This is the first of many Sundays that we will be looking at gospel texts from the Gospel according to Luke [8:26-39]. I thought, therefore, that it would be a good thing to look briefly at the big picture that this gospel account gives.
The big picture of any of the four gospel accounts is, of course, a big (and slightly unique) picture of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that message comes through the words of an ancient text, and that makes at least a little difference in the delivery of that message. In modern times, looking at the big picture of a certain text often means looking at an outline of that work. In ancient times, looking at the big picture often meant looking at the first words of the text.
Here are the first words of the Gospel according to Luke (the translation is based on the ESV, but there are some differences which attempt a more literal translation, and I have laid out the translation on the page to see a close similarity to what will follow):
… many took in hand to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,
it seemed good
… to me also, having closely followed all things from their source, to write accurately an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that concerning the things you have been taught, you may have certainly.
The use of ‘big’ words is deliberate; the writer of this account had a huge vocabulary. And one might think that the closest match to this first sentence of the Gospel according to Luke is the start of the book of Acts. But, actually, the writing at the Jerusalem Council in the middle of Acts (15:24-29) is the closest. Again, I have laid out the text so that it is easy to see a similar structure.
… we heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, to whom we did not give commission,
it seemed good
… to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have given their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
For it has seemed good
… to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.
If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
A friend of mine, the Rev. Dr. Kevin Armbrust, takes the ‘narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us’ in Luke 1 as essentially the Old Testament. However far you go back with that first section of Luke 1, there is a noticeable progression of time going forward and a fewer number of people involved. The things have been fulfilled in the past, and now an accurate and orderly account is being given to someone. There were 'many' involved in the past, and now this account comes to one named Theophilus, whose name means, somewhat significantly, ‘lover of God’. In the second quote, there are ‘some’ persons who are causing trouble. And then after the turning point, the people being referenced are acting as one (‘one accord’; the phrase literally means, ‘one emotion’). And then, only four men are mentioned (and they are mentioned in pairs) who will take this letter.
You might be able to tell from the structure of these two documents that this language was saved for important things. It follows the structure of some ancient official documents (see BDAG, page 360). To translate that it ‘seems’ good may not be the best translation because of all the current uses of ‘seems’; something that ‘seems’ to be may have an unsure foundation. But, in ancient times, this literary structure stood solidly.
These are both important documents because these were important times. I cannot imagine how the writers might feel, being asked to write about Jesus. It is one thing to say something. It is another thing to write something down and make it permanent.
I have often said to people that I cannot imagine the Council needing four people to carry one small letter. I have also said that I think that there is something more going on here. I can picture these four men being sent off to give four slightly different perspectives on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; this could be much like a ‘living’ gospel. This is literally a life-and-death situation for ALL involved.
As I have said before, just having one perspective would be too much of a history lesson. Having four different perspectives, each one being true, says that this man (actually God-man) is extremely important. With these four perspectives, there is also that connection to the four living creatures of God’s throne.
As time marches on, we can feel increasingly ‘lost in the crowd’. But the progression of the above statements is toward the particular, toward the ‘one’. (I would rather not use the term ‘individual’; it has too many negative connotations; perhaps we can talk about this another time.)
The seriousness of the introduction supports the fact that even just ONE person is significant. Certainly, a man with a lot of money would need to support such a huge literary undertaking, as Theophilus may have done. In the end, Jesus came for each one, whatever or whoever he or she may be.