Sometimes it is difficult to know all the facts about a particular situation.
For example, the South African labour landscape was rocked recently with what has been labelled as “police brutality” after 34 striking mine workers were killed by police officers in what has become known as the Marikana Massacre. We might be inclined to jump to conclusions, or to immediately take the media reports at face value. I would encourage you to not necessarily do so.
Who was to blame? Was it the rioting miners, the trade unions, or the police? Varied reports are trickling in. We have heard of two police officers being tortured to death prior to the shooting. Recent reports have suggested that a striking miner may have been the first to open fire. Others have suggested that the police acted unprovoked. The simple fact is that we do not have all the information that we need to make a full assessment. It’s difficult to know just what to think.
Or, to change the subject slightly, what ought we to think about Curiosity, the most recent rover to be scouring the face of Mars? Are we absolutely certain that what we are seeing is real? We’re familiar with the long-standing conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing. Is it possible that all the images we are seeing are not simply being taken in an isolated warehouse somewhere in the United States, and only being portrayed as if images are being beamed across space from another planet?1
What is the truth? It is not always easy to know. Sometimes we simply cannot be certain. Are we always completely sure that the situations in which we are investing ourselves are, in fact, as they seem to be?
Sometimes, when we are dealing with uncertain people, situations and events, we ought to reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming. Consider the example of the leprosy laws as given in Leviticus 13. If the priest was not absolutely certain that the condition presented in a particular person was in fact leprous,2 he could quarantine the individual for up to fourteen days in order to reserve judgement. It was the responsibility of the priest to withhold judgement until he was absolutely certain that he had all the facts.
It is not always necessary for us to make judgement calls when we are presented with a range of facts. It is often wise for us to reserve judgement until more facts are forthcoming.
When it comes to the Christian faith, we face similar dilemmas. How can we know for sure that faith in Jesus Christ is well-placed? How can we be sure that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the only way to be saved? There is often a little mosquito of doubt that buzzes around our heads when we contemplate such issues. I’m sure you’ve heard him before.
In the Beauty of the Lilies is a novel about a pastor who loses his faith to the mosquito of doubt. At one point in the story we read the following words.
At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward. . . . His thoughts had slipped with quicksilver momentum into the recognition, which he had long withstood, that . . . there is no . . . God, nor should there be.
Clarence’s mind was like a many-legged, wingless insect that had long and tediously been struggling to climb up the walls of a slick-walled porcelain basin; and now a sudden impatient wash of water swept it down into the drain. There is no God.3
Can you identify with those words? Do you know anything of the mosquito of doubt, not necessarily, perhaps, with reference to your faith, but with reference to any facts that need to be believed? The realities of doubt and of faltering faith are realities faced by us all. We need to own up to it.
But we should also recognise that such doubt is best remedied by two things: historical fact on the one hand, and interpretive framework on the other. We need to know the truth, and then to arrange it in such a way that we can believe. It is these things that we find in the Bible, and particularly, for our purposes, in the Gospels. And it precisely this way—by the supply of facts and the necessary framework in which to interpret those facts—in which God the Holy Spirit transforms rebellious sinners such as we are.
As we come to the Gospel of Luke, we must believe that the Holy Spirit reveals the facts about Jesus Christ and provides us with the necessary interpretive lenses of understanding and insight so that the unclean can be made clean and so that the dead can receive new life.
The Man and His Mission
In the kind providence of God, a man decided to write a Gospel. He was motivated to do so by the desire to give his readers “certainty.” That is how Luke explains his motivation in the opening verses of our text.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke wrote to “most excellent Theophilus” in order that Theophilus might have “certainty.” The word “certainty” speaks of spiritual safety and security. It is precisely this that we need in a world of doubt. When we are inclined to be sceptical of everything, we need spiritual safety and security, and that is what God kindly gave to us when Luke sat down to write his Gospel.
We are not entirely certain whether “Theophilus” was an individual—perhaps a high ranking Greek man of some influence—or whether Luke simply employs the title Theophilus, which means “lover of God” or “beloved by God,” as a term for a general and wider audience. It may well be that Luke was writing to a group of people—Christians in general, who love and are loved by God—and used the name Theophilus as a term of endearment. It may also be, on the other hand, that Theophilus is a proper name that ought to be prescribed to a particular individual. Whatever the case, we know that, by God’s design, the Gospel was ultimately intended for a far wider audience than perhaps Luke ever had in mind.
Luke was driven by a desire for accuracy. He wanted to give Theophilus an “orderly account.” He acknowledges that many before him had put pen to paper in a desire to compile their own biography of Christ, and he admitted to using those Gospels as a source for his own. As a historian, however, he was concerned that his own Gospel be the product of great research and thus an account of the highest accuracy.
We should perhaps pause at this point to acknowledge Luke’s credentials as a historian. Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916) is widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest ever archaeologists. His early training led him to believe that the New Testament narratives were largely mythical. He was convinced, in particular, that the Acts of the Apostles, penned as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke by the same author, was nothing more than a collection of highly imaginative stories put together about people whom the author admired. When he began field work in Western Turkey, he was convinced that his discoveries would drive the final nails into the New Testament’s coffin.
Ramsay’s work had hardly begun when his theories began to come unstuck. Tracing the routes that Luke wrote of in Acts, Ramsay found time and again that, despite existing archaeological evidence and theories to the contrary, Luke was accurate in his record at every turn. “It was gradually borne in upon me,” wrote Ramsay, “that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth.”4 As he pursued his research, Ramsay became more and more convinced that Luke was no ordinary writer. His regard for Luke is now somewhat famous:
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statement of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense. He seizes the important and critical events, and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly, or omits entirely, that which was useless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.5
Isn’t it wonderful that God would move a man—a medical doctor by profession—to write a Gospel, and that He would give this man such credibility among (even sceptical) academics? Luke had done his homework, and we today are the beneficiaries of what he had discovered.
We should note further that Luke’s Gospel is quite logically organised. In his own words, he desired to “write and orderly account.” His concern was not primarily with chronology; he was far more interested in logical, thematic arrangement. This is not to suggest that the Gospel is wildly disorganised chronologically, for it is not. It is well-arranged—chronologically, geographically and thematically—and we are the beneficial recipients of Luke’s arrangement.
And so Luke gives us a historical account of a person with whom we all have to do. He writes of the Saviour whom God sent into the world, a historical fact that we must all at some point confront. This Saviour lived an unusual, amazing and unique life; another fact with which we must all contend.
Do we believe that Jesus of Nazareth really lived? Do we believe that He lived the life that Luke’s Gospel tells us He lived? Do we really believe that the death He died was significant, as Luke contends? Do we really believe that He rose from the dead? Do we really believe that He ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, and that He will return to fetch all those who belong to Him? Those are the facts of the gospel, and in Luke’s Gospel account we are presented with these facts as historical realities, which we must accept.
Luke’s Gospel records foundational issues. Ultimately, it is fine to be uncertain about the facts surrounding the Marikana Massacre. The events that unfolded there were tragic, and it has been a sad week in the life of our country. But ultimately, in the eternal scheme of things, what happened there is of little consequence to you and me.
It is fascinating what is happening on Mars—if indeed Curiosity is really roaming that planet. But whether or not you believe what you are being told is of little eternal consequence. Be a sceptic if you like.
Luke’s Gospel, however, presents facts of an entirely different sort. You cannot be sceptical of these facts, for they are of eternal consequence. Scepticism will drive away all semblance of eternal hope. We must all—old and young, believer and unbeliever alike—wrestle with the content of Doctor Luke’s Gospel. It is a lovely thing to think that a man, who was neither an apostle nor an eyewitness to the events of which he wrote, would take such pains to present us with an accurate account, and that the Holy Spirit would use this man—a Greek doctor and travel companion of the apostle Paul—to record words that would be preserved for thousands of years so as to benefit Christians in 21st-century South Africa.
We ought to take the writing of Luke very seriously. Let us recognise that some of the events recorded in the Gospel of Luke are recorded for us nowhere else in Scripture. For example, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, with which we will deal briefly in a moment, is recorded for us by Luke alone. The angel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear Messiah is a fact recorded for us only in the Gospel of Luke. The conversion of Zacchaeus and the penitence of the thief on the cross are recorded for us in none of the other Gospels. The record of Jesus walking with His two disciples after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus is unique to the third Gospel. A number of parables—for example, that of the prodigal son—are recorded by Luke alone.
Thanks be to God that He inspired a man to do his homework and to write a historical account, in an orderly way, not simply to fill up pages in a Bible, but to give you and me eternal hope. We simply must appreciate together the tremendous gift we have received in the Gospels, and particularly, for our purposes, in the Gospel of Luke.
Will you continue to believe until you die? Only if you are willing to do the homework and to wrestle with the questions that the mosquito of doubt presents. And the way to do that is to take seriously the historical account given to us by inspired writers such a Luke. Life-saving wisdom demands of us that we appreciate the difference between fact and fiction. We cannot afford to be merely superstitious. We must be persuaded that the facts presented to us by Luke are accurate. We must be willing to lay our entire eternity on these facts, for these facts alone are able to sustain that weight.
Ignorance is not the mother of devotion; knowledge and the work of the Spirit are. We need to know what Luke has recorded for us, and we need to pray that God the Holy Spirit will open our eyes so that we can appreciate these things.
The Story of John
Luke begins his historical account with the story of John. He introduces us to a man (Zechariah) and a woman (Elizabeth), who have been married for a long time and yet have remained childless. But as Luke picks up the story, all of that is about to change.
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. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But 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.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth, as Luke writes of them, are united by three facts.
First, they were godly. Verse 6 informs us that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.” They were not sinless, but were each devoted to the Lord.
Second, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. Verse 7 informs us quite simply that “they had no child.” The implication is that they both wanted to be parents, but that, for whatever reason, the Lord had withheld this privilege from them. We do not know for sure how long they had been married, but they “both were advanced in years,” and so the implication is that they had longed for a child for a significant amount of time.
Third, they had brought their longing for children to the throne of grace. When the angel appeared to Zechariah, he said, “Your prayer has been heard” (v. 13). We do not get the impression that this was a casual, once-off prayer, but that Zechariah and Elizabeth had wrestled with God for a long time in prayer, but without positive answer.
I want to present you with three devotional lessons from our text—particularly vv. 5-13—before we bring our plane in to land.
The Long-Established Patterns of God are Still in Operation
What do I mean by this? You will notice that Zechariah was “of the division of Abijah” (v. 5). We read of Abijah in 1 Chronicles 24:10—centuries before Zechariah lived. There, David arranged the priests into various divisions, each with a specific priestly duty assigned to it. Abijah was one of the priests to whom David appointed a particular duty, and Zechariah, centuries later, continued the duties that God, through David, had appointed to his ancestor.
We should remember that the themes that God put in place long ago are still in place for us today. The Old Testament, for example, mentions the theme of God’s special interest in His people, and that is still the case today. Some of the themes of old have been transformed, to be sure, but they are still in place. For example, one of the major themes of 1 Chronicles is the king (David) and the temple. The theme is still in place today, though the theme of the king has found ultimate fulfilment in Christ and the theme of the temple in His church. The old covenant themes of righteousness and judgement are still in place today.
Zechariah went into the temple to burn incense because he operated under a long-established pattern of God. And we are here today as worshippers of God because of similarly long-established patterns. Why do we gather as a church to sing God’s praises, lift our prayers to Him, hear the Word preached, and observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? We do so because, long ago, God established those themes of worship and they continue till our day. The themes are still applicable, and we still benefit from them. That is how God is.
God works in the long-run, through patterns that are established. Zechariah was simply operating by a set roster and was in the temple according to that roster, but it was precisely at that time that God met him. That is usually how God works.
Even Believers Suffer Heartache, Depravation and Frustration
Zechariah and Elizabeth were godly individuals, yet they suffered for many years the heartache of barrenness. I personally cannot relate. In our marriage, my wife and I have experienced two pregnancies and today have two healthy, adult children. That has been God’s kind providence to us, and I am thankful for it. But I don’t take for granted, even for a moment, that all Christian couples will be able to have children; or that, if they do, they will have healthy children who will live into adulthood.
It ought to be a devotional thought for us that Zechariah and Elizabeth, who stood in a long line of faithful believers who served God, in the strange and mysterious providence of God, were childless. It was not by choice that they were so; God had withheld them from experiencing the joy of childbirth that they had so desperately coveted. How many tears had they shed over their barrenness? How had they dealt with their frustration over the many years of their marriage? We cannot be sure, but we know that the Bible describes them as blameless. Somehow, in the midst of their heartache, they had remained faithful in their walk with God. And now God was about to reward their faithfulness with the one thing for which they had prayed most fervently.
Don’t assume that, just because you are a believer, because you walk blamelessly with God, that your life will be free of heartache and frustration. God’s kind providence often brings heartache across our path so that He might accomplish His perfect will.
God is Able to Answer Our Prayers
Zechariah and Elizabeth were desperate, regular, and sustained in prayer, and now, finally, God was going to answer. After so many years of fervent supplication, God finally sent the angel to tell Zechariah that God had heard them, and that their barrenness would soon give way to the joy of childbirth.
Have you been fervent in prayer for a particular situation in your life? Have you prayed for years without answer? Does it seem to you that the heavens are brass and that God’s ears are closed to your supplications? Do not grow weary! Keep praying. Keep believing. God, who left blameless Zechariah and Elizabeth to pray well into their aged years before answering their prayers, can give you that for which you have so fervently prayed. If God made Zechariah and Elizabeth wait for so long, why should we imagine that He would act any more speedily for us?
God knows what He is doing. He graciously answers in His own time and for His own glory.
Are you unmarried but longing for marriage? Are you unemployed but longing for employment? Are you dissatisfied with your current employment and beseeching God, yet unanswered, for more suitable work conditions? Do you want to be used by God more strategically? Do you wonder what your future holds? Do you long for the salvation of a loved one? Have you waited long for God and persevered in urgent prayer, all the while swatting away the mosquitoes of doubt? Do not give up! Keep praying! God answered Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers, and we must believe that He will answer ours too!
As we continue in our question for knowledge, insight and faith, may God grant that we learn these devotional lessons from the Gospel of Luke. And as we learn them, may God open our eyes, persuade our minds and enflame our hearts to serve Him ever more.
- Please note that I am not suggesting that I necessarily buy into such conspiracy theories. I would like to think that we are not being sold a bill of lies, but that the images we are seeing do, in fact, represent a tremendous technological achievement by humankind. ↩
- The word translated “leprosy” in that text is, in fact, a generic word for dermatological skin diseases, and very likely does not include leprosy—Hanson’s Disease—as we know it today. ↩
- John Updike, In the Beauty of Holiness (New York: Knopf, 1996), 5-6. ↩
- William Ramsay, St Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2001), 7. ↩
- William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2008), 222. ↩