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Faith Embracing Certainty? (Part 2)

by: John Ferguson

In part 1, we learned that the author of “The Gospel of Luke” was a physician and traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and he was compiling his work in order to convince “most excellent Theophilus” (most likely a Roman official) of the things he had been taught about Jesus of Nazareth. The introduction to the Gospel reads as follows:

“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).

In part 1, we saw that there were two major points to look at:

    (1) We have established facts, not fiction.
    (2) We have certainty, not wishful thinking.

In this post of our three-part series, we’ll consider his first point:

1. We have established facts, not fiction.

In the opening paragraph, Luke tells us that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us.” Many people were writing about the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.

This is significant on several fronts. This wasn’t something that happened in a corner, but it seems as if many people were talking about it, and more than a few were writing about it. This is all the more significant considering that, as one scholar notes, “…the ancient world did not have the printed page, and written texts were not in wide circulation. The fact that many had undertaken to prepare an account shows Jesus’ importance” [1]

These news-making events produced eyewitnesses.  Here, Luke indicated that those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning delivered their testimony to him. We should not overlook this key piece of evidence. This is not hearsay but actual eyewitness testimony. This is the stuff of history, and eyewitness testimony carries weight.

We can scan Luke’s Gospel for some key examples. For example, on two occasions, Luke tells us about things that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). Due to his introduction, it seems reasonable to conclude that he personally interviewed Mary who was, of course, Jesus’ mother.

Luke also speaks of ministers of the word who were the officially recognized as leaders and teachers of Jesus’ Gospel. Their testimony should not be simply ignored.

(1) These eyewitnesses appealed to their own personal experience with Jesus.

For example, Peter said, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Here, Peter emphatically reminds his readers that the story about Jesus is not a cleverly concocted fable, but was told by actual eyewitnesses. The events that he and other eyewitnesses and ministers of the word testified to actually happened, and like all historical events, are true for everyone.

Another eyewitness to the events of Jesus was the Apostle John who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion and who looked after Mary following His death. In one of his letters, John testified, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and touched with our hands…, that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you…” (1 John 1:-3).  John takes pains to describe the tactile veracity of his testimony.  It wasn’t a personal fiction that he thought might be nice if it was true, but he walked and talked with Jesus for three years.

(2) These eyewitnesses appealed to other eyewitness testimony.

The Apostle Paul was not one of the original disciples of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that he was unfamiliar with Him. Paul was a member of a Jewish sect called the Pharisees who not only openly challenged Jesus in public, but also plotted his death. Paul was a rising star in this group, and even called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). As a violent persecutor of the new movement of Christians, presiding over the execution of the first Christian martyr (Acts 8), he was advancing beyond most Jews (Galatians 1:14ff).

Then he encountered the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, and in a dramatic conversion (Acts 9), and he became the primary ambassador of Christianity to the non-Jewish world.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, he contended that the resurrected Jesus, “…appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all…he appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:4f).

Paul here appeals to the resurrection appearances that others experienced. Most striking, he says that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once, most of whom are still alive. Paul says in effect, “Look, if you don’t believe me, there are plenty of other eyewitnesses around. Go check them out.”  One doesn’t do that if those eyewitnesses (a) don’t exist, or (b) have contradictory testimony to the one that is given. 

These eyewitnesses and ministers of the word not only appealed to their own eyewitness testimony and to the testimony of others, but they appealed to something else of great importance.

(1)  These eyewitnesses appealed to common knowledge about Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, Luke refers to an episode when the Apostle Paul had been arrested and was required to appear before King Agrippa and Festus, the governor of Judea.

In his eyewitness testimony of seeing the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, Paul said:

“I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” (Acts 26:25-26)

Paul claims to be speaking truthfully: “I am speaking true and rational words.” This is not a true-for-me-but-maybe-not-true-for-you kind of a statement. Rather, Paul is speaking of the true nature of the events that have taken place. And he’s stating this before those who have the power to put him to death.

Firstly, if Paul were making this story up, it might be a good time for him to say, “Listen, this was a fun ride while it lasted, but look, not one got hurt and we had a lot of fun. So let’s just call it a day, and I’ll go back to my day job.” He would have every motivation to do so.

But that’s not what he did. Why? Because—as he testified—these things really took place.

He says, secondly, “The king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly.”

Paul’s boldness with the truth is because the king already knows about these things. “For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” Paul is proclaiming what everyone is talking about, and many are writing about, because these events really happened. The astonishing events of Jesus, as reported, seem to be public knowledge.  

We have established facts, not fiction. That is the testimony of the early Christians based on eyewitness testimony.

And this evidential basis for considering Christianity is a far cry from the straw man definitions of faith offered by the so-called “New Atheists” like Dawkins. They say that faith is like sticking our heads in the sand. They might want to reconsider this flawed definition if they want to talk about the Christian concept of faith.

In Part 3 of this mini-series, we’ll look at the final point Luke makes in his introduction: “We have certainty, not wishful thinking.”

[1] Darrel Bock, Luke, p. 31.