Filling in the Blanks on “Witness”: God Raised Jesus from the Dead
Editor’s Note: Jeff Gibbs’ essay appears in the Spring 2012 Concordia Journal. It is the last in a three-part series of essays reflecting on the current three-part emphasis of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as outlined by President Matthew Harrison: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” (related to the biblical Greek words martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue (click here for Erik Herrmann‘s essay on mercy, and click here for Jeff Kloha‘s essay on life together).
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The last two issues of the Concordia Journal have offered reflections on the “Mercy” and “Life Together” aspects of our church’s helpful three-fold emphasis. I commend to my reader those thoughtful comments by my colleagues, even as I want to signal how pleased I am with the three-fold thematic emphasis itself. I find the combination of “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” an importantly holistic way to speak of what it means to be church together, and in the world. In this issue of the Journal, it’s my task to reflect briefly on what, arguably, is the emphasis that is primus inter pares (“first among equals”), namely, the theme of “Witness.”
Of course, to speak about a “theme” of witness is already to speak too simplistically. As LCMS President Matthew Harrison aptly pointed out in a recent Lutheran Witness article, there are a number of ways that the biblical writers “fill in the blanks” (my phrase) around the action of “witnessing” or “testifying.” In Scripture, John the Baptizer, the Lord Jesus himself, the apostles, and others bear witness; that is to say, they are the subjects of the action. In addition, a simple word study of the “witness” word group (μαρτυρ-) in the NT shows that any number of truths (or untruths!) can be the content of “witnessing” or “bearing witness,” that is, the object of the action. In Matthew 23:31, for example, the enemies of Jesus are witnessing that they truly are the sons of those who killed the prophets. In Luke 4:22, the synagogue worshippers in Nazareth witness to Jesus—but hardly in a meaningful or faithful sense since they quickly try to destroy him. Much more often in the Bible, of course, Christ Jesus himself is the content of the witnessing, and that from different angles: Jesus as the true light (Jn 1:7), as the one on whom the Spirit came down and rested (Jn 1:32), as the one to whom the Scriptures testify (Jn 5:39), and, of course, as the Son of God (Jn 1:34). This “object” slot is, I would contend, the most important part of “bearing witness.” The object of the church’s testimony is primarily Jesus himself. And here is where I would like to focus this brief reflection, based upon some recent study in the book of Acts and upon my own general observations of how Christ is proclaimed in our Lutheran preaching and teaching.
In the first place, Acts emphasizes that, when the apostles (and those who follow in their train) bear witness to Jesus, they testify to the whole of Jesus’s ministry. This emerges in the necessary credentials to be named an apostle (1:21–22), as well as in Peter’s sermon in the house of Cornelius (10:37–39).
Secondly, and more importantly, a remarkable feature about the use of the noun “witness” (μάρτυς) in Acts is the consistent use of the term for the apostles as witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection. The pattern in Acts is consistent, and a quick survey of the texts is worth doing. After Jesus promises (1:8) that the apostles will be “my witnesses” (i.e., those who witness to Jesus), Peter “fills in the Christological blank” in a very specific way; he declares (1:22) that Judas’s place must be filled so that, with the others, this newly chosen “twelfth patriarch of new Israel” would become a witness “with us of [Jesus’s] resurrection”—hence, Matthias needs to be an eyewitness of Easter. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter declares that he and the others are witnesses of the truth that God has raised up Jesus from the dead, “and of that [i.e., Jesus’s resurrection] we are all witnesses” (2:32). After healing the crippled man in the temple precincts, Peter proclaims, “And you killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (3:15). Standing in the temple precincts after having been miraculously released from prison, Peter and the apostles say, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things…” (5:29–32a). In the house of Cornelius, the apostle announces, “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:39–42). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul proclaims, “And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people” (13:28–31). And even though in Antioch he points to those who before him were witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection, Paul understands his own apostolic office in the same terms since the risen Jesus appeared to him as well (Acts 22:15; 26:15; 1 Cor 15:8). To summarize the consistent pattern of the theme of “witness” in the book of Acts, the positive Christological content of the apostolic witness is this: God raised Jesus from the dead. In the case of this one man, final victory over death, sin’s henchman, has come. Jesus will never die again, and, for this reason, as Luke’s Gospel narrates the things that Jesus began to do, now Acts tells of the great things that the risen Jesus continues to do and teach (Acts 1:1).
This witness that the apostles bear to Christ’s resurrection in the book of Acts is consistent. Moreover, it is a striking witness for two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus’s resurrection is proclaimed as God’s mighty act that overcomes or undoes the evil deed that men did to Jesus when they put to death the innocent one. Over and over, the apostles assume that death is evil, and that the death of the one who claimed to be God’s anointed Son would have invalidated all such claims—had death remained victor. The key turning point in the proclamation where the bad news ends (“You killed him!”) and the good news begins is the powerful and contrasting, “God raised him from the dead!” Over and over in the sermons in Acts, what one might loosely call a “Christus victor” motif is the central proclamation. Peter’s words in Acts 2:23–24 are worth citing: “Men of Israel …this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” In Acts, the apostles bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and this mighty act of God means that Jesus is the exalted Messiah of Israel who grants repentance and forgiveness and who pours out the Holy Spirit on his baptized and believing church. In a phrase, Jesus is Lord of all (10:36). The good news to which the church bears witness is that, because he is risen from the dead, never to die again, Jesus is Lord of all.
This witness is also striking for another reason, and here I am relying mostly on my own experience of more than thirty years as a pastor in the LCMS, and almost twenty years of teaching at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. This form of apostolic witness to Jesus is not often the way that I have heard (or proclaimed) Jesus in our churches. To be sure, the apostolic pattern of witnessing primarily to Jesus’s resurrection is not the only way to say the good news of Jesus. As I noted above, there is a rich complex of biblical ways to “fill in the blanks” of our witness, and I would here strongly recommend to my readers that they read and ponder the deceptively simple book by Jacob Preus, Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel (CPH, 2000). Neither do I mean to say that we Lutherans have missed altogether the primary proclamation of Easter as good news; stanzas 2 and 3 of Walther’s great “He’s Risen, He’s Risen” (LSB 480) suffice to put such a thought to rest.
My strong impression is, however, that we have majored in proclaiming the biblical truth of the death of Jesus, especially his death as atoning sacrifice for sins (see Rom 3:21–26). If this is at all an accurate observation—that Good Friday has been primary, with Easter as Good Friday’s validation—then perhaps there is a place for us as Lutherans to bear witness more fully and joyfully not only to the fact of Jesus’s bodily resurrection (on which we have not wavered), but also to the significance of Jesus’s resurrection. Please do not misunderstand what I’m saying. The church should continue to bear witness that Jesus’s death did atone for sins, and that his resurrection announces that God the Father has fully accepted that atoning sacrifice. In fact, without Easter, Good Friday is not good in any sense. That is not, however, the only thing we can say about the significance of Easter. To merely take up truths lying right on the surface of the narrative of Acts, Jesus’s resurrection means that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of all. Easter (along with Ascension) means that, exalted, Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit on all believers. Easter means (as Matthew 28:18 also bears witness) that Jesus and Jesus alone bears the authority to grant repentance, forgive sins, and gather a people together who will bear witness to him until the times appointed by the Father are completed, and the reign of God is fully restored to true Israel, the Israel of God (Acts 1:6–8).
In a happy circumstance, this brief reflection will first see the light of day during the Easter season. In Easter and in other times as well, we are called to testify to the significance of Jesus’s resurrection for him, for ourselves, and for all creation. No evil deed of men, long ago or in our day, can ultimately thwart the saving plan of God in Christ. Risen from the dead, Jesus is Lord of all. At the appointed day, Jesus will be the judge of the living and of the dead, and by his power he will renew the heavens and the earth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, to this good news we bear witness.