Previously…

Christians have their own Bible-based in-jokes. One of the sillier ones is this:

Q: Where did Theophilus get his name?
A: Because when he was born, his mother took one look at him and said, “That’s the awfulest looking baby I ever saw.”

(You’re not supposed to ask how his mother knew English.)

It’s fair to say that if not for the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, no one would remember poor Theophilus. But as the one who probably commissioned Luke to write, his name is preserved in the preface of each book.

At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, for example, we read this:

Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received. (Luke 1:1-4, CEB)

Luke was aware of other attempts to tell the story of Jesus; Mark’s was the best known, and Luke borrowed extensively from it. Luke’s own investigations probably included following up personally with eyewitnesses, in order to write a historically reliable account for Theophilus, who may have had important questions about what he had learned — like why the gospel of the Jewish Messiah went to the Gentiles. As I’ve suggested in the previous post, that surprising news was already anticipated early in Part 1 of Luke’s story, in the so-called Song of Simeon (cf. Luke 2:32), and fleshed out more fully in Acts.

Then, at the beginning of the book of Acts, we read:

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. (Acts 1:1-3)

The “first scroll” is Luke’s gospel; Acts is the second. The story in Part 2 picks up where it left off in Part 1, for the gospel ends with the ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:50-53), and Luke will retell the story in more detail shortly (Acts 1:9-11). The ending of Luke’s gospel also describes some of what Jesus taught his disciples, now “apostles” as they were being sent forth. It also describes one of the “convincing proofs” that he was really alive: he proved he wasn’t a ghost by eating a piece of fish (Luke 24:38-42).

Hopefully, Jesus had a few more convincing proofs up his sleeve. Otherwise, given the number of appearances he made over the forty days before being taken up to heaven (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3-9), he must have eaten a lot of fish.

The gospel, of course, does not literally capture “everything Jesus did and taught” — as John suggests at the end of his gospel account, that would be impossible (John 21:25). But that’s not Luke’s point. The statement suggests instead that Luke has taken care not to leave out anything of importance; one who reads his gospel will get a full and fair account of what God was doing through Jesus’ words and deeds.

And it may suggest something else as well. A more literal translation of Luke’s words would be “everything Jesus began to do and teach.” That may mean nothing more than the way it’s translated above. But it may also mean that Luke views the story of Jesus as unfinished. After all, at the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples to bear witness by preaching the good news of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-48). All they have to do is wait in Jerusalem until the heavenly power they need comes upon them (vs. 49).

That part of the story is just around the corner.

The preface to Acts reminds me of the teasers at the beginning of each episode of a television series with a continuing story: Previously, on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD… We’re given snippets of the last episode, to set us up for the next: Previously, on Luke-Acts

And what we’ll see is the Spirit-filled continuation of all that Jesus began to do and teach.

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