Witnesses of Jesus

Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is the text of the pre-synodical sermon preached on June 9, 1997.

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

Acts 1:8

These words were spoken by Jesus to the eleven apostles just before His ascension into heaven.

Jesus had trained these men during his brief earthly ministry. Now it was time for Jesus to depart from them into heaven. He had offered Himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice of sin to secure the salvation of the church. On the third day He had been raised from the dead. Now, 40 days later, it was time to depart to be exalted into heavenly glory and there continue His work as Mediator of the church.

As He was about to depart (He was with His disciples on the Mount of Olives), Jesus gave the eleven these final words of instruction. The Holy Spirit would come upon them and they would receive power. In the power of the Holy Spirit they would be witnesses of Him beginning in Jerusalem, then in Judea, into Samaria, and finally unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

As we consider these words we must bear in mind several things.

First, these words apply not just to the apostles but to the whole church. Often in the New Testament the apostles represent the church of the New Testament era. This is the case also here. Notice that Jesus speaks of being His witnesses to the uttermost part of the earth. This is something that the apostles alone could not do. It is the church of the New Testament that is His witnesses unto the ends of the earth.

Second, Jesus indicates what the church is. Through the power of the Holy Spirit which she would receive, she would become witnesses of Jesus. This implies a calling for the church. She must manifest herself to be what Jesus has made her to be through the Holy Spirit — witnesses of Jesus.

Finally, Synod must do its work in the awareness of what the church is and what her calling is. The Protestant Reformed Churches are also witnesses of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. The Synod must make decisions that will promote this very important work of our churches.

What is a witness?

The Bible speaks of witness in two different senses. Sometimes it speaks of those who witness an event, see something happen with their own eyes, have firsthand knowledge of something. In this sense Timothy made a good profession before many witnesses (I Tim. 6:12). The Bible speaks also of those who bear witness, i.e., who bring a testimony of what they have seen or know to be true. In this sense we are forbidden in the 9th commandment to bear false witness against our neighbor.

Sometimes when we speak of witnesses we emphasize both of these ideas. Think of a witness in court. He has seen something. Now he must testify about what he knows to be true.

When Jesus identifies the church and her members as His witnesses, He means that the church is a witness in both senses. She has not only been witness to something; she also has a testimony to bring. But the emphasis is on the latter.

The church and her members are certainly witnesses of Jesus in that they have knowledge of Jesus and His works.This was true of the apostles. They were eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry, His death, resurrection, and exaltation. Peter makes that clear to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, in Acts 10:39-41, "And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem...."

In a certain sense, also the church of today is a witness of Jesus and His works of salvation. Yes, the great works of Jesus took place long ago, before we were ever born. Nevertheless, all these works have been infallibly recorded for us by divine inspiration in Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are a complete and faithful record of all that Jesus came to do and teach. Those who know the Scriptures are just as much witnesses of Jesus' works as whose who saw and heard Him with their own eyes and ears.

The church and her members are witnesses of Jesus also in the sense that they bear witness, tell others of what they have come to know of Jesus.

This was true of the church during the apostolic era. Immediately after Pentecost, "with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33). This witness of the apostles began in Jerusalem, spread to Judea, then Samaria and Galilee, and finally throughout the Roman empire.

The witness of the apostolic church was also the witness of her members. It was not just the apostles that had knowledge of Jesus and who bore witness of Him in the official preaching of the gospel. Also the members of the early churches bore witness to Jesus. One outstanding example is the members of the church of Thessalonica. From them sounded forth (echoed) throughout Macedonian and Achaia the word of the Lord they had received from Paul. This was an essential element in the witness of the church. Without this the church of the apostles would not have been effective witnesses of Jesus.

This witness of the church continues to the end of time.

The Lord left the church on the earth to be witnesses of Him unto the uttermost part of the earth. The church of the apostles was able to bring the witness of Jesus to only a small part of the earth. It will take the church until the end of time to complete this work. Hence, the church of every age, also this age, has a great calling to be witnesses of Jesus.

This great work involves the whole church and all her members. To be effective witnesses of Jesus requires that the church preach the truth of Scripture both in her own midst and on the mission field. To be effective witnesses of Jesus also requires that the members of the church bring a clear testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They must do this in their homes to the covenant children God gives the church. They must do this in the community in which God places them. Should the church fail in any aspect of this work, she fails in her calling as witness of Jesus.

The work of synod is directly related to the calling of the Protestant Reformed Churches to be witnesses of Jesus. This is evident from a quick perusal of the agenda of synod. The bulk of the agenda for synod deals with our seminary, our mission work, and our contact with other churches. These are all directly related to our calling as church to be witnesses of Jesus. Our mission work as churches is an integral part of our witness as churches. Our seminary is vital for our churches to bring a witness. Our contact with other churches serves the purpose of assisting other churches and of being assisted in our calling to witness.

There are several other items that take less space in the agenda, but which are also directly related to the calling of our churches to be witnesses of Jesus. This includes our catechism program, Psalter distribution, and even the financial matters relating to the Emeritus Fund, Student Aid Fund, and subsidy for needy churches.

Let the synod do its work in the awareness of this so that decisions are made that will promote the great work given to our churches of being witnesses of Jesus.

Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you.

Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles and church must be understood in light of the promise God made to the church of the Old Testament to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28, 29).

In the Old Testament the Spirit of God operated in the hearts and lives of God's people to bring them the salvation of God. However, He did so only in small measure. And He operated only in one small nation — Israel. The reason for this was that the Christ had not yet come to obtain the salvation of God's people through the one great sacrifice of the cross. There was only the promise of these things. 

Nevertheless God promised that there would be a day when the Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh. There would be given the full measure of the Spirit to bestow the full measure of God's blessings and salvation. This would come not just to Israel but to the nations.

Now, when Jesus speaks here to the apostles of the coming of the Holy Spirit, He is referring the fulfillment of that promise. This fulfillment took place just 10 days after this, on the Jewish day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2).

According to Jesus the apostles and church would receive power after that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. 

The idea is that the Holy Spirit that would come upon the church would empower her and her members to be faithful witnesses of Jesus throughout the ages.

We see from the New Testament Scriptures how this was the case for the church of the apostles.

First, the Spirit enlightened the church to be witnesses of Jesus. The apostles had seen the works of Jesus and heard His teachings. But they did not understand. They did not even understand the purpose of Jesus' death and resurrection. But when the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, suddenly all is made plain. Read Peter's speech on Pentecost in Acts 2 to see how this was true.

Besides, the Spirit empowered the church to bring a testimony of Jesus to the people. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles in their preaching (I Cor 2:4), gave them great zeal to speak the gospel of Christ (Acts 4:20), gave them great boldness to speak in the face of persecution (Acts 4:31), and gave them what to say as they were hailed before rulers (Matt 10:18, 19).

And the Holy Spirit so empowers the church today. The Spirit works in the hearts and lives of every true member of the church. Graciously He leads them to understand the Scriptures. He also guides pastors in their preaching, works great zeal in all the members to speak the Word, and gives boldness to speak in the face of opposition.

So the church must pray for the Holy Spirit that she may be faithful and clear witnesses of Jesus.

The synod must also pray for the leading of the Spirit in her work. She must pray for insight into the Word of God, which is the sole guide for the church as she bears witness of Jesus. In that connection, the Spirit has given the church down through the ages much insight into God's Word. The fruit of this is found in the Reformed creeds and Church Order. The synod must be careful to do her work in the framework of that wisdom and insight. Finally, the synod must pray for the power of the Spirit to be zealous, bold, and fearless in her work, not concerned about the world's opinion and evaluation but about the approval of Jesus, who has commanded the church to be His witnesses.

The result of this witness of the church is the gathering in of the church.

God has eternally chosen a church to Himself in Jesus Christ. This church He has ordained to eternal life. In the Old Testament this church was limited to the Jewish nation. In the New Testament this church is found among the nations.

God will bring this elect number to faith and salvation through the witness of His church on earth. As we have seen, this witness centers in the official preaching of the gospel. But this witness includes the godly, daily witness of her members in the home and community.

What a glorious privilege God has given to the church!

The gathering of the church is God's great work in history. 

God has seen fit to use our witness of His Son, Jesus Christ, to accomplish this work. Let us see the great distinction that is ours and be busy in this glorious work both as churches and as synod.