“And we are witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:32).
This passage has been weighing very heavily on my heart, and I have spent much time meditating on the meaning of all that Peter says in this one single statement. I wanted to look really deeply at what he actually says in this passage.
In human terms, a witness is someone who has seen, experienced, observed, or in some way actively participated in an event, who then relates the details of that event to others. Consider a courtroom setting, one can only be a witness to a particular instance if that person actually witnessed the event taking place. If I was present and observed an automobile accident, I could realistically be called at some point to be a witness to that event. On the other hand, if I merely saw photos of that event, then I would be unqualified to be called upon as a witness. I can’t channel someone else’s experiences and still say that I was a witness to the events that someone else witnessed. Likewise, if I was present when a robbery occurred, then I may very well be called to be a witness to the robbery, however, merely reading a detailed account of that robbery in the news would not qualify me to be a witness to the robbery. Further, if you personally know someone, then you may be called to be a “character witness,” being able to testify to the character of the person, their personality, their immediate reactions to thing. The only real criteria here is that you actually know the person and have a relationship with them. Regardless of how many journal entries you have read about them, regardless of how many biographies you have read about them, you could never be a character witness for them unless you actually had a relationship with them. All of this bares extreme relevance in terms of this passage and what it means for we who are in Christ.
Peter proclaims that they are witnesses to these things. So, that begs the question, what are the very things that he is proclaiming them to be witnesses of? “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:30-31). So, in this one statement, we have Peter baring witness to not merely the concrete things, but the supernatural mysteries as well. It’s important that we follow this train of thought here. He is proclaiming, in order, that: the God of our fathers (God the Father, the God of Jacob, Isaac, and Israel) raised up Jesus (reference to the resurrection) whom you (the Jews) murdered by hanging on a tree (the crucifixion) and that God the Father has exalted Jesus to His right hand (the ascension) to offer (give) repentance and salvation to Israel. Notice that the crucifixion is the one thing that was concrete that no one could deny. All of the rest of what he said, however, was in reference to supernatural mysteries which made no sense to anyone whose faith wasn’t strong enough. The very doctrine of the Church, as determined in the Council of Nicea (325 AD), is utterly illogical in human wisdom. It is not “logical” that this One Man was the Son of God, that He ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father, that He came to offer salvation and repentance. None of these things make sense in human terms, but, perhaps the biggest mistake that we make is trying to bring God down to our terms rather than accepting the ascension to His terms. And, none of these things made sense, and yet, Peter experienced them. Even moreso, he recognized that those very mysteries were the exact things that he needed to be a witness to, the very things that he needed to preach to the unbelievers. He wasn’t on trial for teaching that Jesus was crucified, everyone could see and know that Jesus was crucified. It was the mysteries that no one would believe that needed the witness of someone who had seen, experienced, observed, or actively participated in. The healing, the transfiguration, the ascension, the sitting at the right hand; those supernatural mysteries that cannot be logically explained, but are fully intrinsic to our faith.
And it is this that I really wanted to speak to. I come from a very Protestant, very Evangelical background. And in that background, we see a tendency to distill our faith down to these concrete images. Much like an almost neo-Eunomian system of belief, we determine that whatever doesn’t make sense logically must be wrong. When we read in Scripture about something that doesn’t make sense in our logic-based 21st century minds, we immediately explain it away. We become tantamount to Christian atheists, determining what is logical and what is miraculous, and deleting the miraculous. I once read that Thomas Jefferson wrote a Bible wherein he went through the Holy Scriptures and removed all of the accounts of miracles performed by Jesus, leaving only His moralistic teachings. While we don’t do that historically in the life of Jesus, we do it in the continued work of Jesus in our very lives. In Peter’s place in this passage, our generation would preach the crucifixion while denying the ascension. Consider Paul’s list of the spiritual gifts. We read this list that was given to us: wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues. We take that list and, anything that requires faith as opposed to logic, we remove, explaining that the “spiritual gifts ended” with the close of the canon. We remove any of the miraculous and leave each of the gifts that we are able to attain to in our own power. You can acquire knowledge through study, you can acquire faith, you can acquire wisdom on your own; to heal requires Divine intercession though, so obviously, that must be removed. We remove the very power of our own faith. Consider that for a moment, what does that statement truly say? Anything that requires God’s intercession, we explain away, while anything that we can emulate in our own power, we continue to believe. Who exactly are we worshiping when we do that?
See, my issue is this. The very Sacraments of the Church have been robbed of their mystery by those who claim to be the members of the Body of Christ. The Sacraments of the Church have been relegated to mere traditional symbolism. Consider this; what is Baptism? To most church-goers in our generation, it is nothing more than a symbolic event, a public decree that we are Christians. I’ve heard baptism referred to as an act of as little spiritual meaning as changing shirts, like a work uniform. We change from “Team World” to “Team Jesus,” and post signs all around us stating that we are “under new management.” Consider the Eucharist. In our generation, it is commonplace to consider it to be nothing more than a metaphor, a symbolic representation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. When you think of the Eucharist in that way, then suddenly, the body and blood of Christ become merely tokens, thus, the “elements” used become irrelevant. Communion could realistically become wheat thins and kool-aid at that point. In fact, I’ve been to services where the once a month communion included sugar-free and gluten-free options. “Diet body of Christ.” What is true worship? Looking to Scripture, I see a much different image than ten minutes of singing, divided, flanking a sermon which focuses on a man’s ability to discern in man’s wisdom what man decrees God meant when He gave us certain words. One of the greatest ironies of the Protestant Church, in my opinion, being that the very sect that decrees “Sola Scriptura” is the only group that will base 50+ year careers on determining the meaning of “Scriptura,” rather than allowing Scripture itself to be the definitive authority.
What is fellowship? Is it the much dreaded 2 minutes of “stand up and say hi and shake hands and greet one another in Christ” that so many of us hate, or is it actually sharing in one another’s lives? Is it sacrificing for one another as Christ sacrificed? Jesus Himself said, “A new commandment I give you, as I have loved you, so you should love one another.” (John 13:34), and again, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). How did Jesus love us? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” (John 3:16). See, it’s this idea that we should love one another to the point of being willing to sacrifice anything to help one another. Is that how we feel about one another in the Church? Think about those that you see every Sunday. Would you be willing to sacrifice lunch for them, much less your only child? Have you ever seen, in your life, an example even, of someone who would do this? Someone who could have thousands of dollars stolen from them or their family, and still pray for that person, rather than seeking retribution?
All of that leads us to this question, and I want each of us to be honest with ourselves; to what are we witnesses? Consider my examples above. If we were not physical witnesses to these great mysteries, then, much like the man called to witness to an accident, we would be unqualified to be a witness to it. If we were not present for a robbery, we would never be able to be a witness to that robbery. Regardless of how much Scripture we read, we could never be called to be a character witness to God, unless we had a true relationship with Him. Could you imagine if Peter, in this passage, were speaking about the depth of a Bible-study? To what a greatly gifted speaker Paul was? Could you imagine St Stephen the Protomartyr being willing to be stoned on account of the importance of a good lecture? See, so often we claim that Scripture is our sole authority, and then live our lives like we don’t even believe what the Scriptures teach us. We pick and choose what verses we wish to abide in, and then interpret away those parts that don’t fit the mold. We begin, not with the words of our Lord, but with our own “theological system,” and then make the words of Scripture fit it. Every time Jesus uses the word Baptism, it is necessary unto salvation, but that doesn’t fit a particular theological belief system, so we interpret it to mean something different. It is never Sola Scriptura, but rather Sola whatever works for our theology. If Eucharist is merely symbolic, then the elements are little more than an appetizer preceding our Sunday morning lunch. If baptism is nothing more than superfluous tradition, is it not better if we add some soap that at least our flesh become cleansed in the process? If we disbelieve in the supernatural things that are beyond our human comprehension, shouldn’t we at least make them practically useful?
If the power of our faith is distilled down to what makes sense to us in our finite, carnal minds, then we remove it’s very power by removing the need for faith. To bare witness to the power of an addict to overcome an addiction is a great witness to the power of a human mind to overcome a human temptation, but to do so removes the need for faith. If what I believe can make sense to someone who doesn’t believe, then what faith is required for what I believe? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” (Hebrews 11:1) and “we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). Do we understand this correlation? Faith means that we believe in the very mysteries that we can neither see nor understand, and yet still believe through Faith. It means that we accept that there are things in our faith which will never make sense, nor were they meant to in our human wisdom, but, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The very fact that we don’t understand them means that they require faith for us to actually believe. When we disbelieve the mysteries and bare witness only to those things which we can explain, then we bare witness only to the power of man, not to the power of God. The term “mystery” itself is defined as that which is not explained.
Ultimately, when we remove the supernatural power of the Holy Trinity from our lives, then we bare witness to what we are able to accomplish on our own. Consider that thought for a moment. If we believe that God can’t, or won’t, perform miracles in our lives, then our faith becomes logical in human terms. At that point, we are on a very fine line of idolatry. We bare witness to the power of this change in our lives, but it is a change that we can affect in our own lives. It is the power of ourselves to change our lives in our own power, and that is not the power spoken of in Holy Scripture. To reduce the power of God to what we, as human beings, can understand, is to create an idol ourselves. Regardless of whether we name that idol Baal, Dionysus, Thor, Jesus, Bast, Steven, etc, is to create an idol. It is the creation of a god who is not God, because, “the Mighty One is great, we do not know Him. The number of His years is endless also.” (Job 36:26). If we create a God who makes perfect sense in our lives, who conforms to all of our precepts about Him, then it is not the true God of Scripture.
On the other hand, to fully believe in the mysteries of the Church; to believe that in Eucharist, the “elements” literally become the body and blood of Christ, to believe that in Baptism, we literally die and are reborn in Christ, to believe in God’s ability to perform in miracles; these things require true faith. And, they are very hard to accept, because they are counter everything that we have learned on this earth, but, that is the very definition of faith. After all, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and who has faith in what they’ve seen, for that which is seen is no longer faith. To believe in only what makes sense is not to have faith in it, but rather, to have faith in ourselves. Our faith must necessarily be a “supernatural” faith, and that, by definition, is outside of nature, and thus, outside of our capacity to comprehend. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord teaches us, “Let the ungodly man abandon his ways, and the lawless man his counsels…for My counsels are not your counsels, neither are My ways your ways…but as heaven is distant from the earth, so is My way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from My mind.” (Isaiah 55:7-9 LXX). To fully comprehend God, to refuse to accept those things which don’t make sense, is to remove His sovereignty by bringing Him down to a human level. Consider St Paul’s writing to the Ephesians, his prayer that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge…now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations.” (Ephesians 3:17-21). Each of these explains to us that we will never, neither should we be able, to comprehend the things of the Lord.
So, what are we witnesses of, my beloved family? A witness has seen, observed, experienced, or actively participated in an event. When we speak of “witnessing” to others, to what are we witnesses? What have we participated in that is worthy of witness? I fear that many of us couldn’t honestly answer beyond convicting lectures, engaging theological debates, in-depth Bible studies. Have we participated in the heavenly gifts, the heavenly worship that we see in the Book of Revelation? Have we stood in the presence of the saints? Have we joined in the heavenly choir? Have we tasted the fountain of immortality? Or have we merely attended lectures lectures and studies with the goal of understanding the infinite with our finite minds? Do we truly believe in the words of Jesus, or is our faith in the interpreting away of His words by one seeking to make them “make sense” in our own minds? Scripture admonishes us to walk by faith, not by sight; do we accept that or do we, as did the apostle Thomas, demand that we see something before we will believe it?
The peace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.