In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
When will we engage in our ministry? The short answer: Now.
The angels in this story sound a lot like my mom when I was a kid: “Why are you just standing there looking into an empty sky? You need to quit your gawking and get to work!”
But sometimes we can be confused about what it is we are supposed to be about or when we are supposed to do it. Jesus was quite clear about what the mission of his followers is to be: witnesses. And the angels essentially tell the disciples to quite their gawking and get to work on being witnesses.
Being a Witness Now
The mission is not simply to do some sort of evangelical job of witnessing, but to be a witness. What we do flows from who we are and what we have seen. If we have seen and experienced the risen Lord, we are witnesses. We then tell of what we have seen and heard, not necessarily because it’s our job, but because we just cannot help it.
A mom nurtures her kids because she is a mom; it isn’t just a job – it’s who she is. To be a witness involves the kind of people we are. The word “witness” is literally the term “martyr.” A martyr, as the term has been used throughout church history, is:
- One who chooses to suffer death rather than deny the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- One who bears testimony to the truth of what they have seen or have experienced with God.
- One who sacrifices all things to further God’s kingdom.
- One who is willing to endure anything from anyone to maintain their Christian witness.
A martyr is someone we are, not a task that gets checked off a to do list.
There is a clear mandate and mission given by Jesus, the Head of the Church: We are witnesses. We are participants in service to Christ the King, and not fans of Jesus only cheering in the bleachers. It’s a very different experience being a fan in the stands than a player on the field.
In baseball, some fans think they know what all the right calls are, then graciously let the umpire know when he is wrong. Being a spectator is significant. Yet, for us here on this earth, it is not yet our time for that. Those who have gone before us, lived in faith, and were martyrs, are testifying to us….
Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect….
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [martyrs], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, (Hebrews 11:36-40, 12:1, NIV)
The Christian fans in the heavenly stands are witnessing that they have participated in God’s mission. And they are not unruly – spilling their beer on people and getting kicked out of the stadium. Instead, they are encouraging us who are here, right now, on this earth, seeking to fulfill Christ’s mandate.
Those who have gone before us are passing the baton of leadership and the message of good news to us – and they expect us to run with it – not to try and sit in the stands as spectators because it is not yet our time. They are cheering us on, letting us know it’s all worth it.
Now is the time to be witnesses of what God in Christ has done and is doing. God created a perfect world. Man and woman fell into disobedience and sin. Now, God is in the business of restoring and renewing all creation. So, we are to witness to what God has done, and is doing, because our identity is thoroughly in Jesus Christ. It is our heritage and our privilege.
In the 1990s a Christian prisoner in Cuba was asked to sign a statement containing charges against fellow Christians that would lead to their arrest. He said, “The chain keeps me from signing this.” The communist officer protested, “But you are not in chains!” “I am,” said the Christian. “I am bound by the chain of witnesses who throughout the centuries gave their lives for Jesus Christ. I am a link in this chain. I will not break it.”
Christ’s words are directed to us: “You will be my witnesses,” you and me. If we look at this as merely a task, we will likely give up and whine, saying, “This is too hard. It takes too much time. There’s too much suffering. This isn’t for me!”
If we understand our identity as being a witness, then we will love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We willingly abandon our own personal agendas and adopt the will of God for our lives. And the will of God is that we embrace our identity as witnesses to the redemptive events of Jesus – Christ’s incarnation, holy life, compassionate ministry, suffering and death, rising from the grave, and ascending to heaven.
What do you have to witness to? Here is a teenage girl’s witness when he stood glaring at her, his weapon before her face, asking, “Do you believe in God?” She paused because it was a life or death question. “Yes, I believe in God.” “Why?” asked her executioner. But he never gave her the chance to respond. The 17-year-old girl lay dead at his feet.
This scene could have happened in the Roman coliseum, in the Middle Ages, or in any number of countries around the world today. People are still being imprisoned, tortured, and killed every day because they refuse to deny the name of Jesus. This particular story, though, did not happen in ancient times or in another country. It happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999.
Being a Witness Everywhere to Everyone Now
The original witnesses of Jesus Christ embraced the mandate of being witnesses. Not far into the New Testament book of Acts, 3,000 people in Jerusalem were converted to Christianity through one sermon from Peter’s witness. Philip broke all kinds of taboos by going to Samaria and being a witness to the half-breed Samaritans. Peter broke all convention by going into a Gentile’s house and seeing the Spirit come on them. Saul, who became Paul, was dramatically converted and went on three separate missionary journeys so that he could take the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
We are to be witnesses wherever we go with whomever we encounter. We will be witnesses in Jerusalem (our families); in Judea (our community); in Samaria (other races and people different from ourselves); and, to the ends of the earth (overseas).
Being a Witness Through the Spirit’s Empowerment Now
Only after giving the mission to his followers did Jesus ascend to heaven. The ascended Lord is to be our confidence and our hope. We are not alone. We possess Christ’s authority and the Spirit’s help. The power to be a witness is not generated from within us but comes from God’s Spirit.
Jesus will return. Until then, we are to be his witnesses. It’s not the time to sit in the bleachers. We have been given power to accomplish the mission before the end of this world comes, and before Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Being a witness is not a one-time, one-size-fits-all work. Our own witness is just that: ours. We all have our own stories of faith and experiences of the risen and ascended Christ. There’s really nothing flashy or sexy about being a witness. Rather, it mostly entails a consistent and patient witness of love. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life in which our love for God pours out of our heart and soul and is expressed with all our mind and strength.
Every Christian can witness to what God is doing in their life – to tell our story of what God has done and is doing with us.
Holy God, you are making all things new through your gracious reconciling and restorative work. Grant us, your people, the vision to see you at work in our world healing our brokenness and making us new. Grant us the wisdom to hear your voice through the noise that surrounds us. And grant us the courage to bring to fruition the world you are creating, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.