Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"THE OUTPOURED SPIRIT MADE JESUS’ DISCIPLES RELIABLE WITNESSES."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 62:7; Hymn 29:1
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven. The Word He left behind is clear in its intent, and very, very rich, comforting. So rich, in fact, is that gospel that we have our questions, our doubts: surely that can’t be what Jesus means?! No condemnation for me?! God’s peace for me?! How do I really know that this is truly what Jesus means, means for me?! We’d love to ask Him, to verify, to clarify…. But we can’t; He ascended into heaven…, is gone….
But here, my brothers and sisters, is again the love of your God for you and me. Before His ascension into heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ made it His business to address His church on precisely this point. Jesus’ words in our text are spoken to the eleven disciples, but are recorded in the Bible for our edification. With these words you and I are told that there are witnesses –no less than eleven of them!- who can testify to the truth of God’s Word. God has said that "on the testimony of two or three witnesses every word shall be established." And these witnesses do not err; the Spirit to be poured out on Pentecost would ensure that they testify truthfully. The Lord our God, then, would have us to know for sure.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
THE OUTPOURED SPIRIT MADE JESUS’ DISCIPLES RELIABLE WITNESSES.
Jesus tells the disciples in our text that they are "witnesses". The modern Bible reader will hear in the term ‘witnesses’ the notion of ‘witnessing’. So today’s Bible reader hears in this text that the disciples are to give their testimony of what Jesus has done for them. This, after all, is the meaning given to the word ‘witness’ in today’s evangelical circle. To witness is to give a testimony, a testimony specifically of something you’ve experienced in your life. So a testimony relates an event in your life that gives witness to Jesus’ love for you or Jesus’ power in your life. There is, then, a subjective element in today’s understanding of the notion of ‘witnessing’, an element where the self and what the self has experienced is very important.
For that reason I need to set before what the Bible means with the concept of ‘witnessing’. As it turns out, the term ‘witness’ as used in the Bible has nothing to do with subjective experiences, with how I feel about things. When Jesus tells His disciples that they are ‘witnesses’, He in no way is suggesting that they have to give testimonies about what happened in their lives. The disciples themselves, when they heard the words of our text, heard in the word ‘witness’ the loading the term receives in the Old Testament. If we wish to understand Jesus’ word to His disciples and its comfort for us, we also need to have clear in our minds what a ‘witness’ is according to the Old Testament.
A ‘witness’ in the Old Testament is first of all an element of the legal world; a witness is someone who has seen an evil being committed and reports to the judge what he has seen. So I read in Num 5 the following concerning the unfaithful wife:
"If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught…" (Num 5:12f).
Similarly in Dt 17:
"Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness" (vs 6).
We understand: such a witness did not testify to a personal feeling or experience; such a witness had to report what he actually saw happening. His personal evaluation of the event was not part of his ‘witness’; his testimony had to be objective. And on the basis of such testimony-of-fact, the elders had to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused.
I mention some more examples.
"Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us. It shall therefore be a witness to you, lest you deny your God" (Josh 24:27).
What we have in all this? Heaven and earth, and Joshua’s stone too, can never evaluate, can never give a testimony in the sense that they give witness to what they themselves have experienced. Heaven and earth, and a stone too, can be witness only in as much as God and man know that heaven and earth, and the stone too, were present when the act of making the covenant occurred. A witness, then, is simply one who reports the facts that happened.
Now Jesus says to the disciples: "You are witnesses." That’s to say: you have seen, are seeing, will see certain things, and as witnesses it shall be your responsibility to report what you’ve seen, and to report it accurately. As witnesses the disciples are not called upon to report how they individually have digested what they’ve seen, are not called to report how they feel about what they’ve witnessed. As witnesses they are instead to pass on to the judge what they’ve actually seen and heard. And the judge, of course, on the basis of their report, must rule whether the matter is true or false – and take the necessary consequences.
2. What the Disciples are Witnesses of
Of what, now, must the disciples witness? What have they seen? Says Jesus to them, "You are witnesses of these things." Of what things? It’s what Jesus said in the preceding verses. The disciples are to testify that Christ suffered and arose from the dead on the third day, are to testify too that repentance and remission of sins is preached in Jesus’ name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem. Yet it’s not just the fact itself of Jesus’ suffering and dying that’s to be verified, nor the fact itself that repentance is preached to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem. Rather, what’s to be verified by their witness is that these facts –the suffering, the rising and the preaching- actually fulfil what is written in the Scriptures. That’s the punch of it: "thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."
So, Yes, the disciples in time to come had to report the events they had witnessed on Good Friday, had to report that Jesus suffered. More, in time to come they had to report the events of Easter Sunday, had to testify that Jesus really arose from the dead. And they had to report also the events that were shortly to occur on Pentecost day, how that on that day "repentance and remission of sins" was "preached in [Jesus’] name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem." Yet –I repeat- the fine point of what they had to testify was not the facts of Good Friday (Jesus suffered) and Easter Sunday (Jesus arose) and Pentecost (repentance was proclaimed to the nations gathered in Jerusalem); the fine point of their witness had to be that these events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday and Pentecost had to happen, had to happen because they were foretold in holy Scripture. That Jesus suffered and died is of itself an insignificant fact; thousands have suffered before Him, and their sufferings do not merit continual reporting. But Jesus’ suffering receives its significance from the fact that the God of heaven and earth had ordained that He must suffer to pay for sins –that’s the very heart of all that’s written in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms- and that’s why it’s worth repeated reporting. That Jesus arose from the dead is of itself no more significant than the rising of the son of the Shunammite widow in Elisha’s day (II Kings 4:34f), and therefore not worth continued reporting. But that Jesus’ resurrection was ordained by God –the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms are full of it- as evidence of Jesus’ victory over death itself (and hence over sin as the cause of death) makes the matter very much worth reporting, again and again. That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in Jerusalem to representatives of all nations is in itself not worth repeating; such messages have been proclaimed around the world countless times in the name of innumerable gods. But that repentance and forgiveness should be preached in the name of the One who suffered for sin and arose from the dead –and that as fulfilment of the Word of God in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms- Yes, that’s worth repeated reporting. That God has fulfilled the Scriptures, that God is faithful to the promises He made over the years and generations, that He’s poured out onto Jesus Christ the judgment He ordained on sin, and that Jesus bore His curse and triumphed over sin and death, and that this good news is preached not just to Israel but to representatives from all nations – Yes, this is exciting news that may not be kept hidden, nor is it news that must be considered suspect. Such delightful news of God’s faithfulness needs witnesses, persons who can testify of its factuality because they’ve seen it themselves – that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
Indeed, congregation, that was the principle by which truth was to be determined in Old Testament Israel. Not circumstantial evidence carried weight before a judge, but the testimony of witnesses, of persons who saw with their own eyes that the accused transgressed the law, and reported to the judge what they saw. Two, three dinkum witnesses constituted evidence that the matter was fact, and the judge had to rule accordingly.
But see, Jesus does not have simply two witnesses or three to the fact that His suffering on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday and the proclamation on Pentecost actually fulfilled the biblical prophecy. Jesus has eleven witnesses! "You," He says to the eleven, "are witnesses of these things." All know the Scriptures of the Old Testament –vs 45: "He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures"- and all can testify that what God foretold in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms actually came to pass in Jesus Christ! If two or three, my brothers and sisters, constituted evidence that a matter was sure, how much more clout belongs to the evidence of eleven witnesses!!
And yes, we today possess the witness of these disciples to the fact that God fulfilled the prophecies of Old Testament Scripture. Observe only the second chapter of Acts. The Old Testament Scriptures prophesied plainly that God’s saving work through Israel was not for Israel alone; Abraham was set apart in order to be a blessing for the nations (Gen 12:3). The prophet Joel was moved by the Spirit of God to predict that one day God would pour out His Holy Spirit "on all flesh" so that "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" – not just Israelites (Joel 2:28f). Well now, Acts 2 tells us that on the day of Pentecost "there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews … from every nation under heaven" (vs 5). To these representatives of all the nations the eleven disciples, through the mouth of Peter (vs 14), witnessed to the fact that the Scriptures were fulfilled. Look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon: of the 23 verses of that sermon, 11 verses are quotes from the Old Testament. Those verses of Old Testament Scripture all demonstrate God’s faithfulness; He has done what He said He would do. Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms had foretold that the gospel should come to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and Peter in his sermon –he quotes Joel 2- testifies to precisely that. Conclusion: Scripture is fulfilled! Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms had foretold that the Lord must suffer on Good Friday and triumph, must be raised from the dead also, and Peter in his sermon –he quotes Ps 16- testifies to precisely that. Conclusion: Scripture is fulfilled! In accordance with Old Testament prophecy, Jesus told His disciples before His ascension "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached" to the nations in Jerusalem, and see, Acts 2 records that precisely that happened. For when Peter in his sermon set the connection between the prophecies of Scripture and the events of the last so many days in Jerusalem, his hearers "were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’" For the people as a result of that sermon saw that Scripture was fulfilled, and so knew themselves confronted with the God Who is always present and active. So –vs 38- "Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." You see: here again the word of the Lord is shown to be true; what He said in Luke 24 about repentance and forgiveness being preached in Jerusalem indeed came to pass – as the apostles testify; it’s written in the chapter before us!
It confronts us, brothers and sisters, with a task. The disciples are witnesses, called upon by Jesus Christ to testify to the fact that the Scriptures of God are true, that the God of the Scriptures does what He says He’d do. According to these witnesses, Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday and this proclamation of repentance and forgiveness on Pentecost fulfilled the predictions of the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms. Well now, will you accept the testimony of eleven witnesses? God has sovereignly established His covenant of grace with you, and in that covenant given you enormously rich promises. That is: His sufferings were for you; God told you in the covenant that His Son suffered and died in your place. In the covenant God established with you, He told you too that you arose with Jesus when He arose from the dead. And in His covenant with you He told you - despite your race or language- that the Holy Spirit was poured out for you too. Glorious promises all! Too good to be true?? Is God reliable? Tell me, will you accept the testimony of elevent witnesses? Or will you still be disbelieving of the factuality of the gospel? The testimony of the witnesses is clear; now you are the judge who must rule what action of necessity must follow from their testimony. And Yes, the necessary action is clear: it is for us to accept their testimony, be persuaded that God’s Word is sure, and so embrace it in obedience of faith.
3. How the disciples can give faithful witness
Now you may say: but these witnesses are human, and so could be wrong. Ultimately that’s true; given human depravity even eleven witnesses, unlikely though it seems, could be wrong.
Behold then, congregation, how far your Saviour has gone to ensure that His witnesses are truly reliable! Notice the Lord’s words in vs 49: "Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you." The "Promise of the Father" is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, says Jesus to the eleven, would be poured out on all flesh – even as the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms had foretold.
And what would that Spirit do? How would the Spirit affect their task as witnesses? Says Jesus, "Tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high." "Endued", says our translation. In plain English: "dressed", "clothed". That’s the point: the Holy Spirit at His outpouring would wrap Himself around these witnesses as a cloak –better, as a harness- so that they do and say what He directs them to do and say. Their witness, then, would not be a witness from this earth (with its limitations and errors); their witness would ultimately come from heaven – and therefore be infallible. Here, then, is the more ground for us today to take seriously every word of the apostles! For these "holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (II Peter 1:21). And would you say that the Holy Spirit of God wrongly presented the Word or the intentions of God?!!
On Pentecost Day the Holy Spirit was poured out, poured out also on the eleven so that they witnessed to the wonderful works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jerusalem they testified in various languages before peoples of many nations, testified in words that came from heaven, testified that indeed the word of the Lord as spoken in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms was fulfilled. And I said it already: the hearers realised that the Word they heard from these eleven witnesses was a Word of power and authority, a Word of truth; it cut them to the heart (Acts 2:37) so that they sought the necessary consequences.
You, my brothers and sisters, have heard and have read the testimony of the witnesses, a testimony rooted in heaven. It’s a testimony gloriously rich in its comfort and encouragement for us – if it’s true. What do you think: is it true? You need to judge the report of the witnesses, and take the necessary consequences. What is your conclusion then – for you know your Bibles, don’t you? What is your judgment: given the testimony of the witnesses, has God kept His Old Testament Word or not?
These are two possibilities. Either God has or He has not. If the testimony of the witnesses does not tally with the promises God gave in the Old Testament, then say so plainly, and draw the necessary conclusion: God is found wanting, is not worth serving. Then you may as well throw your Bible out (for it says that God is faithful whereas in fact He’s not and so bears false witness), and you may as well leave church also – for the church is then the body of the deceived.
But if, on the other hand, the testimony of these Spirit-driven witnesses shows that Yes, God has kept His Word, has been faithful to His promises, then, beloved, draw the necessary conclusion: all His glorious promises for you and for me are certain too! There is no need, there is no room for me to doubt His promises. Amen.