Welcome to the beginning of a new week on Truth for Life.
I'm Bob Lapeen. Today we are beginning a new series in the Gospel according to Luke. Alistair Begg addresses the question, How should we respond when someone challenges the truthfulness of the Gospels?
Here's Alistair. Father, our earnest longing is that we might meet you in your written Word. We know that we cannot illumine the page by ourselves and for ourselves, that this is the work of your Spirit, that no mere man can ever add to in any helpful way the truth of your Word, that all we can do is unearth by your Spirit the immensity of its wonder. And so we pray that you will come to our expectant hearts and meet with us in these moments as we study the Scriptures together and as we pray in Jesus' name.
Amen. Can I invite you to turn again to Luke's Gospel and to chapter 1? In turning to these opening verses of Luke's Gospel, we are placing our feet upon a path which stretches for some way out in front of us. Luke's Gospel is the longest book in the New Testament, when you consider the fact that along with the other book which he wrote, namely the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is responsible for over a quarter of the total New Testament material. It moves from the Annunciation of John the Baptist all the way through to the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and covers in its scope a tremendous amount of material. Just how we will proceed, as of now, I do not know.
But proceed we will, and if we ever reach the end, then it will be cause for celebration. Luke, as you know, was the companion of Paul on his journeys—not the only companion, but one of the most significant. He was a Gentile, the only Gentile writer in the whole of the New Testament. He was also a doctor. He was also an educated man. And he was also an historian. In fact, he was more of a historian than Matthew or Mark or even John. Each of those individuals sets the material of Jesus firmly within the realm of Palestine. It is left to Luke to interact with much of a secular history in terms of the unfolding of the development of the Roman Empire, and we will see that as we're going through. He also was a traveler, not only with Luke, but he had traveled quite extensively. And so it's not difficult to see why it would be that God would lay his hand upon this individual, a man of wide views and of broad sympathies, to be the gospel writer who, more than any of the other gospel writers, would be laying emphasis upon the universality of the gospel. One of the things that we will see in going through Luke's gospel is the breadth of the appeal of the gospel to which Luke is making constant reference.
So whether he is mentioning children or women, the sick, the poor, the rich, the outcasts, the foreigners—in each case, he is always moving centrally to the truth that is expressed at the end of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus, namely, that the Son of Man is seeking to save that which was lost. Now, given that it is a very long journey before us, we're going to only proceed a short distance this morning and indeed deal with only one sentence—that is, one sentence in the Greek New Testament, which is actually four verses in our English translation which we have before us. I want to say that our study is inevitably introductory, that you will need a measure of patience, and that you will need a measure of alertness if you wish to benefit from what I am about to say and also from your own further study, which must inevitably follow from the somewhat sketchy outline that I am going to provide. I work on the basis that every good teacher that I have ever had did not tell me everything but, in telling me what they told me, stimulated within me a desire to find out more for myself.
And that, I hope, will be something true in at least the lives of some. Now, the reason we're spending time on this opening sentence is because the introduction to the gospel is important. When we recognize that it was not a book, namely with two hard covers or even two soft covers and a flyleaf, but rather that it was a scroll, we recognize just how important the opening sentence would be. Because people were not going, as it were, into a bookstore—there were none—and picking out a book and looking on the flyleaf to see what it was about. But the only thing that could be done would be for the scroll to be rolled down just a wee bit, and as they would roll it down ever so slightly, then they would be introduced to the opening sentence, and the opening sentence would provide for the reader the gist of what was to follow.
And so this opening sentence is vitally important. In it, you will see, if you're scanning it, that Luke informs us that his purpose is to write an historical account which would provide a solid basis for Christian faith. Some of his readers would already have received previous instruction, some of which would have been incomplete, and some of it, frankly, imperfect. And so Luke tells us here in these verses that he determined that it would be best for him to put down an orderly account of his own, presumably correcting any mistakes and filling in any gaps. Now, as is always the case in turning to a book of the Bible, we need to remind ourselves that we are long removed from the context in which the Bible was written, so that we do not immediately seek to take the Bible and apply it to our lives without understanding the context in which it was set historically. To the extent that we begin to do that, we may make the Bible say all kinds of things and press verses to all kinds of conclusions.
And it is very dangerous, and it is, in a variety of cases, frankly, wrong to do. Luke was writing at a time when there were, obviously, no printing presses, no word processors, no fax, and no email. I mean, if you think about it for a little while, Shakespeare wrote his plays without the use of a dictionary. There wasn't even a dictionary in existence when Shakespeare wrote his plays. It's hard for us to imagine a time when the phrase, Look it up, didn't mean anything.
Because nobody could say to Shakespeare, Look it up, and he would say, Okay, because there was nothing to look up. And we are so focused on the rate and vastness of the change that we have to disengage from that—just a moment or two—to understand the way in which the Bible was iterated in the first instance. And in these early days, the information about the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus was handed down by word of mouth, or, if you like, in a more technical phrase, by oral tradition. By oral tradition.
So in the first instance, the events of the life of Christ—the parables he told, the journeys he took, the messages he proclaimed, the encounters he had—were preserved in the fledgling days by oral tradition. People remembered them and told one another about them. Now, that in itself is quite staggering to us. Because we are familiar with people saying to us on a virtually daily basis, Excuse me, let me write that down, if I may, because if I don't write it down, I'm sure that I will forget it immediately. And so we are aware of the fact that people constantly do that.
It actually says something about a number of things which we will leave aside, and it says something about our educational system. But the issue is this—that given that that's the way we think about something that isn't written down, we then tend to come to an event like this, find out that it wasn't written down, and then find ourselves susceptible to the idea that somehow, then, the gospel in its infancy was loose and was haphazard and may even have been faulty, because after all, they, quote, didn't write it down. Now, the disciples lived in an era, and they lived among a people, where verbal memory was trained to a degree that is now, upon reflection, absolutely phenomenal. Let us remember that these early individuals, these first Christians, were, the majority of them, first-century Jews. And they had been trained from the very beginning in the memorization of the Old Testament. And indeed, those of you who have come from the background of Judaism know this to be true, and your own childhood training in an Orthodox Jewish home would have been in the memorization of significant portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Indeed, it was impossible for you to prepare for your bar mitzvah without committing to verbal memory vast portions of the Bible. And it was out of their ability to do that that they then began to pass on to one another these facts concerning Jesus. Gretchen Machen, a theologian of an earlier day, says, stamped upon the tablets of Jewish minds, the story of Jesus' words and deeds was for a time at least as safe as though inscribed on stone or bronze. Because their capacity for retention and their commitment to detail, albeit verbalized detail, was quite unparalleled.
So what did you have? Well, you had the sayings and the events of the life of Jesus being passed on from one Jewish preacher to another. And eventually, the material would begin to form up into some kind of structured package, whereby people, in finding different preachers in different parts of Palestine, would recognize that different men in different places were conveying the exact same things. Now, they may not have them all in the exact order as the person that they heard in Nazareth had them or when they were over in Caesarea Philippi, but they understood that the exact same material was what was being pressed upon the listening audience.
Here, they were saying, is the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. And at the risk of boring you, let me say again that we dare not underestimate the tenacity of oral tradition in a preliterate society. The culture of Luke was a culture of memory. And some of us have benefited from that because we are old enough to have come through that educational system.
Certainly in Scotland, I was pressed continually in the realm of memory. I recognized that in contemporary educational thought it is regarded as fairly bogus. It is regarded as pretty irrelevant and as a poor form of instruction. That's no surprise to me at all, because existentialists don't care about yesterday, and they're not sure that there is a tomorrow. But for those who have a biblical worldview, they know that yesterday mattered, and they know that tomorrow mattered, and that today is significant because of yesterday and because of tomorrow.
Therefore, it is vital that we bring these things to memory. When I was eleven years old, just as an indication of this, in a secular school, my teacher, Miss Bone, would put on the blackboard the work of the day upon our arrival, and that the head of all the work of the day was a portion of the Bible. And one could not begin the English or the math or proceed to the art until one had gone to the front of the class and recited the portion of material which was up there on the blackboard. And it is there, at the age of eleven, that I learned to say, A certain man had two sons, and the younger of them said to his father, Father, divide unto me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided them unto them his living. And not many days after, the younger son took all that he had and made his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
And when he began to be in want, there arose a famine in the land. And so on. That was all committed to memory at the age of eleven. That's oral tradition. Now, I can verify it by showing it to you, or you can take my word for it as a report.
That's exactly what was going on. We need to understand that, and I want to tell you why. Because those who challenge the truthfulness of the Bible, and particularly the truthfulness of the Gospels, like to do so by suggesting that there are discrepancies—mainly chronological discrepancies—on account of the fact that the oral tradition could never be a time of security and that God somehow or another could not mastermind the control of the oral tradition so that we might then have this Bible left to us in its sanctity.
I don't want to get into this. It is a major point of discussion, except to say this, that a lack of chronological arrangement is exactly what we would expect from oral tradition. That people would recall these various events. They may not be able to recall them in the exact order in which they unfolded. The issue was not that they all reported them in the exact order.
The issue is that they all reported them. So, you see, when we go to heaven and we say, Look, look, couldn't you have put it down a bit more, you know, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday for us? Look, who will say, Of course I could! But that wasn't my purpose. I wasn't setting out simply to write a chronology. I was setting out in order to give to you the very truths about Jesus, and chronology, as important as it was to me, was secondary to my ultimate purpose. In the same way that people write biography today.
You pick up a biography, and it starts when the guy's forty-five, and then it goes back to his great-grandfather, and then it goes over to when he was in high school, and sometimes you have the hardest difficulty figuring out what's going on. And that's what we have in the Gospels. Now, contemporary unbelief, epitomized in the Jesus Seminar, with which some of you will be familiar. I just spoke to a lady after our first worship hour.
She is a ministry student at Arsalan College. She's a Roman Catholic, attended the first hour of worship, and was this week, in the course of her studies of Christology, dealing with the issue of the Jesus Seminar. So at least I feel there was one person in the first hour who knew what I was on about.
Since I don't anticipate she's here in the second hour, that may be the only person that knows what I was on about the whole day. But most of you will have been familiar with a group of scholars who sat down to take the New Testament apart and to use colored pencils and color in the bits that Jesus really said. As of right now, they have reduced it by eighty-two percent. Of the material that we have in the Gospels, they have determined that only eighteen percent of what is here as the recorded events of the life and words of Jesus is actually the life and words of Jesus. How do they arrive at that?
Well, this is the way they work it. They say, since there was a period of time of oral tradition, when these things were not written down, and since there was in their minds a much longer gap before the Gospels were penned, what we have in the New Testament is not the historical truths concerning Jesus, his works, and his Word. But what we have in the New Testament is a combination of little bits of that which they've set out to find, of which there's only eighteen percent that is valid according to their estimate. What we have are little bits of history, but they are completely impregnated with the views and ideas and mythologies and thought forms of people now living some two hundred years after the time of Christ's walking in Palestine. In other words, the factuality of the New Testament is suspect, and that what we have here is an expression of the faith of individuals who then made up the facts.
So it goes like this. There is no literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That is not a fact of history, according to the Jesus Seminar. Well then, why is it in the Bible that there was an empty tomb and Jesus wasn't there? Oh, says the Jesus Seminar, that's because these people, as time passed, thought it was a nice idea to believe that Jesus was still around and that there was reason for them to think that that might be the case. Oh, they knew he wasn't literally risen from the dead.
They just had an experience of them in their minds, or they had a feeling of them in their hearts. And so what they did was they then went back, and when they penned the Bible, they took their faith and they imposed it on history. So that what we have is not history, but we have the faith of these second-century dwellers imposed upon little sketchy bits and pieces of who Jesus is and what he said. Now, the average eighth grader would be quick to hear that stuff and pronounce it absolute humbug. Hogwash.
Silliness. It certainly flies in the face of the clear statement of Dr. Luke, who says, verse 3, I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning. Is it not inconceivable that a community whose faith focused so exclusively on a single historical figure could have been, according to liberal scholarship, so blithely unconcerned about the historical facts of the life of this Jesus? Look at verse 2. Those who handed down the material were those who were intimately acquainted with the facts.
They were eyewitnesses and servants of the world. This is not something that is unique to Luke's Gospel. For example, when John writes his first epistle in 1 John, listen to the way he puts it. That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the word of life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.
So our friends—and you will be confronted by this, trust me—in the next four weeks, our friends who come to us with Time magazine and Newsweek magazine, and they're there to say to us again and again, you know, I read in Time magazine a fascinating idea. Jesus wasn't really in the Bible. You know that. The resurrection wasn't really true. There was no Nazareth.
There was really no Bethlehem. The whole thing is bogus, you know. It makes it much more believable, they say. Now I can believe it. Now we've removed all the very difficult parts. Now we have it easy.
Yes, so easy it's totally facile. It's so unbelievable. It's so believable it's unbelievable. The thing that makes the Bible so believable is the fact that it is so unbelievable.
You know, think about that. Because we have an historical account of Jesus' life and his teachings in the Gospel of Luke, we have a solid basis for our faith. You're listening to Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. We are so passionate about sharing this true, life-changing story with as many people as possible. So as you think about ways to tell those you know about Jesus this Christmas, we'd like to help. When you visit truthforlife.org slash gifts, you'll find a great collection of biblically sound books that make great Christmas gifts. There are three hardcover story books for young children. One of them teaches about Jesus calming the wind and the waves. Another one teaches about Daniel and how the book of Daniel points forward to Jesus. And there's a Seek and Find book that teaches eight important stories in the New Testament.
All three of these books can be purchased for just $10. There are also devotional books for middle schoolers and books for older teens and adults as well. And if you have friends and neighbors who go through the motions of Christmas but don't really understand who Jesus is and the hope he offers, we want to encourage you to give them a copy of a book called The Four Emotions of Christmas. This is a brief book.
It's only 60 pages long, but it explains that Christmas is about the gospel and that joy is not found in material things or in seasonal activities, but in trusting in the Savior. This book is a great gospel giveaway for friends, relatives, and neighbors. Again, you'll find these titles online at truthforlife.org slash gifts. The books are available to purchase at our cost, and these low prices are possible because of listeners like you who donate to Truth for Life.
So if you are one of those listeners, thank you. And if you benefit from the ministry of Truth for Life and the affordable prices that are available here, would you add a generous year-end donation as you check out? When you give today, we want to encourage you to request a copy of the Advent devotional, The Dawn of Redeeming Grace.
It's our way of saying thank you for your generosity. I'm Bob Lapeen. Why should we trust what we find in Luke's gospel? Why is the information so reliable? We'll find out tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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