by Chris Ritter

I recently shared some Bible Trivia questions with our church family:

Who wrote more of the New Testament than any other person?

You may want to say Paul because he wrote so many books of the New Testament, but in terms of actual words, Luke wrote more of the New Testament than any other person.  He wrote two books: the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the early Christian movement.  Not only is Luke’s Gospel the longest of the four, but it is also the only one with a sequel. Those two books together comprise the biggest chunk of the New Testament authored by a single person.

What is the only Gospel written by a Gentile?

The answer is Luke.  Luke was a Gentile believer, likely converted under the ministry of Paul.  Just as Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, Luke was written for a Gentile audience.  In fact, it seems to have also been written for a particular Gentile.  More on this in a moment.

Which Gospel tells us the most about the birth of Jesus?

Answer: Luke.  John does not tell us anything about the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus.  Instead, John takes the cosmic, theological view of Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God.  Matthew writes about the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective and records the Visit of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. Mark includes no information on the nativity of Jesus and jumps right into the action with John the Baptist’s public ministry.  Luke, however, takes us all the way back to the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist.  We learn about his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Luke is also the only Gospel to give a story from Jesus’ boyhood.

By the way, we are so rich for having four biographical sketches of Jesus from different sources.  The four Gospels do not conflict with one another.  Rather, they complement each other beautifully.  It is almost like having the Gospel in stereophonic sound, or perhaps a literary composite 3-D image of Jesus.

Which Gospel mentions prayer more than any other?

That would be… Luke.  Luke often mentions Jesus praying or teaching about prayer.  Jesus prays at his baptism.  He often goes off in the wilderness to pray alone.  He prays before choosing his apostles.  He prays for Peter… that his faith would not waiver.  He prays for his executioners from the cross.  Luke also includes some of Jesus’ teachings on prayer that we find nowhere else, like the Parables of the Neighbor at Midnight and the Persistent Widow.  In fact, Luke mentions prayer more than all three of the other Gospels combined.  Luke is sometimes called the Gospel of Prayer.

Some of the most beloved Bible stories are also found only in Luke: The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, the Walk to Emmaus.  He also gives us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the only parable where one of the characters is given a name.

What doctor travelled with the Apostle Paul?

You guessed it: Luke.  The Gospel itself does not mention the name of its author.  But the strong tradition through the Centuries has been that it was written by Luke, a travelling companion of the Apostle Paul.  If you read in Acts, you notice near the end that the narration slips from second person to first person.  All of the sudden, instead of saying, “Paul got on the ship” it says “we got on the ship.”  Whoever wrote Luke and Acts was with Paul for some of his journeys.

In Colossians 4, Paul greets friends who might be reading the letter.  Among this are, “Luke, the beloved physician.”  So, Luke was a doctor.  To be sure, medicine was quite different back then.  Doctors were not always the financial upper crust folks with eight years of Medical School.  They were more a part of the artisan class and would have learned their trade by apprenticing under other physicians.  (You became a doctor the same way you became a blacksmith… you trained under one until you were one.)  But this Luke is highly literate, and obviously great writer.  His penmanship must have been better than most doctors today because what he wrote could actually be read!

One last question:  Which book of the Bible is Chris Ritter’s favorite?

The answer is Luke.  I am so looking forward to sharing this amazing Gospel with you from now through Easter of next year as we journey with Dr. Luke through the life of Jesus.

One thing that is abundantly clear when you read Luke is that the entrance of Jesus into the world changes everything

  • Mary praises God when she is pregnant with Jesus and says that God is going to lift up the lowly and cast the powerful from their thrones.  (Luke 1)
  • Aged Simeon takes Baby Jesus in his arms in the temple and proclaims that he will be cause for the falling and rising of many.  (Luke 2)
  • Jesus comes out of the wilderness in the Power of the Holy Spirit after his baptism and announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Captives will be released.  The Blind will receive their sight.  The oppressed will be set free.  (Luke 4)

The Gospel has arrived in the person of Jesus.  This changes everything. 

Today we are going to study the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 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, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4

You have heard of famous last words, but there are also famous first words.  When I was in school, we had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution.  These important first words that signal the purpose of the document.  Some books are known by their opening lines:

  • “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick by Herman Melville).
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens).
  • “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina by Leon Tolstoy).

Luke’s prologue tells us what we are about to read and how he approached his task.  It is clear the Luke is writing in the interest of Truth.

The Trouble with Truth

Our world seems to have given up on the idea of truth. When I was young, I remember having news that would tell us what happened.  I am sure things were told with a certain slant, but it seemed to at least be a slant we all shared.  Sometime during my life we started having news that told us what happened and what to think about it. Now, it seems, we have gone to news that tells us what we want to hear and only provides information in support of that view.  I don’t care if you are a conservative, moderate, or a liberal… there is an echo chamber out there to back up what you want to believe.  We don’t just feel entitled to our own opinions.  We feel entitled to our own facts.

I am not here to talk politics.  Jesus didn’t come to take sides.  He came to take over. Philosophically, we live in late post-modernism which concludes that every point of view is merely a view from a point. We have lost a sense of meta-narrative… of a big story that we all share. 

No, arena, it is supposed, is more saturated in a subjective understanding of truth than religion and faith:  “I believe what I believe.  You believe what you believe. You don’t try to change what I believe, and (in exchange) I won’t tell you how ridiculous what you believe really is.” 

If there is any over-arching narrative, it is only that spiritual reality is too vast and unknowable for any single faith system to have it all.

Have you ever heard of the six blind men and the elephant?  The parable goes that there were six blind men who heard about the existence of elephants and they always wanted to know what an elephant was like. One day, they heard that there was a man with an elephant that they could inspect.

One blind man reached out and grabbed the elephant’s tail. He said, “Ah, an elephant is very much like a rope.”

Another blind man grabbed one of the elephant’s legs and said, “Ah, an elephant is very much like the trunk of a tree.”

Another felt the side of the elephant. “Ah, an elephant is very much like a wall.”

Another touched the elephant’s ear, “Ah, an elephant is very much like a fan.”

One grabbed the elephant’s tusk, “Ah, an elephant is like a spear.”

Another grabbed the elephant’s trunk, “No, an elephant is like a great snake.”

Which one was right?  Each blind man reported correctly from their limited experience, but they were also all wrong, their perspective being so limited.  So it is, the moral goes, with God and faith.

That sounds pretty good to our post-modern ears. “Spiritual reality is so vast and unknowable, we only have a part of it.”  This seems like a humble posture to take in relationship with the divine.

It also seems to put everyone on level ground and that makes us feel good (which for some people is the main point of faith.)  Maybe all religions are just different paths up the same mountain?

But there is actually a seventh man in the story… the narrator.  He sees the whole elephant. When we tell this story, we actually make ourselves that seventh man.   The presence of the narrator really defeats the purpose of the parable.  The parable is actually a subtle faith claim that all faiths can be reconciled as touching different aspects of the same reality.

The parable fails to capture that the truth claims of various faiths are often mutually contradictory.  Consider one person claiming an elephant is as big as a house and the other saying it is so small it could fit in their pocket.  If one is right, the other must be wrong. 

What if the elephant could talk and could tell you about itself?  The Abrahamic faiths are built on the idea of divine revelation.  Christianity, Islam, and Judaism believe that God has spoken and revealed truth that must be heeded.  If Islam’s revealed claims are true… Jesus is a Prophet ranking below Muhammed.  That contradicts what Christian truth teaches about Jesus.

I love what C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity in which he chronicles his journey from atheism to Christian faith:

If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the strangest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

Because all truth belongs to God, we can find some truth in all religions and faith systems.  Buddhism has some worthy ideas… but I will never be a Buddhist.  At the end of the day, Christians believe that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. His virgin birth, virtuous life, vicarious death, and victorious resurrection frame a new reality.

Luke believed that, too.  The entrance of Jesus Christ into the world is a definitive game-changer.  The old order of things has been fulfilled and a new day has dawned.

Let’s take a look:

“Many have undertaken to draw up and account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.” (Luke 1:1)

Luke is aware of other Gospels.  For instance, Luke seems to have used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources.  Fifty percent of Mark’s Gospel is contained in Luke’s Gospel.  But Mark’s Gospel is brief and focused on chronicling the things Jesus did.  Luke wants to provide context.  He is more of a storyteller and historian.

Luke will demonstrate, among other things, that Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire.  This was a big question that Christians faced as they evangelized the Roman world: Wasn’t this Lord you are proclaiming crucified by the Roman Government?  Luke takes a positive posture toward the pax romana.  He puts the story of Jesus in context of the wider history of the empire.  This Christmas, for instance, we will read that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  There are many such references to secular history in Luke and Acts.

“just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.”(Luke 1:2)

In any court, there is nothing quite like the testimony of eyewitnesses.  If you want to know what happened, talk to the people who were there.

Luke bases his work on the evidence of eyewitnesses.  It is just possible that Luke learned about the Nativity of Jesus by interviewing Mary.  When he mentions “servants of the word” he is talking about the apostles and those who communicated the apostolic message.  The Gospels were written after epistles when people noticed that the apostles were passing away.  There was urgency about capturing their remembrances of Jesus.

Jesus never wrote a book.  Instead, he entrusted his message to witnesses of his life and teachings.  Luke was not one of these apostles, but Luke’s Gospel is apostolic in that it captures the teaching of the apostles. 

“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 1:3)

Luke has done his homework.  He investigating everything from the beginning.  He sorted through the many verbal traditions about Jesus to try to get to what really happened. 

Luke states that it is important for him to write an “orderly account.”  Putting things in the correct chronological order is important to him.  Other Gospels are not that interested in this.  John, for instance, is organized around theological truths about Jesus.  (He puts the triumphal entry in Chapter Two instead of in the last week of Jesus’ life!). Matthew organizes his Gospel around the teachings of Jesus.  Thumbing through Matthew, you notice big blocks of “red ink” where Jesus is speaking.  Luke follows Mark’s basic chronology, but adds a lot of details that Mark leaves out.

We probably should talk about the Bible’s relationship with secular history.  Our Christian scriptures are both a treasure for historians and scientists and a great frustration to them.  The Bible, for sure, is an invaluable tool for understanding history.  It contains records that exist nowhere else.  Since we are talking about Luke, I will just mention that Luke’s description of a shipwreck in Acts 27-28 is regarded as one of the best descriptions of ancient maritime travel in existence.  Our understanding of travel by sea in the First Century would be much poorer without the details he provides.

There are many examples of the ways that the Bible informs history.  But the Bible also frustrates historians.  The Scriptures are interested in different questions than our modern historians are asking.  There may be a very significant person in world history that the Bible dismisses with just a line or two.  The Bible was written to instruct us about God’s faithfulness in the midst of human unfaithfulness.  Its use of history is highly selective.

The same is true with science.  For years, scientists have been asking the big questions of how and when our universe came to be.  If you hand these scientists our scriptures, they will read that God spoke… and it came to be.  That may satisfy the faithful, but it does nothing to answer the questions they are asking.  Our six days of creation does nothing to jibe with their observations.  When they read about the couple in the garden with the talking snake, they throw up their hands altogether.

Is Genesis 1-3 true?  Absolutely.  But it is answering a different question.  Genesis is speaking to the who and why of Creation.  Science is asking when and how.  The creation passage is answering the question of purpose… something scientific inquiry can never provide.  As it says in Hebrews 11, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Hebrews 11:3)

Never pit science and faith against each other.  Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Luke addresses his Gospel to someone named Theophilus.  This person, too, is mentioned in the opening lines of Acts.  Who is Theophilus?  We don’t know.  This is a Greek name meaning “Love of God.”  Some have suggested that maybe Luke uses this name as a general term for believers in Jesus.  But that theory is not supported by his use of the honorific title “most excellent.”  This would be the customary way to greet a government official or someone of importance.  It seems that Theophilus is a recent convert (or at least an inquirer) to Christianity.  He many have even donated the money for Luke to do all the hard work of investigating, compiling, and writing his orderly and authoritative biography of Jesus.

“So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4)

My daughter is a journalist for the Kansas City Star.  I studied journalism earlier in life and learned about the “5 W’s and the H”:  Who, What, When, Why, Where, and How.  These are the questions every trained journalist should ask in order to get the story straight.

Something very unique happened at the coming of Jesus.  God stepped into our human history.  Our faith, therefore, is inextricably tied to events that happened in First Century Palestine.  In the Christ Event, the who, what, when, why, where and how all become part of our core message.  The birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus frame a new reality for us.  The claim, “Jesus Christ is Lord” is historical, theological, political, economic, scientific, etc.

Our salvation was accomplished through God’s acts in human history.  We can’t know our salvation unless we know the story.  Luke says he is writing (to Theophilus and us) so that we might be sure of the things we have been taught.

My salvation has a past and it has a future.  It has roots and it has wings.  What God did in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will reverberate for all eternity.  This changes everything. 

Luke can’t wait to tell this story and neither can I.