Explore the Gospels: Luke

By: 

Jim Herst

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are the two parts of a work addressed to Theophilus (compare Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1-2). The author of Acts apparently accompanied Paul on some of his journeys – note the “we” in Acts 16:10-17;20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1–28:16. A comparison of Acts with Paul’s epistles indicates that Luke the physician was the author of Acts and the third gospel.

Theophilus was frustrated. He was a wealthy man and had a responsible position in society. Others might have thought he “had it made.” But Theophilus lived up to his name, which meant “lover of God.” He was still looking for the truth.

Although he was a Gentile, he was fascinated by the religion of the Jews. He had recently come into contact with an unusual sect, who on the one hand seemed to be Jewish, and yet were rejected and even hated by them.

These people were known as Christians, after their leader, Christos. Something about Christos’ radical teachings fascinated Theophilus. In spite of his education and position, he was at heart a humble man. Christos seemed also to have been humble, even though his followers claimed that he was God.

Christos had been dead – executed as a criminal – several decades ago, but he was already a legend. His followers claimed he had worked miracles, walked on water, and had even raised the dead. He could easily have become rich and famous, but he chose to live and work among ordinary people. He considered everyone – even the lowliest outcasts and misfits – worthy of respect.

But were these stories true? Christos and his revolutionary way of life fascinated the gentle Theophilus, but before he could commit himself to it he needed to know more. But how? Were Christos’ devoted disciples, who even seemed ready to die for him, reliable? They were mostly uneducated. Some were even slaves! Were their stories to be trusted? Well, he did know someone he could trust. This man was a Christian, and an educated person like himself. He was known as Luke, the beloved physician. He had not known Christos personally, but he was a meticulous scholar.

Luke, knowing that Theophilus needed a careful explanation of the factual basis for the Christian beliefs, sent him a carefully written manuscript. It began:

So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, I decided to write it out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of doubt the reliability of what you have been taught.

Fascinated, Theophilus settled down to study the manuscript – the first person to read what we now know as… The Gospel According to St. Luke.

Maybe this is not exactly the way it happened. But something like this prompted Luke, the “beloved physician” to put pen to papyrus and write a definitive account of the life of Jesus Christ. The result was a thoroughly researched and beautifully written narrative of what Jesus was like and what he did.

Luke’s Gospel is not a dry theological treatise. He was excited by what he had discovered, and he wanted to share that excitement and joy with his readers. “Gospel” is an old English word meaning “good news.” No one has conveyed that good news better than the “beloved physician.”

What’s in a name?

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are the two parts of a work addressed to Theophilus (compare 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1-2). The author of Acts apparently accompanied Paul on some of his journeys – note the “we” in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1 – 28:16. A comparison of Acts with Paul’s epistles indicates that Luke the physician was the author of Acts and, hence, of the third Gospel. 

Outline of Luke

Luke tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry.

1. The preparation (1:1–4:13)

The events preceding Jesus’ ministry can be divided into three sections:

  • 1:1-4 The prologue, where Luke explains his purpose in writing his gospel.
  • 1:5–2:52 Jesus’ birth and early years. Luke shows parallels between the annunciation and birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus.
  • 3:1–4:13 The ministry of John the Baptist and the preparation for Jesus’ ministry, baptism and his victory over Satan.

2. Jesus’ Public Ministry (4:14–21:38)

  • 4:14–9:50 Jesus’ ministry in Galilee: preaching in the synagogues and performing miracles, which helped the people but began to bring him into conflict with the religious authorities.
  • 9:51–19:27 “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” and is eventually welcomed triumphantly. Throughout this section, Luke mentions several times that Jesus is on a journey (9:52-53, 56; 10:1, 38; 13:22, 31-33; 14:25; 17:11, 18:31, 35; 19:1, 11, 28). (However, it is historically likely that Jesus made several trips back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem; Luke presents it as a single journey to reflect the theological truth that he was destined to die in Jerusalem and he never wavered from his goal). This section contains many parables unique to Luke’s Gospel:
    • The good Samaritan (10:29-37)
    • The friend at midnight (11:5-8)
    • The rich fool (12:13-20)
    • The returning master (12:35-38)
    • The barren fig tree (13:6-9)
    • The wedding banquet (14:7-14),
    • The great banquet (14:15-24)
    • The lost coin (15:11-32)
    • The shrewd manager (16:1-9)
    • Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31)
    • The unjust judge (18:1-8)
    • The Pharisee and the tax-collector (18:9-14).

3. Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem 19:28–21:38

  • His triumphant entry, a lamentation over the city (19:41-44)
  • The ‘cleansing’ of the Temple (19:41-48)
  • His teaching on “tribute to Caesar” and the temple tax (21:1-38)
  • His prophecy of the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem itself (21:1-38).

4. Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. 22:1–24:53

The passion narrative portrays Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Luke includes three of Jesus’ sayings on the cross not found in the other accounts (23:34, 43, 46), including a plea for God to forgive those who were crucifying him (23:34).

How to read this book

In some ways, the best way to read Luke is to study it and Acts as a continuous work, written by the same author. For example, knowing how important the Holy Spirit is to the story in Acts helps us appreciate its role before and at Jesus’ birth (1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-26) and in guiding his ministry (3:22; 4:1, 18).

Luke-Acts, as the work is called by scholars, has a more historical emphasis than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. As in the historical books of the Old Testament, God is the main character in Luke-Acts – his unseen hand guides events to fulfill his purpose. But Luke also places these events into “the context of world history. He connects it not only to the story of Israel but also to the larger oikoumene, the civilized world of Hellenism. Thus he alone of the evangelists provides chronological references for key events (see Luke 1:5; 2:1-2; 3:1-2; Acts 18:12)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina series, vol. 3, pp. 5-6).

Luke, an educated man, wrote in very good Greek. Where the parallel accounts merely transliterate a Hebrew or Latin word, Luke often uses a Greek word instead. Luke explains to his largely gentile audience how God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament came to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and how the gentile mission came to be included in those promises.

Learning about Jesus Christ

Although Luke, like the other evangelists, acknowledges Jesus’ divine status, he is careful to stress his humanity as well. Luke portrays the Jesus who entered history as a human being. Only Luke’s record of Jesus’ genealogy goes back to Adam (3:23-38). Only Luke records:

  • Jesus’ circumcision (2:21)
  • His presentation at the temple (2:22-38)
  • His growth as a child (2:40)
  • His meeting at age 12 with the religious leaders in the temple (2:28-38)
  • His continued development “in wisdom and stature” (2:52). These precise details establish Jesus as a person in history.

Luke again stresses the humanity of Jesus in his full account of the temptation scene (4:1-13). He also paints Jesus against the background of pious Judaism. He mentions Jesus’ custom of attending synagogue on the Sabbath (4:14-16, 31, 44) and that he was frequently the guest of Pharisees (7:36; 14:1).

Luke tells us, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Only Luke records Jesus praying at certain crucial periods in his life: at his baptism (3:21), before calling his disciples (6:12), before Peter’s pivotal confession of Jesus as Christ (9:18) and before the transfiguration (9:28). These prayers highlight Jesus’ human need to pray to God.

Other topics

  • Women: Luke-Acts shows us that, both during Jesus’ ministry and in the early church, several women were among the most dedicated of his followers. D. L. Block comments:

Luke features the responsiveness of women (7:36-50; 8:1-3; 8:48; 10:38-42; 13:10-17; 24:1-12). Often it is not just a women but a widow who is cited, since she represented the most vulnerable status within society (2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 18:3, 5; 20:47; 21:2-3). Whether in parable or by example, these women show that they are sensitive to the message of Jesus. Though on the fringes of first-century society, they are in the middle of Luke’s story. Often they are paired with men (2:25-28; 4:25-27; 8:40-56; 11:31-32; 13:18-21; 15:4-10; 17:34-35; Acts 21:9-10), a feature suggesting that the gospel is for both genders. (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 506)

  • Prayer: The early church experienced dramatic answers to prayer on several occasions (Acts 4:31; 8:1517; 9:40; 12:5-11). Luke shows that the practice of prayer is rooted in Jesus’ example (5:16). Luke also

includes parables which teach so much about prayer, the friend at midnight (11:5 ff.), the unjust judge (18:lff.), the Pharisee and the tax-collector (18:10ff.). In addition Luke records some exhortations to the disciples to pray (6:28; 11:2; 22:40, 46), and he has a warning against the wrong kind of prayer (20:47). (Leon Morris, The Gospel of Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 50)

  • Wealth: Luke has many statements relating to the affluent and the influential. They direct the rich to help the poor, and show the proper use of money generally: “[Luke] has the parable of the two debtors (7:40-43); of the rich fool (12:16-21); of the rash builder of the tower (14:2830); of the unjust steward and his astute financial manipulations (16:1-9); of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31); of the servants and the pound (19:11-27)” (William Barclay, Introduction to the First Three Gospels, p. 219).

What this book means for you

Luke portrays a Jesus Christ who defined his mission as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Jesus brought good news to everyone, including the poor and oppressed, to all groups who were despised and marginalized by society in first-century Israel. Through the church, he brings the same good news for our society today. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that through Jesus Christ, salvation is available to all, freely and without prejudice.

Only Luke’s Gospel records the parable of the good Samaritan (10:30-37) and the story of the Samaritan who expressed gratitude to Jesus for being healed (17:11-19). These incidents foreshadowed the entrance of the Samaritans into the church of God (Acts 8:4-25).

In Luke, despised tax collectors become examples of repentance and discipleship – in parable and in reality (3:12; 5:27-32; 18:9-14; 19:2-10). Jesus forgives and praises a sinful woman (7:36-50) and promises paradise to a repentant thief (23:43). Repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached in Jesus’ name to all nations (24:47). “All [humanity] will see God’s salvation” (3:6). All we have to do is ask! (11:13)

We know you will enjoy this beautifully written account of the life of Jesus. Why not read, or re-read the Gospel of Luke? If you take one chapter a day, it will only take three and a half weeks for you to discover for yourself this awesome message of hope.

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