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

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