One of my customs for holiday breaks is to read things that I don’t normally read during the year. Often this means reading a work of fiction. This year, at the recommendation of Abraham and Molly Piper (and John) I read Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. It took me two days to read it. And I plan to read it again.
One of the many reasons that I enjoyed the book was the use it made of the biblical concept of “witness.” Here’s a section from the first chapter of the book:
Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week–a miracle, people say, as if they’ve been educated from greeting cards. I’m sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strenght of the word.
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave–now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.
My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed–though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will…
I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.
This emphasis on witness dovetails nicely with some recent sermons by Pastor John. John’s been preaching through John and he spent a good bit of time on John (in order: Piper, gospel of, the Baptist). John the Piper referred to John the Baptist as John the Witness. “He was not the Light, but he came to bear witness about the Light” (John 1:8).
Pastor John emphasized the “not-ness” of John the Witness. He refused to draw attention to himself. In fact, part of his witness was to confess his “not-ness.”
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests andLevites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
For John to fail to confess his “not-ness” would be to deny his witness. Which means part of John’s witness was a witness to his not-ness.
So, instead of drawing crowds to himself, he drew crowds in order to witness to the Light. And when the time came, he bore witness. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The goal of the Witness is to awaken belief. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him” (John 1:7). But belief is not something that can be forced. As Reuben Land, the narrator of Peace Like A River, notes:
Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.
I’ve been there and am going back.
Make of it what you will.
The responsibility of the Witness is fidelity to what he’s seen and heard. John the Evangelist picks up this theme in his first epistle.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3)
The application to ourselves is obvious. Witnesses draw crowds (or engage readers). They are not boring, especially when they have a true story to tell. But the crowds are not there to see them. The crowds are there to see through them to what the Witness has seen and heard. The Witness is the finger; the Truth is what’s pointed to. In the testimony of the faithful Witness, we come to believe the truth, indeed, we come to see, with the eyes of faith, what the Witness himself saw.
And, if John is right, the purpose of the witness is to bring the hearers into fellowship with the Witness and the One To Whom He Witnessed. To bear witness is to issue an invitation, to put out a summons, to publish a call. It’s to invite someone into the fellowship of the Divine Life. In other words, a witness both points to, and in pointing to, becomes a Remanation.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.