Introducing Saint Luke
Introducing St. Luke
Let me begin with a question: As Christians, why do we believe what we believe? Why do we believe that in Jesus Christ, God became incarnate as one of us, lived, died, came back to life, and ascended to heaven? Why do we trust that in his death and resurrection he conquered sin and death and that in him we can trust for the forgiveness of our sins and restoration to life? Why do we believe these things are true and worthy of our faith?
Not very long ago two Mormon missionaries knocked on my door. They wanted to know if I’d ever read the Book of Mormon. I told them that I had—twice—and that I’d also read Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price. “So what did you think?” one of them asked me very hopefully. “Bunk!” I said, “Pure, unadulterated nonsense.” That didn’t go over well. They wanted to know why I thought the Mormon scriptures were bunk. I ran through all my reasons. And then they did exactly what I expected they would: they asked me if I’d prayed to know they were true. Joseph Smith once wrote that if you want to know if what he wrote is true, you need to pray and that God will “cause that your bosom shall burn…therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” That’s all Mormons have to go on. History, archaeology, even biology and the study of genetics disprove all the claims of their scriptures. They’re left with nothing but a subjective “burning of the bosom” to give them assurance of faith.
Brothers and sisters, as Christians our faith is very different. When I was in University someone gave me a book that was titled Christianity: The Faith that Makes Sense. That little book walked through not only the arguments for the existence of God, but also focused on the historical and eyewitness evidence that we have in the Bible—evidence, that unlike the Book of Mormon—is largely supported by the evidence of archaeology and secular history. You and I can certainly attest to God’s presence and work in our own lives and in the life of the Church, but more importantly, you and I can appeal to the historicity of our faith. In the New Testament we have the writing of those who knew Jesus personally, who spent time with him, who heard him preach, perform miracles, and who even saw him die on the cross and then saw him alive again three days later. We have the eyewitness accounts of the empty tomb. And we have the writings of those who recorded those first hand accounts so that they would be available for future generations of Christians like us, not only perpetuating the Gospel message of the kingdom, but giving us concrete reason to believe.
St. Luke’s Gospel is one of those accounts and this morning we’ll begin our walk through it. I’m don’t know how long it’s going to take us to make our way through the whole book. I’ve stopped making those sorts of predictions, because they never work out as I planned. I’ll say that it will take quite a while, but I trust that through our study Luke will draw us closer to Jesus and give us a greater understanding of the Gospel message. More importantly, as we read Luke’s account of what the eyewitnesses saw of Jesus and the early Church, we’ll have greater reason to believe the message that has been passed down to us and as a result a deeper and stronger faith that Jesus is Lord. Luke will also equip us to carry the message of Jesus and his kingdom to the world with confidence.
Look with me, now, at the prologue that Luke attaches to the beginning of his gospel. He writes there:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
In the first century, books were usually written on scrolls. There were no fancy dustjackets or glossy paperback covers on which the author of a book could write promotional “blurbs” to tell readers what his book was about and why they should read it. Luke’s prologue sort of serves this purpose. All someone had to do was unroll the scroll to the first column and he or she could quickly see what Luke was all about. In fact, this was a common Greek practise. There were established ways of writing a prologue like this and Luke follows them. In fact, this one long sentence is written in very formal Greek. Here Luke give his dedication, explains his methods, and sets out his purpose.
But first, notice what’s missing. We might think that Luke would introduce himself as the author, but he doesn’t. In fact, like the other three gospels, Luke’s book is anonymous. We have solid reason to believe that it was written by Luke because the Church Fathers tell us that it was. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr —all Fathers who lived in the First and Second Centuries tell us that Luke is the author. A document called the Muratorian Fragment includes the oldest partial list of New Testament books accepted by the churches in Rome. It dates to as early as a.d. 170 and lists Luke as the book’s author. Even the heretic Marcion, who died in the middle of the Second Century attests to Luke as the author. The witness of the Church Fathers is especially strong in this case, because they all agree. None of the early Christians has left us a dissenting opinion.
Who was Luke? It helps to know that Luke didn’t just write the gospel that bears his name. He also wrote the book of Acts, which opens with a similar prologue that refers back to the gospel as “the first book”. That prologue dedicates Acts to this same man named Theophilus. This is helpful to know, because at several points, the author of acts uses words like “us” and “we”. Those passages tell us that whoever wrote the book of Acts (and therefore the Gospel of Luke) was one of St. Paul’s travelling companions. St. Paul helps us get to know Luke a little better, because he mentions him in Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy. In Philemon 24 and 2 Timothy 4:11 we learn that Luke was one of Paul’s “fellow workers” and companions when he was imprisoned in Rome. In Colossians 4:14 Paul refers to him as “the beloved physician”. A prologue to Luke written in about 175 also tells us that Luke was a native of Antioch in Syria, that he was a doctor, that he never married, and that he died in Greece at the age of 84. The style of his Greek attests to his being well educated. His prologue follows a formal Greek literary style and in the rest of both his gospel and in Acts, Luke imitates the style of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament. His style is very different from St. Matthew’s, for instance, who wrote in Greek using a very Hebraic style and St. Mark, whose Greek grammar is simple and often poor and whose vocabulary was very limited. Greek students typically cut their teeth on St. Mark’s gospel, because he uses simple words and simple sentences. In contrast, Luke and John often write in long and complex sentences and have much larger vocabularies. Luke is very eloquent.
Luke might have been Jewish, but most of the evidence points to him being a Gentile. He knew the Old Testament very well, so he might have been what the Jews called a “God fearer”—a Gentile convert to Judaism who was never circumcised and stayed on the fringe of the covenant community. He shows that he has some knowledge of Judea and Jerusalem, but doesn’t know them as well as we would expect a Jew to know them. His first-hand accounts come only in Acts, which tells us that he wasn’t himself an eyewitness to Jesus. He converted to Christianity some time later, maybe even as a result of Paul’s ministry.
Whatever the case, he eventually became one of Paul’s travelling companions, even going all the way to Rome and staying with Paul while he was in prison there. And that leads us to another question that the prologue doesn’t address: When was Luke’s gospel written? We know that it was written before Acts. Acts, itself, was probably written about a.d. 63. It describes events up to 62 and nothing after that. We would think that since Luke was with Paul in Rome, he would have recorded Paul’s martyrdom if he were writing after that event. If he were writing in the 70s, we’d expect him to mention the Fall of Jerusalem, which not only had a big impact on the Church, but was also extremely important in fulfilling what Jesus said would happen before that generation passed away.
That’s Luke. Now, what was his purpose in writing this gospel? He says in the prologue that he set out “to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us”. Luke’s faith was rooted in the eyewitness accounts of the people who had followed Jesus from the beginning, of the people who were there at Pentecost, and of the “ministers” who shared their experience of those events as they proclaimed the gospel message. He wasn’t there at the beginning, but he had the assurance of the men and women who had been there. But by the early 60s thirty or thirty-five years had passed since the events of the Resurrection and Pentecost. Many of those eyewitnesses were getting old; many of them had died already. And so Luke set out to preserve what they had seen and heard so that their witness could be passed on to future generations. As he says, others had started this project and written their own accounts. Mark had seen many of the events of Jesus’ ministry himself and had become Peter’s assistant or disciple and had probably already recorded his and Peter’s eyewitness experiences in his gospel. Matthew, too, was an eyewitness and might have written his gospel by this time—we’re not sure. And so Luke had these written accounts as examples. He set out to write an “orderly account”, drawing on all the sources available.
In fact, Luke did write a very orderly account. His is the longest of the four gospels. One of the reasons that we believe Mark’s gospel was written first is that all but about sixty verses from Mark have been incorporated into Luke’s gospel. He might have drawn from Matthew’s gospel too. But he also went to other sources and witnesses. Mark began with Jesus’ baptism by John. Matthew began with the birth of Jesus. But Luke goes back further and begins with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth. Luke is the only one of the three who tells us anything about Jesus childhood. He gives greater detail about Jesus’ crucifixion—something that many people attribute to his medical training. And throughout his Gospel, Luke fills in many small details that are missing from Mark and Matthew. He wanted to preserve the eyewitness accounts and he wanted to make sure that they were recorded in the most credible way possible and in an orderly fashion. Of all three of these “synoptic” gospels, Luke’s follows the most chronological arrangement.
Luke’s description of his work here also tells us a little about how the Holy Spirit has worked in inspiring the men who wrote the Bible. There’s a common misconception that the biblical writers were somehow taking down divine dictation. Luke gives us a very different picture. Inspired on one hand by the Holy Spirit, Luke also based his work on the best sources he could find and on his own research. He wrote in his own style, just as the other biblical writers did and his personality and his priorities show through. God used Luke’s “humanity” to convey his message to us. The Word became flesh—became human—in Jesus, but the Word also comes to us from the Holy Spirit through its human authors. As Bishop Westcott wrote many years ago, “The Bible is authoritative, for it is the Word of God; it is intelligible, for it is the word of man.” Because he is loving, gracious, and patient God condescends to stoop down and speak to us in our own language that we might know him.
Luke dedicates his work to a man named Theophilus. Who was he? The bottom line is that we don’t know, but we can make some educated guesses. His name is Greek and means either “beloved of God” or “lover of God”. Luke addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus”, which has led some to speculate that he was a Roman government official, maybe even the emperor’s heir, and that Luke wrote all of this to him as an apology for the Christian faith. The problem with this theory is that as we read Luke and Acts we see that Luke tells us things that are important for believers and leaves out many of the sorts of things that we’d expect if he were trying to justify the Church’s existence to a Roman official. What is much more likely is that Theophilus was Luke’s patron. At the very least he provided the funds necessary to publish and distribute Luke’s book. He might even have paid for Luke to travel and interview eyewitnesses. Whatever the case, Luke writes that his purpose is to confirm and to provide evidence so that Theophilus can have certainty about the things he has been taught.
This strongly suggests that Theophilus was a convert to Christianity. Maybe, as Luke may have, he started out as a “God fearer”, someone loosely connected to Judaism, who then became a Christian. Theophilus may have begun to have doubts about this new faith. It claimed to be Jewish, but it didn’t take long for the Jews to become its biggest persecutors, driving Christians out of the synagogues and even murdering them. Someone who had started out as a “God fearer” might now be wondering if he’d made a mistake. And so Luke here gives assurance that this new movement is in fact from God, it is trustworthy, and here’s why—here’s the story, backed up by eyewitnesses, that proves it.
And so Luke, in both his gospel and in Acts, presents the story in a way that emphasises that despite the persecution taking place, God really is in control and has been all along. He stresses that all of this is God’s plan. He starts his account by going all the way back to John the Baptist and telling how the angel announced his birth in the temple. John was the prophet sent to prepare the way for Jesus. John was the last of the old covenant prophets who drew them all together and then pointed the people to Jesus as the one who was to come in fulfilment of them all. Luke stresses that his story is simply the outworking of what God had been planning all along. God knows what he’s doing; he’s active, he’s plugged into his creation, he’s providing for the redemption of his people and nothing is going to stop him. Things may look bad to Theophilus, but Luke assures him that the persecution of Christians is no more a hiccough in God’s plan than Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were.
Let me close now with two thoughts for you to take home. First, Luke reminds here of the truthfulness of his story. In fact, what he’s doing here in the prologue is giving us his personal guarantee of the truth of what he’s going to tell us. Luke reminds us that our faith is founded on history—on historical fact—not on speculations, not on myths or folktales, and not on our subjective experience. Christianity isn’t true because we “feel” that it’s true. Christianity is true because it is true—because it’s rooted in the historically verifiable events that Luke has recorded for us. Luke shows us how God has, down through the ages, spoken to his people and prepared them for the events we’re going to be reading about here: for the coming of the Lord himself in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Other religions tell us about the struggle of humanity to know God, but here in Scripture we see God coming to humanity and struggling to overcome our blindness and our rebellion and to make himself known to us. In the Bible it’s not God who is lost; it’s us. And so Luke emphasises to us this history of God seeking out his people, making himself known, and even becoming one of us that we might be restored to his fellowship and friendship.
Second, consider to whom Luke is writing. Theophilus means “beloved of God”. And so St. Ambrose, who was bishop of Milan in the late 4th Century, writes: “So the Gospel was written to Theophilus, that is, to him whom God loves. If you love God, it was written to you. If it was written to you, discharge the duty of an evangelist.” Brother and sisters, Luke writes to us that we may have certainty concerning the things we have been taught and in that certainty we are called to discharge the duty of an evangelist—we are called to carry the Gospel message of the kingdom to the world. Luke was faithful in bearing witness to the truth of that message so that we might know Jesus and his kingdom. Let us now be faithful as he was, confidently declaring the truth of the Gospel message, that others might know Jesus thanks to our witness.
Let us pray: Almighty God, who inspired your servant St. Luke the physician to set forth in his Gospel a trustworthy account of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of your Son, strengthen and enlighten us, we pray, that as we study your Word our faith will be strengthened and made sure; transform our lives through the message of your kingdom and teach us how to be faithful in our duty as evangelists. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.