The Gospel of Luke

An introduction for preachers

William Loader

What Luke tells us about ‘Luke’

Body language is important. How people do things tells us a lot about them. This is certainly the case with the author of the third gospel. Tradition has it that the author was ‘Luke, the beloved physician’ (Col 4:14). This is far from certain, as we shall see. We are on much firmer ground when we look at what is before us, which originally would have had no reference to an author. Instead it has a very stylised beginning, 1:1-4, a lavish sentence structure which matches many of the best efforts of the day which followed the convention of setting off with an impressive opening. It was also conventional to include a dedication. Whether Theophilus was a real person, perhaps a sponsor who was going to make the physical production possible, or simply part of the literary decoration (‘Theophilus’ means lover of God), we can already conclude that this author, whom I shall call ‘Luke’, whoever he may have been, had an eye for what was going on in the literary world of his time.

The self conscious literary style is all the more apparent when we turn to what follows from 1:5 onwards. There we encounter the style of Old Testament narrative: simple sentences, often joined by ‘and’. So Luke is positioning his work quite deliberately as something which will be attractive to his contemporaries and at the same time be able to speak the language of the biblical tradition. Luke is a skilled communicator.

The introductory statement

We have not even considered content to this point. Luke 1:1-4 has important content. Luke tells us that he is not the first to do what he is doing: ‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…’. The body of research into the gospels certainly confirms this, the majority view being that one of Luke’s sources was Mark and another he would have shared with Matthew, which we call Q (the first letter of the German word for source, ‘Quelle’). Luke also includes much material not found in these (some wonderful pieces, like the parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Good Samaritan).

Luke is also positioning his work as a history, as that would have been understood at the time: ‘I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you.’ That meant not making up stories and stretching the evidence, but at the same time presenting what happened in a way that rendered it credible. It included, especially, composing the kind of speeches that lead characters would have given. Speeches were very important. Education focused heavily on making speeches, so historians had to do this well. We see Luke’s work in this regard, especially in Acts, his second volume, where he appears to weave together historical reminiscence and a disciplined imagination to recreate the gist of what would have been said. This is less relevant in the case of writing about Jesus in the gospel, because Luke was blessed with a strong tradition which had preserved and passed on Jesus’ sayings.

Luke also stations himself at some considerable distance from the events he reports: ‘just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.’ He is not claiming to be an eyewitness, but is claiming that these stand behind his sources. There was indeed a service or ministry of the word which saw its task as bearing witness to the tradition. On this Luke depends, but he does so critically, accurately, as he puts it, and in an ordered way. The latter has less to do with tidiness and more to do with creating (and revealing) patterns in events which help confirm the hand of God behind them. Luke will do a lot of that. Sometimes it is as subtle as eliciting memories of Old Testament stories by similar use of language and highlighting common motifs. The shepherds of David’s town of Bethlehem attend the baby Messiah; the 40 days before the ascension evoke the 40 years in the wilderness. Sometimes it is between events in the life of Jesus and events in the life of the church: for instance, the role of the Spirit in setting both rolling. Sometimes the parallels are built up between figures in the life of the early church, like Peter and Paul.

Luke does many subtle and clever things, but with a purpose. In 1:4 he tells us what this is: he wants to put ‘asphaleia’ under the feet of his believing hearers: ‘so that you may know the truth (‘asphaleia’) concerning the things about which you have been instructed’. The word emerges in English as ‘asphalt’: something firm to walk on. Luke is about building up confidence, reassuring uncertainty, strengthening identity. So he is giving a careful and ordered account for that purpose.

Much of the New Testament - especially the gospels - has this as its aim. It is good to have it identified directly. Luke is meaning to connect with his hearers. We do not know who they were, any more than we know who ‘Luke’ was, but we can at least assume they were the kind of people who in Luke’s view needed to hear what Luke was saying and in the way he said it. In fact that tells us a lot.


It is already significant that Luke has penned two volumes. Why write also about the church? Clearly it also formed part of the divine action in history according to Luke. Why not write about history right up to his own day, which many see as the 9th decade of the first century? I think the answer lies in ‘connections’ and ‘continuities’. It is surprising that Luke does not tell us the fate of his heroes in Acts, Peter, and Paul. He must have known. Why does he let the biographer lapse so? Perhaps he had learned from Mark’s enigmatic ending the value of not telling the whole story. What mattered was continuity: the gospel reached its far flung destinations, as predicted (Acts 1:8). Luke seems more bent on assuring us that the transition from Jesus to the church of his generation was God inspired than in writing biography. One could say, he is more concerned with divine biography. Divine guidance, angelic interventions, heavenly visions, serve as signs of divine history. There is divine movement; from Galilee to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Rome and the ends of the earth. Foreshadowed in the local spat between Nazareth and Capernaum and Jesus’ references to Elijah and Elisha healing foreigners (Luke 4:16-30), Luke tells a story that broadens out to encompass his own sort of people, despite the irritations of those who saw it as going too far.

Identity Crisis?

To demonstrate that God led the church the way it went, despite some turbulence (which Luke minimises), is to reassure people. Who needs reassurance? Tired Christians, for whom it has all become a matter of routine? It is more likely that we are dealing with hearers, many of whom would be facing critical issues in their faith. We can imagine some scenarios. We know that in many areas of the empire Judaism was resurgent after the body blow it received when Jerusalem was sacked in 70 CE and the temple destroyed. A vibrant synagogue down the road was a challenge. Are they still God’s people? Are we the bearers of Israel’s tradition now - or are they? After all, they are Jews and we are mainly not Jews. In some quarters there may have been more acute conflict. It was time to let the authorities know that these Christians are not Jews and should not be claiming privileges and concessions granted to Jews.

In other places it may have been the experience of being stumped when in the market place local Jews affronted you with the question: what are you doing using our Scriptures? For a while it might have seemed that the new believers had usurped Israel’s place in God’s plan and were surging to success, but now they had become just one group beside others and, rather embarrassingly, appealing to the Jews’ own scriptures to compete with them. It would not have been easy to ward off the criticism that Christianity was a convenient compromise whose initial success depended on sacrificing the integrity of Israel’s faith and watering down divine claims and demands. Many would have known that this was still the view of some Christian Jews in Luke’s time. Luke shows that he knows that some of these issues were dynamite in the early days of the church.

So reassurance was not about helping people feel good. It had to address major issues of identity crisis. Luke wanted his hearers to be fully convinced that what had happened was totally in accordance with God’s will. Christianity was not a side track, a dead end, but the main track. Christ was not an aberration but a fulfilment of all that went before. God was involved every step of the way.

Continuity with Israel

The change of gear from Luke 1:1-4 to Luke 1:5, from high Hellenistic rhetoric to biblical Greek narrative style, demonstrates how important biblical tradition is for Luke. In stories shot through with allusions to the great heroes of old, especially the great women of faith, Luke opens his account with scenes of devout Jewish piety. Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Anne and Simeon echo the cries of Israel for liberation. Their lives are focused on the holy temple. They are scrupulously observant of biblical law, Torah. In this womb of piety Jesus is conceived. These people are true Israel. Not just their behaviour, but also divine behaviour, angels and visions and visitations, confirms the sacredness of these scenes.

Luke 1-2 set the scene for what follows. In these opening chapters we learn about salvation: it is peace. Jesus is the saviour. Israel’s hopes for liberation will be fulfilled. Many underestimate the significance of the cries for freedom and liberation in these early stories, especially when they reduce the content of the freedom songs which flow from the lips of the leading characters, like Zechariah and Mary, to metaphor. Have all the hopes which they express comes to reality with Jesus? Is the salvation now reduced to having him as personal saviour and Lord?

Undoubtedly, for Luke, Jesus is the saviour. The saving includes wholeness, healing, conversion, restoration, changed being and behaviour. But the hopes expressed here and the vision of salvation of the saviour remain large. Yes, there was fulfilment, but there was certainly more to come. A close check of the content of these songs with what follows in the gospel confirms this. So does the story itself. Thus the disciples on the road to Emmaus who were hoping for the liberation of Israel are not shown as missing the point (24:21). When Jesus’ disciples ask him in Acts 1:6 whether he would at that time restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus does not scold them for false assumptions, but speaks to them about its timing. Indeed God will restore the kingdom to Israel in God’s time, but in the meantime: you have a job to do (Acts 1:8).

The effect of all of this is that Luke places believers squarely within the tradition of Israel, connected to its past, and connected to its future. Luke’s vision is that Jerusalem will one day lift up its head to greet its saviour (21:27-28; 13:35). In the meantime it is being trampled by Gentiles (21:24). Luke probably shared with Justin Martyr the belief that at the climax of history Jesus would reign on earth from Jerusalem. One could, therefore, hardly accuse Luke (and his Christianity) of betrayal of Israel, as some might have wanted to do.

Respect for tradition

This positive attitude towards Israel is matched in a number of other ways which make Luke’s work distinctive. Luke continues to respect the temple. As temple people are the womb for the messiah, Jesus, so temple people are the womb for the church. He has stripped all hints of negativity from traditions about the temple and carefully ensured that the butt of criticism is not the temple but its masters. According to Acts 6-7 Stephen did not attack the temple; nor did his colleagues. Such accusations were blatantly false according to Luke. Stephen attacked the abuses of the temple lords.

The positive attitude towards biblical law is also to be found throughout the teachings of Jesus in Luke. Gone are disparaging comments about a temple made with hands and food laws that make no sense (Mark 7). Instead Torah faithfulness is the rule and Luke can support this with the Q saying according to which not even the tiniest detail of the Law is to be abandoned (Luke 16:17). This he shares with Matthew, who condemns those who teach otherwise (5:17-19). Christians were faithful Jews and remained faithful Jews according to Luke. It is not, as some have supposed, that this applied only until Jesus came or until Easter. Why should it? For Luke, Paul remains Torah faithful to the last and was prepared to go to great expense to demonstrate it (Acts 21:18-25). This is all very interesting, because this does not sound like the Paul we know from his own writings, who argues that Jews are no longer under the Law. It is one of the reasons why there are difficulties in supposing our ‘Luke’ is really a companion of Paul, unless the decades reshaped the memory or other concerns did.

The controversial sections in Mark in which Jesus is portrayed as abandoning Torah concepts Luke seems to have deliberately left out. A whole block is missing (Mark 6:45 - 8:26). He is aware that issues of food and purity laws had been controversial. He makes this clear when he tells the story of Peter’s vision about clean and unclean animals (Acts 10). One might expect it to offer the definitive answer for both Jews and Gentiles about food laws, but Luke applies it only metaphorically: Gentiles are not unclean; therefore one may eat with them. For the rest Torah is to be obeyed and Luke explains how the early church in council made some exceptions for Gentiles, but even then not in the sense of excusing them from Torah observance, but rather in the sense of defining what in Torah applies to them and they must observe.

Continuity with the early Church

Luke loves Paul and loves Peter. He stands in a stream of Christian tradition which has found a way of claiming both. Unfortunately we do not know what of Peter’s was surrendered. Of Paul’s we know it was at the cost of redefining what an apostle was in a manner which virtually disqualified the historical Paul (he was not one of the 12, nor a witness to the risen Lord before the ascension; see Acts 1:21-22) and heavily modified his radical stance towards the Law. At least the waiving of circumcision was in common and this is shown to be the exception which proves the rule: all else remains intact.

Paul is a key link in the chain of continuity which links the golden age of Jesus and the earliest church with later generations. Other key links in the chain are the faithful temple Jews of Christianity’s first days and the faithful temple Jews who were the cradle for John and Jesus. Beside these links across history are the links across tradition. They include use of biblical style, biblical allusions and citations, typological allusions to the Old Testament events. It is as though we are reliving the old sacred stories. Pentecost echoes the legends of the giving of the Law on Sinai according to which a flame came from above split in 70 parts for each nation in the world to hear God’s word, but only Israel chose to obey it. The numbers 40 (for the days till ascension), 120 (for those in the upper room; 12 x 10), Pentecost as a festival of harvest - these all bind the traditions closely together. The implicit claim is that the God of the Bible has left the same trademark on these new events of history, showing them to be the new way for the old path, not a dead end at all.

The golden age in history

Assurance of legitimacy comes in a vertical dimension: divine interventions, visions, angels, a sense of divine providence which would be understood among former pagan hearers as a kind of sanctified fate and by Jews as holy markers. For Luke, miracle assumes a major role in the effort to reinforce faith. Luke appears to register the Spirit’s movement primarily in miraculous terms, which would have made him an interesting conversation for a Paul and put him closer to the Corinthians than their founder.

Luke has in some ways created a golden age of Jesus and the first Christians which has such an hallucinatory glow that his agenda of continuity and legitimacy is almost undermined. In ‘Bible times’ all this happened, an almost unreal time in history, not helped by his narrative creativity in merging metaphor and description, such as when Mark's "like a dove" becomes "in physical shape of a dove" in Luke's account of Jesus' baptism and when Luke depicts real wind and flame at Pentecost. But at the same time Luke insists that these events happened in real history, anchored to events and personages known to us. hence his awkward, elaborate schemes of dating, especially in the Christmas stories for first readers to stumble through at the lectern (see Luke 2:1-2; 3:1-2).

Being saved - doing good

Luke’s understanding of faith and faith community is not surprisingly very Jewish, in the sense that the values it espouses could easily come directly from the synagogue. The way to life is to keep the greatest commandments, to be a good Samaritan. ‘Do this and you shall live!’ Luke’s understanding of the life of faith is strongly ethical. A major emphasis is use of wealth. Luke hails Jesus’ good news as good news for the poor. Originally directed to the poor, the dispirited, the exploited and hungry of Israel, the good news of God’s reign in Luke means concrete changes in behaviour in the present. Jesus is the model: he went about doing good. That is Peter’s summary in his proclamation to Cornelius and friends (Acts 10:34-43). The address does not damn their paganism, but acknowledges their godliness which now needs supplementing with this news about Jesus: ‘how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power and how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him.’

Jesus and salvation

This is a very basic christology. It makes no mention of the cross, but elsewhere Luke’s preachers standard line is that the cross was human rejection, which God responded to by resurrection. The saving news is what Jesus did in his ministry; the death and resurrection focus the response. And finally ‘He is Lord of all’ celebrates that this Jesus has been made Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36) and so will be the judge of all (10:42). This speech of Peter is typical and reflects the central emphases of Luke’s theology.

This central core is about saving people in many senses, healing, forgiveness, restoration to community, delivering from poverty, and ultimately bringing in the messianic age. Luke represents it in Jesus’ declaration in his home synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). For this mission the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Luke proceeds to illustrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the mission in the stories that follow. When John the Baptist wonders, he is given an answer in these terms. These are the perspectives that warrant the declaration that the poor and broken are blessed for the reign of God which comes to them - if it does; Luke was confident of the promise and would have seen it as a future hope beginning to come into reality.

Luke in context

It is this core which Luke is presenting as the good news. That is the main thing. But he has to present it in the context of what must be happening in his world. These include doubts raised by a rising Judaism and a, perhaps stagnating, Christianity; concerns that Christianity has lost its way and betrayed its origins or Israel or both; and dangers which some of its historical associations might cause to come its way from the secular authorities.

Luke’s constructions are marvellous, though not always convincing. From Paul we know that Luke has glossed up an image of unity in earliest Christianity from his material which if examined closely will not sustain the claim. He has put a fairly calm face on what even his own material indicates was a rough surface. The thoroughgoing claim to Torah faithfulness will not convince many Jews and may not have convinced some concerned Jewish Christians of his day. Again, Paul cannot really be made to fit the mould.

Luke does demonstrate some concern to ward off claims of subversion against Christians. He also leads the way among the New Testament writings in displaying a preparedness to recognise the presence of God in foreign cultures, even to cite their poets, and to see some religious laws as culturally relative, on the assumption that God gave the Jews their customs. This both preserved their authority and provided a basis for sensitivity to cross cultural issues and the forms true faith might take for other cultures.

Luke’s simplicity

In another sense the relative simplicity of Luke’s understanding of salvation, of the life of faith and of the person of Jesus, unencumbered by the complexities of atonement theories and speculative christology, makes for powerful communication. It is a call to community, to be part of the movement of God’s people which finds its central focus in the event of Christ, but depends strongly on that community being able to demonstrate that it stands in an apostolic succession which links it to that event and to its prehistory in the stories of God’s people of old. Being Christian means joining the church. In that community there is a radical commitment to sharing and a sense of communion preserved in the rite of breaking bread, as there was in the beginning. The life of faith is a life of prayer (Luke frequently adds to his Markan source that Jesus was praying) and a life of good deeds.