Introduction and Prologue to Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:1-4)

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Background on Luke's Gospel

James J. Tissot, 'Saint Luke' (1886-94), gouache over graphite on gray wove paper, 5.4 x 4.0 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Saint Luke' (1886-94), gouache over graphite on gray wove paper, 5.4 x 4.0 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

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 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 these matters:

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. 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 Koinē 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 fairly recent 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.

Luke's Prologue to the Gospel (Luke 1:1-4)

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.

"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." (Luke 1:1-4)

Many Eyewitness Accounts (Luke 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 diēgēsis, "an orderly description of facts, events, actions, or words, narrative, account." It is related to the verb diēgeomai, "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 to Luke, and perhaps other source documents. But he sees the need for yet another account -- arranged in proper order, accurate, and more comprehensive than 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 plērophoreō. It can have two meanings: "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, "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 autoptēs, "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 hypēretēs, 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,6 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."7

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 paradidōmi 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."8

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 (Luke 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 parakoloutheō, 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."9

"Carefully" (NIV) and "perfect" (KJV) translate the adverb akribōs, "pertaining to strict conformity to a standard or norm, with focus on careful attention, accurately, carefully, well."10 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 (Luke 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.11

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 (Luke 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 kathexēs, "pertaining to being in sequence in time, space, or logic, in order, one after the other."12

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 katēcheō, "instruct, teach," from which we get our English word "catechism."13

The word "know" is the common Greek verb epiginōskō, "to have knowledge of something or someone, know."14 "Certainty" is the Greek noun asphaleia. This is an interesting word that comes from the verb sphallō, "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."15 

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.

Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.

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 bit as 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)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  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)


Abbreviations and References

[1] Anatassomai, BDAG 73.

[2] Diēgēsis,  BDAG 245.

[3] Plērophoreō, BDAG 827.

[4] Autoptēs, BDAG 152.

[5] Hypēretēs, BDAG 1035.

[6] 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

[7] Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, hyperētes, TDNT 8:543.

[8] Paradidōmi, BDAG 763.

[9] Parakoloutheō, BDAG 676.

[10] Akribōs, BDAG 39.

[11] Kratistos, BDAG 565.

[12] Kathexēs, BDAG 490.

[13] Katēcheō, BDAG 534.

[14] Epiginōskō, BDAG 369.

[15] Asphaleia, BDAG 147.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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