24:48, You Are witnesses of these things.
by Diane G. Chen
Associate Professor of New Testament
Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University
The theme verse for the 2010 Week of Prayer
for Christian Unity is Luke 24:48, "You are witnesses
of these things" (NRSV). This verse represents Jesus'
direct commissioning of his disciples before he ascended into
heaven, embedded in that which is commonly known as the Lukan
|And [Jesus] said to them, "Thus it
is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise
from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and
forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to
all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses
of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my
Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have
been clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:46-49)
At first glance, it might
seem that this passage would be better suited for a week of
prayer for world evangelization than for Christian unity.
After all, the connection between "being witnesses"
and "unity among Christians" is not explicitly stated
in these verses. The Lukan Great Commission makes no mention
of how the disciples ought to treat one another. Might it
simply be a different rendition of its more familiar counterpart
in Matthew, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that
I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always,
to the end of the age" (Matt 28:19-20)?
Viewed against the narrative backdrop of Luke-Acts,
the content and placement of Luke 24:46-49 indicate that Luke's
rendition of Jesus' parting instructions have their distinctive
theological functions apart from the Matthean Great Commission.
The Lukan Great Commission underscores the identity and role
of those entrusted with the missionary mandate. This emphasis
on the witnesses themselves has ramifications for later generations
of Christians - and we find ourselves among them - who grapple
with what it means to appropriate the task at hand when they
themselves are not among the original followers of Jesus and
hence not eyewitnesses in the strictest sense of the word.
Pivot and climax
Among the four Gospels, Luke is unique in having a sequel
that recounts the story of the early church. This passage
in Luke 24:46-49 functions as a pivot in the middle of the
broader narrative of Luke-Acts. In one direction, the Great
Commission looks back at the Gospel of Luke and captures its
key presentation of a rejected Messiah preaching a message
of repentance and forgiveness. In the other direction, it
propels the story forward as an informal introduction to the
Book of Acts, in which the Holy Spirit is shown to empower
the proclamation of the good news of salvation to both Jews
and Gentiles by Jesus' early followers.
Aside from its transitional position between
Luke and Acts, the Great Commission is also a fitting climax
to the Gospel itself. Even though Jesus is twice shown to
have sent his disciples into neighboring Jewish villages to
heal and to proclaim the message of the kingdom (Luke 9:1-6;
10:1-12), those ventures were preparatory to this definitive
commissioning. Prior to the cross and the resurrection, the
message of the Twelve and the Seventy was anticipatory, thus
incomplete. It is not until this sending that the resurrection
turns the tragedy and incomprehensibility of the cross around
and moves the story of Jesus' earthly ministry to its victorious
The angels ask the women at the tomb, "Why
do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5).
The resurrection appearances in Luke 24, one after another,
reiterate that Jesus is indeed alive. Not the empty tomb per
se, but the fact that Jesus is raised, confirms his identity
as Israel's Messiah. He is not a false prophet who is deserving
of death and stays dead. He is not a messianic pretender or
political rebel who can save neither himself nor others. He
is God's Messiah whose suffering and vindication have long
been anticipated in Israel's scriptures and foretold by Jesus
Throughout chapter 24, all the characters -
the women at the tomb, Peter, the pair on the road to Emmaus,
the remaining disciples and their companions - are shown to
have trouble grasping the reality of Jesus' resurrection.
They also have trouble understanding Jesus' resurrection as
the fulfillment of the scriptures of Israel. They need help
in moving from puzzlement to comprehension, from unbelief
to faith. By the time Jesus gives the Great Commission, his
followers are ready to take on this assignment. They are now
poised to turn the corner, receive the promised Holy Spirit,
and carry on in their new role as witnesses in the book of
"You are witnesses"
According to the Lukan account, those who receive the Great
Commission consist of Jesus' remaining eleven disciples and
their companions (Luke 24:33). This differs from the Matthean
version in which Jesus meets the eleven alone on a mountain
in Galilee where he charges them to go and make disciples
of all nations (Matt 28:16). The author of Luke-Acts apparently
understands the Great Commission to be carried out by a circle
of witnesses larger than the original eleven. Aside from Cleopas
and his companion in Luke 24, other close followers of Jesus
named in Luke-Acts include Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna,
Joseph (otherwise known as Barsabbas or Justin), and Matthias
(Luke 8:1-3; Acts 1:21-23).
The widening of the circle around Jesus naturally
leads to the broadening of what would be considered qualified
witnesses for the Great Commission. Since Jesus has already
sent out the Seventy, after the Twelve, to neighboring villages
to proclaim the kingdom, the stage is set for the work of
witnessing to be carried out by others not listed among the
eleven. Although the text does not indicate exactly who else
might have been present at the giving of the Great Commission,
the specific list of names is not as important as the fact
that other followers have received the exact same charge along
with the eleven. This provides an opportunity for the likes
of Stephen, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and John Mark to participate
in this work. Their contributions to the spread of the Gospel
are depicted in Acts as no less significant than those of
Peter, James, John, and Philip. Clearly, as far as the author
of Luke-Acts is concerned, all followers of Jesus are to be
The Greek word translated as "witness"
is martus. Of the 35 occurrences of this noun in the New Testament,
2 are found in Luke and 13 in Acts. The two main meanings
of martus in Luke-Acts are consistent with the usage found
in secular Greek literature and the Septuagint (the Greek
translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). First, martus refers
to a witness in a legal setting. He or she bears testimony
in court to the truth or falsehood of a factual matter. Second,
martus can be used more broadly to denote someone who attests
to a specific idea or belief, as in the case of a religious
conviction or a faith claim.
While not all witnesses can be eyewitnesses
(the first meaning of martus), the testimony of the close
followers of Jesus carries tremendous weight, because they
have seen and experienced Jesus first hand. In the prologue
of the Gospel, the author emphasizes that the traditions in
the narrative were passed down from "those who from the
beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word"
(Luke 1:2). When the Seventy returned from a successful mission,
Jesus told his disciples, "Blessed are the eyes that
see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings
desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear
what you hear, but did not hear it" (Luke 10:23-24).
Likewise, in Acts, many of the witnesses personally
encountered Jesus in life, death, and resurrection. They can
now attest to Jesus' messianic status based on their theological
conviction. The disciples' proclamation of the death and resurrection
of Jesus is often coupled with their self-identification as
witnesses. Peter, speaking on behalf of the core group of
believers, announces to the crowd at Pentecost, "This
Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses"
(Acts 2:32). At Solomon's Portico, he charges the Jews, "You
killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.
To this we are witnesses" (Acts 3:15). When brought before
the Council, Peter and the apostles indict the religious leaders,
"The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had
killed by hanging him on a tree.
And we are witnesses
to these things" (Acts 5:30, 32). And again, Peter tells
Cornelius and his companions:
|We are witnesses to all that [Jesus] did
both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death
by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third
day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but
to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate
and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts
Put together, these statements and the lengthier
speeches surrounding them can be read as restatements of Jesus'
Great Commission in Luke 24:46-49. The disciples are doing
exactly what Jesus asked them to do: they call themselves
witnesses; they bear witness.
What about Paul? He certainly did not experience the physical
presence of Jesus in the same way as Peter, James, and John.
Is he still an "eyewitness" of sorts? The answer
is yes. We base that on Ananias' words to Paul in reference
to the latter's visionary encounter with Jesus on the road
to Damascus: "The God of our ancestors has chosen you
to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his
own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of
what you have seen and heard" (Acts 22:14-15; cf. 26:16).
In Paul, we see a transition from the first
to the second meaning of martus, from factual attestation
to faith claim. While one might argue that Paul's vision of
Jesus is a personal encounter with the risen Lord, Paul's
experience of Jesus is categorically different from that of
the witnesses in Luke 24, who were with Jesus from Galilee
to Jerusalem, and ate and drank with him before and after
the resurrection (cf. Acts 13:31).
That Paul is called a witness in the same
way as Peter (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41) and Stephen
(Acts 22:20) is telling. Peter is one of the Twelve and an
eyewitness. It is less certain if Stephen is an eyewitness,
but he definitely is not one of the Twelve listed in Luke
6:13-16. Paul is neither an eyewitness in the normal sense
of the word, nor one of the Twelve. Yet in Luke-Acts all three
are called witnesses. They have a common conviction that Jesus
is the Messiah, raised from the dead, in whose name repentance
and forgiveness are proclaimed. As such, all the witnesses
of the Great Commission must share the same religious conviction,
even though practically only a limited number could have seen
and heard Jesus with their own eyes and ears. This accommodation
in Luke-Acts allows later generations of Christians to appropriate
the role of witness for themselves.
"Of these things"
According to the Great Commission, the witness of the disciples
must contain two key elements: first, the historical fact
that Messiah must suffer and be raised on the third day; and
second, the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus'
name (Luke 24:46-47). Not only has Jesus embodied these two
things in his mission and destiny, they are also anticipated
in Israel's scriptures. The disciples, at this point in time,
ought to be able to reinterpret their scriptures from a post-resurrection
Lest we later readers of the Gospel judge
too quickly the women at the tomb, Peter, Cleopas and his
companion, and the disciples at the gathering for their inability
to connect Jesus' predictions with the actual events of his
death and resurrection (Luke 24:5-8, 25, 44-45), let us be
reminded that we enjoy a vantage point to which they were
not privy. We see what the author allows us to see. For example,
we watch Gabriel telling Mary that her son would be given
"the throne of his ancestor David," but also that
he would be "a sign that will be opposed" (Luke
1:32; 2:34-35). We hear the angels announce to the shepherds
that "a Savior is born this day in the city of David,
who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). Given our
knowledge of the infancy narratives, Peter's confession of
Jesus as God's Messiah does not come as a surprise. Neither
do Jesus' predictions of his own suffering and vindication,
because by the time we read Luke-Acts, these things have already
come to pass.
The disciples, however, gained clarity of
Jesus' identity over time. Peter progressed from asking Jesus
to depart from him, a sinful man, to confessing that Jesus
was God's Messiah (Luke 5:8; 9:20). Jesus' enemies were even
more confounded as they repeatedly stated the truth about
him without believing it: "If you are the Messiah, tell
us" (Luke 22:67); "Let him save himself if he is
the Messiah of God, his chosen one" (Luke 23:35; cf.
23:39). So before we point our fingers at the characters in
Luke-Acts for their obtuseness concerning Jesus' identity,
we need to remember that Jesus' contemporaries would not have
expected their Messiah to be killed, let alone come back to
life and appear in the flesh a few days later. It is understandable
that the meaning of the resurrection escaped even Jesus' closest
circle of friends!
According to Luke 24, the paradigm shift that
connects Jesus with the suffering and rejected Messiah of
Israel can come only by way of revelation. Jesus has to open
the minds and hearts of his followers. It is necessary for
Jesus to show the travelers on the road to Emmaus and then
the disciples at the gathering in Jerusalem how to read Israel's
scriptures as an anticipation of his ministry and destiny.
Without Jesus' guidance, they remain as baffled as the Twelve
were when Jesus first mentioned his imminent suffering to
them (Luke 9:21, 44-45; 18:31-34).
One might wonder why not a single passage
is cited as Jesus expounds the scriptures for his disciples,
except for general references to Moses, the prophets, and
the Psalms. The emphasis in Luke 24 is on the fact that the
events about Jesus and Israel's scripture are linked. It is
important for the disciples to read their scriptures and grasp
the way in which the story of Jesus is a culmination of Israel's
salvific history and hopes. In short, they need to realize
that Jesus and Israel's scriptures are now mutually interpretive.
Having said that, there are plenty of allusions
elsewhere in Luke-Acts that use the scriptures to portray
and explain the identity and destiny of Jesus. For example,
Jesus is depicted as the righteous sufferer in the Psalms
who commits his spirit into God's hands (Ps 31:5; Luke 23:46).
He is likened to the servant in Isaiah who is like a sheep
led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer (Isa 53:7;
Acts 8:32). Like Moses, Jesus feeds the multitudes (Luke 9:12-17),
and before the townspeople in Nazareth he compares himself
to Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:24-27). He refers to himself
as the stone the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone
(Ps 118:22; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:10-11), and as David's Lord
who sits at God's right hand (Ps 110:1; Luke 20:41-44; Acts
2:34-36). All this is to say that the suffering and vindication
of the Messiah, albeit a shock to Jesus' disciples and enemies
alike, are in fact "according to the definite plan and
foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). God's program of salvation
for Israel and the world has always included this seemingly
incomprehensible destiny of his Messiah, and the scriptures
of Israel bear witness to this fact.
In addition to proclaiming that Jesus is God's
Messiah, the witnesses are to preach repentance and forgiveness
of sins in his name (Luke 24:47). This message is not new.
Even before Jesus began his public ministry, his forerunner
John the Baptist appeared at the Jordan "proclaiming
a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins"
(Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4). Jesus told the paralytic and
the sinful woman that their sins were forgiven (Luke 5:20;
7:48). He warned that all would perish unless there was repentance
(Luke 13:1-5). In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost
coin, the repentance of a sinner was enough to cause great
joy in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). Zacchaeus was viewed by all
as a sinner, yet when he welcomed Jesus to his home and offered
to pay retribution to those whom he defrauded, Jesus declared
that salvation had come to that house (Luke 19:1-10). Repentance
and forgiveness of sins essentially constitute the necessary
conditions for salvation.
This message continues to resound in the preaching
of the early church. On the day of Pentecost, when the crowds
show regret at their complicity in the death of Jesus, Peter
offers them a second chance, "Repent, and be baptized
every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your
sins may be forgiven" (Acts 2:38; cf. 3:19). Peter insists
before the Jewish Council that the exaltation of Jesus - his
resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God - vindicates
him as "Leader and Savior that he might give repentance
to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31). The same
is proclaimed by Peter and Paul to the Gentiles (Acts 10:42-43;
11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:17-20).
In fact, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the
witnesses of the good news of God's salvation all speak from
the traditions of Israel's scripture. Like the prophets of
old, they continue to call Israel to repentance for the forgiveness
of sins. The only difference now is that the recipients of
God's salvation are no longer restricted to the ranks of ethnic
Israel. The way has been opened for the inclusion of the Gentiles
"To all nations, beginning from Jerusalem"
In Luke, Jesus' activities took place primarily within the
boundaries of Israel. While there were occasional encounters
with a Gentile centurion (Luke 7:1-10), a Gerasene demoniac
(Luke 8:26-39), or a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus
mainly taught and interacted with his Jewish contemporaries.
It is not until the book of Acts when we read about the missionary
ventures of the early church carrying the good news of the
kingdom across the Mediterranean world. The story line of
Acts is basically a response and fulfillment of the Great
Commission, restated in Acts 1:8: "But you will receive
power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will
be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and
to the ends of the earth."
This geographical progression is exactly how
the narrative moves through the twenty-eight chapters of Acts,
beginning with the disciples in Jerusalem who are soon forced
into preaching Jesus in Samaria because of persecution by
the Jews. The incursion into Gentile territory begins with
Peter being sent to Caesarea to the house of Cornelius, and
Paul to the Gentiles. The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome,
the proverbial "ends of the earth" at that time.
Jesus' charge to his disciples in the Great
Commission is not incidental. The author of Luke-Acts has
already planted the seed of the Gentile mission back in the
infancy narratives. Simeon, upon seeing the baby Jesus, prayed
through the words of Isaiah, "My eyes have seen your
salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all
peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory
to your people Israel" (Luke 2:30-32). In describing
John the Baptist as "the voice of one crying out in the
wilderness," the author extended the quotation from Isaiah
40 found in his Markan source to include in his own narrative
the phrase "and all flesh shall see the salvation of
God" (Luke 3:6; cf. Mark 1:2-3; Isa 40:1-5). Instead
of Gentiles coming to worship God on Mount Zion as anticipated
in the Hebrew scriptures, the good news of Jesus Christ will
now be taken, according to Jesus' instructions, "to all
nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).
Jerusalem plays a special role in Luke-Acts
both negatively as the place where Jesus' life ends and positively
as the place where the early church begins. In spite of the
fact that Jesus died in the hands of the religious elite of
Jerusalem, the Gospel of Luke begins and ends with the faithful
- Zechariah in chapter 1 and the disciples in chapter 24 -
worshiping in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:8-11; 24:53).
Even though Jerusalem marks the place of Jesus' final rejection
and crucifixion, it is nevertheless the birthplace of the
Christian mission. The gospel is to be spread from Jerusalem,
which means it must go through the Jews in order to reach
the Gentiles. God's salvation history, even in the Christian
era, will not proceed without Israel's salvation history and
involvement in spite of its temporary setback. The early church,
with its Jewish and Gentile Christian adherents, does not
replace Israel. It represents a reconstituted Israel gathered
around Jesus, so that Israel's Messiah is at the same time
Messiah of the nations.
"Clothed with power from on high"
Not only does Jesus identify his witnesses and specify the
content of their testimony, he also equips them for the task
by promising the Holy Spirit. In the Great Commission, Jesus
aptly refers to the Holy Spirit as "what my Father promised,"
which he promptly clarifies as the "power from on high"
(Luke 24:49). The gift of the Holy Spirit, though not yet
delivered until the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, hearkens back
to Jesus' earlier saying in Luke 11 when he used the goodwill
of earthly fathers to illustrate the loving generosity of
God: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good
gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11:13).
The Holy Spirit is none other than God's own Spirit. The same
Spirit that came upon Mary, the power of the Most High that
overshadowed her to give birth to the Son of God, is now promised
as the Father's gift to the witnesses of Jesus.
Throughout Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit plays
a major role in empowering the words and actions of God's
agents. In the infancy narratives, John the Baptist, Zechariah,
Elizabeth, Mary, and Simeon were all shown either to be filled
with the Holy Spirit, inspired by the Holy Spirit, or directed
by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27). At the
beginning of Jesus' public ministry, the Holy Spirit came
upon him at his baptism (Luke 3:22), led him into the wilderness
for testing (Luke 4:1), and filled him with its power as he
returned to Galilee (Luke 4:14), where in Nazareth he preached
his inaugural sermon based on the words of Isaiah, "The
Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor" (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18;
cf. Acts 10:37). By injecting the Gospel with repeated references
to the Holy Spirit, the author makes it clear that the Holy
Spirit is the empowering force executing God's saving agenda
throughout the narrative. Therefore, when Jesus commissions
his disciples at the end of Luke, he anticipates the same
Holy Spirit to do for them what it has been doing for him
Given the dominant place of the Holy Spirit
in the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume may well be
called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Early on, Jesus anticipated
that his followers would be dragged before the authorities,
and he assured them that "the Holy Spirit will teach
[them] at that very hour what [they] ought to say" (Luke
12:11). This happens in Acts on multiple occasions, in which
Peter, Stephen, and Paul defended themselves and the gospel
mission before religious leaders and kings. Aside from inspired
speeches, miracles of healing and exorcism, guidance for missionary
activities, and encouragement of the persecuted disciples
are all indicative of the Spirit's empowering presence and
active intervention in Acts.
On the one hand, the outpouring of the Holy
Spirit at Pentecost is a special sign that epitomizes the
arrival of the day of salvation as prophesied by the prophet
Joel (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28). On the other hand, it is but
the first of many subsequent outpourings of the Holy Spirit
upon all those who believe, whether Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile
(Acts 2:38; 4:31; 8:14-17; 9:17; 10:44-47; 19:1-7). By extension,
those who come after the earliest entourage of believers around
Jesus will be equally equipped to carry out the Great Commission.
Being Jesus' witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth
is therefore a privilege and an obligation for every Christian
then and now.
The Lukan Great Commission, in which this year's theme verse,
"You are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:48),
is embedded, is a highly condensed articulation of the key
themes of Luke-Acts. Although the suffering of Israel's Messiah
came as a shock to Jesus' followers, it never deviated from
the script of God's overall plan of salvation. The trajectory
of God's saving intention for the world was laid out in the
Hebrew Scriptures and brought to fruition in the person and
ministry of Jesus. Now his witnesses will continue to proclaim
the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins at all times
in all places.
As we see and understand ourselves as true
recipients of Jesus' charge, we will better appreciate the
connection between Christian unity and bearing witness to
the gospel. "You are witnesses of these things"
has to become "We are witnesses of these things."
I am a witness for the gospel of Jesus Christ only insofar
as I am at the same time part of the historical and worldwide
church, the corporate "we" who undertake in our
specific contexts the same Great Commission. The world does
not encounter one standalone Christian here and there. It
sees Christians "in the plural" - both in word and
in deed. In terms of Christian witness, the way in which Christians
treat fellow human beings - including fellow Christians -
reflects an embodiment of the gospel message, with the power
to attract as well as repel potential hearers, depending on
the form in which this embodiment takes shape.
Although we should not be unrealistic
about the fragmentation we experience in Christendom today,
whether on the personal, communal, denominational, societal,
or global level, this year's theme verse, "You are witnesses
of these things," helpfully brings us back to our fundamental
and common starting point. All Christians are, first and foremost,
forgiven, saved, and charged to spread God's good news of
salvation, in action and in proclamation, to the world by
the power of the Holy Spirit. Left to our own devices, Christian
unity may appear an unattainable goal. But by the power of
the Holy Spirit, we are encouraged to pray to the one true
God for whom nothing is impossible, that God may grant us
the grace to present a powerful and united witness for the
furtherance of God's kingdom. To this end, the Week of Prayer
for Christian Unity is an important annual marker that encourages
us to keep our hopes alive and our prayers humble.
(Dr. Diane Chen is Associate Professor of
New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University
in Wynnewood, PA. Dr. Chen was baptized and raised in the
Lutheran church. Currently she attends Narberth Presbyterian
Church in Narberth, PA where she participates in the church's