Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Themes in Luke

The Acts of the Apostles

Because the same author is responsible for both Luke and Acts and because the two books share many literary and thematic connections, it is profitable to read them together as a two-part narrative about Jesus and his earliest followers. It is customary to speak of “Luke-Acts,” referring to both books as a unified literary creation. Interpreters have speculated about the author’s motives for writing both books, sometimes wondering whether the book of Acts may subtly diminish Jesus’ importance by making the Christian church appear too important in its own right. However, both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles clearly situate Jesus and the good news on center stage. Both books proclaim Jesus as God’s means of salvation for Israel and the whole world and as the Messiah who will come again. Acts helps readers appreciate how Jesus and the message about him continue to impact the world and its different cultures, even after Jesus’ physical departure from the earth.

Almsgiving and solidarity

Luke’s Gospel has much to say about wealth and possessions, including two instances where Jesus commends almsgiving (Luke 11:41; 12:33). The giving of alms entails more than simply handing over money and walking away; it implies creating a real association with the poor. Jesus’ world, like today’s, was one of radical inequalities among its socioeconomic classes. Conventions of patronage regulated that society, meaning that the wealthy (patrons) would give money or political favors to others (clients) in exchange for loyalty, honor, or political support. When Jesus praises almsgiving, he calls for people to give to the poor without expecting any kind of recognition or reciprocity. To give alms is to refuse to insist upon the privileges that society grants to those with status and power; to give alms is to create relationships of solidarity in authentic community.

The death of Jesus

This Gospel describes Jesus’ death in a unique way, emphasizing his innocence and faithfulness. At the crucifixion, Luke mentions the presence of many who support Jesus and grieve his death (23:27, 48). There is no description of the general public deriding him. A criminal turns to Jesus, defends him, and is promised a place with him in Paradise (23:39-43). Jesus dies with an expression of trust on his lips, quoting Psalm 31:5. The Roman centurion who witnesses the execution praises God and declares Jesus’ innocence (23:47).

Jesus and jubilee

The first main scene of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke has him speaking to the people of his hometown, Nazareth, in Luke 4:14-37. In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus cites two passages from Isaiah, both of which use language of “release.” This language relates to laws about a “year of release” or “year of jubilee” in Leviticus 25:8-55. In this important scene, as well as in others throughout Luke, Jesus characterizes the reign of God as release from all forms of oppression and injustice and as liberation from sin and the ways that sin results in people’s subjugation to spiritual and social evils.

Jesus’ Jewish opponents

Although Luke’s Gospel describes Jesus encountering opposition from a wide array of people, it offers more clarity about which people are involved in Jesus’ arrest and prosecution. When Jesus predicts his death in Luke 9:21-22, he names members of the Jerusalem elite–specifically, the elders, chief priests, and scribes–as the ones who will reject him. Also, Herod Antipas’s violent intentions become clear in Luke 13:31. Once Jesus reaches Jerusalem, Luke consistently names the chief priests, scribes, and sometimes the elders as those who oppose Jesus most vehemently. Pharisees are not named as part of the opposition in Jerusalem. Indeed, the last time Luke mentions any Pharisees is in Luke 19:39, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Luke’s historical style

The first four verses of the Gospel of Luke resemble prologues in certain historical writings from the ancient world. This resemblance suggests that the author was familiar with conventions of history-writing, but this does not mean that Luke transmits history as if it were raw chronological data presented from a disinterested perspective. Like all who wrote history in his time (and in modern times), the author of Luke wrote to shape readers’ perspectives on a historical figure. The Gospel of Luke interprets the history it tells through a theological lens, amplifying the theological significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Luke’s “infancy narratives”

The first two chapters of Luke speak about the conceptions and births of John the Baptizer and Jesus. The stories told there, in what are sometimes called “the Lukan infancy narratives,” are unique to this Gospel. These accounts create a powerful introduction to Luke and to its sequel, Acts. Even though people often have treated these stories with excessive sentimentality, in Luke they serve an important function, anchoring Jesus’ history firmly in Israel’s history. They declare that the same God who has been faithful to the people of Israel is again being true to God’s people in sending Jesus and his forerunner, John. They introduce important themes that will recur throughout Luke and Acts, including prophecy, liberation, conflict, and the salvation of God extending to Gentiles.

Luke’s “travel narrative” 

Concerning Jesus, Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” From that point, through the middle of Luke 19, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. This large section of text, which interpreters commonly refer to as the “travel narrative,” is composed mostly of stories that appear only in Luke’s Gospel. Disagreement exists over the degree to which the travel narrative might possess a sense of coherence or clear thematic purpose. Some see in the design of the narrative an attempt to make Jesus’ story resonate with memories of Moses and the exodus journeys of the Hebrew people. Others conclude that in these chapters the Gospel author presents material about Jesus loosely grouped according to a few themes but with no comprehensive arrangement.

Meals

This Gospel is famous for its scenes that involve people eating. Frequently banquets serve as settings for Jesus’ parables in Luke. In Jesus’ culture, sharing food and offering hospitality to others were ways of forging and demonstrating strong ties and obligations among people. A meal could create and represent binding communal relationships and commitments. Jesus’ desire to eat with others reflects God’s promises to provide for people’s needs, emphasizes the image of the kingdom of God as a banquet (13:29), and indicates his willingness to associate closely with particular people, including tax collectors and those known for their sinful behavior (5:29-32; 7:33-34; 15:1-2; 19:5-7).

Parables

Much of the material that is unique to Luke’s Gospel consists of parables from Jesus. A parable is usually a short story used to illustrate an aspect of the kingdom of God in a way that invites hearers or readers to probe the connections on their own. Parables function as metaphors, fleshing out spiritual ideas through the power of potent suggestions rather than precise descriptions. Many of Jesus’ parables emphasize how different God’s ways are from humanity’s standards of fairness, piety, status, and prudence.

The prosecution of Jesus

Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that, despite many opportunities to find Jesus guilty of a crime, the legal proceedings against him consistently yield no definitive verdict. Pontius Pilate is unconvinced by the testimony against Jesus (23:4, 20) and finally capitulates to a crowd of Jesus’ insistent opponents (23:23-25). Luke includes an additional hearing before Herod Antipas, a ruler of Galilee, who also cannot find reason to convict Jesus (23:6-15). Through these trial scenes the Gospel highlights that Jesus dies on the cross as an innocent man.

Resurrection appearances

Luke presents Jesus’ resurrection as something other than death’s reversal or a reentry into his former manner of living. When the resurrected Jesus appears to his followers in Luke 24, they experience him as both hidden and recognizable. He certainly is real, an embodied person, but his friends’ minds need to be opened before they can realize who he is. Jesus is resurrected to a new kind of reality. His resurrection brings his followers to a point of new understanding.

Satan’s role

Luke, like Mark and Matthew, describes Jesus encountering Satan in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Yet only Luke’s account of this scene concludes with the ominous statement that the devil went away from Jesus “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). In Luke, this opportune time is Jesus’ passion. By introducing the Passion Narrative with the haunting line, “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Luke 22:3), Luke depicts the story of Jesus’ arrest, suffering, and death as part of the ongoing struggle with Satan.

Similarities with Matthew

About 230 verses in Luke, most of which consist of sayings attributed to Jesus, appear in identical or similar form in Matthew and nowhere else among the biblical Gospels. Hardly any of these sayings, however, appear in the same place in the different orders of events given by Matthew and Luke. This suggests that each author knew about certain sayings attributed to Jesus, but determined independently where to place those sayings within the broader presentation of Jesus’ story. Many scholars conclude that these two Gospel authors were familiar with a written collection of Jesus’ sayings but made use of that collection in different ways, weaving various sayings into each of their narratives so as to lend particular perspectives on Jesus’ life and teachings.

Who was Theophilus? 

In Luke’s prologue (1:1-4) the author addresses a person named Theophilus. Some people think that this Theophilus was an actual historical figure for whom the author prepared a new Gospel. The designation “most excellent Theophilus” may indicate that he was powerful, perhaps a wealthy patron who commissioned the writing of the book. Others suggest, because this common name from the ancient world means either “lover of God” or “beloved by God,” that Theophilus could be the author’s generic designation for any reader. Whether the prologue indicates a real or symbolic reader cannot be known, yet clearly it reflects the author’s purpose for the book–that it was meant to fortify the faith of people who already had been instructed about Jesus Christ.

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