Where the world comes to study the Bible

Lesson 1: Faith Rooted in History (Luke 1:1-4)

Related Media

Postmodernism is the prevailing philosophy of our day. A main tenet of this philosophy is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Rather, truth is personal and subjective. It is not discovered, but created. In religious and spiritual matters, especially, to say that you have the truth is viewed as arrogance because this implies that you’re right and others are wrong.

You’ve probably encountered this philosophy when you have attempted to share the gospel with someone, only to have him or her respond, “It’s great that you believe in Jesus and that it works for you. But I’m into the New Age vegetarian natural Zen approach, and it works for me.” Spiritual truth becomes a matter of personal opinion and whatever works.

But postmodernism is not only “out there.” It’s also in the evangelical church. George Barna claims that 53 percent of those calling themselves “evangelical Christians” do not believe in absolute truth. And 43 percent agree with this statement, “It does not matter what religious faith you follow because all faiths teach similar lessons about life.” (Cited by Douglas Groothuis, “Telling the Truth Today,” Focal Point, Summer, 1995, p. 3.)

Postmodernism also lies behind the strong push toward tolerance, where doctrinal truth is played down and love and unity are magnified. It also shows itself in the emphasis on feelings over thought. If you listen to testimonies, it is rare to hear someone say, “I am a committed Christian because I became convinced of the truth claims of Christianity.” Rather, you will often hear, “I went to a Christian concert and felt so good when I heard the music. So I went forward at the altar call and felt a warm sensation come over me. Ever since then I’ve felt so good!”

I agree that the Christian faith is not just a matter of the head, but also of the heart. But it is not just a matter of the heart. The emotional aspect of the Christian faith must be firmly grounded on the historical and doctrinal truth of the faith as revealed to us in Scripture. Otherwise, we have no firm foundation when our feelings change and we have no objective basis for evaluating our feelings. It is essential to affirm that the Christian faith is rooted in objective history and absolute, unchanging truth.

Luke wrote his gospel to assure his acquaintance, Theophilus, of the truth concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Beyond Theophilus, Luke “wrote for people at some remove from the ministry of Jesus, both in geography and time, and his task was to provide them with such an account of the story of Jesus as would enable them to see that the story with which they had already become partially acquainted was a reliable basis for their faith” (I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke [Eerdmans], p. 35). We don’t know for sure who the specific recipient, Theophilus, was. His name means “friend of God,” and the title, “most excellent,” seems to identify him as a ranking Roman official (see Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25). He had received some instruction in the Christian faith and he probably was a believer. But he was troubled by some nagging questions so that he needed assurance about the truthfulness of what he had believed.

Theophilus may have been troubled by questions like, “Is the Christian faith I believed in really the truth and the only truth? If it is true, why was Jesus rejected by His people and crucified? Why are Christians being persecuted? Why have most of the Jews rejected the message, while the Gentiles are receiving it?” (Adapted from Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker Exegetical Commentary], 1:65).

Although Luke never identifies himself as the author of this gospel, since the earliest days of the church he has widely been accepted as the author of it and the companion volume, Acts. Both volumes are addressed to Theophilus and are linked to the same author. This means that by sheer volume, Luke, a Gentile, wrote more of the New Testament than any other man, including Paul (Luke is the longest book in the New Testament). Luke is mentioned by name only three times in the New Testament (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11). From these references and from the “we” sections in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) we learn that he was a physician who accompanied the apostle Paul and faithfully labored with him in the gospel. He stayed with Paul right up to his final imprisonment and execution.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke comprise what are called the synoptic gospels, because they all tend to treat the life of Christ from a similar perspective and use much common material, whereas John takes a different approach. There has been much debate over which of the three was written first and on what sources the gospel writers used. Most scholars believe that Mark was written before Luke and that Luke used it as one of his sources, since nearly half of Mark’s verses are found in Luke.

None of the gospels are biographies, strictly speaking, but rather are selective, interpretive sketches of the life of Christ, each with a different purpose. Matthew was aimed at the Jew to show that Jesus is the Messiah-King of Israel. Mark was written with a Roman slant to show Jesus as the suffering servant Savior, focusing on His deeds. John, written both to the Jew and Gentile, portrays Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, so that the reader might believe and have eternal life. Luke is aimed at the Greek to show Jesus as the ideal man, the Son of Man, the Savior of all people.

Luke has a number of distinctive features. He devotes more space to the birth and infancy of Jesus than any other gospel. He alone mentions the incident from Jesus’ youth, when He was left behind at the Temple. On the other end of Jesus’ life, Luke alone mentions the ascension and, in his companion volume (Acts) traces the history of Jesus’ followers beyond that momentous event.

Luke clearly has a universal emphasis, showing that the gospel is for every class, race, and nation. The angels tell the shepherds that the news of the Savior who has been born is “good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people” (2:10). The aged Simeon prophesies that this Child is God’s salvation which He has prepared in the presence of all peoples, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (2:32). As John the Baptist preaches, Luke alone (of the synoptics) cites Isaiah, that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). When our Lord begins His ministry at Nazareth, He creates animosity by pointing out that Elijah was sent to a Gentile widow in Sidon and that the Gentile Naaman the leper was cleansed (4:25-27). Luke closes with Jesus’ commission that “repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (24:47).

Not just Gentiles, but sinners of every stripe are the focus of Luke’s gospel. He uses the word “sinners” 16 times, more than Matthew (5), Mark (5), and John (4) combined (W. Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels [Revell], p. 367). By focusing on sinners, outcasts, the poor, and women (who were often disregarded in that day) and by showing that Jesus Himself, even in His birth in the stable, was rejected, Luke shows Christ to be the tender Savior of those whom society rejects or despises. Luke is distinctive for a lengthy section (9:51-19:27) that traces Jesus’ final journey toward Jerusalem where He will face ultimate rejection. The theme of the whole section is also the rejection of Jesus, the Son of Man.

Luke is the only synoptic gospel to call Jesus “Savior” (2:11). He alone uses the word salvation (6 times) and ten times he uses the word for preaching the good news, which is only used once in the other gospels. Luke alone of the three uses the word grace (8 times) and Luke is the only Gospel writer to use the words “redemption” and “redeem” (J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book [Zondervan], 5:254). The theme verse of Luke occurs in the context of the salvation of the despised tax collector, Zaccheus, where Jesus explains His mission: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:10). Walter Liefeld states, “The entire Gospel of Luke pictures Jesus as reaching out to the lost in forgiveness” (Expositors Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 8:811).

Luke has been called the Gospel of Prayer because of his emphasis, not only on our need to pray, but also on Jesus’ prayer life. Nine times Luke tells of prayers that Jesus offered in the crises of His life, and seven of these are unique to Luke (Scroggie, p. 370). It has also been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, who is named more in Luke than in Matthew and Mark together, and even more than in John (Baxter, p. 246). There is a marked emphasis on Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit. Thus Luke shows us Jesus as the Savior who was fully human, but who triumphed as man through dependence on prayer and the Holy Spirit.

Darrell Bock (pp. 1, 2) points out four issues that were particularly problematic in the church of Luke’s time. First was the question of salvation, especially of how the Gentiles could be included as God’s people on an equal basis with the Jews. While Luke answers this issue primarily in Acts, he paves the way in his Gospel by his emphasis on salvation to the Gentiles.

Second, there was the seeming paradox that the most natural audience for the gospel message, the Jewish nation, was largely responding negatively. Why was God’s plan meeting with such hostility? In Acts Luke shows that the church did not separate itself from Israel, but that the nation had turned the church out. Luke’s Gospel shows how the nation and its leaders had rejected Jesus, thus charting the course that followed for the church.

The third issue was how a crucified Jesus fit into God’s plan. How could He bring the consummation of God’s promises? Acts supplies the major answer by emphasizing the centrality of the risen Savior in the preaching of the Apostles, but Luke lays the groundwork by presenting the Christology underlying this message.

Fourth, what does it mean to respond to Jesus and how should His disciples live until the day He returns? Bock (p. 2) states, “This is a major burden of the Gospel of Luke: to define Jesus’ mission and that of the disciples who follow him. The bulk of Luke explains how Jesus prepared the disciples for his departure and prepared them to minister in his absence. This is where the crucial Lucan section of chapters 9-19, the Jerusalem journey, fits into the Gospel and controls its purpose.” That section’s thrust, says Bock (p. 23), “is that Jesus gives a new way to follow God, which is not the way of the Jewish leadership. The theme is ‘listen to him.’” A broad outline of Luke may be helpful:

1. Introduction: Purpose for writing (1:1-4).

2. The Advent of the Son of Man (1:5-4:13).

3. The Ministry of the Son of Man: Galilee (4:14-9:50).

4. The Rejection of the Son of Man: Toward Jerusalem (9:51-19:27).

A. Mounting opposition (9:51-11:54).

B. Instructions in view of the opposition (12:1-19:27).

5. The Suffering of the Son of Man (19:28-23:56).

6. The Triumph of the Son of Man (24:1-53).

With that as a brief overview, I want to examine Luke’s introduction, which shows us his purpose for writing. To sum it up:

Since Luke’s Gospel is an accurate, orderly, historically true account of the life and ministry of the Savior, we can believe it with confidence.

The main thrust of this introduction is that Theophilus and all of Luke’s readers would know that the matters he is about to relate are historically true and thus believable. Three points:

Luke’s Gospel is rooted in the facts of verifiable history.

Luke is at pains to make this clear, and it is not a trivial point. The apostle Paul links the entire Christian faith to one verifiable historical event, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that is not true, says Paul, then go be a hedonist: Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die and there’s nothing else. But if it is true that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave, then He is Lord and we must submit our entire lives to Him (see 1 Corinthians 15).

What this means is that Christianity is not a religious philosophy based on the speculations and ideas of some great religious thinkers. Christianity is primarily about the God who created the universe miraculously invading human history in the person of Jesus Christ who uniquely revealed God to us. Thus the great doctrines of the Bible are not matters of personal opinion or philosophical speculation. They are matters of revelation from God and therefore, they must be submitted to. This is especially true concerning the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has revealed Himself in history in the person of Jesus Christ. Luke wants us to know and believe this with absolute certainty.

How can we know that this is true? Luke mentions several things to establish the credibility of his account. First, there were many written witnesses to the life and ministry of Christ which Luke consulted (1:1). We do not know who these witnesses were. They may have included the Gospel of Mark, but probably also included other written sources which are no longer extant. But the fact that there were many and, as we can presume, that Luke used these many witnesses at points where they all lined up, lends credibility to Luke’s research.

Second, Luke states that many of these written sources were eyewitnesses to the entire ministry of Jesus Christ (1:2). Since this was an essential qualification for an apostle (Acts 1:21-22), Luke is here referring to apostolic witnesses who had handed down what they had seen and knew to be true because they had been with Jesus. Also, these men had become “servants of the word,”, the gospel (1:2). They were not religious hucksters, but men of integrity whose character and lives backed up the message of self-denial and servanthood as preached by Jesus Christ.

In addition to all of these witnesses, Luke himself, although not an eyewitness to these things, had carefully researched the written and oral accounts to verify everything before he wrote (1:3). Probably while he was living in Caesarea during Paul’s two-year imprisonment, Luke had interviewed a number of the eyewitnesses, including Jesus’ mother Mary, to make sure he had the story in its correct form. Even though we who hold to the verbal inspiration of Scripture believe that Luke was inspired by the Holy Spirit, this does not mean that the Spirit dictated Luke’s message to him. Rather, the Spirit guided Luke as he carefully researched the history of Jesus’ life and ministry, and guided him as he wrote so that his words were exactly what God intended. Thus the inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not preclude the use of careful scholarship on Luke’s part.

It’s not surprising that critics jump on Luke’s claim to accuracy. If they can show that he made historical errors or that his account cannot be reconciled with the other gospel writers, then they do not have to submit to the message, namely, that Jesus is Lord. So we have the liberal “scholars” of the “Jesus Seminar,” who get together and vote on which parts of the gospels they think are “true” sayings and deeds of Jesus. But their votes are based on the assumption that the gospel writers were inventing or bending history to make a theological point to their readers, which flies directly in the face of Luke’s plain assertions in this introduction! And, their votes are based purely on subjectivism, which is not careful historiography.

There are some difficult problems which scholars have raised about Luke’s historical accuracy. One concerns the census in the time of Quirinius mentioned in chapter 2. There is no record that Augustus ever ordered such a census, and there is dispute over whether Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria at the time when Jesus was born. The fact that there is no independent record of such a census does not mean that it did not happen. We lack many historical records from the reign of Caesar Augustus. And the same is true regarding the years of Quirinius’ governorship. As one scholar has pointed out, “The probabilities are against Luke’s having been careless of a point so easily checked when he was affirming to a prominent leader his own care for accuracy, and was using historical detail to substantiate his central message.” Another scholar, William Ramsay, asked “how, if Luke made such a glaring error in the facts surrounding the birth of Christ, did these inaccuracies escape the attention of the enemies of the Gospel in Roman times?” (W. T. Dayton, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], 3:1006).

One more observation before leaving this point: The fact that Luke wrote his account insures us of the abiding accuracy of what we read. An oral report can change over time, so that hundreds of years later the details can be quite embellished. But we have the very words that Luke recorded. After reminding us that Christianity is a religion built on facts, J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:2) states,

The first preachers did not go up and down the world, proclaiming an elaborate, artificial system of abstruse doctrines and deep principles. They made it their first business to tell men great plain facts. They went about telling a sin-laden world, that the Son of God had come down to earth, and lived for us, and died for us, and risen again. The Gospel, at its first publication, was far more simple than many make it now. It was neither more nor less than the history of Christ.

Thus, Luke’s Gospel is rooted in the facts of verifiable history.

Luke’s Gospel is an orderly, purposeful account of the life and ministry of the Savior.

He wrote about “the things accomplished among us” (the KJV renders it the things “most surely believed among us,” but the context supports the NASB and NIV rendering). What had been accomplished among them was the saving purpose of God in sending His own Son as the Savior of sinners. When Luke says that he is writing it out “in consecutive order” (NASB), the Greek is better translated, “in orderly fashion.” Luke sometimes does not follow a chronological order, but he carefully, thoughtfully arranged his material to show that Jesus is the Savior not just of the Jews, but of all who will trust in Him. The French commentator, Godet, observes that if Matthew is “A treatise on the right of Jesus to the Messianic sovereignty of Israel,” then Luke is “A treatise on the right of the heathen to share in the Messianic kingdom founded by Jesus.” (F. Godet, A Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke [I. K. Funk & Co.], p. 40.) That’s Luke’s purposeful message.

Luke’s Gospel can and must be believed with confidence and handed down to other faithful witnesses.

Luke wrote so that his friend, Theophilus, would be certain about these crucial matters. Of course, he wrote for a much broader audience as well. God’s truth as recorded by Luke is true for every person and every culture of every age. It is not subjective “truth” which people are free to take or leave as it may suit their fancy. Luke confronts us with the awesome person of Jesus Christ, the Chief Cornerstone. If we do not submit our lives to Him, then at the judgment, that Stone will scatter us like dust (Luke 20:18). If Luke’s message about Jesus is true as he claims, then you can no longer live as you used to. You must believe the message, submit your life to it, and hand it off to others who must do the same. As Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Conclusion

J. C. Philpot wrote,

Right views concerning Christ are indispensable to a right faith, and a right faith is indispensable to salvation. To stumble at the foundation, is, concerning faith, to make shipwreck altogether; for as Immanuel, God with us, is the grand Object of faith, to err in views of His eternal Deity, or to err in views of His sacred humanity, is alike destructive (cited in “Free Grace Broadcaster,” Fall 1997, p. 19).

After careful research based on many eyewitnesses, Luke wrote his Gospel to show that Jesus is the eternal God who came in human flesh to seek and to save those who are lost. Faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in the accurate historical record that has come down to us in Luke’s Gospel. It is not an optional idea that you might want to consider if it grabs you. It is absolute truth to be believed and handed on to others.

Discussion Questions

1.      How do you respond to a Christian who says, “Love is more important than correct doctrine”?

2.      How can we help people in our relativistic culture see that there is absolute truth in the spiritual realm?

3.      How can we distinguish between core biblical truths, which we must believe, and secondary matters, where there’s room for sincere Christians to differ?

4.      If Luke is historically accurate, how can we deal with harmonistic problems between the Gospel accounts?

Copyright Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Christology, Assurance