Religious Certanity

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 1:3-4

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, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:3,4 niv

In matters of religion, can we ever be really sure? Can we be confident that our most deeply held beliefs are true? Can we know that we stand on solid ground, that our religious convictions are in touch with reality?

The answer depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “sure.” There are different kinds of certainty, aren’t there? If we’re dealing with a mathematical equation or a scientific phenomenon, we expect a particular kind of proof. That the area of a circle is pi times the radius squared can be shown over and over again, or that water freezes at zero degres centigrade or that falling objects attain a certain maximum speed. We can demonstrate these things to the satisfaction of almost any observer. Such conclusions can be regarded as mathematically or scientifically proven.

Beliefs about the existence of God, about His heavenly kingdom, or about life after death, are of a different sort, aren’t they? They can’t be proven in the same sense. I cannot draw up a theorem or conduct an experiment that will prove beyond question that these things are true. And yet the evangelist Luke, who wrote the third and fifth books of the New Testament, introduced his two-fold work as an aid to religious certainty. Listen to his words, “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. 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, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Note that last phrase, “the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

This man Theophilus was a cultivated Greek speaker of the first century. He apparently had received instruction in the Christian faith. He had been told of Jesus’ remarkable birth, His blameless life, His works of compassion and power, His words of grace, His sufferings and terrible death by crucifixion, and His rising again on the third day. Theophilus had been taught that all of this was in fulfillment of God’s age-old promises to Israel, and was meant for the salvation of all who would believe in Jesus. These things were being proclaimed by the apostles and passed on to inquirers throughout the Roman empire. Now Luke wants Theophilus and others like him to know the certainty of these things, to be persuaded that they are indeed worthy of belief. He wants them to know that the Christian faith in which they have been instructed is true, that is, that the events involved actually happened and that the interpretation given to those events can be depended on as divinely given.

That’s what I want to think about with you today, whether or not Christianity is reliable, whether we can safely trust the things that have been taught from the beginning as the historic Christian faith. Let’s try to listen carefully to the claim made here by this man called Luke, the beloved physician.

ROOTED IN HISTORY

Notice first that he claims to be talking about matters of history. This is how he begins, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” He’s not writing primarily about ideas but about events. The focus is not on a theory or an ethical code or anything like that but on things that actually happened in space and time.

Now that, it seems to be, is extremely important for us to understand. The Christian faith is rooted firmly in history. That’s why Luke makes such a deliberate attempt to place the events of Jesus’ life and ministry in a particular framework. He was born “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” and after “a decree had gone out from Caesar Augustus,” emperor of Rome. When Jesus’ ministry began, Luke notes that it was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when “Pontius Pilate was governor of Syria” and “Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,” when Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. In other words, this is not a story of vague origins that happened “once upon a time.” We can read about this very period from secular historians and about these people, and we can travel to the actual places where these events took place.

In fact, without these events, there would be no Christian faith as we know it. There’s a notable difference here between Christianity and other world religions. For Muslims, the authority of the Koran does not rest on particular events in Mohammed’s life. Hinduism and Buddhism also depend on bodies of teaching rather than on specific happenings in the past. If it could be proved, for example, that Confucius had never really lived, the way of life which grows out of sayings attributed to him would remain substantially the same. But if Jesus had not lived and ministered in Galilee and especially if He had not died in Jerusalem and been raised from death to life, there would be no Christian religion. For believers in Christ, these are the events in which God has acted for our salvation. If it could be proved that the accounts of Jesus’ life had no foundation in fact or that His resurrection had never occurred, the Christian faith would collapse. The apostle Paul says precisely that, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The gospel, you see, would have become meaningless because the object of faith would have vanished. There would be no risen, living Jesus, on that view, in whom we may believe and find eternal life.

LUKE’S RELIABILITY

But how can we know, asks someone, whether these things really did happen, whether these events took place? Obviously, history is not an exact science, if only for the reason that there are no completely objective historians. Every person who has ever undertaken to write history has belonged, of course, to a certain culture and worked with certain goals and biases. Further, when we read the writings of historians, we’re never learning about all the things that happened. We’re learning about the particular things which these historians chose to relate, as seen from their point of view. But we’re grateful for these records, incomplete and sometimes slanted as they may be, because they are all we have.

How do we know, for example, that a man like Plato ever existed? That there was a Roman empire once? Or that Charlemagne won a certain battle? We have not met these persons, lived under these regimes, or seen these things happen. We only know about them on the basis of the historical documents that have survived and the archeological remains we may have unearthed. Without these records, these artifacts, we have no access to what has happened in the past. So we go with the evidence we have.

Now Luke, writing as a historian, tells us that he has studied the records and documents available to him, but also has made use of other resources. Since the apostles and their associates were still alive at the time, Luke could consult those who had been eyewitnesses of these very events. Apostles had seen these great things happen, and had been captivated by the gospel that grew out of them. Luke could not only read what had been written about these events – he could actually talk to the people who had been involved in them. What he is writing, he maintains, comes both from a careful study of the existing written records and from the testimony of eyewitnesses.

Along with that, Luke claims to be a careful, responsible historian. He says that he has painstakingly investigated everything from the beginning and has endeavored to write an orderly account. He wants his record of these things to be exact and well arranged.

I can tell you something else about Luke on the basis of the way he uses the Greek language. That has been a specialty of mine, New Testament studies. These opening verses of Luke’s gospel are written in elegant, classical Greek. They show Luke as a highly sophisticated writer, capable of the best literary style. But in the events which he records in the gospel, he uses a Greek style that is notably different. It’s a style with Hebrew overtones, in Aramaic idiom. It’s the colloquial Greek of that people in that part of the world at that time. He makes a deliberate effort in the body of the gospel not to highlight himself and his literary skill, but to tell his message clearly and simply. He seems to want above all that Jesus Christ in His self revealing, in His suffering and triumph, shall be pre-eminent. Each of the other gospel writers operates in the same way. They are marvelously self-effacing, self-forgetting. All emphasis falls on the events of the gospel story and their central figure, Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Lord.

“Well,” someone asks, “it’s true that Luke claims to be an accurate historian, but how do we know that that claim is true?” There was a time in New Testament studies when it was popular to discredit Luke’s account, but his reputation as a scholar has been notably enhanced in recent years. It has been found, for example, that many of the details of his record in the book of the Acts can be corroborated from other historical sources. On every point at which we can check Luke’s faithfulness as a historian, he comes through with high marks. We have no reason to question either his competence or his credibility.

AIMING AT CERTAINTY

As we noted at the outset, Luke is writing this gospel for his friend Theophilus and for a multitude of others, in order to produce Christian certainty. He’s aware that he can’t prove to his readers that these events took place, that this gospel is the truth, but he does want them to know that there are good and sufficient reasons for such faith. Just think, for example, of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead: the fact of the empty tomb, the inability of enemies to produce the body of Jesus to discredit such a claim, the testimony of many eyewitnesses who saw Him alive, and, maybe most importantly, the transformation of His followers on the basis of that conviction, people who were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus was indeed alive. A well-known scientist maintains that he has never found anyone who has carefully examined the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus who did not subsequently become one of His followers. Isn’t that an amazing thing? And that’s what we ask of people, just to consider carefully the evidence for the fact that Jesus indeed was raised from the dead, and anyone who wants to understand whether or not the Christian faith in its entirety is true to carefully study the New Testament records which are the only historical records that we have.

This same scientist specializes in quantum mechanics. He notes that in quantum mechanics “we are quite happy when our predictions are accurate 66 and 2/3rds percent of the time, when we’re correct two times for every one time we’re wrong. By contrast,” this man says, “my position is that historically we can be 99 and 99/100 percent sure that Jesus rose physically from the dead.” There still has to be a step of faith, of course. We have to believe with a trust that commits us to this risen Lord. But the evidence that He actually rose from death is overwhelming when you take it all together. If we can be sure of anything in ancient history, we can be ten-fold more sure that the great events which form the heart of the Christian faith truly happened and that God was at work in Jesus Christ crucified and risen to bring salvation to everyone who will believe, to people like you and me.

I’m praying today that this witness of the evangelist Luke and of all the other New Testament writers may bring you to an assured faith that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. May you know with deep assurance that He died for you and rose again so that you might be forgiven and receive new life. This Christian certainty is something that can be yours as you take the venture of faith and commit yourself to Christ.

Prayer: Father, we give thanks that believing in Jesus Christ we do not depend on myths and fables but on the great things that happened in history, and especially upon His resurrection from the dead. May everyone who shares this program know that He died for them and is alive today to be their Savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.