Every time one of the Twelve says in general conference that he is a special witness of Jesus Christ, internally I’m like, “Cool, he’s basically saying he just hung out with Jesus before this meeting.” Truthfully, I think many of us assume that when an apostle says he’s a “special witness” of Christ’s divinity, he’s actually saying that he’s physically seen Jesus Christ.
But is that even true? What exactly does being a “special witness” entail? And does a member of the Twelve (and the First Presidency) HAVE to see Christ to be an apostle?
To be completely honest, the answers to all of those questions sometimes seem a little murky — but there’s actually a lot of things we do know.
What Are “Special Witnesses”?
The role of a special witness is, essentially, to testify to the world of Jesus Christ. This is different from a regular witness of Christ, as we are typically only called upon to testify locally.
The term “special witness” comes from D&C 107:23:
“The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witness of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.”
The Twelve (and the First Presidency) are called to testify of Christ — His divinity, His mission, and His gospel — to the entire world. Obviously this comes into play at general conference, which is broadcast throughout the world, but it also applies to the dozens of trips they make every year to various countries.
Talking about the role of a special witness, David A. Bednar said:
“There are endowments of spiritual power that attend the office of the apostleship. So when one is ordained to the office of apostle in the priesthood, and then set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and receives the keys of the kingdom — the rights to direct the work for the priesthood in all the world — there are spiritual powers that attend that.
But that also applies to a twelve-year-old boy who’s called to be the president of the Deacon’s Quorum. Now he has a smaller field in which to work — a quorum — but the principle is the same. Our field is the entire world; for that twelve-year-old boy, it might be six or seven or eight young men in that Deacon’s Quorum.”
Primarily, then, the role of a special witness has to do with testifying and to whom the general authorities preach.
Do General Authorities Have to See the Savior?
“Apostles are certainly more than a “regular” witness of Christ. They are rightly considered “special witnesses.” Apostles are also placed in a position to lead and guide the Church and the Saints. They are called of God and are deemed by Him to be worthy and equal to the task. This has not changed in 2000 years.
However, what are the criteria to be considered an apostle? Beyond what we have already stated, I can think of nothing. They are called and ordained by God, through other apostles. But, does the descriptor of “special witness” mean that they have literally seen the resurrected Savior? Is this a requirement or some kind of automatic benefit for becoming an apostle?
While many people may have varying opinions on the matter, the scriptures are silent on the matter, and other prophetic utterances that may confirm or deny such a belief are unavailable. In other words, to consider a literal viewing of Christ as an apostolic requirement has no doctrinal basis” (emphasis added).
Along those lines, Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, remarked:
“In our day the Lord has again called Apostles. These Apostles have been ordained as special witnesses of Christ in all the world. They know of the reality of Christ and his redemption with a certainty born of the Spirit . . . It is by the power of the Holy Ghost that I bear my witness. I know of Christ’s reality as if I had seen with my eyes and heard with my ears. I know also that the Holy Spirit will confirm the truthfulness of my witness in the hearts of all those who listen with an ear of faith” (emphasis added).
Like FAIR reminds us, there is no doctrinal evidence or stipulation that one must physically see the Savior to become an apostle. Elder Hunter’s response doesn’t give a definitive answer as to whether he has seen the Savior, although he does say it is “as if” he has seen Him — perhaps indicating that he hadn’t seen Him in the flesh (at least not at that point), although that is merely speculation.
But honestly, it doesn’t really matter whether someone — even a “special witness” — sees Christ or not. You don’t need to see Him to know that He lives.
Why We Don’t Need to Know
Elder Boyd K. Packer was one of the greatest spiritual powerhouses I’ve ever heard speak — and he powerfully reflected on people’s question regarding whether the apostles see the Savior.
“Occasionally during the past year I have been asked a question. Usually it comes as a curious, almost an idle, question about the qualifications to stand as a witness for Christ. The question they ask is, ‘Have you seen Him?’
That is a question that I have never asked of another. I have not asked that question of my brethren in the Quorum, thinking that it would be so sacred and so personal that one would have to have some special inspiration, indeed, some authorization, even to ask it.
There are some things just too sacred to discuss. …
There are those who hear testimonies borne in the Church, by those in high station and by members in the wards and branches, all using the same words—’I know that God lives; I know that Jesus is the Christ,’ and come to question, ‘Why cannot it be said in plainer words? Why aren’t they more explicit and more descriptive? Cannot the apostles say more?’
How like the sacred experience in the temple becomes our personal testimony. It is sacred, and when we are wont to put it into words, we say it in the same way—all using the same words. The apostles declare it in the same phrases with the little Primary or Sunday School youngster. ‘I know that God lives and I know that Jesus is the Christ.’ …
I said there was a question that could not be taken lightly nor answered at all without the prompting of the Spirit. I have not asked that question of others, but I have heard them answer it—but not when they were asked. They have answered it under the prompting of the Spirit, on sacred occasions, when ‘the Spirit beareth record.’ (D&C 1:39.)
“I have heard one of my brethren declare: ‘I know from experiences, too sacred to relate, that Jesus is the Christ.’
I have heard another testify: ‘I know that God lives; I know that the Lord lives. And more than that, I know the Lord.’
It was not their words that held the meaning or the power. It was the Spirit. ‘… for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.’ (2 Ne. 33:1.)
I speak upon this subject in humility, with the constant feeling that I am the least in every way of those who are called to this holy office. …
Now, I wonder with you why one such as I should be called to the holy apostleship. There are so many qualifications that I lack. There is so much in my effort to serve that is wanting. As I have pondered on it, I have come to only one single thing, one qualification in which there may be cause, and that is, I have that witness.
I declare to you that I know that Jesus is the Christ. I know that he lives. He was born in the meridian of time. He taught his gospel, was tried, was crucified. He rose on the third day. He was the first fruits of the resurrection. He has a body of flesh and bone. Of this I bear testimony. Of him I am a witness” (emphasis added).
Seeing the Savior is a deeply personal and sacred experience — one that if I had, I wouldn’t want (or probably even feel authorized) to share with my friends, let alone millions of people.
Our witness of the Savior’s divinity doesn’t come from seeing Him — it comes from the Spirit, who testifies of Christ. As Thomas in Finding Faith in Christ reminds us, without faith, even seeing is not enough.
So honestly, it doesn’t matter whether “special witnesses” have seen the Savior, because either way, they know He lives.
That is all the truly matters.