The Testimony of Two: Why Baptism Requires a Harmony of Witnesses

baptism1In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.
— John 8:17 —

In recent months I’ve been in discussion about the meaning of baptism, and who is saying what when a believer is immersed for identification with Jesus. Is baptism an individual’s testimony (alone)? Or is it the church’s testimony? Or, is it both?

With this question in mind, I recently read John 8 where Jesus makes the axiomatic statement in verse 17: “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.” In context, he is preparing to say he and his Father both testify to his messianic identity, even if the Pharisees in all of their well-studied folly could not receive this testimony. The point Jesus makes is that his identity is secured by multiple witnesses. In fact, John’s whole Gospel hangs on this premise, that there are a dozen or more witnesses testifying to Christ.

From this consideration, my question is, What role does the legal requirement of two or three witnesses play in baptism? If baptism is a legal act, whereby the disciple of Jesus is marked out and publicly identified, should this not include more than one witness? And have some churches misunderstood (or misapplied) baptism when they teach and practice that all that matters is the individual’s faith? Certainly, the one undergoing baptism is testifying to their allegiance to Christ, but what role, biblically speaking, does the legal requirement of two or three witnesses play in the ordinance of baptism?

The Witness of the Old Testament

First, consider what the Law says, the source of Jesus’ axiom that “the testimony of two people is true.” Three passages in the Torah makes this point: Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15.

If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. (Numbers 35:30)

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. (Deuteronomy 17:6)

A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deuteronomy 19:15)

Clearly, the context of each text is judicial. In the first two instances, capital punishment depends on multiple witnesses:”no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” In the third example (Deut 19:15), the type of crime is not specific. Like Numbers 35, the instruction is in close proximity to instructions regarding “cities of refuge,” but also included in 19:14 is instruction concerning boundary markers. Understandably, it requires multiple witnesses to accuse someone of falsify property in Israel. In matters as serious as bloodguilt and land inheritance, corroborating testimony is necessary.

The New Testament Continuation

In the New Testament the principle continues but is applied in a variety of ways. First, Hebrews 10:28 affirms the Old Testament principle of multiple witnesses. Next, God himself abides by this rule. For instance, Hebrews 6:18 says, “So that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” Likewise, First John 5:7–9 reads, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son.”

Then, taken into the church, the Lord promises his presence when two or more are gathered in his name. In context, the promise is Jesus’ judicial authority in matters of church discipline. As Paul applies Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians 5:4, the power and authority of Jesus are present when the Spirit-filled church is gathered together. Church discipline is not just an earthly action, but a legal matter of heavenly importance. The gathered body of believers possesses delegated authority to speak for Christ on earth. Thus, in a chapter addressing sin, Jesus says of the church:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20g

In alignment with the Old Testament, the principle of two or three witnesses demonstrates the legality of such discipline. Only, because of the new covenant nature of the church, Christ’s authority is mediated by the law written on the heart, the presence of the Spirit, and the common testimony of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, the instructions of Matthew 18 are not just good principles for reconciliation (although they are), they are wise and gracious instructions given to protect sinners from themselves and to keep Christ’s church free from sin.

At the same time, to avoid abuse of accusing elders, 1 Timothy 5:19 calls churches to require the testimony of two witness against an elder with otherwise blameless character. Paul explains, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” In concert with the warning of not laying hands too quickly on an elder candidate (v. 22), Paul gives wise counsel on how churches should proceed with official matters of appointing or removing elders. Such a requirement finds continuity with the Old Testament, and reinforces the place for plural testimony in the New Testament church.

In Evangelism We Bear Legal Witness

In both testaments, the importance of multiple witnesses is prominent. And it is not only true in the administrative or legal functions of the church. It also plays a part in evangelism. For instance, the church is represented in Revelation 11:3 by the figure of “two witnesses”–not one, but two. John’s word picture, in agreement with the plurality of witnesses in Acts 1:8 and Revelation 22:17, shows that it is not just the individual who bears witness. Rather it is the whole community of testifies on behalf of the Lord.

For instance, in the book of Acts, multiple witnesses were called upon to testify to the resurrection of Jesus and his accompanying Lordship. But even before this disciple-making mission, God sent out his disciples in pairs. Luke 10:1 records, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.”

Evangelistic practitioners are quick to copy this “two-by-two” pattern today. In my Campus Crusade days, we followed this pattern for a host of practical reasons. For instance, it gave confidence and camaraderie to those sharing; it afforded an opportunity for the older to model evangelism to the younger, etc. While practical, such a reason for ‘pairing up’ overlooks an important point: the disciples were not simply going out in pairs because it worked better; they went out “two by two” to bear legal witness to Christ himself.

And this brings us back to the question about baptism.

The Harmony of Baptism

As I have explained elsewhere, baptism is both an individual and corporate act. The individual receives baptism at the hands of someone else; they cannot baptize themselves. Likewise, the church gives baptism because it is an ordinance entrusted to them. Only together, as both the baptizer (the church through the hands of an elder or other leader) and the baptized participate in this glorious act, is the legal testimony given in a way that the Scripture recognizes. At the same time, when we look at baptism from another angle: the normative experience in baptism is for a community of disciples (I.e., more than two disciples) to exercise their heavenly authority to receive a new believer.

All in all, because baptism is a living parable of the gospel, we want to be crystal clear in what baptism is, what both parties are believing and saying in the ordinance, and how much authority is invested in the act. Does this ordinance confer grace? Or only bear witness? And if the latter, what kind of witness does it bear?

Keeping the legal nature of two person testimony in view helps answer this question. It protects baptism from saying too much and from being esteemed too little. It properly carries out the function of recognizing with delegated authority who has the right to call themselves a Christian–namely the one who has the internal and external testimony of the Spirit.

Let the Individual and Church Agree

Through the centuries baptist churches have held fast to these priorities. But in recent years it seems there needs to be a recovery. Therefore, I submit this biblical idea of dual testimony to help us consider more carefully the beauty of baptism and bold witness both parties must make. Indeed, as they agree together they testify to the message of the gospel and the new legal status conferred to the believer by God through the gospel, confirmed by multiple witnesses.

For that reason, let us not shy away from baptism and all Scripture says about it. Rather, let us agree together in our local church as to what baptism is and gladly baptize all converts who long to publicly identify with Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds