This, unfortunately, is another verse that is too often taken out of context. Our focus gravitates to words like “power” and “witnesses.” After all, that is what many of us desire. Either to have power, even if it is spiritual, or to be strong and faithful communicators of the Gospel. There is certainly nothing wrong with possessing the courage to share one’s faith. Additionally, having authority is an essential element of leadership. However, neither of these is the central theme of this verse. This is not a verse focused on evangelism. Like many of His messages, what Jesus is attempting to communicate is much deeper, and it’s the complete opposite of what we often want.

To understand Jesus’ point, we must ask why He spoke this, as it was not something He shared randomly. To answer this question, we must look a few verses back to Acts 1:6. The disciples asked Jesus if the time had come for Him to “free Israel and restore our kingdom.” Do you see their intent? The disciples perceived Jesus’ opportunity to secure their freedom from Roman rule and to restore the nation of Israel. They were focused on their kingdom. Like us, power was the exact thing they craved, and it wasn’t the first time.

In Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus’ aunt asks that her sons, James and John, be seated at His right and left sides when He is King. We read that, of course, this made the other disciples indignant. But what was Jesus’ response? “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Matthew 20:24). Did you get that? Jesus called out the very same thing the disciples wanted in Acts—the very same thing we still seek today. He spoke to their desire for power and authority. Then, He continues, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

So in Acts, Jesus responded the same way. When the disciples asked Jesus for the power to usurp Rome, He replied that only God had the authority to set that time, but the disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Notice that Jesus did not say, “you will receive power to be my witnesses.” Jesus said that power comes from the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and testifying is just one natural byproduct of that power. Furthermore, the Greek words for evangelism and witness (literally, one who testifies) are two distinct words. The first speaks to the specific sharing of the Gospel, while the second can be used in a more general sense, referring to one who simply shares what they’ve heard or seen.

This is not a matter of semantics or splitting hairs. The disciples wanted to overthrow Rome. Jesus said they would need to conquer their desires. The disciples wanted to sit beside Him on the throne. Jesus pointed them to the cross. The disciples wanted to make a name for themselves. Jesus said they would make His name great. The disciples wanted to be lifted up. Jesus taught them humility.

What we seek is the power to rule. What Jesus offers instead is the power to serve.