Have you ever felt powerless? Have you ever felt weak in the presence of others? Do you feel overwhelmed by the non-Christian world around you? Do you feel that your testimony to Christ is too weak and feeble to mention, and that the criticisms of Christianity are too loud, vocal and confident to withstand? Are you afraid that by speaking up for Christ, you will lose your job, or your friends, or the respect of your neighbours or family?
Witnessing is a distressing activity. Most Christians find it difficult. We prefer to keep our light hidden under the basket (Matt 5:15). We don’t feel like a city on the hill (Matt 5:14). Even when we are with Christians, we can feel spiritually inferior. When we consider mentioning the name of Jesus to unbelievers, we can feel tongue-tied and afraid.
Witnessing is not always eye-witnessing; it is the activity of testifying to the truth. It can be witnessing to the truth that we have seen with our eyes, or it can be witnessing to the truth that we know. Jesus told Pilate that he came “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).
Witnessing is always difficult because it is ‘testifying to the truth in the face of opposition’. The only times we are called as witnesses is when there is some doubt or disagreement about the evidence. It is only over things that are contested that there is any need for a witness to testify. So witnessing happens in the context of conflict and trial. Christian testimony always confronts the world.
Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit to witness in John 15:26 occurs in the context of persecution. Jesus predicts his rejection and the coming persecution of the disciples (15:18-16:4). The Spirit’s role in the world (as opposed to his work in the apostles) is to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8). This is not a separate or different work; it is the work of the Spirit of truth bearing witness to Jesus. Each of the Spirit’s convictions of the world (sin, righteousness and judgement) is about Jesus (16:9-10).
It is for this reason that the disciples were assured of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He is the witness to Jesus. The apostles are also witnesses because they were with Jesus from the beginning. The Spirit enables them to witness—to testify to the truth in the face of opposition. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warned the disciples of the coming time of persecution and reassured them of the assistance of the Holy Spirit:
“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:9-11)
This is the background to the promise of the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit would empower the apostles not so much to do wonders and signs, but to be his witnesses— to testify to him in the face of the world’s opposition. So in Luke 24 we read,
“…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:47-49)
And again the promise is given just before Jesus ascends: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This is the power that enables witnesses to endure the opposition and hostility inevitable to everybody who speaks up for the truth that is in Jesus (2 Tim 3:10-13). But it also means that the powerful word of the gospel comes to the elect with conviction and conversion:
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thess 1:4-5a; see also 1 Cor 1:24, 2:4-5, 2:10-16; 2 Cor 10:1-4; 1 Tim 1:7-8)
This is what enables us to minister the gospel in our weakness. For when the apostles were released from jail, they prayed that God would fulfil his promise of Psalm 2, and the place in which they were was shaken and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Indeed, a few verses later, we read “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (v. 33).
Such is the work of the Holy Spirit in witnessing to Jesus through us that we are able to minister the gospel in our weakness. Even Paul came “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). Indeed, he said that coming like this was good because the gospel is a treasure in clay jars “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). The power of the evangelist must never obscure the power of the gospel.
It is dreadful to feel powerless, but we must not follow how we feel. We must trust Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will empower his witnesses to endure suffering and to convict the world of the truth that is in Jesus. It is why Paul asked people to pray that he would have boldness to speak (Eph 6:19). Rather than feel powerless and do nothing, we should pray for boldness and speak up.