"Ye shall be witnesses unto Me" (Acts Chapter 1 Verse 8)
"In the early Church it became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends the inestimable blessing which he himself had received." (Gibbon)
"If God has really done something in Christ on which the salvation of the world depends, and if He has made it known, then it is a Christian duty to be intolerant of everything which ignores, denies, or explains it away." (James Denney)
It is impossible to read our Lord's familiar discourse on the vine and the branches without realising that by the word "fruit" He meant more than just "character" or even Christ-likeness.
This is specially clear when He said, "I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain." Christ has a special commission for each of His disciples, an "ordination" or appointment as the word really means, a particular task somewhere in His vineyard which is to entail a "going" before there can be any fruit.
He has called us to Himself that He might send us forth into the world to work for Him. We have been filled not to stagnate like the Dead Sea without any outlet but to overflow to the benefit of others. It is not so much that we personally have decided to follow Christ and to serve Him. Rather He has chosen us and called us to His side, and commissioned us with the tremendous task of telling others about Him. The initiative has been on His side, and it has been, as it were, in the shadow of Calvary that He has done this.
Christ, the Son of God, hath sent me
Through the midnight lands;
Mine the mighty ordination
Of the pierced Hands.
It was to the bearing of a cross that our Master first summoned us. It is to tell of His cross that He sends us. And that is why He showed unto His disciples His hands and His side when He said, "As my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you."
It is as if He said to them, "There is your message - the cross; there is the motive behind your witness - the love of God; and there is the means whereby that message is to reach all people - through sacrifice."
In the cross we have a message which the world cannot do without. It alone can meet the needs of men and women the world over. If Jesus Christ died for all men, then all men have a right to know. If the cross of Christ is the only way of salvation, and is the revealed truth of God, then the sooner it is proclaimed throughout the whole world the better.
As Archbishop Whately once said, "If our religion is not true, we ought to change it; if it is true, we are bound to propagate it."
When we set out to bring this wonderful message to people who often seem perfectly contented without it, we need something more than human inclination to carry us through to the end. Only the love of God in our hearts will keep us to it in the face of rebuff and disappointment again and again.
When the disciples of our Lord began to preach the gospel after His death and resurrection, it was in a city which was notoriously intolerant of anything unorthodox. A few weeks before, the people to whom they spoke had shown their hatred of the Person who was the centre of their message by hounding Him to a felon's death.
Humanly speaking, their preaching was utter folly. We do not know what kind of reception they expected, but it is doubtful whether they were surprised when they were imprisoned, scourged and some even stoned to death. Nevertheless, they stuck manfully to their task, impelled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Their reward was to see thousands of conversions through the faithful preaching of the message committed to them by their Master.
It is not the special privilege of the minister or the missionary to win others to Christ. It is everyman's job.
Gibbon, Harnack, and most of the historians of early Church history testify to the fact that individual Christians themselves were the means of winning their neighbours and friends, until it is said that by A.D. 49 the gospel had reached the shores of India, and by A.D. 61 even distant China had received the messengers of the cross.
Tertullian at the close of the second century could write, "We are but of yesterday, yet we fill every city, town and island of the empire. We abound in the very camps and castles, in the council chamber and the palace, in the senate and the forum; only your temples and theatres are left."
And how this was accomplished is made clear by Harnack who wrote: "We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly." "Informal missionaries," that is what all Christians should be.
The world could be turned upside down again if every child of God was faithful in individual witness.
And a witness, as the Greek word implies, is a martyr. The early Christians did not become martyrs in the flames or amongst the lions; they suffered and died because they were martyrs, for the true meaning of a martyr is one who witnesses for the truth. The fires of persecution revealed the martyrs, but did not make them. We are called today to the same high honour of being witnesses who are so convinced of the truth of our message that nothing will check us from passing it on to others.
Now many of us, at the thought of the responsibility we have of passing on the message of salvation to others, are immediately overcome with extreme diffidence, with what Paul called a "spirit of fear."
In many Christians this is the cause of an ineffective witness.
Of what are we afraid?
Not of physical pain, but of social ostracism. We have discovered that there is a reproach attached to the cross of Christ. He was despised and rejected of men. We who are His followers cannot expect better treatment. We may not suffer physical persecution, although many have been, and are today being, imprisoned and tortured for their faith.
But there is a subtle, cold indifference or a mocking laugh which somehow seems to be far worse.
Yes, there is fear, an inner feeling of shame which gnaws at the root of our testimony, causing its flower to wither and die. It begins by making us dumb in the presence of the non-Christian. But it will spread surely and relentlessly and mar our living for Christ unless it is faced squarely and overcome in the power of God.
The most powerful factor in overcoming this fear is a close day by day communion with our Lord and Master through prayer and Bible study.
Ineffective Quiet Times mean an ineffective witness. It is as we know God that we shall become strong and do exploits. "I am not ashamed," said Paul, "for I know whom I have believed."
As we come to know our Saviour in this close, intimate way, so our fear will be banished, our sense of inability will be overcome, our inner spiritual experience will tally with our outward profession, and we shall be impelled to witness for Him.
Another factor in overcoming the fear of man is the realisation of the desperate need, not only of the world at large, but of the individuals who make up that world. The members of our family, maybe, our next door neighbours, our friends in college or in business, the people we normally meet day by day, they all need a Saviour; they are lost without Christ.
We believe that we have the secret of eternal life. Shall we be silent in front of our fellow men, even if it seems as though they are in no way anxious to receive our testimony?
Witnessing for Christ, though it most certainly involves speaking for Him, and about Him, means more than that. As Oswald Chambers said, "If I preach the right thing but do not live it, I am telling an untruth about God," and that is why our Lord told us that we were first and foremost to witness by life rather than by lip. "Ye are the light of the world," He said, and the silent witness of a bright light in a dark place speaks for itself: it is like the lavender bush, its own advertisement.
What sort of light do we produce?
It is interesting to note that the Greek word here used for light is the same word as is used for the fire of coals round which Peter stood and warmed himself. A fire is used for heat more than for light. It is well to bear in mind that it takes far more electric current to light a lamp than to ring a bell.
One must burn before one can shine, for all light comes from heat. We are called to be God's ministers, a flame of fire, a beacon fire to pass on the good news of Calvary's victory; a fire of coals to warm cold hearts; a light to lighten the darkness of life apart from Christ. Our daily life must be the outshining of Christís radiant presence before ever we speak for Him.
But as Bishop Moule in his commentary on Philippians says of Paul, "He was to be a voice as well as a star. He was not only to shine; he was to speak."
Far too many Christians today take refuge under the shelter of some such thought as "My life will be a witness; there is no need for me to say anything."
This is utterly wrong.
The men who have moved the Christian world have been mighty soul winners, ready to speak at any opportunity. The story is told that when Douglas Thornton was being seen off at a station in Egypt, his friend with great difficulty found him an empty carriage. "An empty carriage!" he exclaimed. "Why, man, I want to fish!" And in he went to a crowded compartment full of effendis and others. It is also on record that Thornton redeemed the time when exploring the Great Pyramid by evangelising the dragoman who was crawling on hands and knees behind him!
In the life of Whitfield Guinness we read, "No matter where he might be, he always seemed ready with a friendly word, so cheery and tactful! Travelling by train or bus he would speak to conductor and passengers about their most vital interests. He couldn't help it. The deep concern was there, and it came out so naturally. He was just full of joy in the Lord, and always on the alert to win souls for the Master."
And again, of Dan Crawford it is written, "He found it natural to speak of his Lord to all and sundry."
That is the point.
Witness by lip must be natural and spontaneous.
It is a mistake, as a general rule, to make rigid resolutions about the number of people to be "tackled," etc., each day, though sometimes God seems to ask saints of His, such as Paget Wilkes and D. L. Moody, to adopt that principle.
The word of testimony which really tells for God is the overflowing witness of a heart which cannot but speak of that which it has experienced. Not "I ought to speak to someone about Christ," but "I must, I cannot keep it to myself any longer," was the apostolic method of soul winning. It is the natural outcome of abiding in Christ, with the resultant joy of His immediate presence. And that joy is multiplied a hundredfold when we are used to help another to find Christ.
There is no greater joy this side of heaven than that.
Owing to our inexperience and lack of knowledge, our witness will at first be confined to certain channels. First, there will be the opportunities arising from our day by day contact with our fellows for telling them in simple language of the step which we have taken. The challenge may soon come to us, "You are different somehow." Or somebody may say, "What has happened to you?" Can we let such opportunities slip by without dishonouring our Lord?
Secondly, we ought to arm ourselves with propaganda in the form of leaflets and booklets. There will be many opportunities for distributing these on trains and buses, to callers, to fellow students, or to colleagues in business. Do not let us underestimate the effectiveness of such methods. Every political organisation is alive to their possibilities. The Christian Church should be foremost in the field.
But leaflets must be carefully chosen. Those written in old fashioned language and reproducing pictures long out of date are scarcely likely to attract anyone.
Our literature must be well written and well printed.
In this connection we must also mention the lending of books. In the heat of an argument or discussion it is often difficult to marshal all our facts or to present them in a convincing manner.
A book on the subject lent to the one concerned will often prove a great help to him, and will provide an opportunity for resuming the conversation when it is returned. Again, openings may be given us for speaking in public through our membership of a Church, Christian Union, Bible Class or Sunday School.
At first it will be wise to limit what we say to a simple description of our own experiences. As knowledge grows, so we shall be able to explain what has happened more clearly. But whatever we say, it must be true to our own experience.
A real care for men and women should be our earnest desire. But the results of our witness are in the hands of Another.
As Oswald Chambers once said, "We are called not necessarily to successful service, but to faithful service." The effect of that witness is the prerogative of God the Holy Spirit, and it is quite wrong to keep one's eyes always on results.
In the economy of God some are used more than others in bringing men to Christ. But none are excluded from the commission to witness. Mackay of Uganda laboured twenty-five years for his first convert; Charles Finney had the joy of seeing immediate results.
For ourselves, let us see to it that we are faithful, and content with what success our Master sees fit to honour us.
While the world remains un-evangelised, and the disposition of forces as unbalanced as they still are, the greatest need is for those who will devote themselves to a missionary's life.
But there is crying need all round us.
The place of our appointment is our Master's concern.
But we may be sure that wherever it is, it is a place where we can - and should - witness for Him. He told His disciples to begin at Jerusalem, a city in which they were strangers, where their dialect was imperfectly understood, and where their message was bound to strike at the roots of age long prejudice and custom.
It was, moreover, the place where Christ was dishonoured and crucified, and that is surely why they were told to witness there first. It also happened to be the place where they were at the moment. God wants each of us to witness where we are.
That does not mean simply within the little Christian circle which is our spiritual home, but out amongst those who daily, by their apathy and indifference, crucify our Master afresh.
As Henry Drummond pointed out, every atom can only act on the atom next to it. Our primary responsibility is our neighbour, the man we share "digs" with, the student we meet at lectures or at games, our neighbour in business or casual acquaintance. We are those who can best reach them, and they all need Christ as desperately as we once did ourselves.
In this connection we need to think about our relationship as Christians to those whose interests centre in the "world." When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he said: "Our citizenship is in heaven," or as it has been translated: "We are a colony of heaven." Philippi was a Roman colony, where the law of Rome, not of the surrounding country, was applied. Hence the analogy. "We Christians are a colony of heaven.
For us the local standards of the world are superseded by the laws of the spiritual kingdom to which we belong. Though we live in your midst, our primary loyalty is to God. Hence our ways may seem strange to some of you, and our customs unusual."
What the laws are that the citizen of heaven is expected to observe we may read for ourselves. They are summed up in the injunction of James: "Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God; whosoever, therefore, will be a friend of the world, is the enemy of God." "Resolute renunciation of the world," writes Hamack, "was really the first thing which made the Church competent and strong to tell upon the world.
Then, if ever, was the saying verified, 'He who would do anything for the world, must have nothing to do with it,' " in other words, "have no fellowship with it."
There is tremendous power in such an uncompromising attitude where there is no divided allegiance. Mammon is left out of the picture completely. The weights or hindrances associated with a life of gaiety and worldliness are definitely cast aside.
The Christian is one "called out" from the world to join the "ecclesia" or Church of those who have left their former loyalty for a higher one. He is thus expected to be a marked man, like the pilgrims passing through Vanity Fair who had little taste for the wares of the city, whose garb and conversation were different, and whose destination lay far beyond - a heavenly city.
The Christian, moreover, has another principle by which to regulate his relationships. He is told by the apostle Paul to countenance and encourage no practices which are notoriously the cause of moral downfall in other people's lives.
This means that normally he finds he cannot take part in gambling or drinking, for these are two of the greatest modem social evils. The same principle guides a great many Christian people to cease from attending dances and theatres and so forth.
They find it hard to take part in activities that may not harm them, but that most certainly are stumbling blocks to a great many weaker brethren. Their attitude is definitely in accordance with Scripture, and anyone who takes a different line in these matters must equally be prepared to justify himself on the grounds of Scriptural principle.
Yet there is another side to the matter. We have not been hermetically sealed. If we were, our message would never reach those who need it so much. Milton in his Areopagitica had no use for "a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for not without dust and heat."
There is a sense in which the follower of Christ must be prepared, like Epaphroditus, to "play, as it were, the gambler with his life." For the sake of winning others, some are called to tread at times in slippery places where their reputation amongst certain other Christians may be jeopardised and their motives misunderstood.
But this requires special guidance from God. If pleasures and pastimes, innocent maybe in themselves, are likely to displace the Saviour from the throne of our lives, then it is spiritual suicide to indulge in them. If, on the other hand, there is a soul which can only be reached by a certain degree of mixing with the "world," then God may sometimes guide in that direction. But, for purely selfish pleasure, to frequent an ungodly and sensual atmosphere we have no divine authority whatever.
It is well to bear in mind that the man of the world often sets a higher standard for the Christian in these matters than the latter does for himself.
"Did I not see you in the garden with Him? Then why are you now by the fire?" we shall be asked. In the University clubs pagans have the highest respect for the man who neither drinks with them nor gambles. A clear-cut stand makes it far easier to witness for Christ when the difficult situation occurs.
We read that at a "Bump Supper" at Cambridge which VVhitfield Guinness attended, the captain crowned a merry evening with an impossibly obscene story. Guinness, fresher though he was, simply rose to his feet and said that if there were any more such stories he would be obliged to leave the Boat Club. The effect was immediate; that was the end of such stories that night at least.
"The place for the ship is in the sea," said Moody, "but God help the ship if the sea gets into it."
While no Christian should presume to lay down laws for another, nor to criticise the attitude of a fellow if it happens to differ from his, yet we are responsible to find out our Lord's mind on the subject for ourselves. He was the friend of sinners, and we must be so too.
Nothing is more likely to paralyse the spread of God's kingdom than little cliques of Christians who keep to themselves, and who never have more intercourse than they can help with the ordinary man of the world.
Christ was in and out amongst sinners all the time. But He never compromised. He knew where to draw the line, and we must too. We shall have to pass the Siren sisters many a time in this world. If we, Ulysses-like, are bound to the mast of other people's "thou shalt nots," there will come a time when, with the restraint removed, we shall be unable to resist the allurement. We have, however, our heavenly Orpheus on board, and the Christian should be so occupied with the strains of His music that the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vain glory of life make no appeal.
* * *
Remember the Christian is under orders, and the command to preach the gospel to every creature is obligatory.
Seek the privilege of sacrificial service either at home or abroad.
Let the love of Christ compel you in your efforts to witness for Him.
Nothing else will keep you at it.
Make sure that your life does not contradict what your lips say.
Above all, be natural in your attitude to non-Christians.
Let the Spirit of God direct the place and method of your Christian witness.
Remember that the Christian, though living in the world, does not really belong to it.