Distinctive Theologies in the Gospel of Luke

Course: Biblical Theology

Lecture: Distinctive Theologies in the Gospel of Luke


I. Introduction

In our first three lectures we looked at the dominant and distinctive theology found by considering the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) together, because of the fact that they are more similar than different in their contents and in their theological emphases.  And we looked at the central message of Jesus in lecture 1, surrounding the kingdom of God.  In lecture 2, we looked at the ethical teachings of how His followers should live, that resulted from His conviction that the kingdom was already but not yet – that it had broken into human history, though not yet fully.  And then in lecture 3, we looked at the Christology, the self-understanding of Jesus implicitly and explicitly: Who and what did He claim to be?  We also looked at additional characteristics, as well as specific titles predicated of Him in the synoptic gospels.  This culminated in a look at the synoptics' understanding of the significance of His death and of His glorious resurrection. 

In the final three lectures in this series, we are now turning to the dominant and distinctive features within each individual gospel.  Since we began with the synoptics corporately, taken together, we proceeded in lecture 4 to return to them in the most probable order in which they were written.   We looked at Mark first, because he is the shortest and because we cannot compare him with any versions of the gospel that may have pre-dated him in narrative form.  There is, by definition, the least that is distinctive, but certainly we saw numerous emphases that were dominant.  Then, recognizing that we are really not in a position to determine if Matthew or Luke wrote one earlier than the other or both approximately the same time shortly after Mark, we simply reverted to the canonical sequence of the gospels.  We looked at the distinctive and dominant theology of Matthew.  In our final lecture, in tape 6, we shall turn to the distinctive and dominant theology of the gospel of John.  That leaves this talk to focus on the gospel of Luke.

II. Key Theological Emphases in the Gospel of Luke

If this were a series dealing with the Gospels and Acts, we should have to take Luke and Acts together.  And, indeed, any theme that appears dominant and distinctive in the gospel of Luke is well-served by turning to Luke's second volume (the Acts of the Apostles) to see how that theme plays out after Jesus' resurrection and ascension in the life of the first generation of Christianity.  But our task is a more modest one here, focusing just on the gospel, much as we did with Matthew and Mark already.

As also with those two gospels, a brief introductory look at the structure (or at least one plausible structure) of the gospel, sets the stage nicely for consideration of distinctive themes.  Mark was divided neatly into two main contrasting halves.  And Matthew, more often than not, replicated material from Mark and in approximately the same order.   Matthew also introduced it with a two-chapter infancy narrative and concluded it with a fuller chapter about the resurrection.  And Matthew then punctuated Mark's account with five major blocks of Jesus' teaching, or sermonic material.

a. The Gospel of Luke Compared to the Gospel of Mark

So too we can examine the way Luke seemingly has both drawn on, as well as amplified and gone his own way, in elaborating Mark.  Like Matthew, Luke too has a two-chapter infancy narrative (Luke 1 and 2).  From 3:1 to 4:13, we find introductory ministry material largely paralleled in Mark and/or Matthew.  In 4:14 to 9:50, Luke follows Mark's structure reasonably closely for the major Galilean ministry, with the notable exception of leaving out, near the end of that period, that segment that has often been called Jesus' withdrawal from Galilee.   Source critics sometimes call this Luke's great omission.

The most noteworthy and distinctive subsection of Luke's gospel proceeds from 9:51 to at least 18:14, in which we read that Jesus, at the outset of this segment, sets His face to go to Jerusalem.  He knows that the time of His departure has come near.  This is, thus, the climatic journey on the road to what will be His passion, crucifixion and resurrection.  This is sometimes called Luke's travel narrative, or otherwise simply just his central section.  In terms of comparing Luke with the other gospels, what is most intriguing about it is that it is an almost nine-chapter segment, more than one-third of the gospel, with only the very briefest of parallels to Mark.  Otherwise, it focuses on material either found elsewhere only in Matthew or that which is entirely unique to Luke, most of which in both of these last two categories are teachings rather than deeds.  And a substantial percentage of these teachings are teachings in parables.

Beginning with 18:15, Luke resumes following Mark's outline, though not quite as closely in 4:14 to 9:50.  He intersperses some of his own distinctive material as well, through to the end of the gospel.  After this he appends, after Christ's death, another lengthier chapter – even lengthier than Matthew's and certainly more so than Mark's – on the resurrection.  This is what we today know as Luke 24.  These may, at first glance, simply appear to be a collection of source critical observations with little theological relevance.  But on closer inspection this is precisely not the case.

b. The Narrative in the Gospel of Luke Continued in the Book of Acts

Here is one place where it is important to be aware of what Luke does in his second volume in Acts.  It has often been observed that Acts 1:8 forms a paradigm, or an outline in a nutshell, of the entire narrative flow of Luke's second volume.  Jesus tells the twelve that they shall be His witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and ultimately to the uttermost parts of the world.  We might add that technically there are only eleven at this point, but both Luke and John know of occasions when the expression "twelve" simply means the group of closest disciples to Christ.  As the book of Acts unfolds, then, we see this outline fleshed out.  The church in Jerusalem occupies the opening panel (1:1-6:7).  Then Stephen's martyrdom leads to persecution and to the gospel expanding to Judea and to Samaria.  And then ultimately the gospel expands throughout the Gentile world, culminating at the end of Acts with the gospel having made it as far as Rome.  This may not be the uttermost parts of the known-world in the first century, but certainly reflected the capital city and heart of the empire that was in power over the vast majority of that part of the world that was known to the first apostles.

That outline reflects in reverse sequence precisely the geographical outline that results in the gospel of Luke, once one observes the ways in which Luke does or does not parallel Mark or Matthew.  The opening chapters of Luke, despite parallels in part with the infancy narratives of Matthew, nevertheless go beyond what Matthew tells us – both in detail and also in placing the birth of Jesus squarely in the context of events of world history and Roman rule (see especially Luke 2:1 and 3:1).  Then we have, given the great omission (given Luke's omitting the withdrawal from Galilee), except for the briefest of excursions across the Sea of Galilee and back, almost entirely Jesus ministering in Galilee.  Galilee had been known since Isaiah's time in the eighth century B.C. as Galilee of the Gentiles, because of the greater Gentile population in that province of Israel than in either Samaria or in Judea to the south. From there the travel narrative finds Jesus navigating, in itinerant fashion, solely in Samaria and Judea.  The passion narrative of Luke and indeed the resurrection appearances in Luke remain exclusively in and around Jerusalem, setting Luke's narrative off in the this respect from the other gospels.

Thus, we have a kind of hourglass, or inverted parallel structure, for the outline of Luke and Acts together.  From the birth of Jesus in the context of world history and Roman rule to Jesus in Galilee of the Gentiles to Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem with the resurrection narrated.  The resurrection is then briefly repeated at the beginning of Acts, with the ascension briefly mentioned at the end of Luke.  And then the ascension is more fully narrated at the beginning of Acts.  Here is the climactic center of this extended chiasm, or inverted parallelism.  And then the hourglass bends outward again with the church in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, throughout the Gentile world and the preaching of the gospel by Paul extending as far as Rome, the heart and center of the known world of that day.

Luke is very much concerned to highlight the central significance of the resurrection and the ascension.  He is to be, as it were, the first Christian historian thinking in terms of world events and not just Jewish history.  He is one who thinks geographically, but who uses geography in service of theology.  He is one who sees the focal point of the gospel in the person of Jesus of Nazareth coming to the Jerusalem temple, the focal point of God's dealings with humanity to this point, only to spread outward again in its evangelistic thrust to (borrowing the language of Acts 1:8) the uttermost parts of the earth.  This parallels the picture of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, of making disciples of all the peoples or of all the Gentiles.

c. Luke's View of Jesus

1. Jesus' Compassion for Outcasts

We should not be surprised, then, when we turn to distinctive or dominant views of Jesus, that we find His humanity shining through and His compassion for the outcast of His world more clearly and centrally in Luke than in any of the other gospels.  Luke does, indeed, use such titles common to the others – such as Christ, Son of God, and Lord – but they are not nearly as prominent as they are elsewhere.  What strikes most readers of Luke's gospel is how Jesus' humanity shines through.

Four groups of outcast stand out in particular, Samaritans and Gentiles; tax-collectors and sinners (an unusual expression linking one particularly notorious up-and-out category of individuals (as opposed to down-and-out) at least with respect to their socioeconomic status with other notorious outcasts); thirdly women; and fourthly the poorest of the poor.

i. Samaritans and Gentiles

As examples of Luke's distinctive concern for Samaritans and Gentiles, only he records the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), or the Story of the Ten Lepers, the only one of which who returned to give thanks to Jesus for His physical healing and thus experiences spiritual healing, was surprisingly the Samaritan (17:11-19).  Jesus does not, because of the omission of the withdrawal from Galilee, minister directly to Gentiles in the ways that He does in Matthew and Mark.  But such details as the sending of the servants a second time further afield to bring in more people to the master's banqueting table in a parable like that of the Great Supper (14:23) may well hint at what certainly becomes a dominant theme – outreach to Gentiles wherever they may be found – by the time we reach the book of Acts.

ii. Tax-Collectors and Sinners

Tax-collectors and sinners are well illustrated with texts like 5:30, 7:34 and 15:1.  The last of these introduces the chapter of the three Parables of the Lost, culminating in the most famous and perhaps best illustration, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  See also the parable of the Pharisee and Tax-collector (18:9-14) and the conversion of Zacchaeus (19:1-10). 

iii. More Women Mentioned Specifically than in Other Gospels

Luke has far more women in his account than do the other gospels.  The birth narratives appear recounted, it would seem, from the perspectives of Elizabeth and Mary – as opposed more to perhaps Joseph's perspective at least in Matthew 1.  In addition to the male prophet Simeon, there appears the even more elderly female prophetess Anna, recognizing the birth of the Christ-child in the temple in Jerusalem (2:25-38).  Pairs of parables in distinctive fashion in Luke's gospel balance male and female roles characteristic of the day – such as the Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven (13:18-21), the man's farming occupation, the woman's bread-baking occupation; or the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (15:3-10).  Both a woman and a man are healed of their crippling diseases on differing Sabbath days (13:10-17; 14:1-6).  And, in what no doubt was a scandalous event at the time, Jesus announces the forgiveness of sins and praises the unnamed prostitute's behavior when she crashes the party at the house of Simon the Pharisee, lets down her hair, anoints Jesus' feet with oil and wipes the feet with her hair.  One modern commentator on the gospel of Luke, Joel Green, has likened this action to a woman appearing in a formal dinner party in the Western world today topless.  Jesus, in Luke, also praises Mary's devotion to His teaching, over against the culturally expected domestic duties of Martha (10:38-42).  And it is only in the gospel of Luke where we read and hear of the names of those more well-to-do women (8:1-3) who formed what today might be called the support team of Jesus and the apostles.  They paid for their traveling provisions and, indeed, accompanied them on the road – mixed company in context that would have, at the very least, left the door open for great suspicions of scandal in Jesus' day. 

iv. Jesus' Ministry to the Poor

For examples of His ministry to the poor in Luke, we may consider the fact that the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Plain (beginning Luke 6:20) speak literally of you poor being blessed, rather than the poor in spirit as in Matthew.  Or, in Jesus' headline synagogue sermon at Nazareth (4:18), He pronounces the fulfillment of the ministry of the anointed Spirit of the Lord as prophesied in Isaiah to preach good news to the poor.  The various teachings in the Parable of the Great Supper and the introductory illustrations that lead into it (14:7-24) all demonstrate God's concern for the sick and dispossessed, who are unable to help themselves or return favors.  And the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) vindicates the neglected, presumably pious poor man (since his name means God helps) at the expense of the rich, but obviously godless, unnamed dweller and feaster in luxury, who recognizes at the end that his family has not repented or become right with God.  Presumably thus he acknowledges that his lot in this earthly life had been similar. 

2. Savior

A title that is entirely distinctive to the gospel of Luke, and at the same time, perhaps, best sums up the themes of his focus on Jesus' compassion for outcasts and His humanity, is Savior.  In the famous Christmas-card text (2:11), the angel announces: "Today in the City of David is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord."  We find the term again in Luke 19:10 in its verbal cognate or equivalent word.  Howard Marshall and others have speculated that this text best sums up the theology of all of the gospel of Luke: "The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost."

3. Prophet

Another subordinate title, at least in terms of frequency, is prophet.  Unique to Luke's account is Jesus' resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain (7:11-17).  Near the end of this paragraph, the crowds recognize presumably the parallels to Elisha's resurrection of the Shunammite widow's son (2 Kings 4:8-37).  They respond that a great prophet has appeared among us.  Elsewhere in a passage found only in Luke (13:33), Jesus refers to Himself as a prophet.  Several scholars have found the entire travel narrative, or central section, echoing key themes of Deuteronomy – including Jesus sent, as Moses had been, as God's messenger prophetically warning a hardhearted and stiff-necked generation about its coming destruction, and yet experiencing predominantly rejection nevertheless.  Indeed, Luke's distinctive use of the Old Testament is best summed up as a prophetic, as well as Christological use.  All of the Scriptures point to Him and must be fulfilled by Him (see especially Luke 24:25 and 44).

4. Jesus Teaches in Parables

If in Matthew Jesus is the teacher and the teacher of ethics par excellence, in Luke He is the teacher preeminently in parables.  Of the roughly 40 passages most commonly classified as parables in the gospels, approximately 28 appear in Luke and 15 are unique to this particular gospel.  Unlike some of the more enigmatic narratives in Mark and Matthew, many of Luke's parables are less cryptic and more straightforward.  They offer simple examples to be imitated, or at least offer that much with perhaps bonus insights for more expert Christians.  One thinks, especially again of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but also of the Rich Fool (12:13-21) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) and the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax-collector (18:9-14).

5. Jesus as the Resurrected and Exalted One, and Benefactor

Finally, there is some distinctive and/or dominant emphasis in the gospel of Luke, as we have already seen, to Jesus as the resurrected and the exalted One and also to Jesus as benefactor.  Luke 22:24-30 deals with servanthood, but without the distinctive and crucial Suffering Servant and ransom saying of Mark 10:45.  Instead, Luke as, no doubt, the one Gentile author in the New Testament writing to the most Gentile of audiences (possibly in and around Antioch, or else in Achaia in Greece, some have even suggested Philippi in the northern half of Greece in the province of Macedonia), Luke has perhaps a slightly more well-to-do clientele.  Hence the warnings about the dangers of wealth, and not to follow the cultural presuppositions of patronage of that practice of reciprocity where one favor always demands another in return.  Unlike the typical Greek benefactor who must be paid back for caring for the needy, Christians are not to treat their fellow believers that way.  Rather they are to see God as the only benefactor – the One who they cannot literally pay back  at all, because He gives His mercy in a wholly undeserved fashion.  They are to respond in gratitude, with a life of service to Him (recall again 14:12-14). 

d. Themes in the Gospel of Luke

1. Stewardship of Material Possessions

Other distinctive themes in Luke, then, flow from these, including a broad interest in the theme of riches and poverty and, more specifically, of the stewardship of material possessions by those who have a surplus.  Closely related to His concern for the poor is Jesus' emphasis on His followers not accumulating or hoarding riches for themselves.  It is only in Luke where, rather than eight beatitudes as in Matthew, Luke balances his four beatitudes which he has chosen to present, with four woes against the opposite characteristic traits – the rich, the well-fed, the laughing and well-spoken of, but those who do not share in the Christian commitment and the Christian commitment to the poor and the needy and the sorrowful and the maligned as the outgrowth of that allegiance to Jesus.

Only Luke has the poetic statements, possibly even hymnic outbursts, by Mary and Zechariah in the opening chapters in the infancy narratives of Luke 1 and 2.  These describe what some have called the great reversal, with the powerful brought down from their thrones and positions of power and the lowly in Israel exalted.  Again the parables of the Rich Fool and the Rich Man and Lazarus fit in here and warn sharply those who spend all their riches simply to improve their own lifestyles or standards of living.  The Unjust Steward (16:1-13) is commended, not for his injustice, but for his shrewd use of wealth.  Believers must model this trait, but use their wealth wisely for kingdom objectives.

Not all Christians are called to give up everything as the rich, young ruler was (18:18-30).  Indeed, he is the only character in all of the Bible who is so challenged.  Zacchaeus, shortly afterwards in chapter 19, voluntarily gives up half and promises to restore fourfold to any he has defrauded.  And the Parable of the Minas or Pounds (19:11-27) suggests it is possible even to invest money and make more of it, as long as one recognizes that one will be held accountable for all of it, because all of it is on loan from the master.  Again, there is no fixed percentage of what Jesus' followers are told to give away or to keep.  The point is they must be good stewards of all of it.  But giving generously and sacrificially, at least for the more well-to-do nations of the world and their inhabitants, usually requires giving considerably more than a tenth of one's annual income rather than justifying giving less. 

2. The Question of the Jews' Ongoing Obedience to the Law

The theme of the Jewish people and the question of their ongoing obedience to the law is an issue for the gospel of Luke, that becomes even more prominent in the Acts of the Apostles.  Some have wondered if Luke has, in fact, a more positive view of Judaism and the Jewish leaders than the other gospels do.  For example, Pharisees invite Jesus to their homes (chapters 7 and 14).  Jewish leaders warn him about Herod (13:31).  The gospel climaxes and Acts begins with Jesus in and around the temple in Jerusalem which Luke acknowledges as God's holy place (Acts  6).  And Luke seems to go out of his way to describe how individuals during Jesus' ministry and in the decades afterwards still obey Jewish law in the gospel alone (see for example 1:6; 1:59; 2:21-24).

On the other hand, it would appear that Luke's emphases, when he deviates from his sources, particularly by the time we see the gospel moving out to ever less and less Jewish territory in the book of Acts, suggests otherwise.  While it is certainly a historical fact that there was no single day or month or year before or after Jesus' death and resurrection when His followers all realized that the sacrificial system of the temple, and therefore the entire Mosaic law, could no longer be obeyed in unchanged fashion and therefore no longer need be so followed.  It appears rather that Luke's emphasis, given the ever-outward focus of the geographical and cultural expansion of the gospel, is that, in spite of the transitional period of the days surrounding Jesus' life and death, he is more concerned to show how the gospel and Christianity eventually became free from the Mosaic law, either as a means to salvation or as a required necessary body of principles that Jesus' followers must obey – at least, without understanding how these might be fulfilled in Christ and therefore changed in application.

3. Luke as the First Christian Historian

We have already seen how Luke can be thought of as the first Christian historian, not least because he is the only one we know of who does go on to pin a book like the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel a gospel.  He recognizes Jesus' story as simply one more epic in unfolding world history and of the history of salvation, or of God's dealings with humanity.  And he recognizes the age begun at Pentecost, what many since have often called the church age, as being the era or epic that follows this.

4. The Gospel of Luke has Less of an Emphasis on Imminent Eschatology

Closely tied to this line of historical thinking is less of an emphasis on imminent eschatology (the very soon return of Christ) and more of an acknowledgment of the possibility that the parousia (or second coming of Jesus) might be somewhat delayed.  Thus, the teachings of Jesus in Luke can, more so than in other gospels, allow for the possibility that someone may have to fear death or at least deal with the prospect of death prior to Christ's return as the way in which one's earthly life will end (see for example the Parable of the Rich Fool, and again, of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or even that of the thief on the cross and Jesus' promise to him in 23:43 that today he should be with Him in paradise).  Parables like those of the Watchful Servants (12:35-38) or the introduction to the Parable of the Pounds (19:11), as well as the additional material about the times of the Gentiles in which the temple in Jerusalem will be overrun in Christ's Olivet Discourse (21:20-24), all play down an overly enthusiastic approach to the necessarily immediate return of Jesus, while never completely ruling out that possibility.  Indeed, a text like Luke 17:20-37 balances both present and future hope with respect to eschatology.  But it is clearly the future that has receded in importance in Luke, compared to Mark and Matthew, and the present, the already of the already not yet to mention, that comes to the fore.  This trend will simply become even more prominent when we turn to the gospel of John. 

5. The Role of Satan

Additional themes in the survey of the dominant and distinctive theology of the gospel of Luke include the role of Satan.  It would appear that he comes, not merely in the temptation narratives at the beginning of Jesus' public period of ministry (see 4:1ff) in a particularly heinous fashion, but after departing (see the end of that passage in 4:12-13), only to await an opportune time to reappear.  Temporary such times appear when Jesus encounters demons and has to exorcise them from individuals they are possessing.  A particularly prominent moment comes after the sending out of the seventy (10:18-19).  It is reported that the disciples too are enabled to make demons flee and Jesus praises His Heavenly Father that Satan has fallen from heaven like lightening. But at 22:31, he returns with a flurry of hostile activity, entering into Judas Iscariot and preparing him for his acts of betraying Jesus over to the Jewish authorities.  Nevertheless, all of Luke, like the book of Acts, is pervaded by a progression of events that can scarcely leave in doubt Luke's conviction that God, with a sovereign plan, is in charge. 

6. God through the Holy Spirit Guides and Controls History

Indeed, a still further dominant and distinctive piece of Luke's theology reflects a primary way in which God is in charge and guides the events of human history, namely by His Holy Spirit.  The Spirit appears considerably more often in Luke than in Matthew and Mark.  Characteristic expression in both Luke and Acts is that someone is filled with the Spirit – a phenomenon that can recur repeatedly in the same individual or a group of individuals and always leads to bold proclamation of and service for the gospel (see for example Luke 1:15, 41; Acts 2:4; 4:31).  The Holy Spirit empowers Jesus but also all of His followers for many other kinds of ministries too.

i. Prayer

One of these is prayer, another dominant and distinctive theme in Luke, at least relatively speaking.  Prayer is the central focus of three parables unique to this gospel: the Friend at Midnight (11:5-8), the Persistent Widow (18:1-8) and the Pharisee and Tax-collector (18:9-14).  And it features prominently and distinctively at key moments in Christ's own life (see for example 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28).

ii Joy

Yet again, another distinctive and somewhat more common aspect of life in the Spirit in the gospel of Luke is joy.  The infancy narratives are filled with joyful hymns or poetic prose.  And the word joy (Greek chara) and its cognates is unusually common throughout the gospel (for example 1:14; 2:10; 10:17; 15:7, 10).  And again, the related verbs to rejoice and to praise are likewise more frequent in Luke than in other gospels.

7. Summary

What are we to make of all of these distinctives?  We have seen that Mark was the gospel written to, first of all, Roman Christians in the 60s as suffering was intensifying or on the verge of intensifying.  The failures of the twelve were, in a somewhat backhanded way, meant to comfort and encourage those who felt inadequate to the task of discipleship in Rome.  They knew that, despite those failures, the disciples were subsequently forgiven and used mightily.

We have seen that Matthew is the most Jewish of the synoptics and perhaps of all four of the gospels.  It has the greatest links to the Old Testament.  And yet, it also has some of the most sharply critical words for the Jewish leaders.  It reflects the context of the "synagogue across the street", which has recently broken fellowship with and expelled those of its members who have acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah.

Luke, no doubt, is the most Gentile of the gospels written for the most uniformly Gentile of Christian audiences.  Theophilus is a Greek name.  He is one who is either a seeker or inquirer after the God of the Christians or a young convert.  This leads Luke (1:4) to explain that he is writing so that Theophilus might know the certainty of the things about which he has been taught.  Luke, then, is also more likely the gospel writer who is, as a physician, perhaps slightly better off.  Certainly doctors in the ancient world did not consistently enjoy the high socioeconomic standing they do today.   Even more probably he is writing to a Christian church in the larger Gentile world that is beginning to have a slightly larger minority of what we would call middle- or even upper-class followers of Jesus.  He is helping them to recognize the dangers of materialism and a key way of avoiding them: namely, generous, even sacrificial stewardship of material possessions, as well as a focus on the needs even more generally of the poor and outcast of the first century Roman Empire in which Luke was writing.  All of these themes clearly prove crucial in today's dramatically variegated world as well.