hold the preacher responsible for his spiritual welfare. Think about it, if the preacher’s preaching does not reflect his experience in his faith, he’s basically telling a lie. There are many preachers out there, especially among those who have ministered for a little while, who love to tell an old and touching tale or two from their yesteryears. These tales are touching but tiresome simply because they sound fake. They reflect of bygone glory days of the preacher when he was experiencing God’s grace. Many can’t tell you the last time they have noticed God in their lives. If so, they do not reflect their experience in their preaching. The audience today lusts for tall tales and worship heroes, but the Bible demands the preacher to see God in the ordinary mundane everyday tasks. I’ve heard from famous conservative preachers that forbid using personal examples as illustrations. One even advocates only biblical stories as the only valid sermon illustrations. I say, “Nonsense.” Our audience actually needs to know that we’re human, and that we have real faith experience. The audience needs fellow pilgrims (and not supermen) who lead them to worship God (and not heroes).
Fourth, the idea of witnessing does assume a rhetorical situation. The witness speaks to an audience. This requires the preacher to articulate his message in contemporary language instead of merely doing an information dump about his own experience.
What does it mean to be a witness? The preacher must prioritize authenticity first before authority. Before preaching, the preacher has to be human. He has to live by being human who is in touch with the divine in mundane daily living. If his message reflects his life, he has preached as a witness to truth. Have we noticed what God has done in our lives lately? That’s a question each preacher needs to ask before going up on the pulpit.