Jesus, the True Witness

September 14, 2016

by Gregory Beale

In Christ’s message to the Laodicean Church in Revelation 3:14,  Jesus refers to himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” Most of these titles find their background in Isaiah 65, save one: ‘witness’. Some might think that there need be no further exploration for additional background to Revelation 3:14. Furthermore, is it not sufficient that Revelation 3:14 further develops the same word ‘witness’ from Revelation 1:5? While this may be as far as we need to go in discerning the origin of ‘witness’ in Revelation 3:14, further new creation texts in Isaiah may provide another backdrop against which to understand ‘witness’ in both Revelation 1:5 and 3:14.

Origin of Witness

The word ‘witness’ also occurs in the segment of Isaiah 43:8–31 (esp. cf. 43:10,12–13, 18–19), where one of the prominent themes is that of Isaiah prophesying that Israel is to be God’s witness to the coming new creation (my emphases):

‘You are My witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me.

I, even I, am the LORD, And there is no saviour besides Me.

It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, and there was no strange god, among you; so you are My witnesses’ declares the LORD, and I am God. Even from eternity I am He, and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?’

‘Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past.

Behold, I will do something new [LXX has ‘new things’], Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.’

Israel was to be a witness in the future to the fact that the new creation which God had prophesied had been fulfilled in their midst. Their witness was to show that the testimony of the worshippers of Babylon’s idols were really false witnesses, since their idols were not the true God and, therefore, could not prophesy (Isa. 43:9, 12; 44:8). Indeed, God had created Israel in the first place to be a witness to him before the unbelieving world: when he created the nation he told them in Exodus 19:6 what their purpose was to be: ‘You [Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ The Israelites were to be priestly mediators between God and the ungodly world by being a missionary light of witness to the world. Israel’s lampstand in the temple symbolized this mission of being a light to the world.

The only way we can carry out our primary role of witness as true Israel is to keep in close relationship with Jesus, the faithful Israelite witness.

But Israel repeatedly refused to do this. So God promised he would raise up someone who would be a faithful witness. Israel as a nation would no longer be called God’s servant, but God would raise up a Servant who would be a faithful witness (see Isa. 49:1–6, note especially 49:3, “you are My Servant, Israel’). The New Testament identifies this Servant as Jesus Christ (e.g. Luke 2:32 calls Jesus a ‘light of revelation to the Gentiles’, an allusion to Isa. 42:6 and 49:6; the same Old Testament allusion is applied to Jesus in Acts 26:23).

The Faithful Witness Israel 

So Isaiah 43 (vv. 10–13, 18–19) says Israel was to be a witness to the coming new creation; but only the true Servant, Israel, would be able to be such a witness, which is what Revelation 3:14 affirms of Jesus. The Septuagint interprets Isaiah 43:10 and 12 by adding that God would also be a witness (and the Targum to Isaiah interprets the description of Israel as a witness to be the Messiah). Could it be possible that both the Isaiah 43 ideas of Israel and God being faithful witnesses are combined in the one Jesus Christ in Revelation 3:14? At least, even if only the Hebrew text’s notion of Israel being a faithful witness is in mind, we have seen in Isaiah 65:16–17 that is combined with God being a faithful promise of the coming new creation. The idea in Isaiah 43 of being a witness to the new creation fits admirably with the allusion to the same concept in Isaiah 65, and explains why Jesus would have combined these two texts into one allusion.

The role of witness that Israel should have carried out has been carried out by Jesus, who is really the true Israel because he is the only fully faithful witness through his resurrection to the new creation. If we are going to be God’s people, true Israel, then we must believe in Jesus in order to be identified with him, who summed up true Israel in himself and carried out Israel’s role of being a faithful witness to God’s new creation in his resurrection. Likewise, the the only way we can carry out our primary role of witness as true Israel is to keep in close relationship with Jesus, the faithful Israelite witness. As Christians our main purpose in relation to the world is to witness.

This piece is adapted from G.K. Beale, “Worthy is the Lamb: the Divine Identity of Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelation” in The Forgotten Christ, ed. Stephen Clark (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2007) 239–242. Used with permission of the publisher.

Gregory Beale

Dr. Beale (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at WTS.

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