Witnesses in the Book of Acts

Last week, in a post titled “Witness,” I walked through a word study of the Greek word martus and its derivatives. One of my readers extended that study with a fascinating comment he shared on Facebook (click here to read it). He pointed out that, like in Greek, the word for “witness” and “martyr” in Arabic are the same and have layers of meaning. He also suggested that the witness-martyr connection may have originated with Stephen being killed after his witness (Acts 6-7).

Today, I’d like to continue our study of “witness” by looking more closely at Acts. I also want to dig into the Hebrew uses of “witness” in the Old Testament at some point, but we closed on a new house last Monday, I have to be moved out of my apartment halfway through next week, and then I’m getting married so time hasn’t been an abundant commodity right now. Hopefully we can keep digging into that in the weeks to come.

If you’re reading this post on the Saturday it went live, then tomorrow is Pentecost. “Witness” is used in connection with that holy day, so coupled with the comment on last week’s post I had two reasons for focusing on the book of Acts in today’s study.

Witnessing to Jesus

The book of Acts picks up near the end of the 40 days that Jesus spent on earth with His disciples after His resurrection. When He ascended to heaven, there were still 10 days left in the 50-day count from the wave sheaf day (first Sunday after Passover) until Pentecost.

While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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 farthest parts of the earth.” After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Acts 1:4-9, NET

There are a few key things Jesus told them here. First, He told them to stay in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Next, He told them they don’t need to (and indeed aren’t permitted to) know the Father’s timeline for His plan. Rather, they’re going to receive power and then act as “my witnesses.”

Being a witness to Jesus was a vital part of this commission. When the disciples “proposed two candidates” to replace Judas Iscariot as a 12th apostle, the key qualification was that he be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us” (Acts 1:15-26, NET). In this case, “witness” was very literal. To be counted among the 12 apostles, the chosen man had to be able to give eye-witness testimony to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Peter’s Pentecost Witness

You can read all about the pivotal Pentecost after Jesus’s resurrection in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit rushed in like a violent wind, settling on each of the gathered believers as tongues of fire. The sound drew a crowd, who marveled at the spirit-filled disciples speaking in all the native languages represented in the crowd. As the crowd wondered what was going on, Peter spoke to the people.

But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them: “You men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this and listen carefully to what I say. …

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know—this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power. …

“This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear. … Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.”

Acts 2:14, 22-24, 32-33, 36, NET

I know I said at the beginning that we weren’t going to have time to get into the Old Testament in this post, but I would like to reference one of God’s laws regarding witnesses: “A single witness may not testify against another person for any trespass or sin that he commits. A matter may be legally established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut. 19:15, NET).

God set up a system where one witness’s testimony couldn’t be used as the basis for a court case, but if two or three witnesses agreed that meant something significant. Here in Acts, Peter is standing up not as a single eyewitness, but as one of 12 men who defined themselves as witnesses of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. And they weren’t the only ones there. As we discussed in our post about “The Women At Pentecost,” it seems there were at least 120 believers gathered–60 times the number of witnesses legally required to treat a matter seriously.

Image of people holding hands as they pray overlaid with text from Acts 4:31, 33, NET version:  “When they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were gathered together. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. ... With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all.”
Image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

Stephen’s Witness

As the book of Acts goes on, we see the disciples continuing to share their eye-witness testimony (Acts 3:11-15; 4:33; 5:27-32; 10:34-43; 13:29-31). They spoke to crowds of people, before Jewish courts, and to gentile converts. Later, God added Paul as another apostle and witness (Acts 23:11; 26:16). The single most well-known story of witness in Acts doesn’t come from any of the apostles, though. It comes from a man named Stephen.

Up until this point, the witnesses mentioned in Acts are all numbered among the 12 disciples/apostles. Then here’s Stephen, one of seven men chosen to make sure that both the Greek-speaking and Hebraic widows received support. These seven men “were well-attested” (literally, they received a good witness from others) and full of God’s spirit (Acts 6:1-5, NET).

If you read my book review for Relational Faith, you might remember that the same Greek word translated “faith” is also translated “persuasion” in the context of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Given that Stephen’s well-spoken words were what people went after him for, I find it interesting that we’re told he was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He’s going to be using his faith as the basis for persuasive rhetoric when he gives his witness before the council.

Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.

Acts 6:8-10, NET

These people couldn’t handle the fact that Stephen was speaking so boldly and wisely or that he was so full of God’s power that he was performing wonders and miracles. So they conspired against him, brought him before the council, and even had false witnesses testify against him.

They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”

Acts 6:14-15, NET

The false witnesses say one thing, and now the high priest invites Stephen to answer the question, “Are these things true?” (Acts 7:1, NET). Stephen replies by summarizing God’s plan in a powerful sermon. He starts with God calling Abraham and making a covenant with him, reminds his listeners of how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, and finally comes to Moses.

When he saw one of them being hurt unfairly, Moses came to his defense and avenged the person who was mistreated by striking down the Egyptian. He thought his own people would understand that God was delivering them through him, but they did not understand.

Acts 7:24-25, NET

The phrasing Stephen uses here is very similar to how John describes Jesus Christ: He came to His own people as savior but most didn’t recognize or receive Him (John 1:10-12). Stephen is going to circle back to this connection as well. He continues with the story of Moses fleeing Egypt, then returning when God told him to lead the people out of slavery. He recaps the Exodus story, then reminds his hearers of a quote they no doubt recognized: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers” (Acts 7:37, quoting Deut. 18:15).

As Stephen continues, he reminds his listeners that despite the powerful Exodus deliverance, their ancestors didn’t faithfully obey God. They even “had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness” and they still weren’t faithful (Acts 7:44, NET; “testimony” is the same Greek word as “witness”). At this point, Stephen shifts from history to explication. He reminds the people that even though “Solomon built a house for him … the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:47-48, NET). And just like their ancestors tried to put God in a box and go about their lives without really following him, so Stephen’s listeners are doing by rejecting Jesus as the Messiah.

“You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”

When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him. 

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 

But they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent.  When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 

They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”  Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died. 

Acts 7:51-60, NET

The false witnesses claimed that Stephen was preaching against the temple and the law, saying Jesus would change Moses’s commands. Stephen says no, what’s actually happening is that his accusers were rejecting salvation and God’s sovereignty just as Israel did in the past when they rejected Moses and refused to stay faithful to God. What a powerful, convicting message for Stephen to deliver. What an incredible gift for him to be able to witness “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And what violent, hideous backlash when his true witness exposed not only the lies of the false witnesses but the hypocrisy of every Jewish person who claimed to know God yet rejected Jesus.

An Example for Us

Image of a man praying with an open Bible with the blog's title text and the words "In the book of Acts, we see examples 
of Jesus’s followers acting as witnesses to His life, death, resurrection, and teachings. What can we learn from that example today?"
Image by Jantanee from Lightstock

When I read Stephen’s story, I can’t help but think of Jesus’s words when His disciples asked Him about the signs of the end times.

“You must watch out for yourselves. You will be handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues. You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them. First the gospel must be preached to all nations. When they arrest you and hand you over for trial, do not worry about what to speak. But say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” 

Mark 13:9-13, NET

What happened to Stephen was just the first in a long history of this exact thing that Jesus warned about. It’s happened to people throughout history who were dragged before secular and religious courts to answer for their faith. It’s happening today to Christians around the world who are hated and persecuted. And it could happen to us as well.

As sobering and even frightening as this warning is, there is also a key piece of encouragement. Jesus says that if we’re ever in a position where we need to witness the way He talked about in the gospels or the way Stephen did in Acts, we don’t need to worry about what to say. The powerful, eloquent sermon that Stephen preached which was exactly what his listeners needed to hear (though they refused to admit it) didn’t just come from Stephen; it was a product of the Holy Spirit inside him. We who follow God faithfully have that same spirit today and we can also trust that Jesus will help us and guide us in whatever circumstances that we’re called to witness about Him.

Featured image by WhoisliketheLord Studio from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “I Refuse” by Josh Wilson


What does “witness” mean for Christians?

Most of my life has been spent in churches that don’t talk much about witnessing or sharing your testimony. I remember thinking it was so strange the first time I was in a congregation where they paused halfway through the service for people to talk about what God had done in their lives the previous week. It was strange, but also encouraging to hear how God protected, blessed, and answered prayers.

When I started attending a Messianic congregation, sharing your witness seemed a part of many people’s everyday lives. If someone had a testimony to share, there was time during most services to do that. Sometimes, those testimonies were about opportunities someone had during the week to pray with a police officer, share their faith with a neighbor, or a similar encounter. I liked hearing these stories, and it seemed a good thing to include in church.

At that point, I started to wonder why we don’t do this in my other congregations. So I asked. It seemed the consensus was that we should share the work that God is doing in our lives, but the middle of church services isn’t the place to do that; it disrupts the format and, depending on the person sharing, it can take quite a bit of time. We should share in conversations, people said, rather than as part of the service. And this seemed a reasonable response, particularly since there were a few times when the congregations I attended that did offer time to share your testimony had to take the mic away from someone and get things back on track.

After pondering the question, it seemed these were just two different ways of doing something. One didn’t seem better or worse than the other; rather, it came down to how the leadership in that congregation decided to manage church service format. I’m ashamed to say I’d never thought to study into this topic in all the years I’ve been noticing the different ways people talk about witness/testimony. I’m only just now looking into it after hearing someone say that “witness” in the New Testament is translated from a noun (person, place, or thing) rather than a verb (action). I’d been studying and teaching English grammar at the time, and it made me curious about how the word is used.

Image of a man reading the Bible overlaid with text from 2 Tim. 1:6-8, NET version:  “Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and 
self-control. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me, a prisoner for his sake, but by God’s power accept your share of suffering for the gospel.”
Image by Creative Clicks Photography from Lightstock

Background Definitions

When you think about Christian witness today, you probably think about things like telling the person next to you on the airplane about Jesus, or about the people who go door-to-door and leave books and pamphlets about their churches. You might also think about living your life as a witness or about the type of testimony-sharing I talked about in the introduction to this post. If you do a Google search for “what does Christian witness mean” you get results like this:

  • “For Christians, witnessing is sharing your personal experience with Jesus.” (Jesus Film Project)
  • “To be a witness to Christ is to demonstrate by our words, actions and attitude the sacred mystery that we have ‘seen’, heard and believe in our hearts about the Lord who has forgiven us of our sins and offered us eternal life.” (Diocese of Bridgeport)
  • “as Christians, we are called to be witnesses for Christ who present a testimony about the truth that we have experienced and heard.” (Raising Everyday Disciples)
  • “Christian witnessing is merely sharing our heartfelt faith in Christ – what He’s personally done to change our individual lives! We’re not called to argue or debate anyone into heaven. We’re merely called to share!” (All About GOD).

There are several things emphasized in definitions like this. Christians are described as “witnesses to Christ” (noun) who engaged in the act of witnessing (verb) by sharing their experiences and faith. If you read the full articles linked, you’d see several link this idea to courtroom witnesses who testify (which is why you’ll also hear people talk about giving their Christian testimony).

That same Google search also turned up an article from Olive Tree Blog, where they walk through a word study on the Greek word translated “witness” using the Olive Tree app. In Greek, the word is martus. It is translated “witness,” “martyr,” or “record.” Which is kind of surprising, since in English we think of a witness and a martyr as two completely different things. If they’re the same, though, that indicates a much more serious and involved thing than “merely sharing our heartfelt faith in Christ.”

A Linguistic Rabbit Hole

As I mentioned, I started this study after hearing that “witness” in the Bible is translated from a noun (person, place, or thing) rather than a verb (action). That led me down a rabbit hole as linguistically complicated as the grammar class I had to take as part of my master’s in rhetoric and writing degree.

In Greek, the root word for “witness” is a noun. Other nouns derive from that, such as the ones for “false witness” and masculine and feminine forms of “witness.” It’s also the root for several verbs, including “to be a witness,” “to testify emphatically,” and “to witness against.” I had to draw a chart to keep them all straight, and so I decided to make a more polished version to share here and hopefully help you visualize these related words as well.

The image shows a mind map chart showing the Greek word "martus" (Strong's number G3144) and related derivative words.

Part of the reason there are so many is because Strong’s numbering system treats different genders of the same noun as separate words, but it’s also because there are so many variations of the word forms. In English, for example, we have “false” and “witness” as separate words, but in Greek they’re a compound word, “falsewitness” and so that gets its own number.

That was a very meandering way to answer the question, “Are there Greek verbs for the word ‘witness’?” And the short version of the answer is, yes there are. But the context for the statement that prompted this study is that Christians are told in the Bible to “be a witness” rather than to go around “witnessing.” I still want to dive into that topic a little more, because depending on how the noun and verb forms of “witness” are used, that statement could still be correct.

Image of a woman reading the Bible overlaid with text from John 3:31-34, 36, NET version:  “The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. He
testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one 
accepts his testimony. The one who has accepted his 
testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly. ... The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

A Witness (noun)

The noun forms of martus and its derivatives are used 97 times in the New Testament (eSword search of KJV+Strong’s numbers for G3141, G3142, G3144, G5571, and G5575). Obviously that’s too many to go through them all individually, but here’s a summary of how martus is used in its noun forms (excluding “false witnesses” since I want to focus on understanding what we’re supposed to do):

Though I sorted these into bullet points, there’s a lot of overlap. It’s often hard to tell if the writer is talking about followers of Jesus sharing the gospel or of receiving Jesus’s testimony (e.g. ” When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been killed for the Word of God, and for the testimony of the Lamb which they had” [Rev 6:9]). John the Baptist indicates that Jesus’s testimony is something that we receive from Him; he said, “The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful” (John 3:33, NET). In Revelation especially, witness/testimony is spoken of as something that we have.

We also have verses explicitly linking “the testimony of our Lord” with “the Good News” or “gospel” (Matt. 24:14; 2 Tim. 1:8, WEB). If you go through all the uses of these martus-linked words, you’ll notice they’re often used in connection to Jesus. “Faithful and True Witness” is even one of Jesus’s titles (Rev. 1:15; 3:14). The focus when using these words is often on “the testimony of Jesus” or the “witness of the Lord.” If you’re going to act as a witness in the Christian sense, you’re talking about your first-hand experiences with Jesus. If you’re going to share the testimony of the Lord, you’re passing on the Good News that He brought.

Stephen’s and Paul’s story also help illustrate the many ways “witness” can be used. During the sermon he preached, Stephen linked the word witness with the tabernacle, saying, “Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness” (Acts 7:44, WEB). The legal witnesses against Stephen, who stoned him, laid their cloaks down at Paul’s feet (Acts 7:58). Later, God calls Paul and sends Ananias to say, “you will be a witness for him [Jesus] to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15, WEB). Paul reminds God that, “When the blood of Stephen, your witness, was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting to his death, and guarding the cloaks of those who killed him” (Acts 22:20, WEB), but God still chose Paul to share “testimony concerning me” (Acts 22: 18, WEB). Just in this one story, we have witness in the legal sense, in a holy sense linked with the tabernacle where God’s presence appeared, and in reference to someone called to act as a witness sharing the testimony of Jesus.

Image of four people studying the Bible overlaid with text from Heb. 12:1-2, NET version:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Image by Ben White from Lightstock

Witnessing (verb)

The verb forms of martus and its derivatives are used 98 times in the New Testament (eSword search of KJV+Strong’s numbers for G1957, G2649, G3140, G3143, G4828, G4901, and G5576). Here’s a summary of the ways it appears as a verb in the New Testament:

Witnessing is something that people do. It’s linked with teaching and sharing God’s words, but more often it’s connected to witnessing about Jesus. Also, if you cross-reference the noun and verb lists, you’ll see that there’s a lot of overlap. For example, our conscience has a testimony (2 Cor. 1:12) and our conscience/spirit can testify (Rom. 2:15; 8:16; 9:1). There was a lot of emphasis on being a witness of Jesus and having His testimony in the noun verses, and now here in the verb verses we see Jesus testifying and people witnessing about Jesus. Nothing really shocking here; it works a lot like the noun and verb forms of witness or testimony/testify in English.

What I would like to make note of here is the way testify/witness is used in Hebrews 11. This section on faith opens with these words: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. For by this, the elders obtained testimony” (Heb. 11:1-2, WEB). “Obtained testimony” is translated from one word, martureo. As we go through the chapter, we see that the faithful actions people took gave testimony about them.

By faith, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had testimony given to him that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts; and through it he, being dead, still speaks.

By faith, Enoch was taken away, so that he wouldn’t see death, and he was not found, because God translated him. For he has had testimony given to him that before his translation he had been well pleasing to God. …

These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:4-5, 39-40; 12:1-2 WEB

When the Bible writers discuss testimony, it’s often in the context of how other people would testify about us and what sort of testimony God would give about our lives. Are we living with integrity? Have we heard and taken seriously the testimony we “hear” from and about Jesus in the scriptures? Does our own conscience testify well of us? Are we prepared to give witness/testimony about Jesus when we can/should?

Wrapping Up

Image of three women talking and holding Bibles, with the blog's title text and the words "What does the New Testament say about “witness” both as something that are are and as something that we do?"
Image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

Earlier, I mentioned an article about the Greek root word for witness (martus) from the Olive Tree Blog. In this analysis, they show how martus is linked with both seeing and speaking, as well as the course of our lives. I like how that writer sums it up:

From what I gathered from the above verses, we as Christians must:

  1. Open our eyes and martus (see) the workings of God around us.
  2. Open our mouths and martus (attest) the Good News to our neighbor.
  3. Open our hearts to the possibility of becoming a martus (martyr), socially, financially, or physically.
Olive Tree Blog, “What Does it Mean to be Christ’s Witness?”

Interestingly, there aren’t direct commands for Christians in general to go out and witness (though a few people, like the original 12 disciples and Paul are instructed to share the testimony of Jesus). Most of the time, if someone in the New Testament is a witness or they are witnessing, then it’s talking about the apostles who were eye-witnesses of Jesus or it’s Paul.

For those of us who aren’t apostles, we might all be called on to act as a witness or martyr if we’re facing persecution (Luke 21:10-19). We also act as witnesses to each other, attesting to what we’ve seen God do in our lives and showing a positive example of living in the faith. Paul also talks about Christians testifying to the character they see in fellow believers (note that the times when Paul calls on people to witness to other people, it’s in a positive sense rather than testifying against each other).

Circling back to where we began, it seems that I was right that it doesn’t really matter whether we share a witness/testimony with our fellow Christians during formal church services or in personal conversations. The Bible doesn’t come down on that either way. What matters more is that we are involved enough in each others lives to be witnesses to and for each other. We also want to make sure the emphasis stays on God and Jesus when we witness, rather than getting focused on our personal stories. “Witness” in the Bible isn’t sharing your personal story; it’s sharing the testimony of Jesus–the words that He spoke and the Good News that He came to share. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing your story, but we need to make sure it doesn’t become about us (i.e. it’s not “my testimony” that’s the focus, but “the testimony of our Lord”).

Featured image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

Praise When You Just Don’t Understand

It’s pretty easy to praise when something good happens. You realize that God protected you from an accident, or that He made things line up just right to get a better job. Or you just feel happy and blessed and that bubbles out in praise.

But what about when things don’t make sense and you’re studying and trying to find answers in the Bible but they don’t seem to be there? Or when something bad is happening and you know that there are commands to be joyful even in trials but you just don’t feel happy? Or when something happens to a friend and you don’t know the full story, but you’re upset along with them? Maybe praise is the farthest thing from your mind and instead you just feel confused, angry, or betrayed.

Or what about the times when you take an objective look at your life, everything seems to be going well, but you still feel anxious or depressed? Sometimes the things we’re struggling with are inside our heads, and from the outside it looks like everything’s going great. How do you praise God in those moments, when you’re not sure why you feel terrible and when you might even feel guilty for struggling because God has blessed you so richly?

When we feel confusion, hurt, anger, or anything else that makes it hard to praise God we often also feel distant from Him. God didn’t go anywhere, so it’s up to us to reach out to Him and ask Him to help us feel His presence again. I touched on this topic years ago when I wrote about a breakup and MercyMe’s song “Even If” and also in another study about Lamentations 3. But those were more about hope and trust, and today I want to talk about praise when things don’t make sense to us.

Image of a woman with her hand lifted in praise overlaid with text from 1 Cor. 13:8-10, 12, NET version: “Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.  ... then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock


Right now, I’m not in a season of my life where I feel super confused about what God is doing. Rather, I’m in a place where I can look back at times where I was confused and realize, “Oh, that’s what was going on.” For years, I’d been going through cycles of praying to God for a husband, going to Him for comfort with a broken heart, and asking if I should give up that dream because it didn’t seem like He was going to work things out for me to get married. And now here I am, getting married in just a few weeks and buying a house and talking about having kids. God didn’t work this out on the timeline I was expecting, but He worked it out better even than I expected; I still catch myself marveling at how good this relationship is and how happy I am with him.

It’s interesting looking back on how hopeless and confused I felt sometimes, knowing now how God was going to work things out. I do believe God allows us free will, and I’m not sure how much of this He had planned exactly, but it sure seems like He was working things out for me and my husband to be together. I want to remember this the next time I wonder what God is doing and why He hasn’t fixed things yet.

Then I thought, “I will appeal to this:
    the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember Yah’s deeds;
    for I will remember your wonders of old.
I will also meditate on all your work,
    and consider your doings.

Psalm 77:10-12, WEB

Over and over in the Bible, we’re admonished to remember. “Remember all Yahweh’s commandments, and do them,” “remember all the way which Yahweh your God has led you,” and that “your God redeemed you” (Num. 15:39; Deut. 8:2, 15:15 WEB). “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus,” “remember the former days, in which, after you were enlightened,” and “remember the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets and the commandment of us” (Acts 20:35; Heb. 10:32; 2 Pet. 3:2 WEB). Our memory of God’s goodness and faithfulness thus far gives us the hope needed to trust and praise Him when we’re in a season where we don’t know why He’s working the way He is.

Image of four people sitting around a table studying the Bible, overlaid with text from Psalm 78:4-7, WEB version: “We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh, his strength, and his wondrous deeds that he has done. ... that they might set their hope in God, and not forget God’s deeds, but keep his commandments”
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We Don’t Know The Full Measure

I feel like a lot of times, we can trace our fears, anger, confusion, and frustrations back to not understanding what God is doing. Deep down, we might feel like it’d be a whole lot easier to trust Him if He’d just explain Himself clearly. But God didn’t design us to be all-knowing; I doubt our human minds could handle a fraction of the information we’d need to truly understand things. When we realize that, sometimes we can flip the feeling of frustration with not knowing everything over into awe of the God who does know everything.

But I will always hope,
    and will add to all of your praise.
My mouth will tell about your righteousness,
    and of your salvation all day,
    though I don’t know its full measure.

Psalm 71:14-15, WEB

Psalm 71 is a prayer for protection, asking God not to disappoint you when you run to Him for refuge. There are people in the psalmist’s life hinting that God has forsaken him, but he calls on God to prove them wrong. Verse 15 caught my eye (and gave me the idea for this study) because of the psalmist’s promise to speak of God’s righteousness and salvation even though they don’t fully understand it.

The topic of voicing truths about God when you don’t understand what He’s doing makes me think of Job. God described him as a righteous man at the beginning of the book, but Job still went through horrible trials and the people who should have comforted him instead wanted to diagnose his moral failings. Job and his friends all missed that there was something else going on in the background that they didn’t understand. In the end, Job didn’t get answers to the questions that he’d asked God. Instead, God showed up in person to tell him that he didn’t know the full measure of what was going on (see my post “The Central Question of Job: A Broader Perspective On Suffering“).

Much like Job, we might not always understand why tough things are happening. We might go back and forth trying to figure out possible reasons. Sometimes it might actually be because we did something wrong and we need a wake-up call to change (which is what Job’s friends thought was going on there). Sometimes we might be trying to force our own will on a situation where we need to let go and let God work it out in His timing. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in a fallen world that’s imperfect and is full of other imperfect people who hurt us, intentionally or accidently. And sometimes there might be something going on in the background that we’re ignorant of (which is what was actually happening in Job’s story). No matter what the root cause, it’s important to seek God during these times.

Your hands have made me and formed me.
    Give me understanding, that I may learn your commandments.
Those who fear you will see me and be glad,
    because I have put my hope in your word.
Yahweh, I know that your judgments are righteous,
    that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
Please let your loving kindness be for my comfort,
    according to your word to your servant.

Psalm 119:73-76, WEB

We can echo this psalmist in praying for understanding so we can obey God’s commandments, hope in his word, and trust in his righteousness. But we also need to make peace with the fact that we won’t always understand everything. That can be challenging for those of us whose relationship with God is largely intellectual, but it’s a truth we need to acknowledge if we’re going to make it past our own egos and have a humble relationship with God.

Balancing Humility and Knowledge

Image of a silhouetted person lifting their hands to pray with the blog's title text and the words "How do we keep on praising and trusting God when we don’t understand what He’s doing?"
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When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, one of the things he addressed in his first letter was a debate they were having regarding whether it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed in an idol’s temple, then sold in the market. The reminder he gives his readers for that topic is a good one to keep in mind for other situations as well.

 With regard to food sacrificed to idols, we know that “we all have knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If someone thinks he knows something, he does not yet know to the degree that he needs to know.

1 Corinthians 8:1-2, NET

Because God is working with us, we have a certain amount of knowledge. We can even say with accuracy that we know more than most people in the world, at least about the things of God (Ps. 119:99). We certainly shouldn’t devalue the knowledge we have or give up on deepening our knowledge of God (for example, Paul tells us to worship and sing praises with our understanding as well as our spirits/hearts [1 Cor. 14:15]). But we still only “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12, NET). We need to let the understanding God has blessed us with remind us to be humble before Him.

We need to strike a healthy balance between humility and knowledge. It shouldn’t really be all that difficult; the more we really know about and understand God the more our relationship with Him should inspire true humility in us. And this isn’t just something Paul talked about. Peter’s letters also remind us that humility is vital before God and that He grants deep knowledge to His people.

And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And God will exalt you in due time, if you humble yourselves under his mighty hand by casting all your cares on him because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:5-7, bolt italics a quote from Prov 3:34 

May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord! I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.

2 Peter 1:2-3, NET

It can be frustrating to feel like things aren’t going the way you hoped or planned. It can be equally frustrating to feel like you don’t know what’s going on or aren’t sure what you should do next. It might even make us angry (if you’re struggling with anger or have in the past, I recommend checking out this thought provoking Truth Be Told podcast episode). Through whatever it is we’re struggling with or that we’re questioning, we need to remember the big picture.

God is in control. He is trustworthy now and in the future, just like He’s been trustworthy since the beginning of time. It’s okay for us not to know the “full measure;.” We don’t really need all the answers now. Let’s do our best to balance our knowledge (and our desire for knowledge) with humility to obey and trust God while also hoping in His promises and praising Him with all our hearts and minds.

Featured image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock

Am I Really In the Faith? (Crash-Course in 2 Corinthians)

What do you think of if I bring up the idea of self-examination?

When I talk about self-examination, it’s often in the context of Passover preparation and we usually turn to 1 Corinthians. But there’s another instruction about self-examination in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. That’s what I want to look at today as we move from Passover to Pentecost (May 28 this year).

Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test!

2 Corinthians 13:5, NET

My dad read this verse a couple weeks ago in his sermon, and it jumped out at me because of how Paul uses the word “faith.” As you might imagine if you read my book review of Relational Faith, faith in scripture has been on my mind a lot lately. I wanted to take a closer look at this verse with Brent Schmidt’s study on the original first-century context for the Greek word pistis fresh in my mind.

As you’ve no doubt noted in the title, I might have started by looking at the end of 2 Corinthians, but we’re going to look at the entire letter. One of the key principles I follow when interpreting Paul’s writings is that he must be read in context. This includes looking at the parts of the letter around the verse(s) you want to look at as well as keeping historical context in mind. As I started looking at the context, I realized the whole letter is important to understanding the self-examination point near the end.

Image of a woman reading a Bible overlaid with text from 2 Corinthians 1:1-2, NET version:  “From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”
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Faithful New Covenant Ministry (2 Corinthians 1-5)

Paul opens this second canonized letter to the Corinthians with a message of comfort and hope. He then goes on to explain why he didn’t visit the Corinthian church earlier, saying, “Now I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. I do not mean that we rule over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy, because by faith you stand firm. So I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit” (2 Cor. 1:23-2:1, NET). It seems that the “painful visit” he alludes to might have been connected with the issues he wrote about in 1 Corinthians, for he now counsels them to welcome back a man he’d previously told them to put out of the church because of sinful behavior now that he has sincerely repented.

This is also the first time Paul brings up “faith” in this letter. A note in the NET says that “because by faith you stand firm” could be translated “because you stand firm in the faith.” As we know from our discussion of Schmidt’s book a couple weeks ago, “faith” in the first century wasn’t simply a set of beliefs or a feeling. Rather, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion” as part of a covenant relationship (p. 11). Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul is telling his readers that he and other ministers don’t rule over their faithful covenant relationship with Jesus; ministers are there to help you stand firm in the covenant that you entered into with God when you were baptized.

Paul then goes on to talk about his role as a person sent by God for ministry work, referring to himself and his fellow ministers as “servants of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6, NET). He then compares the new covenant with the old, speaking of the letter of the law written in stone and the spirit of the law that’s associated with an even more glorious ministry. It’s in the context of ministers’ roles in the New Covenant that he begins talking about faith again. He says, “we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, ‘I believed; therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore we also speak” (2 Cor. 4:13, NET, quoting Ps. 116:10). Just a little farther down the page, Paul makes the famous statement, ” we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, NET). We don’t yet see all the glorious promises of the covenant, but we trust that God will deliver them when we are faithful to Him.

Living in Holiness and Faith (2 Corinthians 6-10)

Paul goes on to talk about reconciliation, Christ’s sacrifice, and true teachings. He also continues his discussion of ministry in the New Covenant, describing himself and other “ambassadors for Christ” as “fellow workers” with his readers (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1, NET). He also talks about the things that responsible Christians need to do, urging us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1, NET) or associate too closely with unbelievers.

For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord.

Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, NET

Paul returns to the topic of his previous letters again after this point, reinforcing that “sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10, NET). He doesn’t regret writing a letter that made them sad because it bore such good fruits and led to rejoicing, encouragement, and more fervent faith.

The next two times “faith” shows up in 2 Corinthians, it’s in the context of faithful action. Paul tells them “you excel in everything,” including “in faith,” when writing about generous giving to other saints in need (2 Cor 8:7, NET). He then goes back to talking about his ministry work and says, “we hope that as your faith continues to grow, our work may be greatly expanded among you” (2 Cor. 10:15, NET). For Paul, faith always went along with doing something.

Image of four people studying the Bible togather overlaid with text from 2 Corinthians 13:5-6, WEB version:  “Examine your own selves, whether you are in the faith. Test your own selves. Or don’t you know about your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I hope that you will know that we aren’t disqualified.”
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2 Corinthians 10-12

One of my favorite passages from 2 Corinthians comes at the beginning of chapter 10 (of course, there weren’t chapter breaks originally; it’s just a convenient way of navigating scripture). I usually think of this as a section about spiritual warfare and mental health. It is those things, but it’s also part of Paul’s discussion of his ministry and his hopes for the people he writes to.

Now I, Paul, appeal to you personally by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away!)—now I ask that when I am present I may not have to be bold with the confidence that (I expect) I will dare to use against some who consider us to be behaving according to human standards. For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ. We are also ready to punish every act of disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. You are looking at outward appearances. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should reflect on this again: Just as he himself belongs to Christ, so too do we. For if I boast somewhat more about our authority that the Lord gave us for building you up and not for tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of doing so.

2 Corinthians 10:1-8, NET

As Paul goes on, he continues describing his ministry work. With the topic of faith in mind as I read this, I’m struck by how all-in Paul was to his faith commitments. He endured terrible suffering to keep preaching the gospel. He passionately defends the ministry work that God gave him, and condemns those who claim to be apostles but don’t have the same commission from God and commitment to teaching His word faithfully. He even shares his story of glorious revelations and a humbling thorn in the flesh to show “I lack nothing in comparison to those “’super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing” (2 Cor. 12:11, NET). Yet this defense isn’t for his own benefit; he’s writing to build his readers up before his third visit because he’s afraid he’ll find that some of them still aren’t living in the faith.

Have you been thinking all this time that we have been defending ourselves to you? We are speaking in Christ before God, and everything we do, dear friends, is to build you up. For I am afraid that somehow when I come I will not find you what I wish, and you will find me not what you wish. I am afraid that somehow there may be quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again, my God may humiliate me before you, and I will grieve for many of those who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.

2 Corinthians 12:9-21, NET

Now Paul reveals the point of the whole letter. He’s been writing to build people up and encourage them to make necessary changes before he comes. “Quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder” are not things that he ought to see in a faithful church, nor is “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness.” Those things have to go. Which brings us to the instruction to test ourselves.

Putting Yourselves to the Test (2 Corinthians 13)

Image of a man walking in the woods holding a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells his readers, “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith.” Why does he issue this warning, and how does it fit with the rest of the letter?"
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This is the third time I am coming to visit you. By the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter will be established. I said before when I was present the second time and now, though absent, I say again to those who sinned previously and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak toward you but is powerful among you. For indeed he was crucified by reason of weakness, but he lives because of God’s power. For we also are weak in him, but we will live together with him, because of God’s power toward you. Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test! And I hope that you will realize that we have not failed the test! Now we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong, not so that we may appear to have passed the test, but so that you may do what is right even if we may appear to have failed the test. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the sake of the truth. For we rejoice whenever we are weak, but you are strong. And we pray for this: that you may become fully qualified. Because of this I am writing these things while absent, so that when I arrive I may not have to deal harshly with you by using my authority—the Lord gave it to me for building up, not for tearing down!

2 Corinthians 13:1-10, NET (bold italics mark a  quotation from Deut 19:15)

Notice the intensity of Paul’s instruction here. “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” This is important. He’s been building up to this for the entire letter. Paul didn’t just tell the Corinthians they needed to repent, stop sinning, and live obediently with God because he wanted to. He taught this because it’s necessary for faithful living.

“Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you,” Paul asks, “unless, indeed, you fail the test!” Either Jesus is in you and you’ll be living in the faith, or He’s not. There are no two ways about it. You can’t live sinfully and still say you have a relationship with Jesus. If the Lord is living inside you, then you’ll be acting like Him and when you mess up you’ll repent and change.

 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice, set things right, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Corinthians 3:11-13, NET

This is how Paul ends the letter. He wants his readers to “set things right,” but he also wants them to rejoice, be encouraged, and live in peace. As Proverbs says, “the wise in heart accept commandments” (Prov. 10:8, WEB). For those who love God, correction like Paul gives here motivates change and also brings joy because it helps us live in a closer relationship with God.

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The Women At Pentecost: Valuing The Contributions of Unnoticed People In Church

We’re in the midst of the countdown to Pentecost, which this year falls on May 28 (just one week before my wedding!). Last weekend, I woke up very early Saturday morning and as I lay there staring toward the ceiling, Acts 1 and 2 started running through my head. I thought about all the women who were there at that first Pentecost after Jesus’s death, and I felt a need to write about them. And if you wake up at 4:00 am with a fully-formed Bible study idea in your head, it doesn’t seem right to just ignore it. I didn’t know where the study was going until I was polishing it up yesterday morning, but as you’ll see this isn’t just about women.

There were actually quite a few people there at that first New Covenant Pentecost, but we usually focus only on Peter and those listening to his sermon. To take note of the other people there, we need to do some close reading. Let’s begin in the first chapter of Acts. Here, Jesus spoke with his eleven remaining disciples before ascending to heaven and told them, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5, NET). We pick up the story after they return to Jerusalem.

 When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James were there. All these continued together in prayer with one mind, together with the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Acts 1:13-15, NET

They were there “together with the women.” It’s plural, so there were more women there beyond Mary the mother of Jesus. We know it was “a gathering of about 120 people” (Acts 1:16, NET), but we don’t know who most of those people were or how many of those gathered were women. It’s interesting too see there are women there, but it shouldn’t be surprising; Jesus spoke with and included women throughout His ministry.

The next order of business was to appoint someone to take Judas Iscariot’s place as the 12th apostle. “The lot fell on Matthias” (Acts 1:26, WEB), and then they all continued waiting for Pentecost. Let’s jump back into the story at the start of chapter 2.

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

Acts 2:1-4, NET

There’s a chance that the “all” and “each of them” spoken of here only refers to the 12 apostles, but I don’t think that’s the case. There is no mention of the remaining 120 disciples leaving the gathering. And just because it’s “Peter, standing up with the eleven” (Acts 2:14, WEB) who addresses those in Jerusalem that questioned this miracle doesn’t mean there’s no one else there. In fact, by using a prophecy from Joel to explain what’s going on, Peter indicates that the “all with one accord” who received the spirit “on each of them” did include women and unmentioned men as well.

But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel:

And in the last days it will be,’ God says,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all people,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
And I will perform wonders in the sky above
and miraculous signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and clouds of smoke.
The sun will be changed to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes.
And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Acts 2:16-21, NET (bold italics are a quote from Joel 2:28-32)

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on sons and daughters; on both men and women. This isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it’s amazing how many people throughout the years have overlooked women’s inclusion in the church as prophets and servants. I wrote last year about Christian women in the 17th century arguing for the right to teach using many of the same arguments I still use today to defend my ability to write this blog.

Image of a people holding hands and praying in a circle overlaid with text from 1 Thes. 1:2-3, NET version: “We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
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Women in Acts

As the book of Acts continues, we see women intimately involved in the early church. The apostles continued preaching, and “More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women” (Acts 5:14, NET). When Philip shared “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12, NET). When prominent women in a city began following Jesus, it was worth writing down in the Acts account (Acts 17:4, 12). Some of the believing women were mentioned by name, including Tabitha who “was full of good works and acts of mercy which she did,” “Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth,” and “a woman named Damaris” (Acts 9:36; 16:13-15; 17:33-34).

Some of the women took an active role in preaching the gospel. Lydia, whom we’ve already mentioned, provided a safe place for believers to rest and gather (Acts 16:14-15, 40). Priscilla and her husband Aquila worked together to share God’s word (Acts 18:2, 18-19, 26; Rom. 16:3). “Philip the evangelist … had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9, NET). And they’re just a few examples of the women who speak in scripture.

Just as women participated in the early church as disciples, servants, and teachers, so they had a share in the hardships as well. When persecution arose, Saul “dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” and asked for letters granting him permission to keep searching other cities “if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 8:3; 9:2, NET). Saul (who later became the apostle Paul) certainly thought the believing women were just as involved in this “new” religion as the men. Evidently he didn’t change his mind about that later, since Paul’s letter to Rome highlighted women who served in the church congregation (Rom. 16:1-7).

And you know what? There are a lot of “overlooked” men here in Acts as well; it’s not just women who might disappear into the background of the stories. We have records of “crowds of both men and women” converting to the faith and Paul dragging unnamed men and women to prison, but most of these men don’t show up joining the ranks of the apostles or mentioned as key teachers. There were a lot of people who don’t make it into the Bible accounts by name, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t notice them or that they didn’t play key roles in their local church gatherings.

God is Not Unjust

Image of a couple women holding Bibles with the blog's title text and the words, "The Acts account mentions "crowds of both men and women" converting to follow Jesus, but most of them fade into the background. Does that make them (or us) any less important than the more prominent Bible figures?"
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When I began this post, I wasn’t sure what my concluding point for this post should be; just that I needed to write and share it. However, as I kept pondering and praying about it I realized it isn’t just about women. What I’m taking away from this reflection is to remember that God values, notices, and involves the people who seem to fade into the background behind someone who’s more famous and gregarious like Peter (1 Cor. 1:18-31). They’re there, they matter, but they only occasionally show up later in other accounts as people teaching and serving in church.

For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises.

Hebrews 6:10-12, NET

As I write this final section, I’m realizing this is a message for everyone in the church who doesn’t do the showy things. It’s for those who quietly run the sound system and go unnoticed unless something goes wrong. It’s for those who set things up before services start and put things away after others go home. It’s for those who quietly visit widows during the week. It’s for those who don’t serve in a role with a title, but show up every week to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” and contribute to the community with their faithful presence.

God doesn’t forget this sort of service because He’s not unjust. If we wish to imitate Him in being Just, we also will not forget the people who serve like this nor undervalue the hidden or “little” ways that we ourselves serve.

Featured image by José Roberto Roquel from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “City on the Hill” by Casting Crowns

Relational Faith: A Book Review and Theological Reflection

I was so happy to receive a comment from Brent Schmidt on my blog post about his book Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (2015) offering me the opportunity to read his new book Relational Faith: The Transformation and Restoration of Pistis as Knowledge, Trust, Confidence, and Covenantal Faithfulness (2023). I really enjoyed the book on grace, and I was eager to read this follow-up work on faith.

You could read Relational Faith on its own, but it builds on Relational Grace and is best read as a continuation of that study. The basic argument of this new book is, “A universal doctrinal apostasy regarding faith occurred, necessitating a restoration of relational, covenantal faith” (p. 233). Much like Schmidt explained with charis/grace, the original meaning of pistis is vastly different from most mainstream Christian ideas of faith. Studying the context for how these Greek words were used when the New Testament was written helps us understand how grace and faith work today. God’s character is unchanging and the way He relates to us–including what He expects of those in relationship with Him–also didn’t change just because theologians over the years came up with different interpretations and ideas.

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this here before, but if I could have constructed a perfect-for-me class to take as part of my Masters in Rhetoric and Writing program, it would have focused on the Apostle Paul’s use of classical and Jewish rhetorical strategies. Schmidt holds a PhD in classics, and reading this book I felt like I was getting much of what I’d want from that hypothetical class. Schmidt opens the introduction with the words, “Context is key if we are to understand the essential Christian doctrine of faith as taught by the Apostle Paul” (p. 1). Amen, sir. Also, pistis is the same word used for “persuasion” in Aristotle’s rhetoric, and Schmidt spends a good deal of time on classical rhetoricians’ use of the word.

In short, this book could have been written for me even though Schmidt and I have some significantly different theological views/backgrounds (a bit more on that at the end). Overall, I found this an excellent scholarly work situating pistis firmly in its ancient context for both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first-century. It also contains a detailed history of the changes in doctrinal understandings of faith over the years, with comparisons between different interpretations of faith from a variety of theologians. I didn’t find this book quite as engaging as Relational Grace, but it was well worth reading.

Image of two people with hands lifted in worship overlaid with text from Hebrews 11:1, WEB version:  “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.”
Image by Temi Coker from Lightstock

Contextualizing Pistis

One of Schmidt’s basic premises is that we can better understand how Biblical writers use a Greek word by looking at how Classical writers earlier and around the same time used that word. This may seem an odd idea to us who live in a world where it’s considered normal and proper to separate religion from things like philosophy and science. There wasn’t such a separation in ancient times, though (Schmidt, p. 3). And while Biblical writers did give some words new/deeper Christian spiritual meanings, extrabiblical writings provide invaluable clues for understanding how people used these words at the time Paul and others were writing.

Schmidt’s etymological history of pistis and related words reveals that they can mean “faithfulness, steadfastness, and trustworthiness because of the underlying expressions of loyalty between parties in covenant relationships” (p. 11). He also places the word’s use in the context of classical Greek writers and Roman writers using the equivalent Latin word fides. He even looked into how pagan conceptions of the Pistis and Fides as goddesses influenced contemporary uses of the word. It’s a thorough scholarly investigation.

Additionally, Schmidt writes, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement” (p. 11). Faith in this sense is an active thing that’s connected with reciprocal relationships. When we’re in covenant with God, He is faithful to us and we must be faithful to Him. This is a concept that would have been very familiar to both Greek and Jewish audiences (Schmidt, p. 12-16). Also, Greek and Roman audiences were very familiar with the patron-client relationships that had pistis at the center. Whatever their religious background, first-century audiences would have thought of faith in a reciprocal relational context.

Jewish audiences in particular knew that faithfulness was key to covenants with God. In Hebrew, the basic root word for faith is aman (H539 in Strong’s). At the core, it means “firmness or certainty” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 116). Related words in this family include amen (verily, truly), emun (faithfulness, trusting), emuna (firmness, fidelity), and emet (truth). Schmidt points out that, like the Greek pistis, these Hebrew concepts were “knowledge-based, relational, and covenantal” (p. 37). And when Jewish writers wrote in Greek, they translated aman words into Greek as pistis (Schmidt 38). For example, when Paul quotes Habackuck 2:4, “the righteous will live by his faith (emunah),” he says, “the righteous shall live by faith (pistis)” (Rom. 1:17, WEB).

Image of a woman studying the Bible, overlaid with text from Deuteronomy 7:9, NET version:  “So realize that the Lord your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations”
Image by MarrCreative from Lightstock

Tracking Changes in Descriptions of Faith

Neoplatonists and Augustine

Have I talked on this blog before about the Neoplatonists? I don’t think I have, but they keep coming up in books I read that trace how Christianity changed after the first century. This school of thought (along with other trends, including anti-Jewish sentiments) heavily influenced shifts such as the change from keeping the Sabbath on Saturday to gathering on Sunday and adding the idea of an immortal soul (whereas in the Bible, God ” alone possesses immortality” until He grants it to people in His family [1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 3:1-3]). And apparently, it’s also connected to the change from thinking of faith as intimately connected to covenant to an expression of belief in accepted Christian doctrines.

  • Side note: if you’re interested in exploring this idea more, I recommend Plato’s Shadow: The Hellenizing of Christianity by Gary Petty. It’s a good introduction/overview of the topic. (Please note this is an affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.)

While tracing the ways Christian conceptions of faith changed after the first century, Schmidt writes, “Neoplatonist faith (pistis) embraced the intelligible and pure through contemplation and also embraced emotional assurances that the soul was immortal by identifying with an abstract divine” (p. 116). Here’s where we start getting the idea of faith as something abstract, mystical, or requiring only passive acknowledgement. This is happening during the late Classical period (starting around 200 AD), and heavily influences Christianity of the Middle Ages. In contrast, “Ancient readers understood that faith obligated them to demonstrate their faithfulness actively” (p. 130).

The major shifts in conceptions of faith solidified around the 5th century. Schmidt comes down hard on Augustine for that, and rightly so I think based on other examinations I’ve read of Augustine’s work and the readings I’ve done of excerpts from his own texts (we covered him in my classical rhetoric class). Augustine introduced doctrinal concepts such as original sin and predestination, and defined faith as something God gave those He determined would be His people. Though an influential theologian, Augustine contradicted long-established Christian teachings in some of his doctrines, including the way he spoke about faith as something passively received from God, an emotion, and/or acknowledgment of a belief system (Schmidt, Chapter 9). In short, “Augustine’s model of faith fit very poorly with any Hellenistic notions of pistis because first-century pistis was ‘neither a body of beliefs nor a function of the heart or mind, but a relationship which creates community” (Schmidt, p. 167, quoting scholar Teresa Morgan).

I find it very interesting that the shift to seeing faith as a mystical thing granted to you by God, which helps you accept mysteries unknowable, coincides with the shift in popularly accepted Christian doctrine toward describing God’s nature as a Trinity (the Council of Nicae and the Council of Constantinople both happened in the 4th century). If you’re going to describe God as an unknowable three-in-one deity rather than as a family where the Father and Son make covenants with and know people individually, then it’s hard to define faith as a patron-client relationship that believers have with the Father modeled after the relationship the Father has with the Son. (For more on why I don’t think “trinity” is the best way to describe the nature of God, see my post “What Does It Mean For Each of Us That God Is A Family?“)

Medieval to Modern Theologians

Schmidt spends the next few chapters tracing Catholic and then Protestant teachings about faith through the Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and early Modern periods. William Tyndale stands out as a theologian working to balance the ideas of “salvation by faith alone” and the clear Biblical instructions for faith to result in good works (Schmidt, pp. 185-88). Heinrich Bullinger, John Locke, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are also highlighted as rare examples of theologians hearkening back to the active, covenantal context of pistis. Overall, though, the meaning of faith shifted away from ancient conceptions of pistis as faithfulness in covenant and focused more on passive, mystical experiences. Debates at this time often centered on how/if good works were linked with faith and whether or not there was any human free will involved.

There still isn’t a clear consensus in modern Christianity about how to define faith. There are, however, influential theological movements hearkening back toward an ancient understanding of pistis. In Chapter 13, Schmidt explores one of the reasons why I wasn’t all that surprised by what I read in this book about covenants and faith. C.S. Lewis (my favorite Christian writer) taught that faith necessarily involves action. The modern theological movement known as The New Perspective on Paul (including authors I’ve read and enjoyed like N. T. Wright and others I’m familiar with including E.P. Sanders and James Dunn) teach that Paul must be read through a first-century Jewish lens. They also point out that mistakes in reading Paul’s writings and over-reliance on Medieval theologians have led to distorted ideas of faith.

A Few Last Thoughts

Image of the Relational Faith book cover overlaid with the blog post's title text.
Features cover image for Relational Faith

As someone who’s been part of a 7th-day Sabbath-keeping Church of God group her whole life and who also has a Messianic Jewish background, the core arguments of Relational Faith weren’t surprising to me. Similarly, when I first came across the New Perspective on Paul, it didn’t seem revolutionary to read Paul as a Jewish writer who sees covenants as central to Christianity. That’s simply how I think of Christianity.

I will admit, though, that reading Relational Faith challenged me to think more deeply about how I talk about faith. For example, I will use the phrase “my faith” to mean “the doctrines I believe in and the experience of feeling sure that God exists.” A first-century Christian, though, saw faith more as something you do than something you have. If they talked about “my faith,” they’d likely mean “my faithfulness to the covenant God makes with me, as well as the obedient actions associated with honoring that covenant.” Reading this book made me want to be more intentional and careful about how I conceptualize and speak of my relationship with God to ensure it aligns with His word.

Even with confusion about what faith really means and ongoing theological debates, I would argue that the original meaning of faith has not been entirely lost even in “mainstream” Christianity. Yes, there are plenty of songs and teachings that reduce faith to some internal sensation or belief, but there’s also Josh Wilson singing, “Faith is Not a Feeling,” Christianity.com pointing out that faith is often synonymous with obedience, and Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology connecting faith with covenants that bridge Old and New Testaments. There isn’t a simple “this group is all wrong, while this group is all right” answer.

Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning, Schmidt and I have some different theological views. I try to practice the first-century version of Christianity I read about in the New Testament as closely as possible (if you want to label me, “Messianic” or “Sabbath-keeper” works pretty well). Schmidt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most of the focus of his book is on areas where he overlaps with other Christians (i.e. interpreting the New Testament in light of the writers’ use of classical Greek language), but the last two chapters are devoted to the concept of “faith” in the Book of Mormon and other Latter Day Saints’ writings. While I find this aspect of his beliefs rather puzzling, please read this more as an observation than a criticism–those chapters didn’t interest me much, but readers are free to do with them as they will.

Relational Faith was published on March 21, 2023. It is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook or paperback book (please note this is an affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase).

Featured image by Claudine Chaussé