We often think of “witness” as something we do (such as evangelism), rather than something we are. But in the commissioning scenes in Luke (24:44-48) and Acts (1:4-8), Jesus speaks of the disciples in terms of present reality (“you are My witnesses”) and future identity (“you will be My witnesses”).
What’s the significance of being Christ’s witnesses?
Jesus is the Focus of Our Witness
First, note the emphasis in both accounts on Jesus claiming authority over the disciples’ identities and activities: My witnesses.
This could refer to the fact that the witnesses belong to the Lord —”you are the witnesses who belong to Me.” Or it could mean that the witnesses speak of the Lord in line with their identity —”you are the witnesses that speak of me.”
I’m inclined to go with the latter understanding since Luke 24:44‒48 focuses on bearing witness to all that has been fulfilled in the Old Testament (not to mention the focus in Acts on the expansion of the apostles’ witnessing speech to Jesus).
“Witnessing” is Birthed from Identity
Secondly, note how the emphasis falls on the identity of the disciples as witnesses, not the task of witnessing. The focus on the disciples’ identity doesn’t negate the task of witnessing, of course, but it does remind us that the activity of “witnessing” is birthed from the our identity as “witnesses.”
The prediction of Jesus assumes the task of witnessing, but the fact He focuses on our identity indicates a comprehensive understanding of who disciples are, not just what they do.
The disciples do not become witnesses because they engage in the activity of witnessing; rather, they engage in the activity of witnessing because they are already witnesses.
Michael Goheen writes:
We would be mistaken if we were to think of Jesus’ call to witness as merely one more assignment added to an otherwise full agenda for the people of God. Witness is not one more task among others: Witness defines the role of this community in this era of God’s story and thus defines its very identity. Its eschatological role at this point in history is to make salvation known first to Israel and then to the Gentiles. (A Light to the Nations, 127.)
Witnessing is Comprehensive
Third, Jesus’ commissioning at the end of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of Acts underscores the comprehensive nature of being a witness, and in light of these two scenes, we should take into account all that has been said about discipleship in the Gospel of Luke, as well as the activity of the apostles in Acts.
John Polhill explains the link between witnessing and discipleship, particularly in Acts:
In Acts the role of witness is closely linked to that of discipleship. A true disciple is a faithful witness, not only willing to bear testimony to Christ but even to suffer for Him. The word “witness” came in the later church to have just that connotation: a true witness is one who carries his or her testimony to the death. (Acts, 69)
Indicative Before Imperative
So, “you will be My witnesses” is a promise that means we have a comprehensive identity that becomes the defining factor for us as individuals and churches. It covers all aspects of life.
Witnessing cannot be reduced to one aspect of a Christian’s activity. It should be seen as the foundational aspect of a Christian’s identity.
We speak of Christ because we are of Christ.
We witness because He has declared us to be His witnesses.
The indicative precedes the imperative.