The testimony of Jesus

Delve into the meaning of the testimony of Jesus and its implications for our lives today.

Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, now retired, served as an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Commentaries throughout the centuries have wrestled with the Johannine expression the testimony of Jesus. Is it the general testimony of the Christian church concerning Jesus, or is it the testimony that Jesus Himself gave while here on Earth and later on through the prophets of the Christian church? The expression testimony of Jesus (marturian Iēsou) occurs six times in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10 [twice]; and 20:4). Two explanations concerning its meaning have been put forward by commentators.

The first view takes marturia Iēsou as an objective genitive and interprets this as man’s witness to Christ.1 Thus, the war mentioned in Revelation 12:17 refers to the “persecutions against all individuals of the church who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”2 The second view takes marturia Iēsou as a subjective genitive and understands the testimony of Jesus as the self-revelation of Jesus—His own testimony.3

A study of the word marturia in the Johannine literature, where it occurs 21 times, indicates that this word has been used 14 times in a genitive construction that is clearly subjective (John 1:19; 3:11, 32, 33; 5:31; etc.) The objective idea of “witness about” or “witness to” in John’s writings is consistently expressed by the preposition peri (about, concerning) with the verb martureo (to witness, testify.) He never uses the noun marturia (testimony, witness) with an objective, genitive construction by itself. For example, John 1:7 (RSV), “To bear witness to the light” (martureo + peri); 5:31 (RSV), “If I bear witness to myself” (martureo + peri); 1 John 5:9 (RSV), “He has borne witness to his Son” (martureo + peri).4

The use of Marturia in Revelation

“[John] bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Rev. 1:2, RSV).

The introduction to the book of Revelation sets forth the source, that is, God and the content of the book—the revelation of Jesus Christ. In verse 2, we are told that John bore witness to “the Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus.”

“The Word of God” is commonly understood to refer to what God says; and “the testimony of Jesus” in parallel to “the Word of God” must, therefore, mean the testimony that Jesus Himself gives. How did Jesus testify of Himself? While here on Earth, He testified in person to the people in Judea. After His ascension, He spoke through His prophets.

“I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endur- ance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9, RSV).

Before speaking in detail about his first vision, John introduces himself and states his credentials. He mentions who he is—John, “your brother;” where he is—on Patmos; why he is there—on account of “the Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus;” and when he received the vision—”on the Lord’s day.”

The parallelism between the “Word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” is again clearly discernible. “The Word of God” in John’s time referred to the Old Testament, and the “testimony of Jesus” to what Jesus had said in the Gospels and through His prophets—such as Peter and Paul. Thus, both genitives can be taken as subjective genitives. They describe the content of John’s preaching, for which he was banished.

“The dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17, KJV).

The “remnant of her seed” includes the faithful members of God’s church in the time of the end. The dragon that attempted to destroy the woman (the true church of God) throughout the 1260- year period (vv. 6, 14) now directs his anger against the remnant of her faithful believers. This remnant is identified by two specific characteristics: They “keep the commandments of God” and they have “the testimony of Jesus.”

Whatever commandments we may want to include in the first mark, we must certainly include the Ten Commandments. Thus, the first identifying sign of the remnant church is their loyalty to God’s commandments—all His commandments, including the fourth, the Sabbath commandment. God in Revelation 12:17 says, essentially: At the end of time I will have a visible church—the remnant church— that will be recognized by the fact that they keep the commandments as I have given them in the beginning, including the Sabbath commandment.

We find the second identifying mark explained in Revelation 19:10: “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’ For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (RSV).

“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” However, what is “the spirit of prophecy?” This phrase occurs only once in the Bible, in this text. The closest parallel to it, we find in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10. There Paul refers to the Holy Spirit, who, among other charismata, gives the gift of prophecy; and the person who receives this gift is called a prophet (1 Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11). Just as those who have the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12:10 are called prophets in verse 28, so, those who have the Spirit of prophecy in Revelation 19:10 are called prophets in chapter 22 verses 8 and 9.

We find the situation in both passages the same. John falls at the feet of the angel to worship. The words of the angel’s response are almost identical, yet the difference is significant. In Revelation 19:10, the brethren are identified by the phrase “who hold [have] the testimony of Jesus” (RSV). In Revelation 22:9 (RSV), the brethren are simply called “prophets.” If the Protestant principle of interpreting scripture by scripture means any- thing, this comparison must lead to the conclusion that “the spirit of prophecy” in Revelation 19:10 exists not as the possession of all church members in general but only of those who have been called by God to be prophets.

Others have seen this point too. The Lutheran scholar Hermann Strathmann, for example, says, “According to the parallel 22:9 the brothers referred to are not believers in general, but the prophets. Here, too, they are characterised as such. This is the point of verse 10c. If they have the marturia Iesou, they have the spirit of prophecy, i.e., they are prophets, like the angel, who simply stands in the service of marturia Iesou.”5

Similarly, James Moffat explains, “ ‘For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’ This prose marginal comment specifically defines the brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus as possessors of prophetic inspiration. The testimony of Jesus is practically equivalent to Jesus testifying.”6

The witness of the Targumim

The Jewish readers in John’s day knew what was meant by the expression Spirit of prophecy. They would have understood the expression as a reference to the Holy Spirit, who imparts the prophetic gift to man. Rabbinic Judaism equated the Old Testament (OT) expressions Holy Spirit, Spirit of God, or Spirit of Yahweh with the Spirit of prophecy as can be seen in the frequent occurrence of this term in the Targumim (written translations of the OT in Aramaic):

Genesis 41:38:

Hebrew Old Testament

“And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?’”

Aramaic Targum

“And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of prophecy from the Lord?’”

Numbers 27:18:

Hebrew Old Testament

“And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit.’ ”

Aramaic Targum

“And the Lord said to Mosheh, ‘Take to thee Jehoshua bar Nun, a man upon whom abideth the Spirit of prophecy from before the Lord.’ ”7

Commenting on this expression in the Targumim, J. P. Schäfer says: “An examination of the verses where TO [Targum Onkelos] uses the term ‘Spirit of prophecy’ shows that in almost all cases there is a direct relationship to the prophecy in the biblical context. The translation ‘Spirit of prophecy’, although not in the strictest sense literal, is almost always stipulated through the MT [Masoretic Text] (Gen. 41:38 - Joseph had the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ because he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream; Num. 11:25 - The Spirit that settled on the 70 Elders, according to the MT, brought about ‘prophesying’; Num. 24:2 - Bileam [Balaam] prophesied concerning Israel). In other words, the term ‘Spirit of prophecy’ describes a clearly delineated situation, namely, the Holy Spirit sent from God who imparts the prophetic gift to man.”8

The English New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce comes to the same conclusion and says: “The expression ‘the Spirit of prophecy’ is current in post-biblical Judaism: it is used, for example, in a Targumic circumlocution for the Spirit of Yahweh which comes upon this or that prophet. Thus the Targum of Jonathan renders the opening words of Isaiah 61:1 as ‘The Spirit of prophecy from before the Lord God is upon me.’ The thought expressed in Revelation 19:10 is not dissimilar to that already quoted from 1 Peter 1:11 where ‘the Spirit of Christ’ is said to have borne advanced testimony in the Old Testament prophets. There too Jesus is the theme of the witness borne by the prophetic Spirit; the prophets did not know who the person or what the time would be, but at last the secret is out: the person is Jesus; the time is now. In Revelation 19:10, however, it is through Christian prophets that the Spirit of prophecy bears witness. What the prophets of pre-Christian days foretold is proclaimed as an accomplished fact by the prophets of the new age, among whom John occupies a leading place.”9

Summary of Revelation 12:17

Returning now to Revelation 12:17, we can say that “the remnant of her seed . . . keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ,” which is the Spirit of prophecy or the prophetic gift. This interpretation is strengthened by a study of the Greek word echo, meaning “to have.” This word indicates possession. They have a gift of God—the prophetic gift. If the testimony of Jesus were our testimony about Jesus, John would have written something like this: “They keep the commandments of God and testify about Jesus,” or “they bear testimony to Jesus.” But the Greek work echo is never used in the sense “to bear a witness.”10

In summary we can say that the visible remnant church, which according to prophecy exists after the 1,260-day period (after 1798), has two specific identifying marks:

a. They keep the commandments of God, including the Sabbath command as God has given it.

b. They have the testimony of Jesus, which is the Spirit of prophecy or the prophetic gift in their midst.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, from its inception in 1863, has always claimed these identifying signs for itself. As Adventists, we proclaim the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath; and we believe that as a church we have the testimony of Jesus, that is, that God manifested Himself in the life and work of Ellen G. White. Thus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a church prophetically foreseen, not just one church among many. God has called this church into existence for a very specific purpose—to proclaim the three angels’ messages.

Our pioneers were quite certain that the Seventh-day Adventist church had become the remnant church of Revelation 12:17. G. I. Butler, General Conference president from 1871 to 1874 and 1880 to 1888, wrote in an article titled “Visions and Dreams”: “Is there then no people in whom these conditions combine in these last days? We believe they truly do in Seventh-day Adventists. They have everywhere claimed to be the ‘remnant’ church for the last twenty-five years. . . .

“Do they keep the commandments of God? Every one knowing anything about this people can answer that this is the most important part of their faith. . . .

“In regard to the spirit of prophecy, it is a remarkable fact that from the first of their existence as a people, S. D. Adventists have claimed that it has been in active exercise among them.”11

And we still believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church exists as the visible remnant church and that the Spirit of prophecy has become one of the identifying marks: “One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White—the Lord’s messenger. Her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth, which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.”12

As Seventh-day Adventists, we are members of God’s remnant church. However, this identification with the remnant church does not accord us an exclusive status with God. Salvation is not guaranteed through membership in any church, even the remnant church. We are saved as individuals, not as a church. But being a part of God’s rem- nant church means that we have access to God’s special messages through Ellen White and that we participate in pro- claiming God’s end-time message—the three angels’ messages—to the world.

1 M. E. Osterhaven, “Testimony,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 5:682; see also Petros Vassiliades, “The Translation of Marturia Iesou in Revelation,” Bible Translator 36 (1985): 129–134.

2 Ray F. Robbins, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1975), 154.

3 James Moffat, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. R. Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 5:465.

4 See G. Pfandl, “The Remnant Church and the Spirit of Prophecy,” Symposium on Revelation II, Daniel & Revelation Committee Series, ed. Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 7:305–306.

5 Hermann Strathmann, “Martyrs,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 501.

6 Moffat, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” 465.

7 John W. Etheridge, The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch (London,1862), 1:131, 556; 2:442. Other occurrences are Genesis 45:27; Exodus 35:21, 31; Numbers 11:17, 25, 26, 28, 29; 24:2; Judges 3:10; 1 Samuel 10:6; 19:10, 23; 2 Samuel 23:2; 1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 18:22, 23; 20:14; Psalm 51:13; Isaiah 11:2. See Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (München, 1965), 2:129.

8 J. P. Schäfer, “Die Termini ‘Heiliger Geist’ und ‘Geist der Prophetie’ in den Targumim und das Verhältnis der Targumim Zueinander,” Vetus Testamentum 20 (1970): 310 (my translation).

9 F. F. Bruce, The Time Is Fulfilled (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 105–106.

10 Pfandl, “The Remnant Church,” 312–313.

11 G. I. Butler, “Visions and Prophecy,” Review and Herald, June 2, 1874, 193.

12 Seventh-day Adventists Believe (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), 247.


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Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, now retired, served as an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

October 2016

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