The theology of Luke
Luke’s gospel differs from the other three in that while they are each independent, self-contained writings about the life of Jesus, Luke is part of a two-volume work which deals with the beginnings of Christianity. In the opening verses (1:1–4) Luke explains that he wanted to give an orderly narrative for the benefit of people who already knew something about Christianity. He believed that the Christian faith was rooted in historical events which were to be seen as acts of God, and he wished to show that what his readers had heard about Jesus and the early church had a firm historical foundation. Each evangelist has his own perspective on the life of Jesus; he selects and emphasizes those parts of the story which were thought to be of special importance. Luke’s writing has four main characteristics:
1. He had fine literary gifts, and he used them to tell his story well.
2. He was more conscious of being a historian than the other evangelists.
3. He wanted to show the theological significance of what had happened.
4. He had a pastoral concern for the needs of his readers.
We can sum up his main theological points as follows:
1. Luke tells the story of Jesus as a piece of history. His gospel is more like a biography than the other gospels. Like the others, however, he has mainly recorded what was significant for the Christian faith, and has not told us about the appearance, character, etc. of Jesus. He is concerned to show the continuity between the story of Jesus and God’s past dealings with his people in OT times and also between the story of Jesus and the rise of the early church. The story of Jesus is part of the ongoing history of God’s activity in the world, but it is the most important part. By doing this, Luke has shown that the earthly life of Jesus is an essential part of the gospel.
2. The main theme in his account is the gospel of salvation. Two of Luke’s favourite words are ‘preach the gospel’ and ‘salvation’. The first of these sums up what Jesus did: his teaching, healing and acts of compassion were all part of the proclamation of the good news that God was coming to the world. The second indicates the content of this good news. It is summed up in 19:10: ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost’. By contrast, in Mark the message of Jesus was that the kingdom of God had drawn near (Mk. 1:14–15). Luke brings out more emphatically the fact that the coming of the kingdom meant that God was present in and through Jesus to save people. When Luke calls Jesus ‘the Lord’ (the name for God in the OT), this may help people to see that God was at work in Jesus.
3. If salvation is for ‘the lost’, it is ‘for all people’, since all are lost. Jesus brought salvation to the people who were under-privileged in Judea—to the poor, to women, to children and to notorious sinners. Although for the most part he confined his work to the Jews, he indicated plainly enough that his message was also for the Gentiles and in particular for the Samaritans, the hated enemies of the Jews, and that it had social consequences for the oppressed—and their oppressors.
4. It is a curious feature of Luke’s gospel that he has little about the significance of the cross as the means of salvation. Rather, he shows that suffering and death were the path appointed by God for Jesus before he could enter his heavenly glory. The relation of the death of Jesus to sinners and sin emerges only in 22:19–20 and Acts 20:28.
5. No writer has emphasized more clearly than Luke the ‘wideness in God’s mercy’; equally nobody has expressed more stringently the claims of Jesus. Intending disciples are warned that they must count the cost, deny themselves and follow Jesus daily. God’s grace is not ‘cheap grace’; sinners must be prepared to repent and renounce their sin.
6. Luke has a second volume about the story of the church. But already in the gospel he shows what the period of the church will be like. It is the time after which Jesus has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God. Meanwhile his servants must continue his work of evangelism among all nations. They are enabled to do this by the power of the same Holy Spirit who equipped Jesus for his work, and they seek God’s help in prayer just as Jesus did. Only when the task of mission is complete will Jesus return as the judge of humankind and set up his heavenly kingdom.
The sources of the gospel
Luke mentions that other people had written about Jesus before him, and he refers to the early eyewitnesses and Christian preachers who handed down the story (1:1–4). The most commonly accepted theory is that Luke and Matthew both had access to copies of the earlier Gospel of Mark as well as to a further collection of sayings of Jesus (generally known as ‘Q’) which has not survived. But in addition to what he got from these sources, Luke had a considerable amount of further information of his own (sometimes referred to by the symbol ‘L’). In view of their origins among people with personal knowledge of Jesus and the early years of the church Luke rightly regarded these sources as reliable for his purpose.
By comparing Luke with Mark we can see that he rewrote Mark’s material and made many small changes in the narrative, but at the same time he was faithfully recording the story. His general accuracy and care in giving the political and geographical background to events and, above all, his fidelity to the actual words of Jesus show that he was using his sources responsibly. The accusation that Luke was not concerned for historical accuracy flies in the face of his own expressed intentions.
This is not to deny that there are places where the differences between the gospels in recording the same events are puzzling. Equally, it must be recognized that the gospel writers told the story in such a way as to make clear its continuing relevance for their readers, and therefore they were not bound to reproduce what Jesus said absolutely word-for-word. It was the faithful reproduction of the meaning, not necessarily of the actual words, that mattered. If, like John, Luke has given us an artist’s portrait of Jesus rather than a photograph, he has given us a true portrait. (For further discussion of the relationships between the gospels see ‘Reading the gospels’.)
The authorship and date of the gospel
From the second half of the second century ad onwards there is a clear and consistent belief that the writer of this gospel (and Acts) was Luke, the doctor and companion of Paul (Col. 4:14). It has sometimes been argued that this belief is nothing more than an intelligent deduction from the NT evidence that Luke-Acts was written by the companion of Paul who was present during the episodes described in Acts in the first person plural form (Acts 16:10–17, etc). Among Paul’s possible companions Luke is a plausible choice. It can then be argued that the belief has no independent value as a testimony to the earliest tradition, but is simply one of several possible ‘guesses’. However, we may note that the tradition is quite unequivocal in naming Luke and not any other companion of Paul. Moreover this tradition is fairly early (possibly c. ad 120), and there is not the faintest hint of any alternative view in the early church. Marcion, an early Christian heretic, who held faithfully to Paul alone as his apostolic authority, selected Luke’s gospel as his one gospel; presumably he accepted the tradition that it was written by Paul’s companion.
Against the tradition it has been argued:
1. The picture of Paul in Acts is so distorted that it can hardly have been written by a companion and contemporary of Paul.
2. The gospel has the atmosphere of a time, after the apostles, when the church had given up hope of the imminent return of Jesus and had settled down into the form of rather conventional, institutional life sometimes known as ‘early catholicism’.
Neither of these arguments is strong enough to overcome the tradition.
1. On the picture of Paul, see the commentary on Acts in this volume.
2. The second argument depends partly on the assumption that at first the early Christians expected the return of Jesus at any moment and that only somewhat later did the continued delay in his coming lead them to think that they must have been mistaken and the return was postponed to the indefinite future. But, on the one hand, the evidence is decisively against the view that the early Christians expected the return of Jesus almost directly after the resurrection; and, on the other hand, it is not the case that the return has lost all significance in Luke (see 12:35–40; 17:20–37; 18:8; 21:5–36). As for the suggestion that the church has been institutionalized, this is obviously false. It is sufficient to compare Luke with the Apostolic Fathers to see that the outlook in the gospel is very different.
In short, the arguments against Luke’s authorship of the gospel fail to carry weight.
The date of composition of the gospel is not known. There are two serious possibilities. The first is that the gospel was written in the early sixties of the first century; the second is that it belongs to the later decades, possibly around ad 80. The key factors are whether the gospel shows knowledge that Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem had actually been fulfilled, and whether Acts shows knowledge of the death of Paul. Most scholars would answer both questions affirmatively, but in fact we simply do not know.
The place of composition is also uncertain. Early traditions suggest that Luke wrote in Achaia (Greece), but the relation to Mark’s gospel could suggest a connection with Rome. Again we just do not know.
M. Wilcock, The Message of Luke, BST (IVP, 1979).
L. Morris, Luke, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1988).
D. Gooding, According to Luke (IVP/UK, 1987).
C. A. Evans, The Gospel of Luke, NIBC (Hendrickson, 1990).
I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Paternoster/Zondervan, 1988).
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
c. circa, about (with dates)
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NIBC New International Bible Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Lc 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.