Posted by: michaelhanegan | October 4, 2008

Darrell Guder on The Concept of Witness in the New Testament

The following is a quotation from the section entitled, The Concept of Witness in the New Testament, by Darrell Guder. This section lays the framework for a more comprehensive discussion of these concepts later on in the chapter but it will also serve well for us to have a discussion on the concept of witness as opposed to evangelism in the missional church.

Guder writes…

It is missiologically provocative that this word family includes terms for the person who is the witness (martyrs, mainly in Acts), the testimony rendered by the witness (martyria, martyrion), and the process of giving or bearing witness (martyrein, diamartyresthai). The cluster of meanings indicates that Christian witness defines the indentity of the Christian (thus, Karl Barth speaks of “the Christian as witness”), the impact of such persons within human experience (their testimony), and the dynamic process of living out witness. Although, the predominant meaning of witness has to do with oral communication, there is ample reason to understand witness in a much more comprehensive sense, as defining the entire Christian life, both individually and corporately. By the same token, “evangelization” as the core of mission must be seen in a much more comprehensive fashion: “to think of evangelism in terms of mere proclamation fosters the practice of disconnecting evangelism form the life of the local church.”

This is certainly true of Luke-Acts, where Jesus defines the task and identity of the mission community with the statement, “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). These final words of Jesus to the disciples on the mount of ascension set the theme for the ministry of the early church. The operative term is “witness,” as a comprehensive definition of Christian persons and communities. The author uses this concept to build the theological bridge between his Gospel and the story of the first church, and it then serves as the leitmotif of the expanding ministry of the apostolic church.

The missional task of the witness in Luke-Acts and in John is to present the eyewitness evidence to Jesus so that people might “believe the claims of Christ and enter into a personal experience of his salvation. For both writers the significance of witness lies in its ability to induce faith.” God used the witnesses’ personal experience of Jesus before and after his death and resurrection to draw others into the relationship of faith in Jesus Christ. God makes that possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which grants to witnesses’ testimony its persuasive and inviting power.

Thus God’s Spirit employs the evidence presented by the eyewitnesses to induce faith in the risen Christ as God’s Messiah and to draw people into the community of witness as Christ’s servants. The major emphases of the Lukan witness are developed in the speeches that play such a prominent role in the book: “the speeches unify the Acts account and through them Luke advances his theme of divinely commissioned unified witness to the ends of the earth.” The transforming power of God’s action in Jesus Christ is now extended, through the community’s witness, to the whole world for which this good news is intended.

In Johannine usage, “witness” enjoys two complementary points of emphasis. It refers to the disciples’ reliable testimony to the facts of Jesus’ life and message–“what wee heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). At the same time, the apostles witness to the transforming truth of this message as it changes their lives–“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). The linkage of his emphasis upon “belief and unbelief” with the “testimonial and evidential character of this Gospel” demonstrates that in John it is the role of the witness to “convince people that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Their witness is not neutral: they are advocates who make their witness out of their experience with Christ and their continuing relationship to him. This emphasis upon their intimate personal union with Christ, which is basic to their identity as Christ’s witnesses, is underlined in the image of the vine and the branches in the final discourse (John 15) as well as in Jesus’ prayer for his followers in John 17. The Paraclete will come to those who have received the gift of eternal life and whose faith makes into Jesus’ witnesses in order to enable their pleading the cause of Christ (John 14:15ff; 16:4bff). Jesus summarized the central missional understanding of the witnesses’ calling in his post-Easter appearance to the disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. … Receive the Holy Spirit” (john 20:21-22; see 17:18).

Paul emphasizes the calling and formation of the Christian church as a community of witness, but he does not use the “witness” terminology with the same emphasis as do Luke-Acts and the Johannine literature. In his epistles, Paul teaches the early Christian communities to “practice a missionary lifestyle,” to “be a community of those who glorify God by showing forth his nature and works and by making manifest the reconciliation and redemption god has wrought through the death, resurrection, and reign of Christ. … [The church] is involved with the world, which means that it is missionary.” The focus of the Pauline letters is the formation of Christian communities “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1; see 1 Thess. 2:12; Col. 1:10; Rom. 12:1). These writings “should be read as instruments of community formation,” expressing Paul’s confidence that “God is at work through the Spirit to create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.” These communities are more than the assemblage of individual Christians. Their corporate life is essential to their witness–the “you” in Ephesians 4:1 is plural. Thus the Apostle must be concerned (as in 1 Corinthians) with any aspect of their corporate life which would invalidate their witness. “The community, in its corporate life, is called to embody an alternative order that stands as a sign of God’s redemptive purposesin the world.” As a sign, a witness, the church for Paul is “not the ultimate aim of mission. The life and work of the Christian community are intimately bound up with the God’s cosmic-historical plan for the redemption of the world.”

The other synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark, also equip and instruct the Christian communities for their mission. Perhaps some of the most stimulating biblical work of late has been in the missiological interpretation of the Gospels; but there is much important work still needed. The concept of witness does not dominate the synoptics as it does John, but the calling to mission as witness is implied throughout, especially in the formation of the disciples for their approaching apostolate.

To be a disciple is to be a part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus’ obedience to the cross. The constitutions of this new polity are the Gospels. The Gospels are not just the depiction of a man, but they are manuals for the training necessary to be part of the new community. To be a disciple means to share Christ’s story, to participate in the reality of Christ’s rule.


What do you think? Is Guder onto something here? (I believe he most certainly is.)

What would it mean for us to help our churches reclaim the New Testament concept of Witness?



  1. Yes, he’s onto something. He’s captured the essence of what it is to be a follower of Christ, i.e. not only to know Him, but to make Him known.

    I own this book and need to go back and read it again – good stuff 🙂

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