Looking into Luke


1. Luke among the gospels

Luke – the popular gospel

I must start with a word of apology; Luke is not my favourite among the gospels. In this I am, I guess, very much in the minority, at least in the sense that for most of us the story of Jesus rests on a scaffolding provided by Luke’s gospel.

If we were to ask people in the street who Jesus was and what he did, the kind of answers we might receive would probably resemble the picture painted by Luke: a good man, much concerned with the poor and sick, teaching love of neighbour, opposed by people in power and killed, and said to have risen from the dead. Taking things further we might ask churchgoers for specific examples of Jesus’s life and teaching. It is a measure of Luke’s ability as a story teller that much of what we remember about Jesus comes solely from his gospel.

Much, indeed nearly all, of what we call the “Christmas story”, the fuller version of the rejection at Nazareth with the “sermon” (4:16-30), the incidents of Martha and Mary, the ten lepers, Zaccheus, the trial before Herod, the forgiving of the crucifiers, the “repentant thief”, the Emmaus road and the ascension into heaven; the parables of the Good Samaritan, the rich fool, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, the rich man and Lazarus, the unjust judge, the Pharisee and the tax collector, all of these are unique to Luke. The Church, including its art and music, would be the poorer without them and aspects of the gospel would be less crisply presented.

Luke – the third gospel

Another apology: until now I have deliberately avoided discussing the details of the relationship between the first three gospels. Having reached Luke, this subject, which some will find rather dry, cannot be put off any longer. I shall try to be brief.

The relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke is a verbal one; there is some direct copying involved, not three independent accounts of the same incidents. Matthew contains about 90% of Mark; Luke contains about 45% of Mark; and, in most cases, where the three gospels coincide, any disagreements tend to have Matthew or Luke supporting Mark against the other one. In addition, Matthew and Luke have material in common, not found in Mark, which they often place in their own context. For example Luke places much of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount in his Sermon in the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), and distributes much of the rest throughout his gospel. I can only give the general picture here; those of you fortunate enough to have Bibles with cross-references can see the closeness or otherwise of the agreements. They are even closer in Greek.

The order of the first three gospels in our New Testament reflects the earliest view of things. According to this, Matthew was the basic gospel; Mark was a vulgar abbreviation of Matthew; Luke freely adapted both. By the eighteenth century it became possible to examine the gospels in parallel, and it was proposed that Matthew wrote first; Luke developed the tradition by free adaptation of Matthew, and Mark wrote a careful epitome of both using only material where Matthew and Luke agreed. This view, though once popular, is only held today by a few scholars.

It is more likely that Mark wrote first; it seems strange that he should omit all details of the temptation story, or all the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer, or agree with Matthew against Luke about the feeding of the four thousand. It seems much more likely that Mark’s gospel was the basic source for the other two. Matthew treated Mark with respect, tidying up matters of style and grammar, and compressing some of Mark’s stories. Luke treats Mark in more cavalier fashion, omitting entirely Mark 6: 44-8:30. This, known as “the great omission”, presumable occurred because Luke thought the passage contained unnecessary duplication. Luke 9:18 shows us the “edges” of this omission; is Jesus alone – or with the disciples?

The argument about the relationship between Matthew and Luke is too complex to go into here. It seems highly likely that Luke sometimes used a version of Matthew; sometimes a source, or sources, in common with Matthew; and possibly also independent sources that resemble Matthew’ material – Luke’s parable of the pounds (Luke 19:12-27) only generally resembles Matthew’s parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). It may be worth noting that there are some striking similarities in wording between Luke and John, but in our present state of knowledge it appears unlikely that John knew Luke’s gospel; they may have used a common source.

Luke – his own view

All this is not just of academic interest. Look at what Luke himself tells us about himself and his gospel – Luke 1:1-4. Matthew, Mark and John all begin with different kinds of statement about Jesus. Luke’s opening is much more “secular”, resembling contemporary Greek literary openings. He tells us that he belongs in the third Christian generation after the “eyewitnesses”, those who knew Jesus, and the “many” who have already written. In the latter Luke would include his sources: Mark, possibly Matthew or a common source, and other material that only he uses. Although he does not mention it here another very important source for Luke is the early Christian Bible; what we would call the Old Testament in its Greek translation.

In his opening Luke emphasises that this is to be an “orderly account”. Taken together with the style of the opening we may assume that Luke thought of what he wrote as history. This is important for us because it means that he was writing about events that for him, as for us, are in the past. However, though he sees himself as part of a tradition, after the “eyewitnesses” and the “many”, he is not just handing things on. Nor is this to be history for history’s or even accuracy’s sake. Rather this is, as Luke again emphasises, to be his account, his version of events that have been “fulfilled among us” (1:1); the events he is to write of have continuing significance for the contemporary Church. He writes to persuade his patron Theophilus, and those who read after him, that what have already heard has a trustworthy basis in past events and can be relied on for present decisions and choices. Even though we may not find most relevant what was so to Luke’s first readers, Luke makes the same appeal to us as to them through his “orderly account”.

2. Luke and the structure of time

The Three Ages

Luke sees the history of salvation as three periods of time. Firstly, came the age of Israel, from creation to the coming of Christ. Luke doesn’t write about this himself because this period is reflected in existing scripture, which for early Christians was the Old Testament in its Greek translation (see Luke 16:16). It is a time of anticipation and prophesy. Secondly, the age of Jesus, from the preaching of John the Baptist to the post-resurrection appearances. On the one hand this is a time of fulfilment, on the other it looks forward to the consummation of salvation: it is the middle of time. This is the period of which Luke writes in his gospel. Finally, the age of the Church, or of the Spirit; from resurrection to the second coming. This age is open ended; implying that it continues in, and through, our own time. It is a sign of the distance between Luke and Paul, and the other gospel writers, that this age is not a short period of crisis before the return of Jesus. However, the return is anticipated as the end of the ages of time, not an event within time. Acts covers this age, but the age is not confined by Acts.

Moreover, things are not just this simple. The ages are not just discrete entities but contain significant elements of continuity. Luke provides overlaps, links or “hinges” between the ages in the Birth stories, (Luke 1:5 – 2:52) with their emphasis on Jesus’ Jewish background, and Acts Chapter 1 which stresses the continuing role of the apostles and Jesus’ family within the coming Church.

In addition, the wholeness of the time scheme is preserved by the underlying presence of existing Jewish scripture in Luke’s style and presentation, by the place which he accords to prophesy up to John the Baptist, by the ministry of Jesus himself, and by the proclamation of the apostles and Paul in Acts (Luke 11:49). A good summary of Luke’s thought on the whole matter of the history of salvation is provided by Peter’s speech in Acts 10:34-43.

“The Gospel and the Way”

The Gospel opens with Luke developing existing gospel traditions about Mary and introducing new Jewish characters Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and modelling the birth of Jesus on Samuel and Samson (Judges 13 and 1 Samuel 1-2) to establish Jesus’ Jewish identity and the right response of Judaism to him. A parallel narrative of the birth of John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament prophets is confirmed in John’s preaching (Luke 3) directed to both the Jewish people and those serving the state. In contrast with Mark/Matthew, Jesus’ baptism is not described, only his post baptismal praying; an important motif in Luke, as is the presence of the Holy Spirit which follows (3:21-2).

We can note in passing that Luke changes the order of the temptations compared with Matthew, so as to end with the temple in Jerusalem; a central aspect of Luke’s thought is the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, from Judaism to the Gentiles. In the rest of Chapter 4 Luke shows the development of Jesus’ ministry before the calling of the disciples. The historian in Luke found the account in Mark implausible and established both a reputation for Jesus as a healer and teacher, and a relationship with Peter before the fishermen leave everything (a characteristic Lucan emphasis) to follow him (5:11). More importantly Luke sets out Jesus’ programme, and that of the Gospel, in the teaching at Nazareth (4:16-30). From the beginning, though rooted in prophesy, Jesus’ message is going to be rejected by the bulk of his people (compare the different setting of Mark 6:1-6).

Luke 4:31- 9:50 shows Jesus’ initiation of his programme with this ministry in Galilee, both a simplification and an expansion of the first nine chapters of Mark with material added and rearranged. So, for example, the anointing (Luke 7: 36-50) serves here as a lesson in repentance rather than being connected with his death, as in other gospels.

The journey to Jerusalem, which Mark dismisses in less than a chapter, takes Luke nearly a third of the gospel or about nine chapters. This is partly a narrative device enabling Luke to introduce much of Jesus’ teaching in a setting in itself imprecise but looking forward to the “days of his receiving up” (Luke 9:51), and seeing events in that light. The idea of the journey is obviously important to Luke: Jesus’ first appearance after being raised is to disciples on the way to Emmaus; travel figures largely in Acts; and the Christian life is often called “the Way” in that book.

The Lucan version of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, has too many distinctive features to discuss in detail here, read Luke 19:15 – 24:53 and compare with Mark 14:1 – 16:8 / Matthew 26-28. We can mention a “softer” attitude to the disciples (more on this next time), the appearance before Herod (23:6-12), the forgiveness of the crucifiers and the “repentant” thief (23:34-43). These three show that Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness, and offering of the kingdom go on through the whole of his life, even unto death. Luke does have a theology of the cross but it is distinctive. Unlike Paul, Mark or other New Testament writers, Luke has no notion of Jesus’ death as atonement, rather for him the cross is about God showing the way of Christian martyrdom with Jesus as the pioneer example.

Although women play a major parting Luke’s resurrection story, it is to two men that the risen Jesus first appears (24:13-35). Taking two obscure disciples and a gradual dawning of understanding enables Luke to say how it is rather than how it was. Much of the resurrection in Luke 24 is unique to this gospel, in particular the account of the Ascension on Easter night (24:51) which to some extent runs counter to the version in Acts 1.

The open-ended Gospel

The story of Jesus’ ministry may have ended but it is not over, it is part of the larger story of God’s saving purpose for Jews and Gentiles. Even though the story is continuous in Acts it doesn’t finish there either – the Church’s story continues and we are part of it.

3. Themes in Luke's Gospel

The programme which Luke gives to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4: 16-21), and the way that this is worked out in the gospel’s account of Jesus’s practice and teaching, lead us to characterise Luke’s gospel as a social gospel, an inclusive gospel of good news to the poor. It would be foolish to deny that there is some truth here. But there are indications that Luke’s thought is not quite so radical as first appears and this includes his treatment of women. But firstly let us turn to Luke’s distinctive attitude to...

The Disciples

Readers of previous series of these articles will be aware that Mark takes a harsh view of the disciples, a fearful, confused and an uncomprehending bunch, who cannot, or will not, understand the real nature of Jesus and His mission. Matthew modifies this to emphasise the disciples as an inner circle who do understand but who are “men of little faith”. Luke treats them as weak rather than wilful obstructions to Jesus’ purpose. So the whole of the incident leading to the rebuke of Peter as Satan (Mark 8: 31-33) is dropped in Luke’s account (9: 18-22) and he intimates Peter’s restoration before the denial (22: 31-32). The passion story shows Luke clearing the disciples of blameworthy conduct, they are only found sleeping once and this through sorrow (22: 45), there is no mention of them fleeing. Jesus remains with Peter in the denial scene and gives him a look of encouragement (22: 54-62), Luke here shows the true situation for all Christians under pressure to deny Jesus. It is implied by Luke that the disciples stood at a distance watching the crucifixion, emphasising Jesus’ final assessment of them as ‘witnesses’ (24:38).

This ‘softer’ attitude to the disciples is presumably because they are to be pioneer leaders of the Church in Acts. I do not want you to think that the disciples are model citizens. Luke records their failures and bickering up to the Last Supper. What Luke presents is a realistic assessment of the difficulties of sincere but human Christians living out Luke’s tough view of discipleship; leave everything (5:28; 14:33; 18:22-23), hate the family (14:26), taking the cross daily (9:23). This may be nostalgic solecism on Luke’s part - those first disciples could do it at least sometimes - nonetheless discipleship is still a challenge with a cost.

The Jews

Luke may have been a Hellenistic Jew before he became a Christian, either by birth or as a proselyte. He certainly has a good knowledge of both the substance and the style of the Greek translations of the scriptures used by Greek speaking Jews, and he emphasises Christianity’s Jewish roots. On the other hand his knowledge of birth customs is mixed up in Chapter 2 - an academic rather than practical understanding - and there is a cool and distant historical tone in Luke’s discussion of Jewish-Christian relations. He lacks Paul’s agonies over the future salvation of his people; Luke accepts that most Jews will never accept Jesus. Equally he does not share Matthew’s passionate and angry despair that Jewish Christians cannot share in synagogue worship.

Both the gospel and Acts begin with devout Jews but God’s plan, as Luke sees it, is for devout Jews to follow Jesus. That many in the time of Jesus, in the early church, and in Luke’s own day did not do so, is also the way God’s plan works. The parable of the vineyard (20:9-18) is addressed to the whole people, not just their leaders and in this teaching Jesus is at one with the prophets in rejection and suffering. Luke’s criticism is, as in the prophetic tradition, of Israel as God’s people. He looks at a broader view of who God’s people are; supplementing the mission of the twelve(9:16) with a unique mission of the seventy or seventy two (Chapter 10) - the traditional number of nations of the world. The whole sweep of Acts proclaims the broadening of who God’s people can be. We may suspect that Luke before his Christian conversion was a gentile who attended synagogue, drawn by Jewish monotheism and moral teaching without becoming Jewish by circumcision or accepting the food regulations as a full proselyte.

Poverty and Wealth

If we read Jesus’ programme of ministry (see above) or the Magnificat (1:46-55) we may feel impotent, and guilty in our impotence, to do anything to “feed the world”, free the world, or whatever. We, in our day, interpret the poor, hungry, blind and captive in economic, political and social categories which are not alien to the gospel but also do not quite fit the thinking of Luke or Jesus. By broadening our thinking we can discover a gospel more radical but less burdensome.

The ancient world depended on a series of interlocking patterns of patronage and dependency, of which the family was the most basic, the status of the patron determining that of the dependent. So, for example, a childless widow could be in an ambiguous position socially, lacking status through a husband or sons. We are told Zacchaeus is rich (19:2) but he counts as one of the “poor” because his livelihood puts him among the “sinners”, those who choose to follow practices contrary to God’s Law. The poor are not just those lacking wealth but all those unable to function fully in society, including children and Samaritans, Jesus proclaims that God’s kingdom is for all equally, that wealth is not a special mark of God’s favour, rather the reverse.

If we combine some of Luke’s unique teaching, the woes mixed with the blessings (6:20-26), the rich fool (12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-26), with his teachings on discipleship (see above) it seems that wealth is a positive hindrance to salvation.

On the other hand, Jesus is happy to accept hospitality and other aid from the wealthy and in Acts some members of the Church are wealthy, if generous: Luke’s patron Theophilus is presumably well off. Ancient social patterns help us here; to “give to the poor” is to include them in our social circle not merely to give charitably. The invitation is not to resolve the world’s poverty, though this is a desirable aim, but to have experience of the lives of the “poor”; more manageable but no less difficult.


We often hear that Luke includes women among the “poor”. It is true that Luke’s world was largely a patriarchal one, though exceptions were possible, as the rich businesswoman Lydia in Acts 16:14-15 shows. It is also true that Luke/Acts mentions women more often and names more women than other parts of the New Testament. We should make one qualification and one limitation if we are to see things in the right perspective.

Firstly, Luke’s balanced Greek style includes the complimenting of men and women characters; and we can be sure that this comes from Luke, as he introduces many of these people who are not known in the other gospels. To give a few examples - Zachariah and Mary (Chapter 1), Simeon and Anna (Chapter 2), Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son at Nain (7:11-17, 8:40ff), the bent woman - daughter of Abraham (13:11-17) and Zachaeus (19:1-10) - son of Abraham.

The limitation is in Luke’s attitude towards women’s ministry. Mary and Martha (10:38) who balance the Good Samaritan (love of neighbour) by illustrating love of God take the passive roles of serving and listening. The women followers of Jesus (24:1-12) are providers only; they witness to the empty tomb (24:1-12), but are not believers and Jesus appears first to men. Yet in Romans 16 Paul greets women engaged in a variety of ministry. Phoebe (156:1-2) is a deacon and Paul’s patroness, Junia (this is the correct reading of the name) is an apostle (16:7). Some women work together (16:12); others like Mary (16:6) or Persis (16:12)have reputations of their own, and others work with male colleagues. We may say that Luke is interested in women and even promotes their ministry to a degree but not only does he fall behind our expectations, but also the part of women in his church was less than in the time of his great hero, Paul.

4. Luke's picture of Jesus

Jesus The Prophet

The emphasis that Luke puts on Jesus the prophet may seem rather a come down from Jesus the Messiah, or Son of God. It is rather that Luke’s Gospel sees Jesus as the culmination, fulfilment or apogee of Israel’s prophetic tradition - if John the Baptist was “more than a prophet” (7:26-28) what must Jesus be? (See also 7:16 and 21:19). Moreover Jesus in a saying only found in Luke (13:33), links his fate with those of the prophets and continues to prophesy even on the way to death (23:27-31). More particularly Luke has in mind God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19 and 34:10-12) and the Elijah stories in 1 Kings 17 through to II Kings 2. Luke removes any indication that John the Baptist is Elijah except for one reference to his role as forerunner (Luke 1:17). Rather Jesus identifies his mission with Elijah/Elisha (4:24-27); like Elijah he raises a widow’s son to life (7:11-17), is carried into heaven and pours his spirit on his followers (see II Kings 2:1-15).

Jesus man of prayer

Although all the gospels depict Jesus as praying, Luke gives it special consideration. He implies that it was habitual (5:16), i.e. Jesus is not self-sufficient, and emphasises his praying at turning points in his life - after baptism (3:21), before choosing the twelve (6:12), at the time of asking them his identity (9:18), at the transfiguration (9:29), before the passion (22:39), he dies with prayer (23:34 and 46, cf. Mark 15:34) and is recognised through prayer (24:30-31).

Jesus innocent sufferer

An important aspect of Luke/Acts is the writer’s insistence that Christianity is no political threat to the Roman state; even though Jesus is indifferent to political rulers who serve only as markers of time (Luke 1:5, 2:1-2, 3:1).

So in the temptation story (4:1-10) Jesus refuses to be an agitator either in terms of economies, political power or religious sensationalism. We have already seen that Jesus expects to suffer as a prophet. This is foreshadowed in the voice at baptism (3:22), which speaks to Jesus alone in this gospel, quoting words about the “suffering servant” of Isaiah in 42:1.

Luke provides the context for the passion by toning down the “cleansing of the temple” to just one rather half-hearted verse (19:45), compared with say Mark 11:15-16. It is Jesus’ teaching (19:47-48) that disturbs the authorities not his demonstration. The strange saying about the swords, peculiar to Luke, is difficult to interpret but, at the least, sets limits to violence (22:35-38). This is confirmed by Jesus’ reaction to violence when it comes (33:50-51), again only in Luke.

It is no surprise that when the Roman representative, Pilate, repeatedly finds Jesus innocent of any political charge (23:4, 14-15, 22) and 23:25-6, it can be read as if Pilate gives up Jesus to the whole Jewish people (23:13) to execute rather than order it himself. Even on the cross Jesus is declared innocent (23:40-41) and in death the centurion gives a final verdict (23:47). The latter, though correctly translated as a proclamation of innocence (compare Mark 15:39) has other overtones. The Greek word can mean “righteous” - one who keeps the letter and spirit of the Law of God - but to Gentiles it meant “law abiding”, “virtuous”, “saintly”. The final word on Jesus bridges two cultures.

Jesus the Saviour

Although only used of Jesus once (2:11), the related words “save” and “salvation” occur frequently in the Gospel (7:50, 17:19; 18:42; 19:9, etc.) we should remember that in Greek and Aramaic “heal” and “save” are the same word. It becomes a crucial issue in the mockery of Jesus on the cross (23:35, 37, 39) and Jesus presents salvation to the “penitent thief”, who is not penitent but the last of the sinners to claim a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus the Ascended Lord

Luke, in 24:51 and Acts 1:9, is the only writer to record an ascension of Jesus into heaven. This enables Luke to paint a realistic picture of the Church having to get on with things without Jesus but linked through prayer, visions, and the Holy Spirit, with the Love of the Church. Another aspect of this is Jesus as the pattern or example for the developing Church in Acts in a life of prayer, of political non-involvement and prophetic proclamation. But this is not simply a matter of inspired invitation, rather if we follow our love in his path of discipleship, taking up our daily cross, then he enables us to follow him as many already have.

Further reading

In a series like this I can only indicate some of the special features of Luke’s Gospel. Fortunately I can recommend three highly readable commentaries for those who want to take things further. The shortest and cheapest is by Judithe Liell (Epworth Press). The author is well know for her work on the letters of John. Rather longer and more expensive is the commentary on Luke by Sharon Ringe in the excellent Westminster Bible Companion series (WJK publishing) which takes a special interest in the place of the poor and women in the Gospel. Slightly larger still is the work of Robert Tannehill, a specialist in Luke in the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Abingdon Press). All of these were published in the mid 1990s so are up to date as well as accessible. I, the other Readers, and Clergy, are always happy to discuss aids to Bible study.

Clarence Rickards

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 6th February 2005