Look again at the verses which open Luke’s Gospel, paying careful attention to the way in which he frames his entire book:
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 eyewitnesses, 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 hast been instructed. (Luke 1:1–4)
This is, perhaps, the most revealing and, likewise, the most encouraging introduction to any piece of New Testament writing, let alone the entire Bible. Nestled within these four brief verses, we find not only Luke’s intended purpose in writing but also the underpinning which solidifies the faith of all who believe. As you may well know, it is incorrect to assume that the four canonical Gospels are the Holy-Spirit-inspired biographies of Jesus’s life. They are not. The Gospels are not biographies as much as they are theologies. Each are written with a distinct theological purpose and intent — namely, to demonstrate the veracity of Jesus’s fulfillment of all the Messianic promises contained in the Old Testament. Each Gospel, however, goes about this errand in distinctive ways, with each account functioning like the side of an immaculately cut diamond, where the more you turn it, the more light reflects off of it and the more brilliant it becomes. Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke is a composition with a particular premise and purpose in view. Contrary to the records of the other evangelists, Luke explicitly states his objective in the opening chapter: “That thou mightest know the certainty of those things” (Luke 1:4).1
Luke’s Gospel was written to bring a sense of clarity and certainty to the truth surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, the recently tried and crucified blasphemer who had caused so much commotion through the regions of Galilee. These twenty-four chapters serve to set the record straight, so to speak, inspiring confidence in otherwise tentative first century disciples. It is in that sense that Luke functions as an “apologetic Gospel,” composed of “those things” which might reinforce a believer’s “certainty” in the things “of the word.” In fact, both of Luke’s writings were composed with this intent. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are not only among the longest books in the New Testament, they are also specifically designed to enable whoever happens upon them to be fully convinced of the truth of the narratives that are recorded. You’ll notice that both Luke and Acts bear the dedication to a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). That he is called “most excellent Theophilus” has led many to surmise that he was a Greek aristocrat, with some even suggesting that he was Luke’s publisher. Truth be told, however, there isn’t much that is known about him, making this dedication all the more mysterious.
An inference within the text is that Theophilus was a recent convert to the Christian faith, or was, at the very least, moderately interested in the doctrines and stories which filled the apostles’ preaching (Luke 1:4). But notwithstanding Theophilus’s level of interest in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, his inclusion in this text stands to represent everyone who is privy to the “declaration of those things.” Anyone who sits under the preaching of the Word of God is, Lord willing, presented with the same things to which St. Luke alludes in this opening salvo. They are the things “of the word.” They are the things which ought to be “most surely believed among us.” They are none other than the things which serve as the bedrock of all our belief. To what “things,” then, is Luke referring?
A lesson about reliable things.
It is commonly believed that the author of the Gospel of Luke is the same companion who’s mentioned on several occasions by the apostle Paul (Col. 4:14; Philem. 1:24; 2 Tim. 4:9–11). Tradition says that Luke was a Greek doctor who lived in Antioch, which, notably, is where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).2 Others have theorized that Luke might have been among the seventy disciples commissioned by Christ in Luke 10. Whether or not those details are true is largely immaterial and beyond our ken to prove. In all likelihood, Luke was a well-educated physician and well-read scholar who had been evangelized and convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ and his salvation. He is the “we” of the book of Acts (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5—21:18; 27:1—28:16), which makes him the benefactor of some of the most resonant demonstrations of the extent of the gospel’s power and influence on the world. And, no doubt, he gleaned much from Paul throughout his journeys alongside him, which certainly influenced the way in which Luke sought to construct his narrative. This, I think, is manifest in Luke’s plain approach to the organization of his Gospel.
Luke makes it apparent that he has spent a considerable amount of time compiling testimonies from “eyewitnesses” and “ministers” who had accompanied Jesus during throughout his ministry. And, as a result, he had obtained a “perfect understanding of all things” pertaining to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection (Luke 1:2–3). By “perfect,” he means to indicate the manner in which he obtained this understanding — namely, through an exact and diligent undertaking to ascertain the truth. As he implies, there were already “many” other narratives of Jesus’s life and teaching in existence, the bulk of which, perhaps, were written with dubious motivations. It wasn’t long after Jesus’s ascension that false testimonies about what he said and did began circulating. These counterfeit accounts, though quickly identified oftentimes by the early church, were still considered soberly and seriously. The claims of these concocted gospels, however untrue, were dismantled not with hasty responses but with thoughtful declarations of the “things which are must surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1). But what makes Luke stand out among the other Gospels is that he discloses his reliance on outside sources.
The mere fact that Luke has sourced and scrutinized his information in preparation for the composition of this Gospel ought not make us question his authority. Luke’s admission that he has meticulously researched any and all information he could get his hands on does not invalidate “verbal plenary inspiration.” The Spirit of God isn’t relegated to only one form of inspiration, that being some sort of auditory narration from which the authors of Scripture copied their writings. A belief that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16) — that the Bible is “God-breathed” — applies to all forms and manners of inspiration, from the stories he recalled down to the conversations he was inspired to have. Every part of that process was, we might say, “God-breathed.” Which means that every part is reliable and authoritative. To scramble after “Luke’s sources” is to embark on a wild goose chase of documentary theory and textual criticism that ultimately undoes what it sets out to do.
On a number of occasions, I have made mention of my frustration with the infatuation of some Christian circles with “signs” that seemingly validate their Christian faith, and I hold to that sentiment. And while I don’t mean to disparage someone else’s experience, I do wish to suggest that all the evidence you’ll ever need that God’s Word is reliable and authoritative is already in front of you. You who are seeking confirmation, certainty, and conviction that “these things” are trustworthy, the Scriptures are your sign! This book is your evidence, the pages of which everywhere testify that the things Jesus said and did, promised and predicted, were “Yes” and “Amen” in him (2 Cor. 1:20). Some, perhaps, see that as a logical fallacy. How can the best evidence of the Bible be the Bible itself? Isn’t that circular reasoning? My simple answer to such inquiries remains that the Scriptures are the words of Yahweh, God’s divine scheme of self-disclosure. We need not exert ourselves in sundry quests to validate its reliability and authority. The Bible is reliable because it is God’s Word. Such is our starting point.
Faith doesn’t begin after we’ve collected enough “signs” to confirm that God’s Word is true. “The reliability of Scripture is not the goal of our argument,” William Boekestein wrote recently for Reformation21, “it is the foundation.” I think we do ourselves and our faith a great deal is disservice when we determine to start on some other ground other than that the Bible is true. Luke’s encouragement, here, suggests that what he’s about to narrate is reliable and true and ought to be heeded as such. His words were the words of the True One — the very words of God himself. Theophilus wasn’t bound to verify all of Luke’s sources. Neither is your faith dependent on archaeological digs to corroborate its trustworthiness. If you are desirous of a faith that’s strong and steadfast, that’s able to withstand the swelling tide of misinformation and malignant threats, don’t search high and low for outside signs that the Scriptures are true. Rather, plunge into the Scriptures and immerse yourself in their truth. Such is what Luke was inviting his “most excellent” friend to do. And that invitation still stands for you and I as well.
A lesson about factual things.
Something else that’s apparent in this brief preface is Luke’s enthusiasm not only for his subject — namely, Jesus Christ — but also for his method of conveying the majesty and resonance of his subject. He contrasts the many other undertakings already “in hand” which sought to declare “those things which are most surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1) with his own “declaration.” His narrative would be different, not only because his was an inspired narrative but also because his was an informed narrative. We might say, then, that Luke’s occupation and approach was entirely medical and methodical. His intent wasn’t to dazzle his readers with elaborate and exaggerated stories of the “Miracle Man” from Bethlehem. Rather, he intended to let the facts to speak for themselves. Such is why he makes such an effort to situate his account within history (Luke 1:5; 2:1–4; etc.). Such, too, is what makes Luke’s Gospel so distinct.
As we already noted, Luke’s pen moved with the strictest purpose. He aspired to offer his friend Theophilus, and an untold audience of other readers, only the facts that they might “know the certainty of those things” (Luke 1:4). The word “certainty” conveys something even deeper than what we might imagine. It is suggestive of a knowledge of unquestionable truth — that is, truth that’s impervious to doubt, truth that’s firm and stable. Luke wasn’t interested in relaying speculative knowledge. He wasn’t interested in theories or rumors or opinions. He, like any good doctor, was interested only in facts. He says as much in verse 2, though we likely miss it. The Greek word for “eyewitnesses,” which occurs just this once in the entire New Testament, is a medical term from which we get our word “autopsy.” And so it is that this detailed declaration that he’s about to give regarding the passion of the Christ is more sure than merely so-and-so’s testimony. It’s as sure as a surgeon handling the remains of a corpse. After the physician is done with his examination, he doesn’t offer conjecture, he submits a factual report. “Here’s what happened . . .” And, in a similar way, Luke offers his Gospel as an orderly narrative of “those things which are must surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1).
If there is one thing that has shaped my faith at a fundamental level it is the assurance that my faith isn’t built not on speculation but on facts. The message of Scripture and the message of our Christian faith is not a speculative thing. It does not exist nebulously only in the regions of thought or theory or imagination. The gospel is not a series of rumors, of hope-so’s, of things we wish will come about somewhere, someday. Neither is it a vague idea or philosophy by which we hope to make sense of life. The gospel is a factual message about the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who really descended from heaven’s throne, who really took on flesh, who really lived a real life, who really dwelt and dined and delivered real people, and ultimately died a very real death. These are “those things” which Luke determines to set forth “in order” that his friend might be fully convinced of their truth, as he is. And we ought to be occupied with the same resolve. Such is the “intelligence of the gospel,” as Stephen Tyng puts it:
The Sacred Scriptures of God announce glad tidings of good things to perishing men, because they fully proclaim and exhibit this one great fact, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” — that the Son of God hath come, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. The word Gospel means glad tidings. The glad tidings are; that there has been provided an all-sufficient and glorious Redeemer for guilty man, upon whom God hath laid the iniquity of us all; who has become a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This is the glorious intelligence of the Gospel. The Son of Man has come. He has borne the sinner’s burden. He has made an end of sin for those who believe in him. He has brought in an everlasting righteous as the gift of God to all who will receive it. Having done this, the Gospel which he commands his ministers to preach, is simply the intelligence of this grand fact.3
“Christianity is a religion built upon facts,” attests renowned Anglican minister J. C. Ryle.4 When you preach or share the gospel with someone, you aren’t conveying hopeful theories of religion or helpful systems of morality that might sustain them through “unprecedented times.” No, when the gospel is given, we are extending a gift. We aren’t relaying a story of “make believe,” we are reporting the facts of God’s salvation of sinners as evidenced in his Son’s death and resurrection. We are holding out our hand and inviting all who would believe to accept the facts God has made known about himself, as revealed in his only begotten Son. We are, thereby, assuming the role of a news reporter. Any reporter who’s worth their salt doesn’t go on record with proclaiming possibilities or hypotheticals. Rather, they announce facts. And, likewise, so does Jesus’s church. “Those things which are most surely believed among us” are those things which Jesus has accomplished. They are the things which give us certainty and stability in the midst of our calamitous lives. “A Christian’s assurance,” comments Dale Ralph Davis, “may come and go and be affected by all sorts of matters, but it will never begin to exist unless built on the firm foundation of a true gospel.”5
A lesson about redemptive things.
The reliability and factuality of Scripture are undoubtedly comforting in their own right. And we ought to relish in such truths. But the Word of God would be no more impactful than a biology textbook if it didn’t, likewise, tell us about redemption. The Scriptures are nothing if they don’t reveal that the very Redeemer we so desperately crave is so gloriously provided by God himself. Such is what the Bible is all about. Such is our gospel. “We announce,” as Stephen Tyng says, “a salvation which God has provided.”6 Luke’s prevailing message could accurately be condensed in that word, “salvation.” His primary concern throughout his narrative is to showcase precisely what it means that Jesus is the Savior. And, specifically, what it means that he is the Savior of the world, not just Israel. Luke’s genealogy is revealing in this regard (Luke 3:23–38). He connects Jesus’s lineage back to his earthly father, Joseph, and ultimately traces his heritage to the first man, Adam. This, you see, was done so that Jesus would be recognized not merely as the “ideal Jew,” but as the perfect Son of Man. Jesus was consummate humanity. He came to this earth as the “Last Adam,” the One who would undo the failure of the first (1 Cor. 15:45–47). So writes renowned orator G. Campbell Morgan:
To the world Luke says: “You are lost, but the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” A Redeemer has come. A Brother is available. A new life is possible. Behold the Man! He understands you. Yet He is different from you. And He will receive you.7
Accordingly, Luke’s Gospel contains the fullest record of Jesus’s birth. The importance of the nativity account in Luke 1—2 isn’t so that the church would have something to preach about come Christmastime. Indeed, the prevailing point is to demonstrate Jesus’s sinless perfection even as he is the Son of Man, the heaven-sent One who is made like us in every way, “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:17–18). This, you see, was an integral feature of Luke’s Gospel considering the majority of his readers were Greeks, the learned intellectual class of the day. The Greek conception of deity and spirituality was mostly connected only with the supernatural. Greek deities were more like our modern superheroes than anything else. And, in that sense, they were wholly unlike those who believed in them. They were inaccessible and unapproachable, and largely uninvolved with the plight of earth-bound creatures unless it suited their fancy.
How entirely different, then, was Luke’s portrayal of God? His depiction of deity, as revealed in Jesus Christ, illustrates the supreme accessibility and approachability of mankind’s Savior. His Gospel is a gospel for everyone, detailing the “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10). His awesome power and might didn’t keep people at arm’s-length. Rather, his almighty sovereignty is wielded to call us close, to call us home. He is our Kinsman Redeemer, our divine brother who takes up our cause and drowns in our sin and leaves it behind in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). He embraces us and rules over us as our eternally approachable King, whose words are eternally trustworthy and whose kindness and grace are unfathomably deep.
In contrast to Matthew and John, whose respective premises are revealed closer to the end (Matt. 27:37; John 20:30–31), and Mark whose thesis appears closer to the middle of his record (Mark 10:45).
Not for nothing, the man responsible for more than one-quarter of your entire New Testament was not a Jew.
Stephen Tyng, Lectures on the Law and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1849), 214.
J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vols. 1–4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956), 2:2. Similarly, H. A. Ironside says, “The gospel rests upon these divinely-accredited certainties. It is not an imaginary system based upon weird and unproved legends, but a substantial and logical message resting upon an assured foundation of facts. The Gospels are true histories” (Luke: An Ironside Expository Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007], 16).
Dale Ralph Davis, Luke 1–13: The Year of the Lord’s Favor (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2021), 17.
Tyng, Law and Gospel, 382.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (New York: Revell, 1931), 39.