Making Our Witness

By Fr. Steven Belonick

The words of Christ, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded…” (Mt. 28: 19-20), have been the very foundation and impetus of the Church’s mission in this world. They have had and were meant to have a “timeless” significance, for they were directed not only to the apostles, but to all those that followed them.

The Church, throughout her history, and since her inception, acknowledged this mandate and worked towards its implementation. Even though tragic and disruptive years of persecution, civil war, internal and external strife, the ministry of witness—of spreading the Gospel message, of discipling, baptizing and teaching—continued to be an essential aspect of the Church’s life.

Christ’s words are as significant today as they have ever been. But how can the Church, the people of God, witness to those around them today? I am convinced that by examining some historical precedents, we might come across clues and answers.

The purpose of this paper is to examine (in a necessarily brief and superficial way) the phenomenon of “witnessing” as unfolded to us by Scripture, the Patristic writings, and historical sources.

Old Testament

The Old Testament, although not as rich as the New Testament in examples of witnessing, does present several very bold expressions, among them the Prophetic Writings, the life of Daniel the Prophet, the story of the Three Holy Youths and the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3), the witness of Jonah to the Ninevites, and the martydom of the Seven Brothers (2 Maccabees), to name a few. There are two other examples which are worthy of special attention. The first is the martydom of E1eazar. (2 Maccabees) Eleazar was one of the foremost teachers of the Law. At age ninety, this Jew typified all that was venerable, righteous, and noble in man. He was a man of conviction. At a banquet, among peers, Eleazar was forced to choose between eating pig’s flesh or death. Eleazar chose death. Those close to him begged him to reconsider and proposed a plan whereby meat he could eat would secretly be substituted for the pig’s flesh. Again Eleazar chose death, saying,

Such pretense does not square with our time of life;
many young people would suppose that I at the age
of ninety had conformed to the foreigner’s way of
life, and because I had played this part for the sake
of a brief spell of life might themselves be led astray
on my account. Therefore if I am man enough to quit
this life here and now I shall prove myself worthy
of my old age, and I shall have left the young a noble
example of how to make a good death, eagerly, and
generously, for the venerable and holy Law.”
(6:18-27, Jerusalem Bible)

The Scripture goes on to regard this martyrdom as an “example of nobility” and a “record of virtue not only for the young but for the great majority of the nation.” (6:31, JB.)

A second example of witness in the Old Testament is less dramatic but equally significant. It is found in 2 Kings, Chapter 5. A story is told there of a young Jewish slave girl in the camp of Naaman, the army commander of the King of Syria. Naaman suffered from leprosy, and the young girl boldly told him that he could be cured by Elisha, the prophet of the God of Israel. Naaman sought out Elisha and after some doubt and apprehension followed his defection, and was cured, and worshipped the God of Israel.

These two Old Testament examples pose some striking contrasts. They show witness being accomplished by young and by old, by noble and by simple, by free and by slave, by death and for healing, for outsiders and for those within the community. But witness, in both cases, was for the sake of the “other.” Already, a definition of “witness” is being formulated.

New Testament

The New Testament is extremely rich in examples of “witnessing.” But it is in Christ Himself that we see the “True Witness.” This is clearly demonstrated by reading the Gospels. In particular, a conversation between Christ and Philip the Apostle is most striking. Philip said to Christ, “Lord, show us the Father….”(John 14:8.) Christ’s response was, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9 ) By this, Christ revealed that He is the very expression of the Father, the very image of the Father. Christ’s mission was to save mankind by revealing (by witnessing to) the Word, the Love, the Forgiveness, the Mercy, the Will of God His Father. And Christ so perfectly actualized the attributes of the Father that St. Paul referred to Him explicitly as the “image (icon) of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation.” (Col. 1:5 ) Christ said of Himself, “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.”(Jn. 12:49 ) Christ was, is, and always will be the True Witness of God His Father.

Christ’s words, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven,” (Mt. 5116) were at the same time a commentary on His own life and an exhortation to us. Christ revealed His Father to us both by His very person and by His words and deeds. And the Church never failed to realize the lesson in that. She began to understand that every act of witness must include the person, the word and the deed.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles shows us a Church witnessing in this way. St. Peter preached the Risen Christ to multitudes after Pentecost and many were baptized. St. Stephen the Protomartyr, filled with the Spirit, witnessed to the Jews in the synagogue, and this later led to his death. St. Philip converted the Ethiopian and St. Peter converted Cornelius the Centurion. St. Paul carried out his missionary journeys to all parts of the known world, bringing people to Christ. Their witness did incorporate words and deeds. They preached and taught, but they also healed and cared for the poor and the destitute wherever they found them.

St. Paul commented on Christ’s words about charity and love in Matthew 25, saying, “... do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifice God is well pleased.”(Heb. 13:6) He taught that Christians should “remember the poor,”(Gal. 2:10 ) and that they should “excel in giving.”(2 Cor, 8:7 ) St. James would write, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) Preaching and teaching were the framework of witness while philanthropy and love fleshed out the missionary message.

Patristic Sources

The subject of witness appears in many of the writings of the Church Fathers. It would be impossible to list all of them here, but one Father, in particular, makes the point clear and speaks for the rest.

St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407), commenting on St. Paul’s words to the Jews in Jerusalem in Acts 21:39-40, clearly depicts the Christian as one who witnesses to Christ by what he suffers, does, and says,

“For Paul did become a witness to Christ, and a witness as it ought to be; by what he suffered, by what he did, and by what he said. Such witnesses ought we to be, and not to betray to things we have been entrusted with: I speak not only of doctrines, but also of the manner of life. For observe: because he had seen, because he had heard, he bears witness to all men, and nothing hindered him. We too bear witness that there
is a Resurrection and numberless good things: we are bound to bear witness of this to all men, ‘Yes, and we do bear witness,’ you will say, ‘and do believe.’ How can you say that when you live to the contrary?... “You shall be a witness,’ it says, ‘unto all men:’ not only to the friendly, but also to the unbelievers; for this is what witnesses are for; not to persuade those who know, but those who do not know. ...We say, that we
have heard Christ, and that we believe the things which He has promised: Show it, by your works….”

To the Fathers of the Church, witness embraced all men. It embraced even the enemy. Witness, for them, not only meant preaching, but as in the New Testament, it was an expression of love and purposeful compassion for humanity.

Historical Sources

When we look to history for approaches to witness and mission, we again see the two elements of preaching (teaching) and philanthropy (love) constantly present. This was true in both the empires that led the way in missionary efforts: Byzantium and Russia.

A. Byzantium

Byzantium’s greatness lay in bringing together the preaching of the Good News and humanitarian work. Great names are associated with Byzantium missionary efforts, such as St. Nina the Evangelizer of Georgia (4th century) and SS. Cyril and Methodius, Evangelizers of the Slavs. Through the efforts of others like them and through the commitment of the empire and the Church, witness spread out to the surrounding territories of Moravia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Albania. Wherever Byzantine missionaries found themselves, they brought with them the message of Christ. They began the work of translating the Gospel Books and liturgical books. They built schools and orphanages.

This missionary work went on not only outside the borders of the empire but inside as well. In 325 A.D., for instance, at the Council of Nicea, the bishops advised (Canon 70) that hospitals be built in every city of the empire. They concurrently set aside all the surplus of their dioceses for the work of charity. In the fifth century, St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, built needed hospitals and old-age homes. He tended to the care of prisoners, especially war-prisoners. In the seventh century, St. John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, sent emissaries to compile a list of poor people living in Alexandria. The emissaries returned with a list of 7500 people, who were then cared for by the Church.

St. John also cared for a great multitude of refugees from Syria who fled when the Persians attacked their homeland. The Church, under his direction, became responsible for the care of strangers and foreigners. In his last will and testament, he said that he had found the treasury of the church full and left it empty: “I have done my best to render to God the things that were God’s.” Such work continued in the ninth century, when hospices (homes for strangers and foreigners) were founded in various cities and on roads of the empire to provide food and shelter for travellers.

B. Russia

Russian missions were directed primarily at four territories: Siberia, China, Japan, and America. I wish to briefly describe one such mission, the mission to Japan, for it has some interesting examples of witnessing.

Japan was missioned in the nineteenth century by St. Nicholas Kassatkin. A story about him says that Nicholas’ efforts in Japan were not as fruitful as everyone had hoped they would be. One day St. Innocent, the Evangelizer of the Aleuts and Apostle to America, visited with the young Nicholas on his way to Kamchatka and found him distressed and burying his frustrations by reading some French and German books. St. Innocent suggested to Nicholas that he throw away those books and begin to learn Japanese. Nicholas took his advice, and the mission began to flourish.

St. Nicholas organized an Association of Evangelists. He set up preaching places, and organized public lectures twice a month. He built schools, both secular and catechetical, and began publishing a magazine which dealt with moral, literary, educational, and religious subjects. St. Nicholas also encouraged philanthropic works by his church members. In 1873, for instance, the Christian women of Hakodate formed a society to help the poor. Their zeal spread, and in 1875, when an overflowing river caused great damage to the small town of Ganuma, Christians of that town purchased rice and brought it to 100 needy and poor families.

Likewise, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Japanese Orthodox Church organized a society to aid families who were in distress because their chief wage-earner had been called to war.

Conclusions For Today

What we have seen are some examples of Christians through the centuries witnessing to others. If we could label their activity, we might call it outreach. This outreach was a natural expression of their desire to share with the world their love and knowledge of the Risen Lord. They accomplished their task by word and by deed, by preaching and by good works, by sharing the Christian message and by caring for the neighbor, whoever he or she might be. Witnessing always meant and resumed action. It meant a commitment to and giving of oneself to Christ. It was the work of young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity. It always manifested itself both as individual and corporate service, as external and internal mission. It always was a process by which people extended themselves and began thinking about, doing, and living for others. It always challenged narrow-mindedness, concentration on one’s “own house”. It was always a way of life for Christians.

It is clear that witnessing is a definite necessity in our age, as well. It is necessary because Christ Himself said, “For you will always have the poor with you.” (Matt. 26:11)

The poor are not only those materially impoverished, but those who are spiritually impoverished as well. The poor are not only those who seek and need food, shelter, and clothing, but who seek and need the Word of God. We know that both types of people exist in our world in vast numbers. But we need not go to the far reaches of East Africa or Central America to find the destitute, poor, and needy. We can look in our own neighborhoods and communities.

A Good Neighbor?

Do we socialize and sympathize with the unemployed husband having a wife and three children, offering even financial assistance? Do we counsel the young, unmarried pregnant girl without a home, job, or husband, revealing to her more choices regarding the dilemma aside from the legal but non-Christian choice of abortion? Do we open our homes to the family down the street who have lost their home in a tragic fire? Do we include in our activities the recently widowed, spouseless, and lonely? Do we pray for and find medical help for the addict or alcoholic? Do we spend long hours with the friend at work on the brink of suicide because his or her spouse has opted out of the marriage? Do we share our faith with the classmate who has dabbled in numerous religious sects but cannot find peace? Do we critically approach politicians who claim to be Christians, yet compromise the faith on issues in order not to displease the public?

What is described here does not mean that the Church is to become another social agency. In fact, we can become more than a social agency. Christian witness is not just supplying material needs. It is supplying all human needs: material needs as well as consolation, counseling, listening,
enlightening, argument for the sake of truth, co-suffering, relief of loneliness, and guidance to the knowledge and will of God. This is the witness we as Christians are called to fulfill. In these kinds of loving acts, His Light will shine through and His Truth will be made known.

For Discussion:

1 Do you have personal experience of the witnessing described here? How has it affected you?

2. How would you define “witnessing”? Have you ever considered your-self a “witness” for the Faith?

3. Think about the circumstances of your own life. Name 2 situations in your life which might give you an opportunity to witness.

4. What opportunities are open to your parish for witnessing?

Fr. Steven Belonick is pastor of the Church of the Transfiguration in Pearl River, N.Y. He is the editor of the diocesan newspaper, Jacob’s Well, is the broadcaster of a weekly radio program on the . Orthodox faith, and is a member of the Executive Board in the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.