Commentary on Luke

Donald G. Miller
Luke 1:1-4

Luke helps us greatly in the understanding of his Gospel by the information he gives in his preface. In this one sentence of four verses, written in the best classic style of his day, Luke tells us several significant things. First, he mentions the occasion of his writing. "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative" (vs. 1), he, too, has decided to produce one. It was a period when there were a good many attempts to set down written records of the life and ministry of Jesus. This was necessary for several reasons. The gospel was initially preached by those who had been with Jesus from the first (Acts 1:21-22). Their time and effort were given to spreading the story by word of mouth. As the Church began to grow, and to advance rapidly throughout the Roman Empire far from the Holy Land, there were not enough eyewitnesses of all that Jesus did and taught to be in every place. This necessitated the beginning of collections of stories about him, especially the Passion story, and groups of teachings which could be used for preaching and for instruction of new converts. Then, too, as the years went by, some of the Apostles were martyred (Acts 12:1-2), and others were nearing death through old age. It was imperative that their memories of Jesus should be recorded for future generations. Furthermore, as the Church in various places faced difficult problems, it was natural that there should be searched out and recorded those things about Jesus which were helpful in solving these problems. Hence, the first period of oral transmission of the story gave way to the second period of fragmentary collections of Jesus' deeds and words. The third stage naturally followed this. In order to equip the Church more adequately for missionary and instructional work, these fragmentary collections were assembled by various writers into a more ordered and complete story. It was at this third stage that Luke began his work. He makes no judgment on others who were drawing up a narrative, for he includes himself in this group--"it seemed good to me also" (vs. 3). He feels, however, that no one of these stories is quite adequate for the special purpose he had in mind. Hence, he, too, took up the task.

The subject matter of Luke's Gospel is "the things which have been accomplished among us" (vs. 1). This means that Luke is not primarily offering a set of religious ideas, nor a philosophy of life he has worked out, nor advice on how to succeed and be happy. He is primarily telling things that happened. Gospel means "good news," and news is always about something that has taken place. The heart of Luke's story, then, is the glorious news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The word "accomplished" carries with it the idea of certainty, full persuasion, conviction (see Rom. 4:21; 14:5). Luke's subject matter involves well-attested events in which God is the chief actor.

The strongest attestation of these events is the existence of the community which they brought into being. "The things which have been accomplished among us," says Luke. That involves a group, a community of faith, a Church, created by the power of the events to which this Gospel bears witness. Luke's subject matter, therefore, is not something he has concocted. It is rather the voice of the whole community of faith, bearing witness to that which had brought it into being and now sustained its life.

Since Luke came into the Christian Church long after Jesus died, he had to depend on other sources of information for his story. Those from whom he got his material he describes as "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (vs. 2). His informants were authenticated by two facts. First, they were "eyewitnesses." They had been with Jesus himself and had seen with their own eyes the things they told. Second, their witness was confirmed by the fact that they had given their lives to the service of him about whom they spoke. They were "ministers." This does not mean that they were clergymen. The word "minister" literally means one who rows under the command of another. It came, then, to mean one who serves the interests of another, whose function it is to carry out the will of a superior. Those who "delivered" the story to Luke corroborated it by enthroning Jesus as Lord.

What Luke's sources were can be partially determined from his Gospel. It is quite generally agreed that one of them was the Gospel by Mark. (If Mark was not an eyewitness, his Gospel is based on the preaching of Peter, and thus contains eyewitness reports.) Luke has used more than half of Mark's Gospel (356 out of 661 verses), and has followed his general plan of arrangement. The other materials he uses are inserted into Mark's plan.

Besides this large use of Mark, Luke has about 235 verses, mainly the teachings of Jesus, which are found also in Matthew's Gospel. Luke's free rearrangement of the order of these materials, however, suggests that he did not take them directly from Matthew, but took them from an unknown source which he and Matthew used in common. These materials are usually known by the symbol "Q," the first letter of the German word for "source."

Almost half of Luke's Gospel (about 548 out of 1149 verses) is unique, and included in this are some of the most cherished materials we possess. It is impossible to determine where Luke got these materials. According to Acts, Luke was with Paul when he arrived in Jerusalem for the last time. Furthermore, he was with him two years later when he sailed from Caesarea, as a prisoner, to Rome. (Acts 21:17 and 27:1 are both "we-passages," as discussed in the Introduction.) Where Luke was during that two-year period is not known, but the probability is that he spent the time near Paul in the neighborhood of Jerusalem and Caesarea, for he seems to have adopted a permanent policy of staying near Paul (2 Tim. 4:11). During this period he would have had ample opportunity to visit with countless people who were eyewitnesses of the life of our Lord. It may well be that in this way he assembled the materials which he alone uses.

Luke's method was that of a historian. His faith did not rule out the activity of his mind. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit came not without intellectual toil, but through it. A more accurate translation of verse 3 than that given in the Revised Standard Version would be, "having traced the course of all things accurately from the beginning." The word "follow" or "trace" means to follow someone so closely that he is never out of sight. The pursuit of a detective or the careful watching of a bodyguard suggests the diligence with which Luke traced the origin and development of the story he was about to write. The result of this careful search is better suggested by the reading in the margin, "accurately." He has satisfied himself as to the "accuracy" or reliability of all that he tells. And not only has he done this "for some time past," he has also traced the story back to its "beginning," back farther than any of the other Gospel writers, clear back to the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist.

Luke has a plan, for he claims to be writing "an orderly account" (vs. 3). He has selected a very scanty number of possible items that could have been told about Jesus (see John 21:25), and has arranged them in an order which he feels will best serve the purpose which he has in mind for his readers. The order, then, is less chronological and biographical than it is theological.

The readers for whom the Gospel was designed are symbolized by the one to whom the work is dedicated--Theophilus. It has been conjectured that Theophilus was not an individual, but merely a symbolic name for "Christian," since it means "lover of God." The custom of dedicating books to outstanding individuals, however, makes it likely that he was a real person. Who he was or where he lived, we do not know. From the character of the Gospel we can only conclude that Theophilus represented the intelligent Gentile seeker after truth, for whom Luke wrote.

The purpose which Luke sought to fulfill was that people such as Theophilus might "know the truth" concerning the things of which they had "been informed" (vs. 4). To establish the authenticity and trustworthiness of the Christian faith for seeking Gentiles was Luke's aim (see the Introduction).

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