‘Witness’ in the Book of Acts: Barnett & Jensen

© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The quest for power | neo-pentecostals and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 98-100). It is reproduced here with permission.

Acts 1:8 is the charter of the neo-pentecostal movement: ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’

Here is the source for the vital concept of ‘power for witness’. It is assumed that witness is the equivalent of evangelism and that the text is a promise of power for every Christian. Without this text the neo-pentecostal would find it hard to explain what the second coming of the Spirit is for.

However, it is clear that Acts 1:8 cannot be read in this way. For Luke the word ‘witness’ is very specific—it applies to those who see, handle and hear and who can therefore testify from first-hand experience. In Luke and Acts it is particularly applies to the small and unique band of disciples who could so testify to the risen Jesus. Definitely not every Christian was a witness, for not every Christian could say that he had seen the Lord. ‘Witness’ is not a synonym for ‘evangelist’, even though it is used that way in contemporary religious speech.

That this is so can be established by studying the contexts in Acts where the word ‘witness’ occurs. To take some examples:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us… one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection (Acts 1:21, 22).

but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:40, 41).

But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people (Acts 13:30, 31).
The only exceptions to this are Paul and Stephen (Acts 22:15; 22:20). However it is highly significant that both these men had special encounters with the risen Jesus, and so although ‘born out of due time’ could take their place as authentic witnesses.

H. Strathmann observes of the concept of witness in Acts:

Nor are these witnesses in general. They are those who are qualified to be witnesses because they themselves lived through the events. They are indeed specifically called to be such (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8, 22-26). They were given the necessary equipment for their task (Luke 24:48; Acts 5:32)… This concept coincided with that of apostle in the narrower sense, and, unless it undergoes reconstruction, it is equally bound to disappear as historical development proceeds…
After quoting from Acts 1:8, he goes on:

The primary thought is that they can and will proclaim from first-hand knowledge the story of Jesus (1:22, 10:39)… It is apparent that this condition can be met only by a select circle whose members had the honour of personal encounter with the risen Lord (10:41, 1:22).1
It follows that the words of Acts 1:8 are words of promise to a group of unique persons, to perform a unique activity, and can in no way be construed as a promise to Christians as a whole. It is therefore more improper, since not true, to assure Christians that they will be supplied with power to evangelise on the basis of this text. Yet is there any other text which will function to provide the neo-pentecostal with the rationale for his experiences?

1. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1967), Vol. IV, pp. 492, 493. We differ from Strathmann in the discussion of Paul and Stephen, but this has no bearing on the main issue of Acts 1:8. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.