The Apostles Creed
Our celebrity-obsessed culture struggles with understanding what it means to actually know someone. People seem to fall in love with, give their allegiance to, or utterly hate someone they’ve never met, simply because they’ve seen them in movies or on TV. Their agent and their publicist work hard to craft a certain public image for them, and there are many in the public that connect far too deeply with that image. They follow their every post, change their thinking to match, defend them at every turn, even cry at their funerals – but they don’t actually know that person – they only know the well-crafted public image.
As I’ve said before, getting to know someone takes time, effort, and risk. With families, friendships, marriages, or the people we work with, there always seems to be a little more that we can know about the people – and always room for surprises. You’ve probably experienced this. You think you know someone, have known them for years, and then they do something that completely surprises you. Your child, who used to need you for everything seems to suddenly grow up and now you need to actually schedule time with them because they have so many independent things going on. Your extroverted friend, who was always out, always staying up late, couldn’t care less about responsibilities somehow morphs into a mature adult. The person who you thought was rock solid in their faith and morals suddenly blows up their entire life when something terrible is exposed in them. Or the person, who you had pegged as a total screw-up, does something to completely change your view of them and all their idiosyncrasies are suddenly seen in a new light, and you are suddenly impressed by them.
The Apostles Creed
Last week I told you that we are entering a new section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is concerned with introducing us to the person, character, and attributes of God. It is framed by a study of the Apostles Creed. If you want to know more about that, visit my website and you’ll see the introductory sermons I preached on it. But to frame our discussion, and remind us of what it says, I want to read the Apostles Creed and then get into question 24 of the catechism. But first, a quick review:
If you recall, we got here from a discussion on what it means to have faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg builds its arguments question upon question so I could go all the way back to question one as summary, but let’s just go back to Question 20. It was about how salvation works and who gets to be saved from the consequences of sin. It said, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ Just as they perished through Adam?” And the answer was “No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
So if only those who have true faith in Jesus are saved, then Question 21 follows up with the natural next question: “What is true faith?” and question 22 with “What, then, must a Christian believe?” That makes sense, right? If faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved from our greatest misery, then what does it mean to have faith and what are we supposed to believe?
The answer to question 22 is “All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” Which leads to the next logical question, number 23, “What are these articles?” That led us to question 23 where we read the Apostles Creed, an ancient summary of the most essential parts of what Christians must believe to be saved, which the Catechism explains in detail for the next series of weeks. It says,
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day, he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
Getting to Know Someone
This leads us to question 24 which says, “How are these articles divided?” Before getting into the line-by-line discussion of the points of the Apostles Creed, Ursinus takes a step back and makes us look at the structure of the creed because it’s important. The answer is that the Apostles Creed is divided, “Into three parts: the first is about God the Father and our creation; the second about God the Son and our redemption; the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.” That’s critically important because it gives us an outline for our discussion on who God is.
When you meet someone for the first time there are a standard set of questions that everyone goes through, right? What’s your name? What brings you here? What do you do? They are standard, introductory questions and they give us a framework to work with. If the person says my name is “Bill Smith” or “Mary Johson” we move on to the next question. But if the person introduces themselves as “Thunderclap Nelson” or “Jürgen Schmidt” that immediately tells you something and you’ll probably dig a little further.
Once you know their name the next question tries to build some common ground. People usually start with either the weather – which everyone experiences and leaves very little room for argument – or builds that foundation on their common location: “What brings you here?” The background of that question is: Why are we in the same place? What common things do we have? What is the most basic foundation we can have for building this relationship? If you’re at a wedding and they say, “I’m a friend of the groom” you can start there. If you’re at a party and they say, “I came for the free food” that tells you something else.
The next, most common question, is “What do you do?”, right? Now that I know your name, and by extension maybe guess a little something about your ethnicity, history, and upbringing – and we’ve established a common thread for relationship – we both know the married couple, we’re both cheering for the same team, we both like the Fall weather – we usually ask what the person does for work? Why? Because it is more specific. It tells us how they spend their time, what they are interested in, what their skills are, gives us a peek into the kind of person they are.
If they say, “I’m a student” that tells you something. If they say, “I’m between jobs right now”, that tells you something else. If they say, “I’m a doctor”, that makes them see you in a certain light. If they say, “I work at a gas station, but I sell aromatherapy candles and dreamcatchers at local craft shows” that adds to the picture.
It’s the same thing when we look at the Heidelberg, the Apostles Creed, and the picture that God gives us of Himself in scripture. In the Bible He’s answering the same sorts of questions: This is my name. These are my nicknames. This is what I’m interested in. This is the work I do. These are my likes and dislikes. In the Bible God gives us the foundation upon which we can get to know and build our relationship with Him. And the Apostles Creed is a summary of what the Bible says. Who is God, what’s He like, what does He do? And it’s broken into three categories? Why? Because God presents Himself as a Triune being.
LD8b: The Trinity
That’s why question 25 is,
“Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”
The answer to which is
“Because God has so revealed himself in his Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.”
Why do Christians talk about the Trinity? Why do we say that the One, True God is three distinct persons? Because that’s what God has shown us in The Bible.
If you remember, I referenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” last week. He had a famous saying that is often repeated: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” That simply means that if you keep looking at the evidence and deducing what it means and what it can’t mean, then whatever you are left with must be what happened.
We see Trinitarian views of God all over scripture. In Genesis 1 we see God creating the world, but the Spirit of God as well, hovering over that which existed before creation (1:2). At Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew 3(:16-17) we see Jesus get into the water, the heavens open up, the Father Speak, and the Spirit of God descend like a dove.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus prays to God the Father (John 17:1), but also does things that only God can do – He forgives sins (Luke 7:48), accepts worship (Matthew 2:11, 14:33, 28:9-10), commands demons (Matthew 8:28-34), and affects creation with a word by performing miracles like healing diseases and calming the storm(John 9, Mark 4).
The Gospel of John takes chapter after chapter to share what Jesus was teaching His disciples during the Last Supper, and it is incredibly Trinitarian. In Chapter 14 Jesus says that He is going to the Father to prepare a place and that no one can come there except through Him, but when Philip says, “Show us the Father”, Jesus replies
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (vs 9)
As His disciples grow more concerned about Jesus’ forthcoming death and ascension, Jesus comforts them by saying that when He leaves He will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit to be with them (John 15:26). Then He says something surprising,
“But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6–7)
Jesus says that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit than Him standing right in front of us! But what does Jesus say at the end of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, after He had died, rose again, and was about to ascend into Heaven and send the Holy Spirit?
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Are these contradictions? Was Jesus confused? Did the authors of the Bible get it wrong? No. I have a video I want to show you that was just released by The Bible Project and lines up perfectly with what we are learning here – and says it much better than I can.
I know this is a lot to take in – and in truth, the church has been trying to figure this out, and has been arguing about for a very long time – but, the concept of the Trinity is true. To know the one, true God, to speak accurately about Him, to speak Biblically about Him, we must speak of Him as Triune. Why? Because that’s what the Creed says? No. Because that’s how God has introduced Himself to us. It’s how God has told us to relate to Him. And so, to deny the Doctrine of the Trinity is to deny what God has said about Himself, and is therefore wrong. It’s misleading. To invent new ideas about Him is sin and error.
In the same way that it would be wrong to make up stories about you, call you by a different name, or give false testimony about you, it is wrong to do that for God.
To know God as Trinity means that God is a God of relationship, of perfect love, and has been in relationship for Eternity. God is not alone and did not create us because He was lonely. God was always in perfect relationship and always will be. But He desires to share that eternal love with us by letting us get to know Him and be in relationship with Him. That is comforting because that means that God isn’t needy, isn’t fickle, isn’t distant, isn’t unable to understand what it means to love someone – it means God loves you because God is love and always has been.
The Trinity is one attribute of God, but there are more. And these attributes, these truths about God, not only tell us something about Him but something important about how we can relate to Him. And now that we’ve covered the attribute of the Trinity a bit, I want to get into more of those attributes next week.
Please open up to Romans 10:9-17 and let’s read it together, and then I have a short video to show you:
“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Quite a video, wasn’t it? This part of our study of the Heidelberg Catechism triggers me like crazy because it touches a passion of mine – that being the importance of knowing what you believe, why you believe that, and whether or not it’s true.
I know this sounds uncharitable and elitist or whatever, but that video drives me nuts. It’s a bunch of people who claim to be Christians, who say they attend church regularly but have no idea what they’re talking about. The interviewer didn’t ask any complex, theologically tricky questions either. Just simple ones: Will you go to heaven when you die? Can you trust the Bible? Is the church important? Are people basically good?
And they got them all wrong – as most people would in Canada and the US. It scares me, actually keeps me up at night, thinking that there are people here, that sit under my teaching, and would give similar answers to these people. It terrifies me to think that someone could sit in this church for a couple years and walk out each week thinking they are a Christian, but not actually have any confidence about what would happen to them when they die – and thereby has no hope when trials come, nor can give hope to others who they meet along the way.
That’s why I’ve written books, keep up a blog, have Overtime, teach classes, and make myself available during the week – so that everyone here can be, hopefully, crystal clear in what they believe, why they believe it, and whether or not it’s true.
And I’m not saying I get it right all the time. I wish I was more winsome and interesting and accurate so that you would hear what I’m saying with more clarity and comprehension. I know there are days that I don’t explain things properly or the sermon gets dry. I watch as the teens chat among themselves or draw or pass notes. I see the adults yawn and doze and stare blankly at me regardless of what I say. I see the same four people come to Overtime. I know the church is shrinking, the tithing is less, the ministries are drying up, and that I take some blame for that. And because of that, I feel more and more pressure to be more entertaining, more interesting, and constant wonder what I’m doing wrong that keeps people from being excited by Jesus and the Word of God.
This isn’t a chastisement, I promise. I’m not criticising you. If anything, I’m criticizing myself. As I said, it scares me to think that I could be pastor of a church for more than half a decade and that the people under my teaching would be in the same place – in knowledge, discipline, commitment, curiosity, service, financially, in repentance – as they were when I got here.
You want to know my greatest nightmare? What scares me the most? That if I were to die today and stand before God that He would say: “I know you tried, Al, but you failed your church. Instead of inspiring them towards love and good works, instead of discipling them to become greater followers of my Son, you bored them to death, lulled them to sleep, made Me look bad, and made the study of the scriptures feel mind-numbingly dreary. Your church grew no closer to me in your years than when you arrived. They don’t pray more, read more, know more, serve more, or repent more than they ever have. Your ministry was a waste of time.”
Now, I don’t think that’s true, but it scares me that I might be doing damage to the gospel. And it’s led me, many times, usually on Sunday evenings and Monday afternoons, to the brink of resigning and quitting the pastorate altogether. And I don’t say this so you’ll console me or pat me on the back. I feel your encouragement all the time. I simply say this because I want you to know that I am absolutely committed to helping you know what you ought to believe, why you ought to believe it, and whether or not it’s true. You keep me up at night! Because I believe that what we’re learning here at church are the most important things in the world. And if there is any way I can help you learn – any criticism you can give me or way I can improve so you can know God better – please let me know.
Faith that Leads to Salvation
Now, to our study: You can tell from the first word of our passage in Romans 10 that we’re jumping into the middle of an argument here. It starts with the word “because”, and there’s a whole lot going on behind that “because”, but we covered a lot of it over the past weeks, so I don’t want to get sidetracked by restating it all.
Hopefully you’ve been following along, but briefly, if you recall, as we’ve been going through the Heidelberg Catechism, we’ve been talking about man’s biggest problem (that being sin and death) and how Jesus the Mediator is the only possible hope for the salvation of humanity. [I just summarized four and a half hours of sermons.]
Last week we got into Day 7 of the study of the catechism which, in question 20, asks the question:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
, or in other words, “Ok, how does salvation work, then?” The answer was,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
And the next question, number 21, which we covered at the end of last week was
“What is true faith?”
If the only people who are saved are the ones who have “true faith”, then what is that? And the answer given was,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
[Just a side note to remind you of all the scriptural footnotes there that I’m not getting into but am hoping you are looking up on your own.]
So, what is “true faith”? Let me pluck out a few words there. “True faith” is “sure knowledge” and “firm confidence” in the Word of God and the Work of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews 11:1 says,
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Now, I ask you, the people in that video, did they have “sure knowledge”, “firm confidence”, “assurance”, and “conviction” in the promises of God? Not at all, right? They were like, “Gee, I hope so, maybe.”
So, follow my argument here. If the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8 that we are saved “by grace, through faith”, and in Romans 5:1 that we are “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1) in Jesus – and the definition of “faith” means having “assurance” and “conviction” in God’s promises as stated in the Bible, then are those people saved?
I can’t say I know the state of their hearts, because no man can, but Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15–16,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Based on what they have said, I can say with fair confidence that they are probably not saved. Why? Because they don’t have confidence in the gospel.
That means, that even though they call themselves Christians, that they go to church two or three times a month – that their souls are destined for Hell. These are regular people. These are your friends who you think are Christians, who talk about God and prayer, who maybe come to your small group or sit next to you in church, who take communion with you, but who do not have a saving faith in Jesus because they do not believe the Word of God.
Does that make you sad and scared? Does it frighten you that people you know and love, your friends, family, children, parents, may look like sheep but are actually, what Jesus calls in Matthew 23:27-29, “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean…. on the outside [appearing] to people as righteous but on the inside… full of hypocrisy….” That scares me. I hope it scares you.
That’s why we need to get this right. That’s why we need to know what we’re talking about. That’s why we need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and why it’s true.
What, Then Must a Christian Believe?
And so, it follows in the Heidelberg, that if a Christian must have true faith, then we must ask question 22:
“What, then, must a Christian believe?”
Right? What is a Christian supposed to have faith in? Some would answer “Jesus” or “The Bible”, right? And they’re not wrong, but those are sort of general, right? What are we to believe about Jesus? And of course there are a lot of parts of the Bible that people have differences of opinion on, so which parts are the most critical?
For example, the New Testament, in five different letters, commands us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14; 1 Thess 5:26; 2 Cor 13:12). Is that as important as the commandment in Matthew 6:15 that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”? Or, if someone were to come to you and ask you the question, “You’re a Christian, right? What do Christians believe?” it would be important to have a good answer, right? You can’t just say “I believe in Jesus”, because that’s really not specific enough. Atheists believe Jesus existed. ISIS members believe Jesus was a prophet. Even demons believe Jesus is God. And you can’t just sit them down and say, “Ok, let me read the entire Bible to you, starting in Genesis 1:1”. You need a summary, right?
So it’s important that we ask the question, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” and have a good summary of it. The answer to question 22 is:
“All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.”
So, Christians believe the “gospel”. Where do we find the gospel? In the “articles”. What does that mean? It just means “the parts of anything written down”. Then it says “of our catholic, undoubted, Christian faith…”. The word “catholic” doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic”, but simply means “universal”, held by and binding together all believers.
And what are those articulated, written down, summarized beliefs that all believers hold and have always held? That’s question 23. And the answer given is something very special. It’s something we call “The Apostles’ Creed” and it reads like this:
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; I believe a holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
The Apostles’ Creed
There have been a lot of creeds written over the centuries, and a lot of churches have many different creeds. In essence, as I said, a creed is merely a summary of what Christians believe. And a lot of churches, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, and even older Baptist churches have recited The Apostles’ Creed for a very long time – almost 2000 years. The Apostles’ Creed has been the standard for a long time.
Sure, there are some churches and Christians that say things like “no creed but Christ” or “no creed but the Bible”, but they are misguided. All Christians are confessional. We all have summaries of our beliefs which we can state quickly. To say “no creed but Christ” makes no sense. What they usually mean is that they are rejecting any human attempt to claim that Christians must believe things that God doesn’t explicitly say in His Word. And for sure, that’s important. We are told not to add or subtract from the Bible (Rev 22:18-19). But a well-written creed isn’t mean to add or subtract anything, but simply to summarize. That’s why the counsels and theologians who craft them spend so much time arguing about the exact wording!
What makes the Apostles’ Creed so special? First, I have to say that the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the Apostles’. It’s called that because it encapsulated what the Apostles’ believed. It was a type of “baptismal creed”, or a “catechism for new believers”. At their baptism they would be asked, “What do you believe?” or what is your “Rule of faith?” and they would rattle off a little creedal summary of the faith they held. It was essentially, a way to make sure that the person being baptized was a real Christian and gave them a chance to declare their faith publically.
When we do a baptism in our church today I ask you to give your public testimony but before we ever get that far – and you’ll know this if I baptized you – I sit down with you and ask you questions about what you believe. We talk about sin, Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Why? Because I want to make sure you are a believing Christian before I baptize you. Pastors have been doing that for a very long time. We want to make sure you know that baptism isn’t some magic ceremony that makes you a Christian, that reciting the creed isn’t some kind of magic incantation that makes God accept you. We want to make sure that your faith is a true faith.
They were doing this sort of testing right from the beginning of Christianity, even in the 1st and second century. You’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed, right? In the third century, when a bunch of heretics and confusion started to enter the church – especially concerning whether Jesus was truly God and man at the same time – Emperor Constantine, in 325AD decided to get all the best and brightest theologians and pastors together to hash out the problem and write a short, clear summary of the most basic beliefs that Christians must have about Jesus as they appear in scripture. That became the Nicene Creed. But that creed wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It was an adaptation, or rather a clarification, of a creed that had existed for a long time – called the Caesarean Rule of Faith. Most churches had their own creed around this time, but they were all pretty similar. In this case, the creed from Caesarea was used.
The Apostles’ Creed, though it’s difficult to date, even predates that. That’s one of the reasons it’s so special. It is considered to be the oldest, official church creed and takes it origins from around 140 AD, only a few decades after the last Apostles’ died.
One church historian says,
“… as the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue [10 Commandments] is the Law of laws, so the Apostles’’ Creed is the Creed of Creeds.”
But it’s not just its age that makes it special. It doesn’t really matter how old it is, how wonderful the words of a Creed are, how pithy it is written, or how many people agree with it. All that really matters is how much it agrees with scripture. And the Apostles’ Creed is special because it is a biblical document. The authors of the creed didn’t want to make anything up, so almost every word of it is a copy/paste from the Bible. That’s why so many theologians, from the early church fathers to John Calvin to modern times, have studied it and used it as a teaching tool for so long.
We are currently on what is called Lord’s Day 7 of the catechism, in question 23, and we are going to stay parked in the Apostles’ Creed until Day 22 and question 58! We are going to spend a long time in this document. The Heidelberg takes apart almost every single word of it, defends it from scripture, and then explains it’s importance to believers. Why? If you remember my summary of the history of the Heidelberg, it was because people’s theology and faith was all over the map – their knowledge was confused, their hope was lost, their unity in the Spirit under attack, the adults and preachers ignorant, the youth falling away from God – and they knew that what these people needed most was a solid framework to build their faith on so they could rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ and find their hope in Him.
The passage we started with in Romans 10 ended, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” How do we build up faith? How do we make sure the people we know and love are saved? How do we build up our own hope during troubled and confusing times? By hearing the truth about the Word of Christ in the Gospel, in the Bible.
That passage says, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Which is great news, but then it says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
People can’t be saved if they don’t believe. And they can’t believe if they don’t hear. And they can’t hear us if we are too afraid to talk because we don’t have confidence in our own faith, right? This is why I implore you to pray, read the word, study, and meet together. Because you are surrounded by people who need to know the hope that is within you – and they’re not going to come talk to me. They’re not going to come to church. And some of them believe lies. You have very words of life within you. I want you to have the confidence to share them – not because you feel guilty, but because you know they are true.
 Know the Creeds and Counsels by Justin S Holcomb pg 26.
Tonight we’ve read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, the man whom the gospel was named after, was Greek Gentile (or non-jewish), who was trained as a doctor. He was a friend to the ailing Apostle Paul and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys to help him with his consistent health issues. Luke was a very intelligent, detail-oriented man, a diligent physician, and a passionate follower of Jesus who was led by God to write an account of the life of Jesus Christ about 40 years after His death and resurrection.
Let me take a minute to read the very first part of the Gospel of Luke because it gives us a good idea of why he wrote what he did. He says,
“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)
So the backstory goes like this: Theophilus was most likely a wealthy, Roman patron who learned some things about Jesus through some preachers and oral traditions but wanted someone to do some research into how accurate the stories were. The name of this small-town, Jewish, carpenter who had walked on water, raised the dead, fed thousands, and who had died on a Roman Cross only to be seen by hundreds of witnesses to have come back to life three days later, must have been quite a fascinating story. And to hear that He claimed to be the Creator of the Universe come in flesh, the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Saviour of the world was worth checking out.
But, like many of us, he probably had his doubts, so he found a trustworthy, non-Jewish, non-apostolic, non-eyewitness, unbiased man, to go and do some research – and Luke fit the description. Maybe Luke was his own doctor, we don’t know. What we do know is that Theophilus trusted Luke to set about going throughout the Jewish and Roman world to gather witnesses and write down what people had seen and heard.
Luke states his mission right up front. He says that even though others had undertaken to write about Jesus (by this time the Gospel of Mark had already been written), His plan was to gather the data he had learned over the years, and record it in an orderly way so that Theopholis, and all those who would read his gospel after, would be able to “have certainty concerning the things [they had] been taught”.
We sometimes assume that people from a long time ago were silly, superstitious and far more gullible than we are today, but that’s simply not true. CS Lewis calls that “chronological snobbery”. They were as intelligent as we are. The first century people knew how extreme Jesus’ claims were and they weren’t about to believe it until they could get some “certainty”.
What would give them that? Well, Luke would talk to the “eyewitnesses”. He says that he had “followed all things closely”, which is also translated, “invested everything from the beginning”.
Now, Luke was no dummy. He didn’t grow up in a Christian or a Jewish home, but a Greek one. The Greeks looked down on Jews as backward and strange. Plus Luke was a doctor, used to making decisions about what to do with a patient based on the evidence of their symptoms. He wasn’t about to give up his heritage and convert to Christianity because of a few fantastical stories.
Also, around this time, the barbaric and insane Emperor Nero had already been in power and had set about destroying Christianity through torture and murder. It was likely that by the time of his writing, Luke had already known of the many who had been killed, and may have even witnessed the brutal death of his good friend Paul.
It was one thing for those who had seen Jesus face to face, had talked to Him, to face martyrdom. But Luke, Theopholis, and the Romans he was writing to, hadn’t seen any of what Jesus had done first hand, and to claim to be a Christian in those days was no light thing. If someone claimed belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on a cross and then rose again to prove He was Saviour of the World, they had better be sure. A lot of people’s lives – including Luke’s – rode on the accuracy of his research.
So, He visited the witnesses and wrote what they saw and heard – and we’re not just talking about the Apostles. It’s very likely he talked to Mary, Jesus’ mother and some of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and heard first-hand how His birth came about. He could have talked to Lazarus, the man Jesus rose from the dead, and of course to many of the hundreds of witnesses around Jerusalem and scattered throughout countries beyond, who had actually seen Jesus’ miracles, witnessed His death, and had then spoken to Him after His resurrection.
Distrust of Certainty
Luke’s mission was to give Theophilus and the rest of his readers, including us, “certainty”. That’s not a popular word these days. People don’t really like “certainty” because it sounds too dogmatic. We live in an age where we distrust almost everything – the news, the weatherman, our facebook feeds, and even the supposed truth-checkers. We’ve seen too much corruption, and our hearts hardened towards anyone who claims to be certain of anything.
We much prefer saying, “no one can know the truth” or “you believe what you believe and I’ll believe what I believe and we’ll both say we’re right.” I actually hear that quite a bit. I heard it at a coffee shop just a couple days ago. One barista was a Christian, the other was an Atheist. As I sat waiting for my friend, who was late to arrive, I listened as they debated Trump vs Hillary, then Trudeau vs Harper, and then moved from politics to religion. As they disagreed, one kept reminding the other that this might not be the best conversation at work, but the other was relentless. At one point I came out for a refill on my coffee and the Christian barista looked at me and said, “If you want to talk about religion, this guy is a pastor!”. I almost got swept into the fray, but ended up being quickly dismissed with “Ugh, church people. He probably doesn’t even believe in evolution.”
Before I could answer, the other barista chimed in with, “Yes, yes, but we can all believe whatever we want to believe, right?” And the atheist responded like a good Canadian, “Well, of course.” And, since it wasn’t really the right time or place, I slunk away back to my table.
I’m not sure what it is about this coffee shop, but many times I’m there I face little interruptions like this. A few weeks ago as I sat across from someone else who looked me right in the eye and said, “You don’t actually believe that the Spirit of God impregnated a virgin, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I actually do.” and received back something like, “Well, there’s your problem…” And about a week ago someone interrupted a conversation I was having and thanked me for talking about the Bible.
No one is really neutral on the subject of Jesus, and there are a lot of people who think Christians are crazy for believing this stuff. I get it. Jesus made some huge claims. That’s why people try to say these events are mythological or symbolic, or stolen from other, ancient cultures. There’s no way that someone could be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, fulfill hundreds of prophecies written over centuries, be stabbed through the heart and pronounced dead, sit in a cold tomb for three days, and then join his friends for lunch and a Bible study soon after! That’s got to be made up!
But that’s kind of the point isn’t it? There is no one like Jesus. Not before or since. That’s why it was so critical for Luke to get it right, because believing this wasn’t just a choice – it was the difference between life and death. Following a myth that causes people to stop hiring you, refuse to sell goods to you, gets you kicked out of your family, and makes you a target of the government, isn’t worth it. The only reason anyone would believe it would be if it’s true.
For Christians, this is the most important truth in the universe, and we stake our lives, our reputations, and our eternities on it. We believe that there is a God, the Father almighty, who created heaven and earth. We believe gave humanity the free will to choose to obey Him or not, and that we chose to go our own way, incurring the penalty of the curse, physical and spiritual death. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written by trustworthy men that were carried along by the Holy Spirit to ensure it would be exactly what God wanted to say, and that it tells us of how God has worked through all of human history to bring about His plan to deliver us from the consequences of sin.
We believe that the Bible was written not only to tell us about God and ourselves, but to tell us what the Saviour would be like. For centuries before Jesus’ birth God told us what to look out for. Jesus fulfilled over 300 historical prophecies. The odds of anyone doing that are astronomical.
Christians believe that the stories the Bible tells about Jesus are historically true because they were confirmed by eyewitnesses, and through diligent scholarship we are sure that the words in today’s Bible are nearly identical to the words written by the original authors.
We believe that Jesus was truly conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under a real man named Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and three days later, really did rise from the dead, making a way for all who would believe in Him to be free from the curse of death and hell.
We believe that the baby we celebrate at Christmas is the judge of all mankind and everyone will stand before Him to make an account of their lives. And that everyone, everywhere will one day bow their knee – so we choose to do it now.
We believe that God alone can forgive our sins, and only does it because of our faith in in Jesus. And that one day, because Jesus proved He could do it first, He will raise us all from the dead to live with Him forever.
Many of us come here tonight not just out of tradition, to sing songs and hear old stories that bring us nostalgic comfort, but because we believe the story of Christmas and are thankful for God sending His Son to be born in such a humble way so we might be saved through Him.
As we sit in these shadows and see the light of the Christ candle, we see an image of the light of the world who has pierced the darkness, and offers to exchange the darkness of our hearts for the light of His life.
I pray with all my heart that you would, like Luke, investigate the claims of Jesus Christ and come to believe in Him too – and that if you do believe it, that you would take time in the next few days to reaffirm your faith and recommit your lives to Him.