Christianity 201

March 2, 2016

The Gospel of Luke and History Matters

••• by Clarke Dixon

[click this link to read at Clarke’s sermon blog]

Many people assume that while religion might affect history, history does not affect one’s religion or lack thereof. In other words, religion is all about spiritual concepts and morality quite apart from anything that has happened. It is very often assumed therefore that theology has more to do with philosophy and science than with history. But history is very important in seeking truth, especially “religious truth.”

Take for example the our monotheistic belief in a Creator God. If God exists and is Creator, then we should expect an historical event, however long, namely, creation. Interestingly in laying out a history of our universe science points us to a beginning point, often referred to as the “Big Bang”. The history of there being a beginning fits well with the religious claim of there being a Creator. There are those who do not like the religious conclusions the historical event of a beginning leads to, so suggestions are made that perhaps there might be more than the universe we know of, perhaps a “multiverse” or something like that. Such appeals by scientists to believe “there must be something greater” sound almost religious don’t they?

Another example can be found in the religion of Islam. If the Koran is to be trusted as what God wants to say to us and Islam is to be held to be true, then revelations to Muhammad by God must be historical events. If that is what happened, then we should all become Muslims. On the other hand if what really happened is that Muhammad was making it up, or suffering from some sort of delusions, then no one should be a Muslim. Religious truth depends on what really happened in history.

The same kind of thing can be said of Christianity. If we are to believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, then the events of history ought to support the beliefs of our religion. If Jesus did not die and rise from the dead, then I ought to be more a fan of Jesus than a follower, as one writer put it.

The interesting thing about the Gospel of Luke is that it begins with an appeal to history:

1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4)

Notice the words that are connected with history, like “events,” “eyewitnesses,” “investigating everything carefully from the first,” and “orderly account.” The writer here is looking to help encourage the reader, Theopholis, to “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” Notice that he is not looking to do so through an appeal to ideas, or concepts, or philosophy, or a discussion on how to live a good life. The appeal is to events, things that have actually happened.

How does the writer know what has happened? While the Gospel writer does not identify himself, the earliest records of such things all point to the writer being Luke whom Paul called “the beloved Physician” in Colossians 4:14. This Luke was very often a companion of Paul and would have had plenty of time and opportunity to rub shoulders with the eyewitnesses of the events described in the Gospel. Though too long a discussion for today, there has been no good reason to doubt the early records on the authorship of Luke. Therefore, while those of us who are Christians believe Luke is inspired by God in the first place and therefore to be trusted, even those who do not believe have good reason to stop and consider what Luke has to say. Far too many people don’t give the Gospels fair consideration out of a belief they were written too late to be of benefit in sorting out history. But history itself points to their value in knowing what the eyewitnesses had to say.

So what does Luke say has happened? I am condensing things very much, but if we were to read Luke straight through from beginning to end we would find that Jesus’ birth was unique to say the least, being born of a virgin. Jesus’ teaching was also unique and had a very keen appeal to justice and equality. In his teaching Jesus also pointed to his own unique nature, to the point of being considered blasphemous. He was continually an annoyance to the religious leaders. He was continually a sought after person by the average person for he performed miracles while still being very down to earth about it. He taught in parables and had much to say about the Kingdom of God and how people should act in that kingdom. He eventually annoyed the religious leaders to the point that they engineered his death at the hands of the Romans. But he rose from the dead, appeared to the disciples, showed them how he fulfilled the Hebrew scriptures, and he said:

46 Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)

Even Jesus here is appealing to accurate history: “you are witnesses of these things.”

What has happened in history should affect how we make history; it should affect our response to God. The things that have happened ought to affect our religion and religious views. We see this happening with the disciples as we read the final words of the Gospel:

52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:52-53)

The Gospel concludes with the idea that all the events Luke had carefully investigated and recorded led and will lead people who know about them to worship Jesus and to an experience of joyful celebration before God.

Luke teaches us to not begin with the question “what religion should I believe or practice?” Rather we begin with the question, “has God done anything that we should know about?” Does history record anything for us to consider? Yes, Luke along with the other Gospel writers have recorded some very important history for us. From Luke’s careful recording of history we learn, not so much what religion to practice, but that God is real, and God’s love through Jesus Christ is real. What will the history of your life reveal about your love for Him?

Click back to previous Wednesdays for Clarke’s overviews of Mark and Matthew

All scriptures: NRSV