Luke, a Place in History

At last we come to the most popular (at least in the present day United States) account of Jesus’ birth. This is perhaps because it is more accessible to us as Westerners because of its fully chronological style and reason for existing.

Just like the other authors Luke tells us upfront why he is writing his account.  In 1:3-4 he says “…I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Several questions pop immediately to the fore; were the other accounts disorderly and who the heck is Thophilus?  Both of those questions go to the heart of the really big question which is: Why was Luke writing?  And the answer here is, we’re not really sure.

There are a great many theories concerning Luke’s 2 volume work (his Gospel spills over into The Acts of the Apostles) mostly revolving around the identity of Theophilus.  The name means Friend of God and it might be a title/honorific, it might be a proper name and it might be “code” for someone who’s identity Luke wanted to hide.  Some of the more prominent theories include:

  • A Roman official associated with Paul’s trial in Rome, perhaps Luke/Acts was a brief for his lawyer
  • A member of the Imperial Court who had secretly converted.
  • Any of several Sadducee High Priests who Luke was trying to convert or convince.
  • A general appeal to academic “seekers” of truth.

And many more too numerous to mention.  Frankly I am drawn to the idea that it  was a convert in Rome associated with Paul’s trial, but whoever Theophilus was they were familiar with the story of Jesus and Luke was writing to fill in some of the details and, most importantly, to assure them of the historicity of the events of which they had heard.

Just like the other accounts Luke starts at the beginning.  The beginning for John was the creation of the world, the beginning for Matthew was the birth of the Hebrew nation, the beginning for Luke was God breaking his silence to the Hebrew people.

But why does he start with John the Baptist?  Well the odd thing is that all the Gospels deal with John.  John goes out of his way to note that John was not the light, just a messenger and in Chapter 3 includes the line about not being worthy to untie Jesus sandals.   Matthew repeats the scene in his third chapter. Mark gives essentially the same account after leading his gospel with Jesus’ baptism.  Luke has John confessing the superiority of Jesus in his 3rd chapter as well.  So what’s up?

John had an extremely large following, many of whom likely thought more highly of John than John thought of himself.  Additionally John’s message was not to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but to repent in terms of traditional Jewish beliefs, to live as God had called his chosen people.  It was possible to be a follower of John and ignore Jesus, something the Gospel writers and early Christians in general, were at great pains to prevent.

As a result it appears to me it was very important for the Gospel writers to both connect and disconnect John and Jesus.  It was important that John be seen as the messenger he was, pointing to Jesus, but inferior to Jesus.

Luke does this more strongly than the rest by pointing to the connections between Jesus and John, the miraculous circumstances of John’s birth and the relationship between their  mothers.  He is adding meat to the bare bones of the story presented by the other gospels and perhaps debunking other sources not now available to us.

Some have said that from the time of the last message from God to a prophet until the time of the Angel’s appearance to Zechariah was 400 years.  I’m not sure how anybody can figure that out, but for a long time, either God had been silent or nobody was listening.

And then God interrupted.  It was almost Monty Pythonesque, “Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.”  It was certainly humorous.  God appeared where he was least expected, in the Temple.  Preists, Zechariah included, were going about their business, doing what they had always done when God interrupted.  And a priest’s wife, who had long been childless and seemed reconciled to her disgrace, became pregnant.

A young girl who, in the normal course of an ordinary and boring life in the middle of nowhere, who was pledged to be married to a man of humble estate, found herself addressed by an angel and confronting the prospect of having a child who would be the Son of God.  An entire unsuspecting community, of no particular renown, becomes witnesses to prophecy as the priest regains his speech.

In fact, an entire uncaring world went about its usual business.  The wheels of government ground on.  Distant emperors dispatched census takers and tax collectors all unknowing they were part of God’s plan.  The town of Bethlehem is caught completely unaware of the role it was to play and the shepherds in the fields just outside of town were certainly not expecting what they were to see on the night God’s plan came to fruition.

Luke is describing ordinary people doing the things people have always done, at a time certain and at a place certain (during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, in Bethlehem, in Judea).  It was real, in fact all too real.  God chose to interrupt the life of the world, to totally change the life of the world with something extraordinary, to do a thing that the world had not seen before, to reconcile men to Himself by becoming man Himself.  Nobody expects that.

And how about us?  In our workaday lives, doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do, has there been a point where God has interrupted us?  Is there a real monument in history we can point to and say God did something different there that changed our lives?  And if we have do we permit ourselves to be interrupted by God as he continues to act in His world?

My prayer is that we would experience the joys of the season, not in the usual things, but in the interruptions God brings into our lives.