“That You May Have Certainty”
Welcome to Église Connexion! We are thrilled to be celebrating our third anniversary as a church, to be beginning our fourth year of ministry in Paris, with the gospel of Luke. If this is your first time here, you should know that we’re beginning today what we’ve always done—we go through books of the Bible. We start at the first verse and work our way all the way through to the last verse. So that’s what we’re going to do again now—we’re starting at verse 1 of the gospel of Luke, and we’ll go through to the end. The gospels we find in the Bible all tell the story of the life of Jesus; but they all emphasize different aspects of his person and work, and they all have different goals. And more so than the other three, Luke emphasizes his goal in writing this gospel very explicitly, in the opening verses. So we’ll be looking at just the first four verses today, to give us a sense of where we’re going and why.
Before we get into how and why Luke went about writing his gospel, just a couple words on Luke himself. Most scholars believe Luke wrote his gospel sometime around A.D. 62 (not even thirty years after Jesus’s ministry); it’s one of the earliest gospels written. The Catholic Church made Luke a saint early on, and (this is useless information, but I include it because it’s hilarious) for them he is the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers.
According to the Bible (Col. 4.14), Luke was a doctor—an educated man who met Christ sometime after Christ’s ascension, and who accompanied Paul on his later missionary voyages. In fact, the gospel of Luke is actually the first in a two-part series; the “sequel” to this gospel is the book of Acts, which he also wrote. And he’s very humble: he never talks about his own story, or how he joined up with Paul on his travels; about halfway through Acts 16, he simply stops talking about what “they” did, and begins saying that “we” did this; Luke joined Paul just before he arrived in Philippi.
That’s pretty much all we know about Luke himself: he was a doctor, an educated man, and worked with Paul on his travels. But his personality shines through in these first four verses, when he mentions both how he went about writing the gospel, and why he did it.
So let’s first look at how Luke wrote the gospel. The first thing we should say about Luke’s process (which he doesn’t mention here) is that he used the gospel of Mark (the first gospel written) as a blueprint. 60% of Mark’s gospel is quoted word for word in Luke’s. In addition, Paul would have told Luke all he learned from Jesus about his life, so he certainly used this information when compiling his narrative. But that’s not enough for Luke—being an educated man, he doesn’t want to base his narrative on the testimony of two guys. He wants to be more rigorous than that.
So he tells us what he did to compile his gospel in v. 1-4.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 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, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke had followed Paul for ages; he had heard what the apostles taught about Jesus. And he trusted what they said because they were there. They saw Jesus do these things. The criteria for a believable news report today is two to four sources; in a historical book, you’ll typically look for at least two sources to corroborate each piece of information you include. And because the events he recounts in this book are so astounding, Luke holds himself to that same standard: he sets out to write an “orderly account” of what had occurred by compiling the testimonies of eyewitnesses.
And it’s not as if all the things the apostles were saying weren’t verifiable. During Jesus’s ministry, thousands of people heard him preach, saw him live, saw him perform miracles. The same holds true after Jesus’s resurrection. The credibility of everything we believe rests on whether or not Jesus actually did rise from the dead after he was crucified; if Jesus is still dead, then (as Paul said), our faith is vain. But we know from Paul’s writings that there were eyewitnesses to Christ’s appearance post-resurrection as well. He says in 1 Corinthians 15.3-9:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here’s the point: Luke is not one to depend on blind faith. Luke is methodical and meticulous—he is that guy who will hear someone say something, and immediately think, Okay, I need to find someone else who can verify this.
Next—for whom did Luke write this gospel? Every book in the Bible was written for a specific reason, at a specific time, for a specific group of readers. The books of Luke and Acts are unique, because they are not letters (like the letters to Timothy or Philemon, for example), but rather narratives of events which occurred during and after Jesus’s ministry. And yet they were both written for one specific person: a man named Theophilus. In v. 3 Luke says, 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… We don’t know precisely who Theophilus was, but we have a good clue in that Luke calls him “most excellent” Theophilus. This phrase “most excellent” was used by Luke in the book of Acts to refer to the Roman governors Felix (Acts 23.26, 24.2) and Festus (Acts 26.25); it was an expression of respect usually reserved for a person of high standing. So more than likely, Theophilus was a man of wealth or social influence, possibly even a Roman official himself.
We know a little more about Theophilus from v. 4, where Luke says he wrote this gospel that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. This tells us that Theophilus has been taught certain things about Jesus and his life and work, but that so far he remains uncertain—he’s been taught these “things,” but he doesn’t yet have “certainty” about them.
This should be good news for many of us. Can we just be honest here? It’s difficult to swallow many of the things we see in these writings. Turning water into wine; walking on water; multiplying bread and fish; coming back from the dead… These are not things most people can accept easily. And that’s okay—God isn’t surprised by this in the least. The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t require you to believe what it’s saying in order for you to pick it up and read it, to engage with the story. There is no prerequisite for hearing the story of Jesus. If you’re skeptical, if you have a hard time believing some of these things, then Luke would have loved to talk with you; he wrote two whole books specifically for someone just like you.
The most important question Luke answers here—the question which matters most when reading this gospel—is not how Luke wrote it, or when, or for whom, but why. And Luke gives us two reasons, and his first reason is specific to Theophilus himself. This is the part where skeptics will get uncomfortable, and again—that’s okay. You don’t have to go with Luke; you just need to be aware of where he’s going.
Luke says in v. 4 that he compiled these eyewitness testimonies, that he researched the veracity of these accounts of the life of Jesus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. Luke doesn’t just want this gospel to inspire you, or to give you a moral model to follow, or to help you navigate your day-to-day life. Those things are all there, but they are not the main goal. The goal of this gospel is certainty. He is very up front about the fact that he wants to convince you that these things are true. God doesn’t expect you to blindly follow him, with no reason for your conviction that these things are true. The longest gospel in the Bible was written with the express purpose of giving us reasons to be certain that these things are true.
And that’s what we’ll see from here on out—all the way to the end of this book, Luke will continue to make absolute truth claims. He will say repeatedly that these things happened. They are not mere stories, they are not one possible truth among many; these things are true, regardless of what anyone chooses to believe about them.
Although this book was written over two thousand years ago, nothing could be more relevant to our modern culture. Charles Taylor wrote that the defining characteristic of our secular age is not that people have rejected God, but rather that every belief has become debatable. And it goes much further than simply saying, “I choose not to believe in God.” We have somehow come to a point where we actually believe truth is up for grabs—people don’t necessarily say that what the Bible says is not true, but rather that if you choose to believe it, it’s “your truth”—it’s true for you. Or, to put it negatively, they say that there is no absolute truth; there are many possible varieties of truths that can be accepted or rejected as need be.
It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe this is true,” or “I don’t know what’s true”—that at least is an honest statement. But saying “there is no absolute truth” is not an honest statement. “Relative truth” is a contradiction in terms, because when you declare that truth is relative, that there is no absolute truth, you are making an absolute truth claim—you are stating absolutely that nothing can be stated absolutely.
Some things are true, and what I choose to think about them changes nothing about the things themselves. I can say whatever I want to say about you and your life; I may even firmly believe it. But what I say or believe about you won’t change for a moment who you are or what your life is like. And the reason for that is because you’re real. You exist. These days everyone thinks they’re Neo in The Matrix, able to change reality with a simple thought, but reality doesn’t bend to my wishes. Some things just are, and whether we decide to believe them or not doesn’t make them not.
So in his gospel, no matter how shocking it may seem to us, Luke is going to make absolute truth claims—he’s going to say, “This is true, this happened”—and he’s not going to apologize for them. He accepts that there must be some things that are absolutely true, and that all of these eyewitness accounts of the person and life of Jesus are true (just as, if we read a news report corroborated by five hundred eyewitnesses, we wouldn’t hesitate to believe it, no matter how incredible): Jesus really did these things, Jesus really said these things.
And his goal is something which, again, is scandalous to most people in our society: he wants to lovingly convince Theophilus that what he has believed up to this point is wrong, and that the gospel is the truth—not merely in ideas, but in the facts of the life of Christ. Theophilus—and you—can choose to believe him, or to reject what he says; but in the end that won’t change reality in the slightest.
Luke’s second reason for writing this gospel is simpler, and more global. This reason is found in v. 1: he says that he set out to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us. In other words, he doesn’t just want to show what happened during Jesus’s life; he wants to show his reader that Jesus accomplished something specific. And as we’ll see as we proceed—even from the opening chapters of this gospel—the specific thing he accomplished is the fulfillment of the promises God had given to the people of Israel. He desires to show that this man Jesus is where all of the stories of the Jewish people—all of human history, in fact—have been leading.
Luke takes everything these eyewitnesses have seen, and he makes a link between the events that happened, and what the Old Testament prophets said would happen, hundreds of years earlier. He makes a link between the life of Jesus and the story of the human race, asserting with remarkable clarity that the story of humanity in general, and of Israel in particular, finds its culmination and fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In other words, he doesn’t just report the facts; he also interprets those facts, and sets out to prove to Theophilus that he has interpreted rightly. He says, in essence, “Here’s what happens, and here’s what it all means.”
All of that is introduction (at least to this book). Now that we’ve said all of that, there are a number of implications we need to see in the way Luke introduces his letter—these things will help us going forward, and will also help us as we read the Bible this week.
1. God works in history.
We all know people who dabble in everything—who are into yoga, who are interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, the power of positive thinking, astrology, mentalism, and any other subject they have a book on in the “Spirituality” section of the local bookstore. They pick an idea from here, another idea from there, a principle from over here, a story from over there, and they mix it all together to come out with a kind of bastardized worldview that fits their personality. They do this because this is the way our society is built today—ours is a consumer society, so spirituality has become a consumer sport: you take what you want, and leave behind what you don’t.
The problem is that this is fundamentally unrealistic—this is not how the world works. If you live in Paris, you take the things you like (the beauty, the culture, etc.), but you also have to take those things you’re not so comfortable with (the noise, the pollution, etc.).
And this is how God works in the world, whether we like it or not. He does not just work in ideals, or principles, or feelings—he works in history. He is a God of facts, of events. Luke tells Theophilus, many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us. He’s not talking about ideas; he’s talking about things that happened—things that have been accomplished among us, things which had multiple eyewitnesses.
God established his chosen people and promised them throughout history to give them a Messiah, who would free them from the oppression of sin. He sent this Messiah in the person Jesus Christ.
Jesus was born a real baby, in a real town called Bethlehem.
He was raised by a real family, trained to do a real job (he would have been a carpenter, because his father was a carpenter).
He performed his ministry in a real part of Galilee, he preached to real people.
He was condemned by a real Roman official, Pontius Pilate, was crucified on a real hill outside of Jerusalem, and was buried in a real tomb.
Three days later, he was really raised from the dead (as incredible as it sounds), he appeared to hundreds of real people, before ascending into heaven in front of more of these real people.
These things happened. God does not deal in abstracts; he deals in concrete, visible, tangible reality.
2. God does not only work in history, but for people.
There is a fact about this book that is simply incredible, that I’ve already touched on quickly. We know that the Holy Spirit inspired the books of the Bible; he breathed out these Scriptures so that they might be transformative for thousands of years to come. The book of Luke is a gospel, narrating the life of the most important man in history, and the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write this book. And when he did, it was addressed to one specific person, Theophilus. And this Theophilus wasn’t even a believer.
Brothers and sisters, God is not only interested in the big picture. There is definitely a big picture, and it is first and foremost in his mind. But he does not pay attention to the big picture to the detriment of the people he loves. The fact that such a vitally important book was inspired by God so that one man may have certainty concerning the things he had been taught is simply astonishing.
There is no prerequisite you have to achieve in order for God to turn his eye on you. He does not lend his attention merely to the righteous or the moral; Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And he did it before they turned to him, not after; this book was written for Theophilus before he believed.
So if you have a hard time believing that any of these things are true, this book is for you. If you have a hard time believing God would be interested in someone like you, this book is for you. If you have a hard time believing God would accept you because of things you have done in your life, this book is for you.
We don’t know what happened to Theophilus. We don’t even know if he ever did come to faith in Jesus. But if he did, it wasn’t merely by force of persuasion. Paul says in Romans 1.16, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Notice he does not just say that the gospel is what Jesus did. He says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The gospel does not just give us information about Jesus; when the gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit uses that good news to save us—to give us new hearts, to transform us, to give us faith in Christ.
Luke would have known this. He was not ignorant of the Holy Spirit (in fact, he spends much of the early section of this book mentioning the Spirit’s activity in the gospel). He writes his gospel so that the Holy Spirit might use it to transform Theophilus’s heart—to give him absolute, rock-solid certainty that these things are true. Faith and reason are not opposed; the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts, who convinces us of the truth (often before answering our most burning questions!), also inspired this beautifully meticulous and methodical narrative of Jesus’s life. And he consistently uses one to feed the other.
So my prayer over these next several months is that the Spirit would use this beautiful gospel to awaken faith in the hearts of those who have none, and that he would use these credible eyewitness testimonies to strengthen the faith of those of us who already believe. We don’t need to believe blindly, brothers and sisters. He has given us so much to lean on. So let’s lean on it together in the months to come.