But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
To whom will we be His witnesses? It’s a critical question, and one not always recognized.
We’ve been talking about how this is the key verse in the book of Acts. It reveals not only the main purpose for the new believers — spreading the news about Jesus — it outlines how they will go about it and to whom. How the church will start in Jerusalem and then spread throughout the surrounding region of Judea, then into Samaria and finally out to the ends of the earth (that would be as far as you could go). But there’s something else in this charge that escapes us because we are not that familiar with the culture at that time. Jesus is basically saying that beyond Judea, you will be my witnesses among the forbidden peoples. You will be my witnesses among those people against whom you and your Jewish friends would normally discriminate.
Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter into the other’s territories or even to speak to one another. During the New Testament period, these tensions were exploited by Roman authorities, and historians of that period report numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century. Both groups claimed to be the true Jews. Both groups desecrated the other. Jesus is saying you will be my witnesses in forbidden territory.
Not only that, but they were soon to find out — as Peter found out by being led by the Holy Spirit to the home of Cornelius, a Roman army officer and devout God-fearing Gentile from Caesarea — that the “ends of the earth” was going to include mostly Gentiles or non-Jews. But at the time Jews from Judea were not ever to enter the house of a Gentile. Peter was criticized by the Judean Christians as soon as he returned to Jerusalem from Caesarea, and he had to explain to the Apostles and the believers how he was led to go into the home of Cornelius by the Holy Spirit and how the Gentiles there believed and were baptized by the Holy Spirit in the same way as the Jerusalem Jews at Pentecost. I don’t think we can appreciate how earthshaking these experiences must have been for these people. Jesus was basically saying, You shall be my witnesses to the losers and the reprobates, and those who desecrate the true religion. Those are going to be “your people.”
And what are the implications for us today? Not much different, I think. You shall be My witnesses among the losers, the scoundrels, the sinners, the addicts, the prostitutes, the good-for-nothings — basically, you will be My witnesses to all the bad people in the world. I’m not sending you to nice, good, upstanding people who will make you look good. I’m sending you to the other side of the tracks, as it were.
This was a highly transforming message. It transformed those who were going to believe it, and it transformed those who were going to take it to them. That’s because the gospel transforms everyone. It’s how we become empathetic once we see our own sinful state before God. We welcome the people we would have formerly rejected, because we realize we are them.