Gospel Certainty for Gentile Sinners, Part 1
January 4, 2015
We are beginning today—I’m very excited about this; I hope you are, too—we’re beginning today in a study of the Gospel of Luke and with the Lord’s permission, with the Lord’s help, with the Spirit’s help, I’m planning to work through all of Luke’s writings with you in one long consecutive study. So that would be the Gospel of Luke first, and then after that, right into the Acts of the Apostles. From time to time, I’ll interrupt that series—you know, going through the Gospel and then the Acts—I’ll interrupt that series for maybe a special series, a special message or something like that. The pulpit, you have to understand, is primarily an instrument of pastoral ministry. These sermons are not just to display eloquence or rhetorical skill, whatever you think of my elegance or rhetorical skill. It’s not for that; it’s really a shepherding tool. This is what I do. This pulpit is like a work desk; that’s why Gary Brotherton made it nice and big, so I could have a lot of stuff on here because this is what the Puritans call “the sacred desk.”
And so from this desk, one of my main tools as a shepherd is what I do up here. It’s in the teaching and the preaching of God’s Word, and so I need the flexibility to deal with some issues as they come up. I mean, if everybody all of a sudden—a strange thing comes through your head and everybody in the church starts gossiping about each other, I’ve got to do a series on gossip and confront you about that. You’re not going to do that, I know that. So I’ll probably be doing stuff. We’ll just have so much joy, I’ll have to do a message on joy and just talk about that. But I need flexibility to address things that come up. So from time to time, I’ll have to stop our study of Luke and maybe do a couple of weeks on something just to address it. We’re also going to study other portions of Scripture in other venues, like this interactive Sunday school. We’ll be going through Ephesians, but we’re going to invest the bulk of our time on Sunday mornings for not just months to come, but I can guarantee you, years to come, in Luke’s Gospel.
Now a reasonable question at this point is to ask is “Why?” Why launch into a long study on the Gospel of Luke? Why chew up all that time, spending all that time in the pulpit in one author’s writings? Won’t that cause us to become a bit out of balance? Whether or not you are asking questions like that or thinking things like that, I would like to provide some justification for why we’re venturing into a long study of Luke’s writings. No, studying the life of Christ and the implications of his ministry in the church will not put us out of balance, not at all. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything that can provide more balance and clarity to our lives as Christians than studying and focusing on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. Can you? I think the perfect way to have balance is to follow our leader and to study our Savior, and to worship and see him in his context the way he wants himself to be displayed, which is in the Gospels.
But I want to go a little bit further than that and just give you a couple of reasons for studying Luke and then Acts, just as a start. I think there are a lot of reasons to justify a study like this, of this scope and all that. The first reason I’d like to bring before you and put before your mind is, I think we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the story of Christianity. We need to re-familiarize ourselves with how this all started, how this all began. And I’m reminded of the need to reassert the historical truth of the Christian faith every single year, and especially around Christmas and Easter because it’s around Christmas and Easter that some of the major news magazines like Time or Newsweek and other periodicals come out with articles that question or challenge and sometimes often terribly misrepresent Christianity.
The most recent example of that comes from the Newsweek cover story called, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” The author, Kurt Eichenwald, published his essay on December 23, 2014, right in time for Christmas. On one level, what he wrote there is really nothing more than a liberal screed, taking another shot at conservative evangelical Christians. And if it were only that, we could just let that go, but it’s more than that. What he wrote is thoroughly anti-Christian, and it’s an overt attack on the integrity of Scripture. Reading Eichenwald’s article for me was a painful and irritating experience. It was like nails dragged down a chalkboard over and over again because his article is so riddled with factual errors, category errors, misunderstandings—and all of that led to and built his case of misrepresentation of the Bible and Christians. That author is way, way out of his depth in fundamental issues that should inform an article like this.
If you venture into an article to talk about the Scripture, you’d better know what you’re talking about, and he did not. Things like biblical history, textual criticism, church history, Christian theology, all of it—he was out of his depth. Eichenwald’s ignorance of his subject is apparent in every single paragraph and without even the most basic understanding of Greek and hermeneutical principles. All these things he was talking about in his article—translation philosophy—this guy has no business writing a cover story on that subject and in a national magazine, no less. As an author, he ought to be ashamed, and the editors who allowed that piece to go to print should be fired and even apart from a retraction of the article, people losing their jobs and all that, Newsweek ought to be censured for its violation of journalistic integrity. It was that bad.
Now, I bring this up not to call for a boycott of Newsweek or anything like that, not to tell you not to read the article—you probably should. I’d like you, actually, to read some of these things because you need to think through the arguments; you need to be exposed to what people are saying about the Bible. And all of that, you understand, is washing through our culture, and so the people you talk to, the people you meet with as you work and go to school and go to the grocery store—they’re reading stuff like this. They’re picking up these articles, and that’s how they look at you. So you need to be informed and think through the arguments and formulate answers. We always need to be prepared to make a defense, right? That’s not why I bring this up. My concern is deeper. I’m concerned about the number of professing Christians who are unable to identify the errors and refute what are obvious biblical, factual, theological errors in something like this, which is really nothing more than a hit piece. There are many sitting in churches today, right now, this morning, who do not know their own history as Christians well enough to recognize it when someone misrepresents it.
And, regarding that concern, Eichenwald writes two things worth noting. And the first thing is an indictment. He cites a 2010 Pew Research poll that exposed the ignorance of professing evangelicals about their faith. According to the poll findings, the Pew Research poll, “Evangelicals ranked only a smidgeon higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings.” Let me emphasize—that’s professing Christians who are talking these polls, not necessarily Christians, but professing ones. Eichenwald then quotes pollsters, researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli, who concluded, “Americans revere the Bible, but by and large, they don’t read it.” That’s probably true. Sad, isn’t it? I’ve met some of these professing Christians. Many of these professing Christians—especially in the different places I’ve lived in the country—after talking with them, I know that there’s truth to that charge.
The second thing Eichenwald writes that’s worth considering, worth listening to, is that he chides evangelicals for their ignorance about their faith, and his indictment, in a sense, leads to an exhortation, if we will listen to it. He writes this, “If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of their religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.“ I agree with that, don’t you? Too many decades have passed during which Christians have adhered to a cultural form of Christianity, and they’ve left behind what Christ actually taught. Too many decades and so many resources, so much time, have been wasted on politicizing Christianity, waging spiritual warfare in the political realm. Too many Christians have lived by tradition, never testing or examining their assumptions in light of what Jesus actually said, what he meant by what he said. They don’t think very deeply about it. And I think it’s high time to stop making assumptions, for us to go back to the original sources here in the New Testament—these documents of our faith—and to reassert the truth about historic Christian faith. And that’s why I think a good reason for us to study Luke and Acts is for us to re-familiarize ourselves with the story of Christianity. We need to lay a baseline of truth to build from, to lay a foundation we can grow up from.
So if the Lord allows us to get through Luke’s Gospel and Acts, we will have covered almost one third of the New Testament. A massive amount of material—and that is very significant. We’re going to know the truth about the life of Jesus Christ, we’re going to see him in action, we’re going to listen to him teach, tell stories. We will watch him deal with all kinds of people—friends and enemies, male and female, poor and rich—all kinds of people. We will understand in very great detail why he came, which is an oft-repeated theme in Luke’s Gospel. Luke 19:10 summarizes it: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” As we venture into the book of Acts, then, we’re going to see the birth, spread and growth of the church. We’ll see it take root throughout the Roman Empire. We’ll watch as Paul brings the Gospel to the Gentiles, something that all of us are, maybe very few exceptions here. As Gentiles we are eternally grateful for Paul’s ministry.
That brings me to a second reason for studying Luke’s writings. The second reason—knowing the truth of the historic Christian faith. That is going to unite us with Christians who have distinguished themselves throughout church history by holy boldness in evangelistic zeal. Holy boldness in evangelistic zeal. Like the faithful cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11, the Christians who stand fast against the challenges of the age, who thrive and are fruitful, do so because of their conviction in the truth. The people who died for the Faith from the time of the Apostles all the way to our present time died because they know the truth and they’re not going to budge. Knowing the truth to the point of conviction is going to establish us in the stream of historic Christianity. There are a lot of counterfeits out there. There are a lot of different streams running all over the place. We want to get into the right stream of truth of historic Christian faith. We’re going to stand with the early church fathers like Augustine and Jerome, Ignatius and Polycarp and Athanasius, the man who stood against the world because he was convinced about the deity of Jesus Christ. We’re going to stand with the Reformers, with the Puritans—those who risked the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which were really kind of part and parcel of one another at the time. They lost their lives for that. We’ll stand alongside those who’ve remained faithful through the challenges of the Modern Age—men like Charles Spurgeon. We’ll stand with those in the present day, who are standing up against the challenges of a post-modern age as well. Like all of those in history who have acquitted themselves well, who pleased the Lord, knowing the truth is going to make us bold witnesses for Jesus Christ, willing to suffer if necessary, willing to die if necessary for the truth of the Gospel.
Let me illustrate that for you from Scripture. Turn to the end of the book of Acts, chapter 28, the final verses there in chapter 28 when Luke ends his history of the Apostles and the early church. Paul is prison. This is his first Roman imprisonment around AD 60 to 62. He was released for a short time, wrote 1 Timothy and Titus, did some more missionary work, and then he ended up being arrested again during the Neronian persecution and then beheaded in AD 64. It was during the final imprisonment that Paul wrote 2 Timothy, and the tone in that letter, you can see, is markedly different from the other prison epistles, which anticipate his future release. In those other epistles—Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon—he’s still planning, he’s strategizing, he’s teaching, he’s strengthening the church, and that is the tone and the spirit we actually find there at the end of the book of Acts, the same thing.
Notice in verse 30, it says, “Paul lived in Rome two whole years at his own expense and he welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Look at what it says there: “with all boldness and without hindrance.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul is in the very belly of the beast; he’s in the center of the Roman Empire. He’s surrounded by Kurt Eichenwalds and other pagans. He’s in the midst of that, and yet, according to Philippians 1:13, we find him busy, evangelizing the whole Praetorian Guard. He’s evangelizing the guys he’s chained next to, the guys who are guarding him. He’s proclaiming and teaching—get this—“with all boldness and without hindrance.” The final two words in the Greek text are adverbs, and they are these words, boldly and, if I could coin a word, “unhinderedly”—without hindrance. Boldly, unhinderedly—that is how Luke ends his second account written to this Theophilus, this “most excellent Theophilus.” That’s the final note that Luke strikes, the tone he wants ringing in Theophilus’ ears and in the ears of all Christians ever since, boldly, unhinderedly. How can Theophilus—how can we—live bold, unhindered lives for the sake of proclaiming and teaching the truth about Jesus Christ?
Turn back to Luke chapter 1 and let me show you. Boldness and confidence, fruitfulness and joy—that is what Luke saw in the Apostle Paul, and that is what he wanted to see reproduced in the lives of all of us Gentile sinners, who needed to learn the truth about Christianity, the true story of Christ and the Gospel. Follow along as I read there, Luke 1:1-4.
*Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished 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 followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.*
Our English translations end that sentence differently from the Greek text. The final word in the Greek text is the word “certainty.” And Luke writes it at the end of verse 4 on purpose. He’s trying to emphasize that word. So Luke wrote this Gospel in order that—that’s an overt statement of purpose—in order that Theophilus may know the certainty concerning the things he’d been taught. He wants our faith to stand on a firm foundation of a reliable account of the historic Christian faith. And in that concern, Luke is united with the other New Testament writers.
John opens his first epistle this way in 1 John 1:1-4. He says,
*That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands [Do you get what he’s trying to say? “I was there, I saw him, I know him personally.”] concerning the word of life, the life was manifest and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that your joy may be complete. *
Same thing—that’s Luke’s purpose as well. If you go back to 2 Peter chapter 1, he says much the same thing in verses 16 to 20. Peter says:
*For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but [Get this] we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure than that, the prophetic word.*
That is what he’s talking about—the Scripture, what’s written down—we have that, we ourselves here at Grace Church have that.
*A more sure prophetic word to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.*
Folks, that’s why we should pay more attention the Scripture than to a John Grisham novel, right? Peter and John, like Luke, point us to the truth of this Gospel that they themselves knew, the Person of the Gospel, whom they knew, personally as a friend, and as a Lord and a master. This is based on their eyewitness apostolic testimony. That is what Luke says there: This testimony has been handed down to us. So Luke is a second-generation writer. He received it. He is not one of the original eyewitnesses; he received it from them, and now he’s writing down an orderly account for us. Why? So we can have certainty about the Christian faith. And certainty is the fountainhead of all Christian activity, all holiness and joy and confidence and boldness and hope and perseverance, the reinforcing of a steadfast faith—all of that comes from certainty about the Christian faith, conviction in the truth. And that, folks, is what I want to convey to you as well. It’s what our study in Luke’s writings, first in his Gospel, then in the book of Acts, that’s what I trust God to do through this study in all of us as well. Certainty leads to conviction. Conviction lets us speak with boldness and zeal and passion about the Gospel, about our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. And all of that leads to joy.
So for today, let’s get into the opening words of Luke’s Gospel. I’ll try to, as we go, weave some introductory material into what Luke has written here in his prologue, and we’re actually going to have to do a “part two” to this sermon next week, so we’ll be covering a couple of weeks of introduction here. We’ll work through a little outline and just a little framework for organizing our thoughts.
The first point, which is really the only point I’ll get to today, is this—point number one: Luke tells a compelling, richly detailed story. When a writer begins his literary work with the word “inasmuch,” you’d better have a dictionary handy. Luke’s Greek is paralleled in the New Testament only perhaps by Hebrews, the book to the Hebrews. His vocabulary is massive. It’s kind of funny, but one of the most consistent comments I’ve heard about my preaching since I’ve arrived here is about my vocabulary. I guess I keep using words people aren’t familiar with. And, on one level, I’m sorry about that. I do want to communicate clearly, but on another level, expository preaching demands something of the listeners. All of you have to learn to be expository listeners.
Listening to an exposition of Scripture is a bit of work. John Owen, in his book, The Death of Death and the Death of Christ, has a preface to that, and as he writes in the preface, he basically says to any causal reader who is there to merely enjoy whatever he’s coming to read and kind of flit from thing to thing: “You’ve had your fill; be gone.” Because he’s saying he’s about to get deep, and it’s about to get hard, and if you don’t want to work, you might as well close the book and go ahead and pull out a graphic novel or something. Hopefully, listening to my exposition is not grueling work. It’s not like visiting the dentist or getting a root canal. I work to try to make sure that’s not the case, but if you will join me at the work, and if you’ll work at understanding, you’re going to reap the reward of understating the truth, which is the foundation of all sanctification and joy in the Spirit. But listen—whatever you think of my vocabulary, it is nothing compared to Luke. His literary abilities exceed the best writers of all of history. He is universally recognized. This Gospel is universally recognized to be the greatest story ever told.
The Death of Death and the Death of Christ
And for an example, we don’t need to look far beyond the very first word. This opening word, “inasmuch,” proves Luke’s ability to communicate with complexity, with sophistication, and a concision that no other writer in the New Testament has. And let me explain some of that just so you can see it and appreciate it as well. I won’t do this with every word of Luke’s Gospel, trust me. But you just need to see this because this is what I’m seeing as I get into it. We’re going to have to go a little bit higher in our examination of Luke. But in Greek, just as in English, you can hear the word, “inasmuch,” is a compound word, right? In English, it’s “in,” “as,” “much”—‘inasmuch”—one word. The part of speech is a subordinate conjunction in case you were just dying to know, “What is that word?” Now you know—it’s a subordinate conjunction. It’s a compound word, and that word in the New Testament is used only here in Luke’s Gospel, and it’s constructed—just as it is in English—using three smaller parts.
I won’t numb your brain with too many details, but here are a few points. The foundational term of the word “inasmuch” is the word “since,” the Greek word “since.” Grammarians will tell you the word “since” sets a tone of solemnity for everything that follows. Luke is saying, “What follows, dear reader, requires your sober-minded, undivided attention. This is important, since,” and then to the word, “since,” Luke attaches the word, “indeed,” or “therefore,” and that’s a subtle acknowledgement of the notoriety of everything that Luke is about to write. That is to say, he is signaling from the very start that the events he is about to narrate are well-known to everybody. Okay, so solemnity, notoriety and then to the compound he’s just built, literally, “since indeed,” is what he says, he attaches a suffix to that, one that communicates gravity, weightiness. He lets his readers know that what follows is profoundly important. So, who caught all of that when you read the word, “inasmuch?” Most of us don’t have the literary training to recognize that. In fact, it’s likely most of the readers of Luke’s day would’ve missed the point as well. Fluent native speakers of the Greek language would have missed it, but they would’ve sensed Luke’s tone of solemnity, notoriety and gravity that come through in that word. And more sophisticated readers would have caught it, which means Luke’s Gospel, from the very first word, has the power to communicate the truth to the largest swath of human society from the most sophisticated all the way down to the least sophisticated. But even the least sophisticated who don’t understand the compound word, “inasmuch,” they can get that there’s something important to follow. They get that.
Let me show you one more example of Luke’s literary skill here in the prologue, and you’ve already seen it because we’ve read the first four verses, but I do need to point it out just to make it more plain. You’ll notice the thoughts of verses one and two are parallel to the thoughts in verses 3 and 4. So look at verse 1. Notice how that phrase in verse 1, “many have undertaken,” parallels the first phrase in verse 3, “it seemed good to me also.” “Many have undertaken,” “it seemed good to me also.” The second phrase in verse 1, “to compile a narrative,” is parallel to verse 3, “to write an orderly account.” The final phrase in verse 1, “the things that have been accomplished among us”—that’s parallel with the word, “everything,” or “all things,” in verse 3. Look at verse two. The phrase, “from the beginning,” is parallel to Luke’s claim, “to have followed all things closely for some time past,” or a better translation is, “from the start.”
One more, in verse 2 there. It says, “just as they have delivered them to us”—just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word—“just as they have delivered them to us,” is parallel to verse 4, “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Now, that parallelism, that structure that comes through the structure 1 to 4 is not just a literary device, not just Luke being clever, putting some parallelism of thought for rhetorical effect. It does have that effect, but Luke has a more important reason for providing those parallels. I’ll get more into that next time, but essentially, Luke is paralleling his own effort to write a Gospel with those who came before him, and that’s both a mark of his humility and modesty on the one hand, and also a mark of his qualification to take up the task. But even his own modest statement of self-qualification demonstrates his ability to craft language in a way that is clear, concise and memorable. He does that all the way through the Gospel.
- Edmond Hiebert makes the following comment about Luke’s literary skill, “Luke’s style is simple and dignified. He reveals a strong power of accurate observation, of vividness of description and the ability to delineate a character or paint a scene with a few vigorous lines or words.” Alfred Plummer makes the same point. He says, “Luke possesses the art of composition. He knows not only how to tell a tale truthfully, but how to tell it with effect.” That’s right—and that’s what all of us as communicators, all of us who are leaders in the church, we endeavor to do. It’s to do that very thing. Not only to be able to tell the story of our faith, but to tell it with effect.
Basically, Luke employed his excellent Greek, his power of words to good effect in telling the greatest story ever told. And God providentially prepared Luke to write this Gospel, a literary work that could stand the test of time and communicate with clarity and excellence to an entire world of Gentile sinners, like I said, from the greatest of us to the very least of us. Luke’s command of language enabled him to describe concrete details, to paint pictures with language, to craft word pictures that evoke feelings that stimulate emotion. We feel sympathy for those who suffer as we read the book of Luke. We feel anger toward Christ’s enemies, as detractors and betrayers. We, most importantly, we are stirred throughout with a profound love and appreciation for our Lord and Savior.
Let me just give you a few of the characteristics of his Gospel. As I said, Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the gospels, and that’s because it’s utterly comprehensive in telling the story about Jesus Christ. Matthew starts his Gospel about six months before the birth of Christ. He briefly mentions the birth, but then he jumps two years into the future to describe the visit of the magi. By the time the magi visit Jesus, he would’ve been about two years old. Mark completely skips the infancy narratives, and he starts his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus and John the Baptist are full-grown men at the time Mark starts his Gospel. The Apostle John begins his Gospel, I guess you could say, from eternity past, but really, that’s just his prologue. He starts his Gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, around the time when Jesus came to be baptized by John. But Luke—he starts his Gospel a full 15 months before Jesus was born, and the story continues all the way to his ascension into Heaven. That’s a lot of time. When you include volume two, the Book of Acts, you’re looking at 60 to 70 years of history that’s included in what Luke writes. That’s massive. The scope is sweeping with detail—impressive, expertly written with clarity and concision. It’s absolutely staggering. If you tried to do that with Jesus’ life and ministry and the beginning of a church all the way through Paul’s first imprisonment, you’d be writing for the rest of your life. Luke gets it for us in two volumes.
So like I said, Luke starts his narrative before John the Baptist was conceived, and he gives us the back story of the angelic announcements about their conceptions and their births from Luke 1:5 to 2:52. Luke spends his time in the prenatal period, and he covers the birth and the infancy and then some brief insight into Jesus’ childhood and all that time. Now, who do you think would have an interest in hearing about prenatal details? Mothers, right? Mothers. And where do you think Luke got that information? Take a look at Luke 2:18 and 19, when the shepherds visited the manger, the stall. It says, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them, but Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Notice also at the end of that section when Jesus went missing at the temple—verses 41 to 51, chapter 2—remember how he answered his worried parents after they found him. In verse 49, it is written there, “Jesus said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my father’s house?’ And they didn’t understand the things he spoke to them. And he went down with them, came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And”—Get this—“his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”
Listen, I think it’s precious that God gave Luke such a rich vocabulary, such a facility with language, such an ability to relate little details, tender emotions, basically those thoughts and intuitions only a mother could know. He did that, God did that in Luke so we could get the inside scoop on some of the details that Mary had treasured in her heart for years. They’re all bottled up in there, like a mother can know; they’re all bottled up there. God prepared Luke to give voice to the treasures of Mary’s heart, to share them with the rest of the believing world so that we might join her in the kind of worship she could know. In fact, that’s one of the most notable features of Luke’s Gospel—he emphasizes stories that have to do with women. In the Jewish world, in the Greco-Roman world, women were all but ignored. They were set aside, but Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear that women are not second-class citizens in the kingdom; they share equally and fully in all the spiritual privileges enjoyed by men. Luke records a number of details about women starting, as I said, with that prenatal meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, a time when they shared in each other’s joy at something only pregnant women could fully understand and appreciate. I certainly don’t get it. I’m very glad I was born a man.
But later on, Luke records how Jesus happens upon a really pathetic scene, he comes across a funeral procession, you might remember that, and the pall bearers are all carrying away a widow’s, Luke says, “only son.” It’s her only son and she’s a widow. I mean how much more tragic and pathetic can you get. So sad. And Luke writes in a way that just evokes our deepest sympathies. Here’s what he said:
*When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and he said to her, “Do not weep.” [Jesus had a mother.] Then he came up and he touched the bier and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. *
Isn’t that sweet? Only a mother can fully understand the profound grief of losing her only son and then to be lifted to this pinnacle of joy from the depths of despair and hopelessness and sadness, to be lifted up to the heights of joy, having him restored again into her arms. Only a mother can understand the profundity of that happiness. And again, we have Luke’s command of language to thank. We have his powers of description that allow us to become observers on the scene. We get to visit there.
Luke never uses—get this—Luke never uses his literary powers to ascend to lofty heights of erudition, leaving everybody behind. He’s not writing a PhD dissertation here. Luke is serving us, the readers, normal people, regular folks. And Luke serves us well by keeping the lessons of Jesus’ teaching imbedded in the context in which he taught them. For example, rather than simply telling us, Jesus emphasized the importance of worshipping him above all things, even mundane matters of the world, or something like that—Luke allows Jesus to make that same point by recounting the conflict between two sisters, Mary and Martha. Remember that? Who can forget? Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching, but Martha was distracted with her “much serving.” Who can forget that? We can all put ourselves right in the living room, can’t we?—watching Martha running around and getting irritated at her devoted sister. And she even rebukes the Savior, “Lord make her, can’t you see?” We can totally get that—we sympathize with the sisters. We can all identify with one or the other or both, right? It’s common in Luke, very common.
Luke’s Gospel records domestic details more than any other writer—the normal stuff of everyday life. You can see that in Jesus’ parables whether it’s a simple one like a woman who is diligently sweeping her house, turning it all over to find just one lost coin, or a more complex story about a father’s love for a wayward son. In every case, Luke is able to bring out the richness of domestic details as he records Jesus’ stories and involves issues of normal, common, everyday life.
Speaking of parables, Luke records 23 of Jesus’ parables—more than any other writer—and five of those parables you can find in Matthew or Mark, but 18 of them you can only find in Luke. He recorded Jesus’ miracles, his stories, his interactions with people. He described along the way—the scenes and the geography—in such vivid detail you can actually walk the roads and feel the dust on your feet. He was so able to portray vivid detail like that, that he was called “The painter in the church” in the Sixth Century. There was actually a tradition that circulated at that time that Luke had painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Not likely—no doubt that tradition inspired a number of searches for relics as everybody ran through the Holy Land in the Crusade times to try to find that portrait of the Virgin Mary, but still tradition does testify to Luke’s powers of description. As Hiebert wrote, “Luke was able to paint vivid word pictures. His beautiful pen portraits have exerted a profound influence on Christian art through the centuries.” You can actually see a number of scenes from Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts in Rembrandt’s paintings. Massive detail that enabled Rembrandt to picture it and then put it onto canvas.
So much more we could say, but there’s not enough time to say it, so it’s best to leave it there, to let the text do the talking. But one more thing to emphasize about this first point about how Luke was able to tell a compelling and multi-layered and richly detailed story. There is a reason that God used Luke to do that. It has to do with this main theme: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Luke takes a great interest in individual people, and he portrays our Savior taking a great interest in individuals as well. In fact, where other gospels record Jesus as having compassion on the multitudes, the crowds, he looked on the crowds; he felt compassion for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd—that kind of thing—Luke never talks about Jesus having compassion on the multitudes or the crowds. It’s always compassion on people, on individuals. Jesus demonstrates care and compassion for individual people, and that translates into his showing care and compassion for you and me, right? He sees them as lost. He sees our lostness, he sees our struggles. He sees our depressions and our discouragements. He sees it all and he cares, and he’s willing just as he walked up to the funeral bier and touched it—which a faithful Jew was not allowed to do—to go and touch something that had been contaminated with dead. The power in Jesus Christ is such that dead things don’t contaminate him. When they come in contact with his power, he makes them alive.
And that kind of power is in care and concern and compassion, is what he has right now for each one of us, each one of us in our struggles, each one of us in our depressions and worries and anxieties and fears. He loves us, he cares for us. Lost people in Luke’s Gospel—they come in all shapes and sizes, just as we do. They’re male and female, rich and poor, from the honored of society like the most excellent Theophilus to the forgotten of society, like the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16. Whether tax collectors or lawyers, from the loathsome to the winsome—not sure which is the more loathsome or winsome of the two of those, tax collectors or lawyers—but Luke portrays them all. More broadly speaking, Luke’s Gospel is the most what we might call “catholic,” with a little “c,” catholic of all the gospels, “catholic” meaning “universal, general, broad, of universal interest.” Luke’s Gospel shows the most universal interest, embracing, putting its arms around the entire world of Gentile sinners, as well as Jews, and that becomes even more manifest in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, as Luke accompanies Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, on some of his missionary travels.
Luke portrays Jesus as the Son of Man, the Savior of all humanity—and that’s all humanity, that ’s all mankind, no matter what ethnicity, no what religious background, no matter what. That’s why Luke’s genealogy, different from Matthew’s, traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, and by this genealogy, Jesus’s origin traced back to Adam, it predates the distinction between Jew and Gentile, doesn’t it? It’s prior to Moses and prior to Abraham; it goes back to Adam. So Jesus, here in Luke’s Gospel, is the true Son of Man. He’s the quintessential man; he’s the man who fulfilled what Adam could not fulfill, and he completely filled the law of God on our behalf, Jew and Gentile alike. That’s right in line with Pauline theology. Luke records Jesus as the Savior for all, even the outcasts of society, whether social outcasts like tax collectors or prostitutes or ethnic outcasts like all of us Samaritans and Gentiles. Anyone who puts faith in Jesus Christ will be justified by faith and saved from sins. That’s worth studying. I’m excited about that and I hope you are too. I think that’s enough for today, just to get a flavor for Luke’s Gospel. He’s a master storyteller, but his stories all have a point. They’re not just put there for our idle curiosity; they’re to drive us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man for salvation. There is no greater gift Luke could give us than to provide us with certainty about these things we’ve been taught, right? Well, next time, we’re going to consider Luke as a detailed researcher, a historian par excellence, and that’ll take us through the first sentence of the text, verses 1-4. Bow with me for a word of prayer.
Heavenly Father, we want to thank you for the time in your Word this morning. We love you. We thank you that you have providentially gifted Luke and trained him and got him qualified so he could narrate this Gospel for us. We’re so grateful about what it communicates to us: that you care for us, that you care for all humanity, not just as a group, but as individuals, as men and women, rich and poor, famous and unknown—you care for us all. We thank you for the care and concern you show for lost sinners, and we thank you that you have drawn us to salvation in Jesus Christ. Please glorify Him through this study. In Jesus’ name, amen.