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Introduction to the Gospel According to Luke

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General Info

Like the other two Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Mark), Luke’s primary purpose for his gospel is to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God, and to provide a account of selected teachings and events of His life and mission.  As a historian, Luke’s Gospel is very orderly, scholarly, and through, often including details not found in the parallel accounts of the other gospels.  Indeed, his historical accuracies have been proven the most trustworthy of any produced in antiquity.  As a doctor, he places an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, presenting Him as our Kinsman redeemer.  Luke also shows great interest in social issues.

Since he was probably a Gentile, Luke describes the arrival of Jesus as good news for both Jews and non-Jews alike, and for people of all genders and social classes.  While Matthew wrote to the Jews and Mark to the Romans, Luke’s Gospel is much more universal in its appeal.  He represents Jesus the Jewish Messiah as the Savior to the entire world, proclaiming that all who believe in Him will receive the promised Holy Spirit.

See our Introduction to the Gospels for additional information on its relationship with the other synoptic books.

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Brief Survey

In the first section of the book (1:1-4:13), Luke records the birth stories of Jesus and John the Baptist in a Jewish manner, showing the Jewish roots of the Gospel message to come.  He then sets the stage for Jesus’ public ministry by documenting His baptism, temptation, and by tracing His ancestry through David and Abraham back to Adam, the first man.

Luke then moves to give an account of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee (4:14-9:50).  During this time, Jesus calls His disciples and demonstrates the authority of His teachings through various miracles such as healing the sick and casting out demons.  Even at this early date, conflicts arose with the Jewish religious leaders over Jesus’ teachings and actions, particularly in regard to the Sabbath.  As with the other Synoptics, the climax of the Galilean ministry is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed by Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer and die in Jerusalem.

This leads us into the next section (9:51-19:27), in which Jesus travels toward Jerusalem to fulfill this mission.  During the journey, we are treated to many of Jesus most beloved parables and stories such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Zacchaeus narrative, at the end of which Jesus states His reason for the incarnation, namely that "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost" (19:10).

In the final phase of the book (19:28-24:53), we reach Passion Week, the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  We thus witness His Triumphal Entry, concluding teachings, and some final confrontations with the Jewish leaders which led to His betrayal, arrest, mock trial and execution.  Of course, the story doesn’t end with the death of Jesus, as Luke informs us of His resurrection, appearances and His ascension to the Father in heaven.

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Key Verses

But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." (1:30-33)

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (2:8-12)

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John [the Baptist] might possibly be the Christ.  John answered them all, "I baptize you with water.  But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (3:15-16)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach 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."  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (4:16-21)

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.  If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you. (6:27-31)

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?"  They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life."  "But what about you?" he asked.  Who do you say I am?"  Peter answered, "The Messiah of God." (9:18-20)

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (13:34-35)

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be handed over to the Gentiles.  They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again." (18:31-32)

For the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost." (19:10)

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."  And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." (22:17-19)

He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."  An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. (22:41-43)

They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?"  He [Jesus] replied, "You are right in saying I am." (22:70)

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man." (23:44-47)

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.  In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen! (24:1-6)

He [Jesus] said to them [the Apostles], "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."  Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. (24:44-48)

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Author, Date and Recipients

In most Bibles, all four Gospels are introduced by the title, "The Gospel According to …" which assigns them to a specific author; however, these titles are not part of the original manuscripts.  The Gospel of Luke does not identify its author, but from Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3, along with the language and structure of each, we have a clear indication that both books were written by the same author and addressed to a "most excellent Theophilus", probably a Roman dignitary (see the "Purpose" chapter below).  The strongest internal evidence comes from the "we" sections in Acts (chapters 16, 20, 21 and 27) which indicates that the author was with the Apostle Paul during the events described in these passages.  Most of Paul’s other traveling companions can be eliminated, leaving Luke as the most likely candidate.  His authorship is also externally supported by the unanimous testimony of early Christian writings such as the Muratorian Canon (170 AD), the works of Irenaeus (~180 AD), and others.  In addition, Paul refers to Luke as his close companion in several of his canonical letters.

According to the early fourth century historian Eusebius, Luke was a Gentile, possibly born in Antioch (Syria) or Philippi, making him the only non-Jewish writer of canonical Scripture.  He was also a physician who was well educated in the Greek culture.  He was not an apostle or eye-witness to the events, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made a personal thorough investigation based on the testimonies of "eyewitnesses and servants of the Word" (1:2), including the Apostle Paul, from whom Luke received his apostolic authority.  Eusebius reports that Paul used the expression "According to My Gospel" when quoting from Luke (Ecclesiastical History 3.4.7).

The suggested date for the writing of Luke’s Gospel varies from the late 50s to the late 60s AD.  The omission of certain events such as the persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero (65 AD) and the martyrdom of Paul (64-67 AD) argue for an earlier date.  The most likely period of time is probably 59-63 AD.  We are uncertain of the exact location of the writing.  The most popular speculation is Rome, but Ephesus, Caesarea, and Achaia (southern Greece) have also been suggested.   See the  "Author and Date" and "Synoptics" chapters of Introduction to the  Gospels and The Acts for additional information.

Although the immediate recipient was Theophilus, the Gospel of Luke was also intended for a larger audience of Romans, Gentile Christians, and some Jewish Christians who had been dispersed from the home land.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background for the Gospels.

More than any other Gospel writer, Luke affirms that the story of Jesus is a historical message, and he assures his readers that the gospel message is authentic.  He emphasizes that his account is based on reliable eyewitness testimony (1:1-4) and methodically places Jesus’ ministry in history with reference to the places, events, and officials of his day.  Because of these meticulous details, Luke’s gospel and the Acts have been rigorously attacked by modern historical critics, however, as more and more archaeological and other evidences are discovered which verify Luke's accounts, not a single statement in his Gospel or in the Acts has shown to be in error.

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Except for the genealogy, which goes back several thousand years to the first man, Luke’s gospel spans the time period from the birth of Jesus (~6-4 BC) though His ascension (30 or 33 AD).

37-4 BC Herod the Great reign as King of Judea
~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
~ 8 AD Jesus visits the Temple as a Boy
~ 26 AD Beginning of John the Baptist's ministry
~ 28 AD Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry
~ 26-36 Pontius Pilate severs as Governor of Judea
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
~ 35 Paul’s Conversion
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 49-52 Luke accompanies Paul on his Second Missionary Journey
~ 53-57 Luke accompanies Paul on his Third Missionary Journey
~ 58-63 Gospel of Luke written
~ 59-63 Luke accompanies Paul on his Journey to Rome
~ 64-67 Paul is Martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Luke’s ultimate purpose and theme is stated in the opening four verses of the Gospel, that is, to compile and provide an orderly narrative of the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word.  It was written to strengthen the faith of all believers, to assure them of the reliability of what they had been taught, and to answer the attacks of unbelievers.  Luke realized that Christianity was not based upon blind faith, but on absolutely reliable facts based upon fulfilled prophecy.  Thus, we can say that Luke-Acts is an inspired work of apologetics for the Christian faith.

Of course, the cornerstone of this faith is Jesus, whom Luke affirms as the Messiah promised in the OT Scriptures, including His sinless life, substitutionary death, and resurrection for the purpose of bringing salvation to the world.  His servants (the church) were now to take this message to the ends of the earth.

Two other closely related themes are the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and His disciples.  The Spirit is present throughout the book, from the birth of John the Baptist to the ascension, at which Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit would also come in power in the future (referring to Pentecost – See Acts 2).  The Kingdom was now actually present in a real sense in this world, although its complete consummation is still in the future.

Luke also places great emphasis on social concerns such as God’s love for the poor, sinners, outsiders (such as Samaritans), women and children.  We see the themes of the first becoming last, the last becoming first, the proud and arrogant being brought low, and the humble being exalted.  Jesus came to heal the sick (sinners) rather than the healthy (self-righteous).  He was a friend of sinners and reserved His harshest words for the hypocrites.

Finally, Luke wanted to show that Gentile Christians could claim a place in God’s kingdom is based on the teaching of Jesus, and that the preaching of the gospel was meant for the whole world.  He emphasizes that Christianity is not a completely new religion, but rather it is the fulfillment of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in accordance with God’s divine plan.  Although the church was begun by Jews, many rejected Jesus as their Messiah and would come under God’s judgment, a pattern which becomes event more prominent in Acts.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The Gospel of Luke should be read as a distinct account of the life of Christ, but also interpreted in the context of the other Gospels.  Luke’s Gospel should be also be read and interpreted alongside its companion volume, the book of Acts.  Luke and Acts were both written by the same author to the same immediate recipient.  When Luke wrote his Gospel, he almost certainly had already begun formulating the writing of Acts in his mind, so the books function as having a literary and theological unity.  Many themes introduced in his Gospel, such as the offer of salvation to the Gentiles, are concluded or greatly expanded in the book of Acts.  Scholars commonly refer to this single two-volume work as "Luke–Acts".

The Gospels and the Acts should subsequently be understood within the primary themes of the New Testament as a whole which, in turn, must be understood as emerging from the OT background of God’s fulfilled promises in His dealings with mankind.  When reading Luke (or any other book of the Bible), we should seek first the intent of the author by careful investigation of the context, and the historical and cultural background of his writing, keeping in mind that there is both a human author and divine Author of Scripture.

Like the other Gospels, Luke should be interpreted according to the rules of genre governing gospels and narratives.  Since Luke is arguably the most educated, prolific, and creative of the human authors of the Gospels we should also take note of his wide range of subgenres.  Within the narratives alone, we have pronouncements, birth, temptation, callings, conflicts and controversies, miracles, prophecies, trials, and sermons, just to name a few.  In addition, Luke treats us to genealogies, parables, praise psalms and proverbs.  Yet, with the diversity of literary styles, the Gospel is held together by the unifying theme of the Person of Jesus Christ and his primary task of seeking and saving the lost (19:10).

When reading Luke or Acts, we must be aware of the tension that existed between early Christianity and Judaism during the time of the events and the writings.  See Interpretation Hints for the Gospels for more information.

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Luke can be divided into four basic sections.  The pre-ministry of Jesus is recorded through 4:13, beginning with a birth narrative similar to Matthew.  Jesus’ ministry is then divided into the three remaining sections, structurally following the basic geographical outline of Mark.  We find the events in and around Galilee in 4:14-9:50, the journey to Jerusalem in 9:51-19:27 (an expansion of Mark’s chapter 10), and Passion Week through the ascension from 19:28 to the end of the book.

1:1 – 1:80 The Preface; The Annunciations; The Birth of John the Baptist
2:1 - 2:52 The Birth and Childhood of Jesus
3:1 - 4:13 Preparation for the Public Ministry of Jesus; John the Baptist as the Forerunner; The Baptism, Genealogy and Temptation of Jesus
4:14 – 5:39 Jesus' Early Galilean Ministry; Calling of First Disciples; First Miracles (Demonstration of His Authority) and Preaching
5:17 – 7:17 Sabbath Controversies with the Jewish Leaders; Healings and Teachings
7:18 – 7:50 Messengers from John the Baptist; Disagreements with the Pharisees
8:1 – 8:21 Parables of the Kingdom
8:22 – 8:56 Third Tour of Galilee; Healings and Teachings, Jesus Calms the Storm
9:1 – 9:50 Jesus and the Twelve Apostles; Feeding of the Five Thousand and other Miracles; Withdrawal from Galilee; Peter's Confession of the Messiah; The Transfiguration; Jesus Foretells His Death
9:51 – 10:42 Jesus Begins His Journey to Judea; The Good Samaritan; Mary and Martha
11:1 – 13:21 Jesus Teaches in Judea; The Lord’s Prayer
13:22 – 19:27 Journey to Jerusalem Continues; Teachings, Parables and Healings; The Narrow Door; Jesus’ Lament over Jerusalem’s Unbelief; The Coming of the Kingdom; Jesus Predicts His Death
19:28 – 23:56 The Passion of the Christ (the Last Week); The Triumphal Entry; Clearing of the Temple; Final Controversies with Jewish Leaders; Signs of the End of the Age; Passover; Institution of the Lord's Supper; Peter's Denial; The Arrest, Trial, and Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
24:1 – 24:53 The Resurrection of Jesus; Appearance on the Road to Emmaus and to His Disciples; The Ascension of Jesus

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