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The Important Work of Witness

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I want to tell you a story about a girl from ancient times.

She was a young woman possessing a quiet spirit. You might have found her type in any age—sweet, kind, and modest. If she were around today, she might be a fixture at youth group, a fan of Hillsong Music, and a devotee of a local coffee shop. Whatever her musical interests, you would know you could count on her, because behind her quiet and selfless demeanor was a strong faith.

Her name was Blandina. She in fact never sang a Christian rock anthem or visited a cafe, because she lived in the second century in present-day France. Hers was a humble life. In reality, it was a hard life. She was a slave girl.

With many others in Lyon, Blandina had become a Christian around AD 177. An elderly pastor named Pothinus had labored for years to spread the gospel in the area, and he had seen much success. People from all levels of society came to faith, including slaves like Blandina, from a place called Lyon in France.

Lyon was the main city of Gaul, which was part of the Roman Empire, still the world superpower at the time and officially pagan in nature. Seeking unity, the emperor Domitian had made Christianity illegal during his reign from AD 81 to 96. This did little to stop the spread of the faith, however, and actually seemed to intensify it. Blandina was one tiny part of this unquenchable trend, anonymous and unnoticed.

Until, that is, the persecution in Gaul reached fever pitch.

The anti-Christian spirit in Lyon grew so great that household servants suspected of being Christian made up outrageous accusations against believers to save their own skins. Charges such as incest and murder were thrown around. In the ensuing fracas, Blandina and many other Christians were taken into official custody. The odds of their survival were not good.

In short order, Blandina’s life was upended. With others, she was tortured under interrogation. Such official action was not fact-finding in nature; it was designed to break the will of the Christians in order to justify their impending deaths. Blandina was not a strong girl. She was not hearty. Her torturers were trained soldiers of tough fiber. On the list of tasks for a Roman warrior, subduing young girls was easy. Ratchet up the pain, break some bones, and get the job done.

That should have been what happened to Blandina. However, she did not die on the rack. Though she was tortured “from morning till evening” until her body was mangled, no amount of pain led her to confess error in being a Christian. She seemed to gain strength, in fact, when in the midst of her torture she cried out, “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.”1

This was a woman, a believer, of whom this world was not worthy.

Can We Find This Kind of Strength Today?

Whew. I feel like I need a walk around the block after an account like that. That is the kind of real-life story that will, if you’re not careful, grab ahold of you and never let go.

This, I would propose, is exactly what many of us need today. We’ve established thus far that many of us could use some encouragement. Because of cultural pressure and other factors, many of us are tempted to live in a way that avoids sacrifice rather than embraces it when it is necessary to honor Christ.

We see cultural pressure and the costly nature of Christian faith in a secularizing culture, and we recoil. Is this really what God requires of us—to be unpopular and unsuccessful and even hated? That’s not what I got into this for. I was promised prosperity and favor and blessing. I was told that in coming to Jesus, the whole world would lie down at my feet. Raises would happen, friends would be made, difficulties would cease, sickness would end, and on the list goes. Now I’m making my way through life, and none of that is happening, and I’m seriously considering getting out.

This is an entirely natural way to think today. The challenges we discussed are real, painfully real. But here’s the thing: God has something better for us. He offers a gospel to believe and a kingdom to serve. He doesn’t want us to hunker down; he wants us to put it all on the line, risk everything, and experience the joy that comes from losing yourself in the only cause that counts. That’s the faith that comes from Christ; that’s the message we learn from the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30).

That’s what the life of Blandina, and countless martyrs alongside her, teaches us.

How to Get There

So maybe you’re with me so far. You’re fired up by Blandina’s stunning example. You see that you’re tempted to play down your faith, to hide your light under a basket, as Jesus memorably put it (Matt. 5:15). You might even see that you love Christ but don’t really want to be bold. You’re not some super-apostle; you understand that if an odd opportunity presents itself to “be persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10) that’s cool, but you’re just a normal Christian who wants to keep on keeping on.

Let me encourage you to approach your Christian witness with a few things in mind.

Remember that all of life is witness. As I mentioned earlier, we too often think of gospel “witness” or “mission” as something we do at a certain time in the week. At other times in our regular lives, we’re not doing it. We need to rethink this. All of our lives should be witness. In reality, this is not a new idea, but an ancient one.

The ancient Israelites were to be a continual light to their children, for example. They were charged by Yahweh to teach their offspring that “the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). This was supposed to be communicated at all times, as we saw earlier in Deuteronomy 6:6–9. This is true for us too. We should teach the truth about God and communicate the gospel of Christ to our children in specific times. But the witness of the Israelites went beyond this, and so should ours.

We’ll teach our families minute by minute, and we can proclaim and show that Christ has saved us at work, talking to parents at the park, on the bus, at intermission at a concert, at the local Starbucks, and everywhere in between. We can both preach the gospel in a way that makes sense to the context and live according to the gospel. We can, for example, show the fruit of the Spirit at all times. That will be an obvious witness to those around us.

So, talk to the mailman as a witness; go to your spinning class as a witness; use Facebook as a witness; sell socks on Etsy as a witness; answer the door as a witness; pin things on Pinterest as a witness; raise your children as a witness; drive in busy traffic as a witness; do laundry as a witness; create playlists on Spotify as a witness. Be bold and unapologetic. You do not need to be sent by an agency to be a fearless agent of the gospel. Your local church is training you for this role, week after week. The Holy Spirit is inside you. This is the commissioning you need. Gospel work isn’t for a half-hour slot every other week.

Your whole life is witness.

Living in this way is not confining. It’s liberating. It will fill moments that previously felt wasted with purpose. Ministry isn’t for the super-Christians. Every believer is a member of the “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6; Rev. 1:6). All of us offer service to God. We can all risk everything for him. We can live every day for him.

Remember the incredible importance of witness. You will be a bolder Christian in your corner of things if you regularly call to mind just how important such work is.

Sometimes we act as if God is going to do it all. But in reality, God has called us to carry out the mission with him. This is part of the remarkable story of the New Testament. Jesus began the work of the kingdom when he came to earth. The majestic rule of God became visible and tangible as Jesus, the Messiah, performed miracles and taught as only God can teach. Though his disciples struggled to understand him, Christ’s true identity emerged as time passed by. Jesus undertook a new kind of kingship, however. He ascended not a throne but a cross. On the cross he canceled the debt of a wicked people and overcame the powers of darkness.

We may assume that things stopped there, and we’re all left to marvel at what Jesus accomplished. From there on out, God would lead people to see this wondrous truth, and salvation would be like a zap from the sky.

But that’s the thing: while God does all the saving of sinners, he calls his church to take up the work of the gospel. This is what the book of Acts shows: the first Christians began to spread the news of eternal life in Jesus’ name to everyone they could. Their story is intended to give way to our story. We are called to join them in promoting the gospel in all the world.

Is everybody supposed to be a Paul? An Apollos? A Stephen? Trotting the globe, leading the mission? No. Many of us are called to labor right where we are. But this must not obscure the fact that as believers, every last one of us is called to be a witness. The instruction Christ gave to his apostles is for us as well: “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). The Holy Spirit did come upon the disciples of Christ, empowering them for faithful gospel proclamation (Acts 2:1–4). He does the same for every Christian today. The “sealing of the Spirit” is an empowerment for witness. A lot of times we focus on the Spirit’s work in other areas, but we must fix this in our minds: God has given us the precious Holy Spirit to light a fire in our hearts, and to enable us to carry that fire into the world so that fellow sinners may be rescued from eternal condemnation.

So we’re not supposed to gaze up at heaven, waiting on spiritual rain. It is essential that you and I recognize that God has given us a very important role: we are to be witnesses of Christ. We don’t have a choice in this matter. Every Christian shares this call, though we will naturally play different roles in the movement. Not all of us have the gift of evangelism, but all of us have the charge to evangelize.

This will likely feel daunting to many of us. But we can trust in the empowerment of God to lead us. We don’t lack anything that we need for this mission. We know the gospel, and we possess the Holy Spirit. Start here; go anywhere. There’s not some evangelistic secret you must unlock before you can witness effectively to people. It’s important to listen and learn what you can about others. But the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).

Pray for boldness, and act in boldness. If you fail, try again. I’ve seen God give me the words I needed in many situations in which I felt awkward and afraid. I still do, and I would guess that I always will, at least some of the time. My cheeks get hot, my mouth gets dry, and I don’t know what exactly to say.

But then God gives me the courage to speak. He’s so faithful, and so kind.

He will do the same for you.

Remember the incredible power of a simple witness. Let me give you a few examples that play this out.

One of my friends was surfing channels one cold Maine night and happened upon the 700 Club. He didn’t know the truth about his sin and his need for a savior. He wasn’t expecting to make a life-changing decision while he was passing the time. He was doing what millions of us do: turn on the TV, zone out, and wait for sleep to take over. Something clicked, though, as the gospel was shared. He’s since become a strong believer, a godly member of his local church, and is raising his kids to know the Lord.

Another friend of mine was walking on the campus of the University of Maryland. He had seen “street preachers” before but paid them little mind. He was in business school and had little time for demagogues denouncing passersby. But something changed one day. He realized that in his quest to get everything, all he could in business, he was chasing the wind and would end up with nothing. The preacher’s words about Jesus’ death and resurrection pierced him. He was saved on the spot. Since then, he’s gone on to be a ministry leader with a thriving family.

I think also of a former atheist named John Joseph, whom I heard speak at the Together for the Gospel conference before 8,000 attendees. Just a few years ago, he was trapped in lust. Beyond that, he was a cocaine dealer. This guy was the type you see and think, Wow. That one’s beyond my powers. Not sure anyone’s going to reach him. But God is in the business of blowing us away. This young dude, looking like a Hollywood movie star, went to his local Blockbuster one night. He picked up Bill Maher’s Religulous, an open attack on and mockery of religious belief. This guy usually liked Maher’s stuff, but in this film he pushed too far and—even in the eyes of a fellow atheist—didn’t seem fair to Christians.

So, John got online, googled “Christianity Atheism debate,” and ended up watching videos of a spellbinding apologist named Ravi Zacharias. It was like Saul on the Damascus Road. John was struck dumb. He next came across Desiring God Ministries, which features the teaching of Pastor John Piper, and listened to sermon after sermon. In the course of this he was converted to Christ and transformed. He’s now a member of a strong church in Washington, D.C.

We could go on and on, my friends. What do we see in these and other testimonies? That God is great and merciful to sinners! That awesome truth aside, we see also that our witness is important. The work we do matters. Our preaching of the gospel is not dumb. We will feel that way; Satan will discourage in the moments when we do break free of fear and awkwardness. He’ll ambush us emotionally and cause us to doubt that we’ve said the right words. He’ll paralyze us by making us think that no good could ever come from our witness. If only God had sent someone else, someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

These are lies from the pit of hell. But they will come. This is a natural part of a bold witness. Expect, as Jesus said, persecution. Plan for opposition. Ready your heart for it.

Keep pushing. Keep trying. Keep praying.

Your witness is important. You don’t need to be a super-Christian. You don’t need to be a missionary (though that is sensationally important work). You need to recognize the task God has given you, and invest where you are. It may not always be the case that you can share the whole gospel, either. Perhaps you take time in a certain situation to build trust and establish a friendship. Don’t condemn yourself in that case. When it is right to speak up, you’ll know. Sometimes we need to be direct, and sometimes we need to allow people to observe how we live and see how God works to redeem sinners.

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Owen Strachan is executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He also teaches for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Bethany and is the father of two children. Follow him on Twitter.

[This is an excerpt from Dr. Strachan's forthcoming book, Risky Gospel.]

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