Part 2 of a series on “My Witnesses”.

In two previous posts (here and here) I laid out my intention to bring some clarity to the role of Mercy Ministry in the Church’s mission.  In my last post, the first of this series, I began to argue that Luke’s use of the “witness” concept provides an important interpretive key.  The church in her mission manifests union with Christ in a unique manner.  “Witness” sheds light on the mission aspect of that bond with Christ.  Nothing could be more critical to the fulness of our enjoyment of the blessing, “you will be my witnesses,” or to our obedience, than this bond. (Acts 1:8) Mercy Ministry can only be properly understood in light of this bond.

This post will build on that premise by highlighting the significance of Proclamation for “witness” and how Proclamation connects to Mercy Ministry.

For most evangelical readers, the thesis that “witness is proclamation” is a no-brainer.  Is it really so necessary to defend?  Absolutely!  Some have persuasively argued that in this respect Evangelical missions is in a free-fall.  Increasingly “mercy and justice” is being touted as an equal companion to proclamation.  And proclamation itself is diluted by all sorts of social activism and artistic expression.  All of this confusion begs for clarity.

Contemporary use of “witness” or “testimony” in Evangelical circles has strayed somewhat from the way these words are normally used in Scripture.[1]   The biblical terms, cognates of the Greek μαρτυρέω (martyreo), tend to be formal.[2]  They closely relate to court language.[3]  Let’s consider that analogy for a moment.

In legal proceedings, a witness is someone who personally observes an event – whether that event is related to a crime or merely to a signature.  However, that person formally becomes a witness when they come under oath.  At this point their testimony becomes a part of the formal record of the proceedings.[4]

That is what happened in the life history of the Apostles.  They had been listening to Jesus for 3 years.  They had observed his life, his death, and the fact that he was resurrected.  Now, by the Spirit’s anointing, they would become “my witnesses”. 

Scholars who would declare these men fallible observers miss the supernatural work of God made necessary by their formal role in history. The true “Witness” is Christ and the Spirit (1 Jn 5:6; Rev 1:5).  The Apostles were Witnesses of the truth in as much as the Spirit had come upon them in power, and not before (Acts 1:8).  Being “carried along by the Holy Spirit” like the prophets (2 Pet 1:21), their written testimony becomes the infallible New Covenant documentation of Old Covenant fulfillment.  “Witness” is a feature of Covenant.  

Derivatively, we also are true witnesses when we proclaim the truth of Scripture.  In Acts, spoken words are not “witness” unless they are words concerning the redeeming work of Christ.  So too in our witnessing.  No testimony to the truth of Scripture can stand without Christ at its center.  And there is nothing further to testify than what has been fulfilled in Christ.

Have you encountered “witnessing” strategies that claim to proclaim “biblical truth” yet Christ is nowhere to be found?  Or strategies that place more emphasis on experiences of Christ than on Christ himself?

Luke provides us with several clues that his notion of “Witness” is verbal proclamation of Christ.  Let’s explore!

A Parallel Text

Acts 1:8 is a summary of a longer parallel text – Luke 24:44-49.  Luke records both speeches of Christ as immediately prior to his Ascension, with all of the significance of that redemptive-historical moment.  Although the two records serve somewhat different purposes, we can expect that the longer text in Luke would be more explicit in some ways.  So we find that “witness” is connected closely to “proclamation”.  Most notably, not all of Scripture has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ!  There remains “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47).  This is the necessity to which Jesus responds in his declaration, “you will be my witnesses”. (Acts 1:8)

If this role is to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures, then it is to these scriptures that we must go in order to understand the “Witness”.

A Word Choice

Luke chooses his words carefully.  As an Old Testament scholar, Luke is keenly aware of what the cognates of martyreo refer to in the Greek translation of the Scriptures.  It’s most common reference (140 times) is to the “Ark of the Testimony”, “Tablets of the Testimony”, or “Tent of the Testimony”.[5]  Needless to say, these three items are of immense significance to the Mosaic Covenant.  The continuity in connection to “the testimony” is further highlighted by the documented Law frequently being referred to as the “Testimony” (e.g. Ex 20:16).  And indeed the Scriptures as a whole are referred to as “Testimony” (e.g. Ps 119:119).  Witness can be nothing less than covenant-witness.[6] 

In the Old Covenant the “testimony” was for (or against) the covenant community, the national boundary of Israel.  In the New Covenant, “testimony” is universal.  It reaches to the boundaries of Christ’s authority, “to the end of the earth”.  Thus “you will be my witnesses” places us under covenantal obligation to all the nations.

Not surprisingly, Luke makes explicit connections between “witness” and proclaiming the Scriptures.  In numerous instances a cognate of martyreo (in bold in the text below, most often διαμαρτύρομαι – diamartyromai) is directly parallel to proclamation.

  1. Acts 2:40 – The epilogue of Peter’s Pentecost sermon states, “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them”.
  2. Acts 8:25 – The epilogue of the apostolic mission to Samaria states, “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord”.
  3. Acts 10:42-43 – Peter concludes his epic sermon to Cornelius’ household with, “he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify.”
  4. Acts 18:5 – Paul’s work in Macedonia, at a key transition in his ministry from Jew to Gentile, is described as, “Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”
  5. Acts 20:20-21 – In Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders he summarizes his ministry among them as, “teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying . . .”
  6. Acts 28:23 – Paul’s regular ministry in Rome is described as “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.”

No wonder the church historically confesses proclamation as the principle means of grace.[7]  It manifests the Church’s union with Christ in her mission.

Luke’s Sermons

Almost a third of the book of Acts is devoted to sermons.  Most of the sermons are defenses of the Christian faith in formal contexts and follow the expanding movement of Luke’s story.  They climax in the last recorded sermon Paul preached before the court of King Agrippa, the local representative of global Roman authority.  This sermon was to provide the documentation for the charges brought against him in the court of Caesar (Acts 25:26-27).  Luke deliberately impresses his readers with the formality of the setting.  Together, both the literary emphasis as well as the formal contexts, indicate that these expositions are fulfilling the mandate of “Witness” in Acts 1:8.

Preaching has never been a rational (from man’s perspective) means of God’s power at work in the world (see 1 Cor 1:21).  In the age of Ted-talks and podcasts we are keenly aware of the influence of a well-presented idea.  But to attach Holy Spirit power specifically to preaching?  That is difficult for our age to accept.

In missions particularly, preaching has fallen by the wayside.  Some missiologies are overtly intolerant of preaching.  Others merely undermine its centrality.  Pick up any modern book (or listen to any presentation) on missions and ask this question: Is there any prominence at all given to the preached word? 

Structure of the Book

Attached to “you will be my witnesses” in Acts 1:8 is the structure of the book; “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Recall that Jesus’ statement is in response to the disciples’ question concerning the inauguration of the Kingdom.  In his response, Jesus shifts the question from “when” to “how”.  For it is the “how” which the disciples need to be concerned with.  It is the “how” which Luke’s book is concerned with.  Luke then provides markers at key junctions in the unfolding of his story – like ripples in a pond.  These markers all relate to the progress of the Word.  Some are explicit:

  • [They] continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Ac 4:31).
  • They did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (5:42)
  • The word of God continued to increase. (6:7)
  • The word of God increased and multiplied. (12:24)
  • The word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. (13:49)
  • The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (19:20)
  • Proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:31)

Do we have this same confidence?  Or do we imagine the gospel progressing by means of cultural change?  Or societal shifts?  Or political influence?  Or miracles and dreams?  Or big personalities?

Dramatic Conclusion

Luke places a literary exclamation point at the very end of his story in its final word, ἀκωλύτως (akolutos, translated by ESV “without hindrance”).  While the Apostle Paul is himself in chains, the authoritative Apostolic Witness is un-chained.  The word of Jesus in Acts 1:8 has reached its climactic fulfillment at “the end of the earth” in Rome (see my previous post).  Far from a sad anticlimax for the Apostle Paul, Luke intends a dramatic climax for redemptive history; the proclamation of “the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” is unleashed upon the world “with all boldness” (Acts 28:31; cf. Mt. 28:18-20; Rev 22:20)!  This is the dramatic book-end that began with the Disciples’ question, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  In this conclusion to his story Luke emphasizes not the work remaining but the mission accomplished.  This kingdom mission has specific reference to the authoritative unleashing of gospel proclamation “unto the end of the earth”. 

Luke repeatedly reflects the life of Jesus in the lives of the Apostles throughout his book.  So now he closes on a note of penultimate triumph – the Apostle in chains and the Word un-chained.  Until the triumphant return of Christ, Christian testimony is refracted through this conclusion to the book of Acts – the triumphant Word and the suffering Witness.  Christian witness from this point forward will be proclaiming Christ in weakness as he is witnessed by the Apostles.

Who are the great apologists that we admire and seek to emulate?  Some are intent on winning the day with cunning and with agile turn of phrase.  Others, the true models, are declared fools and preach “folly to the nations” – Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:23-24)

We cannot expect affirmation from the world.  Pursuit of that pat-on-the-back is a great trap for Mercy Ministry.  We actually are testifying publicly in Satan’s court that Christ reigns.  We must be prepared for the consequences of this rebellion as Satan unleashes all of his fury – whether openly or seductively.  While persecution is not the aim of Witness it is nevertheless the inevitable companion and consequence.

Application

How does this relate to Mercy Ministry?  I’ve tried to show above that proclamation is at the core of “Witness” in Acts.  To the extent that Mercy Ministry has a “deed” focus, it can never share this centrality.  It cannot be at the core of “Witness”.  Stated positively, proclamation as the core of “Witness” is the grounds for Mercy Ministry. 

How does this work?

Not all of us will have the opportunity to stand before a king or ruler and defend the Christian faith in public.  However, there is a “ruler” whom we must face every day.  The nations are in bondage to him.  He is the oppressor behind all oppressions.  He is the murderer behind all violence.  He is the liar behind all deceptions. When we proclaim the truth of the gospel to one lost person, persuading them to find shelter in Christ, we declare freedom.  This is the grounds for all Mercy Ministry.  Thus it is no surprise that the first words Luke records of Jesus’ ministry are, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”  And prior to embarking on any of the deeds which were to mark the lifting of the curse of sin and the arrival of the new creation order Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:18-21)

This inaugural ministry of proclamation is a pattern repeated in Acts, but with an astonishing development in terms of its efficacy.  The first instance of official Witness is immediately upon being “filled with the Spirit”.  The apostles begin to speak “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).  Despite the mocking, “when they heard this they were cut to the heart.” The people “received” Peter’s “word” of many witnessing words and thousands were “added” by baptism.

The voice of God that once proclaimed all creation into existence “let there be . . .” now once again proclaims re-creation.  Word and Spirit are conjoined with powerful effect because they are now the Word-of-Christ and the Spirit-of-Christ.  The Word that is “like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer 23:29) now cuts through something much harder, the human heart.  “The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars . . . The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” and all cry out in response “Glory!”  (Ps 29).  The New Covenant community is born by this and by no other means.  (Acts 2:42-47)

Mercy Ministry is an appropriate response to the guilt and corruption of sin. It addresses our shame as a consequence of sin.  It unveils the mastery of sin.  However, it can do absolutely nothing about sin itself.  The essence of Mercy Ministry rests upon the declaration of the gospel – that in Christ is a new life free from sin’s guilt and power.  Only thus is Mercy Ministry a Spiritual ministry.

How can we measure the success of a Mercy Ministry?  What should be its goals and objectives?  What are its means and methods?  The answer to all such questions must come down to the gospel of Jesus Christ being faithfully proclaimed across the barriers that Satan erects in frantic defense.

No church is fully functioning as a witness unless her testimony is verbal. 

But we will discover a crucial nuance that will further establish the truthfulness of this testimony – the inseparable link between testimony and testifier. Who is this testifier; this witness?  This question forms the topic of the next post in this series.  I will show that just as Christ is a person and not a disembodied voice, so too are His Witnesses.


[1] Today, these words conjure up images of evangelistic encounters (“I went out witnessing.”), of personal religious experience (“Tell us your testimony.”), or of an upright public lifestyle (“Are you a witness in your workplace?”).

[2] “there does not appear to be any instance [in the Greek translation of the Old Testament] where martyrion or a cognate refers to subjective convictions that have no basis in objective observation.” D. A. Carson, “Martyreō and Cognates in the New Testament: Some Notes,” Unio Christo 1.1–2 (2015): 16.

[3] Moisés Silva, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Andexegesis, Second edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 3:234–46.

[4] For example, Acts 4:20 “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 22:15 “for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.”  Acts 23:11b “as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

[5] Carson, “Martyreō and Cognates in the New Testament: Some Notes,” 15.  I suspect that the translators of the Greek OT (LXX) intentionally paraphrased “Tent of Meeting” as “Tent of Testimony” in order to maintain the continuity and association.

[6] E.g. in Ex 31:18 NRSV chooses to translate “two tablets of the covenant” and NIV has “two tablets of the covenant law” in place of the more literal “two tablets of the testimony”.

[7] The Second Helvetic Confession mentions “preach” 45 times.  Likewise, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 89).

Witness is Proclamation

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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