Witness in Acts

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As noted in the notes on 1:8 and found in all the chapter headings of this commentary from part 3 onward, the story of Acts is primarily one of witnessing. The threefold meaning of witness is outlined near the end of part 1 under TLC. Here we want to explore the many­-faceted character of that witness as found throughout the book.

First, it is the witness of ordinary people. There are hardy Galilean fishermen, a hated tax collector, a passionate revolutionary, a traitorous Judean, several women cured of their ailments and rid of their demons—not a promising lot to start a world movement! Yet they are persons who have been involved in extraordinary experiences that have transformed their lives and made them ready.

Yes, they have all been changed by the impact of Jesus, another characteristic of their witness. Their reactions vary, all the way from skepticism and slowness to roller­coaster highs and lows midst occasional moments of deep insight. In it all, however, new life and hope emerge.

Then they experience the most important preparation for witness as they are baptized in the Holy Spirit. (For details, see part 2 of the commentary, on the Day of Pentecost and the essay on the Holy Spirit in the Bible and in Acts.) This infilling provides the motivation for witnessing. As Peter and John tell the Sanhedrin, We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard (4:20). God has commanded them to witness, and they do so because, as they say, We must obey God rather than any human authority (5:29; cf. also 5:42; 8:4, 26­27, 40: 11:19­21, 24; 13:2­3). Moreover, they are given a divine power by the Spirit (1:8). As Luke puts it, With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (4:33: cf. 6:8; 10:38). Their testimony is so wisely guided that it finds its mark. The opponents of the divinely filled Stephen could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke (6:10; cf. 4:8­ 10; 9:17, 22; 13:9­12).

Along with all this, the witness of Christ's people in Acts is based on Scripture, the Word of God which we know as the OT. This began with Jesus himself. To explain his death and resurrection, "he opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45). So his disciples continue to use the OT to prove that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 2:25­28, 31, 34­35; 4:11: 8:32­33: 13:33­35), to warn listeners against rejection and judgment (13:41; 28:26­27), and to call people to repentance (Acts 3:22­23. 25). Altogether, well over 50 OT verses are thus quoted to proclaim the messianic age and urge others to enter it (Trites: 82).

The fact that the witness is community­-based is another important characteristic. Even before Pentecost, the 12 find strength from meeting together in the upper room (1:13­26). Then after a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit, the community springs into action as it witnesses through the joyous sharing of goods and services to everyone in need. It manifests such praise, joyous good will, and miracle­working that all Jerusalem is shaken (2:44­47; 4:32­35; 5:12­16; cf. 5:28). Signs and wonders accompany this movement as it spreads out over the Roman world (6:8; 8:6, 13; 14:3: 15:12; 16:18; 19:11­12). At Antioch of Syria, the first Jew­Gentile fellowship is started (11:19­26), and this becomes the base for the ongoing missionary endeavors of Paul (Acts 13—19). These are not isolated individuals witnessing for the Lord but strong communities of the Holy Spirit which make an impact upon their contemporaries far out of proportion to their numbers.

Still another aspect of this witness is the boldness of the persons giving it. Luke frequently uses the noun parresia* and its related verbal and adverbial forms to characterize the witness of the early Christians. The basic meaning is "forthrightness" or "outspokenness," both marks of boldness. On one occasion they prayed specifically for this quality and, as a result, the place was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the work of God with boldness (4:31).

With such outspokenness, Peter and John answer the authorities (4:13), the new convert Saul witnesses for Christ in Damascus (9:27­28). Paul and Barnabas answer their opponents at Antioch of Pisidia (13:46), the same two stay in trouble­-filled Iconium speaking for the Lord (14:3), and for three months Paul preaches the word in the synagogue at Ephesus (19:8). On this same note of parrhesia* Acts ends as it tells how Paul goes on proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (28:31). Even where this word is not used, it is implied in many situations of witnessing by word (2:23; 4:19­20; 5:20­32: 7:2­60; 8:20­24; 9:20; 13:9; 16:37; 23:3) and deed (9:17; 13:51a). The Christians in Acts are not timid, fearful somebodies. They are bold, resolute evangelists, proclaiming the gospel to all who will listen.

Along with this boldness is the fact that the witness of the Christians in Acts is a convincing one. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they appeal to the consciences of those about them. Their message both by word and by dead is a life­-transforming one. They witness not only to the bare details of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but also to the life­-and-­death significance of these events (2:32; 3:15: 10:36­43). They see in Christ the saving act of God for all who will believe. Their passion for both the temporal welfare and eternal salvation of such people gives burning significance to their message. That is why, in response to Peter's forthright appeal, the hearers are cut to the heart and cry out, What should we do? (2:37). In similar fashion, the Christian witnesses of Acts go forth, enduring all manner of hardship and persecution for Jesus, rejoicing that they are considered worthy to suffer dishonor for him (5:41). Thus the story proceeds to the end of the book. full of daring adventures and effective testimony for the Lord: Peter and other apostles (chapters 3—5), Stephen (6—7), Philip (8), Saul (9:19b­30), Peter again (10— 12), and Paul and his associates (13—28). Such Holy Spirit-­filled, impassioned expression produces an enduring witness. The Christians of Acts make a permanent impact upon their world. From the original 120 and the converts on Pentecost arises a church that soon numbers about 5,000 males (4:4, CF from Greek), and two and a half decades later it is still spoken of in terms of many thousands (21:20). From unnamed Christian refugees comes the church at Antioch which, as noted above, serves as a home base for all of Paul's missionary journeys. Other congregations also spring up in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece as the powerful witness continues, each with an impact beyond anything recorded in Acts.

Finally, this witness is remembered, recorded, and thus preserved for multiplied millions of Christians in succeeding generations, including us today, in the book we are studying. In terms of the sheer numbers inspired and instructed by the witness, this is the most impressive of all its characteristics.

Chalmer E. Faw