Understanding the Gospel of Luke

by Jan 5, 2022The Bible

This weekend, we’re kicking off our new message series in the Gospel of Luke. We began the first chapter as we journeyed through Advent together in December. As we continue, we will see a beautiful account of Jesus’ ministry unfold.

Walking through Luke’s gospel together, we want to help you read it on your own. Here are a few things to know about this special book that will guide you along the way.

The Author

Comparing the beginning of this gospel with the beginning of Acts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2), it’s apparent that the same author wrote both books. The early church unanimously believed this author to be Luke, and there’s no good reason to doubt that. For example, it’s clear from the book of Acts that the author travelled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys, and we learn from Paul’s letters that one of his co-workers was a man named Luke (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). That Luke was a doctor comes from the Colossians reference. 

Luke had travelled with Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17). In Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and was imprisoned there for two years before being sent to Rome (along with Luke) to appear before Caesar (Acts 24:27; 27:1). It’s possible Luke spent these two years doing the research he talks about in Luke 1:1-4. Being in the region where Jesus ministered would have given him many eyewitnesses to interview.

The Structure of the Gospel

1:1-2:52 – Jesus’ infancy and childhood
3:1-4:13 – Jesus’ preparation for ministry
4:14-9:50 – Ministry in Galilee
9:51-19:44 – Traveling to Jerusalem
19:45-24:53 – Final days in Jerusalem

The Major Themes

Several interrelated themes are present in Luke’s gospel:

The Fulfillment of God’s Plan
Luke insists that God is working out his purposes in human history, first through Jesus (The Gospel of Luke), and then through the church (The Book of Acts). God has fulfilled his long-promised plan of salvation through Jesus, who is the continuation and culmination of everything that has happened in the Old Testament.

As if to emphasize this, Luke frequently uses the Greek word dei (“it is necessary”) in his Gospel. Thus, the child Jesus “must be in [his] Fathers’ house” (2:49); it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer…and enter into his glory” (24:26); everything about Jesus in the Scriptures “must be fulfilled” (24:44).

The Poor, Oppressed, Marginalized
A major theme in Luke’s Gospel is God’s care for people who were seen as insignificant in the society of his day. Specifically, this referred to women, children, the poor, and disreputable “sinners”. Luke thus gives a prominent place to women in his gospel (1:5-2:52; 7:36-50; 8:1-4; 10:38-42; 15:8-10). He’s the only writer who records a scene from Jesus’ childhood (2:41-51). He shows Jesus proclaiming “good news to the poor” (4:18) and blessing them while also pronouncing a “Woe” to the rich (6:20, 24). He writes about Jesus eating with “tax collectors and sinners” like Zaccheus (5:30; 15:1; 19:1-10).

Related to this is a theme that’s been called “the great reversal” in Luke, where God flips the world’s values on its head. Mary sings about how God brings down the mighty and exalts the humble (2:52). In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, it is the tax collector who is right in God’s eyes, not the Pharisee (18:9-14). The beggar Lazarus is carried off to paradise after death while the rich man ends up in a place of suffering (16:19-31). And it is the Samaritan who has mercy on a man in need, not the (Jewish) priest and Levite (10:25-37).

The Universality of the Gospel Message
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was called to be the hope for all of fallen humanity, and this thought is never far from Luke’s mind. By tracing Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam (3:23-38), he indicates that Jesus is the hope of all humanity, not just Israel. He records elderly Simeon calling the infant Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles (2:32). And while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all quote Isaiah 40:3 when talking about John the Baptist (“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD’”), only Luke goes on to quote Isaiah 40:5: “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (3:6)

Additionally, we see Jesus making a Samaritan (hated by the Jews) the hero of one of his parables (10:25-37); he holds up the faith of a Roman centurion as something for Israel to emulate (7:1-10); and he tells his followers that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24:47).

This theme becomes even more prominent in Acts, where Luke shows how the message about Jesus moves from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and eventually to Rome itself.

The Holy Spirit and Prayer
Luke frequently refers to the Holy Spirit in his writings (especially in Acts). For example, he references the Spirit several times in the birth and infancy narratives (1:15, 35, 67; 2:25-27). Jesus is “anointed” with the Spirit (4:18; 3:22), and he is also “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” and returns “in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (4:1, 14).

Prayer also is a frequent focus of Luke’s. He recounts Jesus himself praying (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 10:21; 11:1; 22:41; 23:46), Jesus’ parables about prayer (11:5-13; 18:1-8, 9-14), and numerous other encouragements for his disciples to pray.

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