Sunday, January 27, 2013

Into the Wilderness (Luke 4: 1-15)

The power of temptation is real.  We watched in stunned amazement as Lance Armstrong finally confessed in a television interview that he made a career out of using performance enhancing drugs, cheating and lying his way to no less than 7 Tour de France titles.  It was shocking to watch, to see Armstrong fall from such a height; and yet we can all empathize in some way with him.  Each of us in small and large ways is tempted to compromise our deepest held values, to be something other than what we appear to be, or what we know God wants us to be. 

As Jesus rose from the Jordan River, a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.”  What would it mean for Jesus to live out that identity before the world with integrity?  How would Jesus, the Son of God, the Man of the Spirit, pursue his mission and bring people to God?  In Luke 4:1-15 we learn how Jesus was tempted to misuse his power and authority as the Son of God in order to achieve his mission. To know how Jesus faced these temptations may not only give us hope but show us how to do the same.  My daughter asked me the other day, "How could Jesus have been tempted if he was perfect?"  I agreed with her that it sounded strange...but then pondered with her the truth that Jesus as a fully human being was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Heb. 4:15).  One way to define the word temptation is "a strong appeal to satisfy legitimate desires under the wrong circumstances, with the wrong means, or for impure motives" (Ada Lum).  Luke tells us that Jesus faced three temptations, all of which are quite familiar to us...

(i) The first is the seduction of physical comfort. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (3). Surely it is right for God’s Son to have the provision of all his needs…and if he needs bread, to make it?!  

This was Jesus’ temptation: to make the satisfaction of his own bodily needs and those of others his primary mission.  The Tempter knows that the hunger for bread, for physical and material comfort is universal, because there is no doubt that “one does live by bread.”  After all, we expend tremendous energy and resources in the pursuit of material comfort, and earthly bread.  Think about it: Jesus could have easily won a following by providing bread over and over again!  Indeed, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, one which caused great crowds to follow him for a time.  In Dostoevsky's parable of "The Grand Inquisitor," the leader of the Inquisition denounces Jesus for his response to the devil, suggesting that he should have manipulated the masses with miracle after miracle of multiplied bread, for they would have eaten out of his hand like cattle, grateful and obedient…but also fearful too that he might withdraw his hand and the bread.  Of course, the point is that Jesus refused to manipulate people in this way or to deny them the greater good…the freedom to choose the Bread of Life.  As Israel learned in her own wilderness experience, “One does live by bread, "but not by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3).  The full quotation continues, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

The need for spiritual bread is the greatest need of the human soul…to know God and to be known by him.  We can be so distracted by the drive for accumulating earthly bread, by the pursuit of material comfort, even by the lack of bread that others have and the injustice of that, that we forget that even after this need is met and all social injustice is eliminated (and may God hasten that day), there will still be a deep hunger for spiritual bread, for purpose and for life that only God can provide.  Thus we need both…to be fed with earthly bread and to receive the spiritual food of communion with God.

(ii) The seduction of power.  “To you I will give [the world’s kingdoms] and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (6-7). The devil now takes Jesus to a high mountain, as Matthew’s gospel makes clear, where he can show Jesus the kingdoms of this world in panorama.  Remember that Jesus came, in a sense, from the mountain of God, that he descended from heaven to earth, emptying himself of glory and taking on our human frailties.  This was Jesus’ temptation: to advance his mission from that high and lofty position…to rule over the nations as Son of God by the force of his will.  Surely he had the right as Son of God to have such power? 

Jesus must have known the seductive nature of earthly power and social status.  He lived in Roman occupied Palestine, and came from a relatively poor family.  As he began his public ministry some asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6: 3).  How tempting it must have been to use his newfound popularity and social status to be another Alexander, Caesar, or Hitler; to manipulate and force his will upon others; to bow to the god of this world as Satan asked him to do.  Instead, he answers again from Scripture, “It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him' " (Deut. 6: 13). 

Many if not most of us long to be powerful and successful in the eyes of others…and to have all the outward signs of that success.  But there are pitfalls.  If we have been relatively unsuccessful we may become bitter and resentful of others, and plagued with jealousy.  We may keep desperately trying to win the approval of others and despair if we don’t get it, seeing our value only in what we can achieve in the way of wealth, popularity, or personal comfort. On the other hand, if we do have a relative measure of success …we may attribute it to our own hard work when we know that success is often as much about our circumstances (where we were born, the job market, the economy) as anything else.  The world is not “fair” in this way…yet we may still look down at those who don’t have our success, instead of feeling gratitude or responsibility.  For Jesus teaches us that the value of a person is not based on social status but upon one’s value in God’s eyes.  

Indeed, Jesus chose to ignore the barriers created by social status and the kingdoms of this world.  He made those at the bottom rung of society like fishermen or tax collectors his disciples, yet he also welcomed people of high social position like Centurions and Pharisees who came to him looking for God.  And in humbling himself in this way he showed that God’s power is revealed in weakness…in humility, justice, mercy, and forgiveness. 

(iii) The seduction of security.  Jesus is now taken by the devil to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (v. 9) where there was a sheer drop of 450 feet down to the Kidron Valley below.  Notice that in the first two temptations, Jesus defends himself with the word of God, but now it is Satan who uses Scripture (Psalm 91) to tempt him: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you” and “on their hands he will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”  Surely it is your right as the Son of God to claim God’s protection from all dangers.  The Bible says so…so jump, and prove to the world that you are!

Obviously it is not enough, when we need guidance, to know some Scripture and be able to quote it.  Satan knew the Bible too and was able to quote it!  The Bible does teach in passages like Psalm 91 that God is our shield in times of trial, but we cannot turn this into a condition of our trust, as if to say: “Unless you protect me from all harm, I will not trust you," or “Hardships can never be good for me.”  Therefore, Jesus replies, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "  (Deut. 6: 16). “Consider it all joy my brothers and sisters when you encounter various trials,” says James, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance….” (James 1: 2-4).  In other words, Jesus refused to put conditions on his obedience; as if to say, "I will trust you Father only if you prove your love for me by rescuing me from all harm and protecting me from all pain." 

Someone came up to me after the terrible events of Newtown and said, “God must surely be powerless if he allowed such evil to happen to innocent children.”  I shared his pain and anguish in the face of such evil.  Together we wrestled with the fact that Christ entered a world where there is the possibility of both goodness and evil; that God could have created a world without the possibility of sin or pain…but God chose instead to create a universe where there is freedom, where pain is possible, but also love, courage, forgiveness, sacrifice. Jesus entered that world as a fully human being, not as a superman whose foot never touched the earth or stubbed his toe…but as the incarnate Son of God who was tempted, who experienced hunger, and who suffered evil as we do.  Certainly he could have lived a life free of all this, but how then could his life have been a path for us to follow?  Heb. 2:18 puts it this way: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Now after Jesus responds to this third temptation, we read that “[Satan] departed from him until an opportune time” (13). Luke is referring to that moment when Jesus could have called upon a legion of angels to protect him, but instead willingly suffered the consequences of our sin on the cross (Matt. 26: 51-53).  Why?  So that he might show us the victory of God over sin, death, and all the powers of hell.  We have learned much from Jesus’ response to these three temptations, but as we think about our own personal trials and temptations, there are two things which Jesus gives to us in this passage that we might share in his victory:

There is the promise of his Spirit  (Luke 12:11-12; Acts 1:8).  Christ gives us the very same Spirit who indwelled him in his earthly ministry.  Jesus, the Man of the Spirit, baptizes us with his Holy Spirit as well.  Regardless of our past, or what we are facing today or in the future…we do not face it alone. The Holy Spirit will be with us always.  

There is the pattern of his life. As Christians, we take Jesus’ death very seriously as we consider his sacrifice for us, but we do not always take his life very seriously…that is, the pattern of life he gave us.  How can we live as Spirit-filled men and women?  Jesus shows us how to train that we might finish the race well. First, we go into the wilderness.  The reason Jesus went into the wilderness to face these temptations is because it was in the place of solitude and silence that he could pray and fast and meditate upon the truth of God’s word.  Then, we return to Galilee.  Jesus did not stay in the wilderness…we read in v. 15 that Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee” where he began to teach and minister to the hurts of people.  He gave us a pattern to follow…time alone with the Father and his word…and time with his people in loving service.  This is the inhale and exhale of the Christian life, the true alternative to the pursuit of material comfort, power, or security.

We began by talking about the power of temptation and the temptation to seek power.  I found an annual list which names “the one hundred most powerless people in the world.”  It includes men like Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, in 2011 the 4th largest company in the world (based on revenues). After a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the BP board of directors eventually fired Hayward.  Jim Keyes, the former CEO of Blockbuster, once one of the nation's largest retailers.  Mike Jones, the current CEO of the former #1 social network—MySpace, which once had 70 million users.  Arnold Schwarzenegger, the once powerful actor and politician in California, who is attempting to make an acting comeback after driving his state's finances into the ground.  Hosni Mubarak, the former President of Egypt who left the country in disgrace.  To that list we could certainly add Lance Armstrong.  

Perhaps you feel like you could be on this list…because of mistakes you have made, or hardships you have experienced.  What’s stunning is that here, in the wilderness, Jesus firmly chose to take the path of powerlessness and humility, forsaking earthly comfort, power, and security … even to the point of giving his life for us on the cross.  In Him we discover that we too are beloved by the Father and that our identity comes not from the elusive goals of earthly comfort, power, or security but in the sure knowledge that we are beloved sons and daughters of God, the only true source of comfort, power or security in this life.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that because your Son was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Heb. 2:18). We therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, confident that we will receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. Wash away our many sins, and grant us strength to fast from everything we know is wrong. Fill us with the same Holy Spirit who brought Your Son strength in the wilderness. Feed us daily from Your word; and help us to prayerfully rely upon You instead of material comfort, earthly power, or false security. Now may the Fruits of the Spirit be evident in us: a reminder that Your grace is at work as we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Amen.

For further reading:
Spiritual Theology, by Diogenes Allen
Temptations by Diogenes Allen
The Brothers Karamosov, "The Grand Inquisitor" by Fyodr Dostoevsky
The Spirit of the Disciplines, "Salvation is a Life," by Dallas Willard

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The King's Arrival (Luke 3: 1-38)

"Jesus called the other day to say he was passing through and wondered if he could spend a day or two with us," writes Doug Mendenhall.  "I said, 'Sure. Love to see you. When will you hit town?' I mean, it's Jesus, you know, and it's not every day you get the chance to visit with him….That's when Jesus told me he was actually at a convenience store out by the interstate. I must have gotten that Bambi-in-headlights look, because my wife hissed, 'What is it? What's wrong? Who is that?' So I covered the receiver and told her Jesus was going to arrive in eight minutes, and she ran out of the room and started giving guidance to the kids—in that effective way that Marine drill instructors give guidance to recruits.…

My mind was already racing with what needed to be done in the next eight—no seven—minutes so Jesus wouldn't think we were reprobate loser slobs. I turned off the TV in the den, which was blaring some weird scary movie I'd been half watching. But I could still hear screams from our bedroom, so I turned off the reality show it was tuned to. Plus, I turned off the kids' set out on the sun porch, because I didn't want to have to explain why they were watching that show to Jesus, either, six minutes from now. My wife had already thinned out the magazines that had been accumulating on the coffee table. She put Christianity Today on top for a good first impression. Five minutes to go.

I looked out the front window, but the yard actually looked great thanks to my long, hard work, so I let it go. What could I improve in four minutes anyway? I did notice the mail had come, so I ran out to grab it. Mostly it was Netflix envelopes and a bunch of catalogs tied into recent purchases, so I stuffed it back in the box. Jesus doesn't need to get the wrong idea—three minutes from now—about how much on-line shopping we do. I ran back in and picked up a bunch of shoes left by the door. Tried to stuff them in the front closet, but it was overflowing with heavy coats….We live in the South; why'd we buy so many coats? I squeezed the shoes in with two minutes to go. I plumped up sofa pillows, my wife tossed dishes into the sink, I scolded the kids, and she shooed the dog. With one minute left I realized something important: Getting ready for a visit from Jesus is not an eight-minute job. Then the doorbell rang.  [Doug Mendenhall, "Getting Prepared for the Arrival of Jesus," (9-24-09)]

I want to be ready for the King’s arrival.   In Luke 3: 1-38 we learn how the world was being prepared for Jesus's arrival, how God’s people were being prepared, and how the King himself prepared...and it took more than eight minutes.

(i) The world situation: How the world was being prepared for the King’s arrival (1-2, 18).  Luke names no less than six powerful rulers in and around the time of Christ’s public ministry in Roman Palestine.   The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was one obvious way to date the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; but one day it would be Jesus’ birth and approximate age, and not the reigns of emperors that would recalibrate the calendars of the world.  It was well known that Tiberius' predecessor, Augustus Caesar, announced to the world that his reign was “good news,” that his power was that of  “a savior” and his birthday was that of a god; yet Luke seeks to remind us that although power and authority seemed to eminate from Rome and from there hope and salvation, the true Savior and King was just emerging in the politically insignificant land of Judea.

It was not Judea that was serving the interests of Rome as an occupied territory, but it was Rome that was serving the interests of God as it unknowingly prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry and the spreading of his message.  Never before, in the history of humankind had so much of the world been unified under one basically just gov’t.  The Romans called it the Pax Romana, and it enabled citizens to travel freely and safely throughout the known world. Never before had there been such a network of roads that facilitated safe and rapid communication & the spread of the gospel: the first worldwide network. Never before had the Jewish belief in one God had such world-wide influence…having gradually spread throughout the Empire after the exile and dispersion of the Jewish people five hundred years earlier (721, 597BC). Never before had there been a universal language like Greek that was understood across the Empire, much like Latin, or English functions today.  

But all of this historical background is prologue to the main clause, that “the word of God came to John….”  As we have said, the real news was being made by God and his word…coming first through John and embodied in Christ. These self-proclaimed gods and authoritarian rulers were preparing the world for the words and works of the true King who came to rule not by force but through the power of his sacrificial love.  God’s greatest work often begins in small, unexpected ways.  I can’t help but point out that on the same day we are inaugurating our president to a second term…it is Dr. King, an ordinary pastor speaking and working against racial injustice, who has a legacy that will far outlast any chief executive's term of office.  It’s a reminder of the power of Christ and his kingdom… which though seemingly weak and insignificant…continues to redeem hearts and reshape peoples and nations across the millennia.

(ii) The prophet’s challenge: How God’s people were being prepared for the King’s arrival (3-20) John came preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Luke reminds us of Isaiah 40:1ff“A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord….every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low….”  It was the practice of eastern monarchs whenever they began an expedition, especially through barren or inhospitable country, to send couriers or a company of soldiers ahead of them to make bridges, or find fording places over streams; to level hills, or clear forests so that his armies might pass through.  John was calling his people to prepare for the King, but how?  

He called them to turn from religious hypocrisy: "Don’t claim Abraham as your father, hiding behind your ethnic and religious pedigree…God can make children of Abraham from stones."  He called them to a baptism of repentance and to a symbolic washing away of their sin in preparation for the King’s arrival. Understand that Gentiles who wanted to become members of Israel were told to be baptized but that Jews were not ordinarily baptized.  So why was John calling Jews to be baptized?  John was saying that Jews as well as Gentiles were equally in need of repentance and God’s mercy and forgiveness! He was reminding them that their ethnic background and family history as Jews did not automatically make them acceptable to God.  Just as we would say that church attendance or the faith of our parents or grandparents’ does not automatically make us true followers of Christ.  John challenges each of us to personally turn toward God in humble surrender. 

He called them to turn from social injustice:  The spiritual life does not end with good feelings and nice experiences with God…it manifests itself in a new way of relating to others, a new compassion for those in need, a new sense of responsibility to make right those things that have gone terribly wrong.  In particular, we must use the power of wealth to help those in desperate need: “Whoever has two coats or extra food must share with anyone who has none.” Indeed, "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love in word or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3: 17-18).

He called them to turn from dishonest or unethical work.  Tax collectors who were notorious for extorting money from the people, were challenged to collect no more than the amount prescribed; and soldiers who used their power to “shake down” the defenseless and take their money with threats were told to be satisfied with their wages.  Notice that John, and later Jesus, did not call people to leave their jobs… but to do them in a way that pleased God.  If you were a tax-collector, be a good tax collector.  If you were a soldier, be a good soldier.  Serve God where you have been placed by him…influence the world for God right where you are.   

All this which John proclaimed Luke calls “the good news” (18).   In a world of so much bad news, our world is hungry for good news, and we have good news to share.  There have been some good news stories over the past year…(1) 2 billion more people have safe drinking water as of 2012.  (2) There were three major cancer breakthroughs, and one was discovered by a 12 year old. (3) Burma elected a Nobel Peace Prize winner as their first democratic leader after spending much of the last 20 years under arrest.  (4) A special needs student was elected Prom King in San Diego, and (5) India had its first polio-free year.  We love good news because there are so many things in this world that are not good…that are downright bad, and we know that because we see the bad within ourselves.  As Christians we trust in a God who wants to share the best news of all with us…that we can be healed of our badness; that we can be carriers of the good news of Christ's love and saving grace to the world.  We’ve been looking at how the world, and God’s people were being prepared for the King’s arrival… but now Luke explains how the King himself prepared for his arrival.  He took a bath in the Jordan River…

(iii) The King’s baptism: How the King prepared for his arrival (21-23).  In the midst of this massive movement toward God…one comes to join John at the Jordan: Jesus of Nazareth.   Why did Jesus come for baptism if he was the Messiah and without sin?  Why did he take a bath if he was not dirty?  Jesus came for baptism in order to identify with this movement toward God.  He came in humility, not as one above the fray or frailties of human beings, but as one of us.  He came not to flaunt his glory, but to empty himself of it.   

I’m reminded again of the prophetic words of Isaiah who spoke of the coming of the Suffering Servant who would “bear our infirmities and carry our diseases”, who would be “numbered with the transgressors” though “he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth” (read Isaiah 53).  Jesus, from the very first numbered himself among the transgressors, he ate with tax gatherers and sinners, he identified with us because he loves us and came to help us.

Yet as he was baptized, something extraordinary happened that reminds us that Jesus, while he came for baptism like everyone else, was not just like everyone else.  For the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus is declared to be the true Son, who from the beginning is in a true relationship with God. 

Here we see the awesome circle of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For as the Son comes for baptism, the Father speaks, and the Spirit rests upon him.   You and I were created to share in the loving  fellowship of the three-personal God. When we receive the King’s baptism, and filled with God’s Spirit, we are united in Christ with that circle of God’s eternal love.  For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).  I had the opportunity to lead someone to Christ this week who was facing a crisis. As I read from the Bible to him he asked me to read more.  He was hungry for God’s truth.  At one point I read from Romans 8 and he asked me, “Why did I not understand that before, and now I do understand it?”  He said it with a genuine sense of awe and curiosity.  I assured him, it is the Holy Spirit helping you to hear the truth of God’s love for you.  As I was driving to see him…I was feeling a spiritual battle taking place within my own soul: “You won’t be able to help.  You’re too late.”  But while I was with him he said, “I want you to know that you are helping me, that what you are doing right now is helping me to face this.  Thank you for taking this time with me.”   I came to minister to him, but through him Christ was also ministering to me!  

Who are the people in your life who have spent eight minutes or eight years loving you, challenging you, who have pointed the way, who have led you to Christ, who have encouraged you or said the difficult things that helped you walk more faithfully as Jesus’ disciple? May God use you to do the same for someone else this week…to take at least eight minutes to help prepare the way for the King’s arrival in someone’s heart and soul.

King Jesus, we want to be prepared for your arrival today. Thank you for the prophetic word that challenges us to turn from the things we know are wrong and to walk humbly with you “who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” We want to turn from religious arrogance, injustice, and personal apathy, seeking your forgiveness for all our many sins. We confess that we need to be cleansed, not by water or pious words alone, but by the baptism of your Holy Spirit. Clear the highway to our hearts, and enter in with your grace and truth, that we might boldly and faithfully follow you in this new season.  Amen!  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dear Theophilus (Luke 1: 1-4)

Many consider the Third Gospel to be the greatest Life of Christ ever written.  It’s certainly the longest book in the New Testament, and if you add to it the companion volume, The Book of Acts, it comprises one quarter of the New Testament. The authorship of the Third Gospel, with rare exception, has been attributed to Luke, the travel companion of Paul whom he calls in Col. 4: 14, “the beloved physician” and in Philem. 24, his “fellow worker.” He is one who could legitimately say that he had received information about Jesus “from those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (v. 1) since he spent two years with Paul and through him would have known some of Jesus’ earliest followers.

We learn from the prologue in Luke 1: 1-4, that the book is written to someone named “Theophilus” – which can either mean “Beloved by God” or “Friend of God.”  Either way, the author is inviting everyone of us, whether we call ourselves “Christians” or simply seekers, to meet the extraordinary individual named Jesus and therefore learn what it means to be a Theophilus, to know God, to love God, and to be the friend of God.

(i) What does the Third Gospel tell us about its author?  
To begin with, when we look at the style and vocabulary of Luke-Acts, we find that it is written in the more sophisticated classical Greek prose of an educated person, someone like a first century medical doctor.  He consistently translates common Hebrew words into Greek for his Gentile readers and labors to show how the life of Jesus took place in the context of Roman imperial history. It’s been said that the author wrote his Gospel for the coffee tables of the highest Roman officials.

Secondly, we deduce Luke’s authorship because the Gospel contains very specific medical terminology.  
In Luke 4:35, when Luke describes a man who was thrown down by an evil spirit, he uses the correct medical term for “convulsions.”  When Jesus is asked by a father to visit his sick son, Luke uses the customary word for a doctor’s visit.  When Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus’ words about wealth: “It is easier to pass through the eye of a needle, than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25) Matthew & Mark use the ordinary Greek word for a tailor’s needle; while Luke uses βελόνης (belonēs) the medical term for a surgeon’s needle.  The point is that whoever wrote the Third Gospel had a first century physician’s mindset.

Third, it is widely accepted that the Third Gospel and the Book of Acts are written by the same author, seeing as they are both addressed to Theophilus, and are written as companion volumes.  In the Book of Acts there are several “we” passages starting in Acts 16:11 which suggest that the writer was not just a reporter, but an eyewitness and traveler with Paul on some of his journeys.  Luke fits this description perfectly based on Col. 4:14 and other passages.

One final reason most scholars accept Luke’s authorship is that, aside from his journeys with Paul, Luke was not a well known name in the early church.  It is unlikely that the Gospel would have been attributed to him unless it was true.  So who fits the profile of a learned man, schooled in classical Greek, familiar with first century medical terminology & diagnosis; who was not an apostle or disciple of Jesus but who could have been an eyewitness to some of Paul’s missionary journeys and met those who walked with Jesus?  Among all known N.T. figures, Luke “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14) stands alone.   

As a physician, I think Luke may have had a professional (as well as spiritual) interest in Jesus’ ministry.  The word savior/healer is found more in Luke than in any other Gospel.  In fact, the Greek word σωτήρ (sōtēr) means both Savior….and Physician.  No doubt Luke had a keen interest in the One whom the angels said was born “in the City of David, a Savior (or Physician), who is Christ the Lord.”  My endocrinologist and I were talking one day in his office when he said, reflectively, “I think you and I are in the same line of work...we're both firemen.”  I think I know what he meant.  We’re both trying to help people, we're "first responders," and like a doctor I believe that I am in the healing business too…but only because of the Great Physician who came to heal...not just our bodies but our spirits too.   Through Luke’s gospel, I believe we will learn how to join the Great Physician in his healing work.

(ii) What is unique about Luke’s presentation of the gospel?
Luke presents his gospel with an historian’s care and a detective’s curiosity. For “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,”  Luke was concerned about accuracy (1:3c) which is the thrust of the word ἀκριβῶς (akribos) here translated “orderly.” It was based upon eyewitnesses, and his own experience of traveling with the Apostle Paul for two years; with the goal of presenting the truth (λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειανlogōn tēn asphaleian).   Interestingly, asphaleian is the word from which we derive "asphalt."  It originallly meant "certainty" or "truth."  Luke wanted Theophilus to know that this account of Jesus' life would be asphaleian, a solid word he could put all his weight on, a word he could trust. Sir William Ramsay was skeptical of Luke’s historical reliability, and set out to disprove it, but after careful scrutiny said: You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s, and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.  “(There are) reasons for placing [Luke] among the historians of the first rank.” [St. Paul the Traveller & the Roman Citizen, Hodder & Stoughton, 1925]

Luke says that he wanted to make his own personal investigation of the events in question (1:3a).  He wasn’t content to read other accounts of Jesus’ life, he wanted to write his own.  He wanted to talk to the eyewitnesses himself.  There are many who don’t take Jesus seriously, not because they know anything personally about him, but because of what someone else has told them. Luke challenges us to make a personal investigation of the facts before we make up our minds about Jesus.  He challenges me to get to know Christ for myself. 

Luke presents his gospel with a worshiper’s joy.  The phrase, “praising God” occurs more often than in all the rest of the N.T. put together.  We hear it in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, after the angel tells her that she will bear the Christ; in Luke 10:21 where Jesus “rejoices in the Holy Spirit” ; and in Luke 24:52-53 where Jesus’ disciples return to Jerusalem after their encounter with the Risen Christ “with great joy and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”  From beginning to end, Luke’s gospel is infused with praise. In addition to praise, we see Jesus at prayer at all the great moments of his life.  In fact our tour through Luke is divided up by the four occasions Jesus goes up to a mountain to pray. The first time, early in his ministry, he is led to a high mountain where he faces the temptation to use his power selfishly.  The second time,  he is praying about the disciples he will choose.  The third time he is transfigured before his disciples, showing them his glory.  The fourth is on the Mount of Olives where he is preparing to be our sin-bearer.  Praise & prayer are at the heart of Luke’s gospel.

Finally, Luke presents his gospel as a gospel for the whole world.  Luke seems to highlight Jesus’ regard for women at a time when women were at the bottom of the social rung.  The birth of Jesus is told from Mary’s perspective in Luke’s gospel, and it is Luke who gives us vivid pictures of the women Jesus called friends, like Martha, Mary, and Mary Magdalene.

Again and again, Luke shows that Jesus is the friend of outcasts and sinners.  He alone tells us of the woman of the street who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, of Zacchaeus the repentant tax gatherer, of the penitent thief who hung beside Jesus on the cross, of the prodigal son whom his loving father welcomed home. He shows Jesus’ compassion for the rich and the poor, and of his love not only for Jews but for Gentiles too.  He alone includes Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, a people of mixed race whom his own people despised; and Luke tells us the great word of Jesus that “Men and women will come from east and west and from north and south to sit at table in the kingdom of God.” It’s been said that a minister sees people at their best, a lawyer sees people at their worst, and that a doctor sees people undressed! Dr. Luke saw people as they are, and he loved them all just as he knew Jesus loved them and came to heal them.

(iii) But why should you read Luke’s gospel? Luke tells us why: “…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

You and I should read Luke’s gospel because it’s not only a gospel for the world, it’s a gospel for the one! Luke wrote his gospel for the world, but he dedicated it to a single person, to Theophilus, and in that fact we see Jesus’ concern that each of us individually should know the truth about him.

You and I should read Luke’s gospel because we want to make a difference!  Theophilus was a person of influence.  Luke honors Theophilus with the title, “most excellent” (kratiste), a title reserved for a high ranking Roman official.  What this tells us is that there were powerful men in the empire already being drawn to Jesus.  It reminds me that Luke knew people of influence who had yet to discover how to use it well, who had power but no purpose, whose lives were full but still felt unfulfilled.  We can make a difference for Christ, we can live our lives with excellence, we can be like Theophilus, a true friend of God, but we need a Teacher. 

And so, you and I should read Luke’s gospel because we want to learn! Theophilus, you’ll remember, was being “instructed” in the School of Christ.  We place great value on preparing for college, or applying ourselves in class…but I’m afraid even many “Christians” consider spiritual preparation in the school of Christ a very low priority.  Richard Baxter once said, “Nothing can be rightly known if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, nor to any great purpose if God is not studied.” (The Reformed Pastor, 1656) I want to challenge you to become a devoted student of Jesus, to entrust yourself to the Master's instruction, to learn from him in a close-knit community of his followers (Matt. 11: 28-30), and to practice the life-giving lessons that He teaches.  

May we hunger like Dr. Luke and Dear Theophilus for more of the truth of Jesus, more of the Spirit of Jesus, more of Jesus’ compassion for hurting people, more of his grace to turn from sin and receive his mercy, more of his wisdom in the face of evil; more of Jesus’ power to do works of love and to share his life with others, and in our study of Luke’s gospel may we gain a deep confidence in the future that is ours because of him…the Savior of the world, and our Great Physician.  Join me in this prayer that has been adapted from the 1662 English Prayer Book:

Almighty God, you called Luke the physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an evangelist, and physician of the soul: by your grace and through the wholesome medicines of his gospel, may all the diseases of our souls be healed; through Jesus Christ our Great Physician who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

For further reading:
William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke
Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX
Michael Wilcox, The Message of Luke