By Kaleb Leonard
The following is an exegetical analysis of Luke 1:1-4.
Forasmuch as many have undertaken to compose a narrative of those things, which have been accomplished among us, as they who were, from the beginning, eye-witnesses, and afterwards ministers of the word, delivered them to us; I have also determined, having exactly traced every thing from the first, to write a particular account to you, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty of those matters in which you have been instructed.
1 Since many have attempted to compose an account of the events fulfilled among us 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who were, from the beginning, eyewitnesses and became servants of the word, 3 I have also determined, having accurately traced everything from the first, to write out an ordered account to you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know with certainty those things you have been taught.
1) Since many have attempted to compose an account— In the days that Luke wrote this narrative, there were many written (the word ἀνατάσσομαι means to put down, to draw up, or to set down in permanent form, most often in writing) and perhaps oral accounts of the life of Jesus. Most, if not all, were fragmentary and did not include all the information necessary to paint an accurate picture of Christ and His ministry. McGarvey notes that “we know nothing and have even no tradition” concerning these other attempts. We have the Gospel of Mathew which was written prior to this one, and the Gospel of Mark which was written after, although this is greatly debated, but Luke does not likely have these in mind when considering the previous inaccurate and incomplete sources.
There is quite a large debate concerning the attitude of Luke toward these “other authors.” Some say that he considers their testimony favorably and offers his own as a further elaboration. Others say that he sees something severely lacking in the other accounts and thus sets out to complete and to correct them, if necessary. The latter option is preferable given the way in which Luke sets his own historically accurate account over and against his predecessors. Mark Moore says it well:
"Luke is motivated to write by the “many” who have gone before him. The fact that they have written about Jesus sets the precedent for Luke’s own rendition. Furthermore, Vincent (Word Studies in the NT, I:251) says that this word [epicheireō, lit., “set their hand to”] implies that their previous attempts were unsuccessful.… Although this is not a necessary implication, Luke obviously sees something lacking. This caused him to undertake this extensive project which resulted in his two-volume work, Luke and Acts. These books would begin with the birth of John the Baptist and follow the gospel clear to Rome.”
Moore is right to say that Luke’s two volume work would, unlike other accounts, be comprehensive in all that it sets out to record. However, the second volume (the book of Acts) has its own introductory paragraph which tells us that the introduction at hand, and this verse in particular, has reference to the material that would be discussed in the gospel of Luke and not Acts.
Of the events fulfilled among us— What events are being referenced here? As mentioned above, this introduction pertains to the present work and not the subsequent book of Acts. The events directly referenced here, then, are the those which involved Jesus on Earth, and particularly those during his three year ministry. Some commentators find significance in the word fulfilled (πεπληροφορημένων), saying that it is the author’s way of saying the events he is about to describe were long expected and even prophesied about centuries beforehand. For example, Smith says, “For Luke history was no accident. It was the fulfillment of a divine plan. The coming of Christ had been predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament.” While this statement is certainly true, it is likely not being taught in this single word which has a very general meaning. The meaning instead should be, “the events that transpired (or accomplished) among us.”
As a side note, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if Luke had originally planned to write the books Acts as the companion volume to the gospel narrative. It is possible that after completing this account, he felt accomplished having precisely and permanently produced an ordered and complete narrative and, thus, felt compelled to continue his written work into the age of the church, beginning with the Day of Pentecost. There is, of course, no direct mention of a sequel in these verses. However, many of the statements do indicate that the author was deeply interested in cataloging, with historical accuracy, all the events important to the Christian religion. In summary, while this introduction may be singularly focused on the material dealing with the earthly life of Christ, Luke was certainly determined to encourage and educate Theophilus, and any other readers, concerning the entire redemption story, from the birth of John to the death of Paul and beyond. Because of this, it is not outside the realm of possibility, in fact it may be quite conceivable, that it was always his intention to produce both works even before he began the present volume.
2) Just as they were delivered to us— The events recorded herein were spread abroad by many in the early church as detailed in the rest of the New Testament. The term delivered could also be translated “handed down.” This language is used throughout the New Testament (see for example 1 Cor. 11:23). The point is that the things believed and taught in the Bible are neither fables crafted by human imagination nor yet fictitious stories intended to deceive people into following some foolish group. Instead the scriptures are founded upon solid evidence handed down (or delivered) to the future generations of believers.
By those who, since the beginning, were eyewitnesses and became servants of the word— These testimonies and instructions were not delivered by unreliable sources but by those who witnessed the events themselves. The Pharisees and other groups antagonistic to the ministry of Jesus also happened to be witnesses of many of these events, but because of their antipathy for the truth, their testimonies were often filled with lies. This is especially evident in the resurrection accounts (Matthew 28:12-13). On the other hand, this was not the case with the early Christian accounts.
3) I have also determined, having accurately traced everything from the beginning— Because of the insufficiency of the circulating documents, Luke sees try his hand at producing a more accurate and complete picture of the life of Christ. Luke was a Greek-speaking physician and may have been one of the most educated men of his day. This uniquely qualified him to write a volume of such moment as this.
This verse introduces the reader to the method by which the author discovered and confirmed the truth of the following records. Mark Moore says that Luke used three sources:
“First, he uses events that he and/or his audience participated in—things that have been fulfilled. This translation doesn’t do full justice to the verb tense Luke uses. We might say, “Things that have come to fruition among us.” As a historian, Luke doesn’t just tell us what happened. Rather, there is a theological meaning and a sovereign design behind each of the events he records. Second, Luke uses the previously written materials. As verse one states, there were many who had already “drawn up an account” of Jesus’ life. This may even include the writings of Matthew and Mark.4 Third, there was oral testimony of eyewitnesses.”
This does not seem to be completely consistent with what has been clearly stated. He certainly used oral testimony and his own experience as reliable sources, but given Luke’s disapproval of the other available works, it seems doubtful that he would choose to use one or more of them as his source material. It has been argued that the only way in which those others were deficient was in their length and in their failure to give all the relevant information, therefore Luke simply sets out to combine them all into one cohesive work. This theory, although plausible, is inconsistent with the meaning of this verse. Clearly, Luke felt qualified and even obligated to write because he had accurately traced everything from the beginning and had eyewitness evidence as his source (v. 2). It is doubtful that he would make such a bold statement in his introduction if his sources were fragmentary pieces of possibly anonymous conglomerations of human traditions. Instead of Moore’s three-source theory, a better option seems to be that Luke relied primarily on eyewitness testimony, including his own, first and foremost. However, in some sections of this book (such as 3:23-38) there is evidence that Luke conducted thorough research to determine some background information but not to determine the accuracy of the events themselves. For this he used eyewitness testimony alone.
To write out an ordered account to you— Luke is the only author of the New Testament who claims to have specially structured his book. But what does it mean that his account is ordered? Bock is most astute:
“Luke calls his account an orderly one (kathexēs). 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.”
In other words, Luke’s narrative is not strictly chronological or geographical. Rather, it is thematic and literary for the sole purpose of convincing the reader of its truth in the clearest way possible.
Most excellent Theophilus— See introductory comments under “Audience.”
4) So that you may know with certainty those things you have been taught— Luke and John are the only gospel writers who directly state their purpose, and it is possible that their purpose is actually mutual but stated slightly different in their respective accounts. John says, “These are recorded, that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; and, that believing, you may have life through his name.” In other words, these specific events were chosen by the author in order to serve a purpose, viz. that they would impart knowledge in the minds and produce belief in the hearts of the readers. While Luke’s original audience may have been different than that of John, his intention is essentially the same. He wants to assure Theophilus that the statements he had heard concerning Jesus were accurate (mind) and that his previous instruction as to their application (heart) was correct.
Why would Theophilus need such a record of the life of Christ? Many suggestions have been offered in response to this question. Darrell Bock summarizes many of the possible questions that may have plagued Theophilus:
“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.”
While some of these questions may be legitimate, they are likely not the only reason for the writing. As mentioned in the introduction, Theophilus was probably a wealthy individual and thus could have been a benefactor to this young evangelist. However, the best answer is probably a combination of these two options. Being a Gentile himself, Luke was uniquely able to answer questions regarding Gentile inclusion in the church, for he had worked closely with Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, over the span of many years. For this reason, it is probable that he chose much of the information he included in the gospel account and in the book of Acts in order to most completely describe the scope of the scheme of redemption. Practically speaking, this means that his writings will pull no punches. He will show neither favor nor dislike toward any group, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female but will plainly and simply present all the information (in both volumes) exactly as it happened.
Notice also the implication of this verse. Luke, in contrast to postmodernism, suggests that accurate and even certain knowledge about historical events can be obtained through research and the weighing of evidence. This narrative was not meant to be a feel-good bedtime story with a subjective moral. The author intends for us to read in these pages a presentation of reliable evidence and raw data concerning Jesus of Nazareth. While some of the information, and even the method of presentation, may elicit an emotional response, this should not cause us to discredit its validity or credibility. Luke presents himself as an accurate historian, and we have no evidence, archaeological or otherwise, to think anything else.