Commentary on Luke

Donald G. Miller

The Nature of the Gospel

Luke's Gospel is gospel--"good news"--not biography. It must, therefore, be read not as a "life of Jesus" but as a message of what God has done for us in him.

The nature of Luke's Gospel is indicated by the role of those from whom he got his materials. They were "ministers of the word" (1:2). They were heralds of the "good news" of what God had done for them in Jesus. It was their aim to retell some of Jesus' sayings and doings in such a way that those to whom they told them would likewise find God. The materials of Luke's Gospel, therefore, were first of all preached.

This means that if the depths of this Gospel are to be plumbed, it will be by the response of faith. A testimony to faith is designed to awaken faith. And only through faith can such testimony be understood. At this point the peculiar nature of the "good news" of the gospel is clear. It confronts the reader with historic events, but the value lies in what the events mean for faith. The gospel is not basically a set of religious ideas. It is the record of what God has done for man. As in the Old Testament, so in the New, the Word of the Lord "happened." Yet the events themselves were insufficient apart from faith. Before the events could become "good news," those who saw them, or heard about them, were under the necessity of believing that God was acting in them for the salvation of man. Multitudes who saw Jesus, conversed with him, and had no problem whatsoever about what happened as historic event, still rejected him. They did not deny his deeds. But what was the source of them? God, or Satan? Was he to be despised as a fanatic, admired as a hero, or worshiped as divine? And they crucified him."

Luke writes facts that are God's "good news." They must be studied as such. This demands intellectual effort and honesty. But beyond that it requires faith, surrender, obedience, service, worship. Here Life speaks to life, and must be answered by life.

The Purpose

The book is dedicated to one called "most excellent Theophilus" (1:3). Theophilus is a Greek name, strongly suggesting that the man was a Gentile. The title "most excellent" hints that he was a person of high rank (see Acts 23:26; 24:2). It was customary in Luke's day, as in ours, to dedicate to an individual a book intended for a much wider group. Theophilus, however, would be representative of this group, which must have been composed of Gentiles of high intelligence and culture. This is confirmed by the style of Luke's preface (1:1-4). It is written in the literary form of secular Greek historians, and has a quality of language which reveals the author to have been a man of learning. Thus it seems clear that Luke was deliberately setting out to present the Christian message in a form which would capture the attention of the intelligent Gentile mind of the first century.

Theophilus himself knew something of the Christian faith. Luke addresses him as one who has been "informed" (1:4). This is the root of our word "catechized." Whether Theophilus had been formally catechized, which the word strongly suggests (see Acts 18:25; 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6, where the same Greek word is used), or whether his information about the faith was less formal, it is difficult to say. In any case, he knows something about Christianity, but is still in need of fuller knowledge of its content and fuller trust in its authenticity.

What would lead an informed Gentile of the seventh or eighth decade of the first century to question Christianity? Two living issues faced him. First, the growing cult of Emperor-worship in the Roman Empire offered salvation to men through the Roman Caesar. The emperor was called "savior," "son of God," and "Lord and God." Men were to live before him in "fear" and "peace." He would usher in the "golden age." In consequence of this, stories were circulated about miracles which the emperors allegedly performed. Augustus was reported to have made withered trees come to life and to have healed the sick. Hadrian allegedly produced rain in parched Africa. Of Domitian it was told that wild animals would not harm him. Elephants did obeisance to him. The moon and stars stood still in order to get a longer look at him. His dealings were thought of as divine deeds. His pardon was actually called "gospel," the identical word used in the New Testament for the Christian gospel.

With the spread of this Emperor-worship, what was Luke's task? It was so to present the story of Jesus that an intelligent Gentile sincerely seeking salvation would discover the goal of his search in Jesus, not in Caesar. So Luke sets Jesus' birth in relation to Caesar Augustus (2:1), and connects the beginning of his public ministry with the reign of Tiberius Caesar (3:1). Luke's Gospel is the rehearsal of Jesus' words and deeds in such fashion that the earliest Christian creed would be authenticated: "Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:11; Rom. 10:9; 14:9). It brought to the fore the issue which later led to persecution of the Christians, whether Caesar or Jesus was the Lord of the whole world, and confronted the reader with a decision.

The second issue faced by the Gentile world in an honest look at Christianity lay in the discrediting of Judaism in the latter half of the first century. The strife between Jew and Gentile was an ever-rising crescendo. In A.D. 49 Claudius decreed that all Jews should be banished from Rome. In the year 66 a persecution broke out in Alexandria which annihilated 50,000 Jews. Similar events took place in other cities. Pagan writers scorned the Jews as an ancient slave people, still no better than slaves. Jewish customs were ridiculed, Jewish worship was blasphemed. This was all climaxed in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70. Jerusalem was captured. The Temple was destroyed. The Jewish people were driven out into the world as defenseless sheep without a shepherd.

The problem raised by all this for the Gentile mind was: Christianity obviously came out of Judaism. If Judaism is discredited, does Christianity fall with it? Luke's aim was to answer this question with an emphatic, No. This involved a difficult theological question faced by both Jew and Gentile in the Early Church. If Jesus were truly the Messiah, why did the accredited Jewish leaders reject him? This problem is faced by Luke both in the Gospel and in the Acts (Luke 24:20; Acts 2:23; 7:52-53; 13:44-47; 28:24-28). Luke insists that their rejection did not thwart the purpose of God nor invalidate the Christian faith. In fact, the shattering of first-century Judaism was the authentication of the Christian faith. It was God's judgment on the Jews' failure to realize the nature of their own mission. Christianity, on the other hand, was the real heir of the Old Testament faith.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Luke was a friend and pupil of the Apostle Paul. Many of the special traits of his Gospel, therefore, bear the marks of that relationship. Luke did not use Paul's characteristic words, nor rewrite the "good news" to fit Paul''s thought. Yet in his selection of materials and the way he used them, he shows that the truths which Paul proclaimed were not novel ideas, but were rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus himself.

The Universality of the Gospel

Perhaps the most marked characteristic of Luke's Gospel is its emphasis on the universality of the Christian faith. From beginning to end it is clear that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal. 3:28). From Simeon's song about Jesus being "a light . . . to the Gentiles" (2:32), to the last encounter of the risen Lord with his disciples, when he told them that "repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations" (24:47), Luke emphasized the fact that the gospel is not for Jews only but for all peoples. The central theme is that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.

In order to reinforce this message, Luke omitted much that was purely Jewish in character. For example, he omits the materials in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount which deal directly with Jesus' relation to the Jewish law (Matt. 5:21-48; 6:1-8, 16-18). The stress on Jesus' battle with the scribes and Pharisees is less marked than in Matthew (Luke omits Matthew 23, for example). The discussion in Mark 7:1-23 over the Jewish tradition about ceremonial cleanness is lacking in Luke.

Furthermore, Luke included much of a positively universal nature. More than the other Gospel writers, he related his story to events of the Roman Empire (2:1-2; 3:1). He wanted to show that what he was writing has meaning for every man, that Jesus is Lord even of world empire. The baby Jesus lying in the arms of old Simeon in the Temple is spoken of as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (2:32). Luke traces Jesus' ancestry not, as does Matthew, from Abraham down, but follows it all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus is related not only to the sons of Abraham but to every man who was ever born (3:23-38). These touches, coupled with Luke's omission of Jesus' instructions to the Twelve to "go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:5-6; see also Matt. 15:24), are Luke's way of tracing the universal mission of the Church back to Jesus himself.

All this, too, must be considered in the light of Luke's second volume, The Acts, where the story gathers around the broadening mission of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome. In the light of her great struggle with Jewish exclusiveness (see Acts 15 and Gal. 2), Luke in his Gospel is showing that the Church's mission to the whole world sprang originally from the mind of Jesus, bound by no ties of nation, race, culture, or tradition. It was God's "good news" to all the world.

The Gospel and the Samaritans

A special feature of the universality of Luke's Gospel is the large place it gives to the Samaritans. On both political and religious grounds, the Samaritans were considered outside the pale of fellowship by the Jews of Jesus' day. In contrast to this attitude, Luke shows Jesus working among the Samaritans (9:51-56; 17:11). In the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the story of the Samaritan leper who was healed (17:11-19), Jesus singled out the Samaritans as examples of true neighborliness and gratitude. They were nearer the Kingdom than many of the self-righteous Jews who would have shut them out.

Why this emphasis on the Samaritans? The answer lies in the history of the Early Church. The opposition which Philip's mission to the Samaritans must have stirred up (Acts 8), and Luke's use of this mission to introduce the conversion of Saul--around whom the controversy later raged over taking the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 15)--give point to Luke's stress here. He was showing that the Samaritan mission was rooted in the mind of Jesus.

In stressing the universality of the gospel, however, Luke is in no way anti-Semitic. He underlines the fact that Jesus is rooted in Judaism. He alone reports the circumcision and dedication of Jesus (2:21-24), and his visit to the Temple at the age of twelve (2:41-52). Luke alone tells of the pious Jews such as Simeon and Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were the faithful remnant of the Jews "looking for the consolation of Israel," upon whom the Holy Spirit rested (2:25). Throughout his Gospel, Luke shows how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament story of salvation, who can be understood only in the light of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (see 24:25-27, 44-47).

The Gospel and the Lost

In the light of his purpose to present Jesus as the Savior of all sorts of men, Luke places special emphasis on Jesus' love for the ones whom the world considers outcasts. In fact, it is only those who know that they are lost who can know his mercy.

This feature can be clearly seen in the light of the materials Luke uses which are not given in the other Gospels. These include the following: the story of the Pharisee and the sinful woman (7:36-50); the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (15:1-32); the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (18:9-14); the story of Zacchaeus (19:1-10); the pardon of the thief on the cross (23:39-43); and the special appearance of the risen Lord to Peter (24:34), whose only claim to Jesus' attention was that he had confessed himself to be "a sinful man" (5:8) and had denied him (22:31-34, 54-62). This special feature of Luke's Gospel shows in Jesus the roots of the theology which Paul later developed: "when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy . . . so that we might be justified by his grace" (Titus 3:4-7).

The Gospel and the Poor

Of all the Gospels, Luke gives the most prominence to Jesus' warnings about the danger of riches and his special compassion for the poor. Luke alone lists the vivid warnings against the danger of covetousness and riches which are contained in the parable of the Rich Fool who tried to feed his soul on "possessions" (12:13-21), the story of the rich man's indifference to poverty-stricken Lazarus (16:19-31), and Zacchaeus' decision to give half of his goods to the poor (19:1-10). He alone records Jesus' counsel to "sell your possession, and give alms" (12:33), and his encouragement to "invite the poor" to dinner (14:13). All of this emphasis is an outgrowth of God's regard for the poor in the gift of his Son, over whose coming Mary sings, "he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (1:53).

In this way Luke related the teaching of Jesus to the problem of materialism which was widely discussed in the Gentile world of the first century. There were philosophers called Stoics who scorned wealth and taught that men should be indifferent to money. Their reason for this, however, was very different from that of Jesus. For the Stoics, dependence on wealth was unworthy of the human personality. For Jesus it was wrong because it pushed God from the center of life, and thus became idolatrous. Again, Luke's materials root in the mind of Jesus the thought of Paul, who defined covetousness as "idolatry" (Col. 3:5), and called the "love of money" the "root of all evils," the craving for which leads men "away from the faith" (1 Tim. 6:10).

The Gospel and Womanhood

Another special characteristic of Luke's Gospel is the prominence given to women. In contrast to Matthew, where the birth story centers in Joseph and his problem, Luke focuses his attention on Mary. Peculiar to Luke is the story of the prophetess, Anna (2:36-38); the dealing of Jesus with the sinful woman (7:36-50) and the woman with an eighteen-year infirmity (13:11-13); the relation of Jesus to Mary and Martha (10:38-42); and two parables in which women are the central characters (15:8-10; 18:1-8). Besides, Luke also includes items about women told elsewhere, but gives more detail (8:2)....

The Holy Spirit and Prayer

Luke gives more stress than the other Gospels to the work of the Holy Spirit, both in the life of Jesus and in the continuing witness of the Church. He mentions the activity of the Holy Spirit in the pious folk from whom John the Baptist and Jesus had their origin (1:35, 41, 67; 2:25). Jesus' public career is begun "in the power of the Spirit" (4:14), and he interprets his mission through the words of the prophet, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (4:18). In Jesus' teaching on prayer, Luke changes Matthew's "good things" to "the Holy Spirit" which the Father gives in response to prayer (Matt. 7:11; Luke 11:13). In preparation for the later account of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), Luke records Jesus' instructions to the disciples to "stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high" (24:49).

Hand in hand with this emphasis goes that on the importance of prayer. Luke alone connects prayer with Jesus' baptism (3:21), his calling of the Twelve (6:12), the Great Confession (9:18), the Transfiguration (9:28), and the denial of Peter (22:31-34). He also connects the giving of the Lord's Prayer with Jesus' own praying (11:1-4), and records the parable of the Unjust Judge (18:1-8) and that of the Pharisee and the Publican (18:9-14), both of which have prayer as their center. Once again Luke stands close to Paul, whose counsel was to use "the sword of the Spirit" and to "pray at all times" (Eph. 6:17-18).

The Author

The Gospel according to Luke carries no direct statement about who wrote it. There are many clear indications, however, that it was written by the one whose name it now bears: Luke, the doctor companion of Paul. There is a very old and very widespread tradition among the Early Church Fathers which links his name with this work. Furthermore, there is no rival tradition. Either Luke wrote it or the Early Church left us no hint whatever of its author. If Luke did not write it, it is difficult to see how the tradition arose which connected his name with it, inasmuch as he is too obscure a character in the New Testament to have had his name attached purely by accident to this Gospel and to the Book of the Acts. If the evidences within the work do not weigh against it, the early, unanimous tradition of Lukan authorship would seem to be well founded.

In examining the problem of authorship from within the work itself, the argument rests more heavily on the Acts than on the Gospel. Although it has been challenged, it is almost universally accepted that Luke and the Acts are two volumes from one pen. Whoever wrote the Acts wrote also the Gospel.

What evidences are there for Lukan authorship of the Acts? There are in the Acts three sections in which the writer abruptly turns from the third person and reports the events in the first person. These are the so-called "we-passages" (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16). The use of the first person indicates that the author himself participated in the events described, and was a companion of Paul on those occasions. But did the friend of Paul who wrote these sections also write the whole work? On the basis of the words he uses, his literary style, and his theological outlook, it has been established as firmly as is possible in such matters that the entire Book of Acts came from the hand of the writer of the "we-passages." The author of the Acts, then, was one of Paul's companions who was with him at the time of the events described in the first person. Of the few Gentiles mentioned by Paul in his letters written during the period when the writer of the Acts was with him, Luke is the most likely one to have written it. If Luke wrote the Acts, he also wrote the Gospel.

Does what we know of Luke accord with this judgment? We know that he was a Gentile, for Paul lists him among his Gentile friends (Col. 4:14; see Col. 4:11). We know that he was a doctor, for Paul calls him "the beloved physician" (Col. 4:14). We know that he was with Paul during at least a part of the period covered by the "we-passages" in Acts (Philemon 24; Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11), and that he stood by him to the end (2 Tim. 4:11). We have already seen that the Gospel was written by a Gentile, and that the writer was loyal to Paul's theology. It has also been cogently argued that the Gospel was written by a physician. Although the argument falls short of proof and has been severely challenged, it is still clear that there is nothing in the work that a physician could not have written, and in comparing the healing-stories with those of Matthew and Mark, the presumption grows that the Gospel came from the pen of a doctor. Luke fulfills the requirements for being the author of the Gospel.

In the light of all this, which accords well with the unanimous tradition of the Early Church, although Lukan authorship may fall just short of indisputable proof, the evidence for it is quite strong enough, save for those of the most skeptical turn of mind.

Place and Date

Both tradition and Luke's precise knowledge of the church at Antioch connect him with that city (Acts 6:5; 11:19-26; 13:1-3; 14:26-28; 15:1-35). This does not mean, however, that he wrote either from there or to there. He may have written to the church at Rome or to one of the churches in Greece. The exact place from which or to which he wrote remains uncertain. A like uncertainty prevails as to when he wrote. The one precise date in early Christianity is the fall of Jerusalem, in A.D. 70. Some see hints in Luke's Gospel that Jerusalem had already fallen, whereas others likewise see strong hints that it was still standing when Luke wrote. The evidence is too precarious to be decisive. The earliest date suggested is around A.D. 60, the latest is A.D. 95. By far the largest number of scholars feel that the preferable date is sometime between A.D. 70 and 80. Fortunately, the worth of the Gospel for us in no way rests on this point.


Preface: Luke 1:1-4

The Coming of Messiah: Fulfillment of Promise (Luke 1:5-2:40)

The Nature of Jesus' Messiahship: The Suffering Servant (Luke 2:41-4:30)

Messiah Works in Galilee: Response to the Servant (Luke 4:31-9:50)

Messiah Moves Toward Jerusalem: The Kingdom of the Servant (Luke 9:51-19:27)

Messiah Manifests Himself at Jerusalem: Death and Resurrection of the Servant (Luke 19:28-24:53)

Return to Miller Page

© Copyright 2019 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster