Christian apologists will sometimes argue that the truth of the Gospel is proven by the willingness of Jesus’ disciples to die for their faith in Christ. The apostles were, indeed, willing to die for the truth of the Gospel, but if we grant that willingness to die for a religion, a movement or a cause speaks to the truth of a belief system, we would have to admit that many people in the past and today, who have died willingly for all sorts of causes in all sorts of ways, have thereby demonstrated the truth of their beliefs. The truth of the Gospel, in fact, was demonstrated by the disciples’ experience of the risen Jesus and their desire to witness to Jesus’ new life and to share in it.
Each of the first disciples was inspired to be a witness (Greek, martys), which sometimes led unavoidably to death, but the witness they shared was to what Christ had accomplished through his death and resurrection and what Christ was accomplishing in the church and the world through his followers. They were inspired by the guidance of the Holy Spirit infused in their lives and community and empowered by God working through them to bring the reality of Christ raised to those among whom they lived.
The events of Easter were not just about the disciples’ personal experiences of the risen Lord in their midst; they were also about witnessing to this reality to the world around them. And this was not just a witness to the past, what had been accomplished, but a witness to the present, that Jesus was alive among them inspiring and empowering their ministry and that they awaited a future glorification in which they would share in the renewed life in the kingdom of God.
The Revelation of John, so often seen as a document oriented only to mysterious future events, witnesses to the reality of the past, present and future of Easter’s power. John writes that when he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day,” “one like the Son of Man” told him to “write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.” John is asked to bear witness not only to what has been and what is to come, but to what is. The church lives in this tension between what has been accomplished through Christ and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom; but it lives in the now, and our witness is for today. We celebrate the death and resurrection as a historical commemoration and as a sign of Christ’s coming, but we also witness and celebrate Christ’s presence among us today.
John’s Gospel describes the risen Christ among the disciples, in which the breath of the Lord carries the gift of the Spirit, empowering them as the church to carry out Christ’s mission of forgiveness. This same power is described in Acts, in which “many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles,” continuing Christ’s ministry of healing among the disciples. The empowered and inspired life of the church both frightened people—Luke says that “none of the rest dared to join them”—but, conversely, attracted people: “Yet more than ever, believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.”
This was the power of the witness of life, of death conquered, of new life given, of the glorified life to come; it could overwhelm and frighten but had an inexorable pull. It was the challenge of the church to bear witness to this life, a confounding reality that even the apostle Thomas struggled to understand even as Jesus stood before him. The church was asked to bear witness to the very challenge Christ issued to Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.”
The witness of the church was to life, through the preaching of Christ raised up, through the forgiveness of sins, through the healing of the sick and desperate. It was life that always drove the church, for the message always had a single purpose: “So that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”