Commentary on The Scriptural Text — Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010    

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Luke 24:48, You Are witnesses of these things.
by Diane G. Chen
Associate Professor of New Testament
Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University
Wynnewood, PA

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 Great Commission:

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 ending.

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 himself.

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 Acts.

"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 witnesses.

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 10:39-41).

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 perspective.

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 as well.

"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 all along.

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.

Conclusion
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 teaching ministry.)

 

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