Is the story of Jesus a true story, or a legend made up by Christians? Luke addresses this directly in the first four verses of his gospel.
May 14, 2017
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Luke: The Gospel for Everyone
Can I trust the Gospel?
Introduction and offering:
Today, we kick off our Summer Bible Series. This summer, we’re going to work our way through the gospel of Luke, which I’m calling “the gospel for everyone.” Luke wrote his gospel for everyone—he tells more stories about Gentiles, women, the poor, and the marginalized than any other gospel writer. He wanted us to know that Jesus is for everyone!
Each week, we’ll read a short passage from Luke, and ask, “What does this tell us about Jesus? About us?” Our goal is to know Jesus better and follow Him more closely. I hope that you’ll use the SOAP method and read the assigned passage each week before Sunday.
Read the Scripture: for next Sunday, it is written on the bottom of your outline. Read it and ask God for one thing. Then observe: what does it say? What is the point? What does the author mean? Then apply: what will I do? What is God saying to me? How will this change the way I think, talk and live? Then pray your one thing back to God. I hope you’ll do this each week, and you’ll come prepped for Sunday. And if you get something great, be sure to share it with me—I need all the help I can get!
Today we’re going to read the first four verses of Luke—it’s Luke’s preface to his gospel. He’s going to answer the question: can I trust the gospel? Is this true or just a nice story?
ILL: Have you heard the story of the lady who got a cookie at the Neiman-Marcus cafe in Dallas? She loved the cookie and asked her server for the recipe. Her server replied that they don’t give it away. “Could I buy it?” she asked. Her server said yes and when she asked how much, the server said two fifty. Imagine her surprise when her credit card bill arrived that month with a $250 charge for that cookie recipe. She tried to return it and get the charge removed to no avail. So to get her revenge, she posted the recipe online for everyone to have for free! Justice for the little guy!
It’s a fun story…it’s just not true. It’s an urban legend that has been around in multiple forms for more than 70 years.
This is how many people view the story of Jesus. It’s a nice story…it’s just not true. It’s a legend, a fable made up by the early Christians. So which is it? Is the story true—or just another legend? Can I trust the gospel?
Let’s read what Luke says:
Luke 1:1–4 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 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, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
We’re going to look at three things: Luke’s credibility, Luke’s gospel, and Luke’s purpose. I’ll spend most of my time on the first point.
Offering here. You are the most generous church I know! I say that all the time; now I have proof! Our annual denominational report just came out. Do you know which church, of all the Foursquare churches in America, gave away the most money last year? We did! We are not the largest church (others are larger), we don’t have the most income (others take in more money), but we gave away the most money—over a million dollars to missions, other ministries, church planting, and the poor. Your generosity makes it possible for us—as a church—to be generous with others!
- Luke’s credentials.
Who is Luke? Luke is only mentioned by name three times in the New Testament, all by Paul in his letters.
Colossians 4:14 Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.
Philemon 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
2 Timothy 4:11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.
From this, we know two things for sure. Luke was a doctor, a physician. And Luke was a dear friend and traveling companion of the apostle Paul. We don’t know if he was Jewish or a Gentile—scholars argue for both. If he was a Gentile, then Luke is the only Gentile author in the New Testament. We do know that Luke was highly educated—he wrote in beautiful polished Greek, and not surprisingly, uses many medical terms. Luke was the author of both the gospel that bears his name, and the book of Acts, a history of the early church. And in both Luke and Acts, he shows himself a careful and accurate historian. So this is Luke.
He begins his gospel by laying out his credentials. He tells us that he is not the first one to write an account of what happened. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of things that have been fulfilled among us.”
There were many accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. This shouldn’t surprise us. As the Jesus’ story spread, people would naturally want to write it down both for the sake of memory and to share. Many of these written accounts would have been partial; some may have been inaccurate. The point is that Luke isn’t the first one to write it down—many others had as well, so Luke had lots of source materials to draw from. We have four of these accounts in our Bibles: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Obviously, there were many others that didn’t make the cut.
For example, “The Gospel of Thomas” is a reputed collection of Jesus’ sayings dating from the second century. It includes some of Jesus’ sayings from the four gospels, plus other sayings, some of which could conceivably have been from Jesus, and others that seem completely out of character. Most significantly, it is only sayings. There is no birth, no life, no miracles, no death, no resurrection. Jesus is only a talking head, not a living and dying Savior. The early church rejected the gospel of Thomas, as it did a number of other spurious gospels.
With “many” accounts out there, how did we end up with the four we have? The early Christians judged these gospels on several criteria. First, apostolic authorship. Was this written by an apostle or the companion of an apostle? The apostles were the men who followed Jesus for 3 years, and were eyewitnesses to His life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection. They were personally chosen by Jesus to carry on His mission, and were uniquely qualified to tell the story of Jesus with first hand authority. They were there. Matthew and John were both apostles; Mark and Luke were not. But Mark was a follower of Jesus and a companion of the apostle Peter; Mark’s gospel is considered Peter’s memoir. And Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul. This was first and most important criteria: can this gospel be traced back to an apostle, to one of the men chosen by Jesus to be eyewitnesses? Is it apostolic in origin?
Second, orthodoxy. Does this agree with what they already knew to be true? The church had the Old Testament, and from the earliest times had written records of the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostles. When something new didn’t square with those, it was rejected.
Third, universal acceptance. Was this gospel widely accepted and used by the churches? My professor, Dr. Jim Edwards, called this the “sniff test.” He said, “The people of God have a nose for the truth of God.” By the end of the first century, the four gospels in your Bible were universally accepted and used by churches across the Roman empire as apostolic, inspired and orthodox.
So Luke had many sources to draw from, including Matthew and Mark’s gospels, which were written before his.
Notice in verse 2, Luke says:
2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
Luke is writing what was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.” The word “handed down” is a Greek word, paradosis, that was “the standard term for authoritative oral tradition in early Christianity.” Paradosis was a specific practice of passing on exactly what you heard. A disciple memorized what his teacher said, and carefully passed it on without change or embellishment. The apostle Paul uses it in:
1 Corinthians 11:23–24 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
Paul “passed on” what he had received about the Lord’s Supper. It didn’t originate with him; he didn’t make it up; he didn’t change it. He was carefully passing on what he had received.
1 Corinthians 15:3–5 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
The gospel wasn’t a story Paul made up, but had received and “passed on” or “handed down.”
There was a very clear link from Jesus to the apostles to the church. Luke is getting his information from eyewitness accounts—from the apostles, the men who were there, who saw what Jesus did and heard what He said; from those who watched Him die, and then saw Him alive again. Luke wants us to know that his sources are unimpeachable.
Finally, look at verse 3.
3 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,
Luke “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” Luke sifted through the many source materials, checked with the eyewitnesses, and then wrote “an orderly account” of the Jesus story. Luke was a detective, an investigator, a fact-checker. He’s telling Theophilus, and us, that he is personally vouching for the truth and accuracy of what he is writing.
By the way, who is Theophilus? We don’t know. The name means “lover of God” and could have been a friend, or a wealthy patron who sponsored Luke to write this gospel and Acts (also addressed to him). I love what Bishop Ambrose wrote in the fourth century about this: “If you love God, it was written to you.”
It’s very popular today to dismiss the gospels as fiction, as legend written down lifetimes after the events they purport to describe. Luke challenges this notion and insists the gospel is true and to be trusted. Pastor Tim Keller gives three reasons why you can trust the gospels.
First, the New Testament accounts about Jesus are written too early to be legends. The four gospels were all written and began to be distributed during the lives of the eyewitnesses. When Luke wrote, there were people alive—many people—who could verify or deny his story. If you’re writing lifetimes later, you can say what you want—no eyewitnesses exist to dispute what you say. But if you’re writing or speaking with living eyewitnesses around, it better be true, or they may correct you.
ILL: A few weeks ago in staff meeting, I confidently said, “In my 39 years, I can count on one hand the number of people we’ve fired.” A few days ago, one of my staff asked me, “So how many people do you think we’ve fired in the last 20 years?” I said, “Four?” I honestly couldn’t think of many. He smiled and said, “Eleven,” and then read me the names. Oops. An eyewitness! Then those in the room added a couple more. Oops again! Darn eyewitnesses!
Luke insists that there are eyewitnesses to what he’s writing down. Paul treats the resurrection of Jesus the same way. He insists in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared to many people, including “more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still living.” (1 Corinthians 15:6) It’s as though he’s saying, “Don’t believe me? Ask them.”
The gospels were written too early to be legends—the eyewitnesses were still around.
Second, the documents are too counterproductive in their contents to be legends. The theory is that the gospels were written lifetimes later by church leaders who wanted you to believe their view of things because it consolidated their power and built their movement. But there are way too many things in the story that are counterproductive to this view. For example, in those early centuries, women were considered unreliable witnesses; they weren’t even allowed to testify in court. And yet all of the gospels have women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. If you were making up the story, that’s not the way you’d write it! There are many places where the disciples act like jerks—not exactly how you’d write it if you were trying to consolidate your power.
ILL: Let’s say I want to consolidate my power as pastor by making you think that I’m all that—that I’m really spiritual, really have it together, totally awesome! What kind of stories am I going to tell you? I’ll tell stories about my brilliance, about all my answered prayers, about my triumphs. I’m probably not going to tell you stories about my weaknesses and failures and stupidity. So why do I tell you those stories all the time? One reason: because they are true.
In the same way, the gospels contain many things that would have been offensive, or ridiculous to those first century folks. And the biggest one of all: the cross. Crucifixion was scandalous, shameful, humiliating and offensive. If they were making up this story, who would ever think of putting God on a cross! This was highly offensive to people in the first century! Christians were mocked for believing in a crucified God! The best explanation for these, and many other details, to be in the story is simply that they really happened.
The gospels are too counterproductive in their contents to be legends.
Third, they are too detailed in their form to be legends. We are used to modern fiction, novels that read like realistic history. But that is not how ancient legends were written. C. S. Lewis wrote:
“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, and myths all my life, and I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of the gospel texts there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage, or else, some unknown ancient writer, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned how to read.”
Lewis was being a little snarky, but making a fine point: these don’t read like legends, but like real history. Keller’s point, and mine, is simply that the gospels are true. These are not legends, but accurate accounts of what really happened.
The gospel is true and can be trusted.
- Luke’s gospel.
What is Luke writing? We call it a “gospel”—a word that means “good news” and is uniquely applied to the story of Jesus. Luke described it as “an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.” In other words, he is writing a story—the story of what has happened among them—the story of Jesus.
The gospel is a story. It is not just good views; it is good news. It is not just a set of theological propositions; it is the story of God at work in our midst. It is the true story of Jesus.
The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, defined the gospel as the story of Jesus dying for our sins according to the Scriptures and being buried, and Jesus being raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and appearing to many. It is the story of Jesus, the story of His birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Why is it important to understand that the gospel is a story? We are saved by the actions of Jesus rather than the teachings of Jesus. We are saved by what Jesus has done, not by what He taught. Don’t misunderstand me: what Jesus taught is very important. And as followers of Jesus, we want to do what He taught. But we are not saved because we do what He taught, but because we accept what He did.
Every other religion in the world teaches that you are saved by what you do. Here is the teaching: do this and you will be saved. Christianity alone says that you are not saved by what you do, but by what Jesus has done. That’s why we say the gospel isn’t spelled DO, but DONE. It’s not about what you do for God, but what God has done for you in Christ.
If we are saved by what we do, by obeying the teaching, then the story is fundamentally about us. But if we are saved by what Jesus has done, then the story is fundamentally about Him. And that’s clearly the case. This story is about Jesus: who He was, what He said, and most importantly, what He’s done. The gospel is a story—the true story of Jesus.
Here’s the reality: We need more than a teacher; we need a savior. Take the Sermon on the Mount and go try to live it perfectly. You’ll realize right away that it’s brilliant—and that you can’t do it on your own. I need more than a teacher; I need a savior. We are saved by what Jesus has done for us, not what we do for Him. So what about all that teaching? When you hear the story and you are saved, then you naturally think, “What does He want me to do?” Not to be saved, but out of love and gratitude.
All four gospels, Luke’s included, tell the true story of Jesus, and most of that story was about His death and resurrection. As we read Luke’s gospel, we’ll pay attention to the teaching and take it seriously and apply it. But we always want to remember that Luke is not writing to present Jesus as a good moral teacher and example. He is writing the Jesus story—the story of what God has done for us in Jesus.
- Luke’s purpose.
Luke finishes by giving us his purpose for writing:
3 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, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Why is Luke writing his gospel? So “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke wants you to be certain about the gospel, to have confidence in the Jesus’ story that it’s a true story.
I’ve always thought that “the heart cannot rejoice in what the head cannot accept.” If you don’t really believe something, it’s hard to be excited about it.
ILL: Some years back, I wrote a check for my friend’s birthday. Rick has been my associate pastor for 35 years, and a best friend for longer than that. So I wanted to give him something that expressed how much he was worth to me. I wrote him a check for $10,000,000, and said he was worth every penny and more. Did Rick get really excited? Did he run out and buy a new Lexus? Did he hug his wife Janine, and together they jumped up and down, shouting, “We’re rich!” Nope. Why? Because his head told him that this wasn’t real. He knew he could dribble this check all the way to the bank. He knew it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The sentiment was real; the check was bogus.
If you think the gospel is bogus, if you think the story is not true, but just a legend, you’ll never enjoy it, never be excited about, never be moved by it. Your head has to accept it first, then your heart can.
And that’s why Luke starts his gospel with these four verses. He wants Theophilus—and us—to know that what he’s about to tell us is the true story of Jesus, a careful account from eyewitnesses. You can trust the gospel. I want you to accept this with your head, and rejoice with your heart. I want you to be all in! That’s when it’s fun!
For those who are doubting.
For those who want to certain.
For those who want to move from do to done.
For next Sunday: SOAP Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 on the birth of John the Baptist.
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Quoting C.S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (an essay Lewis read at Westcott House, Cambridge, on May 11, 1959). First published in Christian Reflections (1981), later published as Fern-seed and Elephants (1998). This text is taken from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 351.