Why Bother to Read the Gospels?
If watching the news on TV is anything to go by we enjoy hearing bad news. Just this past week, we've heard about the ongoing troubles in the M.E. in Syria and Iraq. We've learned of more people fearing for their lives and fleeing as refugees to try to get away from those armed men who seem bent on killing anyone who doesn't quite fit in with their way of thinking. We've been told that there is an increased risk of terrorist attacks on air travel. Our Prime Minister has warned us that we may well be on the way into a new medical "dark ages" as bacteria become more and more resistant to our existing stock of anti-biotics. Even if we turn our thoughts to Brazil for a bit of escapism with the World Cup we find out that a bridge being constructed in one of the cities hosting the football has collapsed causing the death of at least two people.
The Christian message, as contained in the Bible, is in a number of significant ways just the same! The Bible contains some very bad news. It tells us things not what we want to hear but what we need to hear – the truth – and that can be very uncomfortable.
The Bible tells us:
That God is
That he holds us responsible and accountable for our lives
That he considers us as having failed to live up to the required standard
That he will punish us for our guilty failure
That this problem of ours is so great that there is no hope of us sorting it out on our own
If that is the case then why on earth would anyone want to read the Bible? Do we really need to hear more bad news?
Well if the news is about us then we need to hear it whether or not we initially like what we hear. The Bible doesn't just speak about the condition of somebody else who lives 500 or 5000 miles away from where we do, it speaks about our condition.
But the Bible doesn't only talk about the bad news, it also tells us of what God has done for us and that is very good news indeed – and that is what the word "gospel" means. With God's help in the coming weeks we are going to investigate Luke's Gospel and we're beginning today.
The Gospel According to Luke – some introductory remarks
Who was the author of this gospel?
From the earliest times of the Christian era this third gospel has been unanimously attributed to Luke and there is no reason to doubt the veracity of this tradition.
The gospel is in fact Volume One of a Two Part work – Acts being vol.2. Both of these books are addressed to the same person "Theophilus". That Luke is the author of Acts emerges as the result of a little detective work – there are some sections in Acts where the author writes in the first person plural form "we". At those times Luke was present – hence he is the author! And if he is the author of vol.2 it follows that he is also the author of vol.1.
From the rest of the NT we know just a little more about this man Luke. He was a doctor "the beloved physician" mentioned in Col.4:14. It is clear too from that chapter that Luke was born a Gentile. He wrote his "gospel" in the early 60s quite possibly in Rome.
Luke was a missionary companion of the apostle Paul – a medical missionary, yes, but a preacher too! He was a true evangelist – he wrote a gospel and he proclaimed it as well!
There are just three references to Luke by name in the NT and when we take them together what a lovely man he had become by God's grace:
Col.4:14 "Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas."
2Tim.4:11 Others had deserted Paul for various reasons but not Luke: "Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry."
Phm 1:23-24 "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers."
Why did Luke write what he did?
In the opening verses of the gospel Luke gives us a number of reasons that motivated him in the writing of his book:
The subject matter was important:
Luke tells us that v.1 "many (had) undertaken to compile a narrative"
There was a widespread interest in this whole business and a goodly number had already tried to draw together relevant bits of information. Luke's language is wide enough to allow for this to refer to either oral tradition or written documents. However he is not referring to the other gospel accounts that constitute our NTs. (John's gospel would not be written for some time yet; Matthew's account was that of an eyewitness and Mark's was also dependent upon the eyewitness of Peter). These others then had drawn together perhaps partial records, collections of sayings, accounts of miracles, etc. That many had done so witnesses to the importance of the matter.
Luke looking perhaps at the incompleteness of these earlier efforts or at their lack of suitable organisation decided to set himself to the task of writing a carefully ordered account.
After all Luke was in a good position to do so:
His Greek shows that he was an educated man and thus able to take on the task of writing a serious work. Taken together Luke and Acts form the largest section of the NT written by any single author.
His companionship with the apostle Paul gave him opportunities not only for ministry but for learning in detail what had indeed taken place in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
He tells us that he did the necessary research – he did this after having followed for some time the faith about which he was to write.
The subject matter was historical:
The matter was important because it was not the fruit of human imagination. The gospel that Luke was to write was a gospel full of details of events, places and people that were historical realities. Luke was not making up stories he was describing and interpreting what had actually taken place.
We know this because he writes of those things that had been "accomplished among us" v.1.
The choice of wording is also suggestive of the fulfilment of the divine plan. Luke was not interested in simply listing a series of chance events – no, he was writing about things that had taken place and which had a meaning. They had meaning because they had been announced beforehand and now had been accomplished.
How important it is for us to remember that the Christian faith is not like the philosophies of this world. A philosophy is made up of ideas which can easily be challenged and rejected. The Christian faith is founded squarely upon history – ideas come and go but what God has done in history remains forever!
The subject matter was well-established: it wasn't based on heresay.
Given the emphasis upon historical reality it is important to know that the details are right. Luke tells us that they are – they have been handed on by those who were eyewitnesses of the events they spoke about. These witnesses too were credible too – they weren't out to serve themselves but they served the word that they shared. They weren't fabricating a message to try to gain influence or importance for themselves but instead they used what they had and were to further the sharing of this message. Luke describes them not only as eyewitnesses but as "ministers of the word" and the expression he used actually means "under-rowers" – they made themselves servants to promote the truth they were declaring.
This message had also spread widely and become well-known. Luke in writing to Theophilus knows that Theophilus already is well aware of the details these "ministers of the word" have made known.
But if these were some of the reasons why Luke put pen to parchment what did he hope to achieve by doing so? What was his purpose in it all?
What was his purpose is doing so?
Luke tells Theohilus exactly what he expects his written accounts to do for Theophilus. It can do the same thing for you too!
v.4 "that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught."
Perhaps most of us come to faith with only a vague grasp of the overall picture. What we know may well be true but our understanding is very limited – how we need to grow, how we need help.
Luke knows his account is not the first to have been written and he knows it will not be the first time either that Theophilus has heard the Jesus story. But it will perhaps be the first time that Theophilus gets to see how all that he has heard really fits together.
Luke expects that his orderly account will establish Theophilus firmly in the faith and that any lingering doubts that he might have will be finally dispersed.
How important it is to realise the Bible way of dealing with uncertainty and possibly with doubt. Luke doesn't address the emotions, he doesn't urge a try-it-and-see approach either. If Christianity "works" it does so because it is true. If feelings go up and down it is not upon those that we must rely but upon the truth. If you are struggling with doubts and questions then the way forward is to immerse yourself in the gospels and the other Bible records. Don't wait until you "feel" something unusual before you go to the Bible – rather go to the Bible until the truth so grips you that there is no place left for doubt and uncertainty.
I personally find this to be so helpful. When things don't seem to be going so well I find myself to be tempted to use the wrong set of criteria for assessing the faith. At such times I need to remember that whatever happens today, however I feel today, does not in any way change the fact that one day in history Jesus died on the cross and that on the third day he came to life again as a conqueror and not as some sorry sort of survivor. Instead of trying to bring the faith into line with my feelings and my meagre expectations I need to realign my faith with the realities of history that do not change!
Come and follow these studies with us all in the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings and be built up in your faith. Come and listen but read Luke for yourself as well. Bring your questions and see how God will answer them.
Before we close this morning let's just take a very quick look at what lies ahead in order to:
Whet our appetites!
Luke will focus our attention upon the gospel: and that gospel is all about Jesus Christ!
It is good news about Jesus – and what better person to look at than him! Indeed one writer has suggested that one way in which we can helpfully approach this third gospel is to view it as dealing with a series of journeys:
Jesus' Journey to earth (1:5 – 2:52)
(Prelude to Jesus' Ministry 3:1 – 4:13)
Jesus' Journeys in Galilee (4:14 – 9.50)
Jesus Journey to Jerusalem (9:51 – 19:27)
Jesus' Journey to the Cross (19:28 – 23:56)
Jesus' Return Journey to Heaven (24:1-53)
Another way of looking at the gospel is to see why Jesus came, to save us from what and how:
He came to save his people from a real threat posed by their sin, by death and by Satan
He did this by his own death and resurrection
It is about salvation through Jesus:
This is one of Luke's favourite themes which includes:
forgiveness of sin – dealing with the past
the gift of the Holy Spirit – equipping for the present/future
It is about a salvation that is for the whole world:
Jesus is portrayed as the Saviour of the World (ie. for all sorts of people). Nevertheless he demonstrates a special interest in:
The marginalized (eg. children, women, tax collectors, 'sinners', Samaritans and Gentiles)
And this good news of the salvation through Jesus which is for the whole world results in great joy:
Joy in heaven – angels in heaven (Lk.15:10)
Joy on earth – eg. the prodigal's father (Lk.15:32)
How good God is to us!
He has diagnosed our problem and told us just what he has done about it. His diagnosis is serious – without treatment we will be lost and lost eternally – but when we submit to his treatment the outcome is guaranteed to be a success.
But what does that mean it practice?
Well it doesn't mean that we have to try harder, it doesn't mean that we have to turn over a new leaf, it doesn't mean that we have a whole lot of laws and regulations to follow in order to be made whole. All we need to do is to receive what he freely offers to us. And what he offers is not some horrible tasting medicine, it's not like following some arduous slimming regime – it is to place our trust in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World. It is to rely on him.
Have you done that? Praise God if you have!
If you haven't then what holds you back? Repent and believe now even today calling upon him for that salvation you need and which is only to be found in coming to Jesus in faith.
Come and keep on coming! Find out more as to just what God has done for sinners like you and as you hear the truths that Luke has to share with us may we all be firmly convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel.