************ Sermon on Luke 1:4 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 29, 2015
"The Certainty of the Christmas Story"
I The Purpose of Luke's Gospel
A Luke was commissioned "to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us" (Lk 1:1). He was commissioned to tell everyone that Jesus, "the Son of Man, came to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10). Luke was commissioned to let people know that Jesus is the compassionate Savior Who came to live among sinners, love them, help them, and die for them. Luke was commissioned to announce "good news of great joy that will be for all people" (Lk 2:10) -- for women and children as well as men, for poor people as well as rich people, for sinners as well as saints.
More specifically, Luke was commissioned "to write an orderly account" for "most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Lk 1:3,4). It doesn't look like much here, but Luke does reveal three details about Theophilus. First, we know he loves God because his name means "lover of God." Second, the phrase "most excellent" tells us he was a high Roman official. Third, he was being "taught" the truth about Christ; the Greek word used here gives us our English word "catechism." Theophilus was a Roman official who believed in Christ and now needed to be taught the fullness of the gospel so that he would be firmly established in the truth.
Notice: Luke writes to Theophilus about Jesus. He tells him -- and us -- everything we need to know for our salvation and for the glory of God's name.
B Put yourself in the position of Luke some two thousand years ago. Imagine you were living back then and received this awe-inspiring commission. How would you go about fulfilling this commission? Where would you begin? What would you do?
By the time Luke writes his gospel, there were already many stories and traditions circulating about Jesus. Luke writes,
(Lk 1:1-2) 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 eyewitnesses and servants of the word.In contrast to many of these, Luke wanted to provide an orderly and accurate account of the gospel. So, what did Luke do? What would you do?
Luke himself tells us what he all did. He writes, "I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (Lk 1:3). This tells us Luke was not interested in rumor, hearsay, or legend -- like was found in many of the accounts others drew up. Luke was a careful investigator, a careful researcher. Remember his occupation? Luke was a doctor. In other words, he was interested in accuracy and not in guess work. So what did Luke do?
We are told Luke was acquainted with what came from "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Lk 1:2). Telling us that he read through the accounts others have drawn up. Telling us he listened to the eyewitness accounts. Telling us that he traveled around the land of Palestine and interviewed people like Mary or perhaps one of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus. Telling us Luke got together with the apostles -- the servants of the word that he mentions; I see him getting together with them either as a group or individually, pen in hand, writing down notes on their recollections.
Do you see what Luke is doing? Luke is emphasizing the historical accuracy of what he wrote in his gospel. We can depend on it. We, like Theophilus, can "know the certainty" of what Luke writes about the Christmas story (Lk 1:4).
Remember the intimate details Luke tells us of Mary's meeting with the angel and with Elizabeth? Luke also tells us many details of the wondrous events surrounding the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus -- details that Luke could only get from a firsthand witness like Mary. Remember the reaction of the shepherds on Christmas Day; Luke can tell us such details only because he investigated firsthand.
As an aside, remember what we are told later on in Luke about Mary? Two times we are told that Mary "treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Lk 2:19; cf Lk 2:51). Meaning what? Meaning Mary thought about them and savored them and replayed them again and again in her mind and burned them into her memory. Meaning that Mary's memory would have been accurate. Meaning that Luke can trust what Mary said or wrote.
C I need to tell you one more important detail -- the most important detail -- about what happened as Luke was investigating the Christmas story and the gospel firsthand. Luke had the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Luke states he carefully investigated everything "from the beginning" (Lk 1:3). The English phrase "from the beginning" loses something in translation. It can also be translated as "from above." Luke investigated everything "from above." That is, the phrase speaks of the inspiration of the Spirit of God on the message that Luke wrote. Therefore, we can depend on Luke's gospel. We can "know the certainty" of what Luke writes about the Christmas story (Lk 1:4).
D Then what? After carefully investigating everything for himself, after listening to and following the leading of the Spirit, Luke wrote "an orderly account" (Lk 1:3). This does not mean a chronological account as might be written by a professional historian today. What Luke is saying is that he has arranged the material of his gospel into a coherent, systematic, logical, and readable structure so that we can make sense of the birth, life, death, and teaching of Jesus, so we can know the certainty of the things we have been taught.
II A Dark Time
A After this introduction, Luke starts the Christmas story with an historical marker: "In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). Luke carefully sets the Christmas story within history. He wants us to know that Jesus is a real historical figure. He wants Theophilus to know that the events of Jesus' birth actually did happen. Jesus is not a make-believe figure. Jesus did and Jesus said the events Luke writes about in the rest of his gospel.
B "In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). Every Jew and Christian knew about Herod. He was not a Jew; instead, he was a descendant of unbelieving and heathen Esau. The Romans ruled Palestine at this time, and Herod of Edom was their puppet ruler. His nickname was "Herod the Great" because of his great public building projects.
Herod the Great was one of the most horrible rulers Israel ever had. He was a degenerate man who mingled the blood of the people with their sacrifices. He had nine or ten wives, one of whom he had executed for no apparent reason. It was he who killed the baby boys of Bethlehem. In many ways, his reign was like that of Pharaoh: he oppressed the people, killed the people, murdered their babies, and paid no heed to the Word of God.
C "In the time of Herod king of Judea ..." (Lk 1:5). In terms of history, this puts the story of Jesus four hundred years after the prophecy of Malachi. This means that for four hundred years the people had heard no prophetic Word from God. This means it has been four hundred years since Malachi had promised the coming of Elijah (Mal 4:5-6). This means it has been four hundred years of silence. This means it was a dark time in the history of Israel. During this time of silence the spiritual leaders of the people became shackled by tradition and, in some instances, corruption.
All of that is about to change with Luke's message "from above." The story of Christmas means the darkness is about to end and the light is about to come. It is God Himself Who speaks and the four hundred years of silence is about to be ended.
III Two Godly Believers
A Remember the purpose of Luke's gospel? So that Theophilus "may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Lk 1:4). So that Theophilus may know the Christmas story is real.
So Luke starts with the example of a godly couple who played an important role in the Christmas story. Through their son, God's people end up hearing God's first message in four hundred years. This aged couple serves as an example of godliness not only for Theophilus but for you and me as well. I am talking about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.
Zechariah means "The Lord remembers." The people of Israel had by and large forgotten God's promises. Most important of all, however, God remembered.
Elizabeth means "My God Is an Oath." God had sworn an oath to deliver His people from their bondage to Satan and to bring them and keep them in the Kingdom of His Son.
Join the two names together: Zechariah meaning "The Lord remembers" and Elizabeth meaning "My God Is an Oath." What are we being told? That the God Who had sworn an oath to redeem sinful humanity would not forget His people.
B Zechariah and Elizabeth lived up to their names. Because what are we told about them?
(Lk 1:6) Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly.In an age of infidelity, they were faithful. What a fantastic honor to have this said about you. How would you like this verse inscribed on your tombstone? Others had forsaken the Lord, but Zechariah and Elizabeth were loyal and faithful to Him and to His covenant. The words "O Come, All Ye Faithful" can certainly be applied to this godly couple.
Now, this does not mean they lived completely sinless lives. That simply is not possible in this life, on this earth, and in this body. Even the holiest make only a small beginning in the kind of obedience required by God. You know what John says about claims to perfection:
(1 Jn 1:6) If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.
(1 Jn 1:8) If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
(1 Jn 1:10) If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
Not for a moment would Zechariah and Elizabeth claim to be without sin. Look at the remainder of our Scripture reading. What are we being told about Zechariah the priest? He did not believe the words of the angel because he thought he and his wife were too old to have children. He -- who grew up with the story of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac -- did not believe. He -- who grew up with the stories of what God did with the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the walls of Jericho -- did not believe God could or would give them a son.
So, at the start of the Christmas story, what are we being told about Zechariah and Elizabeth? We are being told this godly couple are sinners who need the Savior. They, too, are the sinners for whom Jesus came.
Let's go back to Theophilus for a moment. There is one more important detail I can add about him: he, too, is a sinner needing to hear the Christmas story; he, too, is a sinner needing to know the truth of the Gospel.
So, then, doesn't Luke's description of Zechariah and Elizabeth mean anything? What does Luke mean when he tells us they "were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly"? (Lk 1:6). What it means is that they strived with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life. What it means is that they made a beginning in living according to all, not only some, of God's commandments. What it means is when they did fall into sin, they confessed their sin and asked for forgiveness. What it doesn't mean is that they were perfect.
C There are lots of unbiblical teachings regarding the possibility of "perfection" or "sinless perfection" for Christians in this life. Many of these teachings have existed since the early days of the church. Many who took up the monastic life in the Middle Ages did so with this purpose in mind, and subjected themselves to great spiritual and material deprivations in a futile effort to achieve sinless perfection. In more recent times, doctrines of perfectionism came into the Protestant church and were championed by men like John Wesley.
Wesley deliberately avoided using the term "sinless perfection," but he believed and taught that a Christian could achieve a state in which his will would be so completely in tune with God's will that he would not commit conscious sin. The only sin such a Christian would commit, he contended, would be unconscious and unintentional.
Many branches of Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement, Nazarene churches, some branches of the Seventh-Day Adventist religion, and the Mormons, among others, also believe in sinless perfection. In Pastor's Class I was telling the students about the post-millennial view of Christ's return; those with this viewpoint believe Christ will return to a perfect earth and a perfect society, to a place of sinless perfection.
Do you know what is wrong with all of these views? They don't take sin seriously! They deny the total depravity of man. And they deny the need for Jesus and the Christmas story; if sinless perfection is possible, why did Jesus take on our flesh?
Do you think you are perfect or near perfect? Think again! Do you think perfection is possible? Think again! Look at Adam and Eve in the perfection of the Garden; if they fell, you certainly fall as well. If Noah, a righteous and blameless man among the people of his time, could fall you certainly fall as well. If David, a man after God's own heart, could fall you certainly fall as well. If a righteous man like Zechariah can suffer unbelief, you certainly can as well.
If you, for a moment, think you are better than all of these, you show yourself to be a hypocrite and a liar. You show yourself to be no better than the Pharisees. You know what the Pharisee prayed about himself:
(Lk 18:11-12) "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. (12) I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."God has no use for these kinds of liars and hypocrites. In this Christmas season He wants humble servants who know and admit their sin and their need for the Savior. He wants us to be like the tax collector who stood at a distance and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Lk 18:13). He wants honest sinners like Zechariah and Elizabeth who know their sin and their need for the Savior.
Luke was commissioned to tell us the Christmas story. He was commissioned to tell us the good news of the gospel for sinners.
Under the guidance of the Spirit, Luke carefully researched and wrote. So, we can be certain that Jesus was born. So, we can be certain that Jesus came for sinners. So, we can be certain that even the most holy among us are included in Luke's list of sinners.
That, my brothers and sisters, is how Luke starts the Christmas story.
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