A Commentary by John Stott
1. Introduction to Luke (Luke 1:1-4)
Before reading any book it is helpful to know the author’s purpose in writing it. The biblical books are no exception to this rule. So why did Luke write?
He actually wrote two books. The first was his Gospel, which ancient and unassailed tradition attributes to his authorship and which is almost certainly the ‘former book’ referred to at the beginning of Acts. So the Acts was his second book. The two form an obvious pair. Both are dedicated to Theophilus and both are written in the same literary Greek style. Further, as Henry J. Cadbury pointed out sixty years ago, Luke regarded the Acts as ‘neither and appendix nor an afterthought’ , but as forming with his gospel ‘a single continuous work’. Cadbury went on to suggest that, ‘in order to emphasize the historic unity of the two volumes … the expression “Luke-Acts” is perhaps justifiable’.
Reverting to the question why Luke wrote his two-volume work on the origins of Christianity, at least three answers may be given. He wrote as a Christian historian, as a diplomat and as a theologian-evangelist.
a. Luke the historian.
It is true that the more destructive critics of the past had little or no confidence in Luke’s historical reliability. F.C.Baur, for example, leader of the ‘Tubingen School’ in the middle of the last century, wrote that certain statements in the Acts ‘can only be looked at as intentional deviations from historical truth in the interest of the special tendency which they possess’. And the very unorthodox Adolf Harnack (1851-1930), who could describe the Acts as ‘this great historical work’, also wrote in the same book that Luke ‘affords gross instances of carelessness, and often of complete confusion in the narrative’.
There are a number of reasons, however, why we should be sceptical of this scepticism. To begin with, Luke claimed in his preface to the Gospel to be writing accurate history, and it is generally agreed that he intended this to cover both volumes. For ‘it was the custom in antiquity’, whenever a work was divided into more than one volume, ‘to prefix to the first a preface for the whole’. In consequence, Luke 1:1-4 ‘is the real preface to Acts as well as to the Gospel’. Here it is:-
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, (2) just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. (3) Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, (4) so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
In this important statement Luke delineates five successive stages:
First came the historical events. Luke calls them certain ‘things that have been fulfilled among us’. And if ‘fulfilled’ is the right translation, it seems to indicate that these events were neither random nor unexpected, but took place in fulfilment of Old Testament prophesy.
Next Luke mentions the contemporary eye-witnesses, for the things ‘fulfilled among us’ were then ‘handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’ (2). Here Luke excludes himself, for, although he was an eyewitness of much that he will record in the second part of the Acts, he did not belong to the group who were eyewitnesses ‘from the first’. These were the apostles, who witnesses of the historic Jesus and who then handed down (the meaning of ‘tradition’) to others what they had themselves seen and heard.
The third stage was Luke’s own personal researches. Although he belonged to the second generation who had received the ‘tradition’ about Jesus from the apostolic eyewitnesses, he had not accepted it uncritically. On the contrary, he had ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ (3).
Fourthly, after the events, the eyewitness tradition and the investigation came the writing, ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account’ of these things (1), he says, and now ‘it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account’ (3), The ‘many’ authors doubtless included Mark.
Fifthly, the writing would have readers, among them Theophilus whom Luke addresses, ‘so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’. Thus the events which had been accomplished, witnessed, transmitted, investigated and written down were (and still are) to be the ground of Christian faith and assurance.
Moreover, the Luke who claimed to be writing history was well qualified to do so, for he was an educated doctor (Col.4:14), a travelling companion of Paul, and had resided in Palestine for at least two years.
Tomorrow: 1. Luke 1:1-4. Introduction to Luke (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.