As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. This week we’ll get into Luke. (You can read my take on Mark here. Matthew is here.)
As I noted last week, one of the questions that inevitably comes up when reading the Gospels is how to account for their similarities and differences. In spite of almost universal disagreement on the specifics, most everyone agrees that there is clearly some interdependence between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or at least that they share a common source. Mark is thought by most scholars (though not all) to be first. This is largely based on the fact that Mark’s accounts are generally shorter and/or less embellished than in parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. If Mark edited we’re left to explain why he would have cut some seemingly important events. Mark also contains some “hard readings” that Matthew and Luke seem to smooth out. If Mark isn’t first, a reader wonders why he added some of these difficult readings.
Matthew and Luke rarely agree with each other against Mark in the order of events in Jesus’ life, but Matthew and Luke frequently agree with Mark against each other, suggesting that Mark’s order was taken as the generally “correct” one that Luke and Matthew might change up for editorial reasons.
None of this should bother us since Luke begins his Gospel by assuring the reader that he has “carefully investigated” the accounts “handed down” by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and work ( Luke 1:1-4). Luke believes that the second-hand nature of his Gospel commends it to a reader. It ensures that what he has to say is grounded in first-hand accounts — written and oral — that are no longer available. So it shouldn’t surprise us if Luke has used Mark, or a source that Mark used. It shouldn’t surprise us if he and Matthew have used a common source. We should expect that Luke might have at least one source of his own, as well. And, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us or concern us that the Holy Spirit would use Luke’s “careful investigation” to tell us the story of Jesus in Luke’s particular voice.
Luke’s Gospel (like Acts, his companion piece) is geographically oriented. He begins his story in Jerusalem with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but quickly moves to Nazareth in Galilee, where a young woman named Mary is visited by an angel. Mary’s baby is spoken of in terms of Old Testament fulfillment: he will be called “Son of God” (1:32, 3:22,38) and sit on the throne of David’s dynasty, but he will rule over Israel forever and his kingdom will never end. This is more than just a prediction of a new Israelite kingdom; the angel is promising Mary that Jesus will sit on the throne of the eternal kingdom of God prophesied in Daniel. Mary and Elizabeth are shown to have a kinship in understanding something about what God is doing through their miraculous pregnancies. Mary and Zechariah celebrate God’s work of salvation with twin songs that celebrate God’s mercy to those who fear him, his determination to remember the promises he’s made to his people by lifting up the humble and throwing down the powerful, and their children’s role in that work.
The story moves to Bethlehem — the city of David — for Jesus’ birth (2:4). Mary gives birth in humble circumstances, probably in a private home stuffed with guests and with only an animal trough to lay the baby in. The “armies of heaven” appear to humble shepherds in the fields and send them searching to honor their Savior. An elderly man and woman are the only other witnesses to the newborn Messiah; they have spent their lives waiting to see God’s salvation.
There are two trips to Jerusalem in Jesus’ early life, where portentous events occur, but we’re told twice around those events that he lived in Nazareth, in Galilee, where he “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him,” and he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Luke wants us to see that Jesus was nurtured physically and spiritually away from Jerusalem and the Temple. He’s baptized by John (3:21-22) and confronts Satan in the wilderness (4:1-13) before returning to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit“ (4:14), where his early ministry takes place. He announces his intentions in his hometown synagogue by reading from Isaiah about “the year of the Lord’s favor” and declaring its commencement. (4:16-20)
Though he is known outside of Galilee (6:17), his early healing and teaching takes place in Capernaum and other towns around the Sea of Galilee, in which he proclaims “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” He clashes with the religious leaders over his authority (5:21), the people with whom he associated (5:27-32, 7:36-50), and his seemingly cavalier attitude about Sabbath-keeping (6:1-10). He even ministers to Gentiles (7:1-10) and in Gentile territory — and in the tombs at that (8:26) — before setting foot in Jerusalem. Only after two warnings to his disciples about his coming suffering (9:21-22, 9:44), and warnings about the cost of following him (9:23-24, 51-62), does Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” when “the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven.” (9:51)
Much of Jesus’ teaching, including several of his parables, occurs as he and his disciples make their way to Jerusalem. Jesus becomes more explicit that his coming is a crisis point that demands a decision (11:23, 29-32, 12:32-34, 49-53) and that those who can’t “interpret this present time” (12:54-59) will “perish” (13:3, 5). Many who are “last will be first,” and many who are first will be last” in the Kingdom (13:30). Increasingly, his parables reflect the urgency of accepting God’s invitation to be a part of the Kingdom, because the significance isn’t in the invitation, but in the accepting of it (14:15-23). Disciples follow at risk of their lives and give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom (18:18-29). Those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled (18:9-14). Interspersed throughout the journey are stories of those who do receive the Kingdom by coming to Jesus in faith and repentance (17:11-19, 18:35-43, 19:1-9).
Occasionally we are reminded of the danger Jesus is in (12:49, 17:25, 18:31-33). Told Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies, “Surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (13:33).
As he nears Jerusalem, Jesus counters thoughts of an imminent revolution with the parable of the minas (19:19-26), in which an accession to the throne is delayed and the eventual king’s servants are left to carry on his work in his absence. Despite confusion about the “appearing” of God’s kingdom, Jesus stages a royal entry to Jerusalem. He is the King, but his coming to the royal city exposes those who don’t recognize him (19:39-20:47). Jesus announces judgment on Jerusalem and the temple in action (19:45) and word (19:41-44, 20:8-19, 21:5-36).
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his first post-resurrection appearance is outside Jerusalem (24:13-32). When he does appear to his disciples again, it’s to tell them that their mission will be to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins…in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”(24:47) Far from ending with his crucifixion in the holy city, God has raised him and will use his disciples to take the gospel to the world. Luke’s companion volume, Acts, will of course begin there with its geographic formula of Jerusalem/Judea and Samaria/the ends of the earth.
May our mission be as clear, our hope as strong, and our lives as credible a witness as theirs.