Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. – Luke 1:1-4
Luke, the gospel writer, identifies the recipient of both his gospel and his second biblical book, the Acts of the Apostles, as Theophilus. No other gospel is written to an individual, and it is curious that Luke, who makes no other personal mention of his recipient, would dedicate both his books to this unknown man.
So, who was Theophilus and why did Luke address him? The short answer is that we do not know; however, in looking at the possibilities of this person’s identity, we may unlock the interpretive key to the third gospel.
Some have suggested that Theophilus may have been a Roman official of some rank. Luke’s use of the title, “most excellent” is the same title Paul used in referencing Felix, the Roman governor of Judea. Others have proposed that Theophilus might have been a leader in the church or an official in some other capacity. The problem is that there is no other mention of Theophilus in the scriptures or in Roman histories.
There is the possibility that Theophilus may not have been an actual person. The name Theophilus means “friend of God” or “beloved by God” or “one who loves God.” It could be that Luke was writing his gospel to all who self-identified as a “friend of God.” Furthermore, the Jewish worldview in first century Palestine moved outward in concentric circles from Jews at the center to Converts to God-fearers and finally to Gentiles. God-fearers were people who acknowledged the “one true God of Israel” and who followed the law without being part of the covenant community.
Acts 10 records that the Apostle Peter welcomed into the faith a Gentile named Cornelius, who was described as “a God-fearing man” (Acts 10:22). A person who was a God-fearer could also be called Theophilus, a friend of God.
When we see to whom Luke addresses his gospel, it may help us understand why he alone records a variety of accounts of Jesus’ work among the outcasts, the powerless, and the fringe elements in society. In Luke’s gospel we find Jesus’ efforts directed often to the poor and powerless, to women and children, to Samaritans and Gentiles. Perhaps Luke is reminding us that these persons are all “beloved by God” and “friends of God.” It could be that regardless of our status Luke understands each of us to be a Theophilus. If so, then it is to us that he writes this gospel.
Lord God, remind me that you came to seek and to save us all. Amen.
A Bible-study devotional by Gorman Houston