By: John Ferguson
If a person wants to learn more about Jesus of Nazareth, she is already up against the accepted wisdom of our times. It’s not uncommon to hear people in our society say things like, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true!” or “You just gotta have faith!”: meaning of course that faith is what you’re left with when you’ve got nothing else.
Such a sentiment is underscored by no less a personality than the well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins. In his book, “The Selfish Gene,” Dawkins leaves his narrow specialized field of study in science to wax eloquent on metaphysics. He writes that faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, 2006, pg. 198) He goes on to describe faith as “a kind of mental illness,” (pg. 330) and a “brainwasher of children”. (pg. 330)
When people hear things like this, many are unsure of how to respond. Who wants to concede that they are mentally ill simply for believing in the Bible? Is faith the equivalent of sticking one’s head in the sand? Is this how Christianity describes faith?
Contrary to this popular sentiment, the term “blind faith” is not at all an accurate description of the faith that Christianity calls for. And I’m thankful for an ancient physician, named Luke, who wrote a biography of Jesus to give us some insight on this issue.
The ancient historical document called “The Gospel of Luke” is the first part of a two volume work from the first century. “The Gospel of Luke” tells us about the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The second volume commonly called “Acts” or “The Acts of the Apostles” is the history of the first Christians in the months and decades after life and ministry of Jesus.
Luke opens his account of the life of Jesus by directing his words to his first reader:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).
Let’s ask a couple of questions before we hear that basic claims that Luke is making.
1. Who was Luke? Luke was a travelling companion of and fellow worker alongside the Apostle Paul (see, e.g., Acts 16:16; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). That means that he spent much time with the primary Christian ambassador to Gentile world. Paul himself was formerly a sort of religious terrorist who persecuted Christians and later became a converted teller of the story of Jesus the Messiah (Galatians 1:13ff).
Luke was also a physician (Paul calls him “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14). This is significant because it tells us that he was an educated man (as the Greek of Luke/Acts testifies). This must be remembered when weighing the evidence that he produces.
2. Who was Theophilus? While there is no unanimous opinion as to his identity, there is good reason to believe he was some sort of Roman official.
Luke addresses him with the words, “…most excellent Theophilus”, and while we may view this as a form of polite address, it was commonly used of Roman officials as is seen in Luke’s record of the trial of Paul before Roman authorities in the book of Acts. Paul addressed the Roman procurator of Judea as “most excellent Felix” (Acts 24:2), and in his trial before King Agrippa, Paul address the Roman procurator Festus, saying, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words” (Acts 26:25). (Compare also the letter from a Roman tribune named Claudius Lysias to “his excellency the Governor Felix” – Acts 23:26)
Luke is an educated man writing an account of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. And the evidence underscores the notion that he is writing to a Roman official.
So why is Luke writing to Theophilus?
Luke says in the opening of his Gospel, “…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Luke makes his intentions very clear: he is writing to persuade, and he’s writing to instill confidence in Theophilus about the things he has heard and been taught about Jesus of Nazareth.
Was Theophilus a hostile audience? Some believe Luke was writing to Theophilus to give Christians a good hearing, or even to testify on Paul’s behalf who is under house arrest as the book of Acts comes to a close. Or was he sympathetic? Did Theophilus simply want more information and assurances about the accuracy of the story? Or was he a recent convert? Was he thinking about becoming a follower of Jesus?
Either way, Luke has a vested interest in getting his facts straight.
Like an investigative reporter, Luke is going to craft his biography very carefully since (1) he has followed closely “for some time past” the testimonies of eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, (2) these things have not happened in a corner, but even Roman officials has some prior knowledge about these events. (Acts 26:26), (3) Both Luke and Paul are interested in truth and what is “true and rational” (Acts 26:25), and (4) Theophilus has a stake in this as well.
Luke expresses a desire to talk honestly about his investigation. So we have good reason, from the onset, to take seriously what Luke has to say. Or at least it would seem reasonable to give him a fair hearing.
So what does this have to do with faith? Everything!
Luke doesn’t tell Theophilus (or us), “You just gotta believe!” or “Don’t worry about the facts or evidence or eyewitness testimony. Just believe what you know ain’t true.” Luke knows nothing about such silly and misguided notions.
So if you want to seriously look into the person of Jesus, why not start your investigation by listening to this ancient physician?
He’s going to tell us a couple of things that we should take seriously. We’re going to hear him saying,
(1) We have investigated established facts, not fiction.
(2) We have certainty, not wishful thinking.
We see that Luke doesn’t want Theophilus to put his head in the sand, and the “good physician” doesn’t want you to either. Christianity tells us that we have reasons for our faith, not that we have faith for no reason.
(Be on the lookout for part 2 as we continue in this study on Christian faith.)