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

How I Bible Study: Tips, Recommendations, and Resources

I’ve been going back and forth on making a post like this for quite some time now. There isn’t one right formula for studying your Bible, and I’m not saying there is. As long as you’re reading God’s word, praying for His guidance, and working to know Him better then you can have a productive study. I don’t want to imply the way I study is the “right” or “best” way. But a few people have asked me to recommend Bible study resources, and I also realized that some of the study tools I use to help me understand the Greek and Hebrew behind our English translations aren’t familiar to everyone.

In this post, I’ll go through resources I use frequently and highly recommend. If you have other resources that you like to use, I’d love to learn about them. Please leave a comment so everyone reading can benefit from the recommendations 🙂

Disclaimer: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links (marked with an *). This means that if the resource I mention is available for purchase on Amazon, I provide a link and if you use that link to make a purchase I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you).

Background Reading

Whenever I’m reading a text, I like to ask myself contextual questions. When was this written? Who was it written for? What culture(s) influenced the writer? When reading the Bible, the ultimate author behind the text is God, but He used human beings who were influenced by the world they lived in. Modern, Western Christians often think of Christianity as a Western/European religion and either don’t think about or misunderstand the ancient Eastern cultural context. This can lead to misinterpretations of the Bible and misunderstandings about underlying concepts such as how language works.

Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes (coupled with attending a Messianic congregation for several years) fundamentally changed how I read the Bible, I think very much for the better. The modern world, particularly modern Western culture, is not very similar to the Biblical world. While God’s message is simple enough for a child to understand and His word can speak to everyone where they are, it’s also full of riches so deep we’ll never reach the bottom. Familiarizing yourself with the cultural context is key to understanding the Bible on a deeper level. These are my two favorite books I’ve found so far on that topic:

Digital Tools

There are three free digital resources that I use to support a deeper study of God’s word. These tools provide a variety of Bible translations, the ability to compare those translations, resources for studying the Greek and Hebrew behind our English translations, and a variety of commentaries. I use all of these tools to varying degrees, depending on exactly what I’m trying to study.

  • MySword app–this is a free-to-download Android app. I use this app on my phone as my Bible when at church, traveling, and often when studying at home. It makes it easy to compare translations, look up words in a dictionary, and do pretty robust word studies all in the palm of your hand. It’s also a great supplement to the language tools I’ll talk about in the next section.
    • The search tool for MySword is pretty good, and you can search for Greek and Hebrew words by searching for the Strong’s number in translations that include those. However, the free version of MySword doesn’t include all the search tools that eSword has and it limits you to 100 results.
  • eSword for PC–a free-to-download Bible study program. I mostly use this one if I want to search for specific words or topics in the Bible. The search tools are robust (even more so than MySword) and make it easy to search for parts of words, whole words, and Greek and Hebrew words (by searching for the Strong’s number). You can also have a Bible, dictionary, commentary, and your own notes all open on the same screen.
  • BibleGateway–an online resource that makes comparing Bible translations very simple. It’s the easiest tool I’ve found for looking at multiple translations side-by-side and doing full text searches of more than one translation at the same time. I use it all the time when writing my blog posts for this site. One thing I like about this website compared to MySword or eSword is that it includes full footnotes (very handy with translations like NET).
screenshot of eSword Bible program showing search tools using the example  of searching for partial matches to the words "love law"
Screenshot showing eSword search tool

Language Tools

I’ve done some formal study of Greek–enough to recognize words, understand basic grammar, and read it a little–but not much for Hebrew. The tools I use to study the Bible’s original languages aren’t a perfect substitute for really learning the languages, but I think they do make it easier for someone with a basic understanding of how language works (something any of us can learn relatively easily) to get a deeper look into the nuances of the Bible without devoting their lives to a study of ancient languages.

In both eSword and MySword, I recommend Thayer’s Dictionary for Greek and Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) for Hebrew. Both of these digital tools offer downloadable modules that link those dictionaries to Strong’s numbers. For any Bible translation that includes Strong’s numbers, you can click on that number and go right to the dictionary. Some of the translations also offer codes that give you more insight into how the word is used. For example, here’s what John 1:1 looks like in the MySword module for A Faithful Version with Strong’s numbers and Morphology (AFV+) if you click on more detail for the word translated “Word.”

I don’t read AFV+ much just because all those codes can get confusing to look at, but it is great for looking up the nuances behind a translation. If you click on the Strong’s number (G3056), it takes you to Thayer’s dictionary. I don’t have this in the screenshot, but if you scrolled down it would also provide Strong’s definition and a list of all the places this word is used in the New Testament (you could also search for G3056 in the AFV+ or other Strong’s coded translation to see all the places its used).

If you click on the morphology link (N-NSM) this translation shows you linguistic information for the word. Logos is a noun, and here it’s in the nominative case (identifying logos as the subject of the sentence), singular in number, and masculine gender (Greek has gendered nouns much like French or German). I use this tool most often to look up whether a word is singular or plural since you can’t always tell in English (e.g. when Paul says “you are the temple of God,” “you” is plural in the Greek but ambiguous in English).

Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries

In addition to these digital language tools, I also have two print dictionaries that I really like. These provide more complete definitions than the tools in eSword or MySword and also help you understand how different words relate to each other.

  • The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament* by Spiros Zodhiates—my favorite Greek dictionary. It uses Strong’s numbering system and is simple to use.
  • Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament* (TWOT) by Laird R. Hariss, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke — my favorite Hebrew dictionary. Rather than being tied to Strong’s numbers, this dictionary groups Hebrew words by their root, which provides a much deeper look at the nuances of the Hebrew language. The different numbering system can make this one a bit more challenging to use, but in MySword the BDB dictionary module makes things easy by telling you where to look up the word in TWOT.

Google Is Your Friend

Another general tool that I use a lot is a simple Google search. Don’t know what the Genitive Case is in Greek? There are language-learning tools to help you understand Greek grammar. Partly remember a verse but can’t find it in eSword, MySword, or BibleGateway? Try Googling the words you remember with the word “Bible” and it’ll help you figure out if it’s in a translation you hadn’t thought of or if it’s a quote from something else. Suddenly need an interlinear version of the Septuagint? I recently found one on StudyLight.org. We’re fortunate to live in a time when we have access to Bible Study tools people even just a few decades before could only dream about or could only access in specialized print books.

Finding Study Topics

Most of my Bible studies end up on this blog. That means I’m usually looking at specific topics when I study, so being able to search the Bible effectively, look up Hebrew and Greek words, and compare translations is super helpful. It’s also helpful to be listening to and reading things that prompt Bible-related ideas that can turn into studies which then show up here on my blog. Here are some of my favorite Christian resources for inspiring new studies:

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned before, not everyone Bible studies the same way, and that’s okay. We have different spiritual temperaments and different ways we most easily connect with God and His word. Some might spend more time reading whole books rather than focusing on topics. Some might find the most value in picking one verse and meditating on it for their whole study time. Others could read, then search for ways to put those lessons into real-world action. And I’m sure there are way more study styles than I could list here.

I like Gary Thomas’s book Sacred Pathways* as a tool to describe those temperaments (you can read my full review by clicking here). I most closely align with what he calls the “Contemplative” and “Intellectual” temperaments, and I suspect others with similar ways of relating to God will be the ones that find this post most useful (if they haven’t already tracked down similar resources of their own). Still, I hope some of these tools and resources will be helpful for you whatever your spiritual temperament. And I hope you’ll share some of your own favorite resources in the comments.

Featured image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted

This last beatitude is probably the most difficult one to hear. The need for humility as we recognize our spiritual helplessness is something we can wrap our mind around. We know that mourning and grief are part of being human, and we welcome God’s promise of comfort. Gentleness is a fruit of the spirit and a character trait of Christ, so we know that it’s a good thing for us to learn. A hunger and thirst for righteousness is like a hunger and thirst for God. Giving and getting mercy and forgiveness is a familiar theme through scripture. We also know that we’re supposed to become like God, who is pure and perfect, so it’s no surprise that the “pure in heart” are blessed. And God loves peace so much that it seems natural for Jesus to call peacemakers children of God. But then we come to this last one.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 5:10, WEB

For many Christians around the world and throughout history, the idea that they’ll be persecuted for their faith is not shocking. In fact, Christianity is among the most persecuted religions in the world. Just last year, one report stated that “Christian persecution ‘at near genocide levels'” in certain countries (BBC News, 3 May 2019). More recently, the 2020 World Watch List report released by Open Doors found that “1 in 8 believers, worldwide” “experience high levels of persecution” for their faith in Jesus Christ (click here for more information).

Here in the US, though, we have not experienced anything like this. Moreover, Western Christians in the modern world seem to have a sense that we shouldn’t be persecuted; as if somehow we deserve an exemption because we live in such evolved, democratic societies. And even if we don’t feel like that, persecution is frightening. It may even make us wonder if following Jesus is worth the cost. Perhaps that’s why this is the one beatitude that Jesus immediately elaborates on.

Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:11-12, WEB

If we are persecuted (or worry we may be persecuted), this is the sort of thing we need to hear; a reassurance that we can hold tight to God and that He’ll take care of us. None of us are alone. God’s people don’t fit in with the rest of the world, and from the very earliest Bible records those who follow God faced opposition from the world. But they didn’t face it by themselves and neither will we, because God is on our side. Not only that, but we have a future goal to look forward to which is amazing enough to make whatever happens to us in this life seem like it really doesn’t matter.

Faithful and Righteous

The Hebrews 11 faith chapter comes to mind while reading about those who are persecuted and blessed. All the people listed there were faithful and righteous, and most faced persecutions of some sort. Abel was murdered. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not get along well with everyone they met, and some stole from or cheated them. Joseph was sold into slavery. Moses suffered abuse for Christ (Heb. 11:26, NET). David was hunted by Saul.

Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Hebrews 11:35-38, WEB

I don’t much like reading this passage. The whole “sawn asunder” (v. 37, KJV) thing especially bothers me. But I think, like the people these verses are talking about did, we need to focus on this part: “That they might obtain a better resurrection.” Or, to quote a translation I recently fell in love with, “to obtain resurrection to a better life” (v. 35, NET).

The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted | LikeAnAnchor.com

When We Suffer, We’re Being Like Christ

Jesus promises that God has a reward for those who face persecution “for righteousness’ sake.” This isn’t a concept you hear much about in the world today, but righteousness is a key part of scripture. In a broad sense, Thayer’s dictionary defines it as the “state of him who is as he ought to be” (G1343, dikaiosune). God is righteous and He’s the one who models and defines righteousness for us. It involves obedience to God, personal integrity, “purity of life,” and “correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting” (Thayer).

Peter talks about the idea of suffering for righteousness several times in his first epistle. He says that “it is commendable” if you patiently endure suffering you don’t deserve “because of conscience toward God.” That is, after all, what Christ did (1 Pet. 2:19-25). Jesus suffered for our sins and if we suffer for following Him and doing God’s will, well, that’s better than if we were to suffer for doing wrong (1 Pet. 3:17-18).

But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.

1 Peter 3:14-16, NET (Old Testament quotes bolded in original)

When Peter wrote this epistle, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking back to something Jesus told him and the other disciples at His last Passover here on earth. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … they will do all these things to you for my name’s sake, because they don’t know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

Count The Cost

Suffering as a Christian is pretty much guaranteed. If you aren’t persecuted for righteousness’ sake, scripture makes it seem like that’s actually more unusual than if you are. That’s one reason we’re told to count the cost before following Jesus; because this life demands commitment and sacrifice (Luke 14:25-35). When Paul counted that cost, even with all the persecutions he suffered (2 Cor. 11:23-28), he concluded that nothing else mattered as much as knowing Christ and that the rewards for following Him will be so amazing the suffering seems as nothing (Rom. 8:18-30).

Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:8-11, WEB

Paul says here that he “suffered the loss of all things,” and that’s in addition to all the direct persecutions he talks about in other epistles. But when he counted the cost of following Jesus, he still came to the conclusion that it was all worth the effort. He, like those in the faith chapter, “looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11: 10, WEB). He knew the reward for following God far outweighed any downsides.

Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

The reward mentioned in this beatitude brings us full circle in our series of posts. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said at the beginning of this sermon on the mount, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:5, WEB). The New English Translation puts it a little differently: “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

When John the Baptist and then Jesus came preaching, they both said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:1-2; 4:17). Throughout Matthew’s gospel (other writers use the phrase “kingdom of God”), this emphasis on the kingdom of heaven continues. Jesus told us who would and would not enter the kingdom of heaven, taught us to pray “Let your kingdom come,” and shared analogies for what the kingdom is like (click for verse list).

One of the things Jesus said is, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21, NET). Just a little earlier in the same sermon where He makes this statement, Jesus gives us a succinct guide in the form of Beatitudes to some of the ways we can align ourselves with God. This is what righteousness is about — not being “experts in the law” but going beyond that and learning to truly be like God (Matt. 5:18-20), even to the point that the same people who hate Jesus will also hate us because we are so much like Him. Yes, that may mean we are among “those who are persecuted for righteousness,” but “the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” And I think Paul is right when he says getting into that kingdom and being with God forever is worth whatever we might have to give up or go through in this life.

Featured image credit: Magnify Studio via Lightstock

The Beatitudes, Part Seven: Blessed Are The Peacemakers

The seventh type of person that Jesus talks about in what we call the beatitudes is the peacemaker. Like the others in this list, they are blessed — fully satisfied by God — and they also receive an additional, specific blessing.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Matthew 5:9, all quotes from WEB translation

Being part of God’s family is what He desires for everyone who He has called into His church. Here, Jesus specifically links being God’s children with being peacemakers. This is an activity that God, the ultimate peacemaker, does and it’s one He wants us to learn.

Much as in English, the Greek word for “peacemaker” basically means someone who makes peace. “Peace,” in this sense, is a tranquil, blessed state with security and without strife (eirene, G1515). The Hebrew equivalent is shalom wholeness; nothing missing and nothing broken.

Jesus’s Example

In Psalms and Proverbs, it talks about God making peace for His people by blocking their enemies from harming them (Ps. 147:14; Prov. 16:7). Moving beyond simply referring to “peace” as an absence of war, God promises to “make with them a covenant of peace” which will make them secure in their lands and involve God placing His dwelling among them (Ezk. 34:25; 37:26). It’s looking forward to the time when divisions between God and mankind are removed and there can be true, complete peace.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace.

Ephesians 2:13-15

Jesus “made peace through the blood of his cross” and reconciled us to God (Col. 1:20-22). Without that, there would be separation because of our sins, but God cared so much about making peace with us that Jesus died to remove those sins. He established a covenant of peace by giving His life. He was all-in as a peacemaker; fully committed to reconciling humanity and God.

Following Things of Peace

We know we’re to imitate Jesus, and that includes in His commitment to peacemaking. He is the Sar Shalom — Prince of Peace (Is. 9:16-17) — and His people also value peace. If we have His spirit and wisdom inside us, we will “make peace” and sow “the fruit of righteousness” in peace (James 3:17-18).

So then, let’s follow after things which make for peace, and things by which we may build one another up.

Romans 14:9

If you look at this verse in-context, Paul is telling us that how we treat each other is more important than making sure we all believe the same things on relatively minor topics. One of God’s primary expectations for those in His church is that they will live at peace with each other. This requires humility and selfless care for others (Phil. 2:1-4) and a commitment to living out the fruit of the spirit, including peace (Gal. 5:22-23).

A Family at Peace

The Beatitudes, Part Seven: Blessed Are The Peacemakers | LikeAnAnchor.com

God is building a family. He does not want a family full of petty bickering, but one of peace. Right now, there are two fully spirit, immortal members of the God-family: Father and Son. Their relationship is so close that Jesus told us, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Their goal is that we may also be one with them, and with each other in them (John 17:11, 20-23).

See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.

1 John 3:1-3

Being children of God involves imitating our Father. Here, John describes that imitation as becoming pure, as God is pure, but we can also include other godly character traits and roles within that goal, including peacemaking. Being a peacemaker is part of living according to God’s spirit — which He gives us as a key part of adopting us as His children — rather than according to the lusts of our flesh (Rom. 8:1-17).

Dear readers, let’s be peacemakers, especially now as we’re living in a time when it’s so easy to divide instead of unite. God has given us His spirit if we’ve committed our lives to Him. And through His spirit, we have what we need to not only be His children, but to act like we’re part of His family by mimicking Him in every aspect of our lives.

The Beatitudes, Part Six: Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

We’ve been looking at the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over the past several weeks. Now we’re up to the sixth of these attitudes that Jesus says result in blessings from God. Those who are “blessed” in this sense are fully satisfied by God, and each also receives a specific blessing to go along with that. For example,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8, all quotes from WEB translation)

Those pure in their hearts are fully satisfied by God, and they get to see Him. It’s a wonderful thing to think about, though when you start to ponder the idea of seeing God more questions come up. What does it mean to see God? How and when will this happen? And what does it actually mean to have a pure heart in the sense used here?

Washing By Jesus

Purity starts with something God does. Jesus told His disciples that they were “pruned clean because of the word” He spoke to them (John 15:3), and that’s the same Greek word translated “pure” in Matthew’s gospel (G2513 katharos). He also said they were “completely clean” if they let Him wash them (John 13:8-10). Extending this to all believers, Peter talks about God’s work with the Gentiles, saying, “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). It is God’s work in us that gives us pure hearts; we can’t get to that state on our own.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6)

We are washed by the blood of Jesus from all uncleanness that comes from sin. None of us are exempt from the consequences of sin, nor can we fix that problem on our own. We can come to Jesus boldly, though, knowing that He will take care of cleansing us from our sins and making us fit to not only enter God’s presence but become part of His family.

let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water (Heb. 10:22)

Cleansed In God’s Presence

Back in Old Testament times, God had clear criteria for who He would allow into His temple and therefore His presence. Part of this criteria had to do with ceremonial cleanliness, but even under the first covenant there was a deeper application as well.

Who may ascend to Yahweh’s hill? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully. (Ps. 24:3-4)

You needed a pure heart to get into God’s presence. Jesus’ sacrifice washing us clean takes care of all our ceremonial uncleanness, and it also purifies our hearts. Through Him, we have access to God at a deeper level than was typically possible before the New Covenant. This doesn’t take all the responsibly out of our hands, though. Once our hearts are purified, we play a role in keeping them that way. We do that by following God faithfully and by asking Him for new cleansing if we stumble.

Seeing you have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth through the Spirit in sincere brotherly affection, love one another from the heart fervently, having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which lives and remains forever. (1 Pet. 1:22-23)

Seeing God’s Face

This idea of being purified to enter God’s presence connects with seeing God’s face. Ultimately, we will see God “as He is” after the resurrection when He welcomes us as spirit-beings into His kingdom (Job 19:26; 1 John 3:1-2). Until then, no ones sees the Father’s face but many people have seen God through Jesus Christ (John 1:18; 14:8-9). We can actually have a “faces to faces” relationship with God today in the sense that we can know Him, see who He really is, and form a close relationship with Him.

seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

Seeing God will be literal in the future, but for now it’s more metaphorical. John said, “He who does evil hasn’t seen God,” which implies that those who do not do evil have seen God (3 John 1:11). When we pursue a relationship with God and commit to living life the way He expects of us, out of a pure heart, then we get the chance to “see” God.

One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple. … When you said, “Seek my face,” my heart said to you, “I will seek your face, Yahweh.” (Ps. 27: 4, 8)

What a blessing it is to have Jesus personally purify our hearts so that we can have a face-to-face relationship with Him and His Father! There is nothing more precious than the chance to know God intimately and be known by Him.

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