Complimental prefaces and dedications, the language of flattery and the food and fuel of pride, are justly condemned by the wise and good; but it doth not therefore follow, that such as are useful and instructive are to be run down; such is this, in which St. Luke dedicates his gospel to his friend Theophilus, not as to his patron, though he was a man of honour, to protect it, but as to his pupil, to learn it, and hold it fast. It is not certain who this Theophilus was; the name signifies a friend of God; some think that it does not mean any particular person, but every one that is a lover of God; Dr. Hammond quotes some of the ancients understanding it so: and then it teaches us, that those who are truly lovers of God, will heartily welcome the gospel of Christ, the design and tendency of which are, to bring us to God. But it is rather to be understood of some particular person, probably a magistrate; because Luke gives him here the same title of respect which St. Paul gave to Festus the governor, kratiste (Acts 26:25), which we there translate most noble Festus, and here most excellent Theophilus. Note, Religion does not destroy civility and good manners, but teaches us, according to the usages of our country, to give honour to them to whom honour is due.
Now observe here, I. Why St. Luke wrote this gospel. It is certain that he was moved by the Holy Ghost, not only to the writing, but in the writing of it; but in both he was moved as a reasonable creature, and not as a mere machine; and he was made to consider,
1. That the things he wrote of were things that were most surely believed among all Christians, and therefore things which they ought to be instructed in, that they may know what they believe, and things which ought to be transmitted to posterity (who are as much concerned in them as we are); and, in order to that, to be committed to writing, which is the surest way of conveyance to the ages to come. He will not write about things of doubtful disputation, things about which Christians may safely differ from one another and hesitate within themselves; but the things which are, and ought to be, most surely believed, pragmata peplerophoremena—the things which were performed (so some), which Christ and his apostles did, and did with such circumstances as gave a full assurance that they were really done, so that they have gained an established lasting credit. Note, Though it is not the foundation of our faith, yet it is a support to it, that the articles of our creed are things that have been long most surely believed. The doctrine of Christ is what thousands of the wisest and best of men have ventured their souls upon with the greatest assurance and satisfaction.
2. That it was requisite there should be a declaration made in order of those things; that the history of the life of Christ should be methodized, and committed to writing, for the greater certainty of the conveyance. When things are put in order, we know the better where to find them for our own use, and how to keep them for the benefit of others.
3. That there were many who had undertaken to publish narratives of the life of Christ, many well-meaning people, who designed well, and did well, and what they published had done good, though not done by divine inspiration, nor so well done as might be, nor intended for perpetuity. Note, (1.) The labours of others in the gospel of Christ, if faithful and honest, we ought to commend and encourage, and not to despise, though chargeable with many deficiencies. (2.) Others’ services to Christ must not be reckoned to supersede ours, but rather to quicken them.
4. That the truth of the things he had to write was confirmed by the concurring testimony of those who were competent and unexceptionable witnesses of them; what had been published in writing already, and what he was now about to publish, agreed with that which had been delivered by word of mouth, over and over, by those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, Luke 1:2. Note, (1.) The apostles were ministers of the word of Christ, who is the Word (so some understand it), or of the doctrine of Christ; they, having received it themselves, ministered it to others, 1 John 1:1. They had not a gospel to make as masters, but a gospel to preach as ministers. (2.) The ministers of the word were eye-witnesses of the things which they preached, and, which is also included, ear-witnesses. They did themselves hear the doctrine of Christ, and see his miracles, and had them not by report, at second hand; and therefore they could not but speak, with the greatest assurance, the things which they had seen and heard, Acts 4:20. (3.) They were so from the beginning of Christ’s ministry, Luke 1:2. He had his disciples with him when he wrought his first miracle, John 2:11. They companied with him all the time he went in and out among them (Acts 1:21), so that they not only heard and saw all that which was sufficient to confirm their faith, but, if there had been any thing to shock it, they had opportunity to discover it. (4.) The written gospel, which we have to this day, exactly agrees with the gospel which was preached in the first days of the church. (5.) That he himself had a perfect understanding of the things he wrote of, from the first, Luke 1:3. Some think that here is a tacit reflection upon those who had written before him, that they had not a perfect understanding of what they wrote, and therefore, Here am I, send me (--facit indignatio versum—my wrath impels my pen); or rather, without reflecting on them, he asserts his own ability for this undertaking: “It seemed good to me, having attained to the exact knowledge of all things, anothen—from above;” so I think it should be rendered; for if he meant the same with from the beginning (Luke 1:2), as our translation intimates, he would have used the same word. [1.] He had diligently searched into these things, had followed after them (so the word is), as the Old-Testament prophets are said to have enquired and searched diligently, 1 Pet. 1:10. He had not taken things so easily and superficially as others who had written before him, but made it his business to inform himself concerning particulars. [2.] He had received his intelligence, not only by tradition, as others had done, but by revelation, confirming that tradition, and securing him from any error or mistake in the recording of it. He sought it from above (so the word intimates), and from thence he had it; thus, like Elihu, he fetched his knowledge from afar. He wrote his history as Moses wrote his, of things reported by tradition, but ratified by inspiration. [3.] He could therefore say that he had a perfect understanding of these things. He knew them, akribos—accurately, exactly. “Now, having received this from above, it seemed good to me to communicate it;” for such a talent as this ought not to be buried.
II. Observe why he sent it to Theophilus: “I wrote unto thee these things in order, not that thou mayest give reputation to the work, but that thou mayest be edified by it (Luke 1:4); that thou mayest know the certainty of those things wherein thou has been instructed.” 1. It is implied, that he had been instructed in these things either before his baptism, or since, or both, according to the rule, Matt. 28:19, 20. Probably, Luke had baptized him, and knew how well instructed he was; peri hon katechethes—concerning which thou hast been catechized; so the word is; the most knowing Christians began with being catechized. Theophilus was a person of quality, perhaps of noble birth; and so much the more pains should be taken with such when they are young, to teach them the principles of the oracles of God, that they may be fortified against temptations, and furnished for the opportunities, of a high condition in the world. 2. It was intended that he should know the certainty of those things, should understand them more clearly and believe more firmly. There is a certainty in the gospel of Christ, there is that therein which we may build upon; and those who have been well instructed in the things of God when they were young should afterwards give diligence to know the certainty of those things, to know not only what we believe, but why we believe it, that we may be able to give a reason of the hope that is in us.