Now the narrative begins. And it begins in an astounding way: the appearance of an angel to a priest. This was not uncommon in the Old Testament, but it hadn’t occurred in centuries. To its audience, this links the Gospel to the Old Testament, but also announces that something amazing is at hand: God, who seemed so distant for so long, is once again working in our world.
I find that most translations fail to capture the magnificence of this event. Here’s my translation:
Let us begin the narrative with a priest in the time of Herod, King of Judea. This priest’s name was Zacharia, and he was of the priestly division of Abia. His wife’s name was Elizabeth, and she was a descendent of Aaron. They were also both righteous in the eyes of God, living according to every commandment and ordinance of the Lord, and above reproach. But they were childless because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both advanced in age.
But now something happened as he fulfilled the priestly duties in the holiest part of the temple. According to the tradition of his order he had been given his turn by lot, and he entered into the sanctuary to burn incense. All the people were praying outside at the time set for the lighting of the incense. But then he perceived that an angel, a messenger from God, had come to stand by him on the right side of the sacred altar. And upon seeing this, Zacharias became agitated, and terror overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall give birth to a son, and you shall name him John. And gladness and great joy will come to you, and because of his birth many will rejoice. For he will be great in the eyes of the Lord, and wine and strong drink he will neither drink nor desire. And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. And he will bring a great many of the children of Israel back toward the Lord their God. And he will go before Him with the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the elders to those they are responsible for, and to transform the rebellious to righteousness, to prepare for the Lord a people made ready.”
Already, this Gospel is pointing toward structural change, a theme Luke emphasizes often. John will “turn the hearts of the elders” to the people, rather than to their own wealth and power. Luke echoes the calling of the prophets, to call the people back to God and “transform the rebellious to righteousness,” and to prepare the way of the Lord.
For a people who have been subjects of one empire or another for most of half a millennium, whose brief period of freedom ended just a few decades before with the arrival of the Romans, and who equated God’ Kingdom with the Kingdom of Israel, it seemed that God had been terribly silent for a very long time. But here, beginning with one righteous priest, God initiates a new relationship. We don’t see yet the fullness of that relationship, but even in this beginning, Luke points both backward to the prophets and forward to a new beginning.
Of course, this righteous priest doesn’t respond heroically, but that’s in the next passage.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account… (Luke 1:1 [NIV])
As I said in my previous post, Luke begins by alerting us that he’s going to say something that “many” have so far failed to say. Who are these “many”? We don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses.
Most scholars believe that Luke wrote sometime in the 70s, about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This puts it about the same time as Matthew, after Mark, and before John. Some insist that because Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome and doesn’t mention Paul’s execution in 64, Luke must have completed his work before Paul’s execution. But we should remember that Luke tells us not only what happened, but what it meant. Symbolism is important and, as I said before, Luke does nothing by accident. His major movement tracks the Gospel coming from Galilee to Jerusalem, then to Samaria, and finally to the Gentiles. Paul’s arrival in Rome represents the great victory: the Gospel comes to the seat of Empire itself. This final movement provides the finale for Luke’s narrative of the Gospel. The martyrdom of Paul (and of Peter as well) adds nothing to this movement– and for Luke, the Word eclipses those who carried it. Acts does not tell Paul’s or Peter’s story, it tells God’s. As a writer, Luke need not include all information, only that relevant to the narrative.
So let’s assume that Luke and Acts were indeed written in the 70s. This gives us more context to guess at who the “many” may have been. Paul’s letters were in circulation. The Gospel of Mark had already been written. These two sources are fairly certain.
Many scholars think there existed a written collection of the sayings of Jesus, which they call Q, used by both Matthew and Luke (as well as Thomas, and may have been available to Paul as well), but no copy of it has ever been found. Did Q actually exist? Possibly.
Some argue that Luke had access to Matthew’s gospel. I tend to agree, having found literary evidence that Luke responds to some of Matthew’s positions. I’ll write more on this later, but let me give as example the language Luke uses in his version of the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew emphasizes the sheep on the mountain– the symbolic representation of Zion as the place to which the nations come– using language that echoes Isaiah. This was important symbolism for the Jewish community. But it put Jews at the center of Christianity. Matthew was a Jew writing to a church of Jewish Christians. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles. His version of the parable emphasizes the wilderness and doesn’t mention the mountain at all. We can see a similar change in the Beatitudes, placed by Matthew on a mountain but by Luke on a plain, a level place. For Luke, equal access for the Gentiles is a major theme.
Let’s consider another possibility: The Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Scholars still debate whether John the Apostle or someone else wrote it. In one theory, admittedly not widely held, the “beloved disciple” refers to Lazarus, the one man John’s gospel tells us Jesus loved. Moreover, it would make sense to wonder if Lazarus would ever die (John 21:23), since he already had. Some believe that the name “John” comes from the man who transcribed Lazarus’s words, possibly “John, whose other name was Mark” (Acts 15:37). Considering this in depth would take more time and space than this post allows. However, this eyewitness probably had already begun teaching, and Luke may have had access to those teachings as well. We do see some interesting common word use between Luke and John.
In summary, we really don’t know what sources Luke had. Certainly Paul and Mark had been written. Possibly he also read Matthew, Thomas, and an early version of John. And the mysterious document called Q remains a possibility.
We can say one thing with certainty: the Greek word for “many,” πολλοὶ, emphasizes the number being considered. It can be translated “multitudinous.” Luke responds to more than just one or two accounts. And it shouldn’t surprise us, even before Christianity became widespread, that the momentous events of the life of Jesus created a great deal of talk and written consideration.
Luke tells us that he plans to tell the story in a way it hasn’t been told before. And that’s exactly what he does.
Since I first began reading the Bible I’ve been fascinated with the Gospel of Luke. Not only do Luke and its sequel Acts comprise almost 2/3 of the New Testament, but Luke is the only non-Jewish author. He was a Gentile. Given that I, too, am a Gentile, I find his perspective– and his inclusivity– particularly relevant to my own experience.
As time went on, I began to realize the magnitude of Luke’s claims: that the Holy Spirit, formerly reserved for a few chosen servants of God, became available to all at Pentecost. That Jesus conquered sin through His resurrection. And that the spreading of the Gospel– in word and deed– continues the victory.
At Seminary I studied Greek. Admittedly I took the lite version, not the scholarly version. But as a wordsmith myself, and someone who has lived in multiple cultures, I began to realize how difficult it is for a literal translation to convey the depth of meaning of the original.
Let me give an analogy. Not long ago, one of the pastors at our church preached to a mixed group of English and French speakers. Another pastor translated the sermon into French. The preacher referred to “a home run,” and the translator dutifully translated the expression literally. But the French listeners, who did not come from a culture that played baseball, had no idea what the expression meant. The meaning was lost.
So it is with Luke’s Greek. The very first phrase is translated in the NRSV as “Since many have undertalen to set down…” But this misses the underlying meaning of Luke’s words. The Greek word ἐπεχείρησαν, translated by NRSV as “undertaken,” literally means “to put the hand upon,” as in “To put the hand to the plow.” Luke isn’t just saying that his is not the first attempt. He’s stating, quite emphatically I think, that the previous authors didn’t finish the job. Luke is about to tell us something new, something amazing, and something the others have, in his opinion, missed.
This, of course, stirs the debate about whether all the biblical authors are saying the same thing. My answer is: Of course they aren’t! Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience. Luke wrote to Gentiles. John (the Gospel writer) wrote from a more mystical perspective and uses some of the best Greek in the Bible. John (the writer of the Letters of John) was a local preacher, not a theologian. He addressed matters of immediate concern, much like Paul (if in a less educated style). And John (the Revelator) was clearly a native Aramaic speaker– his Greek grammar is tortured, much like my grammar when I try to speak other languages I’m not fluent in. And his purpose was to relay prophecy– an entirely different art.
Luke is clearly a well-educated man, and an excellent writer of narrative. He says nothing that doesn’t contribute to the movement of the story he’s telling (and I don’t mean to imply in any way that it is fiction). He uses no word by accident.
That’s why looking at Luke’s Greek is so important. In a series of posts, I will do exactly that.
As I said, I’m no Greek scholar. But I am a wordsmith, and I know how to use the tools. I understand denotation (what a word literally means) and connotation (the underlying meanings understood by native speakers). And I accept that Luke, as he lays out his narrative, does nothing by accident. What he says in the beginning supports what follows.
So I “put my hand” to an attempt, as many others have before me. Perhaps true scholars will cringe. Or perhaps the Spirit moves us to see something the literal translation misses.
If my work causes you to think, then I’ve done my job. Because I accept it as a given that the Word of God cannot be held in ink on a page. God is infinite. We are not. And as powerful as the written word is, like us it is incapable of encompassing God.
As we hear predictions of the End Times, and as people compare the President to Jesus (or certain apocalyptic characters from Daniel 7), it’s important to examine how we read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. These works are not easy to read. They are heavily symbolic, confusing, and easy to misconstrue. For example, over least a thousand years, people of each generation have tried to apply the events of Revelation to their own time. So far, Christ has not returned.
The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.
Yet, while Paul debunks some of the flaws in our reading of Revelation in particular and apocalypses in general, his interpretation still has some shortcomings. There are particular themes and methods in apocalyptic writings which we easily miss, and this leads to flawed interpretations.
As human creatures, we experience a linear existence. We thus expect the Bible to provide a linear narrative. This experience of time was called by the Greeks chronos time, or sequential time.
But God isn’t linear. God is all, including past, present, and future. Early Christians described God’s time as kairos time–experienced by us as the moment when God breaks into chronos time. The apocalyptic writers understood this concept well. We can see it clearly in Revelation’s references to the fall of Babylon:
“God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19b). Here, Babylon seems to have fallen already.
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2). Here again, Babylon appears to have fallen. The Greek uses the aorist tense, which indicates a past action or an element of a continuing action.
“Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). This appears to put the fall in the present tense, even though previous passages suggest it has already happened.
“And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” (Rev 18:9, 11). The Greek uses the future tense in the first passage, and the present tense in the second. Here, the lament over Babylon is both future and present.
“Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more…‘” (Rev 18:21). Here again, the Greek (like the English) uses the future tense.
In this narrative, then, the verb tenses to the opposite of what might be expected: Rather than being seen as future, then present, and finally past, the events begin as being described in the past, then move to the present, and finally the future. In a linear sense, the story is moving backward. But the writer is not envisioning a linear sense of time. This is God’s time, kairos time.
Related to the apocalyptic sense of time is the apocalyptic sense of history. In biblical writing, one can trust God in the future because of what God has done in the past. The Exodus is, of course, the pivotal narrative: the God who saved Israel from Egypt will save Israel again. Nearly every Old Testament book references the Exodus as proof of God’s love. We can see this also in the psalms: Even the plaintive Psalm 13, “How long, oh Lord?” ends with the recollection of God’s favor in the past as assurance for the future. “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps 13:6).
Apocalyptic writings take this one step further. Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon during the Exile, but its prophecies are not about Babylon. They are about the Seleucids, several centuries later. The message is clear: as God destroyed the historical Babylon, so God will destroy the oppressive Seleucid regime.
Likewise, Rome was referred to as Babylon because, despite Rome’s apparent power and its destruction of Jerusalem (like Babylon before it), God had destroyed Babylon, and thus God will destroy Rome. We can see, as Robert G. Hall writes, that the apocalyptic author “is clearly interested in the future, and in how the determined plan of God touches his present…” But more importantly, John J. Collins notes, “The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of historical events, but on recurring patterns.” What has happened before will happen again.
This suggests a cyclical rather than linear view of history. And it helps explain the verb tense confusion in the Babylon narrative. Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall– because, so long as history endures, there will always be a Babylon, and God will always intervene.
As we read Revelation, Daniel, or the apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, we should keep these characteristics in mind. Apocalyptic writers do not see God’s time as linear. They see history as cyclical. Yes, there is an end to history toward which God’s plan moves. But their concern is not the imminence of that plan’s fulfillment, but its meaning for us today.
As we read Revelation, we ought not to interpret the events of our time as portents of an imminent Second Coming, nor of the New Jerusalem appearing in our lifetime. Rather, we might interpret events and divine interventions consistent with God’s character and what God has already done in human history.
Above all, the message of the apocalypse is that what appears to us as chaos does actually have order to it– and it is an order instituted by God. Yes, we should be concerned when our actions (and those of our nation) are destructive and oppressive. This is what “Babylon” and “the nations” were judged for. Yes, we may expect divine intervention. It may even be the end of the world as we know it– just as the fall of Rome was the end of the world as many knew it. But the end of time is probably not yet here. As Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).
Babylon may fall, but we still must plan for the future.
 Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 43.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2016), 62-64.
It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.
Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” 
I remember the first publicized
school shooting, back in 1979.  Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire
on the Cleveland Elementary
School in San Diego,
CA. She came from a broken home,
lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had
experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child.  When
asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”  That
response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown
Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.
My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.
Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.
My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.
To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.
By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?
Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?
Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?
Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population.  We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country.  We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco). Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.
Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.
Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.
Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom.  What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. 
Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?
In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.
On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?
 John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or:
the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our
Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/,
accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this
statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African
society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon
Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North
America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,”
in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance,
Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN:
Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus,
Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.
 Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American
Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives
that do not conform to its professed worldview.