Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/16/1994
1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
The Gospel according to Luke has been called "the most beautiful book ever written." I hope in the next couple of years as we work through this Gospel together that we will begin to see why this is so. But it is not only beautiful, it is also powerful--for the gospel is as Paul tells us "the power of God for salvation to them that believe." And it is not only powerful but also practical, for the Gospel is not only the key to eternal life but also to a meaningful existence in this life here and now. So let us take our bearings as we begin by examining Luke's own formal introduction to his own work. What kind of book did he set out to write? What did he want to accomplish in our lives by writing it? What can we learn from the study of it? Such are the questions that must occupy us as we begin.
Luke did not of course write in a vacuum. Who are these "many" who have been telling the story of Jesus before him? The "eyewitnesses and servants of the Word" are the Apostles, who are identified by Luke in acts as eyewitnesses to the resurrection (1:21-22) and servants of the Word (6:2., 4). Their function was to hand down the Gospel in authoritative form. But the "many" of verse 1 cannot be the Apostles, for there were not many of them, and probably only Mark had produced a written Gospel before Luke wrote. In the early days of the Church of course there was no New Testament, and not every congregation even had its own Apostle. There would have been many Christians who collected and circulated notes on the Apostles' preaching and teaching, some perhaps written, most in oral form. At first the Church was dependent on oral tradition as the Gospel was passed from mouth to mouth. This meant it was dependent on memory, which is inexact. As the Apostles were gradually martyred, there was an increasing need for someone to write the Gospel, the story of what God had done in Christ for our salvation, down in a reliable and authoritative form. Mark was probably the first to do so, based on notes from the Apostle Peter. Luke, writing under the aegis of the Apostle Paul's authority, took a slightly different approach. Rather than giving an account based mainly on one witness like Mark (Peter) had done and Matthew and John would do, Luke, who had not been an eyewitness himself, carefully interviewed all the living witnesses he could find so that he could write everything out in order. And that leads us to our second point.
Luke's program was to investigate everything carefully. His Gospel is unique in that it is not a personal memoir but a carefully researched history, using the accepted standards of Greek secular historians of the day. He was the friend, personal physician, and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, writing under his apostolic authority. He would have known John Mark (2 Tim. 4:11). Probably when accompanying Paul on visits to Jerusalem he interviewed the surviving witnesses, including Mary (his is the only Gospel to include her personal memories in his well known version of the Christmas story). He says he investigated everything "from the beginning." And his is the only Gospel to give us details about the birth of the forerunner, John the Baptist. Then he wrote it all out "in consecutive order." His account is not just a compilation of various sayings and stories but a well thought out narrative whose theme could be said to be "On to Jerusalem!" Just as Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gives us the journeys of the hobbits Bilbo and Frodo "there and back again," so Luke presents Jesus as on a quest which would reach its climax in the atonement wrought in Jerusalem. After the birth narratives, the book is organized around ministry in Galilee (3:1-9:50), ministry on the way to Jerusalem (9:51-19:28) and ministry in Jerusalem (19:29-the end). The pivotal verse is 9:51. "He resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem." Satan ((4:13, 10:17-20, 13:16-17, 22:3, etc.) and the Jewish leaders and even his own disciples (11:52-54, 13:14, 13:31-33, 15:1-2, 19:39, 20:19-20, etc.) try to keep him from getting there, but nothing can stop him from fulfilling his destiny. On his arrival in Jerusalem he throws down the gauntlet in the triumphal entry, and everything builds to the inevitable climax in the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The story of Jesus is the story of the conquest of Satan's kingdom by the kingdom of God.
Luke has given us the most comprehensive of all the Gospels. Just think of the scenes described by Luke alone: the Annunciation, the visit to Elizabeth, the manger, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, the encounter with the rabbis at the age of twelve, the woman at the supper of Simon the Pharisee, Christ weeping over Jerusalem, the walk to Emmaus, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. By one calculation, there are a total of 172 sections (or pericopes) in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Mark has only 84 of them; Matthew has 114; and Luke has 127. If you could only have one Gospel, which one would you pick? Mark for his simplicity? Matthew for his emphasis on Jesus' public teaching? John for his theological profundity? A good choice would be Luke for the most comprehensive and systematic account of the whole of Jesus' life and ministry.
Luke's stated purpose is for his readers "to know the exact truth" about what they have been taught. The word translated "know" is not the regular ginosko but the intensified form epiginosko, to know thoroughly or to know well. And the word translated "exact truth" is asphaleia, which means a sure and certain grasp of the truth. So Luke's purpose is to give his readers a confident assurance that they have accurate and sure knowledge of the things accomplished and fulfilled in Christ. Now, that should be very important to us, who think that our eternal destiny and the meaning of our lives here and now depend on what Christ has done for us. We should want very much to read Luke very carefully indeed.
"Theophilus," the name of Luke's stated audience, is a word that means "friend of God." Was this an individual or a symbolic reference to the fact that Luke was writing to people who love God? Most scholars think it was an actual individual. There are two main reasons for this conclusion. First, Theophilus was a very common proper name in the First Century. But second and more importantly, Luke is obviously going out of his way to follow the pattern of expectations common to Greek historians of his day, and the dedication to an individual of their book meant for the general public was an accepted practice among ancient Greek historians.
If Theophilus was an individual, what was he like? Almost certainly he was not a Jew. He has a Greek name, for one thing. And Luke goes out of his way to avoid or provide translations or substitutes for Hebrew names and titles. Where the other Gospels have "rabbi" he will have didaskalos, "teacher." What the other Gospels call "scribes" he calls "lawyers," etc. There is less emphasis on Old Testament quotations and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy than in Matthew, which was written for a Jewish Christian audience. And the prolog which we have read today is unlike anything else in the New Testament. All of a sudden you are reading an almost classical Greek. I can often go a page or two without having to look up any Greek words in the dictionary. Suddenly in these four verses I am looking up every other word. It sounds like the prolog to Herodotus or Thucydides. For Luke is setting his history alongside theirs as part of the universal history of the world, not just the story of some local Palestinian cult. Luke's audience is the educated, cosmopolitan Greek of his day. So that is the frame of mind into which we should try to put ourselves as we read.
Luke's perspective on the Gospel is the one you would expect from a disciple of the Apostle Paul: it is a missionary perspective. All four of the Gospels have this emphasis, to be sure, and Matthew has the classic passage, the Great Commission of chapter 28. But Luke has a continuing emphasis throughout his narrative that the defeat of Satan by the Savior is for all men. For Mark, Jesus is the First and Last Action Hero; for Matthew, he is the Jewish Messiah; for John, he is the Son of God; for Luke, he is the Savior of the World.
Examples of this universal missionary perspective include the fact that Luke takes Jesus' genealogy back not just to Abraham, the father of Israel, but to Adam, the father of all mankind. Luke mentions more than anyone else the Samaritans (9:52-56, 10:30-37) and Gentiles in general (2:32, 3:6, 7:9, 13:29, 24:47). And we must remember that the Gospel of Luke is really only part one of a two-part work. That whole work, Luke-Acts, is truly a geographically oriented narrative, "there and back again." In Luke we move from Galilee to Samaria to Jerusalem; then in Acts the movement is reversed, from Jerusalem to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Luke's passion is evident on every page: it is, like his mentor the Apostle Paul, who said, "Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel," to tell the story of Jesus as the Savior of the World. And for him, to tell that story is to praise and glorify its central character. This Gospel begins and ends with worship in the Temple; it alone preserves the hymns like the Magnificat; and more than any other Gospel it emphasizes that those who receive the blessings of salvation from Christ "glorify God" (92:20, 5:25, 7:16, 13:13, 17:15, 18:43, etc.). And so should we as we read.
Did Luke, the Missionary Evangelist, have a passion for souls? Definitely. But he had that passion because first he had a passion for Jesus and therefore for the very story of Jesus itself, because it is wondrous and glorious and true and deserves to be told to the salvation of men and the glory of God. May God give us a like passion as we delve into the story told so beautifully and accurately by the Gospel according to Luke.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams