In Bible language, a “witness” is one who can testify about what he has seen or heard (John 3:11,32). In both the law of Moses, as well as the new covenant of Jesus, we read the Lord’s instructions that in certain matters, action should be taken only when two or three witnesses can verify that something took place.
In what specific instances do we find the statement that two or three witnesses were/are required? What if an Israelite was accused of serving a false god? In such a matter, God’s command was, “Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness” (Deuteronomy 17:6). Again, “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15).
What if my brother sins against me? Jesus said that I am to go to him and tell him his fault. If he is unwilling to hear me, then I am to go back and take one or two more persons, “that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matthew 18:15,16).
When the Pharisees told Jesus that His witness was not true because He bore witness of Himself, His response was, “It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true. I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me” (John 8:17,18).
When Paul penned 2 Corinthians, there were some unsolved matters among the brethren in Corinth. Some of them had been involved in “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings . . . uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness” (2 Corinthians 12:20,21). When Paul made his next visit to them, if those issues still were unresolved, what would need to be done? “This will be the third time I am coming to you. By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established” (13:1).
What if an accusation of wrongdoing is made against one of the overseers of God’s church? “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Surely it was for the good of His people that God gave such instructions about “two or three witnesses.”
The passages cited above point to the quantity of witnesses required in certain instances. There are, however, other matters to take into account in addition to the number of witnesses who are available to confirm what they saw or heard. The clear message of the old law was that there was a need for two or three witnesses in those cases when Jehovah’s covenant had been transgressed, meaning that evil had been done (Deuteronomy 17:2,3,7). Suppose we have two witnesses to something that occurred. Common sense causes us to ask, “Okay, two people saw something happen. Was it sinful or harmless?” “Well, three of us saw her wear a blue dress to services, and her shoes did not match the color of her dress.” Surely we can agree that here is an affair that has no serious spiritual consequence. Such inconsequential activities do not fall under the realm of needing two or three witnesses in order to remove evil activity.
Besides taking into account the quantity of witnesses, there is also a need to have the proper quality of witnesses. How interesting that after the Lord through Moses instructed Israel “by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established,” the very next words were, “If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing” (Deuteronomy 19:15,16). God recognized that there will be false witnesses. What is the difference between a faithful, reliable witness and a false, unreliable one? God said, “A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness will utter lies” (Proverbs 14:5). False witnesses helped bring about the death of an innocent man by the name of Naboth (1 Kings 21:7-14). Of course, the most blatant example of false witnesses being manipulated was when the Jewish leaders “sought false testimony against Jesus” and found hirelings who would give dishonest “witness” against the sinless One (Matthew 27:59,60). So, having the right number of witnesses is no guarantee that the speakers/accusers/testifiers will tell the truth. Evil hearts cause tongues to spit out lies.
Consider this. What if a person sins but there is only one human witness to his transgression? Or what if there are no human witnesses at all? The reality is, a person’s guilt is not eliminated simply because two or three witnesses cannot be found – if there is only one witness or no witnesses at all, sin is still sin. God sees all that goes on (Hebrews 4:13) and He will bring all matters, “including every secret sin,” into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Though there may not be sufficient witnesses for the church to carry out discipline against a member living in sin, he/she will not “get away with it” before the God of heaven.
“By the mouth of two or three witnesses” is not just a cute, memorable expression. It is Bible teaching. It is the Lord’s instruction to His precious people. We need to accept it and strive to apply it properly.
— Roger D. Campbell