Can we trust the Gospel accounts to give us an accurate understanding of who Jesus is? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul begins his series in the book of Luke by examining its author, the man considered by some to be one of the greatest historians of the ancient world.
I have decided to move in the direction of preaching, by way of exposition, through the Gospel According to Saint Luke. It is the only of the four that I have not preached upon since Saint Andrew’s began, and this is an occasion where I have already preached on Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, which is the sequel to his gospel. This morning we will begin our study of the prequel to the book of Acts, namely, the gospel of Luke itself, the longest and most extensive of all the Gospels. This morning we will begin with Chapter 1, and I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled 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 had the complete understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.
These words come to us from Luke, the gospel writer, who wrote not alone or in his own power, but as he was moved and superintended by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost so that the words that you have just heard are indeed the very Word of God. Let us pray.
Father, as we once again embark upon the study of this precious gospel that gives to us a narration of the person and the work, the words, the sayings, and the teachings of our dear Lord, we pray that you would fill our minds and our hearts with the knowledge of and the love for Jesus, the central topic of this book. For we ask it in His Name. Amen.
Luke, the Medical Missionary
Before I begin an exposition of the text of the gospel of Luke, I want to say a few words about Luke himself. Ironically, in my own life, before I ever read Luke’s gospel, or indeed anything of the Bible, before I was even a Christian, I became acquainted with this man named Luke. It was due to my lack of performance in the elementary study of the Latin language when I was in high school, a study that I abhorred from the very first lesson. Our gracious Latin teacher gave us the ability to get five bonus points per six weeks’ testing if we would read certain novels that she kept in her library in the Latin room; novels that went over the history of biblical times, such as The Silver Chalice or The Robe.
I read a book called The Road to Bithynia, written by Frank Slaughter, which traced the life of the beloved physician Luke that the Apostle Paul identifies in his letter to the Colossians. Of course, this was a novel with the free use that the author had for fiction, but nevertheless, he incorporated everything that he could learn about this historical character from biblical sources and the historians of the second and third centuries. It was a moving work.
We find Luke mentioned in several places in the New Testament, not the least of which is in his own book of Acts, where Luke served as a companion with the Apostle Paul in Paul’s missionary journeys. We see that this man was not only a doctor but a medical missionary who was a close companion and friend of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul of Tarsus. Luke was born and raised in Antioch, of Gentile descent, and died in his eighties in a peaceful way, unlike most of the other writers of the biblical narratives and epistles.
Paul’s Beloved Companion
Before I look at this text, I want to direct your attention to the final words given to us by the Apostle Paul in the second letter that he wrote to his disciple, Timothy. Recently, we were in Rome with the Ligonier tour of the Cradle of Christianity. While in Rome, we videotaped several of the famous sites, including the Colosseum and the Church of Lateran with the sacred steps. We also made a special visit to the Mamertine Prison where the Apostle Paul endured his second Roman imprisonment and final imprisonment before his execution under that emperor whose nickname in the Roman Empire was “the beast”—Nero himself.
The holding cell the Apostle was kept in prior to his execution under Nero was situated across the street from the Roman forum. This was not a large prison, as we imagine prisons to be. It was simply a large cistern that had been cut out of the rock and had originally been used to keep a supply of water for the Romans. But, as history would have it, it was emptied of water and turned into a cell for those who were on death row and about to be executed.
It was a moving experience to go down the stairs into that cistern—that dank, dark, cold, wet place where the great Apostle was held and presumably wrote his final letter to Timothy, whom he had left behind in Ephesus. In that epistle, Paul writes these words that I’d like to call to your attention this morning:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments. (2 Tim. 4:6–13)
He continues in verse 17: “The Lord has stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!”
Paul then gives final greetings to his friends before making his last admonition to Timothy: “Do your utmost to come before winter.” Paul tells him, “Come before winter, bring the parchments, bring my coat, and bring Mark, because I am alone except for the Lord and for the beloved physician, Luke.”
That last statement of the Apostle Paul speaks volumes to me about this companion of his who went with him on his missionary journeys and stood next to Paul in all the trials and tribulations that are recorded in the book of Acts. Most significantly, he stood side-by-side with Paul in that dreadful, dank prison cell. All the rest had fled and departed.
So Luke, we know, was a physician. Luke, we know, was a missionary. But Luke has also emerged as one of the most important, if not the most important, historian of the ancient world.
The Great Historian Checks the Sources
If we look back now at how Luke begins his gospel, he acknowledges at the outset that others had taken time to give a narrative account of the things they knew of the person and work of Jesus. We have the inspired writings of Matthew, Mark, and John that have survived to this day. Presumably, besides those gospel writers, there were others in the first century who tried their hand at writing a summary of the history of Jesus.
Luke acknowledges at the beginning that he is aware others have gone before him in this venture of providing a history. So, he says in verse 1, “Many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”—that’s a descriptive phrase for the Apostles, those who had been disciples, like Matthew and John. Mark, of course, was not one of the Twelve, but he was considered to be the amanuensis, or secretary, for the Apostle Peter. But Luke was not a disciple. He had been converted by the Apostles and came under the tutelage of the great Apostle Paul.
Much of what Luke knew, he gained from his association with Paul as well as the others who were among the first disciples. These are those who, from the beginning, were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. Luke is saying, “I am not an eyewitness, but I am a historian, and as a historian, I check the sources.”
Luke gives us more information about the birth of Jesus than anybody else, and it’s with almost total certainty that we know that Luke had the privilege of interviewing Mary, the mother of Christ, and that all the infancy information about Elizabeth, the visitation of the Magi, and the rest came from those who were the eyewitnesses of the birth of our Lord.
Luke continues, “After we have received these from the eyewitnesses, it seemed good to me also, having had a complete understanding of all the things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus.”
There is a lot of conjecture about the one who is addressed here in the book of Acts: Theophilus. It’s said that he has “the awfulest” name in all the Bible. Of course, the name Theophilus, if you analyze its meaning, means friend or lover of God. So, some people think the person mentioned here represents, in a certain way, the Christian everyman. I, however, don’t think so.
I think Luke is addressing this volume, as was commonplace in the ancient world for scholars, to some person of noble position. He is devoting or dedicating this to a man by the name of Theophilus because he calls him “most excellent Theophilus,” a title not given to symbolic characters but rather to real historical persons.
The Most Accurate Historian of the Ancient World
Luke goes on to say the reason that he’s writing: “That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” That was his burden, that was his passion: I am writing these things down that you can be sure of the things you have heard, the things that have been preached to you, the things that have been declared to you by the eyewitnesses. I am writing an orderly, historical, carefully documented account to strengthen your faith and give you certitude, that you might have the full assurance of the truth of the gospel that you have heard. That was his task as a historian.
The ancient world had many notable historians, whether Roman, Greek, or Jewish. You have the historians Thucydides, Xenophon, Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, and the Jewish historian Josephus, all of whose works are still read. I have a collection in my house of all the works of the great Greek historians—and there were many. They were excellent in the work they did. But no historian of the ancient world has been subjected to as much academic and archaeological scrutiny as Luke, the writer of this gospel.
Historians have sometimes been skeptical about the biblical writers, and in the early part of the twentieth century, a British atheist historian set out to debunk the truth claims of the Gospels. He decided to follow the alleged footsteps of the Apostle Paul throughout his missionary journeys, going to all of those places that the archeologists have examined.
This fellow, by the name of Ramsey, was converted to Christianity along the way because he discovered that every time a spade of dirt was turned over in those days, some historical aspect of the Gospels was being verified and authenticated. Ramsey and other secular historians have said that Luke, apart from inspiration, apart from the divine assistance that he enjoyed, was the most accurate historian of the entire ancient world.
It Was What It Was
Language changes as time passes and as cultures go through upheavals and changes. Of course, going through the decade of the sixties, there was so much attention given to the discovery of hallucinogenic drugs.
Timothy Leary was the great high priest of LSD while he was teaching at Harvard University and encouraged his students to drop out and turn on. He also said that you could not trust anyone over thirty years of age. There was much discussion about the credibility gap between generations of that time. This skepticism and cynicism about truth telling was emphasized by the colorful sports commentator, Howard Cosell, who said that we should always do what? “Tell it like it is.”
So, we have this emphasis of telling something the way it actually is, except we had a president who raised questions about what the meaning of “is” is. Nevertheless, we have this currency now in our language—I hear it all the time, to my endless annoyance—“It is what it is.”
One thing I do every week is record the press conferences of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach, Mike Tomlin, where he answers questions from the media about the status of his football team. When critical issues come up about weaknesses displayed by his team, he will shrug his shoulders and say, “It is what it is.”
What can be more redundant than saying, “It is what it is”? Of course it is what it is. It can’t be what it is and not be what it is. Even Hamlet understood that: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” You can’t have it both ways. Why am I talking about that silliness? Because not only is it true that it is what it is, but even more important for us is that it was what it was.
Luke’s task, under God, was to set forth for us and for our certainty how it really was; what really took place in space and time in real history. The New Testament is committed to the historical foundation of the truth of our faith.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.