Jesus testified of himself by means of the spoken word, and has commanded his church to do the same. He testified by public preaching and teaching and by small group and private conversation. At no point did he restrict his intentions by allowing only the professional to witness.
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
The first obligation to witness was upon those who observed his death and resurrection. That observation of those events, however, did not especially qualify them as witnesses. To be a witness in the New Testament sense is not to have observed something, but to testify of it. It is something you say, not something you see. A person was a witness in court not because he had seen something, but because he had been chosen to testify of what he had seen (or heard). The emphasis was always on the saying, not the seeing. Also, the reason they got into trouble with the authorities was not that they had observed Christ and his resurrection and ascension, but that they talked about those facts and used them as proof that he is alive and is Lord of all. It was not what they saw, but what they said.
We who follow after those first witnesses are just as obligated to speak about who Christ is, what he has done and what he is going to do. Jesus prayed for us when he prayed for “those who will believe in me through their word” – that is, those who carry on the faith that the apostles propagated. He wants us to share that faith utilizing the same means: public speech and private conversations.
The testimonies were not limited to speeches and conversations. The gospel truth soon became incorporated in the Gospels and epistles. All media available at the time was utilized to get the good news out to those who needed it. The words of the gospel found their way into the songs and stories and art of the witnesses. As time progressed, new media were developed. Each of these has also become a means of testifying to the truth that Jesus exists, what he has done, and what he is going to do.
Witnessing was more than an individual responsibility. Witnesses naturally gathered together to encourage one another. Associations with others who named the name of Christ became a means of testifying as well. Communities of believers witnessed to each other as a means of building one another up and promoting the act of witnessing to the lost. By being associated with other believers, witnesses showed that Christ was more than a mere ideology. Those who congregated (when possible) showed that they shared a relationship with Jesus and with each other. The church became the social network of all social networks. It became one of the visible witnesses to the work of the invisible Holy Spirit.
Before long, traditions developed in the churches that reflected the reality of what was preached in the pulpits. It became clear that some of the things that Christ had commanded his disciples were meant to be carried on by each successive generation of the church. The act of baptizing new converts as a means of confessing the reality of the new life and the hope of a resurrection was one of those traditions. The meal celebrating the new covenant initiated by Jesus with his disciples in the upper room was another.
The apostles insisted that Christ-like character was to be expected of all believers. This was to be the means of witnessing to the reality of our words. The words were to be validated and verified by our actions, attitudes and relationships. Thus, when the apostles encountered problems in their churches, they responded with strong rebuke and discipline. The words of the epistles continue to minister to us by drawing attention to our transgressions. The reason for this is that our task of witnessing to the reality of the gospel is just as pertinent today. The first mission is still the foremost mission. Anything that we do that subverts that mission must be corrected.
Not only should we watch our lives to make sure that they are reflecting what we testify, we should also constantly watch what we are saying. Our witnessing needs to be a careful balance between two extremes. We can distort the gospel by making too much of it. That is, we can pack so much content into our presentation of the good news that we overwhelm those we are trying to reach. We need to develop the skill of saying the words that people need to hear about Christ, and just those words.
On the other hand, if we say too little, we run the risk of presenting a message other than that “once for all delivered to the saints.” A message that is too simple runs the risk of leading people to a faith that is too simple. A truncated gospel leaves too much out. It makes a person religious without being devoted to Jesus. Also, it becomes a self-perpetuating mistake. Whole communities have been encouraged to come to Jesus without repenting from their sins. A gospel without true repentance is not the gospel at all. While that may be a way of gaining popularity with the world, it is also a way of making the church irrelevant.
The true good news is good news because it takes into account the bad news of sin, failure, and depravity. For the church to be a reliable and faithful witness to Christ, she must share the reality of Christ’s rescue along with the backdrop of humanity’s failure and sin. But we must remember that we are witnesses, not judges. We have to be honest about our own failures and problems, and share the reality of our own struggles. Then, those who struggle with the same things will know how Christ helps. If we are not honest, the world will get a wrong idea about what Christianity is. A witness to hypocrisy only breeds more hypocrisy.
Those who truly seek to share the good news are going to have to adjust their methods to meet the current culture. Tried and true methods of the past will have to be surrendered when it becomes obvious that they are no longer practical or effective. New methods will have to be developed which scratch where today’s society itches. Care must be taken to ensure that vital content is not lost in the process. This is all part of the process of witnessing wisely.
The most effective means of verifying and validating one’s testimony is the subject of the next section. The life lived in faith makes the gospel real to the believer, and confirms his testimony.
A truly saved person has both repented of his past sins and trusted Christ for his present and future life. This converted person will live a life of faith that reflects his new commitments. The Bible gives us both examples and descriptions of that life. John wrote that “all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.” It is a life that aspires to the purity of Jesus.
Anyone attempting to live a life of sinlessness will immediately encounter obstacles in doing so. We have been changed, and we no longer want to sin, but sin and the sinful nature is still with us. As a result, we will constantly find ourselves conflicted, as Paul was in Romans 7:
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me. 21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.
The bad news about the Christian life is that all of us are going to live with this kind of struggle going on inside. Even great Christians like Paul admitted to the inability to be completely what he wanted to be. Yet, Paul also knew the good news of the Christian life, and he went on to explain that good news in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The good news is not that Jesus has already changed our nature so that we are no longer tempted to sin. It is that Jesus has already paid the price for our sins, so that they no longer separate us from God. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is free to work with and within us to actually accomplish righteous acts, as we surrender to him. We are in a temporary state in which the laws of two dominions apply to us. The law of sin and death is still at work, so we will fail at times. But the law of the Spirit of new life in Christ Jesus is also at work, so we can actually please God as well. Both freedom and bondage are possible, depending on who we choose to surrender to.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)