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