Theme: Strange Events in Judah
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou wast instructed (vv. 1-4).
Writing of Luke's prologue, F. L. Godet has well said, "Not only is it written in the most classical Greek, but it reminds us by its contents of the similar preambles of the most illustrious Greek historians, especially those of Herodotus and Thucydides. The more thoroughly we examine it, the more we find of that delicacy of sentiment and refinement of mind which constitute the predominant traits of the Hellenic character... The author does not put himself in the rank of the Christian authorities; he places himself modestly among men of the second order. He feels it necessary to excuse the boldness of his enterprise, by referring to the numerous analogous attempts that have preceded his own. He does not permit himself to undertake the work of writing a Gospel history until he has furnished himself with all the aids fitted to enable him to attain the lofty aim he sets before him. There is a striking contrast between his frank and modest attitude and that of a forger. It excludes even the ambitious part of a secretary of the apostle Paul, which tradition has not been slow to claim for the author of our Gospel." This style of introduction is unique in that its equivalent is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. Many readers hastily scan these opening verses apparently wishing to reach the more descriptive parts of Luke's story, but this is a mistake. Consideration of this prologue reveals much treasure, and promotes questions the answers to which must be intriguing. Here we have a masterly portrait of an author; here we see as nowhere else the greatness of the man through whom God gave the third Gospel. (See the homily at the end of this section.)
The New English Bible has rendered the passage thus: "Many writers have undertaken to draw up an account of the events that have happened among us, following the traditions handed down by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel. And so I in my turn, your Excellency, as one who has gone over the whole course of these events in detail, have decided to write a connected narrative for you, so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed." The many writers mentioned in the text suggest numerous people had commenced to write the things they knew of Jesus. It is generally conceded that both Matthew and Mark published their Gospels at an earlier date than Luke, but two men would hardly justify the use of the term "many writers." During the years which immediately followed the establishment of the church, the facts of the Gospel were handed down orally by those competent to speak. Yet it was obvious that sooner or later the need for written records would become urgent. A story often retold is apt to change; speakers are prone to interpret a message differently; and the original is thereby expanded. The eyewitnesses could not be expected to live for ever; what then would happen when they were promoted to higher service? Furthermore, even whilst they remained on earth, they could hardly be in several places at the same moment. The need increased therefore for an authentic record which could be faithfully copied and sent to the churches. It is the consensus of scholastic opinion that Mark's Gospel was speedily followed by Matthew's Gospel, but that there were other writings there can be no doubt. The first written accounts of the Lord's ministry were surely hailed with delight, and those responsible for the manuscripts suddenly found themselves covered with a glory they neither expected nor desired. There were other writers who probably for one reason or another coveted the same publicity, and at frequent intervals theft manuscripts appeared. Some of these were forgeries; others may have been the work of sincere men whose enthusiasm exceeded their ability. It is not difficult to appreciate why Luke thought it necessary to write what he considered to be an authentic record. Furthermore, and in spite of the fact that he does not include all the miracles and speeches of the Lord, this account is the most complete of all the historical records. Matthew began his account with a genealogy of the Messiah and followed this with a few facts concerning the coming of the wise men to visit the new-born king. Mark was content to begin with the appearance of John the Baptist. Luke considered these records to be inadequate; he was in possession of details, which were not only entrancingly beautiful, they were essential to a complete chronological order of the events which God had made possible in the hill country of Judah.
It should be noted that Luke did not attempt to write his Gospel until he had become conversant with all the facts relevant to the story he had to tell. There can be no doubt that he went out of his way to obtain exclusive interviews with any person who could help; that he spent much time eliciting information from the original eyewitnesses of the miracles. With unending patience and meticulous care he sifted the stories and wrote those which, in his opinion, were necessary to a complete and accurate account of the ministry of the Master. His reference to a "perfect understanding from the very first" suggests a standard by which all material was either accepted or rejected.
There has been much discussion in regard to the identity of Theophilus. It is generally agreed that he was a person of exalted rank, and probably one of considerable wealth and influence. See the homily at the end of this section. Possibly he was a governor of some Roman province, a man who later became a Christian. After comparing the beginnings of the Gospel of Luke with the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles and noting that in the latter instance Luke does not address Theophilus as Excellency. Zahn and other commentators advanced the theory that after receiving some instruction in the Christian faith, the dignitary embraced Christianity. Thus when Luke addressed his second book, or, as some think, the second half of the one book, he addressed Theophilus as an equal. This may or may not be true; to say the least, the thought is worthy of consideration.
Another aspect of truth must be considered. It was common practice in the early centuries for an author to dedicate his work to some important personage in the hope the man would help to meet the cost of reproducing the manuscript. Thus, Theophilus, whoever he might have been, would more or less become responsible for the dissemination of Luke's message. The Amplified New Testament renders verse 4: "My purpose (in writing this message) is that you may know the full truth, and understand with certainty and security against error, the accounts (histories) and doctrines of the faith of which you have been informed and in which you have been orally instructed." It becomes clear that from some source this man had received tuition; that faith had been engendered by that which he had heard. Yet faith which rests only upon a man's testimony can hardly be as strong as necessity demands. Living faith must rest in the living word; either without the other is insufficient. Writing of this fact, Gerhard Kittel said, "The Jesus of History is valueless and unintelligible unless He be experienced and confessed by faith as the living Christ. But, if we would be true to the New Testament, we must at once reverse this judgment. The Christ of faith has no existence, is mere noise and smoke, apart from the reality of the Jesus of History. These two are utterly inseparable in the New Testament. They cannot even be thought of apart. There is no word about Christ which is not referred to Him who suffered under Pontius Pilate, and which is not at the same time intended as the Gospel applicable to all men of every time and in every place. Anyone who attempts first to separate the two, and then to describe only one of them has nothing in common with the New Testament." (The Interpreter's Bible, volume 8, page 29.) Hearing and acceptance of the spoken word may promote faith, but only acquaintance with the written word of Truth promotes the confidence necessary for the victorious continuance of the Christian. Luke rejoiced that his friend had heard the Gospel, but at the same time commended to his patron the record then coming into existence. We are therefore driven to the conclusion that what God has caused to be written is infinitely more important than anything any speaker may say about it.
Portrait of an Author
The prologue to Luke's Gospel is unique not only in that the author explains the purpose of his writing, but also for the simple fact that nowhere else in the New Testament is this procedure repeated. In addition, although probably this was very far from the writer's mind, unwittingly he gave to the world the best pen-portrait of himself. We know from other sources that he was a physician; a companion of Paul; a trusted colleague, and a much beloved Christian. The first four verses of this Gospel contains small word-windows through which it is possible to see the author.
Mention has already been made in the expository notes that the introduction to the Gospel was written in the best classical Greek. Every commentator testifies that the man who penned those immortal words was a man of education, breeding, and unusual talent. That the majority of the early church leaders were men of lesser brilliance became obvious when their enemies described them as unlearned and ignorant men. With the advent of Paul came the startling revelation that even men of learning could be attracted to the new faith. When Luke appeared on the scene this startling revelation became even more noticeable. The Gospel was not something reserved exclusively for the untutored and ignorant; it was for all men; none was too stupid to be loved; none too brilliant to be charmed.
Although his Gospel was destined to win the acclaim of a waiting world, never on any occasion did Luke add his own name to the record. He set out to make Christ the theme of his story and never for a single moment did he change his prearranged plans. He did not claim to be one of the original eyewitnesses, and never assumed greatness of any kind.
There is reason to believe that he had been able to peruse the manuscripts of Matthew and Mark; that whilst he appreciated their efforts, he nevertheless recognized they had omitted vital matters from their Gospels. Probably he was aware of the manuscripts forthcoming from other authors, and with keen perception foresaw the confusion which would result unless some authentic record could be placed in the hands of needy people. With the characteristics of a doctor, having recognized need, he proceeded to meet it.
It is very noteworthy that never once did he exhibit disapproval of what he had read in other manuscripts. Elsewhere in the New Testament, other authors vehemently denounced contemporary preachers. Luke never condemned nor criticized other writings and was content to explain, "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee... " His choice of words under these circumstances revealed a quality of soul hard to find even among those destined to lead the church in her earliest crusades.
It should not be forgotten that to produce this manuscript, Luke worked many hours. Probably he laboured when he might have been sleeping. His proximity to Paul would naturally mean work of varying kinds; his ministry in the churches would take much more of his time. If it were necessary to make journeys to interview people important to his story, even more of his time would be used. Yet in addition to all this, the untiring doctor patiently assembled his facts, placed them in order and produced his book. Other less busy souls would have been too tired to look for a pen!
This was revealed in two ways: (a) He gave great attention to detail. Aware of the fact that enemies of the faith might criticize his record, Luke made every effort to ascertain and thereafter reproduce only the truth. He "had gone over the whole course in detail" and "had acquired a perfect understanding from the very first." His record was therefore a safe foundation upon which his patron could rest his faith. (b) Doctors, even in those days, could be wealthy, but a physician who had forsaken all to follow Christ; a medical practitioner who had left his home to care for an itinerant preacher would hardly have the chance to accumulate wealth. How then would this manuscript be able to reach the people who needed its message? Somewhere along the journey, Dr. Luke had become acquainted with Theophilus, and with the eye of a seer perceived this man's dedication might furnish that which was necessary to meet the costs of copyists, scribes, and distributors. A stronger Theophilus would automatically mean a more useful Theophilus. Therefore Luke addressed his Gospel to this man of means, and by so doing revealed perception of the greatest degree.
Tradition says that God spared this author to reach the age of 84, and that then the beloved physician fell asleep. He succeeded in engraving his name upon the hearts of a vast host of fellow Christians, and even now after nineteen centuries, Luke remains one of the best loved of the Bible characters. He gave to the sacred records details unmentioned by other authors; he brought to the church a charm and grace second to none; he provided the pilgrims with an example of steadfastness hard to match. When others turned back, Luke continued to the glorious termination of his Christian pathway. Of him it could truly be said, "He hath done all things well." Such as he had, he gave, and whatsoever his hand found to do, he did it with all his might. It only remains for all to ask, What ought we to be doing for our Master?
Much discussion has taken place about this, the real beginning of Luke's Gospel, because in language and style of writing, the script is very much different from that used in the prologue. Mention has already been made of the fact that in the first four verses of this book, the author used the best classical Greek and this has been cited as evidence that Luke was a Gentile. Here, however, the entire setting, changes abruptly to that of a Jewish community. Godet has said, "The first words of the narrative brings us back from the midst of Greece, whither we were transported by the prologue, into a completely Jewish world. The very style changes its character. From the fifth verse it is so saturated with Aramaisms that the contrast with the four preceding verses resulting from it obliges us to admit, either that the author artificially modifies his language in order to adapt it to his subject, and so produces an imitation... or that he is dealing with ancient documents, the Aramaic colouring of which he endeavours to preserve as faithfully as possible." (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, F. L. Godet, page 69.) Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Throughout the Christian era other authors noticed this sudden and remarkable change and asserted the entire document was a fraud. Consequently a great deal of debate has been centered in this matter. It is not the purpose of this volume to cite again the lengthy arguments upon which other commentaries majored. Students in possession of any volume on Luke's Gospel can discover all the facts they wish to know. It is only necessary at this juncture to remember one or two details relevant to the subject.
It was the expressed intention of Luke to write the Gospel in its chronological order; to set down from the very first those things which had happened among the people. This explanation he provided in language essentially his own. Thereafter he recorded the facts of the beginning of the Gospel story. Why should he change what was given to him? Could there be any valid reason why he should change the speech, the mode of expression, the atmosphere of his surroundings when these things could be perfectly understood as they were? There are two possibilities in regard to the sources of his information. Probably Luke never had the privilege of interviewing Zacharias and Elizabeth for these saints were well advanced in years even before the birth of John the Baptist. Sixty or more years elapsed ere Luke joined the apostle Paul, and some years surely passed ere he began his search for facts to be included in his Gospel. Therefore he could not have conversed with the parents of the Wilderness Preacher. Whence then came the facts relating to the birth of John?
It must be remembered that Mary the mother of the Lord was a much younger woman; that she had spent months in the home of her cousin Elizabeth. These two godly women shared their secrets and in all probability repeated again and again their own intimate details of the immortal story. We do not know the date of Mary's death, but the Scriptures record that she was present at the Cross; was afterward taken into the home of John, and later was present in the Upper Room at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). At that time she might have been in her early fifties. It was completely possible then for her to have reached an age when Luke would have been able to spe�