1st December

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NIV[1])

[Disclaimer: not all posts will be quite this long; around 300 words each day is the target; but some introduction to Luke 1-2 will be helpful on this occasion.]

Openings are important in any literary work. They set the tone for what is to come. Good openings grab our attention, draw us in, and make us want to read on. The opening to the Gospel of Luke (Luke) is distinctive. The other three gospel accounts begin very differently: Matthew begins by listing a significant amount of Christ’s genealogy; Mark launches straight in talking about the gospel of Christ Jesus and moves straight onto Jesus’ baptism; John begins more poetically by talking about a Word (logos) figure, who turns out to be Christ. Luke is different, however, and instead of presenting Jesus explicitly straightaway, this section expresses the author’s reason for writing and mentions a patron figure, Theophilus, for whom this is written. The language of Luke is the most polished of the four gospels; it is perhaps a more consciously literary piece. Therefore, it is less surprising that it conforms to literary convention by mentioning Theophilus here – the Roman poets, Virgil and Horace, mentioned their patrons in their poetry.

Yet, there is also something deeper going on here. Again, in the ancient world, it was common to write histories and biographies of illustrious figures; and this is Luke’s attempt to write the fullest biography yet. He is aware he is not alone in the undertaking; many have put their hand to it (v.1). Unsurprising given the subject matter, which is no ordinary course of events: they are matters which have been fulfilled, as predicted historically. Not only did these events take place but people witnessed them, but they also went on to become “servants” (v.2) for the cause. What they saw had such an effect, they were changed forever. The opening states that the account is historical and meticulously researched (v.3). But what does it mean for us? Luke draws his reader(s) in and says he writes so that “you (only singular but perhaps he is aware this text will one day have a wider audience) might know the certainty of the things you were taught”.

As Advent begins, I wish to dwell on the word translated as certainty. The original Greek word (asphaleian[2]) also connotes safety, and so I suggest it might usefully be translated as “surety”, to combine both aspects of certainty and safety. Interestingly, it is delayed until the last word of the sentence, so the last impression the original reader(s) would have had of this opening would have been of the certainty, safety, surety of this account.

It is a good place to begin a reflection on Advent and Christ. Although Luke has yet to mention Christ, the opening mentions events linked to someone’s life. Christ will be the figure at the centre of the account. The world often seems like an uncertain and an unsafe place. There are even divisions and debates raging within Christianity which indicate uncertainty. Yet, true safety and certainty is found when we look to the figure of Christ. When we fully glimpse him, we gain a perspective which makes the world appear less frightening, and struggles and divisions die down. It is fitting that this section concludes with the idea of certainty and surety. When we properly look to Christ, we are on safe and certain ground. Can we take this perspective with us into Advent?

[1] I will always quote the NIV translations for simplicity; it is the translation used most frequently in my church tradition. I will, however, occasionally make (hopefully insightful) points about the original Greek words used and suggest other translations.

[2] I will always transliterate Greek terms – if you know Greek and don’t like not seeing the characters, look up the text!


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