The Lord's Day Morning

December 7, 2008

Luke 1:1-7

“Gospel Beginnings”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter one. We begin today a study through this great Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I was on the phone on Wednesday in a conference call in which John MacArthur was participating, and he was saying that on this Sunday morning in Orange County, California, at Grace Community Church, he is going to be completing his study of the Gospel of Luke with his congregation. Now, a word of encouragement to you: it's only taken John ten years to get through the Gospel of Luke! Now the encouragement to you is it will not take me that long, Lord willing! It will take a little time, but it won't take that long. But what a great, great Gospel it is.

Now, we call it the Gospel of Luke. When we say gospel in this context we mean something a little bit different than when we use the word gospel to refer to the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. The gospel, that message of salvation through Jesus Christ, is good news. It is a message. It is something announced or proclaimed. It is that central truth of salvation by God through His grace and through our response of faith in Christ Jesus, in which we acknowledge that God is our maker and sin is our failure; and that Christ is our Savior, and that faith is our answer, and that new life is our pleasure. God has created us, He's made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless unless they find their rest in Him, and yet we have rebelled against Him. We have chosen to worship other gods or we have chosen to worship ourselves instead of Him, and the Bible tells us that when we do that the wages of sin is death. And yet, God in His love has not left us under the condemnation of our sins. He has sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into this world not only to live perfectly but to bear the due penalty of sin for all who trust in Him, so that when we put our trust in Jesus Christ, when we believe on Him as He is offered in the gospel, we are pardoned and forgiven. We are accepted and adopted into His family, and we live a new life. We live no longer to ourselves, we live to Him. We no longer live to the perpetual endeavor and ambition to please ourselves and to attain an earthly and worldly satisfaction, but we find the fullness of joy, the abundance of joy that God gives us, only in Jesus Christ, when we die to self and live to Him. And that gospel message is a core proclamation in the preaching of the New Testament. We find it all across the book of Acts.

When we refer to the Gospels, we're not talking about that message. We’re talking about the four books that give you the context for appreciating that message. Those four books — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — tell us the story of the life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, which are all essential to the gospel message. And they explain the meaning of the life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. They give us the history, in other words, of the person and work of Christ, and then they explain the significance of the person and work of Christ, in order that we would understand the gospel message.

One of the very interesting things that you find in the book of Acts is that every gospel presentation except for one begins with the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus Christ. And isn't it interesting that that is exactly how the Gospel of Luke begins?

The Gospel of Luke doesn't begin with the birth of Jesus, it begins before the birth of Jesus. And it doesn't just begin with the birth of John the Baptist, it points us back to the Old Testament and to the prophecies and the promises of the Old Testament which are accomplished and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And so the Gospel of Luke begins with the Old Testament. It begins with the Hebrew Bible. It begins with the prophecies that God had made long ago. That's one way that God tells us that He's not just at that point in time beginning to work for His people a salvation, but He has been working for our salvation not only from before the foundation of the world, but throughout the history of His people in the Old Testament. And those things are connected in the Gospel of Luke, and we’ll see that amply as we study Luke 1 and 2.

Well, today we're just going to look at the first six or seven verses. If you look at the first four verses of Luke, it's his introduction. It's his prologue to the book. And then he begins to tell the story of this obscure priest and his wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth. And we're just going to get the first snippet of their story as we study this Gospel today. Let me tell you four things to be on the lookout for in your reading.

First of all, when we get to verse 1, I'd like you to be asking yourself some questions about this. What does verse 1 tell me about God's plan in the story that's unfolding in Luke 1? What does verse 1 tell me about the accomplishment of God's plan? Second, when we get to verse 4, I want you to ask yourself a question: What does this verse tell me about the importance of truth to the Christian faith and life?…What does this verse tell me about the importance of truth to the Christian faith and life? When we get to verse 5 (this one's maybe a little bit harder to see at first, but it really just struck me this week) …when we get to verse 5, I want you to ask yourself a question: Doesn't verse 5 point to an irony in God's providence that we don't just see in Luke, we see it all over the Bible? There's an irony, I think, in verse 5. I’ll draw it to your attention when we get there, but you be on the lookout for it. And then in verses 6 and 7, as the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is unfolding look for this: look for the trials and particularly the great trial in their life and ask the question, “What does the trial of Zechariah and Elizabeth teach me about how I am to respond to God's providence?”

Well, be on the lookout for those things. Let's pray before we read and hear God's word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and so we ask that You would help us to hear it for what it is — the words of God, not the words of men. And it is the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, so make us mindful and trusting in the gospel of Your dear Son as we read it, mark it, and learn it, and inwardly digest it by Your Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word:

“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 times past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

It is one of my dreams for our congregation, one of my prayers for our congregation, that we would become increasingly over time a gospel-saturated and a gospel-centered congregation. That is, a congregation that is saturated by the knowledge of the truth of the gospel and impelled in our life and ministry by the power of the gospel, motivated to live and serve by the gospel, preoccupied with sharing the gospel and living out the gospel. And what better way to learn how to be gospel preoccupied and gospel centered than to study through the Gospels — or to take a Gospel like the Gospel of Luke and let it inform our life and our ministry together? And so I hope over the course of our time together we would become gospel saturated and gospel centered, and gospel preoccupied and gospel proclaiming as a congregation. More and more I believe that if we were, it would profoundly impact our relationships in our families and in the congregation. I think it would profoundly impact how welcoming we are to others who are not like us, how effectively we reach out to our community and bear witness not simply with our lips (but certainly with our lips) and also with our lives as we live and minister amongst the people of Jackson and Hinds County and the surrounding counties. I believe that it would have a profound impact upon us, and so I'm excited about embarking upon this journey of study through the Gospel of Luke. And as we do so this morning there's so much to say here, but I want to draw your attention to four things.

I. The Christian gospel begins with what God has done for us.

The first thing I want to draw your attention to is this: Luke makes it clear in this passage that the story of God's redemption in Jesus Christ begins with a focus on what God is accomplishing among us. You see this in verse 1. Luke says to Theophilus,

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative…” [of what?] “…of the things that have been accomplished among us.”

And when he begins to catalogue in the next two chapters the things that have been accomplished among us, you will see that those things first are accomplished by God himself. It's not a record of what we've accomplished; it's a record of what God has accomplished.

Second, you’ll see that it is a record of what God has prophesied that He would do in the Old Testament coming to pass in the very time of Luke and his friends and their contemporaries. And so Luke is drawing our attention when he says, ‘Theophilus, I want to tell you what's happening and what has happened in our midst and in our time.’ He's not just saying, ‘I want to give you a report on yesterday's news.’ He's not just saying, ‘I want to make a catalogue of some stuff that has happened.’ He's saying, ‘I want to tell you what God is doing in fulfillment to His prophecies and promises in the Old Testament.’ It's so important for us to appreciate that focus. The Gospels begin with a focus on what God has accomplished in accordance with His word. Beforehand He promised and prophesied what was going to happen in the coming of His Son, the Messiah, and now in Luke's own time He has fulfilled and accomplished those promises and prophecies, and the gospel begins there.

Why is that so important? Because even in evangelical churches (and, heaven knows, outside of evangelical churches) so often the content of the ministry of the preached word or of the messages that are being given is not focused on God, His glory, the gospel, or Jesus Christ. It's focused on something else. Very often what goes as a message in Christian churches is the encouragement that God is here to help you reach your full potential. In other words, the message is essentially about you, and God is the best means for you to get what you want.

Now I want you to understand that from a biblical perspective that's entirely upside down. God is not the best means for you to reach your ends, He is the chief end of man and we live for His glory. And so when we say that God is the best means to achieve our ends, we have just turned the story of the Bible upside down. And Luke is putting it right side back up for us by pointing us to what God is doing.

You know, we've said over and over that J.I. Packer says that the secret to a soul-fattening Bible study is to ask first, “What does this passage teach me about my God?” and then only secondarily ask, “Okay, how then does that inform how I am going to live?” The first message is what does this passage teach me about my God, and we see it here in Luke as he draws our attention to what God is accomplishing among us in fulfillment of the Old Testament. It's vital for us to listen to the word of God and ask ourselves, “Is the focus here on God? Is the focus here on His gospel? Is the focus here on His Son, or is the focus on something else?” If we are listening to messages where the focus is on something else other than God, the gospel, His glory, His grace, and His Son, then you can be assured that that message did not emanate from the Scriptures. It came from somewhere else. And Luke is putting things in perspective for us by pointing to God's accomplishments among us. It's all about God. This is His story. This is His plan. This is His purpose being accomplished, and Luke is drawing our attention to that. And what we learn from that is this: the Christian gospel begins with God's accomplishments on our behalf.

II. The Christian faith is founded upon tuth

Now there's a second thing I want you to see as well, and you see it especially in verse 4. Before Luke gets to the “once upon a time”… and he gets to the “once upon a time” in verse 5… ‘Once upon a time there was a king named Herod.’ He gets to that in verse 5, but before he gets there he tells Theophilus, this friend of God who is either someone who is interested in the gospel and has heard about the gospel but who has not yet believed on Jesus Christ, or he is a young Christian, or this book is ultimately focused on an audience of young Christians and those who are being introduced to the gospel…whatever the audience is, Luke is telling you why he's writing the book. ‘Here's why I'm writing the book.’ Verse 4, here's what he says:

“That you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

In other words, Luke believes that it is absolutely imperative that we understand the truth on which Christianity is founded; that we understand the basis of the gospel message in the light and ministry, the person and work of Jesus Christ, because Christianity is an historical religion. It claims that God has intersected and intruded into [if we can use that language] human history, and therefore there is truth, there are facts, there are events, there are concrete things that have happened that form the basis of what God is doing in His plan of salvation.

And so Luke's work of this Gospel is not just a story, it's a true story. It contains history. There are events and facts and truths that are essential to the gospel that he's proclaiming, and so he says to Theophilus and to all his readers, ‘I want you to be certain about the basis of the message that you've heard proclaimed to you, and so I'm going to write down — based on eyewitness accounts, based on the proclamation of the apostles themselves — I'm going to write down things that you could confirm to this day,’ he says to Theophilus, ‘to people who were eyewitnesses to these things.’ In other words, he is saying that the Christian faith is founded on truth.

Notice the language that he uses, by the way, in verse 2: “Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…” [so they did what? They saw these events.] “…and ministers of the word have delivered them to us….” They saw these events and then they did what? They spoke about them. They proclaimed, they preached about them. Then Luke says, “It seemed good to me to write an orderly account of them.” So notice: they saw; they spoke; and, he wrote.

Now what's that all about? It is about Luke saying, ‘I am telling you about something that people alive now, Theophilus, saw with their own eyes, proclaimed with their mouth; and so that it might be more certain for you and preserved for the generations to come, I am going to write it down. Because the truth matters.’

That is something that our generation has a really hard time grasping. Our generation doesn't like truth. At least it claims not to like truth. What it means by that is that it doesn't like your truth. It would like to substitute another truth, and in order to do that in a cordial sort of way, it just declares that there is no truth. And then it proceeds to substitute its own truth for your truth. And so all around us we see a claim that truth is not essential to Christianity.

I was told just this past week about an interview with Will Smith. Yes, the actor, Will Smith. And in this interview, the interviewer said, ‘Now, Will, it is rumored that you are involved in or enamored with Scientology’ (a very famous California cult that celebrities are so often involved in)…and the interviewer said, ‘It's rumored that you’re involved in or enamored with Scientology. But, Will, you grew up a Baptist. How do you reconcile those things?’ And he went on to say, ‘Well, you know, I grew up in a neighborhood where there were Muslims and Christians, and Jews and Hindus, and atheists and others. And I believe that any way someone approaches God, if it works for them, that's wonderful. I think that everyone has truth. We all call the same God by different names. And, anyway, my grandmother taught me ultimately it was about being a good person, doing good things.’1

Now, it was a fascinating answer. Rarely, rarely in an interview have I seen so much confusion packed into so few words…but I don't have time to go into that right now. But here's the point: Had Will Smith said to Luke, ‘Look, I don't want to get all hung up in the truths and the doctrines and the claims about who Jesus is and what He is, I just want to be a good person and do good things,’ Luke would have said, ‘Fine. You’re not a Christian. Christians believe this. It is essential to Christians. Christians are not just people interested in doing good things.’

We are interested in doing good things, but when people come along to you and they say, “You know, it doesn't matter what you believe; what matters is doing good things,” let me tell you what they’re always after.

One is they are after redefining what it means to do good things, because your good things and their good things I promise you do not match up!

And secondly, even though they deny it, they’re actually about redefining what you think is truth. Even though they say truth doesn't matter and it's about doing good things, they are after both changing your views and your practice of what good things are.

And they’re after changing your truth, because even people who claim there is no truth believe in truth. Everybody has their non-negotiables, and the minute they tell you they don't have them, they’ll slide them under the door.

And Luke is saying you need to understand that the Christian faith is founded upon truth. Christians believe these things, and these things are essential to the doing that Christians do. Christians do the things we do because we believe the things that we believe, because the things that we believe are true! And so there is a connection between truth and faith and practice, and they flow. And if you break the chain between any of those, the Christian faith falls apart.

So Luke is telling us that the Christian faith is founded upon truth, and it's important for us to know these things and to believe these things and to understand that these things are based on truth — events that really happened. This is not a fairy tale.

III. The Christian story reveals an irony.

Third, did you see the intriguing irony in verse 5? Just read it again: “In the days of Herod, the king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah.” Now, if you had been reading the weekly edition of “The Jerusalem Post” in those days, no doubt you would never have read a front-page article about Zechariah (he was just a priest), although you probably would have read a lot about Herod. I will forebear comparing him to a recent President of the United States who was in the newspaper almost every day, and not always for the best reasons. Herod was just like that. You would have probably found him on the front pages of the paper a lot; and therefore, people, because of his position and because of his notoriety, would have assumed that Herod was far more important that Zechariah. Not in God's economy.

Herod was a pawn. He was the king, but he was a pawn in the plan of God. This unknown priest, Zechariah, he was the chosen instrument that God was going to work through. You understand that this is always the way it is, my friends. The world looks at faithful believers, obscure believers, marginal believers, and says that's not important. They’re not important. The really important things that are going on in the world are going on in Washington and London, and Moscow…Beijing. Nope. They’re going on in the lives of yielded believers whom the Lord has chosen to be His instruments for the propagation of the gospel and for the building of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The world may think that they are obscure and unimportant. Fine. But in God's economy the kings are pawns, and His people are His instruments.

My friends, there is nothing that we do for Christ or for the gospel that is wasted in God's economy, and it doesn't matter whether the world gives us acclaim for that or not. We’re not looking for the world's applause or acclaim. But I promise you this: nothing that you ever do…nothing that you ever do for Christ or for His gospel or for His kingdom will be wasted.

It's an intriguing irony, isn't it? Nobody would have paid attention to little Zechariah, but he was the one that God was planning to use, and Herod was a pawn.

IV. The Christian life entails both faithfulness and trials.

One last thing. Not only do we see that the Christian gospel begins with God's accomplishment; that the Christian faith is founded upon truth; that the Christian story reveals this intriguing irony in God's providence where He uses the weak to confound the strong and the obscure to confound the famous, and to advance His purposes; but, we see that the Christian live entails both faithfulness and trials.

Don't you love the way that Zechariah and Elizabeth are described in verse 6? They were righteous before God. They walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Luke is telling his Jewish readers, ‘Look, these were godly saints! They loved the Law of Moses. They lived according to their Hebrew Bibles. They walked with integrity. These were salt of the earth believers,’ he's saying to his Jewish readers. But…verse 7…they had no child.

It's resounding, isn't it? They loved the Lord. They walked in His ways. They served His kingdom. They gave their all from the inside out for Him, and they were going through the most grievous of trials. It is difficult for us today to even begin to understand the trial of childlessness for a Hebrew believer in the days of Christ or before Him. It is hard for us to understand. As grievous as that trial is — and it is a generational trial which we know all too well and there may well be people in this room right now that are wrestling with that particular trial — it's still hard for us to get our heads into how difficult a trial that was for a Hebrew.

And isn't it interesting that over and over in the Bible, starting back with Abraham, there is this particular trial? Abraham longs for a son, and when God says to Abraham, “I'm your shield and your reward; I'm your inheritance,” Abram's response is, ‘Lord, what does it matter, if I don't have a son to give it to?’ Or Hannah's importunate prayers when she begs for a child, in I Samuel; or Manoah and his wife praying that God would give them a son.

Over and over in the Bible, remarkable stories of God's purposes in the overall plan of redemption begin with a childless couple, and often the couple is advanced in years.

Why? To teach us two things:

that God's power is perfected in weakness and God's glory is displayed in our weakness; and, on the other hand,

to teach us that though God had one Son without sin, He has no sons without trials.

It teaches us that God's power is perfected in weakness. What better way to show that this is a story that God Himself is going to accomplish than to point to two human beings who are not only not even going to have another generation to pass their line on to? How dependent is this plan upon the intervention of the Lord? It's that dependent. It's utterly dependent upon Him. Our weakness will not accomplish this; His strength will. God's power is perfected in weakness. That's what we learn.

But we also learn, my friends, that wonderful, God-fearing, Bible-believing, gospel-treasuring, Christ-exalting Christians can endure great and grievous trials. Have you ever heard a preacher say if you just believed you wouldn't have trials? If you just have enough faith, you won't suffer? It's a lie, my friends, it's a lie. The greatest and godliest saints in the Scripture had lives that were filled with trials, and whether your trial today is barrenness — you long, you ache for a child of your own, and the Lord has not seen fit to bless you with your own child — or whether you've suffered a tremendous bereavement from which your heart cannot even catch your breath…or if you’re undergoing whatever trial it is, I want to say this to you. Luke is saying that the Christian life entails both faithfulness and trial. It was an old Puritan who said that God had one Son without sin, but no sons without sorrow. And even if God has called you to trial, I want to tell you this: there is no place like trial for God to prove himself to you that His power is perfected in your weakness.

And that is one of the great stories. We’re going to see it unfold in the life of this couple. We’re going to see that story unfold. Now in their case, they’re going to be given a son. But that's not how God always unfolds it. You remember the Apostle Paul prayed to the Lord three times ‘take away this thorn in the flesh,’ and God's word to Paul was not, ‘Good, Paul. You've suffered long enough. I'm going to take away that thorn in the flesh.’ His word to him was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you.” That may be God's word to you this morning. His word to you may not be a relief from your circumstances by His intervention — although that may be His answer. His answer to you may be relief in your circumstances by His all-sufficient grace, because God does not comfort us by simply changing our circumstances. He comforts us by giving us His Son, who takes upon himself our trials and our deserving of judgment and the burden of our sins, so that one day He will take us to a place where there is no longer any trial or sorrow or suffering. And God begins to teach us that truth in this great book. We have much to learn, my friends. May the Holy Spirit open our eyes and hearts to it.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, comfort us with the truth of Your word this day, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

1. Will Smith. Newsweek November 28, 2008.

A Guide to the Morning Service

We begin our sermon series this morning on the Gospel of Luke. This
gospel begins with promises and problems. Sometimes it is almost like God
is showing off. Not in the sinful way that we might do it to draw attention
to ourselves, but it does seem like God shows off from time to time to get
our attention. After all, God promised countless descendents to Abraham
and his barren wife Sarah when they were in their nineties. Why did He not
do this when they were in their twenties? In Egypt, God hardens the heart
of Pharaoh that He might multiply His signs and wonders in the land.
Wouldn't it have been easier to make Pharaoh let them go as soon as Moses
asked? Or, why does God have to take most of Gideon's army away from
him before giving them victory over the Midianites? Why did Hannah have
to be barren when the promise of Samuel came? Why did God choose a
shepherd boy named David to become the King of Israel? And here, in the
first chapter of Luke's Gospel the barren Elizabeth will become pregnant
with John the Baptist, and her virgin cousin, Mary, will bear the Lord Jesus
Christ. Does God just like showing off? It seems that God is trying to teach
us something through all of this: With God, promises are greater than problems.
May our hearts be tuned to respond in worship and adoration as we
see God glorify His Name in the face of what seems to be insurmountable
problems standing in the way of the promises of God.

Old Testament Reading
Calvin said in The Institutes that our hearts are perpetual factories of idols.
For Luther, the issue of the Reformation was justification, but for Calvin, the
most prominent issue was worship.
Idolatry is something that plagues us all. Sure we probably do not worship
little wooden gods that we have fashioned and worship them, but we
all are tempted to have inappropriate trust and comfort in the stuff of this
world. It is easier to look at a nice bank account or find comfort for the
future in a well-planned 401K than it is to look by faith to the Living God.
It is not that bank accounts or 401Ks are inherently wrong; it is only when
we look to those things to find our comfort and security and joy, rather than
looking into God's Word to find our true hope and comfort.
One of the prominent issues in this oracle concerning Damascus is idolatry.
Verses 7-8 say, “In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes
will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work
of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either
the Asherim or the altars of incense.” God is dealing with the heart of man
by causing them to turn their eyes from the idols entangling their hearts that
they might look to the Living God.

The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Another of Charles Wesley's masterpieces of hymnody (the second and
third stanzas are modern, but worthy accompaniment to Wesley's two stanzas).
It ponders the richness of revelation found in the prophecies of the Old
Testament, and plunges the depths of the reality of the second member of
the Triune God becoming man. “Born Thy people to deliver, born a child and
yet a king, born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring.”
We sing it this morning in response to the reading and preaching of God's
holy word. Oh, by the way, you may associate this tune with another in our
hymnal–”Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners!”

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates! (Psalm 24)
This excellent new covenant rendition of Psalm 24 emphasizes the coming
of the Lord, a theme we find in the very opening chapters of the Bible.
Churches that follow the ecclesiastical calendar call this season “Advent,” in
celebration not only of Christ's first coming but also in anticipation of His
second coming. The church's longing for the second coming of Christ (as
well as our thankfulness for His first coming) can be fully expressed in the
singing of this psalm.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People
We will close our morning worship with this carol. The text was composed
by the German philosopher/lecturer, Johannes Gottfried Olearius in the
mid-seventeenth century.