Luke 1:1-4

This morning we begin a new series of sermons on the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the only one of the four Gospels that I have not preached through twice in the course of my ministry here. I preached through it the first time some twenty years ago and remember well my pleasure in that study. It is right, I think, that of all the larger books of the Bible, I have preached twice through Matthew, Mark, and John, and now propose to do the same with Luke. The preaching and hearing of the church can never be too far removed from the four gospels. They are, in a very real way, the heart of the Bible and the heart of our Christian faith. Important as every book of the Bible is in its own way, the Gospels are unique in their fundamental importance, providing as they do the raw material from which our entire Christian faith is constructed. One early church father put it this way: “The Gospels supply the wool…the epistles weave the dress.”

But, while there is truth in that, it isn’t entirely correct. The Gospels supply more than the raw material. In the life of Jesus as we are given it in the Gospels, there is so much more than a simple narrative of what happened or a statement of facts. Jesus was certainly as much a teacher of the faith as Paul or Peter would be, as much a theologian as his apostles, and, in most cases, has given us in his own inimitable way as comprehensive an account of Christian doctrine and life as will be found in the rest of the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, or in the Lord’s interactions with his disciples, we find as searching and comprehensive a description of the Christian life as anything we will find in the ethical sections of the letters of Paul or Peter. In the Gospels, in other words, we get everything: the raw material and the finished product, the wool and the dress. The epistles are immensely valuable, but they do not add what is missing from the Gospels; they elaborate and explain and illustrate in other ways what is contained in the four Gospels and for that reason there is something basic, fundamental, indispensible about the Gospels that is not so about other books of the Bible.

Luke gives us an introduction to his Gospel in the first four verses – indeed he is the only Gospel writer who begins with a preface and identifies the one to whom the book was being sent – and it is that introduction that we will read this morning.

Text Comment

v.1       Luke’s use of “us” indicates that though he was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, its impact, its meaning, and its continuing development in the Gentile world after Pentecost is the continuation of the Gospel story and its fulfillment. Luke was a part of that story just as you and I are.

v.2       Where Luke falls in the order of the four Gospels has long been a question. Most scholars think that Luke had the Gospel of Mark before him as he wrote. So Luke would have been written after Mark. Most assume that the Gospel of John was written later than the other three. Where Matthew falls among the four three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is what remains particularly controversial. As Luke seems to suggest, however, there were other accounts being circulated than those of the four Gospels. They have not survived but would have been significant in those early days before the four Gospels took their place as the definitive report of the life of Christ. As the NT confirms in many ways, eyewitness testimony was the bedrock of the Christian claim that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were historical facts in the ordinary sense of the term. They really happened as the Gospels relate them. How do we know that? Because so many who were there and saw were still alive to confirm or deny the reports. And don’t suppose, as some have suggested, that this claim meant something other in the ancient world than it would today. As one scholar writes: “an ancient writer would no more claim the authority of eye-witnesses without expecting his statement to be believed than a modern.” [Creed in Morris, 82] As many scholars have pointed out, ancient people knew the difference between fact and fiction and ancient historians were not averse to saying that their only task was “to tell the truth.” [Lucian of Samosata in Bock, i, 52] As Paul once reminded King Agrippa, “these things were not done in a corner.” Plenty of witnesses to the events of Christ’s ministry were still alive and could confirm the truth or untruth of any report.

v.3       Luke was not an eyewitness of the events of the gospel history. He came to believe in Jesus in the second generation of Christian faith. But he had the opportunity to meet and interview eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry. As you may remember, in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, there are several sections of narratives that scholars have long referred to as the “we sections.” That is, the author, almost universally admitted to be Luke the physician, was present during the events being recorded, he was himself an eyewitness. One of the “we sections” includes the account of Paul’s last visit to the Holy Land. Paul and his entourage, which included Luke at that time, stayed for some time with Philip the evangelist and his four daughters, then went to Jerusalem where Paul was arrested. It was not until two years later that Paul, still a prisoner, and Luke sailed for Rome under the watchful eye of a Roman centurion (Acts 27:1). Doubtless it was largely during those two years in Palestine, while Paul sat in prison in Caesarea waiting for his case to be heard, that Luke took the opportunity to conduct his interviews with eyewitnesses, to gather his facts, and to write, or at least to begin to write his Gospel. Whatever Luke meant by “having closely followed all things for some time past” or as the NIV has it “having carefully investigated things” – and the meaning of the Greek word has been much discussed – he obviously means that is information is reliable. He has taken pains to ensure that it is so.

            It is interesting by the way, that the first four verses of Luke 1 are written in a good classical Greek style, they resemble the prefaces you might find in other works of ancient history written in the Greek language. But the rest of chapter 1 and chapter 2 have a strong Hebraic flavor. They sound much more like the Old Testament than they do like a Greek history. It may well be that Luke’s birth narrative owes a great deal to the account of those events as he received it from the eyewitnesses he interviewed. In other words, you can hear the eyewitnesses themselves through Luke’s record of what they said when Luke interviewed them. You can easily imagine him sitting there in someone’s front room with pen and papyrus, rapidly writing down notes as he listened to them give their account of what they had seen and heard.

            Theophilus, a common name in that time and place, may well have been Luke’s patron, the man who was underwriting the costs of publishing the book. Whether he was a Christian himself or simply an interested outsider is impossible to tell. He obviously knew and respected Luke. Luke wanted him to know the truth about what had happened, about who Jesus is and what he had done and what he was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit, the subject of the Gospel’s sequel, Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, dedicated also to this same Theophilus. Of course, Luke expected his work to be read by many others. Other ancient writers addressed their work to a single individual while expecting it to enjoy a wide readership.

            By the way, Luke and Acts are the two longest books in the New Testament, Luke is the longest, but each would have taken a full papyrus scroll, the largest of which at the time extended to some 35 feet. So the division between Luke and Acts resulted from nothing more that the practical necessity of dividing the book in two so as to fit each part on a single scroll.

v.4       Theophilus was not unaware of the Gospel story. He had been taught it. Luke intends both to set the record straight with respect to any matters of misunderstanding or misrepresentation that may have arisen as everyone told and retold the Gospel history and as distortions and misstatements of fact crept in as they inevitably would without reliable written accounts to consult and to confirm Theophilus in his confidence in the truth of it all. He is concerned that Theophilus and the rest of his readers know the truth. In Luke’s Greek text, the word “truth” is the last word in his long sentence. All four verses are one sentence in both Greek and English. To put such a word last was to place emphasis upon it. Luke is going to give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and has taken great care to be sure that he has his facts before reporting them to us.

Luke, who wrote the two-volume history of which the Gospel is the first volume, was a physician by calling and an associate of the Apostle Paul as we learn from Acts and from Paul’s letters. Paul refers to him as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). Luke accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys and, as we said, particularly on his last. It goes without saying, I think, that Luke’s Gospel owes something to the influence of the Apostle Paul, as Peter’s influence lies behind Mark.

But notwithstanding Paul’s shadow, looming over the work as well it might, Luke was himself a very capable man. He was educated. He was a good writer. His Greek is some of the more elegant and varied in the New Testament. Medical doctors then as now were capable, intelligent people who could do a variety of things well. What is more Luke had a special gift as a “painter with words.” Some of the pictures that he draws, especially of the people and the events that he describes, have captured the imagination of the church and even of the entire world. Who does not know the Good Samaritan? He was also a first class historian. Sir William Ramsay, the famous 19th century classical scholar, began his study of the history of Acts predisposed to regard Luke as unreliable when it came to historical details. His research led him to precisely the opposite conclusion. Even down to details poorly understood by later writers, even with regard to statements that were widely thought to be incorrect, first Ramsay and then later scholarship have confirmed the accuracy of Luke’s account, of his geographical and political nomenclature, and of his grasp of the customs and mores of the Greco-Roman world. It is not too much to say that Luke’s two volume history is the most reliable historical work that has come down to us from the classical period. As he himself took pains to say in his preface, he went to lengths to ensure that his account was accurate in every detail. He checked and re-checked his facts. He compared his sources. He tracked down details until he was sure he understood what had happened and had a reliable report of what had been said. Only then did he commit his account to writing.

With self-effacing loyalty to the Lord Luke keeps himself almost wholly in the background and tells his story as one who saw his task to be the reporting of what had occurred. We don’t encounter the person Luke in Luke’s writing in anything like the same way we encounter the apostle Paul. His style, though sophisticated and beautiful, shows nothing of the personality of his mentor, the great Apostle to the Gentiles. There is nothing here of Paul’s racy, passionate, highly personal, and theologically and philosophically complex literary style. No one was ever likely to say of Luke’s Gospel that there were things written that were difficult to understand as Peter said of Paul’s letters. There are no 202 word sentences such as we find at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the apostle gets going and can’t get stopped. There is no “first” without a “second” or “third” such as we find at Romans 3:2. Luke is more polished and his purpose, as he tells us in v. 3, was to give us an orderly account.

He was himself an eyewitness of at least some of the history he recounts in Acts, his second volume. So he knew the value of eyewitness testimony first hand. He knew how unreliable repeated oral accounts could be so he was careful to check and recheck his facts. But for the history of the Gospel, as he tells us here, he relied on the reports of those who were eyewitnesses and, among them, especially those who would later become the Lord’s ministers and apostles. As I said, most Gospel scholars believe that Luke made use of the written Gospel of Mark in writing his own Gospel. We know from Paul’s letters that Mark and Luke were at least occasionally in close contact with one another as assistants of the Apostle Paul. But, however much Luke’s Gospel may be indebted to Mark’s, Luke has a great deal of material in his Gospel that Mark does not include. He has the most lengthy account of the Lord’s birth, to which Mark makes no reference at all. From chapter 9 verse 51 to chapter 18 verse 14 we have what scholars have called Luke’s “great interpolation,” a large amount of material most of which is found neither in Matthew or Mark and which contains some of the most memorable material in the New Testament: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son, of the rich man and Lazarus, and so on.

What is more, Luke as a person, as a doctor, no doubt had his own particular interests. No one knows for sure the accuracy of this information, but a second century source tells us that Luke was a bachelor all his life and that he died at the age of 84. Be that as it may, Luke seems to have had a particular sympathy for women and his Gospel is full of interesting accounts of women. I once heard Mark Ross, a very gifted theologian and preacher of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, now a professor at Erskine Theological Seminary and a colleague of our own Max Rogland in Columbia, South Carolina, speak on the Gospel of Luke. One of his lectures was entitled: “Was Luke a gynecologist?” It was his clever way to introduce the fact that Luke, among the Gospel writers, gives a greater prominence to women in telling his story. In the material unique to Luke’s Gospel women are particularly prominent. That is a striking fact because, of course, women were not highly thought of in the culture of the Greco-Roman world of that time. [cf. Morris, 50]

Clearly there were many eyewitnesses of the Gospel history whom Luke could interview while he was waiting for Paul’s release those two years in Judea. Did he actually meet and interview Mary, the Lord’s mother, or Simeon, the man forced to carry the Lord’s cross, or some of the other apostles who did not write books for the New Testament? We don’t know precisely whose accounts found their way into Luke’s Gospel, but we do know that he went to the sources and no doubt had ample opportunity to have his accounts checked and verified by one or more of the apostles. It is certainly wonderful to imagine the Gentile doctor sitting next to Mary, now an elderly woman, and furiously jotting down notes as she, lost in thought and carried back in her memory to those sacred days, told him the story that we read in Luke 1 and 2.

Perhaps that is why no other Gospel gives us such a comprehensive picture of the Lord Jesus. And, of course, all of this – Luke’s access to eyewitnesses, his careful research, his concern to get his facts right – does not take account of the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Luke’s research and writing to ensure that Luke would flawlessly tell the greatest story every told.

To the Greeks and to the Romans history was simply the reporting of what had happened, or, as Aristotle tartly put it: “What Alcibiades did and had done to him.” They had no thought that history or the narrative of events could lead anyone to ultimate truth. That was the task of the philosophers.

“Among ancient philosophers it was axiomatic that all knowledge of God came through the activity of the mind purged of impressions received by the senses. Only when freed from the perception of tangible objects can the mind lift itself to God. In this view the knowledge of God was achieved by very few, and even the seer divined but little of God. [They would often cite Plato from his dialogue, the Timaeus]: ‘Now to find the Maker and Father of this universe is difficult, and after finding him it is impossible to declare him to all men.’”

According to Plato, God can only be known through the mind’s eye.

“If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind,” he said, “if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.” [R.L. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 8-9]

That general way of thinking, by the way, wittingly or unwittingly, has been very common in the history of mankind, in the history of religions, and is common enough today. But it is utterly foreign to the Bible. The pagan critics of Christianity realized this. They were sharp, educated, thoughtful men and they understood, therefore, what the true uniqueness of the Christian faith was. It lay in this, that God had entered history, that he had drawn near to man, made himself known to the world in the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself God become man, and in his life, his death, and his resurrection, made a way for men not only to know God, but to live with him forever in love, joy, and peace. All of this – the person of God and the way of faith in him – had been disclosed, had been made known in history. It was a root and branch repudiation of Greco-Roman philosophy and most human philosophy and remains today the fundamental uniqueness of our Christian faith.

The Christian faith is not first or foremost a way of life. It is not even first and foremost a set of doctrines. It is an account of something that happened in the world, events that began to unfold when Augustus was emperor and Herod was king of Judea and concluded when Tiberius sat upon the throne and Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Palestine. Our faith is the certainty that a certain human being Jesus of Nazareth, born in 4 B.C, was in fact the living God come in the flesh, that is, come in true human nature, to redeem us from our sins and to show us the way to God and heaven. The Christian faith, first and foremost, is not a set of ideas, but an account of historical events. There is nothing like this in the religions or the philosophies of man; there never has been, there never will be. We Christians live our lives as we do, we have the aspirations that we have, we are willing to suffer for the convictions that fill our hearts because those long ago events have changed us, have liberated us, and have filled our hearts with living hope for the world to come. For us history is salvation! History is life! Why? Because of this one man, this one life, this one death, this one resurrection in the middle of history utterly and completely defines the meaning of life for every single human being; because the person who entered the world and lived and died and rose again is the Maker of every single person and the Judge of every single person.

The closest to this that non-Christians ever get is their fear that an event such as nuclear war or bio-terrorism or global warming will destroy life for everyone. In that sense even for them history is life. But the fact is, everyone is going to die anyway. Nuclear war or acts of terrorism only hasten the inevitable. For us the history that Luke records not only redefines the meaning of life, but opens the way to life forever, to life after death.

Accordingly, Luke wrote his history for the same reason that John wrote his: “that men and women might know that Jesus is the Christ and that believing they might have life through his name.”

The great problem human beings have, the fundamental problem, is that they define the human problem incorrectly. They see their troubles and their dangers in every sort of way, but they do not see them as the consequences of their sin and the alienation from the living God, their Maker, that is the result of their sin. They do not see themselves as morally corrupt, a corruption for which they are responsible.

But when God entered the world as a man, it was to save his people from their sins: to save them from both the guilt of their sin and the power of their sin. And Luke makes a great point of this in his Gospel. Salvation is a key word in Luke’s two-volume history. Take the forgiveness of sins. Only Luke records Zechariah’s prophecy that his son John would “give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” [1:77] Only Luke among the four Gospel writers records Jesus forgiving the sins of the sinful woman who had anointed his feet with her tears. [7:48] Only Luke records the incomparable parable of the prodigal son who repented, returned home, and was forgiven his sins by his loving father. [15:11-32] Only Luke records the Great Commission as the proclamation to all nations of “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” [24:47] And later, in Acts, Luke will tell us how Paul in his preaching from place to place proclaimed “through Jesus the forgiveness of sins.”

But in the same way Luke lays great emphasis on the new life that the Holy Spirit creates in a person who trusts in Jesus Christ. There is much of the individual and of his or her transformation in the Gospel of Luke. [Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 33]

Robert Murray McCheyne once described the great themes of the Christian faith as “ruin by the Fall, righteousness by Christ, and regeneration by the Spirit.” [In Robertson, Awakening, 128] Rabbi Duncan, the great Scottish theologian, missionary, and epigrammatist – that is, one who fashions pithy, memorable sayings that capture deep truth – used to say that “the best preaching is believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and keep the Ten Commandments.” [In Moody Stuart, Life of Duncan, 210] By saying that, he meant that the best preaching stirs the conscience by setting forth the life we ought to live, must life, sets before us Christ as the way to that life, and then demonstrates how Christ by his Spirit has liberated us to live that very life of obedience and service to God’s glory and our own immense satisfaction.

Well, those are the great themes of Luke’s Gospel, as they are, in a way unique to each, the themes of all four of the Gospels: how to get rid of our guilt as sinners before God, and how to come to live a truly good, loving, and useful life.

Now, whoever Theophilus was and whatever his faith or lack thereof, there is a very real sense in which we are all Theophilus. No matter how well we know the Gospels, we need to know them better; no matter how convinced we may be of the truth of this history, we could very well stand to be still more certain, more convinced, more sure of it. The more knowledgeable and the more certain we are of the truth of the Gospel the more intelligent and sturdy will be our faith and the more faithful our lives. It is as simple as that. Thanks be to God for Dr. Luke and for his great history. It is going to do us all a great deal of good, of that I am sure.