The message of the book is summarised by the angelic announcement to Mary in Luke 2:10–11: Jesus is the saviour of all people. This Gospel has traditionally been associated with an ox (one of the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Revelation chapters 4–6) which represents "Jesus' concern especially for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized, even to the point of being sacrificed for them" [50 p.7].
Luke is probably the only Gentile author of any part of the Bible. He wrote very stylish Greek and clearly knew the LXX well, and there are signs that he understood the concept of haggeda, the scribes' approach to theology, though his use of scripture is less subtle than Matthew's. Unlike Mark and Matthew, who make points by complex inter-weaving of allusions, Luke tends to make only one point at once by putting it in the mouth of one of the actors, as if he were writing an opera. This is seen as more primitive theology, but perhaps better history. He may have seen his role as medieval theologians saw theirs; writing history of a sort, but extrapolating a little in line with one's own interpretation. For example, medieval theologians decided that a reference to an ox and ass in Isaiah 1 must indicate that they were present in the stable at the birth of Jesus, and that a reference to "night half spent" in Wisdom must mean the birth occurred at midnight (hence Midnight Communion). Luke likes to tell stories with an unexpected twist that reveals a new truth.
Luke and Matthew seem to have used Mark plus much additional material. The common material has been called "Q" (from the German word Quelle for source) mostly consisting of a tradition of the sayings of Jesus[1 p.521]. It is possible that "Q" was writen during Jesus's earthly ministry[53 p.142]. Many British theologians accept that there must have been many written and oral sources circulating a the time Luke wrote his Gospel, and that Luke may have had Matthew's gospel too, though his theological slant is very different so he made many changes. Paul's writings probably pre-date even Mark's Gospel, but though they were current in Luke's time (and he was probably present when some were dictated) they were not immediately regarded as scripture. (But those who say that Paul's letters were not regarded as scripture until about a century after they were written need an argument against the suggestion that 2 Peter 3:16 implies otherwise.) Luke was almost certainly a person converted by Paul who then accompanied him for much of his ministry. Luke can be expected to share Paul's theology which was opposed to "Judaisers" such as Matthew. By including the account of the birth of John the Baptist, including Luke 1:5 which indicates that John was born into a priestly family, Luke indicates that John was a priest who told the people to transfer their attention to Jesus who was greater than he (though he was not a priest), so emphasizing that the New Covenant supersedes the old.
Luke is clearly knowledgeable about Roman administration and about medicine; he uses correct technical terms throughout. But he is said to be less precise than others about the geography of Galilee; this would not be surprising because he lacked the local knowledge of the other contributors to the New Testament. On the other hand, he was widely travelled and unlike the other Gospel-writers he always calls the Sea of Galilee a Lake.
Luke seems to have been fascinated by certain themes:
Luke sees Elijah as a pattern which Jesus is following; therefore he has to remove all the details that Matthew included to show that John the Baptist was following in the footsteps of Elijah: the coat of camel's hair, the wild food, the death under a weak king manipulated by women. Most significantly, the division of Luke's work into two books (Luke and Acts) which divide where one hero ascends visibly into heaven and the power of the Spirit descends on others to continue the work (including similar miracles) parallels the join between 1–2 Kings where Elijah's mantle is taken up by Elisha. Examples of parallel miracles include the son of the Widow of Zarephath with Jairus's Daughter. Jesus himself drew attention to this parallel at the start of his ministry; at the synagogue in Nazareth he said the Isaiah passage was being fulfilled in their presence and continued by saying that there were plenty of lepers in Israel at the time of Elijah but only a gentile was healed. Note also that Zarephath was not in Israel, as Jesus points out in Luke 4:26. The implication that Jesus intended to minister to the Gentiles infuriated the Jews but fits in with Luke's outlook as Paul's fellow-missionary.
In various ways Luke 1 and perhaps 2 fits oddly with the rest of the Gospel and it has been argued that it was written by somebody else. Firstly it shows signs of haggeda composition as opposed to a Greek style; secondly it contains a reference to Elijah with does not fit with the rest of the treatment. But another analysis regards Luke 1 and 2 as a link in Luke's mind between the pre-Jesus era and His earthly ministry, and Acts 1 and 2 as a link between His earthly ministry and the present era.
Luke wrote at a late date when the return of Jesus seemed less imminent than at first. He is careful about how he phrases the sayings of Jesus that had led many people to expect an early return, in order to convey meanings that have not been proved wrong by subsequent experience. Typically the new meaning makes the remark relate to ordinary life; this is called "realised eschatology" because it takes phrases sometimes interpreted as being about future "end-times" and interprets them as applying to the here-and-now. An example is Luke 17:21 "the kingdom is within you" where he uses an ambiguous Greek word that can mean within or among so that the teaching can be applied individually or corporately. Luke even includes some stories which he says are told against those who expect the end soon—the Parable of the Talents, and the explanation of the significance of the Importunate Widow (Luke 18:8).
The concern of Luke to teach for the here-and-now also shows in his emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Compare Luke 11:13 with Matthew 7:11.
Luke sees the Christian life as a long-term thing; where Mark quotes Jesus saying "take up your cross..." (Mark 8:34) it might sound like a call to martyrdom; but Luke adds "...every day" (Luke 9:23) to emphasize that we are to be living sacrifices.
Matthew seems to have given Joseph's account of Jesus's early life while Luke gives Mary's side of the story.[5 Ch5 Endnote1] Some commentators say that Luke has arranged his Gospel in a way that emphasises the involvement of both men and women. Firstly, he credits Mary with involvement in the ceremonial duties when Jesus was born (Luke 2:29 "when Joseph and Mary had done what was required by the Law ...") where other contemporary authors might have attributed this to Joseph alone. Secondly, he arranges some of the events in pairs, with a man as the subject of one and a woman as the subject of the other. Examples are:
Luke 2:25: Prophecy of Simeon
Luke 2:36: Prophecy of Anna
Luke 7:2 : Raising the Centurion's servant
Luke 7:11: Raising the widow's son
Luke 15:3 : Shepherd seeking lost sheep
Luke 7:5 : Woman seeking lost coin
Luke 18:1 : Persistent widow
Luke 18:9 : Penitent tax collector
|Chapters 1–3: Nativity|
|Chapter 1:||Prophecy to Zechariah; annunciation to Mary; Mary visits; birth of John the Baptist|
|Chapter 2:||Nativity and Presentation at the Temple; visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve|
|Chapter 3:||John the Baptist's ministry; Jesus's baptism and genealogy|
|Chapters 4–18: Travelling ministry|
|Chapter 4:||Temptation in the wilderness, rejected at Nazareth; at Capernaum; healings|
|Chapter 5:||Miraculous catch of fish; calling the disciples; healings; teaching (beatitudes, woes, etc.)|
|Chapter 6||choosing the twelve, Sermon on the Plain; parables; teaching "love your enemies"|
|Chapter 7:||Centurion's faith; healings (widow's son, etc.); John's disciples ask "are you the one?"|
|Chapter 8:||parable of the seed; storm calmed; healings (Gerasene demoniac, etc.); family visit|
|Chapter 9:||teaching; mission of the 12; feeding 5,000; Peter's "great confession"; transfiguration|
|Chapter 10:||mission of the seventy; way to eternal life; Good Samaritan; Mary and Martha|
|Chapter 11:||Lord's Prayer, healing, parables (friend at midnight, etc.), teaching "woe to you..."|
|Chapter 12:||teaching "do not worry"; parables of the rich fool, wedding banquet, lazy servants|
|Chapter 13:||unfruitful fig tree; healing on the Sabbath; teaching (narrow gate, mustard seed, etc.)|
|Chapter 14:||teaching; another wedding parable; dinner guests' excuses; another healing on a Sabbath|
|Chapter 15:||parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son|
|Chapter 16:||wicked manager; teaching on serving two masters, divorce, etc.; Lazarus|
|Chapter 17:||mustard tree; healings; don't believe if they say "here he is"; forgive your enemy 70 x 7|
|Chapter 18:||importunate widow; tax collector prays; children blessed; rich young man; eye of needle|
|Chapters 19–21: Final journey to Jerusalem|
|Chapter 19:||at Jericho; Zacchaeus; parable of the ten pounds; entry into Jerusalem; temple cleansed|
|Chapter 20:||parable of the vineyard; taxes to Caesar; teaching about tax, resurrection and authority|
|Chapter 21:||widow's two copper coins in the collection; prophesies of the end; parable of the fig tree|
|Chapters 22–23: Passover and Crucifixion|
|Chapter 22:||Passover meal; teaching "this is my body"; betrayal; Gethsemane; High Priest's house|
|Chapter 21:||before Pilate and Herod; flogging, crucifixion, repentant criminal forgiven; death; burial|
|Chapter 24: Resurrection|
|Chapter 24:||stone rolled away; on the road to Emmaus; in the upper room; mission; ascension|
© David Billin 2002–2023