Four Elements of a True Gospel Witness

Whenever I read the gospel presentations in the book of Acts, I am struck by four elements of the apostles’ witness—boldness, humility, tenacity, and urgency. And I believe our witness should be characterized by those same four traits.

Think of Peter and John, for instance. They constantly went around reminding the religious leaders that they had killed Jesus, a fact they were less than thrilled to recount. Their boldness astonished the religious leaders, especially since everyone knew that Peter and John weren’t particularly educated guys (cf. Acts 4:13). When a fisherman stands up to the most powerful figure in the city, that is bold.

But their boldness didn’t lead them to arrogance; they actually acted with incredible humility. Luke goes out of his way to point out that Peter and John weren’t terribly bright. (I wonder if they read Acts later on and thought, “Hey, Luke—this ‘uneducated, common men’ line? That was a little unnecessary.”) The apostles were astoundingly blunt about who Jesus was, but not because they had figured things out on their own. They were men who had received salvation by grace, and those who receive grace know that they have zero ground for moral or intellectual superiority. If you meet an arrogant Christian, they aren’t arrogant because they believe Christianity’s claims too fervently; they’re arrogant because they don’t understand the message at all!

But don’t make the mistake that humility backs down. A humble witness can still be a tenacious one. So we see Peter and John shrug off threats of imprisonment and death instinctively. “Throw us in prison? Slander our names? Kill us? Fine, but we’ll keep preaching, because God deserves it and the message is worth it.” Where did tenacity like this come from? The resurrection: they really believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, that he was doing something to save people who could not save themselves. When we believe that, we cling to our witness with grit in the face of opposition.

Not only will we cling to our witness, but we will be urgent to spread it, because we recognize that only one name offers salvation. The gospel was constantly on the apostles’ lips everywhere they went, because they took the gospel’s implications deadly seriously. They knew, as Peter said, that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus Christ. Believe that, and you’ll do something about the lostness around you. Believe that, and you’ll have a movement on your hands. How else can you explain how some backwoods, uneducated fishermen who were in prison half the time spread their message across the entire known world?

Now, I have often talked with people about this, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them. Salvation through Jesus alone seems so restrictive, so exclusive, so unfair.

What we need to realize, however, is that God owes none of us salvation. That any of us have access to it is an unspeakable act of grace. But what is unfair is for those of us who know the gospel to not do all we can to bring it to others.

What if Jesus’ claims are really true? What if the power of salvation is found only through him? Have you thought about the implications of that? Have you ever thought about your life in light of global priorities? If you have, then you will find yourself becoming bold, humble, tenacious, and urgent in your witness. If this message is true, then it would be cruel for you to not do everything in your power to help get the gospel to the 2.6 billion people who have never heard it. You were not saved for yourself; you were saved to bring the message of salvation to others.

Charles Spurgeon was once asked whether those who never hear the Gospel can be saved. His response is perfect: How can we, who know the Gospel, be truly saved if we don’t go to them?

Miraculous Healing – Q&A

As a pastor, I get a lot of question about miraculous healing. These come in all varieties, from mere academic curiosities to the urgently relevant question on the lips of those in present suffering and pain. By no means do I presume to offer the final word on this matter, but I’ve received the questions enough to have a few thoughts:

Does God still heal today?

Yes. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that God has stopped healing, sometimes in dramatic and miraculous ways. I have simply heard too many stories from reputable sources—particularly on the mission field—to be able to discount these as frauds.

Why does God heal?

God heals for a number of reasons. Most obviously, he heals as an act of love and mercy to someone who is suffering. But God also heals to validate his servants, which is why miracles crop up so repeatedly in the lives of the apostles. It may also explain why miraculous healings seem more frequent in areas where the gospel is spreading for the very first time.

God also heals as a sign and foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets looked forward to a day when peace—shalom—would reign, when the pain of the present world would pass away. Miraculous healing is a taste of that, the firstfruits of the full restoration that God has promised for the world.

Miraculous healings also serve as a witness to non-Christians, primarily as an invitation to receive spiritual healing, but also as a warning that they are currently spiritually sick and dying.

Lastly, God heals to motivate Christians to worship. This is a common reaction to miracles in the Bible, and it bears out in contemporary life as well.

Should I believe every miracle story I hear?

No. As I mentioned above, I’ve heard a lot of reputable sources telling me about miracles. But I’ve also heard people tell me about miracles that make no sense at all. As C.S. Lewis said, “many stories of miracles are unreliable; but then, as anyone can see by reading the papers, so are most stories of all events. Each story much be taken on its merits.”

I know God heals. But I don’t take on the responsibility of being referee of every story, and neither should you.

Should miraculous healings (like those in the gospels and Acts) be our everyday expectation?

I wish I could just say “yes.” Nothing in Scripture indicates that God has stopped healing altogether. But the sort of power that the apostles had seems unique to their time. Peter didn’t pray for people to be healed; he just said, “Be healed.” And he never seems to have misfired.

But even throughout the New Testament, this begins to fade. Paul, who performs all manner of miracles in Acts, writes near the end of his life, “Trophimus I have left at Miletus sick” (2 Timothy 4:12 ESV). And Paul himself had a “thorn” that God refused to remove. God wouldn’t heal it. Something is shifting from the beginning of the apostles’ ministry to the end.

What is that something? As the author of Hebrews says, “[Our great salvation] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (Hebrews 2:3–4) Apparently God gave the apostles an unusual endowment of power for a time to authenticate the fact that he really was speaking through them.

That doesn’t mean God never acts like this anymore. He does, and we praise him when he does. But we simply cannot expect the unique circumstances of Acts to be normative for all time.

Should hope of supernatural healing ever replace normal medical procedures?

Never. Nowhere in the Bible do I see any indication that faith in God the Healer replaces prudent action for physical health. When I pray for people in the hospital, I always pray (1) that God will miraculously heal the person, but also (2) that God will guide the doctors and nurses to use them as his agents of healing. Sometimes God circumvents the usual medical process, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it wholesale.

Will everyone who prays in faith receive healing?

Yes. And no. But mostly yes.

Eventually, those who pray in faith will receive healing, spiritual as well as physical, when God restores all things. Then the dead will be raised incorruptible, and there will be no more disease or pain or mourning.

But in the short term, God often has bigger purposes on earth than physical healing. Sometimes he allows us to know him better only through pain (as with the apostle Paul). Sometimes he uses our suffering to reach others. As I’ve heard it said, sometimes God glorifies himself by helping sick people get well; sometimes he glorifies himself when sick people die well.

If we truly understood the greatness of God’s gift to us in Christ, it would make even the worst pain here seem trifling. One test for how firmly we believe the gospel is our ability to be joyful in all things.

What part of the Church’s mission should be focused on healing?

All of it. That doesn’t mean that the Church only goes around performing physical miracles. But we should be known for the healing we bring to those around us. As faithful witnesses, we must warn, and sometimes preach unpopular messages. But that should always be done in the midst of massive outpourings of love and healing.

Our community should say about us, “We don’t believe what those crazy church people believe, but thank God they’re here, because if not, we’d have to raise our taxes!”

The Church should be known as the place where healing can be found for every place the community is broken. Need counseling? We’ll help. Need job training? We’ll help. Need ESL classes? We’ll help. Need a bag of groceries? We’ll help.  Need a safe place? We’ll help. Need parenting insights? We’ll help. Need rehabilitation? We’ll help. Need medical care? We’ll help. Need community and friendship? We’ll help. Have questions and doubts about faith? We’ll help. Have an addiction? We’ll help. Have a desire for a fresh start? We’ll help. Have a vision to help others? We’ll help.

We offer help and healing because we have had help and healing showered on us by our gracious God. May God enable us to offer this help to our neighbors, our city, and our world.

Four Reasons the Gospels Could Not Be Legends

The most popular theory today against the Bible is that the gospels are a bunch of myths and legends. As the theory goes, Jesus was a great guy with some commendable teachings, but the stories we have about him in the four gospels are made-up legends intended to beef up Christianity’s claims.

Entire books have been written on this[1], but here are 4 brief reasons the gospels simply could not be fabricated legends:

1. The timing of the writing is too early for gospels to be a legend.

The books of the Bible were written around 30 years after the death of Jesus, with some of the main ones being as early as 20 years after. The latest book in the New Testament—Revelation—was still written only 50–60 years after Jesus’ death. That is just too quick for a full-blown myth to spring up and displace the true story.

People often respond by saying, “Well, maybe parts of the New Testament were written in the first century, but it was different than it is now. The divinity of Jesus and the resurrection were later additions.” The problem here is that the earliest records of Christianity all contain the resurrection teaching. So in 1 Corinthians (written around 54 A.D.), Paul quotes a hymn about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Less than one generation from Jesus’ death, and there are songs circulating popular enough for Paul to reference in one of his letters—songs about the resurrection.

Or think about the fact that the earliest Christians celebrated communion—not as a way of mourning their leader’s death, but as a celebration of victory. You don’t do that if you know that your leader was cut down in his prime. No, these Christians all firmly believed, from Day One, that Jesus really had raised from the dead.

2. The content is far too counterproductive to be a legend.

The gospels especially are full of things that you would not make up if you wanted a legend to beef up your authority. The apostles are constantly portrayed as buffoons. They get theology wrong. They’re mean to little kids. If puppies had been walking by, they’d have kicked them. If you were writing yourself into a legend, would you make yourself look that foolish?

Think of Peter, the leader of the Church. Matthew records a story in which Jesus calls Peter Satan. Yes, the supreme enemy of mankind—Satan. You can be sure that if Jesus called me Satan to my face, I wouldn’t be tweeting about it. But it’s in there because it actually happened.

The gospels record that women were the first ones to see Jesus after his resurrection. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days, so if you were making up stuff to establish the truthfulness of a claim, you would not have made women your primary witnesses. The gospel writers put women as the first ones to see Jesus because, well, that’s what happened.

3. The literary form of gospels is too detailed to be legend.

This is probably my favorite. The gospels have a lot of random details that wouldn’t be in a legend, since they aren’t part of the moral meaning. So in Mark 4, Mark mentions that Jesus was sitting in a ship and there were a lot of other little ships. The other ships have nothing to do with the plot; they were just there.

Later on, in the midst of a really serious reflection on the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark records a detail about a guy running away naked (Mark 14:51–52). Why? Because it doesn’t matter what story you’re telling: if a naked man runs by, that’s going to end up in it.

These days, people writing fiction add details like this to make a story sound more believable, but that form of writing never occurred before the 18th century. Besides, if the apostles were doing that, that means they were intentionally lying. But did they have a good motive for that? Did their lies keep them out of trouble? Hardly, which leads me to . . .

4. The message was itself too costly to be a legend.

As Blaise Pascal said, “I believe witnesses who have their throats cut.” The message that Jesus was Lord and had risen from the dead didn’t gain the apostles any power or prestige. In fact, it lead to nearly all of them getting killed.

To say that the apostles fabricated these stories means that they decided to invent a religion knowing it would end in their painful, humiliating deaths. Imagine the scene of Peter pitching this and the other disciples saying, “Great idea, Pete! Let’s lose everything for a hoax! I don’t want my money or my property or my life anyway!” I don’t find that a compelling scenario.

Peter would eventually be crucified upside-down, refusing to recant his confession that Jesus was alive. This is the same Peter who denied he even knew Jesus during his trial—to a teenage girl. Where would Peter have gotten the courage to change his mind for a lie? Would Peter, who denied the living Jesus, really have died for a dead one?

I don’t believe in Jesus based on blind faith. I believe in Jesus for the same reason these first believers did: because I am convinced the testimony of the apostles is truethat Jesus really did resurrect from the dead. And if Jesus really is alive, that changes everything.

 

For more, be sure to listen to the entire sermon here. (You may also be interested in my recent post about the apostles’ view of the Old Testament.)


[1] Tim Keller’s Reason for God is a good example. C.S. Lewis and Blaise Pascal have also informed my thoughts on this.