Why Witness?

Contrasting Approaches

Consider two, hypothetical, but very realistic, scenarios. A team of young missionaries visits jungle villages, bringing relief supplies and providing medical care and education. As they win people’s confidence, they share the good new of Jesus as Saviour of humanity.

Another team of young evangelists travel and hold meetings, warning of Revelation’s impending doomsday, fire, and brimstone, and calling audiences to repentance.

What is the purpose of witnessing? Which team best reflects the outlook of Jesus?

Life Transformation

Personally, I feel more comfortable with the first outlook. Not so much the jungle part, even though I have ministered in the jungle. Rather, the idea of the gospel blessing people’s lives and improving them in a wholistic way holds a strong appeal.

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33). In the Bible, leaven is used as a symbol of sin. Just as leaven affects the whole dough, sin can affect every aspect of the human life.

In Matthew 13:33, however, Jesus uses the exact same example of leaven to refer not to the impact of sin, but to the impact of the gospel. Sins corrupts everything it touches. The gospel has the power to transform and restore everything it touches.

My father once told me the story of a gentleman married to an Adventist lady in his church. He lived a destitute lifestyle; he opposed her faith and would make her life miserable. One day, the church was organizing an outing and invited him along. He not only came along, but, to their utter dismay, he stood in their midst, confessed his wrong-doings, and declared his determination to follow Jesus.

My father, who was the pastor of that little church, did not quite know what to make of this. Was the man being sincere? Or was it another one of his shenanigans? Time proved him sincere. From that day onward he became an exemplary husband and committed believer. “Never in my ministry had I seen such a case of sudden and complete transformation,” my father told me years later.

Transformation often takes time. And it is likely that in this man’s life the Spirit had been working for some time through his believing wife and the loving little church community. But whether it takes a shorter or longer time, the transformation and restoration of character is truly a piece of finest art performed by a Master Artist, the Holy Spirit.

Just like health professionals love seeing patients restored to health, our heavenly, spiritual Health Professional loves to transform broken lives back towards the ideal of Adam and Eve, back to the likeness and image of Himself (Gen 1:26).

God’s call to us to participate in this transforming work, is life’s highest calling. Now, that is a beautiful reason to witness.

A Sharp Edge

Reading the Bible one cannot fail to see that beyond the immeasurable love that flows from God to fallen humanity, there is a sharp edge to the gospel proclamation. Jesus began His ministry with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Incidentally, His cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist, preached an identical message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

John addressed some sinners as “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7). Jesus went a step further and called them children of the devil (John 8:44). Strong language.

“Repent” is not a word we hear often from pulpits nowadays. And if a pastor were to address anyone as a brood of a viper or a child of the devil, he would probably find himself without a church!

Fire-and-brimstone preaching once used to be popular. My mother first became a reluctant follower of Jesus through a fire-and-brimstone sermon she had heard on the radio. The idea of hell scared her. Fortunately, from Adventists she eventually learned that there is no such thing as everlasting torment in hell. And in the process of study and growth, she also learned to love rather than fear Jesus. But the first impetus to faith had been the realization that every human must one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10).

She is not the only one. With the onslaught of the COVID 19 pandemic, I was surprised to witness a sudden outburst of interest in spiritual matters in my community. Persons who may have had marginal spiritual interests were seeking guidance to study the Bible. Long-time believers were asking for sermons from Revelation about the end times. The possibility that soon before us may lie an end to the comfortable life, as many in the western hemisphere know it, was enough to spark a desire to get things right with God.

Complementary Approaches?

Could it be that a ministry expressed though words and acts of kindness, and a ministry of fire and brimstone messages, are not antithetical but complementary realities?

A defining text for Adventists, Revelation 14:6-11 (the three angels’ message), may suggest as much. It contains some of the most powerful expressions of Divine love. It speaks of the “everlasting gospel.” “Gospel,” Greek euaggelion, means an announcement of good news. This gospel is described as “everlasting,” the strongest adjective in the Bible to describe the gospel.

Then the text calls humanity to acknowledge God as Creator. This is the Bible’s strongest such call. To recognize God as Creator is incredibly good news, because it means that we are His sons and daughters. Since He is the King of the universe, each one who so recognizes Him is a prince or princess of the universe! Talk about good news!

And, of course, acknowledging God as our Creator and Father implies that He will eventually fully restore us into His image and likeness. Revelation 14:6-11 is saturated with good news, with a ministry of restoration and life transformation.

And yet, within this most profound text of good news, we find some of the Bible’s strongest warnings. The first angel’s message begins with the words, “Fear God” (Rev 14:7). We like to maintain that to “fear God” means to “respect Him”: rightly so. And yet we should not forget that the saints of old who found themselves in the presence of God, or even of an angel, experienced a very real and tangible fear. Our God is an awesome God.

The second and third angels contain even more fearsome messages. They warn of the fall of Babylon and of the terrible consequences of receiving the mark of the beast.

In these few verses, the good news appears with the messages of warning in surprising co-existence.

Synthesis

Why witness? Because it is through witnessing that sinners encounter the gospel and the saving grace of Jesus that can restore us to peace with God, to His image and likeness. Our witness should therefore reflect the infinite love of God, who allowed His Son to die on the cross to make this a reality.

Why witness? Because, whether we like it or not, every human will one day stand before God. It will be a solemn, indeed fearsome event. The time to prepare for it is now. Our witness should therefore always maintain a sharp edge, based on the sure knowledge of the realities that lie ahead.

Kim Papaioannou holds a PhD in Theology, with an emphasis in the New Testament, from the University of Durham in England. He has served as church minister and professor of theology in Europe and Asia for over twenty years.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10568
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Interesting…

"Why witness? Because it is through witnessing that sinners encounter the gospel and the saving grace of Jesus that can restore us to peace with God, to His image and likeness. Our witness should therefore reflect the infinite love of God, who allowed His Son to die on the cross to make this a reality.

Why witness? Because, whether we like it or not, every human will one day stand before God. It will be a solemn, indeed fearsome event. The time to prepare for it is now. Our witness should therefore always maintain a sharp edge, based on the sure knowledge of the realities that lie ahead."

One would think that it would be more “positive” to at least invert these two paragraphs…otherwise, we have a positive message followed by a “negative”.

I would also like to add- that for many the day that they die is when for them, all ceases. The Second Coming will be the next “awakening”.

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“Witnessing” has become part of religious jargon; and is presented as a Christian obligation. It generally includes Bible study as well as some form of teaching - usually church beliefs and standards.

To be a witness, in a legal sense, means personal, first person knowledge. It has nothing to do with what anyone has heard; been told; or believes. When it comes to being a Christian witness, it seems to be about what we have learned - information. That is not first person knowledge. Unless we are having an experience - first person knowledge about the gospel, we have nothing to witness to. In fact, it may not even be what we have to say, but what we are passing on by simply living.

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I disagree that standing before God is a ‘fearsome event’…I thought it was Christ who stood before God in our place. Where is the fear in that? If ‘fear’ is driving us, then we are back to salvation by works.

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Option 2 is utter nonsense and generally offensive to most of its victims. Those who aren’t offended are generally seeking a fire escape from hell. Neither response is a result of productive “witnessing.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not witnessing at all but rather an attempt to work one’s way into the Kingdom.

The first option, though far preferable to the second is more like a manipulation. We provide needed humanitarian aid and hope that the recipients are grateful and accepting of our “witnessing.”

In late April of 2004 I found myself at a church retreat. I was at one of the lowest points of my life emotionally. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, but there were weeks, months even, when all I wanted was for the pain to end in whatever form that took.

The speaker that Sabbath morning was a woman who seemed kind, motherly, and most importantly seemed to have a personal walk with God. I don’t remember anything about her talk that morning except a few short sentences near the end that went something like this:

“The first thing you need to know about witnessing is to forget everything you ever learned about it. Every one of us here have experienced deep valleys in our lives. Our job as witnesses for Christ is not to share the Gospel with the whole world. No, our job is to share our story with those who find themselves in that same deep valley where we have been. Don’t go into it somehow expecting a convert. Don’t even necessarily go into it sharing religious themed words. Share with them your 12-step program or group. Recommend Recovery focused books and articles. Most importantly tell your story. They need to know that they’re not alone; that others have walked the valley ahead of them. You need to learn how to leave a well in that valley with no other expectation than that they’ll be able to drink from it and find their way out of the valley. Once you’ve done that, step out of the way and let God work his grace.”

That was the first time in my life that the concept of “witnessing” made any sense to me at all. Why? Because a few days earlier I’d stumbled across a well someone had left for me in my valley. They’d come to me saying they’d notice I’d been down the last while and asked if I wanted to talk about it. They seemed safe so I opened up just a little, and in response they told me their story, which was very similar to my own. Then they showed me a drawing of a guy building a brick and mortar wall in a small square all the way around themselves, reaching as high as they could to place the last few bricks on the top of that wall. I stared at it, dumbstruck, and with tears in my eyes I met their gaze and whispered, “That’s me…” it was all uphill from that point on for me. Why? Because someone who’d once been in the same valley as I was had left a well there for me to drink from.

Witnessing? The SDA church has it 99.9% wrong and always has.

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We are to be witnesses this mystery of the Gospel: Ephesians 3:9-11 “…and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God gave the Children of Israel the Law, and to the gentiles the Messiah, why?
To demonstrate our human inability to gain redemption by our own efforts.
They witness to us the Law, we in return witness to them the Gospel, together we make a wonderful Biblical family.

The witness of individual Christians and the church is not primarily for the saving of individual souls for eternity out of this world. That almost sounds like a gnostic abandonment of an evil creation, and a private spirituality on the margins of life in this world.

Instead, I think that it is primarily the witness that the kingdom/rule of God, through the empowering presence of Jesus and his Spirit, has invaded this present world, his distorted but still very good creation, and seeks to transform it. Thus, witnessing becomes the church’s way of life within the center of this world, to bring transformational hope, healing, truth, justice, and self giving love, to the world that God so loves. This present world. This world of hurting people, and indeed all kinds of peoples and cultures. It is the signpost to the future that God has in store to renew all creation, when his presence will fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.

We thus have the responsibility and privilege, through our silent and verbal witness, to bring his gracious and restorative presence and image into this world, what it means to be truly human, in and through our relationships, work, play, our engagement in the arts, sciences, and in our communities and the political realm. In these ways, we act as harbingers that the best is yet to come!

Thanks…

Frank

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To be an honest witness requires the walk AND the talk rhyme.

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thanks for sharing, I’ve met a few friends like that, those who walked with me in my desert wanderings, holding shade for me. I no longer wonder why, but i find myself sometimes “back in the desert”, walking with another weary and thirsty sojourner
A spring of living water, in the desert.

Most of us have stagnant stinking self-hewn cisterns…no thanks.

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Wouldn’t you think that the way “witness” is used is a misnomer? It doesn’t communicate the concept of what one attempts to accomplish in these efforts?

Doesn’t life include both. The point is, preaching doesn’t usually do it.

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All we have to pass on to others is our personal experience. If our “witness” doesn’t come from what truly has been our experience, we are not a “witness” to anything.

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Which perhaps is why Jesus never sermonized, as we have taught our ordained young men to so thoroughly do. Most preachers would do better if they were mute…

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Instead the question may be ‘how do you witness’. We are all witnessing all the time through everything we do or do not do.

(Ministers who preach one way but act another, parents who are kind and treat everyone forthrightly as well as their children, the person who lies for expediency but demands total honest from others.)
Each is witnessing through their daily life.

Empathy, social justice, volunteering out of our comfort zone, and being prepared to answer the question ‘what church do you go to’ are everyday witnessing which need our constant prayer and study to be prepared to follow through with.

Are you able to, at a moments’ inner urging, offer to ‘pray’ with a stranger in distress, go out of your way to help anyone nearby in need or give your meal to a hungry person or ???

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It’s a problematic concept largely because personal experience is … personal. And subjective semantics of that experience may not translate well for the other person on which doesn’t see and understand such experience the same way.

For example, I spoke to a young fundamentalist the other day, and she said something along the lines that God closed some doors, and she felt called by God to attend the University in a different place that’s less expensive.

The way I translated it from “fundamentalese” - I tried to go to this place, but this one turned out to be cheaper and a more practical choice .

So, there’s a tendency of layering “God” on one’s experience that one projects to convince themselves that God directs their lives. And it becomes problematic in context where such judgement becomes purely subjective and unconstrained. It begins to sound a bit nutty , if you know what I mean.

So, I think we should look closely as to what and why we are engaging in all of that, and then perhaps we may find out why it hasn’t really been effective as of late.

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Yes, but that is YOUR response to this person’s “witness”. You can accept or reject it as you want. At the same time, the person with this “nutty” sense of God has his/her personal take on the subject. Who are you to make a judgment. It’s nutty to you, but … Maybe your “witness” sounds off target to someone else - but that’s all you have; take it or leave it. There find point is, the Spirit will guide.

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If we can come up with a consolidated reference and definitions, then we are essentially ending up with a state of theological confusion in which a fork is a hair brush, and screwdriver, and a device to remove weeds in the backyard… and occasionally it can be something that you can eat with, but we can’t insist on correcting other people.

So, it’s the ironic version of fundamentlist postmodernism in which anything goes so long as it stays within certain boundaries of the narrative :slight_smile:.

Are we talking about theology? Theology is compartmentalizing God. Human experience is messy and can’t be realized systematically. No one said we should form a theology out of “go ye into all the world” as a witness.

Theology allows us to define what we mean by that concept to begin with.

If someone thinks that God is a tree in a center of a forest that answers players, it wouldn’t be compartmentalizing God to say that it’s not the case when we are talking about Christian theology.

I’d say that’s “a bridge too far”. We still have context. The unifying context is the Christian faith as represented in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That would leave out trees in the forests, I think.

Yes, it bothers me too when prayer results in a parking spot - unless it does of course. Who really knows. That’s not theology but it just may keep a faith alive.