Part IV of IV
Two objections are often lodged against the explanation of the term witness as an exclusive reference to the apostles of Christ. In an effort to legitimize the “confessional witness” status of all modern Christians, it is alleged that Steven and Antipas are both called witnesses of Christ (cf. Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13), therefore the term “witness” is properly applicable to Christians of all ages.
It must first be recalled that Christ appointed the apostles as special witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 24:46-49). Even in the case of Joseph called Barsabbas, who qualified to serve as a witness of the resurrection with the apostles but was not chosen (Acts 1:21-26), there is no record from the Scriptures of his ever assuming the role of witness for Christ in any form. Thus, as the evidence from the New Testament has been examined, the apostles served as witnesses of the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit served as the additional witness to corroborate the gospel preached by the apostles.
It is also of utmost significance that the apostles were empowered to lay their hands upon baptized believers and distribute the Holy Spirit as a credential of their apostolic authority (cf. Acts 8:14-20; 19:1-6). The Hebrews writer noted that God testified to the preaching of salvation through the apostles, confirming their testimony “by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by distributions of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4).
The witness of the Holy Spirit via supernatural manifestations confirmed the apostles’ doctrine as it was repeated by those who had received the Holy Spirit from the apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 1:6-14; 2:1-2). Many “false prophets” had gone out into the world (1 John 4:1), but these were uninspired teachers, “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Paul labeled such men as “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).
In the case of Steven, he was a Christian who was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The witness of the Spirit confirmed Steven’s defense of the gospel (Acts 6:8-10). On the occasion of his being stoned to death, Steven had been explaining the history of the nation of Israel and the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, pointing out that all the prophets announced the coming of the “Righteous One, whose betrayers and murders you have now become” (Acts 7:52).
It is not recorded that Steven ever presented himself as a “witness” to the death, burial, and resurrection after the manner of the apostles, but “being full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55), Steven defended the gospel proclaimed by the apostles, and as the angry mob turned upon him, Steven “gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). When Steven announced what he was seeing in heaven, the Jews began stoning him to death.
Saul, who later was known as the apostle Paul, was present at the stoning of Steven (Acts 7:58). In a conversation with Christ following his appointment to the apostleship, Paul made reference to “Your witness Steven” (Acts 22:20). The pertinent question becomes: In what since did Paul use the expression “witness” in relation to Steven? Those seeking to establish precedence for the modern day “confessional witness” utilize this statement by Paul as a proof text.
However, is the case of Steven even remotely similar to the circumstances of Christians today? Although untold millions give lip service to being “full of the Holy Spirit” today, and even claiming to work miracles, the technological production of instant video equipment in the hands of people everywhere has dealt a severe blow to charlatans pretending to modern miracles, resulting in the more common approach of “healing” only unseen and undeterminable maladies. The miracles of the New Testament were tangible, on the spot visible demonstrations that could not be denied even by the most antagonistic enemies of Christ (cf. Acts 4:16).
Steven was empowered by the Holy Spirit in wisdom (Acts 6:3, 10; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8). He exhibited miraculous power in “great wonders and signs” (Acts 6:8). At the time of his stoning, “being full of the Holy Spirit,” he looked into heaven and saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). There is not a single Christian living today who can legitimately make any of these claims. Steven was not a “confessional witness” describing his own conversion experience or personal faith, but he was an inspired spokesman who was blessed with a supernatural view of Jesus in heaven only moments preceding his death.
Furthermore, it is during conversation with the Lord Jesus that Paul mentions “Your witness Steven” (Acts 22:20). Although Paul was an inspired spokesman for Christ when testifying to the resurrection and pertinent facts of the gospel, it must not be presumed that every word issuing from his mouth was truth inspired by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the very conversation under review begins with Christ ordering Paul to “Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me” (Acts 22:18). Paul rebuffs the Lord, remonstrating against the Lord by insisting that the Jews, knowing the details of his past, would surely come to believe his testimony if they were only given additional time. The Lord sternly rebuked him, commanding, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21).
It is impossible to reconcile Paul’s rebuttal with language inspired by the Holy Spirit, or else the inevitable conclusion would indicate a clash between Christ and the Holy Spirit concerning whether Paul should go or stay. Precedence exists revealing that the apostles did not always act and speak in a manner consistent with divine truth or in harmony with divine intentions (cf. Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 16:6-8). Every action and every spoken word by these men was not under the guidance of inspiration. In contradistinction, the positive unity of the Godhead is everywhere affirmed and no disagreement anywhere can be cited; therefore it is certain that the Holy Spirit was not directing Paul to argue against the will of Christ.
Consequently, it is certainly plausible that Paul describes Steven as a “witness,” not as a factual statement expressed by the Holy Spirit while speaking to Jesus, but by his own recollection that Steven succumbed to death while attesting that he saw Jesus standing in heaven at the right hand of the throne of God. Steven’s testimony could have been the first received by Saul that Jesus was standing in heaven at the right hand of God. In his prudential estimation, Steven may well have been revered by Paul as the Lord’s witness.
It is also entirely possible that Paul uses the term “marturos” (the only occurrence of this exact construction in Acts) to signify Steven as a martyr for Christ. W. E. Vine noted this particular usage, citing Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13 as examples of “those who ‘witness’ for Christ by their death” (1996, p. 680). The Gospel Advocate Commentary indicates the same, stating, “‘Witness’ is from the Greek ‘marturos,’ from which we get ‘martyr’…hence ‘Steven thy witness’ would mean ‘Steven thy martyr’” (Boles, 1989).
All efforts to correlate Steven with the “confessional witness” of modern-day Christianity falls woefully short of textual support. Steven ably demonstrated the possession of the Holy Spirit through the miraculous power accompanying the rehearsal of the gospel received from the apostles of Christ. By means of the Holy Spirit, Steven was privileged to see Christ standing in heaven. No “confessional witness” today has any resemblance to the situation and circumstance surrounding Steven.
The case of Antipas in Revelation 2:13 mirrors that of Steven. Although lacking specific details concerning Antipas, it is indisputable that he lived during the time when the Holy Spirit was available through the apostles’ hands, indicating the probability that Antipas, like Steven, was miraculously endowed as an extension of the apostles’ authority to repeat and substantiate the gospel preached by the apostles. But in truth, it is widely accepted that the term is used as we have previously cited from esteemed lexicographer, W. E. Vine, who connected Revelation 2:13 with the meaning, “those who ‘witness’ for Christ by their death” (Op. Cit., p. 680). This being the case, neither Steven nor Antipas offer precedence for the “confessional witness” of modern-day Christianity.
The Witness of the New Testament Canon
It is the irrevocable law of God that “Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1). In delivering the gospel to all men, God is not to be arraigned as violating His own law, but it must be conceded that God utilized multiple witnesses to affirm every indispensible fact evincing Jesus as both Christ and Lord. The solemn testimony of the apostles, whether working in pairs or singularly, was accompanied by the explicit testimony of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with them through the various displays of supernatural wonders and by the unique ability to distribute the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 2:3-4).
By these means, the compulsory facts relating to Christ and His resurrection were attested or confirmed by at least two witnesses, and more often than not, by three witnesses, satisfying the holy mandate of God. The composition of the New Testament Canon may, arguably, also be shown to comply with this same standard of witnesses:
Three synoptic gospels convey the biography of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke).
Three epistles (Hebrews, James, Jude) contain no internal ascription of apostolic authorship, and neither do they contain recognizable patterns of language which would demand apostolic authorship. Furthermore, none of the three refer to themselves as “witnesses,” but two actually direct the reader to pay close attention to what has been said by the apostles who were witnesses (cf. Hebrews 2:1-4; Jude 17).
Three apostles authored epistles (Peter, John, Paul), and within this larger framework, Peter penned two, John three, and Paul, the thirteenth apostle, authored thirteen. Notice the admission of these men as witnesses:
Peter wrote, “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1). Peter further stated, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
John expressed, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life– and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also” (1 John 1:1-3).
In his third epistle, John indicates apostleship, stating, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we [i.e., the apostles] say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us [i.e., the apostles] with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church” (vv. 9-10).
The witness motif of Paul has been previously vetted, but admittedly, not to exhaustion. Suffice, presently, is his defensive remarks concerning the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and “that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of who remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Remaining in the New Testament Canon is the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation to John. Some might overlook the corroborating testimony of these three individually unique books, but a common theme seems, to this author, to bind these three witnesses together.
The Gospel of John gives witness to the eternal glory and unmitigated deity of Jesus as the Word who became flesh, living among men as Son of God and Son of Man, performing miracles which attested His divine nature, and includes the eyewitness account of many appearances of Jesus following his death, burial, and resurrection. John explains the writing of his gospel, saying, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:30). The Gospel of John concludes with the resurrection appearances of Christ and the author’s final testimony that “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24).
The Acts of the Apostles is written by Luke, and it takes up with the appearance of Christ where the commission to serve as witnesses is repeated to the apostles on the occasion of the ascension. Luke records the testimony of the apostles in Jerusalem and Judea as ordered by Christ (2-7). He follows with the testimony of the apostles in Samaria (8). The burden of the remaining chapters concerns the spread of the gospel to all nations by the solemn testimony of the apostles and the witness of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts records the obedience of the apostles in witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus to all people.
The Revelation to John opens with the announcement that Christ sent and communicated to John “the things which must soon take place” (1:1). The gospel had been witnessed by the apostles to all nations (Romans 16:25-26; Colossians 1:5-6, 23; Book of Acts). Dire events would now begin to unfold of which the church needed to be made aware. The contents of the book of Revelation were given to “John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:2). Jesus added the concluding testimony, stating, “Yes, I am coming quickly” (22:20).
These three unique books provide essential testimony of Jesus and the resurrection which indubitably present Christ in all His regal glory. These three would be awkwardly conspicuous if placed among any other grouping, but together, these three witnesses offer compelling evidence that Jesus is Christ, Lord, and God.
The apostles of Christ were ordered to bear witness of the things they had seen and heard. What man today has seen anything of which the apostles were commanded to witness? Additionally, it was not the testimony of the apostles alone that evinced Jesus as Christ, but their testimony was backed by the witness of the Holy Spirit, testifying through demonstrations of supernatural power. Unless one can summon such a visible exertion of miraculous power today, every self-styled “witness” for Christ must be regarded as the actions of a “false apostle, deceitful worker, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). The New Testament knows nothing of an uninspired “witness.”
Those in the church of Christ attempting to name themselves as witnesses should cower in shame on account of their misapplication of terminology used by Christ in designating the holy apostles as ambassadors of the testimony which founded Christianity. No one becomes a Christian without submitting to the apostles’ doctrine; a doctrine which has as its hub the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the testimony of the apostles concerning the resurrection of Jesus and the gospel is dismissed, upon what other ground does Christianity stand? Shall we disregard the Bible in favor of our preferred “pulpit” witness?
Every mouth on earth could be silenced today, but the testimony of the apostles and the Holy Spirit would remain intact. If the church is following the personal testimony of elders, evangelists, or any other uninspired person today and not the testimony of the apostles of Christ, repentance is the only avenue available to retaining possession of the “candlestick” and remaining faithful children of God. Woe to those who have been influenced by sectarian philosophy regarding the New Testament witness, disregarding the clear import of self-interpreting biblical language.
The New Testament concept of “witness” with regards to Christ concerns the apostles who were ordered by Christ to serve as “witnesses” to the things they had personally seen and heard (Acts 1:7-8). The witness of the Holy Spirit testified in corroboration with the apostles, and through their apostolic hands, the witness of the Holy Spirit was given to others as an extension of their own testimony. God’s way of revelation has never been a solitary person claiming, “God told me this,” as commonly repeated today in a purely subjective manner, but God always authenticated His spokesman by granting miraculous power as a testifying witness.
Neither Steven nor Antipas establishes precedence for any Christian living today to serve as a “confessional witness.” These men cannot be shown to have “confessed” anything remotely resembling what is deemed “witnessing” today. It is, therefore, an erroneous concept of “witness” to assert that one’s personal testimony of faith in Christ or that the general preaching of the gospel by uninspired men (or women) is equivalent to the authorized “witnessing” for Christ as depicted on the pages of the New Testament.
If one would like to become a martyr after the manner of Steven or Antipas, there are many places in the world today where taking a stand for Christ would almost certainly conclude in martyrdom. It is interesting that self-styled “witnesses” for Christ today are not travelling to countries like Yemen, Iran, Maldives, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, or Syria. These countries have laws forbidding any religion other than Muslim, and most enforce death as the penalty for violation. The apostles never refused to preach the gospel in any locale, but “went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (Mark 16:20).
The apostles are the only authorized human witnesses of Christ. The great truths that they declared, were, that Christ died for our sins, that He was raised from the dead for our justification, and that through belief, confession, repentance, and baptism unto the remission of sins, all sinners could be saved. They never contradicted one another, they never recanted their testimony; and they never stopped witnessing to the great truths compelled upon them in their commission as ambassadors of Christ.
Even as one after another suffered brutal mistreatment and terrorizing executions, the survivors zealously propagated their witness with increasing vigor and resolution. They encountered every possible motivation to induce review and alteration of their witness that Jesus was the Christ, but though all evil powers raged in violent opposition, the apostles persisted in affirming that God raised Jesus from the dead; a fact they knew with such certainty that they testified to the truth of the resurrection with their lives.
The apostles continue to witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to the eternal scheme of human redemption through the written testimony we know as the New Testament. There has never been a Christian who did not become such but by adhering to the requisite terms of obedience set forth by the apostles. They were commissioned as witnesses and ambassadors of Christ, binding on earth what had been bound in heaven, and loosing on earth what had been loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18).
The apostles possessed authority to forgive or retain sins through the gospel they set forth (John 20:23; Luke 24:27-48). Those who gladly received their words repented of their sins and were baptized unto the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 41). They didn’t quibble or argue that baptism wasn’t essential to salvation, but humbly complied with the terms of salvation, respecting the authority of the apostles. Those who repudiated the words spoken by the apostles judged themselves “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46).
The Apostolic Commission (Great Commission) is, in reality, the command which appointed the apostles as witnesses of the things they had seen and heard, and to the truths given them by the Holy Spirit. By this fact it becomes evident that the church’s preoccupation with the “Great Commission” is misplaced and misdirected, and the repeated preaching which insists all Christians must “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” has become an unnecessary stumbling block to those realizing they possess no means of complying with such a directive.
Christians today have no testimony that is relevant to establishing the resurrection of Jesus Christ; therefore, there are no witnesses today. Neither do Christians today possess the Holy Spirit as a guide into all truth, or else the Bible becomes obsolete. Because no one can exhibit a miraculous demonstration to confirm their teaching today, it is certain that the Holy Spirit is no longer “bearing witness” to the uninspired ranting of men who are dependent, absolutely, upon the written New Testament for every pertinent detail concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The witness of the apostles to the resurrection of Christ is the foundation upon which the church is built, Christ Jesus being the corner stone (Ephesians 2:20). May a new found respect for the incomparable role of the apostles and their inspired witness increase across the land, and may elders, deacons, and evangelists realign their teaching on this subject to harmonize with the contextual orientation and original intent of Christ in commissioning the apostles as “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8).
Boles, H. Leo (1989) New Testament Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Vine, W. E. (1996) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Nelson Publishers).