Bearing Witness

(Isaiah 66:18-22Acts 3)

There is a story about an encounter between Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, and the pope.  I don’t know if it actually happened, but it does fit with the time in which he lived.  As the story has it, after making some display of the church’s wealth to Aquinas, the pope said, “Thomas, you can see the church no longer has to say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  Aquinas responded, “True, holy father; but neither can she now say to the lame man, ‘Rise up and walk!’”

Now, as I said, I don’t know for sure that this conversation happened, or that it happened in just that way.  I do know this:  it’s believable because both statements are true.  For all the wars fought by the popes, the Roman hierarchy was wealthy, and its wealth was growing.  We have a rich heritage of great artworks and beautiful buildings that were paid for by the blood, toil, tears and sweat of the peasants of Europe.  But for all the church’s silver and gold, it lacked spiritual power.

That should have been a sign that something was badly wrong; but it took the explosion of the Reformation a few centuries later to get the point across.  As we see in Acts, when God builds the church, he does it by the power of his Holy Spirit, not by the power of the sword or the purse; and as we began to see last week, when this happens, the results look very different from anything the world expects.

I noted last week that when the Spirit of God moves in power, he does it to talk about Jesus, and that’s what we see in Acts 3.  As at Pentecost, the Spirit creates the opportunity for Peter to speak, then inspires him as he addresses the crowd in the Temple.  As we consider his message, we can see that it isn’t really a piece of logical argument, or any of the sorts of persuasive speech we’re used to from our politicians.  Instead, Peter does two things, and I think we can call them the two hearts of evangelistic preaching.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do anything else; in Acts 17, for instance, we see Paul preach a sermon in Athens which is one long logical argument.  But these two elements we see in Peter’s sermon here are the essentials, I think.

The first is summed up in verse 15:  “To this we are witnesses.”  What’s a witness?  We’ve turned “witnessing” into a piece of Christianese, but go back to the courts:  a witness is someone who tells the truth about what they saw, heard, did, and experienced.  That’s what Peter’s doing here.  He’s telling the story of what God has done and is doing by telling his own story; he’s telling them how God’s story crossed with and came through his own.  Peter’s message to the crowds is, “I didn’t read about this in a book or hear about it in the synagogue—I lived it.  I know it’s true because I was there when it happened, right in the middle of it.”

There’s great power in bearing witness to what we ourselves have seen God do, as Peter does here, as Kaleb did a couple weeks ago.  Telling our own story is real and immediate to others in a way that nothing else is.  It’s one thing for me to say that I believe God heals people.  It’s something else again for me to tell you that I’ve seen someone walk to the front of the church with a crutch because one leg was shorter than the other, and walk away after being prayed for on two legs of the same length.

When we talk openly and honestly about what we know for ourselves, what we’ve learned the hard way and how we’ve been changed by our experiences, we’re giving those who listen to us something of ourselves.  We’re telling them we know this is real and true because this is who we are and we lived it.  In our age of Photoshop and Auto-Tune where celebrities don’t look as good as their pictures and can’t sing as well as their recordings, that authenticity is especially meaningful; speaking out of our own experience makes it easier to connect with the experience of others, and thus to tell the truth in such a way that they hear the truth.

So Peter begins by testifying to what he has seen God do; that’s the first anchor to his sermon.  The second is the point on which he lands, which we see first in verse 18:  “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, . . . he fulfilled.”  He anchors the message in his own experience of God’s character and work, and he anchors it in the testimony of Scripture to the same.  This is important because it shows that what he’s saying about God agrees with what God has said about himself; but there’s more to it than that.  Notice the emphasis in Peter’s appeal to Scripture:  “God told you in advance that he was going to do this, and he did what he said he was going to do.”  God makes promises, so you can plan on them, and he keeps his promises, so you can rely on them.  You can trust God because he isn’t trying to ambush you, and you can trust him because he’s faithful to you.  I know you can, because his word proves it, and so does my life.

These two things give the crowd reason to listen to Peter, and give power to his message; but of course, there’s a third factor here as well:  the presence of the crippled beggar, whom they’d all seen many times before, walking on his own and leaping for joy.  The miracle that gives Peter the opportunity to preach also validates his message.  How do you know this man is speaking the truth about God?  Because God proved that Peter was his faithful servant by healing the beggar through him.

Bearing witness to God can be frightening, because it means laying our lives on the line for him and making ourselves vulnerable to people who may not like what we’re doing.  What we see in Acts 3 is that if we bear witness to God, he bears witness to us; he will back up our words with his power.  In much of the world, that comes down to what the late John Wimber called “power encounters”—straight-up challenges between the local deity’s power to destroy and God’s power to heal.  In Western culture, we look first to our technology to heal the sick and repair what is broken, so our challenges are subtler and our idols are less obvious, and God responds to them in different ways.  Even so, it still holds true:  when we bear witness to him, he bears witness to us.  If we put ourselves out on the line for him, God won’t leave us hanging out to dry, but he will validate our witness with acts of power.

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