A Witnessing Church - Part 1
Andrew Borland, Irvine
It will be profitable and challenging to read again verses 7 and 8 of Acts I: "And he (the Lord) said unto them. It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. 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 Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth".
The present dispensation of God's dealings with men, commencing on the day of Pentecost and continuing unbroken and unaltered until the present generation, has well-marked characteristics which have distinguished it from other dispensations.
1. God has given the world His ultimatum. As a final approach to Israel, to whom He had made many overtures, "last of all he sent ... his son". And we are reminded that after God had sent messages to the fathers by the prophets, He has in these last days spoken by (in) His Son. God has no further message for men, and their relationship with God is determined by their attitude towards the Son. It cannot be too frequently emphasized that the true Christian has his faith anchored in the Historic Christ, now exalted and made Lord. To divorce faith from the facts of history tends towards unreality and a false mysticism.
2, A second characteristic of this dispensation is that Christ is now absent from this scene. He has been here, a sinless Man who put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. But now, in the actuality of His glorified Manhood, He is seated at the right hand of God. The duration of His absence is conditioned by the purpose of God concerning Him, "sit ... till I make thine enemies thy footstool", Matt. 22. 44. Refusal to come to terms with God through the available Mediator means "vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ", 2 Thess. 1. 8. Such possibility for men should make those who know the way of reconciliation zealous to reach and teach others.
3. A third characteristic is this: The Holy Spirit is active. The prediction and promise fulfilled on the day of Pente cost was, "ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses". That, then, the bearing of witness, was to be the chief function of those who receive the Holy Spirit. Through the witness of the word and of the life of the Christian, the Holy Spirit would convince "of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment", and that because of testimony concerning the Christ who is at the right hand of God. True evangelical preaching is always factual, and centres upon the triumph of Christ now exalted on high.
4, Another characteristic is the formation of the Church, and the members of that Church are meant to be witnesses. Just prior to His ascension, the Master said to His somewhat bewildered disciples: "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to surfer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things", Luke 24. 46-48. The quotation at the beginning of this paper has these words, "ye shall be witnesses unto me". Notice these words: "These things" and "me". The historical facts cannot be divorced from the Person.
That, then, is the principal characteristic of the present dispensation, the calling out of the Church, composed of those who own no Saviour other than the Living Stone, each member of which was to be a witness (a martyr, as the original word suggests), the power for that witness being the Holy Spirit. As individuals locally form themselves into a "local church", the chief business of that church before men is to bear witness of the great redemptive events of past history and relate those events to the triumphant Saviour at the right hand of God. A church which fails to do so fails to function as it is intended to function. Preaching which is not Christological is not preaching in the New Testament sense of the word.
Pertinent questions to ask: Is your church a truly witnessing church, zealous and aggressive? Are you as a member of that church a witness of "these things", a witness "unto me?"
If the Church is a witnessing Church it must be missionary in outlook and outreach; and the word "missionary" implies that its members must be willing to go where they are sent. They have a "mission". Every generation of Christians is under a commission to carry out the programme given to the apostolic band, which was couched in the most universal of terms, such as, Go into all the world. Preach the gospel to every creature. Make disciples of all nations, ye shall be witnesses unto the uttermost part of the earth.
The story of The Acts is a thrilling account of the enterprise of intrepid individuals and zealous groups engaged in responding to the commission of their Master. The gospel standard was planted in Jerusalem, in Judaea, in Samaria, in Asia, in Europe, and ultimately in Rome itself. That was triumph indeed! The earliest preachers turned the world upside down. The central theme of their preaching was "Jesus and the resurrection". The preachers spoke about "Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God", and they were not ashamed to declare that "through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins", Acts 13. 38. That message confronted men and women in every class of society, and from a diversity of circumstances. The gospel had the authority of God behind it, and consequently it prevailed against opposition.
The Christian faith has survived nineteen centuries of opposition. It should not be forgotten that the Church operates in enemy-occupied territory. Counter-agencies are always at work, organized by the archenemy who is the manipulator of hostile forces. Advances of the faith have always been made in the face of opposition. Antagonism has arisen from most unexpected quarters. Yet truth is great and must prevail.
Jewish hatred tried to impede the progress of the new teaching, but the martyrdom of Stephen prepared the way for the conversion of that indomitable pioneer, Saul of Tarsus. Wave after wave of Roman persecution broke itself in futile endeavour to suppress the teaching so alien to the pagan ways of worship. It was not until the time of Emperor Constantine, who accepted Christianity in 312A.D., that those persecutions ended. The change of attitude was a mixed blessing, for much that was foreign to primitive Christianity was introduced, and the witness was perverted. From the fifth century onwards there were outbursts of heathen destructiveness in what has come to be known as The Dark Ages. Barbarian invasions struck most of the Christianized countries of Western Europe. Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Saxons, Danes, ravished and destroyed, but Christianity survived, if not in its primitive simplicity, at least still as a witness to the great historical facts of the faith.
The seventh century saw the birth of Mohammedanism with its military aggressiveness and its bitter hatred of Christianity. North Africa, suffering from the sustained attacks of Moslem fanatics, has come to be known as The Land of the vanished Church. Eastern Europe and large areas of Asia succumbed to the advances of Islam. Those lands remain to this day the most difficult in which to plant a witnessing church.
Add to those physical types of opposition the more subtle weapons of the enemy. The eighteenth century was the Age of Reason when human learning was substituted for spiritual faith, and research and philosophy for divine revelation. It produced the French Revolution with its Anti-Deum programme. In France, Christianity has been at a discount ever since. The nineteenth century in Western Europe and America saw the growth of cultural indifference and materialistic science. Darwin's theory of evolution began to oust the simple faith which had characterized generations. With the teachings of Karl Marx and his Communist comrades a new type of antagonism entered the field with an avowed determination to stamp out Christianity and supply in its stead a godless philosophy. Its effect has been stunning, but it is only partial.
Christianity has survived because the followers of Christ have been willing to die rather than cease to witness. The Church continues because it is a witnessing Church.