Every judge and jury knows the importance of a witness who can help establish the accused’s guilt or innocence. Every reporter treasures an eyewitness, but perhaps for the less noble reason of selling a story. Alas, even a high school gossip likes to quote an eyewitness. Thus, whether for good or evil, the world always values a witness. He makes all the difference between hearsay and fact, between opinion and reality.
The value of a witness comes from the personal nature of the testimony. The world constantly demands, “Says who?” A witness provides the answer: “I say so … I was there … I saw it … with my own eyes.” The more important the event, the deeper the impression and change wrought in the witness. “I will never forget what I saw,” he may say. And he must be credible. Otherwise he will be destroyed in cross-examination or in the court of public opinion. Being a witness demands integrity between word and action, between what one claims and how one lives.
“You are witnesses” (Lk 24:48). Thus our Lord spoke to His disciples before His ascension. They — and all disciples after them — are to be witnesses to the Messiah’s suffering, death and resurrection, and to the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world. No we did not see these events with our own eyes. But we know them by something altogether more reliable: the eyes of faith. The world needs and (despite itself) demands such witnesses more than any other.
The requirements for Christian witness are the same as those in the natural order. It is the personal nature of the testimony that makes all the difference. To be effective witnesses we must bear witness personally — that is, from personal knowledge of Jesus Christ. People are not convinced if we say, “Well, that’s what I heard.” They only believe when they sense that the witness is a witness indeed — someone who has personal knowledge of the Lord.
That personal testimony comes only if we are transformed by the events. Mere theoretical knowledge of Christ does not transform us. We must allow the faith to go deeper — to get more personal. The Person and truths to which we witness must transform us so completely that our lives would be meaningless without them. “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard,” said the first witnesses (Acts 4:20). We should pray for a similar transformation.
Christian witness demands integrity. We give witness primarily by our lives. A life lived in union with Christ and in obedience to His command of love itself bears witness to Him. It gives silent witness. And if the witness lacks integrity — if his moral life contradicts the Gospel — then no amount of words will compensate. Indeed, words about the Gospel without a life formed by the Gospel not only do no good — they give scandal. The Church’s mission suffers greatly when her members speak of Christ but do not act like Christ.
Which is to say that being a witness to Christ involves the entirety of one’s life. In this regard, we do well to recall the Greek word for witness: “martyr.” A martyr, as we use the word now, indicates one who witnesses to Christ by giving his life — in the sense of accepting death rather than deny his personal testimony. But every witness must be a martyr — must give his life, and every part thereof, to make Christ known.