Missiological Significance of ‘Bearing Witness’ in John’s Gospel: Witnesses of Jesus and the Church


Jey J. Kanagaraj, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune-37, India


Church’s witness to the world by means of proclamation and of exercising love and unity has been emphasized in missiological studies as an important aspect of Christian mission. For example, David Bosch defines Christian mission as “common witness” to the world and identifies this renewed concern for the world as the “paradigm shift” in the ecumenical efforts of the church from a mere doctrinal consensus reached through theological debate. For him “mission” denotes no more exclusivism but a witness to the people of other faiths.[1] Nevertheless, a study of witness motif in the New Testament, particularly in relation to Christian mission, has not been given so much attention as it deserves. Although the themes of mission and bearing witness dominate the Gospel of John, past studies on John have paid little attention to the relation that exists between these significant themes.[2]


            Recent studies on witness motif in John have mainly concentrated on the witness borne to Jesus by John the Baptist who is regarded as the prime or a role model ma/rtuj.[3] In India three articles have been published by John Kurichianil on the Johannine concept of bearing witness to Jesus, mainly focussing on the need to bear witness through a life of love. Kurichianil, however, concentrates more on the mutual love that should exist among Jesus’ followers than on the impact of that love on the world.[4] There are few works that identify the inevitable link between witness motif and mission motif in John. In this paper, therefore, we will not only trace the inherent connection between these two motifs, but will also study how John describes the mission of Jesus and, following it, that of the church, in terms of bearing witness to Jesus.


“Bearing Witness” in John

John never uses such words as khru/ssein, eu)aggeli/zesqai, and eu)agge/lion which directly convey the idea of proclamation of the gospel to the world. But he does use marturei=n and marturi/a. The verb marturei=n is used 43 times in Johannine writings and 33 times in John’s Gospel alone, whereas only 32 times in the rest of the New Testament. The noun marturi/a appears 30 times in Johannine writings and 14 times in John’s Gospel alone, whereas only seven times in the rest of the New Testament.[5] We can appreciate the importance given to “bearing witness” in John’s Gospel. Sometimes the word marturei=n itself is not used, but the idea is communicated by such words as a)gge/llein and le/gein (see 20:18). The word also appears in parallel with such verbs as lalei=n (3:13), le/gein (19:35), and gra/fein (21:24) and in close association with key Johannine vocabularies such as “knowing”, “seeing”, “hearing”, and “believing” (3:11-12,32; 8:14; 19:35; cf. 1:35-37,39-49; 4:42; 12:50; 15:27) In a few places in John the act of bearing witness is implied although either marturei=n or any of its cognates is used. For example, one can find the act of bearing witness to Jesus in the disciples’ “going out” and “bringing” individuals to Jesus (1:35-51). The words, “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father” (1:14), seem to be the words of the church’s witness about the incarnate life of Jesus.


            That John is interested in Christian mission is known from his frequent use of the words pempei=n (26 times) and a)postellei=n (18 times) to denote mainly the mission of Jesus and occasionally the mission of his followers in the world. Other verbs that are used to refer to Jesus’ mission in the world are e1rxesqai (eg, 1:9; 5:43; 9:38; 12:46-47), katabai/nein (3:13), and genna=n (18:37). John links the word “bearing witness” with “sending” (six times – 1:6-7; 5:30-32,36,37; 8:18; 15:26-27), “coming” (four times), “descending” (once), and “being born” (once). In the narrative of Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman, John sets the mission discourse of Jesus (4:31-38) in-between the woman’s life-changing experience (4:4-30) and her testimony about Jesus that brought the Samaritans to him (4:39-42). Thus the Samaritan woman’s witness for Jesus is tied up with a reference to the purpose of Jesus’ mission (4:34) and to the mission to be done by his disciples in the world (4:35-38). These references clearly show that John uses marturei=n and marturi/a as missiological terms to convey the fact that both the mission of Jesus and that of his followers are to bear witness to the truth revealed in Jesus.


            By knitting the concept of bearing witness with mission, what does John seek to communicate? What does “bearing witness” mean? Both marturei=n and marturi/a are forensic terms used in the legal proceedings to prove the truth. During his trial, for example, Jesus challenges the officer who struck him to bear witness to the wrong he is alleged to have done (18:23). That is, Jesus is asking the opponent to establish the charge, if any, against him.[6] Thus, “bearing witness” is an act of giving evidence to confirm the events happened and the things said. John wants to show the trustworthiness and confirmation of what Jesus says by using the verb “to bear witness” in places where one may expect verbs such as “to say” or “to speak” (eg, 4:44; 13:21) and “to declare” (eg, 3:11,26,28).


According to the Jewish law, proof or confirmation of any truth or of any claim or crime should be supported by more than one witness, by two or three witnesses in particular (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; cf. Jn. 8:17). The later rule, which also emphasizes the insufficiency of a single witness (“no single person can be deemed trustworthy in himself” - M. Rosh Ha-Shanah 3.1), refers to “witnesses” in general, rather than specifying the number of witnesses, to confirm a crime (Num. 35:30). Thus in Jewish legal system the role of witnesses was crucially important. A witness appears before a judge to present evidence that will vindicate someone and condemn or refute their opponents. Perhaps more the witnesses were the stronger would be the evidence. In conformity with the law, the divine truth uttered by and revealed in Jesus needed to be confirmed by more than one witness. It became all the more necessary to defend and proclaim Christian faith in the phase of the conflict that the Christians had with the Jews in the late first century AD. That is why John presents several witnesses to prove who Jesus is and confirm the divine truth in him. By focusing on bearing witness to Jesus by words and works, John treats witnessing as the substance of Christian mission.


1. Witnesses and the Content of Witnesses

Those who bear witness to Jesus in John are as follows:

1.      John the Baptist (1:7-8,15,32,34; 3:26; 5:33; cf. 1:26-27,29-31,36)

2.      God the Father (5:32.37; 8:18)

3.      The Scriptures (5:39; cf. also 5:46)

4.      Jesus’ own works (5:36; 10:25)

5.      The Spirit-Paraclete (15:26)

6.      The disciple whom Jesus loved (19:35; 21:24)

7.      Jesus’ disciples altogether (15:27; cf. also 13:34-35; 15:8; 17:18,20-23)

8.      The Samaritan woman (4:39; cf. 4:42)

9.      The crowd that had seen Lazarus being raised from the dead (12:17)

10.  Jesus bears witness to whatever he had seen and heard from the Father (3:11,32-33). He bears witness to the truth (18:37) and indeed to himself (8:13-14,18; cf. 5:31). But he testifies against the world by saying that its works are evil (7:7).[7] For example, Jesus did not merely predict or declare, but he testified of Judas’s betrayal (13:21; cf. 16:29).


There are also others who bore witness to Jesus, and in narrating their cases, however, John does not use either marturei=n or marturi/a:

1.      The man born blind, who was healed by Jesus, bears witness to Jesus and to what he did to him (9:8-17,24-34). The account of his testimony is concluded with the mission statement of Jesus: “For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (9:39).

2.      Pilate bears witness to Jesus as the “King of the Jews” by putting a ti/tloj written by him on the cross (19:19), and thus unconsciously involves himself in the church’s mission of proclaiming Jesus to the world as King.

3.      The “fearful” disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, bear witness to Jesus’ kingship by openly coming forward to receive Jesus’ body and give him a kingly burial (19:38-42). They did this having been drawn by Jesus’ cross that gave them power to boldly confess Jesus by their deeds. Thus they also may be reckoned as pioneers of Christian mission in the world (cf. Mk. 14:8-9; Mt. 26:12-13).

4.      The two angels in the empty tomb are silent witnesses to the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection (20:12) by having been sent by God.

5.      Mary Magdalene is commissioned by the risen Jesus to bear witness to his resurrection before his disciples (20:18). As an apostle, she witnessed by saying, “I have seen the Lord”, and thus fulfilled her mission.


The list of witnesses shown above make it clear that they all testify about Jesus, his life and his life-giving mission. The subject of witness in John is altogether Jesus. However, the witness borne by Jesus has two sides: on the one hand, he bears witness in favour of himself as well as of the divine reality seen and heard from the Father, and on the other hand, he testifies against the evil works of the world, particularly against JudasÂ’s betrayal. In an effort to narrow down the scope of this paper, I have chosen to study only the testimony borne by Jesus and later by his community.


It is important at this point to keep it in mind that unlike the OT witnesses who testify to the crime committed with the aim of condemning the offender to death or of vindicating the accused, the witnesses mentioned in John seek to confirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God to whom the scriptures point and who came, by being sent by God, into the world to reveal God’s glory so that the offenders may have divine life now and in future. In John it is a witness not concerning a criminal but concerning the “holy one of God” and the purpose of bearing witness is not to condemn the wrong-doer to death, but to give him or her life. This is precisely the purpose of Jesus’ mission in the world and, after him, that of the church’s mission as well.


2. The Witness Borne by Jesus

As we have observed above, Jesus bears witness about himself. As W.A. Meeks puts it, the total testimony of Jesus in John is in fact about himself.[8] According to the Jewish law, “none may be believed when he testifies of himself” (M. Ketuboth 2.9; cf. Jn. 8:13). However, Jesus’ testimony belongs to a different context and hence is of different nature. Therefore even if he bears witness about himself, his testimony is true (8:14), for he bears witness by speaking the words of God which he heard directly from God himself (8:26,28b,38; 12:49; cf. 3:11,32,34; 14:24). Jesus’ didaxh/ is not his own but of the one who sent him (7:16-17). When Jesus speaks and does something, the Father, the God of all creation, himself is with him (8:29), and bears witness about his Son (5:32,37; 8:18). Because the Father’s testimony of his Son is true, the Son’s testimony of the Father also is true. The witness of Jesus and his works reveals the very fact that it is the Father who sent him into the world (5:36; cf. 17:21). This means that it is hard to separate the witness borne by Jesus and the witness of the Father who sent him. When Jesus bears witness, it is God, the Absolute Being, who is revealed. It is to confirm the oneness that exists between the Father and the Son that the mutual witness borne by both of them (8:18) is preceded by a reference to their corporate judgment (8:16) and followed by the implication that knowing Jesus will lead one to know the Father also (8:19).


(i) Jesus Bears Witness to His Pre-existence

The Gospel of John begins with a reference to the pre-existence of the Logos (1:1-5) and the witness of John the Baptist to the pre-existent Light (1:6-8). The Baptist bears witness to the surpassing greatness of Christ by openly confessing that Jesus, who is the Christ and Son of God, is greater than himself in rank, status, and time (1:15,26-27,29-34). In the same vein, the witness borne by Jesus too conveys the message that he was pre-existent with God the Father. For he bears witness to “what he had seen and heard” (3:32). As the one who comes from the Father, Jesus has seen the Father (6:46) and what he is doing (5:19) so that he can communicate the Father to the world by doing the same works as the Father is doing. Jesus is from above (8:23) and has descended from heaven (3:13; 6:38,50-51,58). He has heard from the Father the words of judgment (5:30) and the whole message which he declared to the world (8:26; 12:49).


            In the light of the heavenly origin of Jesus, his identification of the Father as the one who sent him should be understood as conveying the point that the Son, the sent one, was pre-existing with the Father, the sender.[9] By the words heard from the Father and the works seen with the Father, Jesus bears witness to the truth, the heavenly reality. He testifies to the reliability of God’s love for human beings, because he himself has been in the bosom of the Father and hence has known the Father (1:18). In brief, the core of Jesus’ mission is to bear witness to the only true God, the Lord of all creation, whom he has seen, and thus to reveal him to the world by his words and works.


            An important aspect of Christian mission today is to bear witness to the pre-existence of Christ. This means, we need to present Christ Jesus as the revealer of the one God by virtue of his oneness with that God who created all things and hence as the one who loves and cares for all human beings. Paul began his proclamation of the gospel at Athens by introducing God as the creator and sustainer of the world, particularly of all human beings (Act. 17:24-27). This approach in mission enabled him to proclaim that God has the right to expect repentance from humans and to judge them by a man, Jesus whom he raised from the dead (Act. 17:30-31). Some indeed were convinced and came to believe in Jesus. In India, where many religious groups, languages and cultures exist side by side, it is essential for the church to present the God who was revealed in Jesus as the God of all creation rather than as the God of Israel or as the God of the Old Testament alone. The misunderstanding that Christianity came into existence only from the time when Jesus was born can be removed by the church’s witness that Christ pre-existed even before the time of creation and that he is interested in every human being and indeed in all living beings (1:5; 8:58).


(ii) Jesus Bears Witness to Himself as the Light

That John the Baptist came to bear witness to the light is emphasized in John’s prologue (1:7-8). This light is the life embodied in the Logos that pre-existed in close communion with God (1:4). In the same way Jesus also came to bear witness to the light. However, unlike the Baptist who himself was not the light, Jesus could authoritatively claim, “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). In John the e)gw_ ei)mi constitutes the divine name, and this name is displayed in Jesus, here as the “light of the world”. The Jews believed that God is light (Ps. 27:1; 36:9b; cf. 1 Jn. 1:5). By claiming himself to be the light of the world, Jesus declares that he is the revelation of the one God and his love to human beings. By taking up the name e)gw_ ei)mi, Jesus expresses that he possesses a unique relationship with the one and only God and therefore he alone could reveal him to humans and communicate with them.[10]


            Of all the “I AM” sayings in John, only the saying “ I am the light of the world” is identified by the hearers (here the Pharisees) as Jesus bearing witness to himself and confirmed by Jesus that his testimony is true (8:13-14). This testimony, in turn, is linked with Jesus’ h}lqon saying that implies his mission in the world (8:14b). This shows that the purpose of Jesus’ mission is to bear witness to himself as the Light that comes into the world from heaven so that those who follow him in faith may share in his life. Jesus is the “Light of the world” in the sense that he is the radiance of God’s glory in the world. In the Old Testament God is described as “light and salvation” (Ps. 27:1) and the light of his countenance as having power to bring salvation to his people (Ps. 44:3; Hab. 3:4). Thus, Light, in Hebrew thought, is Yahweh in his saving activity.[11] The Jews expected that Yahweh, the God of all creation, himself will come as Light at the end-time (Isa. 60:19-22; Zech. 14:5b-7).[12] Jesus is the Light, because he reveals God-in-his-light and has the power to give deliverance and divine life to human beings, particularly to those who believe in him and follow him, both now and at the end-time (cf. Isa. 56:13; Job 33:30). What is promised to be given wholly at the end-time is imparted by Jesus now.


            The coming of the Light also causes judgment upon those who do not believe in him. Those who reject him would love to continue doing evil (3:19-20) and would falsely claim that they “see”. Jesus’ claim that he is the Light of the world is rightly linked with his mission statement, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (9:5,39). As light, Jesus opened the physical eyes of the man born blind and also delivered him from spiritual blindness and God’s judgment by revealing himself as the Son of Man (9:35-39). Thus, Jesus’ mission of bearing witness is holistic in nature bringing both physical and spiritual well-being to the sick and the suffering (for the holistic mission of Jesus compare also 5:1-9 with 5:14 and 7:23; 6:1-14 with 6:27). The purpose of the coming of Jesus as Light into the world is not to condemn people, but to deliver those who believe in him from darkness, ie, from their wicked ways (12:46). However, the transforming power of Light turns to be the source of condemnation to those who do not believe in him (3:18).


            In bearing testimony to the life-giving power of divine light that is in him, Jesus took the context seriously. He made his message and works relevant to the context. In the wilderness God’s presence guided and saved the people of Israel from danger and death by the pillar of fire and of cloud (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-25; 40:38). The feast of Tabernacles commemorates precisely this saving work of God and his presence among his people as light. It is in this context that Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world” (see 7:2,10-14) and confirms his claim by a sign of giving sight to a man born blind. His emphasis on the life-imparting power of Light is relevant to the occasion of the feast of Tabernacles, for this feast was a festival of light.[13] At the withdrawal of the lights in the Temple court, Jesus reveals himself as the Light who will save not only the people of Israel but all people in the world provided they believe in him and commit themselves to follow him. Thus, Jesus’ witness is not only contextual but also has universal significance, his message and ministry crossing the boundary of his own people and culture. By bearing witness to this truth, Jesus replaces the festival by his own person and work. For him the true celebration of the feast is to see God’s glory in its dazzling light in Jesus and to make decision to follow him.


            Jesus seems to fulfil also the meaning of the Indian festival of Divali, which is known as the “festival of lights”, and the aspirations of people in India who are familiar with the prayer found in the Upanishad: “From darkness lead me to light, from death lead me to immortality” (Brahadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28).[14] The meaning of this festival is the triumph of light (God) over darkness (demon), good over evil. In India, Divali may be used as an occasion to bear witness to Jesus as the Light who has triumphed over evil to deliver those who are obsessed by sin, sickness, fear and evil spirits and to give them heavenly life.


            The missiological significance of Jesus’ witness to himself as Light can also be known from 9:4-5 where his claim to be the “Light of the world” is linked with the divine necessity to work the “works of him who sent me”.[15] Jesus indicates his exclusiveness as the one sent by God to radiate God’s light/glory in the world and to accomplish his works. The emphatic position of h(ma~j in 9:4 (“it is necessary for us to work”) implies that Jesus associates with him the disciples of his time and also the future disciples in his mission of accomplishing the works of God (see below the “witness borne by the church”).


            By cautioning the disciples to work “while it is day”, Jesus sees the present time as the opportune time for doing God’s work and so exhorts them to involve themselves with a sense of urgency. While Jesus is still with his disciples, there is light in the world and they should work with him, for apart from their Master they can do nothing (15:5). Soon the light will disappear, and the “night comes, when no one can work”. That is, Jesus is soon departing to the Father by way of the cross, and that will be a time of sorrow and weeping for his followers (16:20) rather than a time to do God’s mission along with him. The church’s mission of bearing witness to the Light will bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the disabled, and God’s love to the despised. This mission is already initiated by Jesus, and the disciples should act now as they see the needs of the people around them (eg, the man born blind in chapter 9).


(iii) Jesus Bears Witness to the Truth

The content of Jesus’ witness is also described as “truth” (a)lhqei/a). This is envisaged in another mission statement of Jesus: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (18:37). Jesus brings out his mission agenda by implicitly agreeing that he is a king in response to Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?” J.D.M. Derrett argues that Jesus, as the King and Davidic Messiah, is a witness to the truth, that is, to the reliability of God’s promise to redeem humankind from sin and death. He also shows that the idea of the King Messiah being a witness for God is evidenced in the Scripture (eg. Isa. 55:4).[16] Since Jesus, as King and God’s anointed Messiah, bears witness to the truth, what he declares is trustworthy.


            Many among us today raise the question, “What is truth?”, as Pilate did (18:38). In John a)lhqei/a means “genuineness” or “divine reality”, and this reality is not unfathomable or unreachable; it discloses itself and thus it denotes a revelation.[17] John does not identify truth with the Absolute God the Father, as some Indian religions do. He describes the God who sent Jesus on a mission is a true being (3:33 and 8:26 have a)lhqh/j; 7:28 has a)lhqino/j). Both a)lhqh/j and a)lhqino)j are used to speak of God as someone who is “real” and “genuine” in contrast to other gods who are not real.[18] God is true and hence the one whom he sent (Jesus) also is true and there is no falsehood (a)diki/a, literally “unrighteousness” or “wickedness”) in him (7:18).


            “Truth”, along with “grace”, is one of the two attributes of God, namely his mercy and truthfulness to save people (1:14). It constitutes God’s goodness which is his glory (cf. Ex. 33:18-19 with Ex. 34:5-7). “Truth” is not an abstract entity having a passive connotation, but it refers to God’s act of loving his people, delivering them, and relating with them intimately out of his faithfulness to his covenant made with them. God’s faithfulness to his covenant to love and deliver his people was clearly expressed by the sending of his Son.[19] In other words, God’s truth was revealed in his missionary activity performed through his Son in the world. Jesus bears witness to the truth in the sense that he communicates to human beings God’s truth that reveals his love and care for them. Indeed this is the gospel proclaimed by Jesus as pictured by John. This truth of God’s love was heard (and experienced) by Jesus directly from God (8:40). God’s word spoken by Jesus is “truth” (17:17) and hence Jesus could bear witness to himself as “the truth” (14:6). The Spirit whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name to continue Jesus’ work of bearing witness in the world is called the “Spirit of Truth” (14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13; cf. 1 Jn. 5:7), that is, the Spirit whose nature is truth and who will communicate truth. Unlike the Baptist who also bore witness to the truth (5:33), Jesus bears witness to the truth by having seen and heard from God (3:32; 8:40). Therefore Jesus’ witness is greater than that of the Baptist (5:36). Jesus is the eye-witness of the Father and therefore his witness is authentic and genuine description of God (cf. 1:18).


            Since Jesus himself is the embodiment of truth, he has no need to search for the truth, as many Indian sages, philosophers, and freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi have done. Several years ago, Gandhi wrote that although he worshipped God as truth, he had not yet found him and he was still seeking after him. What he had was only faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth.[20] In fact, Gandhi had more experimented with truth than having experienced it. Jesus’ mission statement that he has come to bear witness to the truth, his call to know the truth that will set those who remain in his word free (8:31-32), and his exclusive claim that he himself is the truth (14:6), all seem to be the Johannine answer for Gandhi’s quest for the truth.


            Many in the East seek truth through meditation, asceticism, padayathra (journey to temples on foot), and some cultic practices. But still they miss to see and experience the truth, as Pilate missed, because they are not willing to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus, the embodiment of truth. For Jesus “truth” is not an element or abstract phenomenon that one should seize and possess, but it is a relationship that one should have with him by believing in him and obeying him. It is in this sense that Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” The one who is e)k th~j a)lhqei/aj is the one who is born of truth (cf. 1:13 “born of God”; 3:8 “born of the Spirit”). They are those who belong to the sphere of truth. Those who are e)k th~j a)lhqei/aj will love their fellow-beings not merely in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18-19). The essence of our missionary task, then, is to bear witness to the truth by believing in Jesus and by showing love to others by word and deed.


3. The Witness Borne by the Church

We have already noticed how Jesus includes his followers to be involved in the ministry of bearing witness along with them, by saying, “We must work the works of him who sent me” (9:4). The obligation to do his mission with him lies with the church at all times. The church’s co-operation with Jesus in mission is brought out by the Johannine Jesus in the context of the Samaritan woman’s testimony to his life-giving power by using the mission imageries such as “harvest”, “field”, “labourers”, “sowing” and “reaping” (4:31-42). In his mission Jesus used several methods: he used these earthly things to explain heavenly truth (see also 3:11-12), and by means of dialogue he bore witness to himself.


(i) The Church is Sent to Reap the “Harvest”

In chapter 4 Jesus has a dialogue with a woman from Samaria. John introduces a new scene while the Samaritans were on their way to Jesus after they heard the testimony of the woman. At this interval, the conversation between Jesus and his disciples on food takes place (4:31-38). John narrates this conversation to bring out the missiological significance of the womanÂ’s witness and her partnership in JesusÂ’ mission. Jesus turns the attention of his disciples, who were persuading him to eat, to the urgency of accomplishing GodÂ’s mission which, he identifies, as his brw~sij and brw~ma (4:32,34). Jesus states that just like physical food, when eaten, nourishes the living beings and causes them to live, the work of completing GodÂ’s will, that is, GodÂ’s plan for human salvation, gives nourishment to Jesus (cf. Deut. 8:3b). The work that needs to be finished denotes JesusÂ’ entire mission, carried out both in words and deeds,[21] which reaches its culmination in his death on the cross. Note that the verb teleiou~n, used in 4:34, occurs also in JesusÂ’ word uttered at the time of his death (19:30; cf. 17:4).


            Jesus’ mission, accomplished on the cross, is to be continued by the community of his followers. They are not to repeat what Jesus did on the cross, but they have to harvest and gather now the fruit of his labour (4:35-36). To do this, they need a vision to see the need for the salvation of the poor and the marginalized. Jesus brings out this truth by using a common saying, “There are yet four months, then comes the harvest,” that reckons a period of four months between the end of sowing and the beginning of the harvest.[22] In God’s mission, however, there is no four-month interval between sowing and harvesting. In Jesus’ reckoning of time, the opportunity for the harvest has already come. This is the opportune time to seek and gather the harassed and helpless for eternal life (see Mt. 9:36-38 where the metaphor “harvest” denotes the opportunity for a compassionate work among the harassed and helpless). In the coming of Jesus into the world and in his fulfilment of God’s work on the cross, the labour is over. Now his followers should gather the fruits of his labour.


The coming of the Samaritans to Jesus (4:30) is a token fulfilment of that work. In the testimony of the woman that brought her townsmen and women to Christ, the process of harvest has already begun. Just as the white grain in the fields is a sign that the crop is fully ripe, so the coming of the Samaritans gives an assurance that the final gathering of people to God has already started in Jesus. Thus the word “harvest” points to the right season to involve oneself in the global mission of God. In his mission to the Samaritans Jesus crossed the racial, cultural and religious boundaries to stay with them in Sychar for two days and to identify himself with the despised (4:40) - an act that would certainly have shocked any strict Jew (cf. 4:9). Jesus knew that if God loves the world, then it needs to be manifested even beyond the horizon of Judaism. Now the disciples, who are much concerned about satisfying their physical hunger, need to become aware of the work they are called to do joining with Jesus. They need to lift up their eyes and see the fields. That is, they need a vision to see the available opportunity to bear witness to Jesus not only among their own people, but also among the people of different race, culture, religion and language so that they all may obtain divine salvation (cf. 4:42).


            The church in our time is called to sow the seed and gather the fruit for eternal life. Her mission is to bring people to Jesus who gives divine life (cf. 15:16). In the story of the Samaritan woman, Jesus sowed the seed in the woman’s life, and the woman, by her testimony, sowed the seed among other Samaritans and gathered them as fruit. Now the community of Jesus’ followers should sow the seed by the word of their testimony and complete the harvest throughout the world. In a church, some may have the gift of sowing the seed and others of harvesting the fruit. Although members are involved in different kinds of ministries, ultimately both the sower and the reaper share the joy equally, because both are involved in the same mission (4:36; cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-7). This means that God’s mission, received from Jesus, is a team work that results in corporate joy and heavenly life both now and in future. Mission is to be done in partnership with Jesus and other believers rather than independently. This is confirmed by Jesus’ statement, “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour” (4:38).[23] The sower and the reaper rejoice together, because they are serving the same master and share one goal: the gathering of fruit for eternal life. A collective witness creates no party spirit or competition or a striving to outdo one another.


(ii) The Church is to Bear Witness by a Life of Love and Unity

            The basic qualification for the church to bear witness to Christ is her intimate relationship with him, for Jesus says to his disciples, “And you also are witnesses (literally, “and you also bear witness”), because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27; cf. Act. 1:21-22). Jesus’ followers should bear witness to Jesus not only by “doing”, but all the more by “being”, not only by verbal proclamation, literary works, and social involvement, but also by the quality of their life. Johannine Jesus sums up the life of the church in two virtues that should be revealed to the world: love for one another and unity among them. He describes these two related characteristics as having the power to communicate Jesus to the world.


            Before Jesus departed to the Father, he gave a new commandment to his disciples saying that they should love one another, even as he had loved them (13:34). The commandment “love one another” is mentioned thrice in 13:34-35, emphasizing the importance of love that should prevail among the members of Jesus’ community. Neither the word marturei~n nor marturi/a is used in this context, but definitely we may see that it is implied. The love exercised among Jesus’ followers will reveal to other human beings primarily Jesus whose nature is love and them as his disciples who reflect their Master’s love. This is clear from the emphatic position of e)moi/ in the statement e)moi/ maqhtai/ e)ste. In other words, the love exercised in the church reveals Jesus to the world and thus it bears witness to Jesus before the world.[24] By loving one another, Jesus’ followers proclaim to the world God’s love manifested in Jesus. This love is divine love – a love that rises above all human limitations. It is self-giving love that seeks other human beings so that they might have eternal life (3:16) and that meets the physical and spiritual needs of others (1 Jn. 3:17).


Before Jesus gave the commandment of love, first of all he demonstrated a)ga/ph by washing the feet of his followers as a servant (13:1-20). It was an act of love that needs to be imitated by the community of his followers even today (13:14-15). They are to serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13). The greatest form of such love is to lay down oneÂ’s life for his or her fellow-beings (15:13; cf. 1 Jn. 3:16). Thus, for John, love is not an abstract entity or mere emotional feeling or a relationship based merely on the same clan, religion, language, or ideology. 'Aga/ph has vertical and horizontal dimensions: it is expressed in obedience to JesusÂ’ commandments on the one hand (14:15,23-24) and in serving the needy, both inside and outside the community, on the other. Those who are committed to follow Jesus can hardly be indifferent to the needs of the world in their mission. We cannot limit the means of Christian witness only to the preaching of the gospel. It should be understood in wider terms to comprise socio-political action for justice and peace, care for the poor, the sick, the physically disabled, and the HIV+/AIDS affected, counselling, confronting false teachings, seeking the welfare of women and children, identifying with the downtrodden and the oppressed, etc.


            The unique feature in Jesus’ commandment to love is that his followers should love one another even as Jesus has loved them. The newness of the commandment lies precisely in having Jesus as the model and ground of love. His presence now enables his followers to love one’s fellow-beings. Jesus expressed his love through preaching, teaching, meeting the total needs of the people and eventually by laying down his life for the life of the world. So also the church should express her love to the world by being involved in such holistic mission.


Love is the bond that unites her members into one, just as the Father and the Son remain united by love into one (17:21-22). The visible demonstration of JesusÂ’ love by the church is the proof that her members are his followers. Similarly, a life of unity within her members will make the world to know: (i) that Jesus came to the world from heaven by being sent by God; and (ii) that God loves the community created by Jesus in the same way as He has loved Jesus, the Son (17:23). Thus, the love and unity practised in the church will bear witness in the world to GodÂ’s love in Jesus and to the unity that exists between the Father and the Son.


(iii) The Church is Equipped for the Task of Bearing Witness  

            What is the enabling power, if any, behind the two virtues, love and unity, that bear witness before the world about the Father and the Son through the church? If the members of Jesus’ community can do nothing apart from their Master, how can they fulfil his mission of bearing witness in the world? In order to answer these questions we must turn now to John 20:21-22 that contains the so-called Johannine Great Commission: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”. The disciples of Jesus, as representatives of the church at large, are commissioned by the risen Jesus to continue his mission in the world (cf. 17:18). The perfect tense a)pe/stalken used to express the Father’s sending of the Son implies that the past act of sending Jesus continues to be effective in the present. That is, the mission of Jesus still carries its effect in the world.[25] Jesus’ sending of his disciples is recorded by using the present tense pe/mpw, implying that now, after Jesus’ resurrection, his mission is to be carried out by his followers. They are not going to start a new work, but will perpetuate the work Jesus began. The church’s mission is based on Jesus’ work of redemption, and her authority is derived from him and not directly received from God as it is in the case of Jesus.


            The one who commissioned his disciples to continue his mission gave them the Holy Spirit by saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is given, according to John, by “breathing on” them. The verb e)mfusa~n, which is used only here in the New Testament, literally means “blowing in”, and in the LXX this verb occurs 11 times generally in the context of giving or reviving life (Gen. 2:7; 3 Kings 17:21; Ezek. 37:9; etc.). Here too, by breathing on his disciples, a job that was done by God to create humankind, the risen Jesus injects new life into his followers by the Spirit. He transfers the same Spirit that he himself has been possessing and thus gives  them a share in the life of his resurrection.[26] It is precisely this life in the Spirit that enables them to undertake and fulfil the same mission that Jesus had received from the Father. The one who commissions also equips them for the task of bearing witness in the world. The fact that Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to a group of disciples shows that the Spirit is given for the growth and function of the whole church, irrespective of the existing denominations and groups, and that he is not the possession of any individual or denomination alone.


            After forming a man by his breath, God gave him a work to do. The man, who had become a living being, had to till and keep the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8,15). So also, the new humanity, the community of Jesus’ followers, created by the breath of Jesus, is given by him a task to fulfil. The life received by Adam from God was the enabling power for him to relate with God and to fulfil the task received from him. So also, the life received from Jesus now enables his followers to relate with him and to fulfil his mission of bearing witness to him in the world. Their reception of the Spirit denotes their acknowledgment of Jesus’ lordship and his power to live and work for him. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit who is going to be with them and enable them to accomplish the task. In this sense, the Spirit will bear witness in favour of Jesus in and through the church and make her his witnesses in a world which hates Jesus and his associates (15:26-27; cf. Act. 1:8). Jesus’ followers should involve themselves in the daily affairs of the world. Just like Jesus’, the church’s witness also is two-fold: by her life and active involvement, she can bear witness in favour of Jesus and his salvation on the one hand, and against the sins and atrocities in the world on the other (cf. Mal. 3:5). They should accomplish the mission of bearing witness by practising love and unity among themselves.



“Bearing witness” is one of the predominant themes in John’s Gospel and John develops this theme by using the terms marturei~n and marturi/a, but often by allowing it to be implied. A special feature in John is that the witness motif is coupled with words and expressions that have mission concerns and thus given missiological significance. This is to confirm the truth of the gospel that Jesus is the Christ who was pre-existent with God the Father and who came into the world, by being sent by the Father, to reveal God’s glory and communicate heavenly reality by words and deeds received from the Father himself. John felt the need to prove and defend this truth by presenting many witnesses, in conformity with the Jewish law, so that he might better address the ongoing conflict between the church and the synagogue.


            Of all the witnesses presented by John, the witness borne by Jesus is uniquely two-fold: he bears witness in favour of himself and equally against the sin of the world. He testifies to himself as the Light of the world, and as Light, he came to the world to manifest God in his love and to give divine life to those who make faith commitment to him. His declaration, “I am the light of the world”, is plainly identified as bearing witness to himself and is attached with Jesus’ mission statements (see 8:12-14; cf. 9:5 with 9:4,39). Jesus accommodates his followers also in his mission of bearing witness to himself as the Light. Jesus as the Light is a picture of God that is very relevant to many eastern religions, particularly to Hinduism as practised in India.


            Jesus came into the world to bear witness to the truth as well. That is, the missionary agenda of Jesus, according to John, is that he should bear witness to himself as the genuine revelation of God who, in his love and truthfulness, delivers people from sin, sickness, and death. In a world where truth is considered merely as an abstract phenomenon that is untraceable or something that needs to be gained by self-discipline, the church’s message that Jesus is “the truth” and communicates truth to those who believe him could enable the longing souls to experience the truth.


            Jesus trained, commissioned and equipped his followers for his mission with a vision of the church, the community of his followers, which will, as a team, carry on his work of salvation in the world. The church should have a vision to see the available opportunity now to gather the fruit of the joint-labour of the Father and the Son. In other words, Jesus’ community should bear witness by preaching, teaching, writing, counselling, and social involvement with the aim of gathering people to receive life in Christ. However, such attempts will be ineffective if they are not accompanied by a life of love, unity and servanthood lived after the model of the love and oneness that exists between the Father and the Son. The enabling power for the church’s life and witness comes from the Holy Spirit whom Jesus gives.


            The church today may learn from Jesus, as John portrays, some of the methods of bearing witness: (i) Jesus had concern for the physical, spiritual and social needs of the sick and the suffering, and thus cared for the o3loj a1nqrwpoj. Therefore his mission was holistic in nature; (ii) In bearing witness, Jesus gave importance to the context in which he was ministering and made his message of truth relevant to that context; (iii) Jesus had concern for the whole world and therefore his mission crossed the boundary of his own people and culture to embrace the people who were despised and marginalized. He totally identified himself with them by being with them and offering them the salvation of God without partiality. Thus, Jesus’ mission had universal significance; (iv) Jesus bore witness to the heavenly truth by dialogue with individuals and groups, and made them his witnesses before the world. In his dialogue, he used earthly things and imageries (“harvest”, “field”, “sowing”, “reaping”, “labourers”, etc.) to explain divine truth and life. The church is called to bear witness to the life-giving power of Jesus by involving herself in the daily affairs of the world, whether political, social or religious.

[1] D.J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 12th print, 1997), pp. 457-467,474-483.

[2] For example, D. Senior, in his essay on the “Johannine Theology of Mission”, makes only a casual reference to the Paraclete’s and the church’s work of bearing witness for Jesus, but draws the theme of “Witness and Mission” mainly from 1 Peter and the Book of Revelation alone – see D. Senior and C. Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 6th print, 1995), pp. 280-296 and 297-312.

[3] See, for example, J.D. Charles, ‘ “Will the Court Please Call in the Prime Witness?: John 1:29-34 and the Witness-Motif”’, Trinity Journal 10 (1989), pp. 71-83; D.J. MacLeod, “The Witness of John the Baptist to the Word: John 1:6-9”, Bibliotheca Sacra 160 (2003), pp. 305-320.

[4] See J. Kurichianil, “Bearing Witness to Jesus”, Bible Bhashyam 20 (1994), pp. 191-200; idem, “To Bear Witness to Jesus Through One’s Life”, Bible Bhashyam 20 (1994), pp. 256-266; idem, “Bearing Witness to Jesus Through a Life of Love”, Bible Bhashyam 21 (1995), pp. 5-21.

[5] See R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, Vol. 1 (3 vols., New York: Crossroad, 1990), p. 251 n. 106.

[6] Cf. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2 edn, 1978), p. 159.

[7] See Kurichianil, “Bearing Witness to Jesus”, p. 191.

[8] W.A. Meeks, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972), p. 56.

[9] R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, ET 1971), p. 249 n.2, mentions that the Johannine Jesus describes God as o( pe/myaj me about 17 times, as o( pe/myaj me path/r about six times. The idea that the Father has sent him occurs about 15 times by using the verb a)poste/llein.

[10] See C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, reprint 1958), p. 96, who observes that e)gw_ ei)mi, particularly in 8:28, carries with it the solidarity of Christ with God.

[11] H. Conzelmann, “fw=j”, TDNT, Vol. IX, p. 320.

[12] In Judaism the “light of eternal life” or the “life in the Lord’s light” denotes divine life that has no end and that will be given at the end-time (1 En. 58:3; Ps. Sol. 3:12; 1QS 3:7).

[13] See M. Sukkah 5:4 to know how light had a predominant place in the whole celebration of the feast of Tabernacles. See also Barrett, St. John, p. 335; Beasley-Murray, John, p. 127.

[14] Upanishads are the Hindu scriptures written about 800-400 BCE, and they are characterized by mystical and philosophical speculation on the nature of the self and ultimate Reality.

[15] Note that 9:5 does not use e)gw_ ei)mi, but simply ei)mi, to describe Jesus as the Light, but in no way it dilutes the meaning.

[16] J.D.M. Derrett, “Christ, King and Witness (John 18:37)”, Bibliotheca Orientalis 31 (4, 1989), pp. 189-198.

[17] See R. Bultmann, “a)lhqei/a”, TDNT, Vol. I, p. 245.

[18] See Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v.; see also Bultmann, “a)lhqh/j, a)lhqino/j”, TDNT, Vol. I, pp. 248-249.

[19] Cf. Schnackenburg, St. John 2, p. 228.

[20] See M.K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Washington DC: Public Affairs Press, 1960), p. 6.

[21] H. Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, ET 1997), p. 168.

[22] See Barrett, St. John, p. 241.

[23] Who are the a1lloi who have already laboured? Being a plural, it cannot denote the Samaritan woman. We have already noticed that the harvest into which the disciples as well as today’s church are entering is the result of Jesus’ labour accomplished on the cross. The works of the OT prophets, kings and that of John the Baptist all  led up to the redemptive work of Jesus. Ultimately all mission proceeds from the Father (17:18; 20:21). Both the Father and the Son have laboured in perfect unity to bring life to humankind. Their joint-labour has now enabled Jesus’ community to identify the existing opportunity to bear witness to Jesus and gather the people to him for eternal life. It is probable, then, that the a1lloi refers to God the Father and Christ the Son, who have worked through the OT prophets and kings and now through the church.

[24] See Kurichianil, “Bearing Witness to Jesus Through a Life of Love”, p. 5.

[25] See Beasley-Murray, John, p. 379.

[26] Cf. Schnackenburg, St. John 3, p. 325.