THE CHURCH’S CALLING to WITNESS  the nations

by Visser’t Hooft

As the Father has sent me,  I also send you” – Jesus of Nazareth 

How is the Word of God transmitted to the human family? Most of us are inclined to answer: by preaching. For that is the expression which we find so very often in our translations of the New Testament and that is the traditional way in which the Church carries on its ministry. But the expression is in many ways misleading. For it over-simplifies the biblical situation.

The New Testament has some thirty different words for the ministry of the Word and each has its own specific shade of meaning. At the same time, what we generally mean by preaching- the systematic discourse in which, on the basis of a biblical, a specific doctrinal or edifying theme is developed- is something very different from what the New Testament expresses in these varied words.

We will choose the three most representative expressions, namely kerussein, euaggelizesthai, and marturein. The first is specially used by the Synoptic gospels and by Saint Paul, the second by Saint Luke and Saint Paul. Marturein is a specifically Johnnine expression. Kerussein means, literally, heralding. In the ancient Greek world the herald is a duly accredited emissary of a ruler, who enjoys a number of privileges to which his lord is entitled. His one and only task is to transmit in the most faithful and clearest manner the message entrusted to him. But it is interesting to note that the New Testament does not speak often of heralds, but very often of heralding. This is surely due to the fact that the “kerygma”, the message, is considered so much more important than the herald himself and that the New Testament herald is in no way entitled to those privileges which were given to the heralds of the ancient Greek world.

Euaggelizesthai
Euaggelizesthai means to announce good tidings. The evangelist of Greek civilization is the messenger who announces a victory or other historic event in the life of the empire or of its ruler. It is not surprising that this term was used in the Septuagint to describe the joyful tidings of God’s decisive intervention in the life of Israel. Thus Isaiah speaks of the “evangelizer” who announces the victory of God and thus inaugurates the promised new day. When he proclaims, “Your God reigns” (Is. 52:7), the time of salvation, of great peace between God and man, has actually arrived. At the time of the birth of Christ, the angelic announcement to the shepherds was, “behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people” (Lk.2:10). 

The coming of Jesus, who announces the arrival of the kingdom, is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Acts 10:36). He is both the evangelizer who proclaims the good news to the poor (Is.61:1, Mt.11: 5, Lk.4:18) and the evangel itself (Mk.1:1, Mk.14:9).

Marturein
Marturein, or witnessing is an expression with a definitely juridical background. The eyewitness plays a decisive role in the trial. His function is to tell the court exactly what has happened, that is, the truth and nothing but the truth. The later transition of meaning from eyewitness to “martyr”, in the sense of witness who confirms his confession by his suffering or death, is thus foreshadowed but not explicitly stated in the New Testament. Taken together, these three expressions can answer the basic question that will help us understand the specific task of the Church. In seeking what the three have in common, it seems to me that the following five points are specially significant.

1) Mandate – All heralding, evangelizing, and witnessing are based on a specific mandate. Saint Paul puts the question sharply: “How can men preach (herald) unless they be sent?” (Rom.10:15). Saint Paul himself is an evangelist because he is recruited by the risen Lord. “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not evangelize” (I Cor.9:16). But the same is true of the first disciples: “He appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach (herald)” (Mk. 3:14,cf. Mt.10:5-7). And the risen Lord gives the specific mandate to His apostles to herald the gospel (Mk. 16:15) and to be His witnesses (marturs) to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

It is not that they are called to talk about Jesus. It is rather that they are to participate in God’s redemptive work in Christ. For God Himself evangelizes. Saint Peter speaks of God preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36). And Jesus’ own ministry was to bring the evangel of peace (Eph. 2:17). Similarly he came to herald the coming of the kingdom (Mt. 4:17) and in order to witness (marturein) to the truth (cf. Rev. 1:15). If, then, men are sent out to preach, they become wholly involved in a divine enterprise. They are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor.5:20), and God makes His appeal through them.

2) Instrumental – In the second place, the three key words imply that the function of the speaker is wholly Instrumental . He is not to produce his own ideas or impressions. “What we preach (herald) is not ourselves,” says Paul (2 Cor.4:5). He is to report objectively. The one duty of the herald and the messenger of good news is to proclaim the great message entrusted to them. The eyewitness is to give a faithful account of what he has seen. Thus the Apostle John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have heard, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify (marturein) to it. . .” (I Jn. 1:1-2). And Peter and John, before the Jewish rulers, say, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:22:15). Saint Paul is clear about the mandate that he receives to be a witness (martur) of what he has seen and heard (Acts 22:15).

3) Historical Events- In the third place, the content of the speaker’s report has to do with events ( the mighty acts of God in the life of Jesus Christ). At Pentecost the people hear the apostles speak of the megalaia, the mighty works, the great deeds of God (Acts 2:11). What are these deeds? They are the various stages in the unfolding of the one divine redemptive plan which has its center in the coming of Jesus Christ.The emphases differ according to the perspective from which the books are written. The synoptic underline that the kingdom is at hand; Saint John that the word has become flesh. Saint Paul gives “first importance” to “what was received,” namely, that Christ died, that he was buried, and He was raised (I Cor. 15:3-5). But there is no real difference. For all agree that what is to be heralded, proclaimed as good news, and witnessed to is the fact of the coming of Jesus Christ and its absolutely revolutionary implications for the whole human race. There are not many gospels: a gospel about the kingdom, another one about the incarnate word, and yet another one about the cross and the resurrection. There is one single gospel, for Christ is the kingdom; He is the Word become flesh; He is the crucified and risen Lord.

4) One Response- In the fourth place, the purpose of the speaker’s message is to call for what Paul calls, the “obedience of faith to the Gospel” from those that hear it. That is, to urge upon his hearers that the events which he reports are of decisive significance for their eternal destiny and that they must take decisive and immediate actions with regards to them. The conclusion of every single witness is: repent, turn around, turn from sin, idols, and this present evil age to God. For this event is both a challenge and an invitation (summons). It is “now” that God commands people everywhere to repent, as Saint Paul announces to the Greek philosophers on the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:30). Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor.5:20).

5) Universal Message – In the fifth place, the message given is a public message addressed to all who have ears to hear. It is destined to become a universal word of salvation, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”. “This gospel of the kingdom must be preached (heralded) throughout the whole world (Oikoumene), as a testimony (marturion) to all nations” (Mt. 24:14, cf. Mk. 13:10).

“Go into all the world and preach (herald) the gospel to the whole creation ” (Mk. 16:15).

“You shall be my witnesses (matures) in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, cf. Lk. 24:47).

Ananias, sent to Saul to restore his sight, explains the call from God which has come to him by saying, “You will be a witness for Him to all men” (Acts 22:15).

It is this absolute certainty of the world-wide universal validity of the gospel which leads Saint Paul to the startling anticipation in Colossians 1:23: “The gospel which you heard, which has been preached (kerussein) to every creature under heaven.”

Pentecost and The Calling to Witness
The full implications of these various aspects of the Church’s ministry of the word becomes clear at the time of Pentecost. For through the outpouring of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, the Apostolic community receives the power to become a missionary community. Pentecost represents, as it were, the enabling act by which the Church is constituted, becoming a witnessing body.

The universal witness is the result of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the new people of God. For the Holy Spirit is a witnessing spirit. According to Luke 24:22-49, the risen Christ appoints His disciples as witnesses (martures) to all nations, but tells them to wait in Jerusalem until they will be clothed with power from on high. Similarly in Acts 1:8 the witness to the ends of the earth is described as the consequences of the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 20: 21-22). And this is also the central emphasis in the story of Pentecost: The promise is now fulfilled; the power from on high descends upon the disciples. They are now enabled to proclaim the gospel with authority; the Church is constituted, and it is (in essence) from the very outset a witnessing Church.

On the day of Pentecost the Church comes into being as the New Covenant community which has its very raison d’etre in the universal communication of the Gospel of Christ. It is not so that what we think of as the Church and what we think of as the world-wide missionary movement happen to be born on the same day. It is rather that they are fundamentally and originally one and the same reality.

Here is one of the most fundamental results of Biblical theology: that, according to the New Testament, the very meaning of the period between the ascension of Christ and His bodily return is that it provides the opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel to the whole world. The calling of the Church is to make full use of that opportunity to “preach the word in season and out of season”(2 Tim.4:2). The preaching of the Gospel to all nations is itself a sign of that final period of history which began on earth with the coming of Christ in human flesh. Saint Mark says (in the setting of a passage on the events which are to characterize the “last days”) that “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” ( 13: 10). I believe. . . That this is a saying of Jesus himself which reflects the expectation so deeply rooted in the proclamation of Isaiah that the good news of God’s reign will be proclaimed to all the nations “by the Servant of Jehovah” (Is. 42:6, 49:6, 60:6).

The eschatological character of the witness
Thus it can be said that “the mission of the Church is in itself the eschatological dimension of the Church, indicating and signifying that the Church is not an end in herself, but that Christ and His reign was and is and will be the end.” The Church is the community which has been gathered and mobilized by the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill that part of the redemptive plan of God which must be fulfilled in the final period of the world’s history. The whole Church is, therefore, at all times called to be a witnessing Church.

The universal character of the witness is based on its eschatological character. The Old Testament prophets, and very particularly Isaiah, had taught that in the end all nations would hear the good news of the reign of God. Thus we read in Isaiah 49:6: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” We find an echo of these words when Jesus says to the disciples that the time is approaching when the Holy Spirit will be given to them, the spirit which is the power of the new, the “last” period of history, and that they will then become his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The next chapter of the Acts of the Apostles describes that great moment in terms of the end of time (Acts 2:17).

The same word is used for the end of time as was used for the end of the earth (eschatos). Thus, as Dr. H. Hoekendijk has put it, “the end of the earth and the end of time belong together.” If the Church is to fulfill her calling, it is not enough, or to use the words of Isaiah, “it is too light a thing” that it should be concerned with the witness in its immediate environment. For, as Saint Paul said in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia: “So the Lord has commanded us saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost (eschatos) parts of the earth’” (Acts 13:47).

The Church, and every part of it, is only then truly the Church if it participates in it the world-wide witnessing task, or, to put it in modern terms, “foreign missions”. This being sent out, the crossing of national, continental, and cultural boundaries to carry the Gospel to those who still have not heard it, is not an invention of Western Christian civilization eager for expansion. Even though it may often have given the impression of being just an historically conditioned cultural rather than a basically Biblical Christian movement, it is in essence a requirement of the Gospel itself. It is an obligation and calling that rests upon every Church in the world.

( taken from, “The Pressure of Our Common Calling” (1959) by Visser’t Hooft the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. The author describes it as his personal statement “about the theology of the Ecumenical movement”).

Available as  The-Calling-to-Witness (pdf)

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One Response to “The Calling to Witness”

  1. Toddy2 Says:

    evangelism = “a missional discipline” that has both “distinctiveness and inseparability” from other features of mission and ministry. From 1983 essay by David Watson http://ibm.sagepub.com/content/7/1/6.full.pdf+html

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