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Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen of the Roman Empire during the first century. You are living at a time of peace and prosperity under the reign of the caesar, whom many call “lord.” Most of your life you have admired Jewish ethics, even though you reject practices like circumcision. Perhaps you have even become a God-fearer, a Gentile who embraces Jewish monotheism without adopting the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic law.
Now imagine that you have just heard the gospel of salvation from a man named Paul. This apostle has told you that lordship belongs only to God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, though you must respect the civil authority. You have heard that those who submit to this Jesus can become a full heir of the promises to the Jewish people without adopting the Jewish ritual calendar, food laws, or circumcision. Hearing this good news, you have begun to follow Jesus as a part of the sect that outsiders pejoratively call “Christian.”
Under the influence of Greek philosophy, many pagans laugh at your beliefs that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and later raised Him from the dead. To your chagrin, most of your Jewish friends have not bowed the knee to Jesus. Some are amazed that you, a Gentile, think the God of Israel has accepted you as Abraham’s child without taking on the yoke of the Law. To make matters worse, news has come from Paul and his friends Peter and John that some who bear the name Christian are not disciples of Jesus at all. People claiming to be apostles are teaching false things about Jesus’ life and ministry.
What are you to do with all this? How do you know that God really became incarnate and that Jesus was resurrected? Do you have any proof that you, a heathen Gentile, can now be incorporated into the story of Israel? Will you be able to differentiate between those who tell the truth about Jesus from those who are liars?
All these questions should get us thinking about the purpose for writing a gospel at all, let alone the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Having had copies of the entire New Testament our whole lives, we might think that the four gospels are monolithic in their intent and emphases. Certainly, the four gospels are for all readers and present the facts about Jesus so that we might follow Him as Lord and Savior. None of the Evangelists, however, wrote in a vacuum. Each of them had in mind a primary audience with specific needs, and this influenced their choice of episodes to highlight in their writings. Understanding the emphases of each gospel gives us richer insight into the person and work of Christ than if we had only one gospel.
Fortunately, Luke’s gospel opens with an explicit statement of the evangelist’s purpose — to provide certainty to one Theophilus through an orderly account of the life of Christ (1:1–4). Apparently, several stories about Jesus were circulating at the time, probably records of individual episodes in His life, and Luke wanted to offer a more complete history of the Savior’s ministry to Theophilus and other readers. Using these fragmentary records, the other gospels, interviews with eyewitnesses, and so on, Luke sat down, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, to give Theophilus a written document that would address his concerns.
As we would expect, our Father’s providence uniquely equipped Luke to record an orderly account of our Savior’s life and ministry. As Paul’s most faithful traveling companion (2 Tim. 4:11), Luke must have received a great deal of information about Jesus not only from Paul himself but also from the apostles with whom Paul had contact. We also know that Luke was a trained physician (Col. 4:14) whose education would have been an invaluable asset for helping him do the research and writing necessary to compose his gospel. Furthermore, God was the one who provided Luke a friend in Theophilus, a man whose concerns about Jesus needed to be addressed. This circumstance gave Luke the motivation necessary to write a gospel to deal with Theophilus’ questions and give us a glimpse at the purposes of God that we might not otherwise have received.
For instance, Luke demonstrates that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is Lord also of the Gentiles and deeply concerned with their plight. Matthew, Mark, and John make this point as well, but it is particularly evident in Luke’s work. The Greek of his gospel is refined and of a literary quality, which we would expect from someone of Gentile descent, though Luke may have converted to Judaism before hearing of the Christ. Is there a better way for God to demonstrate His love for the Gentiles than to inspire one to record the life of His Son? Luke also brings out Yahweh’s concern for the nations in the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3:23–38. The evangelist traces the ancestry of Jesus according to the flesh all the way back to Adam, revealing that the Jewish Messiah is also of Gentile stock, for everyone between Adam and Abraham was a Gentile.
The third evangelist also shows the Father’s love for the nations through his special concern for world history. Of course, all four gospels, along with all the books of Scripture, are historically accurate and concerned with God’s work in recorded time. Yet the historical structure of Luke’s gospel gives us a unique look at our Creator’s intent to redeem people from every nation. Structurally speaking, a three-stage progression of God’s work in world history is discernible in Luke’s writings, which includes his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke 1:1–3:22 emphasizes the work of the Almighty in Israel; thus, the first stage of world history is the era of the Jewish nation in which God prepared a holy people to give birth to the Savior. Luke 3:23–Acts 1:26 represents the era of Christ’s earthly ministry, the second stage of world history in which Jesus defeated the power of sin, death, and Satan and witnessed to God’s glory before the Jews and Gentiles such as Pontius Pilate. Acts 2–28 and all of church history until the return of Jesus (implied in Acts 28:28) is the time for the salvation of all peoples, which God accomplishes through the work of the Spirit-empowered church. During this third stage of human history, the gospel goes forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth as the Holy Spirit moves the church to proclaim God’s grace in Christ to all the nations. A key event of this period is the extension of the gospel and the Spirit to the Gentiles in the conversion of Cornelius, a sign that even non-Jews can find “repentance that leads to life” (10:1–11:18).
Luke’s special concern for world history also helps assure readers of the truth of Christianity. Few other biblical authors can match the number of references to persons and events of secular history that we find in Luke and Acts. We are told that Jesus was born when Augustus was caesar and Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–7). This locates the incarnation in real space and time and refutes anyone who wants to proclaim that the story is a myth or outside the scope of history. Similarly, Acts 11:27–30 makes reference to a famine that happened “in the days of Claudius,” setting the acts of God in real history, and thereby showing that the Lord does not think it beneath Himself to work in time. To the Greek mind that viewed the physical world as evil and unworthy of divine concern, locating God’s acts in real, physical history was radical and shows that the Lord intends not merely to redeem the spiritual world but the realm of material events, persons, and objects as well.
The concern for Greeks and other Gentiles evident in Luke’s writings is good news indeed for those outside the covenants with Israel and without hope in the world. If even the outcast can be saved, then there is real hope for fallen creation. And Luke’s gospel shows us that God’s love for the outcast is not limited to the Gentiles, but is also for those considered outcasts within the Jewish nation. Women in the first century were looked down upon in Jewish society, but Christ showed His respect for them in His willingness to instruct them just as He also instructed men (Luke 10:38–42). This was a revolutionary act as most rabbis would not take on female disciples. Luke tells us that several wealthy women supported Jesus’ mission financially (8:1–3), and, as with the other gospel writers, reveals how they were faithful to stay with Jesus in His hour of greatest need even as His male disciples fled at the first sign of trouble (23:44–24:10; see also Matt. 27:45–28:10; Mark 15:33–16:8; John 19:25–27; 20:1–3).
The poor, who were considered outcasts in many parts of first-century Jewish society due to a belief that righteousness and riches went hand-in-hand, receive special attention in Luke’s gospel as well. God, Luke tells us, has a special concern for those in poverty. Mary and Joseph were poor according to the things of this world, for they could offer only turtledoves and pigeons in the temple (Luke 2:22–24; see Lev. 5:1–13; 12). Paradoxically, the couple was rich beyond measure, for they were tasked with raising the Messiah to adulthood. Luke also brings out Jesus’ concern for those in need, recording the Lord’s teaching that the kingdom belongs to the poor and hungry who trust Christ (6:20–21; 12:13–21; 16:19–31). The point of course is not that the impoverished are somehow inherently righteous or worthy of God’s love. Instead, this concern for the poor indicates that our Creator will search out those whom society might otherwise forget or cast aside. His kingdom is not for the strong and mighty, but for the humble and weak, and those who are poor, because they have no material goods to trust in, are often among those who are most aware of their weaknesses. Such poverty of spirit is required of all who would be saved, whether or not they are materially successful.
Humanly speaking, nothing required Luke to record these aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. He could have chosen other events to describe, for he, just like the other Evangelists, had no shortage of material from which to draw upon (John 21:25). Under the direction of God the Holy Spirit, however, Luke gave us a gospel that shows the historicity of the Christian faith and emphasizes the Almighty’s concern for Gentiles and other outcasts. We can be grateful for these emphases because they give all of us who have been cast out of the kingdom on account of our sin, Jew and Gentile alike, real hope that God has intervened in history and will not regard forever as outcasts all those who believe on His Son.