Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
And so we come to the end of this journey, studying together the gospel of Luke. We began just over 6 years ago, and 214 sermons later we are at the close. You have been a discerning, thoughtful, hungry, questioning congregation, and it continues to be an immense privilege to preach to you. I think you are a little bigger than when we started. I thank God for sparing me to teach the Bible from this pulpit for so long. The full written text of all those sermons on Luke has been preserved on the website as also are all the recordings of these messages, and every day hundreds of people visit and listen or read. So the value of these sermons will last while the world wide web endures.
Let me start by commenting on the last words of the gospel, “they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” The watching world in the first century must have addressed such questions to the first disciples as why it was necessary for them to go to a “different church,” a Christian church. What was wrong with the Jewish religion? Shouldn’t the temple services at Jerusalem, where the true God was worshiped, be maintained? Luke is answering that question; he begins his gospel by speaking of the temple, of Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. Jesus was in the temple at the age of twelve, Jesus tempted on the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus teaching in the temple, and so forth. But Luke also points out that Jesus found it necessary to purify the temple, to foretell the destruction of the temple, and to forsake the temple. He makes it clear that Jesus was taken prisoner by the temple authorities, who then mocked him and condemned him. At the beginning of the book, Luke shows us a priest who could not give a blessing in the temple, and at the end he shows us a Priest-King who blesses his own outside Jerusalem and its temple just before he ascends to heaven, after which his disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God.”
When you go on and read the book of Acts, you see that Luke continues there in the same vein, making the point that Christianity is not a revolutionary movement that rejects the temple: rather, it is the temple that has rejected the gospel. All through the book of Acts the “temple” is hostile to the Lord Jesus. It won’t listen to him, and then judgment is inevitable. The vials of God’s wrath will be poured out, and the temple will be destroyed. Yet the gospel continues and spreads through the world. So here at the end of Luke’s wonderful plantation, in the very last words about them staying continually in the temple praising God, we see another fascinating tree growing.
Now there is a well-known saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees.” We have had 214 trees to examine, but I want to end today with a last look at the whole of Luke’s Wood, in other words, the origin and the dimensions of this entire gospel. It was the Frenchman Renan in the year 1877 who said that Luke was “the most beautiful book in the world,” and I wholeheartedly concur. There was a time when I’d have said that about Mark’s gospel, but in recent years my focus has been on Luke. I have lived in it and it’s a gripping read. I cannot understand why everyone who reads this book in an honest, humble spirit doesn’t at the end of it fall at the feet of the Jesus that’s presented there crying, “My Lord and my God.” No one will perish because God did not make absolutely clear who he is, and who is his Son Jesus Christ.
The two parts of Luke’s work, the gospel and the Acts make up over a quarter of the New Testament. In the Text of Nestle’s Greek gospels Mark’s gospel consists of 57 pages, John’s of 70, Matthew’s of 87 while Luke takes nearly 95 pages, the longest book in the whole New Testament. Luke is longer than Matthew because of the amount of space that Luke gives to the narratives of the birth of Jesus and also to Christ’s resurrection. Luke is twice as long as Matthew concerning those events. Then when the preaching tour of Galilee comes to an end Luke uses three times as much space in describing the Lord Jesus leaving that country area and he slowly walks up to Jerusalem, and Luke describes the encounters of Jesus on that route.
- IT WAS A MAN NAMED LUKE WHO WROTE THIS GOSPEL.
i] The gospel was written by Paul’s companion. The third and fifth books of the New Testament were written by Luke, but he nowhere signs either book. Both the apostles Paul and Peter begin their writings with their names as the authors, but Luke doesn’t do that in either of his books. One reason we know it was written by Luke comes from outside the Gospel. It is seeing references to him in three of Paul’s letters. When the apostle ends his letter to the Colossians he sends them greetings from various people. He mentions Mark (the cousin of Barnabas), Aristarchus, and a man called Jesus (whose other name was Justus), and finally we’re told that “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you . . .” Here is Paul’s workmate and colleague.
In the letter to Philemon (which was written about the same time), Paul mentions roughly the same group of fellow workers and again Luke is there (v.24). Then we learn from the last chapter in 2 Timothy that Paul wanted Timothy to take Mark along with him to Rome. Paul adds: “Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim.4:10&11). Those five words about Luke speak volumes. So we learn that faithful Luke stayed with Paul till the very end, and that he had been his companion on many journeys.
But the most important reason we know Luke was the author of these two works of his is from what he writes in the Acts of the Apostles. You read that book steadily until you get to chapter 16, and all through the first half of the book the pronoun “they” is used repeatedly. So at the beginning of chapter 16 the writer says, “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia . . . they attempted to go into Bithynia. . . they went down to Troas” and then in verse 10 the pronoun changes: Paul saw a vision and heard the words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”, and the dynamics of the narrative for some reason change at that point. We read, “immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The pronoun “we” continues until they reach Philippi, where Luke switches back to “they”, but then in chapter 20, starting at verse 5, the pronoun “we” is used again: “We sailed away from Philippi.” Throughout the rest of the book, for nine chapters, Luke uses “we” and “us” regularly right up to the last chapter. Luke was evidently on the boat to Rome in the storm with the Euroclydon blowing, and he was in the shipwreck on Melita with Paul: “The natives showed us unusual kindness” (Lk. 28:2), Luke could say in the words of Max Boice, singing of famous rugby victories of the Welsh side, “I was there.” Luke was the eye-witness of many of the things he records in his two books.
So the author of the Gospel according to Luke was one of Paul’s fellow workers and he knew him intimately. The authority of the teaching of the apostle Paul structures and endorses all that Luke wrote. There isn’t a leaf of Indian paper that you could insert between the teaching of Luke and the teaching of Paul. He heard Paul preaching and debating and persuading on many occasions. He was an eyewitness to the spreading of the gospel and its reception throughout the Mediterranean world, so Luke was able to write a vivid factual account of this for the New Testament.
ii] The material for his writings was gathered by Luke himself. He was on the ground, and he interviewed and talked to people. There was no ghost writer involved. It was Luke the scientist who researched and wrote this book, and he doesn’t ask us simply to take what he writes on trust; he tells us that he was appealing to a wide base of evidence. Several others had also written about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and Luke had used those writings as sources. He’d been in touch with eyewitnesses who’d told him what they’d seen and heard, probably Mary the mother of Jesus, what she had treasured up in her heart. And, perhaps he’d listened to accredited teachers within local communities. If you can imagine a village in ancient Palestine where many couldn’t read or write and few of those who did possessed any manuscripts, yet everyone had been conditioned from childhood to charge their memories to retain loads of information. There were bright, intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful people among them. In addition they had many official chroniclers. So when some great event would happen – an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a battle, or the visit of an emperor, then within a day or two the history would be told all round the villages and the isolated homes, and the account of the event would settle into a regular form. Everyone would know the story, but some of the better storytellers in the village would be recognized by the others as the right people to tell it.
And that’s what happened in the establishing of an oral tradition. The men or even women wouldn’t need to distort the story or amplify it; if they’d done this then people would notice and set them straight. We can make a comparison to the fact that we can’t change the words of our national anthems. So Dr. Luke would have been able to go round the villages of Palestine and Syria 20 or 30 years after the resurrection of Christ, listening to the accounts of Jesus coming to their communities and what he did and said, all told by the accredited and sympathetic chroniclers — ‘the stewards of the word’, as Luke calls them — and he’d know that he was in touch with solid, reliable evidence that testified to the early events naively and accurately.
So why is Luke writing it all down? A fair guess is that it was in the 60s that Luke composed his gospel and the main reason he’s writing it is that the message about Jesus had spread like wild fire far and wide, way beyond the original communities in the regions of Galilee and Samaria that Jesus himself visited. Christian tradesmen and sailors had certainly reached Wales by the time Luke began to write this gospel. Such unofficial New Testament missionaries had carried the message in all directions, and there was world-wide curiosity to know more about this Jesus. And doubtless there were also garbled, muddled and misleading reports circulating about who exactly this unusual man was, what he did and said, and what had happened to him.
So Luke knew of other writings that had begun the task of putting the life of Christ down on papyrus, the early paper, while Luke had a special Gentile audience in mind, an educated, intelligent, enquiring public. He addresses a certain, ‘most excellent Theophilus’ in his preface. Now that may have been a real person, perhaps a Roman governor or a local official, whom Luke had come to know; or this name might have been a literary device, a way of addressing anyone who has heard about Christianity, and who is perhaps ‘a lover of God’ (that’s what ‘Theophilus’ means in Greek). He does imply that ‘Theophilus’ had already been officially taught something about Jesus and what it meant to follow him, so perhaps Luke also intended this publication to be for recent converts eager to learn more.
Then there was an additional factor constraining him to write this gospel then. He was living in dangerous times. There was a war on. Luke was writing in the late 60s, and that was the time of a horrendous war raging in Palestine. The Jews first rebelled against the occupying Roman forces in 66, and finally, after a long siege, Jerusalem was destroyed in 70. The result was that many towns and villages where Jesus had been seen and known were decimated. The older generation was being dispersed or was dying out, and so steps had to be taken to preserve the message of Jesus’ gospel for future generations, and that curse would embrace us in Wales in the 21st century, that our congregation should be built on the foundation of the apostles, not on the foundation of German higher critical scholarship.
Luke was in a good position to gather information about Christ’s ministry on earth. I have told you that John Wenham has written an interesting essay putting forward his view that Luke was the companion of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and that those two men were heading for Luke’s own home when Jesus caught them up and talked with them. Certainly without dispute Luke was acquainted with Mark over many years, and knew what Mark wrote. Luke stayed with Paul at the home of the deacon and evangelist Philip who had had such success in preaching in Samaria and bringing the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 21:8). Imagine listening to those three men talking together for hours and days! Luke also stayed at the house of Mnason, one of the first disciples (Acts 21:16). While in Jerusalem, he was present at a meeting between Paul and James, the brother of the Lord (Acts 21:8). During Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea, which lasted about two years, Luke had lots of time to assemble materials for his history of early Christianity in its two volumes. He knew all the main players at the beginning of the Christian faith and he probed them with the indispensable questions: Who? What? When? Where? How?
Luke was also well read in the international history of the period, for example he writes about the birth of Jesus and he tells us that it coincided with “the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk. 2:2). It was fact, not fairy tales, that Luke was writing. He knew the difference and so did his readers. There was the famous Greek historian of Rome, Polybius, really the founder of modern historiography, and Polybius tells us that he wanted to “simply record what really happened and what he really said.” That was Luke’s aim and he did it so well. The late theologian Dr. Otto Piper didn’t hold to the high view of the inspiration of Scripture that I hold to, but he wrote after the Second World War in the Union Seminary Review, “Whenever modern scholarship has been able to check up on the accuracy of Luke’s work the judgment has been unanimous: he is one of the finest and ablest historians in the ancient world.”
So we have spent six years studying the life of Jesus written by Luke for one primary reason, that it is a true historic account of what happened on this planet 1980 years ago, when the prophesied Messiah finally appeared and began a very public ministry. He said the things that Luke records; he did the things Luke describes. The book is factually accurate; it is carefully researched; it is well organized, and it is beautifully and movingly written. You can understand an interesting fact, that Luke was made the patron saint of painters. And of course Dr. Luke did all this under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The research undertaken by Luke was orchestrated by divine providence. When you grasp that then the consequences are momentous. Everything changes. The God who made the world and permitted the fall, has planned the world’s redemption through Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God, and the Saviour of all who repent of their sin and turn from it to put their trust in him. He died as the Lamb of God to take away our sins, and it is true! He rose the third day and it is true! He ascended to heaven and lives to keep us and take us to himself, and it is true! And I don’t see any better reason for becoming Christians than that.
- IT WAS A GOSPEL THAT LUKE WROTE.
At the very beginning of these 24 chapters Luke explains to his readers what a gospel is.
i] A Gospel is a certain type of writing. To know the Lord we are tied to words on a page, to writing, not to choreography or musical instruments or drama or oratorios or drug induced trips, but to a book. In writing a book Luke was not unique; three others were also to write gospels. It’s quite possible that Luke was able to make some use of Mark’s Gospel to help him write his. Whether that is so we are uncertain, but certainly from the four gospels you can know about Jesus; you can grow in your admiration for the Son of God. Never stop reading them. You can also guarantee from God’s decision to write in a book the good news of Christ that there will be other counterfeit books written to downgrade and dilute the Bible and to promote other religions. So we have, for example, the Koran, and the book of Mormon, and Rome’s claim that its popes can also speak ex cathedra and infallibly. So Luke is a book.
ii] A Gospel is a narrative; it is news, good news written down. It is not a collection of proverbs or blessed sayings or a political agenda or a rule book. So Luke’s Gospel is made up of incidents and conversations in the life of Jesus brought together in chronological order to form a connected and single narrative about him, his person, his life and times. It is intended to be read beginning at the beginning and read through to the end because it forms one connected account of Christ’s human life. It starts in Jerusalem and it ends in Jerusalem as the centre of all God’s great purposes and works. So Luke’s gospel is a message about Jesus Chrsit.
iii] A Gospel is about things that have been fulfilled. It is not like the Communist Manifesto that says that things are in a terrible state and that the workers of the world need to rise up and work together for a better future, to lose their chains to make a happy world. Luke’s gospel describes a divine purpose or plan that was in the mind of God, revealed to his prophets, and now carried out in the fullness of time by his Son. The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are filled with Old Testament references which underpin the whole life and work of Jesus. He is the one who fulfils the true meaning of the history of the people of Israel. Luke’s gospel is largely written in the past tense.
iv] A Gospel is a book written with a bias, with the purpose that its readers may believe in Christ and have eternal life through him. People should obtain a well-grounded faith in God on the basis of real-life facts about Jesus’ life, teaching, claims, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. That is the reason Luke tells us the story of Jesus, not to satisfy our curiosity, entertain us, and tickle our fancies but that we may become believers and disciples. The gospel answers our doubts and questions, leads us to trust in him as the Son of God, and to give us an enlightened and educated faith in him. We are not to be perennial children with a childish faith.
- LUKE’S GOSPEL HAS A CERTAIN STRUCTURE.
We are really asking how the Son of God planned his public ministry, because what Luke does is to stick to the chronology of Jesus’ life. A simple overview of his gospel is that in the first three chapters the theme is, “He’s come!” In chapters 4 through 21 the theme is, “He seeks!” And in chapters 22 through 24 the theme is, “He saves!” Let me put a little flesh on those bones for a moment.
i] From chapter 1 to chapter 4 and the 13th verse Luke writes about the arrival of the little Lord Jesus and his preparation for his public ministry. The theme of those chapters is, “The Coming of the Son of Man.”
ii] From the mid-point of chapter 4 to chapter 9 and verse 50 Jesus goes to Galilee. He leaves the nation of Israel and he enters Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14) and for these six chapters he teaches and counsels and show his power over creation, over demons, over disease and over death. The theme of those chapters is, “The Ministry of the Son of Man.”
iii] In chapter 9 our Lord leaves Galilee and he sets his face steadily to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We’re not half way through the gospel but from now on Jesus drives on and on to the cross. This was the most important journey in the history of the world and Luke describes it in detail right up to chapter 19 and verse 27. And all through this time he is training his disciples about who he is, what he has to do and the nature of true discipleship. He meets mounting opposition and so I am not sure whether to call this fourth section, “The Son of Man Trains the Twelve” or “The Rejection of the Son of Man.”
iv] Finally, in the last five chapters Luke describes the trial and suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, all that he once and for all did to save us, and we call that section, “The Salvation of the Son of Man.”
Now remember that this gospel of Luke has a context. It is not meant to be a separate book. It is one of four gospels, and it is followed by Acts, Luke’s narrative of the spread of the message of Jesus Christ which Luke sees as the history of all that our Lord continued to do and teach. And then that history is further followed in the New Testament by many brilliant letters that explain and interpret the consequences of being a disciple of Jesus for Gentiles living in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, and for Jewish Christians too. And they all share one remarkable feature, that although the writers are different men with different personalities and experiences yet the message they bore witness to was the same message. Luke is simply a part of that united testimony to the Lord Jesus.
But there is one other thing, that what you read in that mega-form in all the 27 books of the New Testament, what Luke has compressed and recorded in his gospel in a mini-form, by an observation, an illustration, a claim, a miracle, one after another. Luke can refer back to the story of creation in chapter 3; he can cruise through the history of Israel in chapter 1; he can interact with Jewish leaders and Roman centurions in chapter 2 and elsewhere; he reaches forward to the end of the age and the new creation in chapter 20. And it is all here, the theology of Paul, in miniature in Luke’s gospel.
Also Luke’s gospel begins in a totally supernatural way with a virgin’s conception of a holy child. The gospel cannot be understood in purely naturalistic terms. The living God is at work in the life of Christ from the beginning. Luke’s gospel reaches its climax thirty-three or so years later on a gallows, a rough blood-stained commonly used cross of wood, where the man Christ Jesus hangs between two condemned criminals outside the city of Jerusalem under the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Then again our Lord is vindicated by a supernatural wok of resurrection and ascension to the throne of God. The miraculous is present throughout.
Jesus is no ordinary human being; he is the pre-existent Son of God. He came into this world to claim his father David’s throne over the whole of time and space. As a result his story does not stop at his death but it takes on a new beginning with his resurrection and ascension into God’s heavenly presence where the crucified one now rules as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).
- YOU NEED SUCH A NARRATIVE TO UNDERSTAND THE NARRATIVE OF YOUR OWN LIFE.
People in Wales live on fictional narratives. Millions listen to the Archers on the radio each day. Millions watch all the soaps on TV every lunchtime and evening in the English language and in Welsh. What is totally lacking in all of them is a credible Christian value system, Christian theology and Christian ethics. This is how the masses pass their lives away, by watching the stories of mundane lives facing huge problems that are solved in the twinkling of an eye to meet another immense problem, as speedily solved . . . except for death whose ongoing consequences are never addressed. There are sociologists and commentators who study the place and power of narratives in our culture and they come up with the opinion that men and women need accessible narratives in order to understand themselves and bring organization and meaning into their existence. The people who watch the soaps conclude, “None of these people are Christians, and yet they get by with their massive troubles and so I’ll get by too.” Our post-modern and relativistic age delights in stories. Now the meta-narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these big stories of this colossal figure Jesus, provide a total framework for giving meaning to existence and to our futures as we approach death. They tell, “This is where the world comes from; this is who God is; this is why men treat others in such a diabolical way; this is how you should live; this is where you can find redemption; this is truth; this is what lies beyond the grave . . .” But the world turns from the narrative of truth and in its absence they suffer irreparably. They lose hope. They have nothing to believe in that transcends themselves. The story of Jesus is the best and brightest of all the meta-narratives, one that more than any other has the power to shape our destinies and remake us in his own moral and spiritual likeness. We plead with you to consider it, and to read it, or to go to a church that explains this gospel. As John draws nearer the end of his gospel he writes these words; “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30&31). Then choose life! Who wouldn’t? Choose life! Those ho hate me love death. Don’t love death, rather love the conqueror of death, the one who claimed, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the one who rose, the one who lives now, the one who is alive and is here today. Believe on him and have life in his name.
18th August 2013 GEOFF THOMAS