In a previous article, I argued that the ministries of Word and deed are distinct and inseparable.  I tried to show in what ways they are distinct and then, because of Christ’s person, in what ways they are inseparable.

In this post I want to continue that discussion by focusing on Luke’s use of the word “witness” to show the necessity of joining true words to true living.

With the rise of technology in the 20th Century it became increasingly popular to spread the gospel first over radio waves, then by television, and finally through the internet.  These media have been further complemented by all sorts of devices.  The appeal is obvious: more people can be reached in more remote places and in more privacy.  This is an example of how, even as the world gets smaller, “witness” is becoming increasingly impersonal.  Words are being divorced from lives; proclamation from proclaimer; the “Means of Grace” from the Church; Word from deed.[1]

We should expect Jesus’ commissioning of the Church to express the concreteness of the connection between his own person and the Church’s mission.  Indeed, that is what we find!  The history of missions is sullied by all sorts of ways in which the Church’s mission has been abstracted from Christ’s person.  Without this bond properly in place the Church wanders aimlessly and pointlessly all over the map.  In three future posts I will consider three aspects of “witness” which clarify a great deal of missionary confusion.

My Witnesses

“Witness” is a prominent theme for Luke.[2]  In Acts, Luke articulates the pattern for the entire book in Jesus’ blessing:[3]

you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

“Witness” then follows the backbone of Luke’s story as it unfolds. The Word progresses triumphantly from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 23:11); from Israel to the nations; from Zion to “the end of the earth”; from Jew to Gentile (Acts 13:46-49).[4]

In Acts 1:8 Jesus is addressing his 11 Apostles.  They understood him to be addressing them not merely as private individuals but rather as those holding apostolic office.  After all, there were 12 thrones from which Christ’s kingdom would be ruled (Lk 22:30; c.f. Mt 19:28) and one of those seats was empty.  A representative host of 120 were gathered (Acts 1:15) but an awkward 11 remained to govern. The Apostles needed no further direct instruction from the Lord in order to rectify this situation.  Christ had taught them how to interpret the Scriptures (all “concerning himself” – Lk 24:27) and Peter applied this hermeneutic confidently to Psalms 69 and 109.  The flow of the narrative implies that this official work of reconstituting the 12 was so important that it must be accomplished before Pentecost – before the Holy Spirit, the “Gift of the Father”, would be poured out on the whole Church through the representative 12.[5]

The office was clearly by God’s sole appointment.  However, Jesus had given certain necessary qualifications – the 12 must be witness to his suffering and resurrection (Lk 24:48).  Indeed, the 12 had to participate with him in his suffering (Lk 22:28).  Peter here interprets this witness/participation as communion with their band for the entire period of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  But it is the resurrection in particular that stands out as the focal point of the witness (Acts 1:21-22; cf. Acts 3:15, 5:32 and 10:39-41).  Thus what was to be witnessed was a singular composite event: Jesus’ entire ministry and death, climaxing in his resurrection, and completed in his ascension and pouring out his Spirit.

There were only ever 12 Witnesses and a singular event to witness.

The 13th Witness

But, hang on, is it just the 12 tribes of Israel that these Witnesses are concerned with?  Of course not!  Luke’s history in the book of Acts is all about moving beyond (Acts 18:6); from uniting the 12 tribes (all Judea and Samaria) to the “end of the earth”!  So, an Apostle to the Gentiles is appointed and he too becomes a Witness (Acts 22:15).  The body of Witnesses is one cohesive whole which, together with the Old Testament witness, testifies with the Holy Spirit to the truth concerning all fulfillment in Christ (Acts 5:32; 10:43).

When we move past the foundational Witnesses (Eph 2:20) we see that the office of Witness has multiplied (Acts 22:20).  In a derivative sense, Witness becomes the function of every Elder (1 Pet 5:1).  And, indeed, of every Christian (Lk 12:8-12; 21:12-15).  But it is more than a mere function; it is an identification with Christ.  This is explicit in Acts – although in narrative form.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

The parallel Luke 21:5-19 is helpful in understanding what Luke means by “witness” in Acts 1:8.  The context of “witness” in this text is a public legal proceeding (Lk 21:13).  Why?  Because it follows Jesus’ own experience of covenant obedience.  Every step from v. 12 to v. 19 describes Jesus’ experience, setting a basic pattern for the witnessing Apostles.  Through all of it, Jesus was given “a mouth and wisdom” testifying to the truth.  In Acts, Luke shows how this pattern of witness is followed.  There was another witness, identified with Jesus, whose endowment with Spirit and wisdom rendered him unassailable (Lk 6:10).

If Jesus is Luke’s model witness in his gospel, who is his model witness in Acts?  Surprisingly, it is not one of the 12 and it is before the 13th entered the scene.  Rather, it is one who receives the laying-on of hands from the apostles.[6]  He is not among the 12 but among the 7.  Just as Peter is the representative first among the 12 so too Stephen is representative first among the 7.  Stephen represents the next generation of witnesses.  It is from this generation that the Holy Spirit chooses to select the model witness for this story and for the enduring church.[7]

The Model Witness

From this account of the first martyr/witness we glean some developing clarity concerning “My Witnesses”.  First, Luke shows how faithful witness is opposed by false witness (6:13).  Faithful witness proclaims Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures (7:52).  False witness declares this blasphemous (6:11).  As in the case of Christ’s trial, false witness is not outright lying but rather a distortion of the truth.  They hold the Scriptures in high regard as long as they are distorted to support their idolatry.  The false witnessing, whether in the case of Stephen or of Christ, is shrouded in secrecy and manipulation.  It takes place within the domain of Satan.  What is the focus of Satan’s attack?  It is the truth of Scripture – Jesus’ testimony concerning Scripture (6:14).  It is not Stephen’s reputation at stake but God’s.  False witness is first aimed at distorting the truth.  Faithful witness, on the other hand, does not shrink from the truth, no matter what the cost.  Second, we see an intentional opposition.  Failing in open conflict, Satan’s minions resort to back-door opposition (6:10-12). Satanic power is vividly resident in the “council” which, in spite of (or because of) clear witness, “ground their teeth” and “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed at him with one mind” (7:54; 57).  Thirdly, Satan’s triumph in Stephen’s stoning is short lived.  “Over Stephen” there arose a persecution that gave birth to the church in Antioch.  The establishment of this church was no small advancement in the story that took Jesus’ kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.  The worst of all Satan’s devious schemes and formidable power became a tool in the hands of the Creator and Redeemer.  In the case of the crucifixion it meant redemption accomplished.  In the case of Stephen’s martyrdom it meant that same redemption applied in the onward march of Christ’s kingdom towards completion and ultimate perfection.

Application

In reflecting on Christ’s life, work, and teaching, we are often confused about what it means to follow him.  The pressure increases as we struggle to understand God’s will for strategies and approaches to missionary work.  Are we to wage war against Satan in the same way that Jesus did?  Of course not.  Christ alone is the divine warrior.  Yet we are to use the same weaponry against the assault on the truth.  Are we to give up our lives in the same way Jesus did?  Of course not.  Christ alone is Redeemer.  Yet we are to pick up our cross and follow.  Are we to incarnate in the same way Jesus did?  Of course not.  Christ alone is the God-man who, without relinquishing his deity, took on flesh under the law.  Yet we are to have the same attitude.  Are we to teach in parables?  Of course not.  Christ alone used this genre until his resurrection.  Yet we are to teach and preach his parables.  There is a myriad of other questions that arise concerning how we are to execute the church’s mission. 

I believe that in the idea of “witness” Luke provides us with an interpretive key.  It defines an identification with Christ – a New Covenant bond – which attaches to every feature of the Church’s mission program.  Without this key we are left with only an abstract notion of discipleship.  With it we are equipped to think in a very concrete way about ministry.

In three future posts I hope to do just that, namely to address the connection between ministry in Word and in Deed.


[1] One could argue that a much older technology, the printing press, began this trend.

[2] μάρτυς (martys) and its cognates have an array of nuances and usages in Scripture.  See D. A. Carson, “Martyreō and Cognates in the New Testament: Some Notes,” Unio Christo 1.1–2 (2015): 13–28.  In Acts the word seems to be much more precise, even though not always evident in the English translation (e.g. in Acts 6:3). 

[3] I refer to Acts 1:8 as a “blessing” because it is the New Creation parallel to the very first blessing pronounced by God upon Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28).  With the failure of the first Adam this now becomes the redeeming work of the Last Adam.

[4] The phrase “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 and 13:47 quoting from Is 49:7 – LXX), is used only in these two instances in the NT.  It seems that in this brief second sermon in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, Paul is interpreting Isaiah through the lens of Acts 1:8.  Further, Paul understands that the triumphant journey of the Word was completed within his own ministry (Col 1:23).  Luke’s story in Acts, fulfilling the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8, is thus complete.

[5] This instrumentality of men in the saving work of God comes as no surprise to the Apostles.  It is basic to Covenant history (e.g. Ps 77:19-20) inasmuch as it is fulfilled in mediatorial role of the last Adam (implicit in the movement from Lk 3:38 immediately to Satan’s temptation of Christ in the desert).

[6] This transfer of authority takes us back to preparation for the missionary conquest of the Old Testament when, at the close of the Pentateuch, Moses lays hands on Joshua, full of the Spirit (Dt 34:9 c.f. Num 27:18).

[7] Paul answering Jesus identifies Stephen as “your witness”, viscerally identifying Stephen with Christ in his death. Acts 22:20

“My Witnesses” and Mercy Ministry

Phil's parents were career missionaries and he was raised in an Islamic Republic. He studied Engineering and then, more recently, studied Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is based in Southeast Asia and directs Asian Crescent, a region of the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He is an ordained minister of the Philadelphia Metro-West Presbytery. He is married to Barb and has three adult children.

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