As Christians we are called to be witnesses to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. That isn’t a minor calling, or one calling among many, but the central calling and mission of the church. It’s a calling that takes on increasing urgency as the day of Christ’s return draws near.
The calling to witness is closely connected to the calling to preach the gospel. We tend to separate those two but Jesus taught that they are intimately related. He instructed his disciples to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt 28:19). Later he added, “…ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He linked those two callings again when he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness” (Acts 26:16).
In light of that connection our witness ought to begin with support for the preaching of the gospel. We witness when we join ourselves to a church that boldly proclaims the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, faithfully attend worship services, actively participate in the life of the church, and remember her in our prayers and with our gifts.
Our witness continues with lives that are lived out of the truth of that gospel. We are to be, “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). We confess that Jesus Christ is Prophet, Priest and King (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31), and that those who are members of him by faith partake of his anointing (Q&A 32). In the office of all believers we witness to the gospel in our daily lives.
Hebrews 11 has much to teach us about that aspect of witnessing. We tend to think of the saints recorded there as “heroes of faith” but Hebrews 12:1 gives them another title, “so great a cloud of witnesses”. Their lives reveal the source of our witness, the substance of our witness and God’s purpose with our witness.
Hebrews 11 makes clear that our witness proceeds from faith. It introduces each saint by calling attention to faith as the source of their witness. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (v.4). “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (v.7). “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (v.17). We can’t do anything in our own strength. Our witness begins with God’s gift of eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand.
Faith is the bond by which those who are saved by Christ are “ingrafted into him, and receive all his benefits” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 20). Hebrews 11 calls it “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (v.1). Apart from Christ we would have no hope in this world. We would see only its sinful pleasures. We would set our hearts on those things and spend our lives in pursuit of them. By faith we know God and know ourselves to be citizens of his kingdom. By faith we strive to live as pilgrims and strangers in this world.
In order for faith to produce a witness it must become visible. The term witness implies that others must be able to see it. Hebrews 11 makes clear that faith becomes visible when it finds expression in obedience to God. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (v.4). “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (v.7). “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (v.17). By faith we know God, love him and strive to live in obedience to him.
Our witness need not be grand or global in scale. We are called to witness in the particular circumstances in which God has placed us. We confess that he created the heavens and the earth and that he “upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26). God gives us life and health and so much more, but he is also sovereign over the trials that we face day by day. Some struggle with sick and elderly parents, others with difficult marriages, or children with special needs. Those are difficult trials and we can easily respond in anger or despair. In our own strength we certainly would. But in faith we strive to obey God even in those difficulties. We care for the parents that he has given us. We remain faithful in our marriages and strive each day to make them reflect the love of Christ and his church. We train up the children whom he has entrusted to us.
Our witness includes also a willingness to speak openly of the gospel. Faithful Enoch “prophesied…saying, Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all” (Jude 14–15). Faithful Noah was, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). We witness by speaking of those things as we have opportunity with friends, neighbors and co-workers. We take seriously the instruction to, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
God uses our witness to accomplish several important purposes. The first is his own glory. In gratitude to God we do good works, “that he may be praised by us” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86). Jesus taught us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The great goal of our faithful obedience is the glory of God’s name.
God also uses our witness to provide encouragement to fellow believers. That’s the point of Hebrews 11, as the beginning of chapter 12 shows: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily best us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (v.1). In the faithful obedience of others we see the power of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the light of that witness we find strength to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (v.12).
God also uses our witness to rebuke the ungodly. Hebrews 11 makes clear that the world despises faith and hates obedience. Unbelievers respond in opposition to our witness. Abel’s faithful obedience resulted in Cain’s murderous rage. Moses’ faithful obedience caused him to suffer, “affliction” (v25), “the reproach of Christ” (v.26) and, “the wrath of the king” (v.27). Others experienced, “trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (vs.36–37). We also can expect opposition, for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).
But God is also pleased to use our witness as the means by which he brings his people out of darkness and into his marvelous light. One of the reasons that God calls us to do good works is that, “by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86).
Our calling to witness is fundamentally the same as it has ever been. It begins with support for the preaching of the gospel and continues with lives that are lived out of that gospel truth. But as the day of Christ’s return draws near that calling takes on increasing urgency. Abel did not live in the last days. Nor did Noah or Abraham or Moses. But Jesus Christ has now come in our flesh. He has borne our grief. He has risen triumphant over sin and death and hell. He has ascended to God’s right hand. He has poured out his spirit upon his church. All that remains is the ingathering of his church, for “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise…but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
We see the signs of Christ’s return on every side. The gospel is reaching the nations. The world grows increasingly bold in its wickedness. The church descends into apostasy. The hour is late. Let us witness then, not in our own strength but, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).