Bible Book List
Luke 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » Luke » Chapter 1 » exegesis

Preface: An Invitation to Be Reassured

Things are not always as they seem. Sometimes what most hinders our perception of what God is doing is our own expectation of what God should do or would do. For example, we might assume that God's saving plan, sovereignly introduced into the world by an omnipotent God, would be carried out quite straightforwardly, like a championship team steaming through the playoffs to a triumphant Super Bowl or World Cup victory. Surely God would vanquish all foes and would be embraced by all people, especially when he reveals his messenger with wondrous displays of power. Some groups within Judaism had always hoped for such a day (Psalms of Solomon 17--18; Testament of Levi 18; Testament of Judah 24). They expected that once God came to deliver, he would do so by mightily overthrowing all opposition. Then God would grant salvation to his people and rule in glorious power. Surely this is how God would save a world desperate for rescue.

But the message of the gospel has never been popular. Despite the wondrous works associated with Jesus' ministry, the world did not embrace him with open arms. Jesus' honesty about the human condition met with rejection and resistance. Many fled from the mirror held up in his words. Others fought his teaching and sought to crush his message. Those who did recognize the image Jesus described and realized their deep need for God were going against the grain. They became reminders that life is not defined by independence but by dependence. The question became on whom or what did one depend to define and find life.

The Gospel of Luke is about life and God's plan. It is a story written to a man, Theophilus, who in all likelihood was a believer who needed reassurance (1:4). A Gentile in the midst of what had originally been a Jewish movement, he seems to have been asking whether he really should be a Christian. Had God really called all nations to enter into life with God? Was a crucified Messiah the beacon of hope for both Jews and Gentiles? Would God really save through a ministry that ended with crucifixion? What about the endless obstacles the church was suffering in getting its message out into the world? Might the obstacles not be a sign of God's judgment on a message gone awry, rather than evidence of blessing? Questions like these probably haunted Theophilus. They are not unlike questions we might raise as we contemplate what God has done and imagine how we might have done it differently.

This is why Luke wrote his Gospel: to explain how the God of design and grace works out his will through Jesus, the ascended Messiah-Lord. Luke wishes to make clear how Jesus is Lord of all, so the gospel can go to all. He also wishes to explain the journey that is salvation. To be saved involves coming to Jesus in faith, but the act of faith is only a first step in a journey that many others do not understand. How does the salvation-traveler face life in the midst of great opposition? In sum, Luke's Gospel, as his preface makes clear, is a reassurance that through Jesus one can know God and experience life as God designed it.

Luke introduces his topic with a formal literary preface that explains why he writes a Gospel though others have already presented the life of Jesus (1:1-4). Luke seeks to build carefully on precedent. By doing so he hopes to strengthen Theophilus's faith. As we read Luke's account, we realize that Theophilus is not alone in his need to be reassured. In each generation there are many like him.The Precedents (1:1-2)

Luke's preface fits the ancient pattern in which a writer explains the rationale for his work (2 Maccabees 2:19-31; Josephus Antiquities 1. proem. 1-4, and Against Apion 1.1 1-5; Epistle to Aristeas 1-8; Lucian How to Write History 9, 39-40, 53-55). Luke consciously introduces his work to show where it fits in ancient literary terms. Some speak of Luke as "apologetic historiography" (Sterling 1991), but Luke is writing more for internal exhortation, so that any apologetic has a pastoral purpose.

Luke describes his work as a narrative, an account (diegesis). Such narratives came in both oral (8:39; 9:10) and written forms (Heb 11:32). The ambiguity of the term means that Luke may be referring to more than the sources biblical scholars mention today when they discuss the Synoptic problem (Mark, Q, L, M or Matthew). However, the remark that many have undertaken to draw up (literally, "many have set their hand to"; epecheiresan) such an account suggests mostly written sources. It is important to remember that the ancient world did not have the printed page, and written texts were not in wide circulation. The fact that many had undertaken to prepare an account shows Jesus' importance.

What these accounts discussed were the things that have been fulfilled among us. This detail raises an important Lukan theme right at the start. The events surrounding Jesus fulfilled the plan of God. Numerous passages make this point (1:20, 57; 2:6, 21-22; 4:21; 9:31; 21:22, 24; 24:44-47). The us in v. 2 includes all those who experienced the effects of Jesus' presence up to the time of Luke's writing. All those who shared in the realization of what God brought in Jesus share in the experience of fulfillment.

Now these accounts had sources who handed down (paredosan) the story of Jesus, eyewitnesses who became ministers of the Word. Luke's stress here is the credibility of the sources, since they saw firsthand what has been described in the tradition. Luke makes a key point--the tradition about Jesus had roots in the experience of those who preached about him. These witnesses were with Jesus from the beginning. Thus these first two verses mention at least two generations: those who preached Jesus and those who recorded what was preached. There was precedent for what Luke was doing, both in terms of larger ancient history and in terms of the story of Jesus.Luke's Approach (1:3-4)

There is debate whether Luke's choice to write after his predecessors was a critique of their effort. Some suggest that the writing must mean he was unhappy with previous efforts (L. T. Johnson 1991:29-30). But the words it seemed good also to me (edoxe kamoi) show Luke joining himself with his predecessors. It is likely that he engages in the effort because he knows he can add to the portrait of Jesus currently in circulation, but Luke is not unappreciative of the previous efforts. His predecessors blazed a difficult trail ahead of him. Luke's contribution will add a unique sequel to the portrait, Acts, and will bring in much new detail about Jesus, since virtually half of the material in Luke's Gospel does not appear in the other Gospels we possess. The other Synoptics help us to see what Luke's alternatives were like; he includes much more teaching material, especially parabolic material.

Four characteristics mark Luke's approach to his task. First, he investigated (parekolouthekoti) the story. This appears to refer to the fact he studied his topic. Luke was not himself an eyewitness to the events of Jesus' life. So only his study could produce such a work. But we should not think of Luke in a library here. He would have traveled through the community gathering information, both from recorded texts and from conversations with others who had seen Jesus.

Second, Luke went back to the beginning (anothen). This is why the story starts with John the Baptist. This Jewish prophet was the starting point of the renewal of God's activity, as Luke 1--2 will make clear.

Third, his study was thorough: he says he studied everything (pasin). Though what we have in Luke is surely a select collection of material, the Gospel writer wants it known that he did his homework. Luke was very concerned to get the story right, to be accurate in his portrayal of Jesus.

Fourth, Luke did his work carefully (akribos). As the Gospel itself reveals, Luke's work is thought out and precise in its development of the story.

Luke calls his account an orderly one (kathexes). For some this means he wrote in chronological sequence. But such a meaning is unlikely here. He has done some rearranging of the order of events for thematic or literary reasons (for example, 4:16-30; the order of the temptations in 4:1-13; the placement of John's arrest in 3:19-20).

There is a geographic flow to the order: Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem. But above all, the order seems to be redemptive-historical. Luke is concerned to trace the progress of God's redeeming work in Jesus, especially by highlighting his teaching and the rise of opposition to him. The emphasis on promise-fulfillment also suggests this sort of order. The Gospel is roughly chronological, but not precisely so. More important to Luke is revealing how God worked through Jesus. This is "sacred history" revealing the order of God's plan.

All the care Luke gives to the task, as noted in his preface, is designed to reassure Theophilus, who has been taught (katechethes) on such matters previously. Whatever pressure this believer is under, he should be confident that God has moved to fulfill his plan through Jesus. Luke is carefully building on precedent to tell anew the story of Jesus. Like a pastor comforting a believer under siege by the world, so Luke wishes to encourage his readers. Theophilus may well be asking, "Is Christianity what I believed it to be, a religion sent from God?" Whether it is internal doubt, persecution or racial tension with Jews that has caused this question to be raised, Luke invites his reader to consider the story of Jesus again and know that these indeed were events that have been fulfilled among us.

Next commentary:
Infancy Narrative

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.