A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          January 16, 2006

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Luke 1:1-4

     1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

To Tell the Truth

     When I was a boy, one of my favorite televisions shows was To Tell the Truth. Are any of you old enough to remember that show? The basic idea was simple. You had a panel of four celebrities and a host. Then three contestants would appear, each claiming to be the same person. They'd all say something like, "Hello, my name is Tim Avazian. Hello, my name is Tim Avazian. Hello, my name is Tim Avazian." Of course, in fact, only one of these people was the real Tim Avazian. The others were imposters (no doubt a couple of Tim's giant cast of Armenian cousins). The point of the show was for the celebrity panel to ask questions in an effort to identify which of the contestants was telling the truth, and which ones were fibbing. In the end, panel members would make their guesses, and then the host would intone: "Now, will the real Tim Avazian please stand up?" The contestants would each look as if they were going to stand, adding to the suspense. Finally the real deal would make himself known, and everybody would clap before the station cut to a commercial for Geritol.

     These days, it seems like Jesus is a contestant in some bizarre To Tell the Truth game and you and I are on the panel. All around us there are imposter Jesuses claiming to be the real deal. The most obvious example in recent memory was the married Jesus of The Da Vinci Code who came to establish a royal family through Mary Magdalene.

     Another Jesus popped up last spring. Just before Easter, conveniently enough, an ancient Gnostic document called the Gospel of Judas was published. Some scholars hurried to make headlines by uttering tantalizing statements about how this gospel showed us something about the real Jesus. Of course the fact that this gospel was written about a century after the biblical ones and was filled with the peculiar imagery of second-century Gnosticism didn't seem to discourage wild claims about its relevance.

     Now, lest you think that debates concerning the real Jesus lurk mainly within the unhallowed halls of academia, consider the case of the recent hit film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. In my favorite scene from that film, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby - played by former Irvine boy, Will Ferrell - is praying at a family dinner. He begins: "Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . . thank you for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell."

     As he continues to thank "Tiny infant Jesus" for his blessings, his wife interrupts, "Hey, you know sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby."

     Ricky Bobby responds indignantly, "Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace . When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want."

     This provokes a spirited debate over which is the best Jesus. Ricky Bobby's best friend Cal admits, "I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt, 'cuz it says like I wanna be formal, but I'm here to party too, 'cuz I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party."

     One of Ricky Bobby's sons adds, "I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fightin' off evil samurai."

     Finally Ricky Bobby has had enough, ending the prayer by praying to "Dear 8 pound six ounce born infant Jesus, don't even know a word yet," being sure to thank God for Powerade in order to fulfill one of his many endorsement contracts.

     So, whether you're reading bestselling novels, following the exploits of contemporary scholarship, or watching silly movies about NASCAR, you just can't avoid lots of Jesuses vying for your vote, like contestants on To Tell the Truth. And if you really want to get confused, go take your average college religion course or buy some popular book on Jesus at Barnes & Noble. Chances are you'll soon be pleading: Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Nothing New

     I don't know whether it will encourage you or not to know that this is nothing new. Oh, to be sure, the imposter Jesuses in our day might be a bit unusual, and movies haven't been around for more than a few decades, but for as long as people have thought it important to know who Jesus really is, there have been challenges to that knowledge. The New Testament shows us that even in the first century, believers in Jesus were faced with a confusing array of options for thinking about Him, and the correct ones didn't fit nicely within the culture of the time. In fact, if you believed the right things about Jesus in the latter part of the first century A.D., you might just have been killed. How tempting it must have been for some Christians to scale back a bit from the audacious claims they were making about Jesus, to fit Him into their culture and avoid becoming lunch for lions, tigers, and bears. (Oh my!)

Introduction to Luke

     It's likely that in the latter part of the first century A.D. there was a Gentile Christian named Theophilus who was struggling with what to think about Jesus. Perhaps he worried about the possibility of persecution. Perhaps he wondered why, if Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so many Jews had rejected Him. Perhaps Theophilus was struggling to figure out Jesus, since, as a Gentile, he didn't intuitively grasp the Jewish context in which Jesus makes sense.

     Theophilus, it appears, was a person of status in the Roman world, somebody one might address as "most excellent." He may well have had substantial financial resources, enough to provide a research grant to a bright, studious, mature Christian named Luke. Either at Theophilus's instigation, or because Luke was concerned for his friend's faith, Luke determined to write a careful, substantive history of early Christianity, beginning with the birth of Jesus and ending with the church-planting ministry of Paul. Because scrolls could only contain so many words at that time, Luke broke his work into two volumes, the first focusing on Jesus in the style of a Greco-Roman biography, and the second focusing on the ongoing impact of Jesus in the early church. We, of course, know these two writings as the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles.

     According to ancient church tradition, the author of these two books was Luke, a "beloved physician" and companion of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14). He may well have been an eyewitness to some of what he wrote about in Acts. But Luke had not seen Jesus. Thus if he were to write a trustworthy account of Jesus's ministry, Luke would need to do his homework. And that's exactly where he begins in Luke 1.

Luke's Prologue

     Let me read once more the first four verses of Luke:

     1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

     If you were an educated person living in the Roman Empire during the later part of the first century A.D., you would immediately recognize this preface as the sort of thing commonly found at the beginning of historical writings. Historians in that day would begin their works by explaining why they were writing, what sources they had used, how carefully they had worked, and what their purpose was in writing. They often did so in a rather erudite style, which is exactly what we find in Luke 1:1-4.

     Luke begins by citing the sources he used in his research. They came in two flavors: written and oral. He consulted many orderly accounts of the ministry of Jesus, written documents that almost certainly included the Gospel of Mark, and may also have included a theoretical collection of sayings scholars call "Q" (from the German word Quelle, meaning "source"). Luke also listened to the oral traditions passed down by trustworthy storytellers. Why were they trustworthy? Because they had been actual eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, and because they had been telling their stories within the early church, where their accuracy would be judged and validated.

     After citing his sources, Luke describes his own effort as a researcher. He "investigated everything carefully from the very first." Not only did he exercise care in all that he did, but he also went back to the beginnings. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, for example, Luke began with the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. In all things he weighed the data both historically and theologically.

     On the basis of his research, Luke wrote "an orderly account." The Greek reads literally, he "wrote in an orderly manner." Luke didn't simply paste things together randomly. Rather, he carefully selected the material he would include, putting it in a sequence that made good sense. How did Luke order the content of his biography of Jesus? Overall, the gospel follows a chronological order. But at times Luke intentionally preferred thematic structure to chronology, as in chapter 3 where Luke describes the imprisonment of John the Baptist by Herod before the baptism of Jesus, in which John participated. Luke gave order to his history of Jesus and early Christianity with a "promise-fulfillment" schema. As we'll see many times, Luke emphasizes the way in which Jesus fulfills the vision of the Hebrew prophets, and in which the church continues to fulfill what began in Jesus Himself.

Luke's Purpose

     Why did Luke do all of this work? Why did he devote so much time and effort to careful research? Why did he skillfully craft his story of Jesus and the early Christians? He did this, he tells Theophilus, "so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." Luke did not write his gospel primarily for the sake of evangelism, to help people become disciples of Jesus, though this gospel surely fulfills that purpose well. And Luke did not write primarily to defend Christians from attacks by outsiders, though his gospel provides a compelling apologetic for early Christian faith and experience. Instead, Luke's primary purpose was to help someone who had already been taught about Jesus "know the truth" about Him.

     You'll find a variety of translation options for this phrase "know the truth." The NIV has, "so that you may know the certainty." The NLT has, "to reassure you of the truth." The ESV has "that you may have certainty." The Greek original supports any of these translations. It reads, literally, "so that you might know the asphaleia." The Greek term asphaleia can mean "safety, security, certainty, assurance, or reliability." What Luke seems to be saying is that he wants Theophilus - and by extension, anyone who reads his gospel - to have accurate knowledge about Jesus and to have confidence in what they believe. Given all the different Jesuses out there, given the challenges to faith that come from culture, given the tendency for some believers to question or even doubt their faith, Luke writes to instill confidence. "You can believe what I'm writing," he says, "because I've done my homework, consulting lots of written sources as well as trustworthy eyewitnesses. I examined all the data carefully, and on this basis wrote a well-ordered account of the ministry of Jesus and the continuation of that ministry in the early church. I'm giving you the truth so you can have confidence in it."

My Purpose

     Today I'm beginning a preaching series that will focus on the Gospel of Luke. This series will take us at least through Easter, and probably all the way through to next summer. Even devoting so many sermons to Luke, I won't be able to cover everything in this gospel. But I will pick and choose so you can come to a solid understanding of what Luke is all about. Of course, more importantly, I want you to come to a solid understanding of what Jesus is all about. I could echo Luke in saying that my purpose in this series is to offer an orderly series of sermons "so that you might know the truth" about Jesus and have confidence in that truth.

     Why am I doing this now? There are several reasons. One is that Pastor Kirk, in his excellent preaching over the past four months, has provided a solid foundation for an edifying examination of the Gospel of Luke. By building on this base, I'll be able to reinforce what he has taught and expand upon his insights.

     A second reason I've chosen to preach from Luke is that this gospel contains some of the most beloved of the stories and teachings of Jesus. In Luke alone, for example, do we find the annunciation to Mary, the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the story of Jesus's birth in a manger and the visit of the shepherds. Only Luke gives us the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. By dealing with Luke, I'm able to unpack some of the most wonderful and powerful episodes from the gospels.

     A third reason that I'm focusing on Luke is that there's nothing more important in life than knowing Jesus, and knowing Him well. I suppose somebody, upon hearing that I was going to spend several months on Luke, might think, "Luke? Didn't Kirk already deal with this Jesus stuff? Can't we move on?" My simple answer to this question is: "There will be a time for moving on. But nothing is more important than knowing the truth about Jesus so that we might know Him personally and follow Him as His disciples."

     Fourth, as I indicated at the beginning of this sermon, we live in a day when many, many so-called "Jesuses" are competing for our trust and allegiance. I am concerned, as your pastor, that it would be easy for you to be confused by all of this, even to be led astray. In fact, some of what we were taught in church about Jesus might well be wrong, or, at any rate, woefully inadequate. Thus, I am offering this sermon series to you much in the way that Luke offered his gospel to Theophilus. I want you to know the truth about Jesus. And I want you to have confidence in that truth.

More Than Just History

     Like the Gospel of Luke, this sermon series will focus on events that happened in the past. We'll be doing history together, trying to figure out what happened and what it meant.

     But, and let me be very clear about this, we aren't merely doing history in the sense of studying the past to try and understand it. What we're about here is more than just history! If you come away from this preaching series with a truer understanding of Jesus, but not with a deeper relationship with Him, then you and I will have fallen short of the goal. If you come away from this preaching series with a better sense of what happened in the past, but without a revolutionized present, then you will have missed the ultimate point. I'm doing this preaching series on Luke, not just to inform you, but to transform You. (Of course transformation isn't really my job. That's what God will do with you through His Spirit, if you are willing and available.)

     What I'm saying here isn't something I made up, by the way. In fact, I'm getting it from Luke himself. In the first verse of his gospel, Luke refers to the events of Jesus's ministry as "the events that have been fulfilled among us." The things that happened in the past, Luke says, are living and active in our experience as Christians. What Jesus did and said continues to impact our lives to this moment. In the beginning of Acts, he writes, "In the first book [that's the Gospel of Luke], Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning [and so forth and so on]." This translation misses a crucial nuance. If you were to translate Luke's Greek very literally, you'd get something more like what we find in the ESV: "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach." Did you catch that? All that Jesus began to do and teach. Now you may be thinking, "Wait a minute! The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus's ascending to heaven. Why would Luke describe the contents of his gospel as all that Jesus began to do and teach. What else did he do?"

     Luke's answer stuns our minds and stirs our hearts. His gospel contains only that which Jesus began to do and teach because Jesus continues to act through His people by the power of the Spirit. The events described in Acts of the Apostles could well be called "the ongoing acts of Jesus through the apostles."

     And this, my friends, didn't stop with the last chapter of Acts. Jesus continues to act in and through those of us who are His disciples. By the Spirit, Jesus wants to do more of His works through you and through me. This means we examine the ministry of Jesus, not only to understand Him truly, and not only to have a deeper relationship with Him, but also to learn as His disciples to do His works today. Jesus will continue to work through us in this church and in the world as we follow Him faithfully and as His Spirit empowers us.

     So, as we make our way through Luke together, I want to challenge you to continue to ask, "Lord, what would You have me do? How can I live today as Your disciple? What works do You want to do through me today?" If you ask these questions, and if You are open to God's answers, and if You are willing to step out in faith according to His direction, then this sermon series in Luke could be - quite literally - the turning point of your life. I want you to know that I'm praying for nothing less.



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