Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:1-4 Luke’s gospel and why he decided to write it

Luke 1:1-4 “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

THE REASONS WHY WE SHOULD STUDY THE GOSPEL OF LUKE.

I decided to preach on Luke’s gospel a few months ago, and that conviction has been mulled over, occasionally prayed about and sustained until this moment. I have preached throughout the past year once a Sunday on an Old Testament book, Genesis or Esther, and it is right for us to balance that now with a study of the New Testament. I have preached on many passages of the gospel of Luke over the years but never by systematic exposition, and my final years of ministry should be characterized by my voice speaking much of my Saviour and my heart loving him more. It seemed good to me and safe for you all that I should draw your attention to the gospel of Luke. I present to you the following;

i] The beauty of the book. Renan called the gospel of Luke ‘the most beautiful book in the world.’ The writing is fresh and creative. Raymond E. Brown says it contains the finest Greek in the New Testament (including 266 words which you find in Luke’s writings alone).

ii] The size of the book. God the Holy Spirit entrusted Luke to writing more of the New Testament than any other writer. Let’s judge by the number of the verses; Luke’s two books add up to 2,157 verses. Paul’s letters are almost as long, and if you should claim that he also wrote the anonymous letter to the Hebrews then he would be the single largest contributor to the New Testament, but without that letter Paul writes 2,032 verses, 125 verses less than Luke. John writes 1,416, Matthew writes 1071, and Mark 678 verses.

We are certain that Luke wrote his gospel on a papyrus roll and it would need to have been thirty feet in length if it were to contain all twenty-four chapters. That was not considered a practicable length; it was too long. If Luke’s gospel were read in a service in the early church you must think of two large rollers containing the text. It would be almost impossible for an individual Christian to afford to have a copy for himself. It would be frequently read aloud and the congregation would charge their memories with retaining its words. Of course, that was the only possibility for the illiterate Christian.

If you judge that Luke is being verbose then you must pause because he is actually more concise than Mark when they describe identical incidents. Luke had a purpose, and he wanted to include these incidents and this teaching from the life of Christ to further that end. Luke goes right back; he begins with the conception of John the Baptist; Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes back to Adam. Luke ends his gospel with Christ’s ascension to heaven. It is a long gospel because his birth narratives are twice as long as Matthew’s. It is lengthy because the resurrection narratives are twice as long as Matthew’s. From the borders of Galilee (after Jesus’ long ministry there comes to an end) until his arrival at the city of Jerusalem Luke’s history of what happened to Jesus on the journey to his death is three times as long as the other gospel writers.

So, if anyone wants to read about the story of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the angel speaking to the virgin Mary, the archangel speaking to the shepherds in the fields, the twelve year old Jesus being lost in Jerusalem, the conversion of Zacchaeus, the salvation of the dying thief, the walk on the road to Emmaus, the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the parable of the prodigal son then he must turn to the gospel of Luke because this book is the only place in the world he will find them. It is a book that bursts with riches.

iii] The diversity of the book. For example, the book is full of historical references to the kings reigning at that time, to censuses, to governors of Syria, and that it was in the reign of Tiberius Caesar that the word of God came to John. It also contains the Sermon on the Plain which is a shorter form of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount with much of that same extraordinary stringent ethic. In the gospel you will also find unforgettable parables and sayings. It is also replete with actions of our Lord in which his kindness to the weak is highlighted. He desires the salvation of children, shepherds, lepers, tax-gathering quislings, Samaritans, the sick and the handicapped. This gospel is also full of affection and esteem for women. It’s been called the ‘Gospel of Womanhood.’ Mary, and Elizabeth, and Anna the prophetess appear in the first chapters, and in the last chapters it is to three other women that Jesus first appears after he rises from the dead. In this gospel we meet the widow of Nain, and a sinful woman who anointed the Lord, the sisters Mary and Martha and the persevering widow. There are references to women in many of its chapters. Yet the gospel of Luke also contains the righteous Christ. As well as declaring his blessings he brings also pronounces four woes. These are not found in the other gospels. It is in Luke that the rich man is portrayed in the fires of hell. The Christ of Luke is not a pussy cat he is the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

iv] The purpose of the book, which is fourfold. Firstly, it is full of teaching to tell Christians what they are to believe. Secondly, it is full of ethics to tell Christians how they should live. Thirdly, it is full of comfort to tell Christians why they should rejoice (Luke’s gospel begins with five songs, while the final two words of this gospel are “praising God”). Fourthly, it is full of prophecy to tell Christians what they are to expect. In this world of ignorance, wickedness, despair and confusion how important is the gospel of Luke. It is the most important book in the whole world and always will be. There are excellent commentaries on it, especially by Bock, Ryle, Geldenhuys, Green, Morris, Stein, Milne, Sproul, Hughes, Hendriksen (the best of all his commentaries I think) and one neglected work by one of my old teachers, Ned Stonehouse’s The Witness of Luke to Christ, which I have finally read with profit and fond memories. What a sign of the growth of true Christianity that such commentaries should have appeared, all except Ryle, in the last fifty years.

So those are some of the reasons why we should all read and re-read Luke’s gospel. What have we got? The greatest history ever written, inspired by the Creator himself, a living and powerful book, and you and I have it. There is little else in the world to compare to it except the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and John, and we have them too! Instead of focusing on what we don’t have as a church let us start to concentrate on what we have, and that will be the beginning of a new phase in our story. We have the perfect weapon for the challenge of the 21st century.

WHO THESE MEN, LUKE AND THEOPHILUS, WERE.

All the gospels are anonymous unlike Paul’s epistles which begin with his name, as was the custom of the day. One builds up one’s conviction concerning the authorship of each of the four gospels through reading them. The early church, living much nearer the age of the apostles than we do, acknowledged that the writers were the four men whom we today believe were the authors. The name Luke occurs three times in the New Testament all occurrences being in the letters of Paul. In Colossians chapter four and verses fourteen Luke is called “the beloved physician.” Whoever wrote the gospel also wrote the book of Acts and there we find several sections where the writer uses the pronoun ‘we’ even though he never identifies himself. He is with Paul on some of his journeys, one with him in suffering and testimony. Paul refers to him as “my fellow worker” (Phil. 23). There is not a membrane that can separate these two men. They are united in their beliefs, and so the apostolic authority of Paul covers and inspires Luke in what he gives us in his two major works. Paul will not allow anyone to separate what Luke writes from what he writes. “We serve the same Lord; believe the same truths; preach the same gospel.” Their relationship is one of love. Paul gives us the theology and ethic of the New Testament church, and Luke does the very same thing, but in his gospel by going back to the coming and the ministry of the Lord Jesus.

Much of the rest of the information we have about Luke is tentative. He is interested in Antioch with numbers of references to that university city, and so perhaps he is an Antioch man; he is certainly highly intelligent. He writes a two volume study of the work and teaching of Christ on earth and then a history of the spread of the church over its first thirty years. What an achievement! He seems to be a convert from the Gentile world, probably a Greek with an expert grasp of the language, and so his writings seem to be the only parts of the Bible unauthored by a Jew. Luke was a medical doctor, a ‘medical missionary’ some have said. He appears to be a kind and sympathetic person, and during Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea which lasted about two years, Luke had lots of time to assemble materials for his history of the gospel. Many who had witnessed the events and heard Jesus speak were alive. He later visited Paul frequently during his imprisonment in Rome. That is Luke. Surely he is the author of this gospel. All the early church leaders ascribe it to Luke; there is no one else it could be ascribed to.

Who is Theophilus? Is he a real man or is he a symbolic man representing all true Christians or sincere seekers for whom Luke is writing his two works? The name ‘Theophilus’ is made up of two Greek words (theos and philus) which would mean “friend of God” or “lover of God.” Before you say, “Ah! A symbolic name; a literary device,” note that Luke refers to him in verse three as “most excellent” and this title is used by Luke on three occasions in the book of Acts in reference to high ranking Roman officials, the “most excellent Felix” the governor of Judea and the “most excellent Festus” Felix’s successor. So we are encouraged to believe that the most excellent Theophilus was a Gentile who probably held some important office in the Roman government. Was he a believer in the Lord Jesus, or a deeply interested inquirer? Luke is writing to strengthen his faith and make him understand what commitment to Jesus Christ involves. In this gospel we see the Christian church confronting a huge curious class of Luke’s contemporaries some of whom were on their way to trusting in the Lord. This gospel was written to clarify who was Jesus, what was his message, why did he live and die on the cross, and the fact that now he was alive and building his church. Luke is telling Theophilus all about this. But it is not a private letter. It is like an Email that we are encouraged to forward to all our family and acquaintances.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO LUKE WRITING THIS GOSPEL.

Let me make four observations about this from these verses;

i] A word about the prologue. This prologue to Luke’s gospel in these first four verses is so dignified and impressive a statement. This is deeply serious stuff isn’t it? It is like the porch to a great castle, covered in ornate carving, suggesting the importance of what lies behind this vast entrance which is high enough for a double-decker bus to be driven through it. Ministers get agitated about introductions to their sermons. They are urged to find some lively anecdote, something attention-grabbing to begin. Luke would fail every preaching class sermon with this prologue, but I love its seriousness and logic. Why this obsession with grabbing your interest from the first word? After we have worshipped God for half an hour or more, after we have prayed and praised and read his word there is absolutely no need for the preacher to be other than serious and transparent and interesting, not striving for some witty anecdote to begin his sermon and create a mood. What an ugly little door that opens, but this prologue-door to Luke is a theophanic entrance.

ii] A word about the many who had made their own accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke tells us that what he intends to write is an “account”, a narrative about Jesus. “Many” have drawn up such accounts, he says. Isn’t that reference to the numbers of people engaged in recording their impressions of Jesus fascinating? Apparently multitudes had become followers of the Lord Jesus; they knew much of his teaching and his mighty works but they were hungry for more and more. As his disciples they went round repeating at length what they knew in homes, and around fires in the night, wherever Christians gathered together such accounts of the Saviour would be delivered. Others had written letters to their friends where they had described the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that some of the large congregations were gathering together these accounts.

iii] A word about things being fulfilled amongst Luke’s generation. Luke wants them to be aware that the phenomenon of Jesus of Nazareth was not unexpected or discontinuous, but rather a fulfillment of what had long been expected in the coming of the Messiah, the Seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent’s head. In other words what is found in this gospel is not some fascinating tale of the strangest curiosities you would ever hear, or that a remarkable healer has been busy in the Middle East, but that the living God who had been dealing with Israel for centuries had now fulfilled his word and had worked in Israel in a new and spectacular way, by his dear Son.

iv] A word about those people who handed down to Luke and others the stories of Jesus. Luke uses these two phrases “those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word” (v.2). When in the past I have given statements to the police they have rejected some of the things I have reported as being ‘hearsay.’ They have wanted exactly what I saw and heard. Nothing else would be acceptable. In the New Testament we meet eye-witnesses of the man Christ Jesus. Here is the apostle John writing a letter to Christians and this is what he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (I Jn. 1:1-3). Here is the apostle Peter writing and saying, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Here is Paul recording what Jesus said to him when he commissioned him as an apostle, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me” (Acts 26:16). There were many men and women who were eye-witnesses. There were 500 gathered together at one time on a hill in Galilee who spent time with the Christ who had risen from the dead, and most of them were still alive when Luke was writing this gospel. The Christian faith spread through the activities of those people who were with Jesus from the beginning. They spoke about what they had seen and heard and then they began to write about him.

These eye-witnesses were all servants of the Word. In other words, if you asked them what they did they would give such answers as, “A slave . . . a housewife . . . a soldier . . . a farmer . . . a tent maker . . .” and then they would add, “but what I do most of all, and what I love doing is to serve the word of God. In other words I spend my life speaking words about Jesus of Nazareth to everyone I meet.” They were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. There were many of them and they handed down their accounts to Luke and other Christians who were not eye-witnesses of the Lord.

That is the background to Luke’s own activity, his awareness of these many accounts coming from the first disciples who were with the Lord Jesus.

HOW LUKE SET ABOUT WRITING HIS GOSPEL.

This is what Luke did, “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (vv.3&4). We are often afraid of Christians who claim divine guidance for the strange things they do and properly so, and yet you have heard a man this very day say that he had come to the conclusion to preach some sermons on a new book of the Bible. He said, “it seemed good to me to do this.” Here we meet Luke and this autobiographical reference. He is being given scraps of papyrus with some memories of Jesus written on them by old Christians and he gathers them together. He hears men from Jerusalem visiting Antioch and speaking at church meetings. One can imagine an announcement being made, “Next Lord’s Day we shall have in the congregation one of those who was on the hill with the five hundred who met the risen Saviour. He is going to speak to us. His wife was with him and she will be accompanying him here. Our brother has also met Lazarus; he saw Jesus heal the leper and speak in a synagogue. He will be addressing us and answering your questions.” There would always be a fascination with such men, but they were getting older and Luke could see the need of some major document gathering together these materials. He prayed and asked God should he do this; was this feeling from God? He sought the advice of his fellow elders and they encouraged him with the project. There were rumours that Matthew and John and Mark were writing a fuller account and Luke was glad about this but “it seemed good to him to write an orderly account.” So he tells us there were four things that characterized his work;

i] Luke investigated the story. This beloved physician wasn’t gullible. He was a scientist. When sick people had come to him for medical help saying they thought that a spell had been cast on them Luke still wanted to know what the symptoms of their illness were. He investigated an illness, and he investigated stories of Jesus. He wasn’t careless in what he wrote about Christ. He checked up on his reporters. He went to other eye-witnesses and questioned them. He wasn’t hasty in his work; he was patient and that investigation is what gives integrity to the narrative.

ii] Luke went back to the beginning. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? What is his biography? Where does he come from? What school did he go to? What did his father do for a living? Did he have brothers and sisters? Luke asked questions like that and discovered about his mother’s family and her relation to Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and then the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, the miraculous activity that surrounded his birth, the coming of the archangel Gabriel and the virgin birth. Did Luke talk with Mary? We like to think that he did, but we don’t know, but we do know that he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” It was certainly not that fifty or a hundred years after the life of the healer Jesus that people began to make up stories about his birth, but that within thirty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Mary might have been still alive, aged maybe 78 years of age, Luke asked questions about how it all began.

iii] Luke was very thorough and studied everything. It was painstaking work as becomes such a story. If it is not true it is the most damnable lie that has ever been spread through the world. So Luke left no stone unturned. No piece of manuscript dealing with our Lord that came to the church in Antioch was unexamined. No eye-witness was ignored; no story wasn’t double checked. He could look them right in the eye. Were there journeys he made to Jerusalem, and Galilee, and to the home of Mary’s children where she spent her last years? Did he run everything by the apostles, especially Paul? Everything was checked.

iv] Luke carefully went over it all. You think of him as a very godly and god-fearing man. He was someone whose obligation was to keep the law of God; “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” He followed the one who said, “Let your yea by yea, and your nay be nay.” Jehovah Jesus had said, “I am the truth.” So no lie, no embellishment could possibly serve this Saviour’s cause. If Jesus said difficult things Luke knew it was not his task to make them easy. If there were apparent contradictions those apparent contradictions remained. Luke took care.

So finally Luke put pen to paper and wrote what he calls an orderly account. Luke does not mean by that a chronological account. There were sayings of Jesus given in different places and times which Luke grouped together. There were some incidents he put in a certain order because in that way they cast light on Jesus. For example, the order of the three temptations is different in Mark from Luke. So Luke is not claiming, “My order of events is the exact one in terms of sequence.” What is being said is this, Luke had collected these scraps of papyrus containing the sayings of Jesus, or the miracles of Jesus, or some observations of what happened to the Saviour on the cross. They were all rather piecemeal and abrupt in character, until Luke brought them all together in a sequence. There was a flow to the narrative; it was continuous and it was comprehensive. It makes sense and is worthy of a man believing it and changing his life in the light of what he reads in Luke’s gospel.

v] Luke explained the demise of the Temple. “A man like Theophilus must have had his questions. No doubt one of the first questions to arise in his mind was why it was necessary to go to a ‘different church’ now. What was wrong with the Jewish religion? Shouldn’t the temple services at Jerusalem, where the true God was worshiped, be maintained? Luke therefore begins by speaking of the tem­ple—Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve, Jesus tempted on the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus teaching in the temple, and so forth. But Luke also points out that Jesus found it necessary to purify the tem­ple, to foretell the destruction of the temple, and to for­sake the temple. He makes it clear that Jesus was taken prisoner by the temple authorities, who then mocked him and condemned him. At the beginning of the book, Luke shows us a priest who could not give a blessing in the tem­ple, and at the end he shows us a Priest-King who blesses his own outside Jerusalem just before he ascends to heaven, after which his disciples ‘were continually in the temple blessing God.

“When you read the book of Acts, you see that Luke con­tinues there in the same vein, making the point that Christianity is not a revolutionary movement that rejects the temple: rather, it is the temple that rejects the gospel. We read numerous stories of arrests, as the synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world all the way to Rome reject the Christ. Because the ‘temple’ will not listen, judgment will strike. Yet the gospel continues to advance through the world unhindered, O most excellent Theophilus!” (Search the Scriptures, C. Vanderwaal, Paidiea Press, 1978, p.77)

THE RESULT LUKE DESIRED FROM THEOPHILUS’ READING THE GOSPEL.

“So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (v.4). Theophilus had been taught some great truths but Luke wanted him to know them for certain. Luke desired Theophilus to come to an assurance of faith. It is important to persuade someone of the truth of Christianity isn’t it? We are followers of Jesus Christ because we believe Christianity is true. What other reason can there be for us to believe it? Our Lord spoke, and the winds and waves obeyed him, and it is true. The third day he rose from the dead, and it is true. Today he is here with us, and that is true.

Many professional people, intellectuals and ordinary lay folk, conceive of the Christian faith as a leap into the dark. Lord Kinnock, my old school companion, said that while he admired Christian teaching he couldn’t make any leap of faith. In other words, for Kinnock believing in Jesus Christ is some arbitrary decision. He could see no adequate reason for thinking that Christianity was true. But the Lord Jesus Christ has come and preached the Sermon on the Mount; he has claimed that he is the light of the world. We come very close to him as we read about his life, his teaching and are introduced to his personality, his actions and power. We grow in our knowledge of him. What light shines from him. We are not leaping into the dark as we start to trust in him, but into the arms of someone we have come to know and trust. A little girl stands above the wide cellar doors set into the pavement and she looks down into the darkness. Her father is down there but she can’t see him. “Jump and I will catch you,” he cries. She jumps towards the one she loves and trusts at his invitation; he does not let her go. That is a picture of saving faith. It is the Christ of the Bible who says, “Come unto me.” The name of God is Jesus Christ.

Luke is obviously not satisfied with the material that Theophilus has already obtained from those who have spoken and written to him. But Luke doesn’t merely pray, “O God, tell Theophilus it’s all true.” What Luke does is formidable. He undertakes a mighty intellectual task: he writes a fifty-two chapter book in two sections, open to investigation and cross-checking. He writes it that Theophilus might have the assurance that the Christian teaching he has heard is true.

I was considering yesterday that incident in the life of John Newton when he was a 23 year old midshipman caught in a series of storms in the mid-Atlantic. He had gone far from God and was a daring blasphemer. Then the Lord began to work in his life and riveted one thought to his mind. The thought which he could not shake off was this, “What if these things should be true?” The storm washed men overboard; Newton had a lifeline to keep him working for hours on the pumps while waves broke over his head, and all the time this thought kept coming back to him, “What if these things should be true?”

Saving faith, for Luke, begins by personally accepting and acting upon what one has been persuaded of. Of course it is by the illumination of the Spirit; if God does not open the heart of Theophilus – and your hearts too – by his Spirit then all of Luke’s writings are in vain. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t work in some vacuum in the total absence of persuasive words. The Spirit empowers persuasive words, and he removes the prejudices that keep people from giving heed to persuasive words. So we preach to persuade men; we put a text of Scripture outside the church; we give out Gideon Bibles; we give away tracts, and copies of John Blanchard’s Ultimate Questions. We invite people to come to hear sermons. By every legitimate means we seek to persuade people of the truth of Christianity

We want them to see and hear of the true faith for themselves, and then to draw inferences from that direct encounter. We want to bring in this witness who will tell them about it. The Moravians brought some converted men to meet with John Wesley when he was seeking to know Jesus Christ for himself. They sat with him and one by one explained to him how and why they had become Christians. They had all been converted as adults and they told Wesley of their lives. He was being asked to judge the integrity and stature and reliability of those witnesses. Then he was being asked, “Now do you see how their message fits into your own view of reality?”

If Theophilus or any of us are to be persuaded that Christianity is true then 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 us make sense of reality as we experience it. We face the big issues; Where did this world come from? What is man? Why are we in the state we are in? How can a holy God be reconciled to us? How can these stony hearts of ours be changed? How can we be saved? Why did Jesus die and live again? The Bible gives us an answer to these questions that fits in with our perception of what is truth.

Luke’s intention is first to provide Theophilus with a reliable narrative, one anyone can completely trust, but Luke is also giving him a message which is directly relevant to Theophilus’ condition, answering his biggest questions and fitting in with his soul’s deepest needs. That is the customary means which the Holy Spirit blesses. That is what you find in this prologue, Luke’s announcement to you that this gospel of Luke is a message to your condition today. It has power to make sense of your experience. Read the gospel for yourself and come to hear sermons on this gospel and you will see that it is so.

18th March 2007 GEOFF THOMAS