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Luke: the Writer and the Gospel

By Warren Carter

Luke's Gospel, a favorite with many Christian people, divides into five sections. In alternating passages,
the first two chapters narrate the conceptions and births of John the Baptist and Jesus. From Luke 3:1 to
9:50, the ministries of John (Chapter 3) and of Jesus in Galilee (beginning in 4:14) occupy center stage. In
the large central section (9:51 to 19:27), Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. This journey provides the context
for much of his teaching in the Gospel. Between 19:28 and 23:56, the focus shifts to Jerusalem, where
Jesus is put to death. Chapter 24 narrates the appearances of the risen Christ.

But that is not where Luke's story ends. Luke's Gospel is distinctive among the four New Testament
Gospels because it has a sequel: the Book of Acts. Both books are addressed to Theophilus (Luke 1:3;
Acts 1:1). Acts begins by reminding Theophilus of what was said "in the first book." The opening verses
of Acts narrate the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:9-10), the point at which the Gospel closes (Luke 24:51).
The style of writing and the theological themes are similar in both books. Both define the gospel in
terms of repentance and forgiveness (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30-31). Acts, then, continues the
story of what God was doing in Jesus, a story that lives on in the actions of the disciples and in the life of
the early communities of faith.

Luke the Writer

The writer of Luke-Acts is clearly a skilled storyteller and preacher of the gospel. From the quality of the
author's writing style, it seems that the writer was an educated person. He (or she—it has been
suggested that the writer was a woman) is also a perceptive pastoral theologian who can tell the story of
Jesus to address the circumstances of his community of readers.

The writer is not named. It is not clear whether he is a Gentile or a Jew, though many scholars favor a
Gentile identity. Nor is he an eyewitness of the life of Jesus. He says at the outset that he relies on the
accounts of others (Luke 1:1-2). One of these accounts was probably Mark's Gospel because there are
significant similarities between the two Gospels in their language and in their order of events. From the
reference to "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Luke 1:2), the writer probably belongs to the
second or third generation of Christians. These details, along with apparent references to the fall of
Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70 (Luke 19:43; 21:20), suggest that the author wrote this Gospel in the
80's of the first century, some fifty or so years after the life of Jesus. It is not clear where the Gospel was
written; both Rome and Asia Minor have been suggested.

In the second century this Gospel was attributed to "Luke." Some have linked this Luke with Paul's
companion named in Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:11. The use of "we" language in parts of Acts
(Chapters 16, 20-21, 27-28) has also suggested that Luke-Acts was written by a former companion of
Paul.

It is difficult to know whether this is a correct identification. Other factors may explain the "we"
passages. They may derive from one of the writer's sources. Or the "we" may be used to give dramatic

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impact to the story. There are also large differences between the picture of Paul presented in Acts and
that encountered in the Pauline letters. Whoever the writer is, the Gospel and the Book of Acts have
had significant influence on communities of Christians throughout the church's history.

Luke's Readers

As we have noted, Luke's Gospel is addressed to Theophilus (1:3). Just who Theophilus was is not clear.
He may have been a wealthy patron who was willing to support Luke while he wrote Luke-Acts. Luke
addresses him with appropriate respect as "most excellent Theophilus."

However, what is interesting is that the name Theophilus means "lover or friend of God." Perhaps this
name does not refer to just one person but symbolizes all the readers for whom the Gospel is written. If
so, the Gospel is addressed to those who love God and are disciples of Jesus Christ, not only in the 80's
of the first century, but throughout all time, including our own.

This idea is reinforced by another key word in Luke 1:4. The writer explains that he writes the Gospel so
that the lover of God "may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been instructed
[italics added]." The writer assumes that his readers already know something of the Christian faith. The
word instructed also appears later in Acts 18:25 to describe the instruction that another "lover or friend
of God," Apollos, has received about Jesus.

But it is also clear from Luke 1:4 that Theophilus is having some problems with this prior instruction. He
is not sure of the "truth" of what he has been told. The word truth is better translated "security" or
"certainty." This lover of God is uncertain or insecure about aspects of the faith. Thus Luke writes to help
his readers find security or certainty in their Christian faith.

These opening four verses of Luke's Gospel, therefore, offer important information about the purpose
and audience of the Gospel. Luke is not primarily writing history nor is he writing to convince those
outside the Christian community that they should become Christians nor is he trying to convince some
Roman officials that Christianity is really quite harmless and poses no threat to the state. Rather, he is
writing to Christians, to those who have already been instructed in the faith. He is writing to clarify their
understanding of what God has accomplished among them (Luke 1:1). And he may want to reinforce
their commitment in a time when some are struggling and uncertain in their discipleship.

The Content of Luke's Gospel

Identifying the aspects of concern and uncertainty is a difficult task. The only way of doing so is to note
issues that seem to receive particular emphasis in Luke's Gospel. These emphases may indicate the
particular issues about which there was uncertainty among Luke's community of readers.

One of the likely issues involves the end of the world (or "eschatology [es-kuh-TOL-uh-jee]," the study of
the last things). The Gospel and Acts are clear that Jesus will return to judge the earth and establish
God's reign in its fullness (Luke 11:30; 21:7, 25-36; Acts 1:6-11; 24:15). But just when this will happen is a
source of some confusion and misunderstanding (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6). Sometimes this return is

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presented as if it will happen at any time (Luke 12:35-40; Acts 17:30-31; 24:25). Disciples must be
actively watchful and urgently attending to their Master's business.

Yet in other places there are references to the Master being delayed. Because he is delayed, some
servants (disciples) seem to have become slack. They are warned not to take advantage of the delay by
ignoring God's will. They are urged to correct their ways (Luke 12:41-48, especially 45-46; 19:11-27,
especially 11, 21).

Some also seem to have become discouraged by the delay. The reminder that Christ is sure to return
encourages them to pray and to live faithfully (Luke 17:20-18:8, especially 18:1, 8). The addition of the
Book of Acts with its story of the ongoing actions of God through the Holy Spirit in the church also
underlines the idea that while the return will take place, it remains some time yet in the future.

This delay of Jesus' return may have caused disappointment for some members of Luke's community
and encouraged lax discipleship in other members. Luke writes to these "lovers of God" to remind them
of the certainty of the end and of their need to live faithfully as disciples in the meantime.

Living in the Meantime: The Church

How disciples are to live in the meantime is a crucial concern throughout the Gospel. A number of tasks
require the energy of the community of disciples. Jesus sends disciples in mission into their society to
announce the presence of the reign of God (Luke 10:9, 11). With the power of the Spirit they are to
continue Jesus' mission of proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight
to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:14-19; 24:47-48; Acts 1:8). This mission, expressed
here in terms of the year of Jubilee traditions (Isaiah 58:6; 61:1-2; also Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15:1-
18; 31:9-13), calls for nothing but the radical restructuring of society (Luke 1:46-55).

In the new society debt is forgiven (Luke 16:1-13; 11:4). Possessions are not hoarded but redistributed
to those in need (12:32-34; 18:18-30, especially 22; 19:1-10, especially 8). Leadership is concerned, not
with one's own status and destructive power over others, but with service and humility (9:46-48; 22:24-
27).

Throughout the Book of Acts disciples carry out Jesus' will. The Christian community is one in which
economic and social justice is evident in the sharing of possessions and in the meeting of the daily needs
of all members of the community (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-6). Members of the church also continue
Jesus' ministry of liberation by performing the same sorts of miracles that Jesus does in the Gospel
(compare Luke 5:17-26; 7:1-10; 7:21-22 with Acts 3:1-10; 8:4-8; 9:32-43).

In this new society (the community of disciples centered on Jesus), there is a special place for those not
valued by society. Luke's Gospel is remarkable for the attention it pays to women, the poor, and
outcasts. Readers are constantly instructed that all people, and particularly the unlovely and the
outsiders, live within the sphere of God's love and mercy.

In Luke's account, Jesus manifests the universal extent of God's love by dining with socially undesirable
folk. Such actions of acceptance and compassion upset the rigid boundaries of respectability and purity

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held by some (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2; 19:1-10). He instructs disciples to include and befriend those who
are usually excluded and despised (Luke 14:12-14). He declares blessing on the poor (Luke 6:20) and
challenges and warns the rich about missing out on God's saving favor because of greed, misplaced
loyalties, and a lack of compassion for the poor (Luke 6:24; 12:13-21; 16:19-31; 18:18-25). Throughout
Luke's Gospel, Jesus reminds people that in the new community divisions of class and economic status
should not determine how people are treated. Rather, God's searching and transforming love (Luke 15)
values all people but pays particular attention to the outcast and the overlooked; and the community of
disciples are to do likewise. Jesus calls the community to new social relations that embody acceptance,
unity, and service.

Women have significant roles in the Gospel. In Luke's birth story, Mary (and not Joseph as in Matthew)
is prominent (Luke 1:26-38, 46-55) as is Elizabeth (Luke 1:24-25, 39-45, 57-58). The reign of God is
compared to a woman working with leaven and flour (Luke 13:20-21). The love of God, which searches
out human beings for covenant relationship, is compared to a woman who searches for a lost coin (Luke
15:8-10). Grieving, broken, and ritually unclean women are the recipients of Jesus' grace and
transforming power (Luke 7:11-17; 8:40-56). Women disciples of Jesus are listed by name (Luke 8:1-3;
24:10; see also 23:49, 55) as are male disciples (Luke 6:12-16). Women are presented as model disciples.
Mary trusts God's word (Luke 1:38); the unnamed woman shows Jesus much love because she values so
highly the experience of his forgiving love (Luke 7:36-50). Women are the first witnesses to the
Resurrection (Luke 24:1-12). They are the first preachers of the good news of resurrection (Luke 24:9-
10) and the first to encounter disbelief from their hearers, the male disciples (24:11)! The Spirit enables
women and men to speak God's message (Acts 2:17). Women act as leaders of house groups of disciples
(Mary, Acts 12:12; Lydia, 16:13-15) and as teachers (Acts 18:26). The Gospel underlines for Luke's
community the equality of women and men in all tasks of the new community grounded in God's
transforming love.

Jew and Gentile

Another major theme in the Gospel and in Acts has to do with the relation of Jews and Gentiles in God's
plans. Luke is very careful in narrating the story of Jesus to emphasize its connections with the story and
people of Israel. The angel's appearance to Zechariah takes place in the midst of Temple worship and
interrupts the order and flow of the liturgy (Luke 1:5-25). Mary's song echoes that of Hannah in 1
Samuel 2:1-10. The songs of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-80) and Simeon (Luke 2:22-32) interpret God's action
in relation to God's previous dealings with Israel. These persons recognize that God is faithfully carrying
out God's promises. Both Simeon and Anna have been waiting for the redemption of Israel, and they
give thanks that God is now bringing about the promised deliverance in Jesus (Luke 2:25-32, 38). Jesus'
public ministry begins in the synagogue with his claim that he is carrying out the agenda described
previously by Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). The risen Christ interprets all that has happened in relation to
"Moses and all the prophets [and] all the scriptures" (Luke 24:27, 32, 44-45).

Yet despite carefully underlining that Jesus' ministry carries out the divine promises and will, many in
Israel do not recognize what God is doing. The synagogue congregation responds angrily when Jesus
refuses to perform signs for them (Luke 4:23) and speaks of God's favor to Gentiles (Luke 4:25-30). They

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try to kill him—but on this occasion without success. Many, especially the religious leaders, the powerful
and the wealthy, reject him and put him to death. But some (like the disciples, some Gentiles, and the
outcasts) respond positively to him.

In Acts the same pattern continues. Many in the synagogues reject the proclamation of the gospel, while
more Gentiles accept it.

Some interpreters have suggested that in his treatment of the relation of Jews and Gentiles, Luke is
addressing an important source of uncertainty and confusion in his community. Members are unclear
how Jews and Gentiles fit into God's plans. The question may have been raised by conversations
between Luke's community of believers and the synagogue community in the same town. Or the
question may have arisen because Luke's community was predominantly Gentile and unsure about how
it related to its mainly Jewish heritage: the Hebrew Scriptures and the traditions about Jesus in Galilee
and Judea.

The uncertainty may have been expressed in a number of questions. If God had made promises to
Abraham and David for Israel's salvation as Zechariah joyfully celebrates (Luke 1:69-75), why have so
many Jews rejected Jesus? Why do more Gentiles believe? Has God broken God's promises? Are
Gentiles an afterthought? How can the largely Gentile nature of the church be reconciled with its Jewish
heritage? And if God has changed plans and abandoned Israel, will God suddenly abandon the Gentiles?
Who are the people of God and on what basis does one belong? These questions reflect an identity crisis
that may have existed within Luke's community.

Luke's answer runs throughout Luke and Acts. His narrative explains that God has been faithful to God's
promises to redeem Israel in the coming of Jesus. Israel, however, with the exception of the small group
of disciples, largely rejects Jesus. But God's plans have also embraced the Gentiles from the beginning.
The promise to Abraham was that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). The
angel proclaims to the shepherds that in the birth of Jesus good news comes to "all the people" (Luke
2:10). Jesus is, as Simeon declares, a "light to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32), the means by which "all flesh will
see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Jesus' ministry concentrates initially on Israel, but the risen Jesus
commissions the church to go in mission to all people (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1:8). Acts narrates this
mission, which takes Paul to Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire.

Luke thereby provides assurance for his community. God has been faithful, not fickle; but Israel has
rejected God's plans. Gentiles have always had a key role in those plans and are not an afterthought.
The people of God is not constituted by ethnicity (Luke 3:8). Rather, the people of God is constituted by
faith in Jesus, in whom God has acted faithfully to redeem human beings.

A Final Word of Encouragement

From our brief discussion it should be clear that Luke's story of Jesus is both demanding and reassuring.
It celebrates God's faithful and seeking love, but it also demands a particular way of life from its readers.
This way of life is to reflect God's all-embracing, inclusive, reconciling, transforming love, which extends
even to one's enemies (Luke 6:27-36). The church is to be a haven and a missional community.

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Luke is under no illusions about the demands of God's call. Disciples are warned that mission is a difficult
task, and society will not always respond warmly (Luke 6:22-23; 7:34; 10:3-12). They follow one who is
crucified because he is faithful to God's will. They must be willing to face death themselves. The Gospel
discloses that Satan is at work tempting Jesus and his disciples to turn away from God's will (Luke 4:1-13;
22:31-34; 22:40, 46). The circumstances of the age can also distract and destroy disciples (Luke 21:12-
19, 25-28, 34-36).

But the Gospel also offers disciples encouragement and the means to persevere. God's Word is
presented as a sure means of guidance and sustenance. In the opening two chapters, Zechariah, Mary,
and the shepherds learn that what God says will happen does take place. Like model disciples, Mary and
the shepherds trust themselves to God's word (Luke 1:38; 2:15). Jesus triumphs over Satan's temptation
by quoting God's Word (Luke 4:1-13). Disciples must be open to Jesus' teaching and ponder its
implications as Mary (Luke 2:19, 51) and the disciples do after the Resurrection (Luke 24:27, 45).

Prayer is a means of sustaining faithful discipleship (Luke 11:1-8; 18:1-8, 9-14; 21:36; 22:40, 46). So too
are praise and worship (Luke 2:14, 20; 17:11-18; 24:52-53). Disciples also find empowering encounter
with Jesus in community meals and in the breaking of the bread (the Eucharist in Luke 22:14-23; 24:30-
31, 35). The Holy Spirit guides and energizes disciples (Luke 11:5-13; 24:48-49; Acts 1:8; 2).

The Gospel thus calls disciples to live as a community that seeks to embody the presence of God's love
and reign encountered in Jesus. The community of disciples is called to bear witness to all people as it
joyfully anticipates Jesus' return.

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