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.
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
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