November 9, 1980 (Evening)
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
THE AIM OF DR. LUKE
I believe the Lord has led me to begin a series of messages on the Gospel of Luke. I would
like to begin by telling you how I came to this decision and how we will proceed.
In the past month or so I have been spending much of my personal devotional time
meditating on the words of Jesus and the way He acted. The result has been that I love this
Man with a newly felt longing. I long for His single-minded devotion to His Father's will to rub
off on me. I long to share His profound understanding of the human heart and His ability to
see through all the outer layers of our lives and into our heart. I long to have His way with
words -- words that always laid bare a person's real loves. I long, like Mary, to sit at His feet
and drink in the living water of His teaching, until it so satisfies my heart that I can be as
free as He was from the love of money and from the love of the praise of men and from
anxiety about tomorrow. I have come away from the gospels hungry to be holy, to be real
and authentic, not to play church or play religion and not to fritter away my short life with
non-essentials. And all these longings and this hunger have driven me to prayer that God
would work me over and not allow me to creep along so slowly in my quest for Christ-
likeness. Out of this meditation and prayer has emerged the desire to study and preach
from one of the gospels.
Then came missions week and my attention was focused on the Great Commission. And
probably because of my experience with Jesus in the gospels the words kept coming back
to me, "Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you." I can remember thinking in
years past that these words must surely grip every pastor's heart and shine on the path of
his preaching and show him the way to go. Jesus said it is the mission of those whom He
sends to teach all the things He commanded and to help people obey them. You can
understand, can't you, the force a statement like that has on a young pastor wondering what
he should preach?
So these two things together, my experience with Christ's teachings in meditation and the
straightforward demand He gave in the Great Commission to teach all His commands, these
two things have given rise to my decision to begin a series on the Gospel of Luke.
Why Luke? First, because I have spent more time studying it than the other gospels.
Second, because Glen is teaching from Matthew on Wednesday, Mark's gospel does not
contain nearly as many of Jesus' teachings as Luke and John is perhaps the most familiar
gospel and omits many of Jesus' most distinctive sayings. Third, we are approaching the
advent season (November 30 is the first Sunday of Advent) and there are eighty verses in
Luke before you get to the famous Christmas passage. These eighty verses are a great way
to lead us up to our Christmas celebration. So I chose Luke.
Now concerning the procedure we will follow. Two principles have to be balanced out. One is
that we preserve the freedom of the Holy Spirit to interrupt and alter our plans. We must not
be so locked into a verse by verse exposition of this book that He cannot hit us with another
text from time to time that we may need to hear even more. That is the principle of freedom.
The other principle to keep in balance with it is the principle of discipline. Preachers are
sinners who, like all sinners, tend to preach what they like and avoid what they don't like.
So we must find a way not to be so selective. Luke tells us in Acts 20:26f what Paul said to
the Ephesians when he left and what I want to be able to say to you when my work here is
done: "I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not
shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." A preacher cannot say that if he
rides one or two hobbyhorses while avoiding other teachings of Scripture. One of the best
ways to fulfill the principle of discipline is to preach through a book of the Bible.
These two principles, freedom and discipline, are in tension because it is not always easy
to tell whether a desire to interrupt a series comes from the Spirit or from a fear of the next
text. But there is no escape from this tension and so all I can promise is that I will do my
best under God to listen to the prompting of the Spirit and to declare the whole counsel of
Let's turn now to Luke 1:1-4, the preface, or prologue to Luke's gospel and not only his
gospel but his record of the Acts of the Apostles, too. If you take Luke and Acts together
you discover that Luke wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, even Paul. (This
is partly why I gave my first son "Luke" for a middle name.) You can see that these two
books are really two volumes of one work when you read the first verses of each. Luke 1:1-
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished
among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the
Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated
everything carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent
Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been
Then Acts 1:1,2:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach
until the day when He was taken up ...
It is clear from this twofold reference to Theophilus and the reference back to the first book
that Luke has intended to write a two-volume work for Theophilus.
But who are these two men? Some have tried to argue that Theophilus is not an individual
person but rather a symbol for all Christians for whom Luke is writing. The evidence is
against this view. It is true that Theophilus is made up of two Greek words (theos and
philus) which would mean "friend of God." But the decisive argument against taking
Theophilus as symbolic is the title "most excellent" in Luke 1:3. This title is used three
other times in Acts in reference to ranking Roman officials: in 23:26 and 24:3 to "most
excellent Felix," the governor of Judea, and in 26:25 to "most excellent Festus," the
successor of Felix. So there is no reason not to believe and good evidence to believe that
"most excellent Theophilus" was a gentile who probably held some important office in the
Roman government. We will come back to Luke's intention in writing to him.
But first, how do we know the author of this two-volume work was Luke, and who was Luke,
anyway? Luke is referred to by name in the New Testament three times. In Colossians 4:14,
Paul writes from Rome to Colossae, "Luke, the beloved .physician and Demas greet you."
In the letter to Philemon, that comes from the same time as Colossians, Paul said (v23f):
"Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark,
Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers." And finally, in 2 Timothy, probably the
last book Paul wrote, also from Rome, to Timothy who was back at Ephesus, Paul said
(4:10f): "Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to
Thessalonica... Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you."
What we learn from these verses about Luke is 1) that he is a physician; 2) he is a "fellow
worker" with Paul in his itinerant ministry; 3) he sticks with Paul to the very end even when
his close associate Demas drops out of the race, in love with the world, and 4)
understandably, he is "beloved." Paul loves Luke. That is no small testimony to Luke's
faithfulness. So Luke's unwavering commitment to the apostle's teaching, evidenced in
Paul's love for his partnership, and Luke's intellectual competence, evidenced in his medical
profession, fit Luke to undertake the most ambitious task of all other New Testament
writers, namely, a two volume work covering the work and teachings of Christ on the earth
and then the history of the spread of the church in its first thirty years. The debt we owe to
Luke is tremendous.
But how do we know it was this Luke who wrote Luke and Acts? The titles at the top of our
gospels: "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and "According to Luke" were added
by the early Christians who first gathered these gospels into one collection. Luke, nor any of
the gospel writers, never mentions his own name. So how do we know who wrote this two-
The main reason is that the earliest list of New Testament books (Muratorian Canon) from
the second century ascribes it to Luke and there is no evidence that it was ever ascribed to
anyone else. So in the light of no plain evidence to the contrary we generally give credence
to early tradition. There is no reason to doubt that Luke, the beloved physician, wrote the
Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Let's go back now to the preface in Luke 1:1-4. What is the main point of these four verses?
The main point is to tell his purpose in writing Luke-Acts. "It seemed good to me, too ... to
write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth
concerning the things about which you have been taught." Luke is writing to persuade this
Roman official (and probably others like him) that the Christian teachings which he has
heard are true. Everything else in these four verses is subordinate to this purpose and helps
to support it.
Two questions should be asked about this purpose to convince Theophilus of the truth of
Christian teaching: 1) Is it important to persuade someone of the truth of Christianity? 2)
How can it be done?
The answer to the first question is, "Yes, it is important to try to persuade people that
Christianity is true." At least, Luke thinks it is. The question is necessary because there are
many today (both professional intellectuals and ordinary lay folks) who conceive of Christian
faith as a leap into the dark, an arbitrary decision to embrace something for which they can
see no adequate reason to believe is true. The Holy Spirit is brought in to replace evidence
in such a way that if you ask a person why he believes the gospel he may answer
something like, "The Holy Spirit witnesses to me that it is true."
But this is not the way Luke understands faith. First of all he is not content with the
evidence that Theophilus already has from those who have taught him. He does not merely
pray for God to tell Theophilus it is all true. He undertakes a very heavy intellectual task: he
writes a fifty-two chapter book! All for the sake of certifying to Theophilus the truth of the
Christian teaching he has heard. Second, Luke praises the Bereans in Acts 17:11 for
testing the apostle's teachings to see if they were true. "Now these Jews were more noble
than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the
Scriptures daily to see if these things were so." Luke was eager to encourage just the
opposite of a blind leap of faith. Third, when recording the resurrection of Jesus and how the
apostles come to faith in the risen Christ, Luke says in Acts 1:3, "To the apostles Christ
presented Himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty
days and speaking of the Kingdom of God." According to Luke, Christ was very concerned
to give proofs -- not, of course, geometric proofs that come from axioms and theorems but
proof in the sense of fully adequate evidence in their experience. Therefore, Jesus did not
want to encourage a blind leap of faith. Otherwise, He wouldn't have lingered forty days.
So I conclude that Luke thinks it is very important to try to persuade people of the truth of
Christianity and that faith, for Luke, is a personal acceptance and readiness to act upon
what one is persuaded to be true. This does not rule out the Holy Spirit, without His work no
one would ever own up to the truth of the gospel. For example, Luke says of Lydia in Acts
16:14, that as she listened to Paul's compelling sermon by the river "the Lord opened her
heart to give heed to what was said by Paul." If God does not open the heart of Theophilus
and our hearts, all Luke's writing is in vain. But the Holy Spirit does not replace persuasive
words, He empowers them and removes the prejudices that keep people from giving heed.
So it is important to try, like Luke, to persuade people of the truth of Christianity.
The other question I asked in view of this is, How can it be done? What will persuade a
reasonable person that Christianity is true? It seems to me that there are two basic ways
we come to be convinced of something: one is to see and hear it for ourselves and then
draw inferences from that direct encounter; the other is to have a witness tell us about it if
we were not there. In this second case our certainty depends on our estimation of the
reliability of the witness and the way his message fits into reality as we see it.
Now, neither Theophilus nor any of us (nor Luke) ever saw or touched or heard Jesus; we
did not see the risen Christ nor any of His miracles, nor did we hear His remarkable
teaching from His own mouth. Luke knows that all the knowledge that Theophilus has of
Christ and in all likelihood all that he will have is secondary, through witnesses. So if
Theophilus or any of us is to be persuaded that Christianity is true we must be convinced of
the reliability of the witnesses and, just as important (perhaps more important), we have to
see that this claim to truth fits in and helps make sense of reality as we experience it.
I believe that Luke wants to provide Theophilus with both of these assurances: the reliability
of his own narrative and the intrinsic fitness of his message to Theophilus' condition, and to
ours. The fitness of his message to our condition, its power to make sense out of our
experience -- that can't be given in the prologue; it has to come out of the narrative itself.
That is what is going to be fun to uncover as we move along from week to week. But the
other means of persuasion, namely, the reliability of his narrative -- that he can and does
bolster in his prologue.
Specifically, Luke tries to bolster Theophilus' confidence in his narrative by referring to three
important facts. First (but not in the order of the text) he says in verse 3 that his narrative is
based on thorough and careful research. "I have followed all things accurately from the
beginning (or for a long time past)." He has followed all things; that is, he does not include
anything that he has not traced back to a reliable source. He has followed all things
accurately; his work has not been careless but painstaking, as befits the seriousness of the
subject. He has followed all things accurately for a long time. He has not been hasty in his
work. He has been patient. That is the first thing that gives integrity to his narrative.
But no matter how careful one is with his research, his narrative can only be as good as his
sources. So Luke stresses the number and the quality of his sources of information. There
are many written sources. "Inasmuch as many have set their hand to compile a narrative of
the things which have been accomplished among us." In all likelihood one of the written
sources that Luke has access to was the Gospel of Mark. I will try to point out why this is
so as we move through the gospel. Verse one guards us against two errors in studying the
gospels. One is the error that our belief in the inspiration of the Bible implies that each writer
got all of his narrative directly from God by dictation. Luke shows clearly that he wrote his
gospel on the basis of sources and research. So inspiration means that God chose Luke
and guided him in his writing so that it would all be true and powerful. The other error that
verse I guards us against is the claim that until the writing of our four gospels Jesus'
teaching and deeds were only passed down orally. If, as Luke says, many had earlier
written down accounts of Jesus' sayings and deeds, then there is no reason to think people
had not done this from the start. So the first thing Luke stresses is the number of his
sources: there are many.
Then he stresses their quality in verse 2: these narratives accord with what the
eyewitnesses have reported, "Just as they were delivered to us by those who from the
beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word." Notice that Luke includes himself
among those who received reports directly from the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word;
"Just as they were delivered to us-... by the eyewitnesses." So not only are there many
sources which he can use to corroborate each other, but even better, he has had direct
access to the eyewitnesses themselves so as to confirm his own narrative by their
These eyewitnesses and ministers of the word are the apostles. We can see this from the
way Luke describes the work of the apostles in Acts: they have the task of bearing witness
to what they have seen and of ministering the word, which probably means preserving the
sayings and deeds of Jesus and teaching this meaning to the churches. We see these two
tasks in several texts. Acts 1:21,22 records how they replaced Judas among the twelve
apostles. Peter says, "One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that
the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day
when He was taken up from us -- one of these men must become with us a witness to his
Then in Acts 6:4, after appointing men to serve the tables, Peter says of the apostles, "We
will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word." Then in Acts 13:31 Paul
refers to the twelve apostles like this: (after His resurrection) "for many days Christ
appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now His
witnesses to the people." Then finally in Acts 26:16, Paul describes how Christ
commissioned him to be a part of this apostolic band by appearing to him and giving him
these very tasks. Christ says, "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to
minister and to bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which
I will appear to you." So the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word with whom Luke could
confirm his work were not just ordinary eyewitnesses; they were the chosen and appointed
instruments of Christ Himself who had the authority of the risen Lord behind their teaching,
they were the apostles.
In summary, then, it is necessary to persuade people of the truth of Christian claims. Dr.
Luke aims to do this by means of his gospel and Acts. The way this could happen for
Theophilus and for us is, first, to see that here is a witness that can be relied on to present
us with the Christ who really was and second, to see in the teaching and life of this Christ a
reality that helps make sense out of our experience and fill our deepest longings.
That is the Jesus I have been finding in my own meditation and I am excited about inviting
Him into our evening services for some time to come.
© COPYRIGHT John Piper