What makes the testimony of the disciples so believable in the days after the resurrection of Jesus is that their experience of God left them transformed. In the three days preceding Christ’s rising from the dead, the eleven sat cowering in their homes, sure of their imminent arrest. A little over a month later, and they were proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the streets of Jerusalem in tongues they did not know. Thousands of Jews came to know their Messiah through the power of their testimony.
And their testimony had power because it was not merely intellectual assent but transformative body, soul, and spirit.
We live in a world that values epistemological ways of knowing. Epistemology, itself, is the study of what separates justified factual knowledge over opinion or belief. Our current world emphasizes facts over what might be called phenomenology, or experiential knowledge. Facts can be counted on as trustworthy, we are told, while experiences are subjective and can be misinterpreted.
And that is true to an extent. Except facts aren’t always facts and my experiences often overrule what I think I know. Science, as valuable as it is, is also subject to misinterpretation and bias. I remember when eggs were a ticket to heart disease. Eating them was a death sentence on the cholesterol express. Turns out that the studies that touted this involved stuffing hapless rabbits with eighteen egg yolks and then testing their blood. Not only do rabbits lack the enzymes to digest the fat in egg yolks but I’m pretty sure anybody’s cholesterol would rise drastically on 18 egg yolks a day.
As it turns out, egg whites break down the fats in egg yolks. Now nutritionists often praise eggs as the perfect protein. All this to say that epistemological knowledge, while crucial, should not come at the expense of our experiences, but rather in tandem with them. Each needs testing, to be tried in the furnace of truth.
Many denominations, fearful of religious experience in all of its variety and occasional excesses, emphasize an epistemological approach to the Bible. We cannot rely on, we are told, our emotional experiences with God. The only thing we can rely on is a careful study of God’s Word. This sounds like wisdom and surely, a careful study of the Bible is absolutely necessary for understanding His character.
But the emphasis on what we know in our minds about God versus what we know in our hearts comes straight from a secular worldview, without our even realizing it. This worldview dissects the Bible as a historical document. Where this leads in the church is fruitless argumentation on whether the world was created in six days or doctrinal points on how exactly communion or the atonement or salvation works. But the Bible, while it contains history and a great many other things, is not a history book. It is a book of revelation.
The archeological and anthropological value of the Bible is indisputable, and many scholarly and weighty apologists use scientific methods to validate the science and history found in it. Even the writers in the New Testament uses methods of proof to tie Jesus into the Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah. But if mere argument was enough, then I think more might come to a knowledge of Jesus through debate. And I am aware that some do.
But by its own admission, the Bible is not interested in proving the existence of God by means of the scientific method. It assumes the existence of God. The Bible itself is a record of humanity’s transformational experiences with a Living God, resulting in testimony about Him that goes out into men’s hearts and invites them into relationship.
My inspiration for this post comes from Revelation 12:11: And they overcame by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony… This verse always strikes a deep chord with me. Our stories about our lives, the record of our experiences, have such weight. Our testimony has the power, with the blood of the Lamb, to overcome hell and the devil. That is pretty amazing. But a testimony is not merely an assemblage of facts about events.
Every testimony in the Bible is a story about how man and God interact, leaving each man and woman who encounters Him, changed in some way. Testimonials give us a close look at how another has experienced something. If you choose a new restaurant based on reviews, you are influenced by the power of testimony.
Back to the disciples before the stone was rolled away from the tomb. They had every right to fear execution. Surely that lay heavy on Peter’s mind when he denied even knowing Jesus. The night of the crucifixion looks like the defeat of God. And then, like butterflies from a cocoon, the disciples emerge, utterly fearless. Most of them were executed, in fact. But they no longer feared death because Jesus defeated it on the cross.
Some have tried to suggest that the disciples suffered a mass hallucination. That would make it the first and last group hallucination ever experienced in the world. Scholars can argue the dates and times of Jesus’ life. They can argue whether He said this or that. But what is indisputable is that eleven common and unlearned men emerged with a power and a conviction that changed the course of human history.
Their testimony about the life of Jesus continues to change lives and illuminate hearts. So what are we to do about this? So much of modern Christian life appears tame. The Gospel, we are told, has power, but we do not see that power working in our lives and relationships.
I think it is because, in part, we hold God at a safe distance. I remember a young person once telling me that they started to feel God’s love but they had to stop it in its tracks. It was too much for them. They feared being overwhelmed by God’s love. And I understood where they were coming from. If you seek out the Kingdom at the expense of all else, you will still bear the expense. If this person had allowed God to come in without barriers, then what changes would have to be made to accommodate this revelation?
So if you want a testimony that, together with the blood of Jesus, has power over death and the accuser, then begin by ruthlessly exposing all the barriers you have carefully erected. Feel all your feelings in the presence of God. Invite Him into your pain and your sin. Throw off the shroud of perfectionism. Put yourself in positions that test what your heart thinks it knows versus what God is telling you.
Be careful of valuing factual knowledge over experiential knowledge. One does not know God with one’s mind. One can only know of God that way. Beware of relying only on experiential knowledge. Our bodies and our hearts are not always reliable interpreters. We know God in our spirits, feel His presence in our spirits. And only our spirit, though it makes use of both our heart and our mind, can contain the revelation that not only does God exist, but that He dwells in us, both to will and do His good purpose. And out of our spirits will come testimonies that challenge what people think they know or feel about the living God, along with the power to defeat the evil one.
I would like to highlight one of my favorite current authors, Graham Cooke. He has some genuinely revelational material.
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