The Ministry of Witnesses
April 25, 2019 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
The Bible reading plan I am using this year has me reading through the book of Acts repeatedly (with readings in other portions of the Bible). I have not been perfect in reading every day, but I already have read through Acts a couple times. One of the things that has struck me, is the emphasis on the disciples’ call to be “witnesses.”
It starts in what many consider to be the theme verse of the book, when Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). Peter embraces this calling immediately when they chose someone to take Judas’ place among the Twelve, “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (1:22).
Peter continues to identify himself and his fellow disciples as “witnesses” in the early discourses of Acts. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost he says, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (2:32). Before the Jewish leaders, he boldly states, “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (3:15) and “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). Even when Peter preached the Good News to Cornelius, he identified himself as a witness. “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem” (10:39 and again in 41).
Paul also uses this word to speak of Peter’s ministry and his own calling. During his first missionary journey he spoke of the apostles in Jerusalem as being “his witnesses to the people” (13:31). Later, while defending his ministry before the Jews and King Agrippa, Paul explains that Jesus called him to be a witness: “For you will be a witness for me to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (22:15) and “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me” (26:16).
Peter, Paul, and the early apostles embraced Jesus’ calling in Acts 1:8 to be witnesses as their core identity and ministry task. This word had several implications for them.
- They would testify, much like in a court of law, to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Don’t let the mundaneness of this statement distract you. Being a “witness” is a non-active role in the events. Everything that needed to be done for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of eternal life was accomplished by Jesus. The apostles “watched” and told others about it. That’s the activity of a witness. This is important because we receive the benefits of salvation merely by believing the testimony. The pattern of the gospel of grace was established by Jesus even when he called the disciples to be witnesses.
- The Greek word for “witness” became synonymous with the manner of how these disciples died. The Greek word is martus, the root for martyr. The ESV reflects this when it translates the word as “martyr” in Revelation 17:6: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” For consistency with the rest of the New Testament, the word easily could be translated “witnesses of Jesus,” but the ESV reflects the trend of church history that came to equate the ministry of bearing witness with the hostility many faced. Tertullian, the church father writing in the 2nd century, wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” This brief statement affirms that even the deaths of the witnesses bore evidence to the truth of the Gospel.
- Interestingly, the apostles never “pass on” this calling and identity to the church. While much is made of the apostles being “witnesses” in the book of Acts, you will not find the calling or command passed on to the church in their letters. Does this mean we’re not to be “witnesses”? Not necessarily. The church is called to activity similar to bearing witness (i.e. “preach the word,” 2 Tim. 4:2), but I believe the apostles reserved the term for those who had first hand exposure to the ministry of Christ and his resurrection. They bore witness to what they saw. This was unique to that generation.
As we celebrate the hope of the resurrection, let’s be thankful for those faithful, first witnesses. They boldly proclaimed Christ and we have come to believe because of their testimony.