Only in one place in the Gospel of Luke does the author speak in the first person, referring to himself. He does this three times in the first four verses of the book:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)
Never again does he refer to himself as “us” or “me” in this Gospel. And the reason he does it here is plain: He wants to come right out and be crystal clear about why he is writing this book. I am writing this account, he says, (verse 4) “that you (Theophilus, or John Piper, or add your name) may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
To Have Certainty
My focus in this message is on the first two chapters of the Gospel. And we are not left wondering why he wrote these two chapters. He wrote them, he says, so that Theophilus would have certainty concerning the things he had been taught. This is so explicit and so prominent at the beginning of the Gospel, I want to linger over it for a moment to clarify where this message is going.
Behind the translation “that you may have certainty” are the words “that you may know the security or the safety or the stability” of what you’ve been taught. The word Luke uses, Greek asphaleian — that you may know the certainty of what you’ve been taught — is used in two other places in the New Testament. One is Acts 5:23: “We found the prison locked in all asphaleia (security)” usually translated “securely locked.” The other is 1 Thessalonians 5:3: “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and asphaleian (security),’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.” And it’s used 19 times in the Septuagint (the anciet Greek translation of the Old Testament) where it almost always means “safety.”
So the idea, in Luke 1:4, behind “that you may have certainty” is that you may know not just the things you’ve been taught, but something about them: the locked down, secure, unshakable, solid, stable, immovable reality of the things you’ve been taught.
The Kind of Knowing That Lasts
The reason I stress this is not only because Luke puts it first, but because we live in a day when many Christians — perhaps like Theophilus — have been taught things, but those things are not known this way. They are known the way one knows a cloud, not the way one knows a mountain. Viewpoints about God and the Bible, and right and wrong, float in people’s minds ready at any moment to be blown away by the slightest resistance and replaced by another cloud.
Luke does not want Theophilus — or you — to know these things that way. He wants us to know the asphaleian of the things — not just the things, not just the doctrines, but the asphaleian of the things. They are the kind of reality that is locked down, secure, safe, stable, unchanging. I write my Gospel, says Luke, that you may know the “safety . . . the bolted down security — the asphaleian” of what you’ve been taught. They are safe from being stolen, safe from being changed, safe from ceasing to be what they are, safe from becoming unimportant or irrelevant. Safe from not being reality anymore. These things, Theophilus, will always be.
This is the kind of knowing that caused the church to survive through three centuries of frequent and terrible persecutions. This is the kind of knowing that is immovable in the face of disease and abandonment and disillusionment and grief and martyrdom. Luke has tended Paul’s body through countless beatings and imprisonments (2 Corinthians 11:23). He knows what kind of knowing lasts and what kind doesn’t.
Most Excellent Danger
Luke knows the kind of knowing that “most excellent Theophilus” (1:3) is tempted with. He wrote about “most excellent Felix” in Acts 24. He wrote about “most excellent Festus” in Acts 26. Luke tells us that most excellent Felix “had a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (Acts 24:22), but he was alarmed at Paul’s preaching, and sent him away (v. 25) and then hoped for a bribe from Paul (v. 26). This is the kind of “accurate knowing” that destroys churches and leaves courageous Christians in jail, and brings the whole Christian movement into disrepute.
And when Paul preached to “most excellent Festus,” the governor said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind, your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24). And Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words” (26:25). It is a dangerous thing to be a “most excellent” anything. Locked down, secure, unchangeable knowledge has a way of troubling the rich and powerful. You can’t buy truth with your riches. You can’t control it with your power. It’s just too risky to know things that way. It doesn’t give you enough wiggle room.
But this is what Luke is after for “most excellent Theophilus.” I am writing not just that you may know the things you’ve been taught about Jesus, but that you may know the asphaleian of them — the locked-down, unshakable, unchanging, absolutely secure reality of them. That you may know they are — like mountains, not clouds.
Weaving Together Jesus and the Baptist
Now how does Luke help Theophilus (and us) in Luke 1–2 know the securely locked-down, unchangeable nature of the reality of what he’s been taught? He does it by weaving together the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist — the announcement of their births, the way they were both conceived, the way they were both born, the songs that their parents sang over them, and even an encounter between them while they were still in the wombs of their mothers.
And in telling these stories of John and Jesus, Luke makes clear and solid the most important realities in the universe: God, Christ, salvation, and faith. And that’s my outline. First, then, Theophilus, I want you to know the asphaleian of God.
1) The Certainty of God
“Zechariah was serving as priest before God” (1:8). Gabriel appeared to him and said, “I stand in the presence of God” (1:19). Your son “will turn many to the Lord their God” (1:16). “Gabriel was sent from God” to the virgin Mary (1:26), and says, “You have found favor with God” (1:30). “The Lord God will give your son the throne of his father David” (1:32). The child will be the Son of God” (1:35). “Nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). And then Mary sings, “My spirit rejoices in God” (1:47). And when John is born, and Zechariah’s mouth is opened he worships: “Blessed be the Lord God” (1:68). And when Jesus is born “a multitude of the heavenly host praises God” (2:13). “Glory to God in the highest” (2:14). And when Jesus was presented in the Temple, Simeon took him up “and blessed God” (2:28). And old Anna “gave thanks to God” (2:38). And when we leave story of Jesus’s boyhood, “he was increasing in favor with God” (2:52).
And in case Theophilus misses the point about God, Luke makes the same point about the Lord. “Zechariah and Elizabeth walked in all the commandments Lord” (1:6). And “there appeared to Zechariah an angel of the Lord” (1:11). Your son will be “great before the Lord”(1:15). He will “make a people ready for the Lord” (1:17). And when Elizabeth conceived she said, “Thus the Lord has done for me” (1:25). And an angel came to Mary and said, “The Lord is with you” (1:28). And she responded, “I am the servant of the Lord” (1:38). When Elizabeth met Mary she said, “Blessed is she who believed what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45). Then Mary sang over her son, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (1:46). And all the friends of Elizabeth heard “that the Lord had shown great mercy to her” (1:58). “For the hand of the Lord was with John” (1:66). And his father prophesied over him, “You will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord” (1:76). And when Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord came to the shepherds (2:9). And they said, “The Lord made this known to us” (2:15). And in the Temple Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to the Lord (2:22), according to what was written in the law of the Lord (2:24).
Where God-Centered Comes From
Sometimes people wonder where phrases like God-saturated, God-besotted, God-centered come from. They come from Bible stories like this. This story is mainly about God. God is the main actor in this story. He is central, he is dominant, he is all-pervasive. And if you stretch your view out over the whole Gospel, it’s still true. Matthew uses the words God and Lord 59 times, Luke 194 times — three times as often. And the two Gospels are almost identical in length. Three times as often as Mark, and 87 times more often than John.
Most excellent Theophilus, here is the first locked down, unshakeable, secure, mountain-like reality in everything you’ve been taught. God is real. God is active. God is unstoppable. God sent his angel. God struck Zechariah dumb. God made the barren Elizabeth and the virgin Mary conceive. With God nothing is impossible (1:37).
And when we get to the end of the story, it is Luke who tells us, this Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, were gathered to do whatever God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). Theophilus, mark this one down. God is the main reality in the universe. God is the main reality in history. God is the main reality in this Gospel. He is all-planning, all-pervasive, all-powerful. Know the asphaleian of the doctrine of God — the locked down, unshakable, never-changing, ever-relevant, mountain-like reality of God.
2) The Certainty of Jesus
And second, Theophilus, know the secure, solid, unshakable reality of Jesus. Consider Luke 1:31–35.
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.”
The first clue for Theophilus that something really extraordinary is happening in history is the word of Gabriel that Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will have no end (verse 33). So a king is about to be born whose kingdom will never be overthrown. It will outlast every other kingdom, and therefore is a universal, not just a Jewish kingdom, though it clearly fulfills all the Old Testament Jewish hopes. He will reign over the house of David.
But God could raise an ordinary man from the dead and make him an eternal messiah-king. So God does something at this birth to make clear that is not what is happening. Jesus is not ordinary man. Verse 35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.” God did not take an ordinary man and make him king. God himself, by the Holy Spirit, brought into being a man who was infinitely more than a man. The “therefore” in the middle of verse 35 links the work of the Holy Spirit in this conception with the title Son of God. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.”
An Utterly Unique Sonship
This is not sonship like the sonship all believers have with God. We are born according to the flesh and then reborn by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not born by the union of a man and a woman, but by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit replacing the seed of a man. And what can this mean except that human nature (from Mary) and divine nature (from the Holy Spirit) united in the person of Jesus? Mary contributed humanity. The Holy Spirit contributed divinity. And Jesus, the God-man was born, with a divine nature and a human nature in one person.
There are two more pointers to this in the context. When pregnant Mary went to visit pregnant Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). The word “Lord” is used 26 times in Luke 1–2. All of them refer to God. Even here Elizabeth is speaking by the Holy Spirit and in the same breath says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). So she uses the word “Lord” for the God who spoke through Gabriel and for the child in Mary’s womb.
The Lord’s Christ and Christ the Lord
Similarly, we get the double use of the title “Lord” in relation to the title Christ. In Luke 2:26, Luke says that it had been revealed to Simeon “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” And in Luke 2:11, the angels say, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). This Jesus is the Lord’s Christ, and he is Christ the Lord.
So, Theophilus, the second reality that is locked-down solid and safe and sure like another mountain range of glory is that a king has been born who fulfills all the dreams of Israel, who will reign forever until every kingdom is his kingdom, and who is the one and only Son of God by virtue of his two natures, one divine from the Holy Spirit and the other human from Mary. This Jesus, Theophilus, is the Lord. This Jesus is God.
3) The Certainty of Salvation
And third, Theophilus, know the unshakable, locked-down, never-to-be-altered reality that this Jesus will save his people from their sins by dying in their place. At his birth, the angels said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior” (Luke 2:11). Zechariah said, God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (Luke 1:69). And how will this salvation come? What do we need saving from most? Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit (1:67) said of his son John, “You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76–77).
Theophilus, you are a sinner. You need a Savior who can deal with your sins and forgive them. This Jesus, this God-man, is your Savior. He will deal with your sins and forgive them. How will he do that? He will set his face to die for you. He will say (Luke 9:22), “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This is his plan, his mission.
Why? How will this save anyone? It saves because his blood is the blood of the new covenant in which God promised to forgive the sins of his people. “I will make a new covenant . . . . and I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31, 34). And at his Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
That is how sins are forgiven. That is how he is a Savior. That’s how Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled (1:76–77).
So, Theophilus, know the asphaleian — the locked-down, absolutely secure, never-changing reality of your God and the God-man, Jesus Christ, and your salvation in the forgiveness of your sins by the shedding of his blood. Know these things like you know mountains, not like you know clouds.
4) The Certainty of Faith
And fourth, Theophilus, know with rock-solid, unshakable certainty that there is a way for you to have this salvation and a way for you to miss it. I speak to you now as to “most excellent Theophilus.” I have shown you the work of God in history; now be sure you see the work of God in the soul. God has brought salvation into history. And now God brings the human soul into salvation.
God’s salvation has happened in real, locked-down, totally fixed, secure, non-mythological, unchangeable history. Herod, king of Judah. Zechariah, priest of the division of Abijah. Elizabeth, of the daughters of Aaron. Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor. Quirinius, governor of Syria. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, blessed in Jerusalem, raised in Nazareth, not Olympus. This is dateable history, not fiction. Know the solidity and reality of this, Theophilus.
Responding Like Mary
And just as real and unalterable and historical as the way salvation came into history, so is the way the human soul enters into salvation. It is possible to miss salvation, Theophilus. Just because he came into the world, does not mean that you will come into him.
Don’t miss, Theophilus — don’t miss the difference between Zerchariah’s response to the good news and Mary’s response. Gabriel was sent from God (Luke 1:26). He brought an old and barren couple (Zechariah and Elizabeth) spectacular news. They would have a son, and he would be the long-expected, Elijah-like forerunner of the Messiah (1:17). But Zechariah did not rejoice at this. He questioned, “How shall I know this?” (1:18). Theophilus, this is not the way to receive the news of salvation.
The angel answered him with indignation, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:17–20). When God sends his word of salvation to you, Theophilus, this is not the way to enter it.
Look rather to Mary.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to . . . a virgin whose name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:27–33)
And Mary did not say, “How shall I know this?” God has told her it will be. She said, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). And the angel answered her question and told her how it would be. The Holy Spirit will do this thing (1:35). And gives her more hope: Nothing will be impossible with God, and your barren relative Elizabeth is six months pregnant. To which Mary responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary’s Song of Faith
What do you call this response, Theophilus? I’ll tell you want you call it. You call it what Elizabeth called it: When they met she said, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45). Zechariah did not believe the word of God (1:19. Mary did (1:45).
And then she sang. She sang a song for you, most excellent Theophilus. She sang for you. She sang a song of faith for you.
“The Lord has looked on the humble estate of his servant . . . . His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. . . . He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:48–53).
Be humbled, most excellent Theophilus, be brought low before the might and the mercy of the God of Israel. Let no office, no power, no wealth, no pleasure make the faith of Mary too hard for you. There is one way into this salvation. It is not the way of wealth, or the way of power, or the way of doubt. It is the way of faith. God has acted. God is speaking. Trust him. If you would go down to your house justified, join the lowly and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
How to Have This Salvation
Beware, most excellent Theophilus, of banking on your wealth. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But you can enter. Mary has made that plain: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27; 1:37).
And do not boast in your uprightness, Theophilus. Rather, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10). But don’t despair. Though you are not a Jew, Simeon has made it clear: Jesus is for everyone, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to [the] people Israel” (Luke 2:32). There is hope for you — and all Gentiles — most exalted Theophilus, but you must humble yourself: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17).
Salvation has come into the world, Theophilus. Know the rock-solid, objective, unalterable, factuality of the unfathomable, mountain-like truths of God, of the God-man Jesus Christ, and salvation in the forgiveness of sins by his new-covenant blood.
But also know this: There is a way to enter this salvation, and there is a way to miss it. “Enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Renounce all reliance on your wealth, and your power, and your office, and your uprightness, and receive this salvation like a child, like Mary.
Ringing with Joy
And one more thing, Theophilus. Have you noticed? This story rings with joy. The angel to Zechariah: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at John’s birth” (Luke 1:14). And John himself could not even wait to be born before he rejoiced in Jesus: “Mary, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44). And so Mary sings her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47). And when John is born, all the neighbors “rejoiced with Elizabeth” (Luke 1:58). And when Jesus was born the angelic announcement came, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
Theophilus, you have now heard of the Holy Spirit. By him was the God-man, Jesus Christ, conceived in a virgin’s womb. And all this joy is his work. This is his great work. John, filled with the Spirit (1:15). Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit (1:67). Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41). Simeon covered with the Holy Spirit (2:25).
The Happiest Story in the World
Do you have the Holy Spirit, Theophilus? The great mark of the followers of Jesus is the joy of the Holy Spirit. And the great mark of that joy is that it magnifies the Lord. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47).
Know this, Theophilus. I write these things, most excellent Theophilus, that you know this asphaleian, this certainty. It is locked-down, rock-solid, unshakeable, unalterable reality. God is the great actor and the great goal of this story. He is at the beginning, planning all things; he is in the middle governing all things; and at the end being magnified in all things. Jesus Christ, the God-man, is his divine Son. Salvation is his glorious work. And childlike faith is your way in. Go join the shepherds, Theophilus, glorifying and praising God (Luke 2:20). Be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the happiest story in the world.