I believe the Lord has led me to begin a series of messages on the Gospel of Luke. I would like to begin by telling you how I came to this decision and how we will proceed.
In the past month or so I have been spending much of my personal devotional time meditating on the words of Jesus and the way he acted. The result has been that I love this man with a newly felt longing. I long for his single-minded devotion to his Father's will to rub off on me. I long to share his profound understanding of the human heart and his ability to see through all the outer layers of our lives and into our heart. I long to have his way with words—words that always laid bare a person's real loves. I long, like Mary, to sit at his feet and drink in the living water of his teaching, until it so satisfies my heart that I can be as free as he was from the love of money and from the love of the praise of men and from anxiety about tomorrow. I have come away from the gospels hungry to be holy, to be real and authentic, not to play church or play religion, and not to fritter away my short life with nonessentials. And all these longings and this hunger have driven me to prayer that God would work me over and not allow me to creep along so slowly in my quest for Christ-likeness. Out of this meditation and prayer has emerged the desire to study and preach from one of the gospels.
Then came missions week and my attention was focused on the Great Commission. And probably because of my experience with Jesus in the gospels, the words kept coming back to me, "Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you." I can remember thinking in years past that these words must surely grip every pastor's heart and shine on the path of his preaching and show him the way to go. Jesus said it is the mission of those whom he sends, to teach all the things he commanded and to help people obey them. You can understand, can't you, the force a statement like that has on a young pastor wondering what he should preach?
So these two things together, my experience with Christ's teachings in meditation and the straightforward demand he gave in the Great Commission to teach all his commands, these two things have given rise to my decision to begin a series on the Gospel of Luke.
Why Study the Gospel of Luke?
Why Luke? First, because I have spent more time studying it than the other gospels. Second, because Glen is teaching from Matthew on Wednesday, Mark's gospel does not contain nearly as many of Jesus' teachings as Luke, and John is perhaps the most familiar gospel and omits many of Jesus' most distinctive sayings. Third, we are approaching the Advent season (November 30 is the first Sunday of Advent) and there are eighty verses in Luke before you get to the famous Christmas passage. These eighty verses are a great way to lead us up to our Christmas celebration. So I chose Luke.
Now concerning the procedure we will follow. Two principles have to be balanced out. One is that we preserve the freedom of the Holy Spirit to interrupt and alter our plans. We must not be so locked into a verse-by-verse exposition of this book that he cannot hit us with another text from time to time that we may need to hear even more. That is the principle of freedom. The other principle to keep in balance with it is the principle of discipline. Preachers are sinners who, like all sinners, tend to preach what they like and avoid what they don't like. So we must find a way not to be so selective. Luke tells us in Acts 20:26f. what Paul said to the Ephesians when he left and what I want to be able to say to you when my work here is done: "I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." A preacher cannot say that, if he rides one or two hobbyhorses while avoiding other teachings of Scripture. One of the best ways to fulfill the principle of discipline is to preach through a book of the Bible.
These two principles, freedom and discipline, are in tension because it is not always easy to tell whether a desire to interrupt a series comes from the Spirit or from a fear of the next text. But there is no escape from this tension and so all I can promise is that I will do my best under God to listen to the prompting of the Spirit and to declare the whole counsel of God.
Most Excellent Theophilus
Let's turn now to Luke 1:1–4, the preface, or prologue to Luke's gospel, and not only his gospel but his record of the Acts of the Apostles, too. If you take Luke and Acts together, you discover that Luke wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, even Paul. (This is partly why I gave my first son "Luke" for a middle name.) You can see that these two books are really two volumes of one work when you read the first verses of each. Luke 1:1–4:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
Then Acts 1:1, 2:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up.
It is clear from this twofold reference to Theophilus and the reference back to the first book that Luke has intended to write a two-volume work for Theophilus.
But who are these two men? Some have tried to argue that Theophilus is not an individual person but rather a symbol for all Christians for whom Luke is writing. The evidence is against this view. It is true that Theophilus is made up of two Greek words (theos and philus), which would mean "friend of God." But the decisive argument against taking Theophilus as symbolic is the title "most excellent" in Luke 1:3. This title is used three other times in Acts in reference to ranking Roman officials: in 23:26 and 24:3 to "most excellent Felix," the governor of Judea, and in 26:25 to "most excellent Festus," the successor of Felix. So there is no reason not to believe and good evidence to believe that "most excellent Theophilus" was a Gentile who probably held some important office in the Roman government. We will come back to Luke's intention in writing to him.
Dr. Luke and His Purpose in Writing
But first, how do we know the author of this two-volume work was Luke, and who was Luke, anyway? Luke is referred to by name in the New Testament three times. In Colossians 4:14, Paul writes from Rome to Colossae, "Luke, the beloved physician and Demas greet you." In the letter to Philemon, which comes from the same time as Colossians, Paul said (v. 23f.): "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers." And finally, in 2 Timothy, probably the last book Paul wrote, also from Rome, to Timothy who was back at Ephesus, Paul said (4:10f.): "Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica . . . Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you."
What we learn from these verses about Luke is
1) that he is a physician;
2) he is a "fellow worker" with Paul in his itinerant ministry;
3) he sticks with Paul to the very end even when his close associate Demas drops out of the race, in love with the world, and
4) understandably, he is "beloved." Paul loves Luke. That is no small testimony to Luke's faithfulness.
So Luke's unwavering commitment to the apostle's teaching, evidenced in Paul's love for his partnership, and Luke's intellectual competence, evidenced in his medical profession, fit Luke to undertake the most ambitious task of all other New Testament writers, namely, a two-volume work covering the work and teachings of Christ on the earth and then the history of the spread of the church in its first thirty years. The debt we owe to Luke is tremendous.
But how do we know it was this Luke who wrote Luke and Acts? The titles at the top of our gospels—"According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and "According to Luke"—were added by the early Christians who first gathered these gospels into one collection. Luke, nor any of the gospel writers, never mentions his own name. So how do we know who wrote this two-volume work?
The main reason is that the earliest list of New Testament books (Muratorian Canon) from the second century ascribes it to Luke, and there is no evidence that it was ever ascribed to anyone else. So in the light of no plain evidence to the contrary, we generally give credence to early tradition. There is no reason to doubt that Luke, the beloved physician, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Let's go back now to the preface in Luke 1:1–4. What is the main point of these four verses? The main point is to tell his purpose in writing Luke-Acts. "It seemed good to me, too, . . . to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been taught." Luke is writing to persuade this Roman official (and probably others like him) that the Christian teachings which he has heard are true. Everything else in these four verses is subordinate to this purpose and helps to support it.
Two questions should be asked about this purpose to convince Theophilus of the truth of Christian teaching:
1) Is it important to persuade someone of the truth of Christianity?
2) How can it be done?
Persuading People of the Truth
The answer to the first question is, "Yes, it is important to try to persuade people that Christianity is true." At least, Luke thinks it is. The question is necessary because there are many today (both professional intellectuals and ordinary lay folks) who conceive of Christian faith as a leap into the dark, an arbitrary decision to embrace something for which they can see no adequate reason to believe is true. The Holy Spirit is brought in to replace evidence in such a way that if you ask a person why he believes the gospel, he may answer something like, "The Holy Spirit witnesses to me that it is true."
But this is not the way Luke understands faith. First of all, he is not content with the evidence that Theophilus already has from those who have taught him. He does not merely pray for God to tell Theophilus it is all true. He undertakes a very heavy intellectual task: he writes a fifty-two chapter book! All for the sake of certifying to Theophilus the truth of the Christian teaching he has heard. Second, Luke praises the Bereans in Acts 17:11 for testing the apostle's teachings to see if they were true. "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so." Luke was eager to encourage just the opposite of a blind leap of faith. Third, when recording the resurrection of Jesus and how the apostles come to faith in the risen Christ, Luke says in Acts 1:3, "To the apostles Christ presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking of the kingdom of God." According to Luke, Christ was very concerned to give proofs—not, of course, geometric proofs that come from axioms and theorems, but proof in the sense of fully adequate evidence in their experience. Therefore, Jesus did not want to encourage a blind leap of faith. Otherwise, he wouldn't have lingered forty days.
So I conclude that Luke thinks it is very important to try to persuade people of the truth of Christianity and that faith, for Luke, is a personal acceptance and readiness to act upon what one is persuaded to be true. This does not rule out the Holy Spirit; without his work no one would ever own up to the truth of the gospel. For example, Luke says of Lydia, in Acts 16:14, that as she listened to Paul's compelling sermon by the river "the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul." If God does not open the heart of Theophilus and our hearts, all Luke's writing is in vain. But the Holy Spirit does not replace persuasive words, he empowers them and removes the prejudices that keep people from giving heed. So it is important to try, like Luke, to persuade people of the truth of Christianity.
The Reliability of Luke's Witness
The other question I asked in view of this is, How can it be done? What will persuade a reasonable person that Christianity is true? It seems to me that there are two basic ways we come to be convinced of something: one is to see and hear it for ourselves and then draw inferences from that direct encounter; the other is to have a witness tell us about it if we were not there. In this second case our certainty depends on our estimation of the reliability of the witness and the way his message fits into reality as we see it.
Now, neither Theophilus nor any of us (nor Luke) ever saw or touched or heard Jesus; we did not see the risen Christ or any of his miracles, nor did we hear his remarkable teaching from his own mouth. Luke knows that all the knowledge that Theophilus has of Christ, and in all likelihood all that he will have, is secondary, through witnesses. So if Theophilus or any of us is to be persuaded that Christianity is true, we must be convinced of the reliability of the witnesses, and, just as important (perhaps more important), we have to see that this claim to truth fits in and helps make sense of reality as we experience it.
I believe that Luke wants to provide Theophilus with both of these assurances: the reliability of his own narrative and the intrinsic fitness of his message to Theophilus' condition, and to ours. The fitness of his message to our condition, its power to make sense out of our experience—that can't be given in the prologue; it has to come out of the narrative itself. That is what is going to be fun to uncover as we move along from week to week. But the other means of persuasion, namely, the reliability of his narrative—that he can and does bolster in his prologue.
Specifically, Luke tries to bolster Theophilus' confidence in his narrative by referring to three important facts. First (but not in the order of the text), he says in verse 3 that his narrative is based on thorough and careful research. "I have followed all things accurately from the beginning (or for a long time past)." He has followed all things; that is, he does not include anything that he has not traced back to a reliable source. He has followed all things accurately; his work has not been careless but painstaking, as befits the seriousness of the subject. He has followed all things accurately for a long time. He has not been hasty in his work. He has been patient. That is the first thing that gives integrity to his narrative.
But no matter how careful one is with his research, his narrative can only be as good as his sources. So Luke stresses the number and the quality of his sources of information. There are many written sources. "Inasmuch as many have set their hand to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us . . . " In all likelihood one of the written sources that Luke has access to was the Gospel of Mark. I will try to point out why this is so as we move through the gospel. Verse 1 guards us against two errors in studying the gospels. One is the error that our belief in the inspiration of the Bible implies that each writer got all of his narrative directly from God by dictation. Luke shows clearly that he wrote his gospel on the basis of sources and research. So inspiration means that God chose Luke and guided him in his writing so that it would all be true and powerful. The other error that verse 1 guards us against is the claim that until the writing of our four gospels, Jesus' teaching and deeds were only passed down orally. If, as Luke says, many had earlier written down accounts of Jesus' sayings and deeds, then there is no reason to think people had not done this from the start. So the first thing Luke stresses is the number of his sources: there are many.
Then he stresses their quality in verse 2: these narratives accord with what the eyewitnesses have reported, "Just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word." Notice that Luke includes himself among those who received reports directly from the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: "Just as they were delivered to us . . . by the eyewitnesses." So not only are there many sources which he can use to corroborate each other, but even better, he has had direct access to the eyewitnesses themselves so as to confirm his own narrative by their testimony.
These eyewitnesses and ministers of the word are the apostles. We can see this from the way Luke describes the work of the apostles in Acts: they have the task of bearing witness to what they have seen and of ministering the word, which probably means preserving the sayings and deeds of Jesus, and teaching this meaning to the churches. We see these two tasks in several texts. Acts 1:21, 22 records how they replaced Judas among the twelve apostles. Peter says, "One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection."
Then in Acts 6:4, after appointing men to serve the tables, Peter says of the apostles, "We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." Then in Acts 13:31, Paul refers to the twelve apostles like this: (after his resurrection) "for many days Christ appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people." Then finally in Acts 26:16, Paul describes how Christ commissioned him to be a part of this apostolic band by appearing to him and giving him these very tasks. Christ says, "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to minister and to bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you." So the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word with whom Luke could confirm his work were not just ordinary eyewitnesses; they were the chosen and appointed instruments of Christ himself who had the authority of the risen Lord behind their teaching; they were the apostles.
In summary, then, it is necessary to persuade people of the truth of Christian claims. Dr. Luke aims to do this by means of his gospel and Acts. The way this could happen for Theophilus and for us is, first, to see that here is a witness that can be relied on to present us with the Christ who really was, and second, to see in the teaching and life of this Christ a reality that helps make sense out of our experience and fill our deepest longings.
That is the Jesus I have been finding in my own meditation, and I am excited about inviting him into our evening services for some time to come.