“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.“
This is how Luke’s gospel begins.
Luke’s is the longest of the gospels, and with the book of Acts also attributed to him, means that he is responsible for the lion’s share of the New Testament.
Perhaps it’s a good thing then to consider the man and his work carefully. In fact, the word “carefully” is a characteristic term of the writer: it crops up twice in these first few verses of his Gospel and describes his general approach!
We know a few crucial facts about Luke from the New Testament: that he was a doctor (Col 4:14), that he was a “fellow-worker” with Paul (Philemon 24); that he was with Paul right to the very end (2 Tim 4:10f), and earned the description “Beloved” (Col 4:14). This was the man who sifted the evidence, researched past writings (such as the Gospel of Mark) and spoke to the participants of the Jesus-story. He undertook all this careful scholarship for one very important reason: it was because “I want you to have confidence.”
Confidence? Confidence in what?
It’s like crossing a stream, say, and you’re about to put your foot on a rock, but you want to be sure that the rock will take your weight, and not give way. People like Theophilus (to whom Luke and Acts are addressed) needed to know that the Gospel to which they had committed their lives was trustworthy. They were staking their lives –as we do too!- that the rock would not slip; that the story was true, and that Jesus was all he said he was. But to build that confidence, you have to investigate all the facts, carefully, from the very beginning….
You’re immediately aware that time has moved on somewhat, and that it’s time for something of a reassessment. Luke’s introduction suggests how this is going to work. First, there’s a review of the “Many [that] have undertaken…” to write about Jesus. Perhaps that term “many” refers to more than those we know of in the New Testament itself. It is likely that a whole host of wild stories had sprung up about the person and work of Jesus and that Luke wanted to put down an official version to make the truth plaun.
Second, Luke may well have in mind a new audience to which previous accounts do not quite connect. Think of the way Matthew’s gospel assumes a knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures (with the phrase “You have heard it said...”); – perhaps Luke was considering those who had not heard it said. And so where Matthew traces the family tree of Jesus back to Abraham to demonstrate his Jewish roots, Luke takes the tree baxk to Adam,to demonstrate that ultimately Jesus connects with all humans.
This is the Gospel, – perhaps he is saying- for the world outside the borders of Judaism.
But it’s not an Either/Or -as if you have to choose between a “Jewish Gospel” and a “Gentile Gospel.” They are inexticably linked, like a root is linked to a flower. Luke is drawing up an account of “the things that have been fulfilled among us.” That refers to the ancient Jewish prophecies which have been brought to fruition in Luke’s own day. And the accounts of that fulfilment have been “handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses.”
“With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning…” Luke presents himself as a sensible researcher, checking the facts, going over the evidence and seperating fact from fiction.
It reminds me of the way that Thomas insisted on first-hand evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He just wanted to see for himself. And -note this-Jesus didn’t deny him what he asked! So though Thomas has gone down in history as the Doubter, he was, at least, a man of integrity. And I for one am glad that his input is added to the Gospel record.
Similarly, Luke seems to me to display a scholarly integrity here which I find encouraging. You can’t fool people like Luke (and Thomas) because they have gone over the evidence carefully, not taking anyone else’s word for it, and found that it rings true.
But this isn’t a mere scholarly exercise – it is the Gospel of Christ. It is the “good news” about Jesus of Nazareth. It is vital that we consider things “carefully” and “in order” and “from the beginning” and that we consider the “many” who have written before and talk to “eye-witnesses” too. Why?
For one crucial reason: “So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” This is too important to fudge. Peter instructed early Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15) In order to do that, I need total certainty about the story of Jesus.
And once I get that certainty, my reaction becomes that of Thomas, who, seeing the risen Christ and believing for himself, can only respond “My Lord and my God.“
So the question is: Do you know for sure? Do you nurse sneaky doubts or harbour fears of uncertainty? Well, this Gospel is written”So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Maybe it’s time to put your foot down on that stepping stone to see whether or not it will take your weight.
I am confident that it will.