First off, I'd like to define the word witness: One who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced: a witness to the accident. As I read the gospels, it seems to me that one of the most significant reasons the twelve disciples of Jesus were chosen was for the purpose of being witnesses to his life, his teachings, his miracles, and his resurrection. After Judas Iscariot died, the disciples convened to address the matter of selecting someone who had been a witness to the following: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” No other believer would be selected but one who had the ability to say: “I saw all of these things with my own eyes.”

So when I look at Christ's words in light of what I have just stated above—“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”—I see that he is giving a clear command to testify (witness in the verb tense) to others about the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because in going out and teaching about him, the disciples were bringing with them a first-hand, authoritative account. When the time came for them to preach and teach, if someone were to stand up and ask “you weren't there so how do you know these things were true?”, the disciples would be able to rebut such an argument since they were witnesses.

In our idiom today as Christians, we use the term “witness” to imply preaching, teaching, and various other things I think. But I think it is a little sloppy, perhaps, to use witness in the same manner as Jesus and the disciples used that term—I don't mean to be crass when I say this but I am a person who prefers to use words for their intended meaning. What I mean is, you nor I cannot say that we are witnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Obviously we were not there. Ah, but someone can say “but we can testify to what God has done in our lives.” True, but witnessing or testifying in the manner the disciples did was more collective or shared in its integrity than my own or your own self-attesting witness could ever be. The resurrection of Jesus was something that was a spectacular event and there were many people who were witnesses to that event. So even if one person thought he had misidentified what he saw in seeing the resurrected Jesus, others were present to say “no, you had that right. Jesus is alive from the grave.” And this experience was a shared experience where others in that community were attesting to it for the sake of not being wrong or misled in some way: “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” as the Proverb says.

But with you or me there is no collective testifying available. I cannot go out on the same authority of the disciples and proclaim my own religious experience to be authoritative in the same way as testifying to the resurrection was. Jesus is not saying “you will be a witness concerning the things I have done in you to the ends of the world.” I believe this is so because people may not be given over to my own subjective experience: “I'm glad Christianity works for you but you have your way and I have mine” as many in our culture can say. What goes on inside my heart and mind is not formational to the existential commitments of another human being necessarily. Just because I have been “born-again” does not mean that someone else should believe upon that basis. I have to appeal to something greater than my own subjective experience. The only thing that I can appeal to is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What I see being the command on the table today is that I must come to terms with the Gospel. Is it a story that I want to base my life upon? Does the Gospel make senses given all of the competing world-views available to me? If I agree that the Gospel is true and is worth committing my life to, then I have granted authority to the Gospel. I am making it the truth in a way that I am not making for anything else. But I cannot go and preach the Gospel of me; I cannot go out and say that because I believe the bible is true, it must be true. The best I can do is preach it to others and try to give compelling reasons I think it is true. But sometimes my understanding of the Gospel isn't always accurate…this is the limitation we all live in this side of the Apostolic Age: we have nobody to come into our assemblies to say “let me teach you the more accurate Way of God.” We humbly rely upon the Spirit of God to teach us and admonish us in the ways of God and we must wrestle with the ancient texts to enter into the discussions that took place so long ago (the Pauline letters, etc.) and try to understand what the biblical writers were trying to say.

So, I ask, are we witnesses? Are we to witness? I believe so…but to what? What are we witnesses to? To the resurrection? No. To what Christ has done in our lives? Maybe, but is that the basis of our authority? What are we testifying to? I submit that in a manner of speaking that we are to testify to why we think the Gospel is true and why the risen Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of God. God help us to understand this Gospel for ourselves and explain it with integrity and truth, so that we may not run in vain.