We have four teenage sons and we are in the phase of life where, as they each turn 16, we are teaching them to drive. 

I am learning that teaching teenage boys how to drive is an exercise in reining in their self-confidence. This came home to me one Friday night as I was driving home with my son and he was pulling into our driveway, which has a very tight turn. I calmly said, “You’re not going to make it”, to which he replied, “It’s okay, Dad, trust me. I’ve got this”. He didn’t.  

False confidence in that case was annoying – very annoying! But it was hardly a matter of life or death. False confidence in spiritual matters is obviously much more serious. What if we are basing our entire life on a lie? 

Paul considers this in a thought experiment in 1 Corinthians 15:32, when he reasons that, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”.

Maybe you have gone through a period of doubt as a Christian. Maybe you have been confronted with the possibility that everything you believe might be false and that you are wasting your life. Maybe that describes where you are right now. Maybe you know people struggling with those kinds of doubts. 

In this article I want to consider how the Gospel of Luke can help us. In his introduction, Luke declares that he is writing to give his reader – Theophilus – confidence. Not just confidence in general, but confidence or certainty about the things Theophilus has been taught (1:4). As we read the book, it can give us the same confidence.

A worthy message

First, Luke tells us that what he has written is worth reading: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (1:1). What have the “many” done before Luke wrote his work? This language of “drawing up an account” does not necessarily have to refer to writing a full Gospel (like Mark or Matthew). It can simply refer to composing partial written fragments or even speeches.

It is likely that Luke is here speaking about material such as hymns (e.g. Phil 2:5-11), gospel summaries (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-8) – even speeches (e.g. Acts 2:14-36).  In fact, he uses a related word to the word for “narrative” a few times in the gospel and in Acts to describe people verbally relating something that has happened.

In stressing that many have been communicating about this, he is emphasising that what he is writing about is something that is worth writing about. Lots of people have already been interested in communicating it. It is not an obscure topic. The content of his book is significant and important. And 2000 years later we can see the truth of what Luke writes – the effects of the gospel of Jesus continue to reverberate.  

In Acts – Luke’s second volume – he records people describing the apostles as “men who have caused trouble all over the world” (17:6). Luke and then Acts narrate events that turned the world upside down. Just that fact alone can give us confidence of the truth of the gospel. Barely 30 years after Jesus had ascended, the message of the gospel was beginning to change the world. 

A message with many witnesses

Second, what he has written is based on eyewitness accounts, “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2)

Where were you – if you are old enough to remember – when you heard about the September 11 attacks? I had just come out of a lunchtime service in a church in London when I heard the news of what had happened in New York. But can I really trust my memory? A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell did a series of podcasts on memory and he referenced a study where they asked people to record where they were when they heard about the terrorist attacks. Over the next 20 years, people’s recollections changed – rather than sitting in their living room watching the TV, 10 years later they were convinced that they had been watching at a neighbour’s house. And they were so strongly convinced that they would refuse to believe what they had recorded 10 years earlier. They were convinced that what they had written at the time – just days after the events – was wrong. Gladwell argued that it shows that memory is an inherently faulty thing and can’t be relied upon. 

What does that mean for our confidence in the apostolic witness? Can we really trust their memories? If we were to give a fuller theological answer, we would look at John’s Gospel and Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would undergird their memory (14:26). But even when we look at these contemporary studies, it turns out that they don’t apply if you were directly impacted by the events – if you lost a loved one that day or you were an eyewitness, your memory stays absolutely consistent, even 20 years later.

The book Luke has written is based on the testimony of eyewitnesses: eyewitnesses who later became servants of the word. People who were both there and were directly impacted by the events. His account is based on their testimony. And it is not as if Luke himself is a dispassionate observer. 

A message thoroughly researched

Third, what he has written has not remained at arm’s length: “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3).

What did Luke do before he began to write?  Did Luke simply sit in an ancient library and pore over written sources? This is what the Greek historian Polybius said about that kind of historical work:

Book-based research is free of risk and hardship – or at least it is if you ensure that you find yourself either a city where there are plenty of historical works available, or a nearby library. Then all you have to do is recline on a couch while carrying out your research and collating the statements of earlier writers, and there is no hardship involved in that.

By contrast, Luke indicates that he was much more involved. The language he uses of following closely is used in 1 Timothy (4:6) and 2 Timothy (3:10) to speak of how Timothy followed Paul’s teaching and example. Luke is an involved historian. He writes as a disciple, from the inside. As such, he is not just interested in Did it happen? but Does it work?

He knows what he writes is true because he knows its impact on his own life. He is not simply writing about something that has had no effect on him. He is writing about something that he is caught up in. The truthfulness and accuracy of what he is writing about matters to him as much as it does to Theophilus because he writes as a follower.

And so, Luke concludes the introduction to his book. He has written so that Theophilus “may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

This is not just confidence in general, but so Theophilus will be more confident – more certain – in what he has been taught about Christ. 

A message to be confident about

Think about Theophilus. Perhaps he is a young Christian. Perhaps he knows Paul’s gospel summary at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15. He knows the basics of Jesus’s life. Maybe he knows some of the parables. Imagine how Theophilus reacts when he reads Luke’s Gospel for the first time!

Our danger is always that we are over-familiar. We have four gospels – we have always had gospels. We read them – we enjoy them. But for the first readers of Luke’s Gospel the depth, the confirmation, the solidity it would have given to their faith in Christ would have been stunning. Here is the Jesus you follow. Here is what happened when he was born, here is his teaching, here is how he died. Here is what happened when he rose from the dead.

So Theophilus can be certain that the things he had been taught – and more! –   did actually happen. In the context of persecution, in the context of an early fragile church, Luke shows that Jesus really is worth following. Luke shows how deeply Jesus is anchored in the expectations of the Old Testament, and how significant his teaching, his life, his death and his resurrection are.

Without minimising the genuine doubts many people have it is easy to miss the fact that, in the first instance, God has graciously given us Luke’s Gospel (and the other gospels!) to help us grow in our confidence in the truthfulness of the message of Christ. 

So often our instinct is to look outside of the New Testament to have our faith shored up. And there is a place for that. It is helpful to know that non-Christian writers (such as Tacitus and Josephus) also spoke about Jesus, so much so that no serious academic historian would deny his existence. But ultimately the Christian faith is more than simply the existence of Jesus, and it is only God and his word that will convince us of its truthfulness. But in his kindness, he has given us a book in the New Testament that is particularly designed to help us grow in confidence and assurance. 

Dr Peter Orr lectures in New Testament at Moore Theological College.