The Gospel of Luke

Reprinted with permission from the July 2017 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine.

20170626_144252.jpgThe Gospel of Luke, like Matthew, Mark, and John, provides a narrative of Jesus that dramatically emphasizes the story and significance of His life and ministry, His rejection and crucifixion, and His resurrection and exaltation. Yet, despite bearing strong similarities with the other inspired accounts, Luke’s approach expands our understanding of Jesus and the working out of God’s plan to bring salvation into the Jewish and Gentile world.

In fact, Luke is the first book of a two-volume set. Luke and Acts are joined at the proverbial hip by their prologues styled in the manner of ancient historical accounts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3). If one is to truly appreciate Luke, one must understand that the ministry of Jesus is but a beginning —a prelude— to the establishment and expansion of the church. Luke is the only Gospel Account that has a sequel (i.e., Acts). Said another way, in relation to Acts, Luke is a prequel. From this broad perspective, then, we can see that Luke purposefully expanded the stories of Jesus’ ministry to include more genuine details, to provide unique emphases, and to show that the ascension was not the end of the redemption story but that it was to be continued by the church.

The Prologue and Purpose

When one pauses to appreciate how each gospel accounts begins, Luke’s prologue to “book one” is set with a series of unique features. In Luke 1:1-4, the inspired text reads in such a way that the reader should see early on that this account is framed along different lines than previous accounts:

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. (ESV)

This one sentence in the Greek outlines very clearly the overarching concern of Luke’s gospel account, and it does so in a formal way consistent with ancient Greek historians and medical writers according to Graham N. Stanton in his classic work, The Gospels and Jesus.[1]

Here, Luke acknowledged the presence of other narratives preexisting his own account (Gk. diégesin). Despite their existence, it appeared to be the right time to provide his own inspired account. Luke told us explicitly that his gospel is in keeping with three aspects of early Christian testimony: (1) these preexisting accounts, (2) earliest eyewitness testimony, and (3) those who served to deliver the Word to the world. To be clear, Matthew, Mark, and John demonstrate to have the same concerns, but regarding emphasis, Luke’s account is the clearest. And this feature is most likely due to the sort of audience he seeks to reach that is, people like Theophilus who are interested in the certainty of the events of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the progress of those who followed Him afterward.

Luke’s Author and Audience

Two more unique feature of Luke is seen in both its author and its recipient, and this speaks to Luke’s heavy emphasis on providing a closely followed and orderly account. Luke, a physician by profession (Col 4:14), is the only known gentile author in Scripture period. That alone is a spectacular fulfillment of the end goal of the gospel to reach the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16; Acts 1:8, 13:46-48). Accordingly, Luke became a participant in the work of the Apostle Paul at some point before entering the province of Macedonia (Acts 16:10). Luke includes himself in many of the journeys of Paul, marking them with the terms “we” and “our” or “us” (Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15, 21:1-18, 27:1-37, 28:1-16).

These “we” sections tell us something very rich about Luke. He is not just an author. Luke was a collaborator and eyewitness of the continuing story of the redemption in the church, who then investigated the origins and narratives regarding Jesus by interacting with eyewitnesses and early teaching of the Word. Luke was a Gentile convert who joined Paul’s missionary fellow workers, and now offered an inspired history of the full gospel story. For this reason, Luke bears many similarities with Matthew and Mark, gospel accounts based upon eyewitness testimony. And, the book of Luke shows that his missionary itinerary screeches to a halt in Jerusalem when Paul is arrested in the Temple and after meeting with James the brother of Jesus (Acts 21:17). It is within reason to point out that Luke had over two years in the Judean region to collect eyewitness accounts while Paul is detained in Caesarea, Philippi, until Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 21:1-26:32). 

Moreover, unlike Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke names the immediate recipient of his two-volume work, Theophilus (Acts 1:1; Luke 1:1). Many theories and speculations abound regarding the nature of the relationship Theophilus had with Christianity in general and Luke in particular. While his name means “lover of God” or “friend of God,” this was not uncommon in the ancient world, nor in the New Testament (cf. Diotrephes, “nourished by Zeus,” 3 John 9). So, it is not as reasonable as one might think to suggest it is a “code name” for a believer.

What helps our understanding of Theophilus’s connection to Luke is the way he was honored with the term “most excellent” (Gk. kratiste). The word is used four times in the New Testament and all by Luke (Luke 1:3; Acts 23:26, 24:2, 26:25). In Acts, it used when addressing the governors Felix and Festus respectively. In Luke 1:3, there is not enough evidence to suggest such a political status, but it points to, at minimum, the upper-class status of Theophilus and his social circle. This would not be the first time Christianity intersected this social sphere (Romans 16:1-2; Acts 13:1; Philippians 4:22). Thus, Luke’s audience is probably of the intellectual kind, and this fits with his stated purpose and the “better” Greek he used.

It is not surprising then, given Luke’s research and experience, his relationship to Theophilus, and his social circles, that Luke would “write an orderly account for you… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Luke promises that he is framing his account with an attention to detail —that is, with a strong historical emphasis.

Luke’s Unique Framework

Not a lot of disagreement exists concerning the general outline of Luke. The narrative is relatively straightforward. The following outline of Luke not only provides a survey of the book, but also points out the unique features of this gospel. The Gospel of Luke cannot be understood a part from an emphasis upon the intertwining of history and faith.

Book One: Prologue (1:1-4). As emphasized thus far, Luke begins with a prologue all its own. Like John 20:31, Luke 1:1-4 states the purpose of his Gospel. This is reinforced by Acts 1:1-3, which summarizes that Luke is but the beginning story of “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” There is more to the story of Jesus, and Luke provides a detailed account of it.

Birth Narratives of John and Jesus (1:5-2:52). It is not without significance that Luke provides interwoven birth and youth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew recounts elements of the nativity story during the period of Herod the Great as does Luke. Luke intertwines divine events surrounding John and his family, and Jesus and Mary, anchoring them to real life with the historical lead in “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5) and “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (2:1). Such passages like Mary’s magnificat (1:46-55) and the two stories of Jesus in the temple (2:22-52) are recorded only here.

Anticipating the Ministry of Jesus (3:1-4:13). Among the “time stamps” Luke employs, 3:1-2 is layered with seven political figures that suggest a window from 27 to 29 for the beginning of the ministries of John the Baptist and the Lord. The intertwining of their stories continue, as John is set up as the voice to anticipate the coming of the “salvation of God” —Jesus (v. 6). Jesus is again anchored to not just history but biblical history and creation itself, as His genealogy begins with his adoptive father’s lineage down to Adam, “the son of God” (3:38), the phrase Jesus would identify with (1:35, 4:3, 9, 41, 20:36, 22:70; Acts 9:20). These are significant unique elements of Luke.

Jesus Ministers in Galilee (4:14-9:50). If one were to read Mark, this section would have many similar events recorded, but Luke expands on them or gives them a fresh twist. One event that is of particular importance for its uniqueness is Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll (Luke 4:17-21; Isaiah 61) in the synagogue, during which He not only declared its fulfillment in Himself, but also revealed what His ministry would look like. It will be a series of reversals (blind see, captives free, etc.). Jesus’ concern for the disenfranchised is witnessed in all the Gospel Accounts, but Luke strongly emphasizes it.

Jesus Travels to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44). This section is often called the “central section” of Luke as it roughly covers ten of its twenty-four chapters. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” in anticipation of being “taken up” (9:51). It is unique in that Luke is the only gospel account to record Jesus’ travel route on the eastern side of the Jordan River. It contains some of the most memorable events (rejection in Samaria, the seventy-two sent), parables (Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, Prodigal Son, Rich Man and Lazarus), encounters (Mary and Martha), and sayings of our Lord (return of the unclean spirit, sign of Jonah). This section is bursting with teaching and events unique among the gospel accounts.

The Passion Week in Jerusalem (19:45-21:38). Here, Luke recounts a series of controversial events leading up to his betrayal and rejection. One immediately sees the unity between the way Matthew, Mark, and Luke chronicle the “passion week.” This includes the challenge of Jesus’ authority, paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection, the question regarding the lordship of Christ, and the prediction of the destruction of the temple in AD 70. The section concludes with a summary statement.

From Shame to Exaltation (22:1-24:53). One of the unique elements in this section is the portrayal of the institution of the Lord’s Supper and the cup-bread-cup scenario. It is not that Luke makes a mistake here, but that it perhaps reflects the practice of having four cups employed during the Passover. Another unique feature of this section is in the resurrection appearances —in particular, on the road to Emmaus where two disciples find a Jesus “in hiding.” They recount this event along with their sense of a loss of hope until they connect the dots that this was Jesus. These are the details that provide a sense of uniqueness of Luke’s gospel.

Conclusion

Luke, along with Acts, were probably published and sent to Theophilus around AD 70. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest for two years in Rome, awaiting his case to be heard by Caesar (Acts 28:30-31). This is a few years before his death, which is traditionally dated to the time of Nero (AD 54-68; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5). At the time of publication, we should picture Luke as a veteran evangelist, an experienced missionary who has researched the ancient origins of the faith. He was addressing those engaged by the story of Jesus who wish more details and certainty. His inspired record, then, is offered as a powerful demonstration of the historical basis of the claims of Christianity.

Endnotes

  1. Graham N. Stanton, The Gospel and Jesus, eds. Peter R. Ackroyd and Graham N. Stanton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 83.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

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