Monday, January 26, 2015

Luke 1:39-56 Blessed

39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.

Interesting. Gabriel informed Mary about Elizabeth's pregnancy, seemingly to encourage the faith of Mary in God's ability to accomplish anything. He had also told Mary that she 'would' become pregnant herself and bear the Son of God. After the angel left, Mary 'hurried' out to visit Elizabeth. Why? Maybe to congratulate her. Maybe to confirm what the angel had said. But also, maybe, to fellowship with another person in that small cohort of people who were pivotal to a major shift in the history of man.

The husbands of both Mary and Elizabeth played an important, yet relatively minor role in the unfolding of events. Both women, on the other hand, had measurably more important roles, in that they bore in their wombs and then had to raise the two men who would be most essential to heaven's plan. The younger of the two, Mary's son, would be the absolute key to success.

Had Joseph already been informed about the angel's visit with Mary? Did he give his permission for Mary to make the journey to Judah from Galilee? Did she travel by herself? Was she already pregnant when she left Nazareth? Why the 'hurry'? 

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?

44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.

49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. 50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. 51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 “He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Luke 1:26-38 Mary

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

We find angels interacting in human affairs more than 100 times in the Old Testament and over 175 times in the New Testament. The first mention of angels is found in Genesis 3:24 and the last in Revelation 22. Yet in all these references to angels there are only a few times when we are given the actual name of an angel. An angel, named Gabriel, first appeared in the Bible record when he was sent to assist Daniel (Dan. 8:15). Was this a new role assigned to the angel Gabriel, and if so, who was he replacing or was this a newly created position? Had this angel always had the name Gabriel, or was this a name given to him because of his work with humans? Do angel's even need names?

Gabriel had met with the 'prophet' Daniel in the citadel of Susa (in modern Iran) during the time of the Babylonian empire. Then he met with the priest Zacharias in the Holy Place of the Temple in the city of Jerusalem, in Judea. Assuming that the name Gabriel was given only to one particular angel, then this same Gabriel was next sent to visit a 'priest' - Zacharias. Six months after Gabriel met with Zacharias, he was yet again 'sent from God' to convey more 'good news' to the city of Nazareth in Galilee to meet a lowly young woman named Mary. What can we learn from this progression of message giving? Gabriel was sent by God to deliver messages to a prophet, a priest, and then to a young woman. Would God send this particular angel to just anyone or was Gabriel tasked with communicating God's will only to significant human beings? If so, who, then, was Mary? How could she be as significant a human among human prophets and priests?

Mary was, from all outward appearances, merely a simply, religiously faithful, young teenage girl. We don't know if she was intellectually or otherwise gifted, beautiful or homely, a good cook or a seamstress; both or neither. We haven't been told if she was an only child or, if she had siblings, what her sibling position was. We can only speculate about her personality from the few times she was mentioned in the gospels. One of the few things we do know about her is that her parents had agreed to marry her off to a man named Joseph.

First century Jewish marriages began with a betrothal phrase that had the same legal standing as a marriage does today. Thus, to break up a betrothal was a serious act that required a legal divorce. During the betrothal the couple would be considered as husband and wife, yet they were not permitted to cohabitate until the actual wedding night. Though strange to modern societies, such betrothals often lasted up to one year, though certain circumstances may have allowed for a shorter period of time. Neither the man or the woman were forced into this agreement against their choice, so we can assume that both Mary and Joseph had freely entered into this 'marriage'.

There are a couple of points in verse 27 that are essential to the story of Jesus as told by Luke. First, Joseph was a descendant of David, which was important because the Messiah was to arise out of the tribe of Judah and be a descendant of King David (Jer. 23:5,6). This would all be consistent, except for the second point.

Second, Mary was, of course, a 'virgin' when betrothed to Joseph. The plan was for her to remain a virgin until their wedding night, but, as we discover later (Lk 2:5), Mary became pregnant while still in the betrothal period. The explanation for her pregnancy, as told by Luke, had been prophesied by Gabriel (Lk 1:35). She would, if we have interpreted the angel's words correctly, miraculously conceive as an act of the Spirit, apart from 'knowing' Joseph or any other man. Joseph, therefore, would not be the biological father of Jesus, which made the ancestry of Joseph, from the tribe of Judah, somewhat irrelevant to our modern thinking - except maybe legally, since ancestry was determined through the paternal line even if an 'adoption' had occurred. Later, though, Luke tells us that Joseph was assumed to have been the actual father of Jesus, thus making his genealogy important to those who cared about such things (Lk 3:23).

Mary was a relative of Elizabeth - which could mean she was either a niece or cousin or even a third cousin, since Elizabeth was much older than Mary. Elizabeth was from the tribe of Levi (Lk 1:5), not Judah. Again, lineage was determined through the male line, yet inter-tribal marriages were not uncommon. Thus Mary could have a maternal lineage back to Judah as we well as a paternal lineage back to Levi. The point in all this is that the followers of Jesus believed that He met all the criteria for being the Messiah of bible prophecy from the lineage of Judah and as a descendant of King David.

28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.

The text suggests that the angel's entrance into the place where Mary was staying was unusual, maybe because he was a 'stranger' to her and had just entered her home without being invited in. It is not clear whether she realized that this person was an angel or not, at least at first. More perplexing to her than this 'mans' sudden entrance, was what the he then said. Why would a stranger walk uninvited into her home and then greet her with the words, 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.'? Luke wrote that Mary stopped and 'pondered' the angel's statement. His spiritual greeting stood in contrast to his uninvited entrance into her home as a stranger. No wonder she was momentarily confused.

Not only was her fear in being suddenly approached by a stranger and her delight in his greeting understandably conflictual, but the deeper meaning in the content of what he said immediately raised another whole set of questions. She was 'favored'? What did that mean? 'The Lord is with her'? Hopefully that was always true, but was the 'man' suggesting something more by these words? Very 'perplexing' indeed.

If his words elicited immediate theological significance, is that what had quickly moved her through a roller coaster of emotions - from surprise to perplexity and then into fear? Is it possible that the nature of his greeting elicit something in her that doesn't translate well in our English translation or from our 21st century culture? Had the greeting signified to her that she had been the one chosen to be the mother of the Messiah? Had that been the hope of all women during that particular time in history?

The next logical question, if logic could have been applied under the circumstances, would have been 'who' is this 'person'? Was he a prophet, priest, or....?

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

At some point, maybe only moments into her 'pondering', Mary became acutely aware of the fact that 'he' was not just a stranger, nor even a prophet or priest. Rather, the individual was an angel of God. She moved from puzzling over the words of the 'man' to being frightened by the presence of an angel, not to mention the possible significance of what the angel may have been suggesting.

Heavenly beings have always found themselves in the position where they have had to tell humans to 'cool their jets', to 'not be afraid'. If both angels and humans arose from the hands of the one Creator God, and have interacted since the beginning, we might expect a more welcoming, even automatic initial response, or at least a faint sense of familiarity. Though not of the same 'substance', both angels and humans were created by the same Maker. Yet, despite that, and no matter how mature the faith of the human, his/her consistent first response to an angel is always 'fear'. This would be far more understandable if the existence of angels had never been imagined, yet mankind has always believed in angels. We love angels and have always valued them as part of our various religious beliefs. So, Why are we so immediately fearful of the very beings that support the One we regularly worship? Does our fear arise out of our sense of guilt before God or out of our doubt that the very things we 'believe' in may not really exist?

Luke's account of the angel's appearance in Nazareth may have been understandably abbreviated. None-the-less, what we read comes across as far too abrupt. 'Do not be are going to conceive the Messiah'. Yikes. Wouldn't God have known that this would have been far too much to grasp so quickly, especially for a young girl who was possibly only 13, 14, or 15 years of age? How was Mary 'hearing' those words? We understand them after two millennia of theologizing and having been raised in a 'Christian' culture. But, wouldn't those words have presented as much of an impossibility then, as if an angel of God appeared to a man today and said, 'in 3 minutes you will no longer be a human male, but a female squirrel'?

The scriptures remind us that God was sending John to 'prepare the way' for the Messiah, yet Gabriel merely 'cut to the chase' with Mary. There wasn't any 'preparing her' for the 'way' that God was about to work within her, though this announcement was, perhaps, designed to prepare her for a whole life filled with both excitement and woe.

On the other hand, verses 31 and 32, at least as Luke wrote them, didn't necessarily imply anything supernatural. The angel's words simply said that Mary would become pregnant and bear one who would be called the 'son of the most high' - assumed to be the Messiah - and that she must name him 'Jesus'. Based on our English translation of these verses and our understanding of this world's reality, if we had been in Mary's place we would most likely have assumed that the angel meant that her first born child with Joseph would be the long awaited 'Messiah'. No one expected the Messiah to have been God incarnate, conceived in the womb of a woman. That would have been the delusional thinking of arrogant pagan emperors, not the Jews. An objective reading of these verses would not lead us to believe in an incarnation. Rather, if we had not been primed to believe otherwise, we would have merely assumed that Joseph would have been the biological father of Jesus, that Mary would not have conceived any differently than had old Elizabeth.

So, if that is legitimate, what might have led Mary to assume otherwise - if she really had? Did Luke erroneously omit some of the angel's words to Mary that implied more than we read? Or, is our translation of the text lacking the intent that may have been implicit in the original language of his manuscript? Or, was Mary so simple minded that she totally misunderstood the angel, only later to learn that her childish misunderstanding had unwittingly been the truth? Or, have bible scholars misunderstood this text for two millennia?

Whatever the case, the child that Mary would bear would become a king over a kingdom that would never end. It just wouldn't be, at least in the beginning, the kind of kingdom that the Jews were expecting, nor that Mary, Joseph, the disciples of Jesus, or anyone else had been expecting.

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.

Mary's response seems to suggest that she had somehow understood the angel's words to mean that she would become pregnant without having ever 'known a man' - Joseph or otherwise. If that is true, then why would her response be any less of an expression of doubt than had been spoken by Zacharias? 'How can this be?" Aren't there just two ways to view this? We have either misinterpreted the text or we have interpreted it correctly, as did Mary, and thus she expressed doubt.

The angel didn't say to Mary, 'you HAVE conceived a child in your womb', but that she WOULD conceive a son (Lk 1:31). It would have been far more logical for Mary to have understood Gabriel's words as a confirmation that her first born child would have been fathered by Joseph after their betrothal period and that 'their' child would become the hoped for Messiah. For God to have promised to bless their child with the ability to become the Messiah, that alone would have been received as an awesome and divinely miraculous gift.

So, what led Mary to have asked 'how'? Had the angel said more to her than Luke reported in his gospel? If so, again, why didn't Gabriel fault her for her doubt just as he had Zacharias?

There may be another way to understand her question. The phrase, 'I know not a man' may actually be a statement of faith rather than an expression of doubt. 'How can this be since I have not known a man?' may not have been a biologically based question, but a rhetorical one. In other words, maybe what she was saying was something like, 'how great is our God that He would consider someone like me - a poor, young, uneducated, virgin female, from a nasty little country town - to be the mother of the Lord?'  Possible? Mary actually expressed this very sentiment in the Magnificat (Lk 1:48). If Mary's question was more an expression of great wonder that God would choose to honor a woman of her status with so great an responsibility, rather than an question of God's need and/or ability to miraculously impregnate a virgin woman, then the story makes a lot more sense.

Of course, Luke could have intentionally presented Mary as knowing something she couldn't have possibly grasped through the sequence of events, simply as his way to tell the story. In other words, maybe he allowed Mary to 'anticipate' a her eventuality for literary purposes, not because she had actually understood the angel to suggest that she would conceive having never 'known a man'. I say this because Luke did, later (Lk 2:5), record that she was pregnant while still betrothed. 

There is one more possible 'spin' on this story, one that can be made in harmony with all that Luke wrote, thus without having to toss out anything from his gospel. Could Mary and Joseph have understood that heaven had given them permission to act as a married couple even though they were still in the betrothal stage? In other words, regardless of what the social/religious customs of the day expected, wouldn't the word of the angel, sent directly from God, trump the word of man? Shouldn't the agency of Gabriel supersede the agency of a human priest or parents? If the church commanded them not to be intimate until the betrothal phrase was over, yet God commanded them to be intimate 'now', which word would they have taken as more authoritative if they had both encountered Gabriel? So, it could be possible that Mary was pregnant by Joseph while still betrothed (Lk 2:5) simply because God commanded it.

Challenging this last interpretation of events is, of course, the account of Joseph's dream from another gospel account - in Matthew - where he was told through a dream that Mary would become pregnant 'apart' from him. That being said, the curiosity is that Luke chose not to include Matthew's account of Joseph's dream in his own gospel account of which he said came about through much research for the 'facts'. Hmm.

36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Did Mary require additional evidence to finally believe the angel? I.e. '..EVEN your relative Elizabeth has ALSO conceived..' This verse may suggest that Mary actually did have some doubt about the plausibility of becoming pregnant apart from 'knowing a man'. On the other hand, could the angel have been speaking about the 'fact' that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah, rather than referring to 'how' she would conceive? If God could remove the shame of an old barren woman, could he not also honor a poor, teenage girl with the role of raising the Messiah? Again, the Magnificat suggests the latter.

Mary was clued into her secluded relative's secret only after Elizabeth had been pregnant for six months. Though heaven often works to reveal the truths that men attempt to hide, at times there is divine complicity in human efforts to conceal certain truths.  When it was appropriate, God revealed the truth about Elizabeth's pregnancy - at least to Mary.

Though 'nothing will be impossible with God', that should be extrapolated to mean that God helps one sports team to beat another sports team - even in the much loved American past time of football. This statement is often misapplied to things never imagined by the author. So, how should we understand the application of this phrase?

38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Here is where Mary's faith exceeded Zacharias' doubt. 'May it be done to me according to your word. 'Whatever Mary actually understood from her encounter with Gabriel, the sum of the matter is that she surrendered herself fully to God's will.

Mary probably hadn't regularly petitioned heaven for the privilege of being the mother of Israel's long awaited Messiah, as Zacharias had repeatedly petitioned heaven to end his wife's barrenness. Mary had most likely just barely become a teenager, was a female with no legal standing, perhaps having  little if any education, and lived in the wicked, poverty stricken city of Nazareth. Thus, having not specifically petitioned heaven, one might figure that she would have been more apt to doubt any sudden appearance of an angel and question any novel idea presented since she didn't have reason to expect a divine appearance.

Zacharias, on the other hand, was much older, more experienced in life, religiously educated, a male with legal status, and had been trained for the prestigious role of a priest. He 'had' regularly petitioned heaven with the expectation, we assume, of receiving a miraculous intervention. Thus, if anyone should have expected a visit from an angel without having much fear and without expressing any doubt, it should have been Zacharias.

Mary articulated what ought to have been the response of Zacharias and have become the thinking of every person of faith since then. 'May it be done to me according to your word.' Gabriel's word reflected God's command. For the Christian, God's word - whether conveyed by dream, vision, angel, or scripture - should be our constant meditation (Jos. 1:8; Ps. 1:2; 119:15), and our delight to quickly surrender all of our being to.

1. Did you come across what appeared to you as 'logical fallacies'?
2. Did you find yourself getting 'defensive' toward anything Luke wrote in this passage?
3. Did you note any sentence or phrase that could be one of your bible 'koans'?


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Luke 1:18-25 Gabriel

18 Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Zacharias knew that, right in front of him, was an 'angel of the Lord'. He both saw and heard the angel. The angel reminded him about his petitions, then told him that they had been heard by God and that they would be favorably answered by the Lord. How much more assurance should a person need than to have had an 'angel of the Lord' personally deliver God's answer to his/her prayer?

Yet, this righteous priest asked, 'how will I know this for certain' that this is true? Huh? Zacharias effectively looked at the angel, then looked at his own old body, and believed the 'facts' that his body revealed rather than the 'truth' stated by the angel. The same eyes, of the same person, at the same moment in time, 'seeing' two different 'realities', chose what was most familiar to him.

Sometimes what we have always known in the flesh is chosen over what we have always believed in the spirit. The opposite is often true as well. Sometimes we chose to believe in that which goes against all empirical evidence to the contrary. The human mind can swing from one extreme to the other.

Faith and doubt always travel very close to one another. In fact, can faith exist without the presence of doubt? Does not faith take its place within us in opposition to doubt? Isn't the Spirit always working against the flesh throughout this life (Gal. 5:17)? 

Zacharias clearly wanted his requests to be answered, even though he and his wife were advanced in age, and regardless of whether Elizabeth couldn't conceive or if Zacharias was impotent. His hope in God was based on his lifelong belief that 'with God all things are possible', yet his daily experience in the flesh had proved to be a consistently powerful witness against his belief. Zacharias was, like all of us to one degree or another, a walking contradiction. He was both a believer and a doubter, righteous yet a sinner, sincere yet a hypocrite.

19 The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.

How can an old man 'know for certain' that his 'barren old wife' will conceive? The angel's response was classic: 'I am Gabriel'. In other words, you should know that what I told you is 'certain' simply because 'I' told you.' If a person is certain that it is an 'angel of the Lord' not only standing in front of him, but audibly speaking to him, why would there be any hesitancy to immediately accept as truth all that this 'angel of the Lord' was conveying?

Zach's response reminded me of the time when Paul asked the voice that spoke to him, 'Who are you?' The response, 'I am Jesus who you are persecuting.' It was a succinct answer to a question that should have been implicitly obvious by the circumstances of that moment. What in the world prompts us to ask so many 'dumb' questions?

There seemed to have been a certain degree of healthy pride in the angel's response. 'I am Gabriel'. Surely Zacharias, who was a priest of God in the very midst of officiating in the holy place of God's earthly, Jerusalem temple, should have known to expect visitations by angels and to immediately accept whatever an angel of God might say. Interventions by angels were part and parcel of the Jewish history. Wasn't the possibility of an angelic visitation part of his training as a priest (Heb. 13:2)?

This particular angel, Gabriel, was well known to the Jews. He had spoken to the prophet Daniel, helping him to understand a vision (Dan. 8:16,17). Gabriel was known by all students of scripture as the angel who had appeared to Daniel during the 'time of the evening offering' (Dan. 9:21). Aren't angels 'ministering spirits' sent by God to serve mankind (Heb. 1:14), even assigned to guard each human being through this life (Mt. 18:10; Ps 91:11)? How could a priest of God not know to immediately accept as truth the words of an angel? Is our unawareness symptomatic of a religion that has become a mere cultural practice rather than a moment by moment spiritual reality to us?

Gabriel had been 'sent' to 'speak' to Zacharias - to give him the 'good news', which was in response to his petitions. Surely Zacharias had been 'expecting' an answer, for why else would he have made his requests? Surely he would have known that God always hears our prayers and that angels are sent with God's response, in God's own wise time (Dan. 9:23). Clearly, as sure as there was an angel standing in front of him, the truthfulness of the good news presented by this angel should have been just as evident.

We understand why Zacharias was fearful. Daniel was, at first, also fearful. But unlike Daniel, Zacharias added doubt to his fear. How might you have responded if you had been in the place of Zacharias?

20 And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”

Did the decision to punish Zacharias originate with Gabriel or with God? Did Gabriel decide on this particular disciplinary response or had God specifically commanded the angel to strike Zacharias mute? How much autonomy do angels have to make decisions among humans? Did God/Gabriel have an calculated objective in mind when choosing to render Zacharias mute? Was there something that Zacharias could only learn through experiencing being mute for nine months? Or was this merely intended to be punitive, to warn others to never doubt what an angel says? Does God always, in some manner, inflict punishment for lapses of faith or was Zacharias a unique case because of his ecclesiastical position and/or because of the uniqueness of the events that were about to unfold?

Why did God choose Zacharias if he already knew that Zacharias was a doubter? Was there no one else of more consistent faith to be found in all of Judea? Or, was it essential to have a relative of Jesus involved, and Zacharias was the most 'righteous' person to be found within that particular cohort?

Of course, on the other hand, Zacharias may well have surprised himself by what came out of his own mouth. He had spoken reactively, as all of us do at times when confronted by the unexpected and unusual. He may have instantly wondered, even as the words were coming out of his mouth, 'where did that come from?' Had his understandable fear at the appearance of Gabriel, despite the angel's assurances, pushed Zacharias totally 'off his game'?

There is, if we are honest with ourselves, a 'game' being played out in all of our minds.
Imagine what might have been going on in the mind of Zacharias during the many years of apparently unanswered petitions requesting God's merciful intervention? Surely, as Zacharias must have believed, God could have easily enabled Elizabeth to conceive. So, why had heaven permitted them - this faithful, God-trusting couple - to suffer the shame of barrenness for so long? For what possible divine purpose could the Creator of all things have permitted this disgrace to continue year after year?

As a priest, Zacharias would have appropriately denied having any doubts about God. Without realizing it, though, his brain most likely had repressed doubts about God. That's the 'game'.

What happens psychologically when we both trust God, yet doubt God? What does the human mind do when presented with such a painful conflict? What happens when we know what we 'should' believe, yet feel something contrary to expected beliefs? How might the human mind 'naturally' handle such a conflict?

Zacharias may have automatically presented with a smile when he actually 'felt' anger and impatience with God, not even realizing what he was doing. Psychologically, this kind of a  defense mechanism is called a 'reaction formation'.

Again, heaven knew what was going on deep within the head of Zacharias even though Zacharias may not have been consciously aware of it himself. So, heaven not only intervened in answer to the multitude of his prayers, but also intervened to expose the conflict within the mind of Zacharias. Zacharias would be mute until the birth of his son. During this period of time he would be 'forced' to confront his inner self, unable to distract his attention from the 'stuff' he needed to wrestle with. Often we 'talk' to cover up discomfort in what we feel, rather than to pursue the underlying reasons for our feelings. These distractions from self-honesty undermine our ability to spiritually mature.

Zacharias was a blameless and 'righteous' man, yet that does not mean that he was perfect. Zacharias was obedient to all that God required and had a sincere belief in God, yet he was still a man who was subject to temptations because of the the usual, common human weaknesses and 'blind spots'.

There is a good lesson in this for all of us. Spiritual growth, life transformation, is only possible to the degree that we have opened our hearts to the Spirit. If we want to mature in truth we must be willing to confront the reality of our many cognitive errors. lf we are willing, the Spirit will reveal any psychologically closed - unconscious - doors within us, just as he did for Zacharias. Though we welcome the grace of God that accepts us just as we are, it is not spiritually healthy to remain where we are. The gift of grace is a safety net that is designed to free us to be honest with ourselves.   

21 The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute.

Our measurements of time give us a comforting degree of predictability and control over life. Even without consciously thinking about it we naturally form a sense of how long certain activities should take. When something is accomplished too quickly or takes too long, our anxiety increases. For instance, when a student passes in his exam after only 10 minutes or hasn't yet answered even half the questions long after everyone else has finished, we rightly suspect something is wrong. Anticipating how long something should take is usually a good marker for how well a particular activity is going. This is particularly true in circumstances where the stakes involved may be high.

Yet, this is not always true. Yes, Zacharias took too long in his temple duties. Was it merely due to the fact that he was 'advanced in age' and thus he was known to be frustratingly poky in all of his religious tasks? Or, had something unexpected happened in the holy place? Those who were praying outside the temple were aware of previous incidents in the temple when God punished officiating priests. But what could 'righteous' old Zacharias have done to have so irritated God?

As the people murmured among themselves about the delay, Zacharias finally emerged from the temple and the answer to their questions became quickly obvious. He had 'seen a vision'. But, why would God have given a vision to Zacharias? Why on this particular day? What did all this mean? Was this good news or a harbinger of something nasty that was soon to take place? Adding to their anxiety were all his inexplicable hand motions without any useful explanations. Why would God strike him mute if the vision he had received conveyed 'good news'? Shouldn't good news be accompanied by a face that radiated from being in the presence of a heavenly being - as happened with Moses?

Zacharias had seen and spoken with an angel - specifically the angel Gabriel. To the people, he had had a 'vision', but what did they mean by a 'vision'? Does a 'vision' always require having been in a dream state or can it also mean having witnessed something 'supernatural' - such as being confronted by an angel? In other words, had Gabriel actually taken on a physical appearance so that Zacharias could 'see' and 'hear' him with his human eyes and ears or had Zacharias been briefly given the ability to both 'see and hear' Gabriel in his 'spirit' state?

23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home. 24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying,

Having been struck mute didn't necessarily disqualify Zacharias from finishing his 'days' of priestly service. It wasn't, clearly, a job that required much conversation. This text also suggests, contrary to some commentaries, that Zacharias may have served in the Temple for more than one day.

Zacharias returned home only 'after' completing his assignment. I wonder if his wife, Elizabeth, had already heard about what had transpired with her husband at the temple in Jerusalem?  If so, what might she have actually heard? How accurate were they? Or, had she not learned anything until her husband walked back into their home unable to speak? Assuming that they were both literate, I wonder how he described in written words all that had happened.

Obviously, what the angel had promised was not going to happen without the participation of Zacharias, unlike with Mary, thus Luke correctly wrote that she became pregnant 'after' he returned home. Had they been 'trying' up to that point, or had they ceased attempting to get her pregnant years earlier when she had reached a certain age? If they hadn't been sexually active for some time, what might have been the response of Elizabeth when her now mute husband requested that they try again?

Then, after Elizabeth became pregnant, why did she seclude herself for 5 months? We can, of course, only speculate. One idea is that since a miscarriage usually occurs within the first 20 weeks (5 months) of a pregnancy, Elizabeth may have, like her husband, hesitated to believe the promise until she was positive that she could sustain her pregnancy. Thus she didn't want to publicize the fact until it became pretty much of a guarantee.

Being barren was a disgrace, even considered to be a disability. Among the Jews a disability was akin to being declared 'unclean'. Worse, barrenness was reckoned as a punishment from God. Their reasoning on this came from scripture. If a woman was truly 'righteous' then God promised that she would 'not' be barren (Gen. 49:25; Dt. 7:14). Since it was believed from the Torah that God could remove barrenness (Gen 20:17; 29:31), the only logical conclusion for the barrenness of Elizabeth was that God had cursed her.

On the other hand, the scriptures also presented another scenario, which may have been the reason behind the continued prayers of Elizabeth and Zachariah for a child, even into their old age. Why? They must have found hope in the story of Sarah, that God sometimes prevented a woman from becoming pregnant until old age, simply as proof of His existence and power (Gen. 16:2; 18:10). As long as they were alive, they could hope, even if others chose to believe otherwise. Some will always find in the scriptures a reason to judge others harshly, while others will find in the same scriptures reasons to be optimistic.

Does the word 'barren' mean 'not being able to conceive' and/or 'not being able to bring a pregnancy to full term'? Maybe Elizabeth had had several miscarriages in the past and did not want to assume that this pregnancy would be any different until after the 5 month danger time was past. On the other hand, if she had experienced miscarriages in the past, maybe she secluded herself in order to protect her pregnancy.

It was only after the 6th month that Mary went to see Elizabeth, as revealed to her by Gabriel (Lk 1:36). If Elizabeth had gone into seclusion the moment she knew for sure that she was pregnant that may not have been until 4- 6 weeks after conception, which - 5 months later - would have brought her into her 6th month when Mary arrived. It seems that heaven cooperated with Elizabeth's choice to be secluded for those many months, not divulging the fact of her pregnancy, even to her relative Mary, until later. Heaven can kept a secret. Hmm.

25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”

Elizabeth was pronounced 'righteous' by God while at the same time 'men' looked upon her as 'cursed'. The scriptures remind us that man often 'looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). It is no wonder that Jesus taught us not to judge.

In a similar vein, if barrenness was considered a 'disability', and thus 'unclean', then the words of God to Peter should also apply to Elizabeth - 'what God has cleansed, you must not call unclean' (Acts 10:15). Elizabeth had been declared righteous through her faith in God, just as Abraham had been (Rom. 4:3). She was 'in fact' imperfect, yet 'in truth' perfect.


1. Did you find yourself reacting against something in the text this week, or against something I wrote in my notes? If so, what is that tapping into? What might you be defending against?

2. Did you come across anything that appeared to be a 'logical fallacy' to you?

3. Was there any part of the text that seemed designed for meditation (i.e a 'koan') - even as something that you could find yourself thinking about for the rest of your life? 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Luke 1:5-17 Zach and Liz

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

The gospel of Luke is the longest book in the New Testament. Nearly 50 percent of this gospel is unique, with 29 specific events not appearing any place else in the NT. Of the 30 plus miracles performed by Jesus, Luke mentions 7 that cannot be found in any other gospel. Similarly, of the more than 50 parables found in the gospels as a whole, 20 are only found in Luke's gospel. In his Spirit-guided research, Luke compiled a truly marvelous, chronological account of the life of Jesus.

Zacharias served in the division of Abijah (1 Chron 24) and was selected to perform the important ritual of the incense offering in the temple during the days of Herod the Great. This may have been the first and only time that Zacharias had been selected for this duty. Why? Because there were 24 divisions of priests. During the first century there were, according to some scholars, 1000 priests in each division. Zacharias belonged to the 8th division. Each division was called to serve in the temple for one week, twice each year. When it was time for a division to serve, one priest would be selected. Since Zacharias was already advanced in age, it is possible that he had either served once before or had waited his whole life to serve this one time.

The altar of incense was located in the Holy Place within the temple. It was covered with gold. The incense was made according to a formula that included frankincense and stacte - which may have been derived from myrrh. The incense was restricted for sacred purposes in the worship of God. Secular use would have been punished by exile. Recall from Matthew's gospel that the wise men from the east who came to worship Jesus some time after his birth, presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Zacharias (the Lord remembers) and his wife, Elizabeth (the oath of God), were from the priestly class of Aaron, thus from the tribe of Levi. Mary was of the tribe of Judah. Tribe designations came through the male lineage. Elizabeth and Mary were relatives, though not of the same tribe, and not necessarily 'first cousins'. 

6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.

In bible times, barrenness could be used as legitimate 'grounds for divorce', but Zacharias was not the usual, self-important kind of priest. Luke described both Zacharias and Elizabeth as 'righteous in the sight of God', having lived 'blamelessly in all the commandments..' There are two ways to live 'blamelessly' in obedience to God. One is to leverage the 'law' for self-centered purposes and the other to obey the law for the glory of God alone. In the case of this couple, they choose the will of God over their cultural/religious 'rights', they choose grace over law (Gal. 5:4), compassion over comfort (Gal. 5:6). There is a righteousness that is by the 'letter of the Law', and a righteousness that is shaped by the 'character of God'. The two are not the same, as we will later witness in the example set by Jesus.

The Law was given because of the sinfulness of man (Gal.3:19-27), but could never be an absolute transcript of the very character of God. Law is always interpreted. The way we interpret the law reveals 'who' has our heart. Many of the priests revealed that 'mammon' owned their hearts. Zacharias and Elizabeth revealed that God alone owned their hearts.

Even before Jesus became the One to whom the Law had pointed to (Jn 1:45), there were those who, in heart, were already 'sons and daughters of God'. How does the way you 'use' your 'rights' as a believer and as a citizen of this country reveal the true 'owner' of your heart? Who or what is the 'lover of your soul'?

8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.

After having been selected 'by lot', Zacharias faithfully performed his duty according to the 'requirements of God'. Luke presents this as a mere 'happening' (Gk. ginomai), but was it more than that? Was the selection of Zacharias at that moment in history accomplished by the providence of God or was it simply the way everyday life 'happened' to play out at that time?

Could God have used other couples to fulfill prophecy or was Zacharias and his wife the 'only' couple God could have used to raise up a 'forerunner' for Jesus at that point in history? Had God chosen the time of Mary's conception based on when Zacharias would have been selected to serve in the temple or had God chosen Zacharias based on when Mary would later conceive?

Did God 'manipulate' the casting of 'lots' to accomplish His purpose (Prv. 16:33) or had the omniscient God always known exactly when Zacharias would be selected? If Zacharias hadn't been selected just then, would Joseph have gone on to wed Mary and would she have conceived a child by him instead of by the Spirit? There are many 'what if's' in this story the answer for which depends on how we understand the nature of God.

Many factors had to play out perfectly for the scriptures to have been fulfilled. So, again, does this all amount to coincidence, the foreknowledge of God, or does it reveal that God 'manipulates' the 'happenings' of human affairs in order to accomplish His will at a particular time (Is. 14:24; 37:26; Act 4:28; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11)? If the latter, was this a one time 'intervention' by God, or do you believe that God is constantly micromanaging our world - even your life? Is there anything that 'happens' apart from God's foreknowledge (Heb. 4:13; 1 Jn 3:20)? Does God, then, only permit things to 'happen' if they work to accomplish His purpose for your life? Do most things in this life not matter one way or another to God's ultimate purpose?

11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.

It is tempting to extract a formula from these verses. If you live a morally upright life, are faithful in all your duties, present your need to God, and invite others to pray for you, then God will - must - answer your prayer. But, as we all know, life does not work that way.

So, why did God intervene and answer the 'petition' of Zacharias?

The stories in scripture are not there to show us exactly what we must do when we run into a similar situation. Rather, the stories in the bible are there to confirm our faith in the existence of God. Even if the circumstances that prompt our petitions to God are identical to an account found in the scriptures, that doesn't mean God will or must respond in precisely the same manner as He once did. Like Zacharias, we present our requests to God, then leave the results in His hands.

The story of Zacharias tells us that when God's purposes can be met by fulfilling a particular individual's need, then God will intervene. God cares for and hears the needs of every individual, yet only intervenes in this world as it fulfills His larger, eternal purpose. When Jesus went from city to city healing everyone he met, it was to fulfill a much larger purpose. He could have simply stood upon a cloud and commanded all people in the world to be instantly healed of all ailments. Even though everyone would have been happy with the results, that wouldn't have fulfilled God's purpose. In other words, God didn't answer the prayer of Zacharias because Zacharias was a righteous man, or because was a faithful priest, or because of his religious pedigree, or because he persisted in presenting his petitions to God, and/or because of the intercessory prayers made by others in his behalf, or because of all these things working together. God answered the prayer of Zacharias because it helped fulfill God's larger purpose for the salvation of all mankind.

As westerners we tend to venerate the individual apart from the whole of humanity. Eastern thinking is quite different. Eastern thinking is, generally, more holistic. It looks at the larger picture before considering the individual need. The former tends to 'use' God as a vending machine or to imagine God as Santa Claus. The latter humbly values the God who operates from a more universal and transgenerational perspective. The former is 'now' oriented, while the later is more 'eternally' oriented. Notice the words of the angel to Zacharias. 'You' will have joy and gladness, AND 'many' will rejoice at his birth.
15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.

Though the scriptures do not specifically say so, John seems to have been 'set aside' as a Nazarite, from birth. As with Samson (Jud 13:1-5), an angel commanded the parents of John to raise him according to rules of a Nazarite.

There were, according to scripture, three aspects to the Nazarite vow: (1) abstinence from alcohol and vinegar and from any form of grapes, (2) being prohibited from cutting their hair, and they were (3) never to become ritually unclean by touching a corpse or even a grave.

The vow of a Nazarite could be for a short period or life-long, by men or women. The first mention of the Nazarite vow in scriptures was when God outlined it to Moses (Num 6:1-21), yet it appears to have been something that had already been in practice among the Israelites. Its exact origin is unknown. The term simply means 'separated' for full commitment to God. Should Christians make a Nazarite vow?

Why did John have to be raised, more or less, as a Nazarite? Was he fulfilling a prophecy that required the 'forerunner' of the Messiah to be a Nazarite from birth or were the restrictions of the Nazarite vow simply a pragmatic way to keep John on track so that he would not be distracted from fulfilling the far more important task of being the 'forerunner' of Christ.

How could John be 'filled with the Holy Spirit' before the Spirit had been given on the day of Pentecost three decades later? Actually, the Spirit had always been at work in the world from the beginning, and men and women of faith both appreciated and had been 'moved' by the Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Ex. 35:31; Ps. 51:11). Yet, on the other hand, God promised that the Spirit would be sent not only to be in the world, but to actually dwell within the hearts of men and women of faith (Ez 36:27; Joel 2:29; Jn 7:39; 14:17). That happened after the resurrection of Jesus, on the day of Pentecost (Act 1:8; 2:17,18). So, again, how was John 'filled' with the Spirit before the Spirit had been given to 'fill' men? Perhaps it was not that God 'could not' do this earlier, since all things are possible with God, but that He chose to do it only in unique circumstances until the general outpouring of the Spirit.

What difference would it make to have been 'filled with the Spirit' from birth rather than to experience being filled with the Spirit later when an individual chose to surrender his/her heart to Christ (Lk 1:41,67; Acts 2:4)? John wrote that the indwelling Spirit would be our teacher (Jn 14:26; Jer. 31:34; 1 Jn 2:27). In other words, instead of having to later learn to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from all the other voices previously learned, when filled with the Spirit from the womb the very first voice to be heard would be the voice of God (Jn 10:4). Can you imagine having known the voice of God as your 'father' from the womb? Add to that the Nazarite vow and it becomes easier to see how John could have fulfilled his role.

17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Why did the coming of the Messiah require a 'forerunner'? What did John do for Jesus that Jesus couldn't have accomplished without the Baptist? Did John really resurrect a desire among the Jews to be righteous and compassionate? Or did John's unique ministry resurrect hope that the Messiah was about to arrive as promised (Mal. 3:1; 4:5,6)? Was the role of John really necessary for the success of Jesus? Or was it more important to have key prophecies fulfilled in order for the people to accept Jesus as the Messiah? The gospels often say, 'this was to fulfill the words of....'  Would not the actual character, teaching, and works of Jesus have been sufficient proof that he was the Messiah or would the Jews have still not accepted Him unless their particular prophecies had been fulfilled in every particular? Why should we 'not' receive someone as from God simply because of their abilities to work miracles (Mt. 24:24)?

Luke wrote that the forerunner would arrive before the Messiah and demonstrate the spirit and power of Elijah. Yet, the prophecy in Malachi said that God would actually send Elijah. This became an important question among the Jewish people in regards to John, indicating that the prophecy of Malachi was well known by them. Was John actually Elijah? If not, regardless of how he dressed, what he preached, and/or how many he baptized, he could not be the fulfillment of the prophecy. Again, the people were testing 'what' their eyes saw and their ears heard by what was written in their scriptures. That 'should' be a good thing, right?

If someone claimed to be the Messiah, yet the people had not first witnessed 'Elijah', then the Messianic claim would have become suspect. There had to first be a 'forerunner'. Similarly, if someone seemed to be the forerunner, yet was not actually 'Elijah', that person would have to be rejected. So, was John, 'Elijah'? Elijah had ascended into the heavens by chariot, supposedly without seeing death. Had he returned from heaven? But how could that be? John had been born to Zacharias and Elizabeth, so how could he be the adult, heaven sent Elijah? This became an important question among the Jews. They directly asked John if he was Elijah. His answer, maybe surprisingly, was, 'I am not' (Jn 1:21). Yet, to his credit, he did go on to say that he was the fulfillment of another prophecy. 'I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord' (Is 40:3). Should that have been the end of the story? Had John admitted to being only one of many voices throughout history that God had called to speak truth to His people? By his own admission he was not Elijah, so could he be the fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy?

Curiously, when Jesus spoke about John he contradicted John's answer. Jesus said, 'if you are willing to accept it, John himself 'is' Elijah who was to come. (Mt 11:14). In other words, 'factually', John was not Elijah. Yet, in 'truth' he was. Truth often exceeds facts when it comes to faith. If we require the truths of our faith to always match up with the facts of our world, then we will soon end up without faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).

No wonder Luke took some literary license and rewrote Malachi 4:5,6. This is what Malachi wrote, 'Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.' Now notice what Luke wrote, 'It is he who will go as a forerunner before before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'

Malachi spoke of Elijah the prophet actually returning in person, while Luke wrote that the forerunner would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. Luke clearly accepted Matthew's quotation from Jesus.

1. Do you detect any fallacies of logic in what Luke wrote? If so, does it simply highlight the differences between eastern and western thinking, or does it differentiate between reason and faith?
2. Did you find yourself reacting defensively to anything in these verses? Did you find yourself rationalizing a particular phrase to make it 'fit' what you want to believe? Did a text elicit anger or frustration? Did you feel a bit confused to learn that Luke researched and compiled his gospel rather than having received it directly from the Lord? How does Luke's admission challenge your notion of inspiration?
3. Did you encounter anything that could be considered a 'koan'? For instance, 'what does it mean to be righteous in the sight of God'? Or, 'how can an angel appear to a human'? Or, 'in what way is someone filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb'? Or, 'what does it mean to turn a heart'?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Luke 1:1-4 The Objective

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us,

It seems, at least at the time when 'Luke' began his gospel, that 'many' others had already attempted to assemble what they believed to have been fully convincing stories about Jesus and his followers. Yet doctor Luke felt, for one reason or another, that something important was missing from all these other accounts. Good evidence, yet poorly presented, may unwittingly become an obstacle to the truth.    

A faithful follower of Jesus could only tell the story based on his or her own unique perspective. We all have biases that filter and interpret what we see, which is why courts - both then and now - attempt to establish truth by the testimony of more than one eyewitness. Even when we have a clear and accurate understanding of exactly 'what' happened, that doesn't mean that we can then present what we know clearly and accurately. Our educational background, facility with language, and personality style can transform a wonderful truth into a misunderstood fable.

Luke - if Dr. Luke was the actual author of this gospel - had probably been trained in his profession to examine evidence in a logical manner before coming to a conclusion. He may also have learned how to present his findings in such a manner that would easily appeal to candidly minded, non-medical people. Perhaps this is what he wanted to do with the story of Jesus.  

Luke appears to have had in his possession many different accounts about Jesus. Had he found some of  them to be contradictory, incomplete, fanciful, or carelessly inaccurate in various respects? And/or were most of these sources merely an unconvincing, disorganized compilation of select events from the life of Jesus? Were there some eyewitness accounts about the ministry of Jesus that, though written by sincere men of God, were compiled by men who had never accepted that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah?

Bible scholars assume that Luke may have had a scroll or two that simply contained a list of Jesus' sayings. Other scrolls may have contained a series of Jesus' miracles or his parables. Possibly there were scrolls of the testimonies of those who had heard and/or had been healed by Jesus. Maybe Luke had in his possession the written testimony of several of the original disciples of Jesus, maybe even one by Judas - otherwise how would we know what he actually did behind the scenes? Had he personally interviewed some eyewitnesses who were still living? As Luke will tell us, he did not write this gospel as dictated to him by the Spirit or by an angel. He wrote based on his research.  

2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,

Luke was not claiming to be an actual eyewitness himself. Rather, he was attempting to compile the most accurate and convincing accounts of the Christian movement. He claimed that his sources were 'handed down' from those who had been both an eyewitness as well as a 'servant of the word'. A 'servant of the word' would have been someone who had chosen to live in obedience to the teachings of scripture. Luke's context may well suggest that he applied this to those who had accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of bible prophecy, though it would have had a more general application that included anyone who cherished the scriptures and lived in obedience to them, even if they hadn't accepted Jesus.

Luke was not criticizing the writings of others who had put together an account of Jesus. Rather, he was thankful to have in his possession the written records those who had been  eyewitness as he attempted to assemble a new account that would be as exact as possible - not only in content, but in historical order.  

3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning,

It seems clear that 'Luke' used Mark's gospel as one of his many sources and appears to have followed Mark's outline more closely than had Matthew.

Based on verse 2, the fact that Luke used Mark's gospel implies that Mark had been an actual 'eyewitness'. According to Bible scholars, Mark's gospel was most likely written around 70 AD and Luke's gospel between 80-90 AD.

Though this account has been called the Gospel According to Luke, there isn't any indication in either 'Luke' or Acts that a person named Luke actually wrote either of these two volumes. We only know about the existence of a believing Dr. Luke from Paul's letters to the Colossian Church, to Timothy, and to Philemon, yet there isn't anything in Paul's letters that even hiints that Luke wrote this gospel. There are, though, indications in the book of Acts that its author had, at least occasionally, traveled with Paul. It is only because of a tradition dating from the 2nd century that this gospel has been attributed to Dr. Luke.

Regardless of 'who' the author of this gospel really was, the stated goal of the author - which from this point forward we will assume was 'Luke' - was to make a 'careful investigation of everything related to Jesus, starting at the beginning'. In other words, what he includes represents what his research established as historically accurate. This doesn't necessarily require that all excluded material had been deemed bogus (ex. he omitted Mk 7:1-23), but that they were either not important to his account that was geared to a more Gentile audience or that there may have been insufficient evidence to establish legitimacy.

to write it out for you in consecutive order,

Here is another stated goal that this author had for his gospel. There may have been many stories about Jesus, circulating within Christian congregations, that hadn't given much thought to historical order. True stories, shared in a disorganized manner, often come across more as fables. When these same stories are linked to a timeline with other supporting facts, a whole new picture is created.

This author said that first, he would do thorough research. Second, he would take care to arrange his findings in historically accurate, consecutive order, so that third, the 'exact truth' about Jesus could be known. These objectives suggest that the author believed that no such document existed up to that point in time or, at least to his knowledge. If so, did this mean that the author used Mark, Matthew, and maybe even John's gospels, yet found them to be inadequately organized accounts?

The author had, of course, set the bar very high. Was he being honest in this pursuit or was this a 'sales job'? Did this author have the ability to be sufficiently meticulous and rigorous in his research in order to parse out the difference between legend and truth some 50 years after the crucifixion of Christ? Was it really possible to reconstruct a chronologically accurate account of the life of Jesus?

Was the author of this gospel the well-known, medically educated, believing Dr. Luke or an unknown, yet well-educated, Greek historian specifically hired to discover the truth about Jesus - whatever that truth was? Would, or should, that make a difference to us? In other words, as we read through Luke's gospel, at least the only version we have available to us today, will we encounter 'confirmation bias' because it's author was a sincere believer, or a clearly conscientious effort at being objective?

Bible scholars have largely concluded that this gospel account was most likely written by a Greek for a Gentile readership. In other words, the target audience wouldn't have had the same biases against Christians as did the Jews, yet they would also not have familiarity with the Jewish culture, teachings, and traditions. (This being said, there are other scholars who believe that there is evidence in this gospel that strongly suggests 'Luke' was writing to the Sadducees.) If our date for this gospel is accurate then the author would be attempting to confirm for non-Jews the truth about a Jewish man, from a Jewish region within the empire, who had died nearly half a century earlier.

The question, then, is how successful do we think he was? Is his gospel convincing to us today?  

...most excellent Theophilus;

The word, 'Theophilus', simply means 'friend of God'. There are many and varied conjectures about to 'whom' the author of Luke was writing to.  'Who' was Theophilus.

Did the author chose this 'name' as a clever way to address all who claimed to be a friend of God? On the other hand, since there were some prominent people during the first and second century with this name, it is quite possible that a specific individual actually could have been the recipient of this gospel. Moreover, Luke used this same modifying phrase, 'most excellent', elsewhere in his writings when addressing some highly positioned Roman official (Acts 24:2; 26:25).

Now that we are reading this gospel account some two millennia after it was written, it may matter less 'who' it was written to, but 'what' it says to us today. Whoever we are, when reading 'Luke', does his gospel accomplish for us what 'he' set out to achieve? And/or, has the Spirit used Luke's gospel to achieve something in your life that Luke never imagined?

4 that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

Having grown up in a nation that is more or less Christian, it is relatively easy to believe what we read in Luke's gospel. In fact, most of us don't read it to see 'if' we should become a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Rather, we usually read it to confirm what we already believe. But that may not be why this gospel was written - at least according to its author.

'Luke' addressed his gospel to someone(s) who wanted to know if what he had been taught was the truth. Luke does not make clear exactly 'what' it was that 'Theophilus' had been taught. Had he been taught to reject Jesus as the Christ and was being given the 'exact truth' about Jesus so that, if he had an open mind, he could shift from unbelief to belief? Or, had 'Theophilus' been taught to believe in Jesus, but was experiencing some doubts that Luke wanted to dispel? We don't really know the answer to that question, yet we need to keep in mind that it could have been either case.

The author wrote, 'that you may know the exact truth..' 'Luke' believed, having carefully researched the subject, that 'Theophilus' would finally be able to 'understand', 'recognize', 'know', the truth about Jesus after having read this gospel account. We do need to keep in mind that this gospel may have been tailored to fit the learning style of the individual and/or generation to whom it was addressed, and may not be an acceptable 'proof' for today's Western mind. That being said, as we proceed through this Gospel According to Luke, let's not quickly use it to confirm what we already believe, but to read it as someone who actually desired to 'learn' the truth about Jesus.

With that in mind, here are three things I would encourage you to do as we study this gospel.

1. Do you encounter what appears to be a 'logical fallacy' in Luke's account? If so, which fallacy of logic do you see? Do you know how to recognize a 'fallacy of logic'? What may have been an acceptable 'proof' then, may not be acceptable today.

2. How are you personally responding to what you read? In other words, are you aware of any psychological defense mechanisms being elicited within you? If so, which ones? Why is this important? If the mind has sensed a logical fallacy or is left with a bad impression about something you have encountered while reading this gospel, it will linger - at least subconsciously - as 'doubt'. If left unresolved, your doubt will undermine your faith. On the other hand, if you train your mind to recognize a logical fallacy and/or a negative reaction to a text, you can stop and work through it more rationally, rather than to allow it to fester subconsciously.

3. In Buddhism there are lists of 'koans' - which, at first blush appear to be riddles, yet are statements and/or brief stories/parables that are intended to stretch a student's thinking beyond a literal interpretation and even beyond a logical application. Koans are designed for meditation, through which they may bring us into a deeper, spiritual application. That being said, what are the 'koan-like' sayings of Jesus in Luke's gospel? Have you noticed them and then stopped to meditate upon them? Luke mentions many simple 'facts' about the life of Jesus, yet he also presented many sayings of Jesus that were meant to be wrestled with.

It is my recommendation that you take the above three tasks and keep a journal of your findings. It serves little spiritual purpose to merely read through Luke's gospel to confirm currently held beliefs. Spiritual maturity requires meditation on the text, openness to being changed, and self-exploration. As we read the scriptures we need to be open to the Spirit's voice. The Spirit will guide us in a transformational experience through the word - if we are willing.