Prologue (Luke 1:1-4)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Luke 1:1-4

[1] 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. [3] Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, [4] so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.


We are about to embark upon an amazing trip, back in time 2,000 years to the land of Palestine. There Jesus was born, lived, died, and was raised from the dead.

During his brief three-year ministry, Jesus gathered around him a band of followers, perhaps 120 or so, both men and women, who walked with him -- literally. As he traveled the roads of Galilee and Judea, with short trips into modern-day Lebanon, they walked along with him.

That is how he taught them. Not by formal courses but by an intimate, shared journey, an internship on foot, a JesusWalk. His disciples frequently traveled with him, heard his teachings, saw how he cared for people, how he healed the sick, delivered the those overcome by the demonic, called people to their highest selves, and confronted hypocrisy. They saw him in times of relaxation and humor, of deep teaching and individual dialog. They also observed him under fire from critics and enemies, who finally engineered his execution.

Over these three years, they internalized his viewpoint, his compassion, his world view, and his passion. But that wasn't enough. They needed their spirits ignited by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1-2). Once that took place, Jesus' band of Galilean followers became a mighty force that altered life in the Mediterranean world within a single generation.

We will take our journey through the eyes of Luke the Gospel writer. His observations will guide us as we seek to understand the Man and his Message.

Background on Luke's Gospel

First, let's examine Luke's Gospel briefly.

First, what we DO know. The Gospel according to Luke is volume one in a two-volume work which also includes the Acts of the Apostles. Luke approaches his Gospel as history (1:1-4) rather than some myth, and seeks to give his readers "an orderly account" based on the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events.

Now, let's take a quick look at what we don't know. We won't spend much time speculating -- there are whole books devoted to speculation about the Gospel of Luke -- but let's consider....

Readers. Luke seems to writing to readers somewhat removed in geography and time from the Holy Land. While Matthew is clearly written to answer the interests of Jewish Christians, Luke seems to be more directed toward Gentile Christians.

Sources. Luke is one of the "so-called" Synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- that contain a good deal of material in common with each other. The Gospel writer seems to have access to the Gospel of Mark. But in addition, he includes some material in common with Matthew, and another set of events not recorded in either of the other Gospels.

Author. Though the Gospel itself does not tell us, Church tradition as far back as 120 AD unanimously ascribes this gospel to Luke "the beloved physician," a travelling companion of St. Paul's. Recent attempts to discredit Lucan authorship are unconvincing.

Date. While the Gospel of Luke displays an interest in the fall of Jerusalem, Acts seems to conclude before AD 70 when Jerusalem fell. Probably Luke was written in the 60s AD, prior to AD 70. The place of composition could be Achaia or Rome, Antioch or Caesarea, but we are not sure.

Themes. Some of the themes that this Gospel develops are the good news of salvation, salvation for all men, and Jesus' claims on disciples who would follow him. The message might be summed up in the words, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

Language. We'll spend some time examining the words of the text. While Luke wrote in fairly elegant Koine Greek, Jesus himself probably spoke and taught in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew. Though the Greek text doesn't tell us all the nuances of the original Aramaic, it is the closest we have to Jesus' actual words, so we'll try to gain as accurate an understanding of word meanings as we are able.

Translation. Many excellent English translations exist, but for this study I'll be using the New International Bible, widely acclaimed for its readability as well as accuracy. Where words differ from the traditional King James Version, I'll note those differences as well.

I find it important to look up -- and pass onto you -- exact meanings of the most important key words. For the most part, I'll be quoting from the standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (third edition, University of Chicago Press, 2000; abbreviated BDAG) so you get the benefit of the latest scholarship with regard to the meanings of the Greek words. This may seem a bit pedantic at times, but I think you'll appreciate the accuracy with which you'll understand each passage.

Now, let's turn to the Gospel itself, and begin to look deeply and carefully into it. In this lesson let's consider Luke's prologue or introduction to the Gospel to get an idea of his purpose and approach to this account of Jesus' life.

Many Eyewitness Accounts (1:1-2)

"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 eyewitnesses and servants of the word." (1:1-2)

The phrase "draw up" (NIV) or "set forth in order" (KJV) translates the Greek verb anatassomai, literally, "arrange in proper order." Figuratively, "to organize in a series, draw up, compose, compile a narrative."[1] The word "account" (NIV) or "declaration" (KJV) is the Greek noun diegesis, "an orderly description of facts, events, actions, or words, narrative, account." It is related to the verb diegeomai, "to give a detailed account of something in words, tell, relate, describe."[2]

Luke acknowledges the existence of other Gospels circulating among the churches. Mark's Gospel was probably available, and perhaps other source documents. But he sees the need for yet another account -- arranged in proper order, accurate, and more comprehensive that what had been available so far. In fact, Luke's Gospel includes several chapters that have no parallel in the other Synoptic Gospels.

In the phrase "the things that have been fulfilled among us....", "fulfilled" (NIV) or "most surely believed" (KJV) is the Greek verb plerophoreo. It can have two meanings: "1. fill (completely), fulfill." The lexicographer suggests a meaning in our verse of "accomplish" -- "the things that have been accomplished among us." It can also mean, "2. convince fully," but probably doesn't in this context.[3]

Next, Luke discusses his sources who were actual eyewitnesses to the events. The Greek noun is autoptes, "eyewitnesses, seeing with one's own eyes."[4] But to make sure these eyewitnesses aren't perceived as mere spectators, he also terms them as "servants of the word." "Servants" or "ministers" is the Greek noun huperetes, often used in rabbinical writings as a technical term for a governmental or other official, "one who functions as a helper, frequently in a subordinate capacity, helper, assistant."[5] John Mark was an "assistant" of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:5). The word refers to servants, officials, and soldiers of the high priest, temple, and king (Matthew 5:25; 26:58; Mark 14:54,65; John 7:32, 45-46; 18:3, 12, 18, 22, 36; 19:6; Acts 5:22, 26), and a synagogue attendant or official (Luke 4:20). Twice the apostles are termed servants or officials of Christ (Acts 26:16; 1 Corinthians 4:1).

But what is the "word" (Greek logos) of which they are servants? It is the Gospel message, the teaching of Jesus that they serve. Rengstorf asserts, that they "were not propagandists for their own views of what happened with Jesus, but had unreservedly put their persons and work in the service of Jesus' cause."[6]

Apostolic Authority

Luke has personally spoken to many of these eyewitnesses who have faithfully delivered to him and other Christians the Good News about Jesus. "Handed down" (NIV) or "delivered" (KJV) is the Greek verb paradidomi, which in this context means, "to pass on to another what one knows, of oral or written tradition, hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach."[7]

When you are reading the Gospel of Luke -- or the entire New Testament, for that matter -- you are reading the teaching of the original Apostles, passed directly to Matthew, Mark, and Luke who wrote it down. Many believe that John the Apostle himself wrote the Gospel of John. The New Testament is authoritative because of its source:

Jesus Christ > Apostles > Gospel Writers

The New Testament is authoritative because it is the apostolic teaching.

Unlike some ancient documents which have been passed down from one generation to another in oral form, with the New Testament there's a clear and direct transmission process. Luke was an associate who traveled Paul, and, as such, spoke with many of the eyewitnesses directly. In fact, the earliest Synoptic Gospels were put down on paper within the lifetimes of actual eyewitnesses. That is why the Church has always cherished and revered these documents.

Careful Investigation (1:3a)

Now Luke talks a bit about his process of investigation. "Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning..." (1:3a) "Investigated" (NIV) or "having ... understanding" (KJV) is the Greek verb parakoloutheo, which, at its basic level, means "follow." In this context it means, "to pay careful attention to something in a segment of time, follow a thing, follow a course of events, take note of." The lexicographer translates this clause, "with a firm grasp of everything from the beginning."[8]

"Carefully" (NIV) and "perfect" (KJV) translate the adverb akribos, "pertaining to strict conformity to a standard or norm, with focus on careful attention, accurately, carefully, well."[9] Luke, a careful medical practitioner, is also careful about the process of preparing an authentic account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Most Excellent Theophilis (1:3b)

"... It seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus..." (1:3b)

Who is this Theophilus? We don't know. Theophilus means, "lover of God." Luke addresses him with the words, "most excellent," using the adjective kratistos (the superlative of kratus, "strong, mighty"), a "strongly affirmative honorary form of address, most noble, most excellent." It is used before highly placed officials, but also as a form of polite address without any official connotation.[10]

Was Theophilis a convenient symbol or a real person. We can't know for sure, but it is likely he is a real person, perhaps Luke's literary patron who will assist with publication of the Gospel. Theophilis is also named in the preface to the second volume in this series -- Acts:

"In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen." (Acts 1:1-2)

Know with Certainty (1:3b-4)

"... It seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught..." (1:3b-4)

Luke's method is to write the narrative in sequential fashion. "Orderly" (NIV) or "in order" (KJV) is the Greek adverb kathexes, "pertaining to being in sequence in time, space, or logic, in order, one after the other."[11]

Luke's purpose is that Theophilus can be confident that what he has been taught has its basis in historical fact. The verb "taught" is the Greek verb katecheo, "instruct, teach," from which we get our English word "catechism."[12]

The word "know" is the common Greek verb epiginosko, "to have knowledge of something or someone, know."[13] "Certainty" is the Greek noun asphaleia. This is an interesting word that comes from the verb sphallo, "to make someone fall or trip." Adding the prefix "a" negates that idea as "security against stumbling or falling." Here the noun refers to "stability of idea or statement, certainty, truth."[14] 

Have you ever wondered if this story about Jesus is really true? Have you ever looked for certainty? Ever wanted to know whether your faith is based on your hopes and dreams or on solid historical reality? Then Luke is not just writing an orderly, researched, eyewitness account for Theophilis, but for you, too.

As the narrative unfolds, Luke makes it abundantly clear that the story of Jesus is not a timeless Christ-myth, but an historically accurate account of an amazing Teacher, Prophet, and Lord who lived in the time, the geography, and the culture of First Century Palestine. It is an account you can believe and sink your teeth into, a story that will change your life.

I invite you in successive weeks to walk with Jesus through the pages of Luke's account. I invite you to meet him and get to know him intimately, just as the first disciples did. And in the process I invite you to become his disciple, too. I invite you on a JesusWalk.


Father, we are twenty centuries removed from Jesus' earthly life. But we want to know him -- what he was like, what he said, how he lived and died and was raised. Thank you that we possess in the Gospel of Luke an historically accurate document. Build our faith as we read the Gospel. Make us every much your disciples in this Twenty-First Century as were the disciples of the First Century. Teach us to follow, too. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"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 eyewitnesses and servants of the word." (Luke 1:1-2)


JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. What sources does Luke use as he prepares his Gospel? (1:2)
  2. What does it mean to be a "servant of the word"? (1:2) What does such a servant do? How does such a servant act? What is the "word" he serves?
  3. What makes Luke an especially good narrator of Jesus' life? How has he prepared for this task? (1:3)
  4. Is there any way to find "certainty" about the Christian faith? How certain is the Gospel of Luke? What is the certainty we seek? Why do we seek certainty? (1:4)


Common Abbreviations

  1. BDAG 73.
  2. BDAG 245.
  3. BDAG 827.
  4. BDAG 152.
  5. BDAG 1035.
  6. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, "huperetes," TDNT 8:543.
  7. BDAG 762.
  8. BDAG 767.
  9. BDAG 39.
  10. BDAG 565.
  11. BDAG 490.
  12. BDAG 534.
  13. BDAG 369.
  14. BDAG 147.

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