“Certainty and Continuity”
November 25, 2018
he gospel is the fulfillment of God’s Big Story.
I. The Certainty of the Gospel (Luke 1:1-4)
II. The Continuity of the Gospel (Luke 1:5-25)
In 1993, when Trinity was less than a year old, and met at Webster Intermediate School, we studied the gospel of Luke. That’s 25 years ago. It’s been that long since I preached this great book, so full of truth and so moving, that I’ve felt led to do it again, all the way through. With breaks for other things we won’t finish until Easter of 2020. But it’ll be worth it. Every word of this book reveals Jesu, glorifies God and edifies us. As we study, I hope you’ll fall more deeply in love with Jesus, the one whose deep compassion for you is central
We’ll start with the first two chapters, through the end of the year. These are the Christmas texts we’ve looked at often. But they so perfectly lay the foundation for Luke that to skip them would be like building a building starting with the third floor. So, today, Luke 1:1-25. The first four verses are Luke’s formal introduction, focused on the certainty of the gospel record. The rest begin the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They focus on the continuity of the Gospel with God’s Old Testament covenant and promises. We’ll see today that we can have certainty because the Gospel is the fulfillment of God’s big story.
Luke 1:1-4 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
I said these verses are the formal introduction. In fact, this is one of the most formal pieces of writing in the New Testament. The Greek is classical Greek, rather than the usual Koine Greek. Luke formally tells how and why he’s written this book. He says that his account is based on eyewitness testimony, that it’s the result of careful investigation, and it leads to certainty. So was the author an eye-witness of Jesus? No. He says he’s writing up the things that were done “just as those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” The author is not a first hand eye-witness, but he got his information from those eyewitnesses.
So who was ‘Luke’ whose name appears on the earliest copies of this Gospel? Well, it’s clear the author of Luke was also the author of Acts. Listen to Acts 1:1 “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.”
The author of Luke is the author of Acts, and the author of Acts was one of Paul’s co-workers. Acts 16, 21, and 27 to 28 are all written in first person. That is, they say ‘we’, implying strongly that the person writing, was also present when these events happened. Luke fits this data. He was one of Paul’s co-workers, mentioned three times. He was almost certainly a Gentile, a Greek speaker who became a believer through Paul’s ministry. Paul even says that Luke was a physician, a medical doctor, and his Gospel has a medical point of view. Finally the ‘we’ sections of Acts, include quite a long period of time in Judea when Luke could have done his research among the eye-witnesses, including the Apostles, and possibly Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Notice, though, that Luke says: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us.” Luke does not claim to be the only one compiling the history of Jesus. We know, of course, of three other Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John. There were probably other verbal or written accounts, which also kept alive the teachings, miracles, suffering and resurrection of Jesus. Remember, the story of Jesus was, if you’ll excuse the analogy, the Trump presidency of its day. It generated incredible interest.
Luke and the others apparently felt the accounts should be written down. Maybe the eye-witnesses were getting old, maybe the church had grown so not many could hear the eye-witness accounts. For whatever reason, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all decided the events and teachings needed to be written. Thus the Gospels. But Luke’s was probably not the first. As we study these books, there is a clear parallel between what Mark wrote, and parts of what Matthew and Luke wrote. I believe Luke used Mark as a source, but checked things out, talking directly to eye-witnesses, and adding material like the birth narratives.
Then he organized the material. Verse 3: “it seemed good to me also, . . . to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” “Orderly” could be translated ‘chronological,’ but in fact Luke is only broadly chronological. The first two chapters give the birth narratives of Jesus and of John the Baptist. Chapter 3 introduces John’s ministry, and chapters 4-19 show the ministry of Jesus, but not chronologically. Instead Luke gives, in the works and words of Jesus a careful series of episodes that gradually reveal his mission. Only in chapters 19-24 do we return to the chronology of his suffering, death and resurrection. Michael Wilcock likens this orderliness to a feast. He says: “It should whet our appetite to know what pains Luke has taken to prepare this meal, especially if we have become too accustomed to living on spiritual snacks.” I agree. This is not talk about Jesus, this is not dry theology. This is Jesus himself, living, moving and acting. He is food for the soul, the center of faith. When we study this book we experience him in new, challenging ways.
Luke addresses this careful account to someone named “Theophilus.” This common Greek name means “lover of God.” Some commentators, noting the meaning, have said this was not an individual person, but that Luke wrote for the whole Christian community. That’s possible. More likely there was an individual, a Theophilus who had heard about Jesus, and hungered to know more. He may have been an official. He’s addressed with a complimentary, formal greeting. Whoever he was, Luke wrote so that he could have certainty. Michael Wilcock says “Luke places the word ‘certainty’ emphatically at the end of this long sentence. Theophilus may have been brought up in pagan religion, losing its meaning as its gods multiplied. He may have had a strong desire for truth.”
I think in our day there are many who have grown up in the church but as adults have begun to lose certainty about the faith. In Luke’s gospel God offers certainty about the basic truths of Christianity. Wilcock says “Such knowledge can be yours. How? By a mystical experience? By a deep study of philosophy? No: by reading and meditating on the plain facts of the story of Jesus, set out here in Luke’s Gospel. That is where you may come to know the basic certainties of life.” Do you see what Wilcock is driving at? This Gospel of Luke is intended to help us know for sure. It’s based on eyewitness evidence. It’s compiled after careful investigation, and it instructs us in the truth about Jesus.
But there is more than certainty here. There is also continuity. Though written to a Greek audience, Luke also intends to show continuity with God’s revelation to Israel. In Luke’s account the ministries of Jesus, and John the Baptist, are not so much a new work being done as a renewal of the work God had already been doing through Abraham and Moses, the kings and the prophets. We can be certain of the Gospel because it is the climax of God’s Big Story.
Luke begins his narrative with a time marker. Luke 1:5 “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” Herod the Great was king under the Roman Empire, from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. He had done some great building projects, including rebuilding the temple, but he had been a horrifying tyrant, cruel to his enemies, cruel even to his friends, murdering his own sons and wives in fits of jealously, enslaving his people, taxing them, and using the Roman fist to put down opposition.
By 4 B.C. God had been silent a long time. The last prophet, Malachi, wrote in about 450 B.C. Though God had done many things in those centuries, things foretold by prophets like Daniel, there had been no new prophetic instruction for over four hundred years. Yet there were many whose expectations actually rose. People looked for the Messiah, the redemption of Israel. Now, as God’s plan was approaching its climax, He broke the 400 year silence to renew his work.
Luke 1:5-10 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
At that moment in history, while Herod reigned, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah, married to a woman named Elizabeth who was also descended from Aaron. Luke begins with continuity to the ancient faith, to tie belief in Jesus to the truths about God revealed in Jewish history. By including these accounts Luke is showing that Jesus didn’t just come out of nowhere. Rather he was the culmination of all that God had done and revealed for 2000 years. So he starts with a Jewish priest and his wife. The priesthood was at the heart of God’s revelation, his picture of sacrifice as the means of redemption.
Luke goes on to say that both were upright in the sight of God. He’s not saying they weren’t sinful, but they trusted God and as priests knew the meaning of the sacrifices. Luke is also is alerting his readers that this ancient faith, is one of morality and justice. The God you have gotten involved with through Jesus has revealed himself in laws and decrees, as holy. I think Luke wants to orient his Gentile readers to the truths of Biblical culture. For some, even today, this book is their first encounter with the God of Israel, and with the history, the laws, the heritage of His dealings with the Jewish people. Luke immerses his readers into the ancient faith and into God’s big story. This is seen even in the fact that Elizabeth is unable to have children and well along in years. Elizabeth has the same struggle as Sarah the wife of Abraham, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and others. God has a special place in his heart for the childless, and often in the Old Testament he provides a special child to that couple.
In the first scene, Zechariah’s division is on duty. and Zechariah is chosen by lot to go into God’s temple and burn incense. He’s going to the holy place. Not the inmost Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant had been kept, but to the outer room which held a lampstand with seven lamps, a gold table used to offer bread to God, and the altar of incense, a small altar of burning coals upon which a special incense was poured. Zechariah’s role is to go to the altar of incense, tend the coal fire that was there, and then put the incense on the fire, where it would rise as a very aromatic smoke. Jewish history says a priest would only be chosen once in his lifetime to perform this momentous duty.
The incense itself was symbolic of the prayers of the people, who at that moment were outside praying, while Zechariah prayed within. In Psalm 141 David said: “O Lord, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. 2May my prayer be set before you like incense.” In Revelation, in the heavenly temple, we see that the prayers of believers are incense rising before the Lord. In the next section God begins to answer these prayers.
Verses 11-17: And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
The angel here is Gabriel, who had spoken to Daniel nearly 500 years earlier, near the close of the Old Testament. His new appearance marks a renewal of God’s ancient work. God is beginning to fulfill the promises of those prophets. Like all angels in Scripture, the first thing Gabriel has to do is to allay Zechariah’s fear. Then he gets immediately to the heart of it: your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you are to give him the name John.
The implication may be that as Zechariah stood by the altar, he was praying the Lord would give him a child. That’s possible, but I’m not sure. It had been decades since there was any real possibility of a pregnancy. And this was the only time in his life he would enter the holy place. In that context I think he was praying for the redemption of Israel, and that his prayer was heard. Gabriel’s promise of a son was a sign of larger prayers were to be answered. Zechariah and Elizabeth and their son were to be part of God’s planned redemption of Israel.
The angel then describes the impact of their son’s life. First, “you will have joy and gladness” This is natural. Zechariah and Elizabeth will be thrilled at the gift of a child. But the angel goes on to say that “many will rejoice at his birth.” This child is not going be just a blessing to his parents, but he will be a blessing to Israel. In fact, he will be great in the sight of the Lord. From the very beginning of his life he will be set apart, filled with the Holy Spirit. His abstinence from wine and strong drink is characteristic of the Old Testament Nazirite vow in Numbers 23. John the Baptist may have taken that same vow.
This child has a mission. First, “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” John is the last Old Testament prophet, and they had always called for repentance: “turn to face God.” John represents continuity with God’s ways. But he also begins fulfilling God’s promises. Verse 17: “he will go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah.” In Malachi 4, the last chapter of the Old Testament, God says “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” The last promise of the Old Testament is fulfilled first in the New. That’s continuity.
Gabriel says that John will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the children to their fathers, a clear quote from Malachi 4:6. This is a key mission, for it is children whose fathers truly care for them who are most likely to see the love of a heavenly Father in the Son. He will also turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” This in fact was the focus of John’s ministry. He wanted people to repent, turn from their sins, be baptized. When we get to chapter 3 we’re going to find that John calls people to simple, righteous living.
The goal of all this is to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Both Isaiah and Malachi foretell one who will go before the Lord to prepare the way. Malachi, chapter 3: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” John is the forerunner who prepares the way, announcing God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises, the renewal of His work.
We need to take seriously the idea that God renews his work in us. I linked this week to World Magazine’s article on Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years. He lost 50 pounds during the first year and struggled spiritually. “I wasn’t filled with joy, I was really broken,” he said. He found the Bible dry. “It wasn’t feeding me.” He suffered separation from his family and from Christian fellowship. “If I’d been let out after the first year, I’d have been lying on the floor, curled in a fetal position with PTSD. But the second year God started to rebuild me.” Brunson made a decision: “I would keep talking to God and running after Him. I would be a living martyr.” He wrote a hymn, “Worthy of My All,” about “the things I was doubting. I sang it every day as a declaration to God.” And God renewed his work in Andrew Brunson.
The remaining question is how will you respond? Verses 18-25: Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
20Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah. They were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. He kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25“Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Zechariah’s reaction was one of disbelief. How can I know? He’s asking for a sign. And he’s got reason on his side: I’m old. My wife is old. There’s no human way that we could have a baby.” We don’t know what tone of voice he used, how skeptical he was, but from the way Gabriel reacts, we can be pretty sure Zechariah was not even close to believing the prophecy. So Gabriel says: “Do you often find angels unreliable? I normally hang out in the presence of God. If you won’t believe me what will you believe?” The Gospel is made certain because it reveals a supernatural work of God that cannot be explained. You and I may not often see God work in clearly supernatural ways. But we don’t need to doubt. We have a record of this clear, certain keeping of his promises.
The next reaction is seen in the crowd: it’s discussion. In verses 21-22 the people were waiting for Zechariah, wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. They were supposed to be praying, but as the incense dissipated, they started speculating. Then he came out, unable to speak, and that set off even more discussion. That’s where the crowd seems to stop, just discussion. They didn’t connect to the fact that God had answered their prayers. God was beginning to renew his work among them, but all they could do was talk about it.
So also in our lives, when God sets to work, we can react with disbelief, we can react with discussion, or we can react like Elizabeth, with devotion. Verse 23, Zechariah finishes his week of service, Verse 24, he goes home and Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Her response is the one worth imitating: “Thus the Lord has done for me.” She responds to the Lord’s work with faith, with certainty, with worship, with praise. Thank you, Father, that you have shown me favor. Thank you that you have taken away my disgrace among the people.
God is renewing his ancient work. He deserves praise. He is fulfilling his promises. He deserves praise. He has been faithful to his people and to his plan. He deserves praise. God is faithful. When you’ve wandered away, drifted into doubt, tasted depression, or battled with despair, he still seeks you. He has remembered his love toward you. He wants to do his work in and through you.
Just as he renewed his work with his ancient people, after four hundred years, so also he will renew his work in you. Luke shows us that he is a God of continuity, which we normally call faithfulness. He began a good work in the people of Israel and in Luke 1 he begins bringing it to completion. Luke’s Gospel is carefully researched, organized, and written. We can have certainty as we study this Gospel. We can have confidence from these advent accounts that God is truly at work, giving redemption to us as the climax of his big story.