The Apostolic Witness in Acts
Christ commissioned the apostles to witness to what they had personally seen and heard, and the book of Acts is a record of their testimony. The witness of the apostles was confirmed by no less power than that of the Holy Spirit who provided His own testimony through miraculous manifestations (cf. John 15:26-27). Luke opens the Acts narrative with a reiteration of the apostles’ appointment as “witnesses” (1:8). After charging the apostles “whom He had chosen” with the incomparable task of witnessing in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the “remotest part of the earth,” the Lord ascended into heaven.
Luke then proceeds to the selection process of a replacement for Judas “who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (1:15ff). The betrayal by Judas left a position open among the witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:20). Peter articulated the requisite qualifications for the person to be appointed as Judas’ replacement among the witnesses, explaining: “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning with the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
Notice here two fundamental qualifications pertaining to the replacement apostle and witness: (1) the newly appointed witness must be chosen from among “the men,” thus excluding the many women who were counted as disciples of Christ (e.g., Mary and Martha, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, Joanna, etc.); (2) the eligible candidate must have been a participant among those who were physically present with Jesus from the beginning of His public ministry until the time of His ascension from the Mount of Olives; thus excluding even His own brothers who only recently became disciples (cf. John 7:3-5; Acts 1:14).
Balz and Schneider remarked, “Thus the presence at the life, death, and resurrection is the only prerequisite for the office of witness: The one who assumes the position of Judas must first, on the basis of the election by the resurrected one, ‘become a witness of his resurrection.’ Martys is thus more than ‘eyewitness.’ The subject of this apostolic witness is, according to the missionary sermons of the first half of Acts, esp. the resurrection of Jesus” (1991, p. 395).
Although two men were recognized as meeting the specific qualifications, only one – Matthias – was appointed to serve as “witness” of the resurrection of Jesus to “the remotest part of the earth.” Despite meeting the standard, “Joseph called Barsabbas” was not named with the eleven as an apostle and witness of Christ. He was fully acquainted with all the pertinent facts, but he was not chosen to represent Christ to all the world. The role of “witness” was not a voluntary occupation; neither did it engage every Christian, but was an assignment consisting of a special call, a special commission, and special credentials to affirm the authenticity of the testimony offered on behalf of Christ.
The exclusivity surrounding the unique witnesses of Christ is attested again and again. Paul later recognized that more than five hundred brethren had seen the Lord Jesus following His resurrection, but these were not ordered by Christ to become itinerant “witnesses” of the gospel to all nations. The Apostolic Commission is the order from Christ appointing these men as His chosen witnesses, bearing the testimony of His suffering, death, and resurrection to all nations. Who among men today has seen anything of which the apostles were ordered to witness?
The testimony of Christ’s witnesses to all nations began in Jerusalem on the eventful day of Pentecost in the year A.D. 30. Taking his stand with the eleven, Peter rehearses the details of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, asserting, “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Privileged to serve in the capacity ordered by Christ, the apostles testified to the facts they knew to be true from firsthand observation and experience. The Holy Spirit confirmed the testimony of the apostles concerning the resurrection of Jesus, witnessing to the truth by signs, wonders, and miracles, and by distributions of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33, 43; cf. Hebrews 2:3-4).
In his book, Therefore Stand, Wilbur Smith asserts, “All the preaching of the apostles in the early church emphasized more than any other known fact relating to Christ, His miraculous resurrection. The first sermon of the divinely established church, the one delivered by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, is ‘wholly and entirely founded on the Resurrection. Not merely is the resurrection its principal theme, but if that doctrine were removed there would be no doctrine left…Thus the first Christian sermon is founded on the position of Jesus as determined by His Resurrection’” (1945, pp. 364-65; quoted within is Sparrow-Simpson, The resurrection and Modern Thought, 1911, pp. 230-31).
The book of Acts records the ongoing determination of the apostles to proclaim the gospel in harmony with their unique role as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Following the healing of the lame man at the entrance to the temple by Peter and John, Peter preached Jesus as Christ, stating, “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murder to be granted to you, but put to death the Author of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15). The apostles courageously testified to the resurrection of Jesus amidst the very people who were culpable in His crucifixion, affirming themselves as eyewitnesses to the fact.
The apostles were afterward arrested and questioned by the high priest who forbade them to proclaim Jesus and the resurrection any longer. “But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:19-20). The apostles were under stringent orders to bear witness of Jesus and His resurrection, and having been previously counseled by Jesus that they should fear the consequence of God and not man (Matthew 10:28), they defied the orders of the high priest, continuing their witness of Christ in the city of Jerusalem.
Consequently, the apostles were taken into custody a second time, but an angel was dispatched to release them, instructing, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life” (Acts 5:20). In undeviating compliance, they were soon arrested a third time and once again questioned by the high priest who reiterated the previous order that Peter and John should immediately cease and desist proclaiming the name of Jesus. The apostles responded candidly, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5: 29-32).
This passage provides unequivocal affirmation of the double testimony arranged by Christ in John 15:26-27: (1) the apostles were witnesses; (2) the Holy Spirit was a witness. Although often cited and employed today as a proof text for the reception of the Holy Spirit in an “ordinary measure” by all Christians, this passage has no correlating contemporary. The witness of the apostles was their eyewitness testimony to the facts concerning the identity of Jesus as confirmed by His resurrection. The witness of the Holy Spirit consisted of the demonstration of miraculous power (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4-5).
The same double testimony is evinced by John in his apostolic defense against “false prophets” who were denying the Lord’s humanity. John testified, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:13-14). No one living today can make the claim of this verse, because no one living today has seen Christ or received the Spirit in the manner spoken of by John.
1 John 4:13-14 and Acts 5:32 are two examples of the apostles making appeal to the double testimony promised them by Christ in John 15:26-27. The things claimed today concerning the Holy Spirit have absolutely nothing in common with the connotation of the apostles in the passages cited – or with any other passage of Scripture. We are dependent upon those who were eyewitnesses, and their testimony is found in the New Testament, wholly confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the miraculous.
To demonstrate the uniqueness of the apostles as witnesses, consider, too, that at the time of Acts 5, the church boasted several thousand Christians, and if every Christian was called to “witness” as is commonly asserted today, why the significance placed upon Peter and John? Why was it necessary for these two men to be miraculously released from the public jail in order to stand in the temple testifying to the resurrection of Jesus, while literally thousands of other Christians stood on the same grounds? The answer is found in the biblical context of “witness.”
The testimony of the apostles was commanded by Christ, and the promised Holy Spirit witnessed with them through the miraculous power which initiated the Pentecostal sermon and remained active with them through the events depicted in the narrative currently under review. It is clearly stated; “At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people” (Acts 5:12). The Holy Spirit witnessed to the resurrection of Jesus by displaying supernatural wonders through the apostles who were obeying the orders of Christ to bear witness to what they had seen and heard. Herein is the meaning of “witness” as used regarding the apostles and the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:32.
At the inception of Gentile inclusion into the kingdom of Christ, Peter explained to those assembled, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach to the people…” (Acts 10:38-42).
As noted by John Mackintosh Shaw, “the preaching of Christ is for the apostles the preaching of his resurrection, and their primary function is to be witnesses of the fact” (1920, p. 4). Serving as a witness meant testifying to events concerning Christ with as much exactness as if the body of evidence was being presented before a court of law. The “witness” of the apostles did not concern subjective beliefs or personal expressions of faith in order to persuade others to become Christians, but they witnessed to empirical facts, detailing time, place, and persons involved in every circumstance concerning the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. These events had been personally observed by the apostles, and they proclaimed what they knew to be true, emphasizing the resurrection of Christ as the keystone of Christianity.
In an ironic twist of egregious misunderstanding, the doctrine of the so-called “Great Commission” has presently supplanted the resurrection of Christ as the central theme of the modern church. Bishops and evangelists today harp constantly on the need to fulfill the “Great Commission,” whereas the apostles emphasized the resurrection of Christ as the primary focus of their witnessing. They did so in accordance with the Apostolic Commission which they received from Christ, charging them as “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-49).
Not once in any recorded sermon by an apostle is anyone ever commanded to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” but the apostles “solemnly testified” to the resurrection of Christ as seen throughout the book of Acts, whereby they literally made “disciples of all the nations.” The witness of the resurrection was the prominent feature of the apostles’ testimony, and it is the “witness” of the apostles that should remain the central focus of the church today in all evangelistic efforts. The testimony of the apostles was written down by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and remains available for those of all nations to personally evaluate and arrive at a concluding verdict concerning Jesus Christ.
The Appointment of Saul as Witness
In one of the most unanticipated moves by Christ, Luke records how the Lord Jesus called and appointed the most brazen and vicious persecutor of the gospel, ordering him to become a witness of the resurrection to both Jews and Gentiles. In harmony with the qualifying element that the apostles serve as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus was granted a personal appearance and conversation with the resurrected Lord on the Damascus Road.
In this special meeting orchestrated by Christ, the Lord charged Saul, in the same way He did the other apostles, to witness to the things “you have seen.” This passage provides a divine commentary regarding the context of “witness” intended by Christ. Saul received the explicit explanation, “I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you” (Acts 26:16).
On that occasion, Saul, being greatly disturbed, asked, “Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me’” (Acts 26:15-18).
The Apostolic Commission is identical in every instance. The chosen witnesses were sent forth under direct orders from Christ to bear witness of the things they had seen and heard to all nations. Essential to their testimony was the resurrection of Christ from the grave; thus all the witnesses had literally seen Christ alive after His suffering, death, burial, and resurrection. The misapplication of Christ’s directive as incumbent upon all Christians in general is a grievous mistake in exegesis.
Anticipating the likely protest by some that Saul had not been with Christ from the beginning as had the other apostles, let it be recognized that in the appearance on the Damascus Road, the Lord confirmed Saul’s witness as inclusive of “the things in which I will appear to you.” That special circumstances attend the appointment of Saul to apostleship is granted, but bear in mind, his qualifications were provided supernaturally by Christ. Defining the noun martus, Thayer detailed the eyewitness aspect of what one had seen, heard, or experienced, but he also stated, “or that (so in the N.T.) he knows it because taught by divine revelation or inspiration” (1958, #3140).
In His writings, Paul affirmed on behalf of all the apostles, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). To the Galatians, Paul declared concerning the gospel he preached, “For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11). By means of the power of the Holy Spirit which accompanied the apostles, Paul was granted intimate awareness of the things which the Lord did and spoke during His earthly ministry (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; Acts 20:35; Acts 13:23-25). This unparalleled, yet crucial, ability demonstrates the contextual nature of Christ’s promise to be with the apostles in miraculous power as evinced in every occurrence of the Apostolic Commission.
The conversion of Saul to Christianity included the employment of Ananias. However, the Lord did not order Ananias to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” or to be a “witness” of Christ to all men, but Ananias was directed “to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul” (Acts 9:11). When Ananias hesitated from fear of harm, the Lord ordered, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (9:15).
Discussing the events with Saul, Ananias dutifully reported, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14-15). It is certainly interesting to note that while Ananias was called to serve the Lord through instructing and assisting Saul in baptism in order to wash away his sins (Acts 22:16), Ananias was not a “chosen instrument” or “a witness” to bear the name of Christ to all men.
Saul was the chosen witness who would occupy a place among the other apostles, and he immediately began to obey the commission assigned to him. While witnessing for Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28), the Lord appeared to Saul in a vision, saying, “Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me…Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:17-21). The Lord later “stood at his side and said, ‘Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also” (Acts 23:11).
Having journeyed to Pisidian Antioch, Paul preached the name of Jesus. After detailing the events of His death and subsequent burial, Paul continued, affirming, “But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:30-31). Paul evinces the apostles as “witnesses,” but nothing is ever said which indicates all Christians were appointed as witnesses.
The resurrection of Jesus was the preeminent message of the apostles. Smith observed, “All the apostles, Paul most of all, set forth the resurrection of Christ as one of the two great fundamental themes of the gospel” (Op. Cit., p. 369). Testifying before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Paul declared, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). Before Felix, he asserted the same, exclaiming, “For the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you today” (Acts 24:21).
Festus, in reporting Paul’s case to Agrippa, told how the Jews “had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:9). While standing before Agrippa, Paul asked, “Why is it considered incredible among you if God does raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8), concluding his defense by testifying that Moses and the prophets had foretold “that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” ( Acts 26:23).
Paul received the identical call to witness for Christ as did the other apostles; he received the same commission to go into all the earth and witness; and he received the very same credentials to confirm the testimony of his apostolic witness, i.e., the witness of the Holy Spirit through signs, wonders and miracles, and through distributions of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 19:5-6; 2 Timothy 1:6). On the basis of these highly distinctive commendations, Paul considered himself “not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5). Who among men today can boast the role of witness for Christ, demonstrating the same commendations that belonged to Paul and all the apostles?
Balz, Horst and Gerhard Schneider (1991), Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Shaw, John Mackintosh (1920), The Resurrection of Christ (Edinburgh).
Smith, Wilbur (1945), Therefore Stand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Thayer, J. H. (1958), Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).