Luke’s Gospel stands out as unique among the Gospels in various ways. For one thing, it is the longest of the Gospels, starting earlier in Jesus’ life than the others (with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist), and ending later (with Jesus’ ascension to heaven). Only Luke reveals anything about Jesus’ childhood, describing his family’s visit to Jerusalem when he was 12 years old (Luke 2:41–52). Even more significantly, Luke is the only Gospel writer to provide a sequel, the Book of Acts. Luke continues his story beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to the birth and growth of the early church.
The Unity of Luke-Acts
Almost all scholars today acknowledge the unity of Luke and Acts. By this, we don’t just mean that these two books were written by the same author (though this is true). We also mean that they are two volumes of a single work, sharing a common purpose, theme, and theology. This literary and theological unity indicates that when Luke wrote his Gospel, he already had Acts in mind. And the story he begins in the Gospel continues through to the end of Acts. Scholars commonly refer to this two-volume work as “Luke-Acts.”
Evidence for this unity can be found in the earliest chapters of the Gospel. In Luke 2:32 the old prophet Simeon predicts that Jesus will not only bring glory to Israel, but will also be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, where the Servant-Messiah is predicted to be the one to restore Israel and to bring salvation to the Gentiles. Although this prophecy is made at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, it does not come to fulfillment until Acts, when large numbers of Gentiles come to faith. In Acts 13:46 the apostle Paul cites this same passage, Isaiah 49:6, to explain why he is turning to the Gentiles:
“For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
It seems likely that when Luke wrote Simeon’s words in Luke 2:32 he was already anticipating writing about these events in Acts.
So what are the implications of the unity of Luke-Acts? For one thing, as we read the Gospel, we need to keep an eye on the coming events in Acts. And similarly, as we read Acts, we need to keep in mind the themes already introduced in the Gospel. The importance of these themes will become evident as we examine some of the unique features of the Gospel of Luke.
Luke’s Unique Features and Key Themes
What distinguishes Luke’s Gospel from the other three? In addition to having a sequel (Acts), here are five unique sections of the Gospel that highlight his themes.
The Prologue (Luke 1:1–4): Luke As Historian and Theologian
Luke and Acts contain some of the finest literary Greek in the New Testament. The Prologue to the Gospel (Luke 1:1–4) is a good example of this. Written in a formal literary style common to Hellenistic authors of Luke’s day, the Prologue sets forth Luke’s purpose. Having carefully investigated the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Luke is writing an “orderly” (well organized) account so that his readers “may know the certainty” of the things they have been taught. The prologue shows that Luke’s purpose is both historical and theological. He is writing as a meticulous historian, investigating and carefully recording the facts in order to confirm the truth of the Christian message. This message especially concerns the continuity between God’s promises given to Israel and their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah and in the Church.
The Birth Narrative (Luke 1:5–2:52): Continuity between the Old Covenant and the New
This continuity between the old covenant and the new is evident in Luke’s birth narrative. Only Luke and Matthew provide accounts of Jesus’ birth. For both, their purpose is not just to fill in gaps about Jesus’ early years for curious readers. These birth stories serve rather as overtures, introducing themes of importance for their respective Gospels. After his formal literary prologue (Luke 1:1–4), Luke begins his birth narrative with a very different Hebraic (Jewish) style, reminiscent of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” (Luke 1:5). This is reminiscent to how we might begin a story, “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…” Luke changes style in order to plunge his readers into the world of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures.
The story begins in the heart of Judaism, the temple in Jerusalem, where Zechariah, a Jewish priest, is offering incense before the LORD (Luke 1:5). Old Testament themes are everywhere. The characters we meet are models of Jewish piety. Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). Elizabeth is barren, unable to have children, until God opens her womb, a common theme in the Old Testament (Gen 18:11, 25:21, 30:22–23; Judg 13:2; 1 Sam 1:2). An angel announces the coming births of both John and Jesus, another theme that often appears in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen 16:11, 17:16, 17:19, 18:1–15; Judg 13:2–23; cf. Isa 7:14). Characters in the story periodically break into hymns of praise, which are full of biblical themes and are reminiscent of Old Testament psalms (Luke 1:46–55, 1:67–79, 2:29–32).
Though Luke does not quote the Old Testament to the same extent that Matthew does, his narrative is full of Old Testament images and motifs. His purpose is to show that this is not the beginning of a new religion. It is the fulfillment of an old one. God’s promises to Israel are coming to fulfillment through Jesus the Messiah.
The Journey to Jerusalem (9:51–19:27): God’s Love for the Lost
A third unique section of Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’ lengthy “Journey to Jerusalem.” In general, Luke follows Mark’s outline for Jesus’ public ministry. This begins with an extended ministry in Galilee, during which Jesus calls disciples, preaches and teaches, performs miracles, and comes into conflict with the religious leaders (Mark 1–10; Luke 3–9). Jesus then heads to Jerusalem for Passover, where tension with the religious leaders escalates, and he is arrested, crucified, and then rises from the dead.
The most significant structural difference between Mark and Luke is what is variously called Luke’s “Travel Narrative,” “Journey to Jerusalem,” or “Central Section” (Luke 9:51–19:27). In Mark, we first learn Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem in Mark 10:32, and he arrives half a chapter later, in 11:1–11. In Luke, by contrast, Jesus heads toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51, but doesn’t arrive for ten chapters (Luke 19:28)! Jesus does not head straight for Jerusalem, but instead moves around from place to place. Yet Luke repeatedly reminds the reader that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–56, 13:22, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11, 19:28, 19:41). In short, though not a straight-line trip, the journey motif represents a theological theme, stressing Jesus’ resolve to reach his Jerusalem goal.
These ten chapters of the Travel Narrative contain many of Jesus’ most famous parables, such as the Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Great Banquet, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Persistent Widow, and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. They also contain many memorable stories, including the meal at the home of Mary and Martha, the healing of ten men with leprosy, and the story of Zacchaeus. This section has sometimes been called “the Gospel for the Outcast,” since so many of the stories and parables relate to God’s love for the lost and the outsider.
The center point of the Travel Narrative is chapter 15, with its parables of “lost things” (Lost Sheep; Lost Coin; Lost [Prodigal] Son). These stories demonstrate God’s love for sinners, his desire for them to be restored, and the free forgiveness available to those who come to him in repentance and faith. The climax of the Travel Narrative is the Zacchaeus episode (Luke 19:1–11), where a chief tax collector responds to Jesus’ call. Tax collectors were hated as traitors because of their collusion with the Roman rulers and their reputation for extortion. A chief tax collector who oversaw other tax collectors would be viewed as the worst of the worst. Yet when Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ call, Jesus states, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10–11). This statement epitomizes Luke’s central theme. With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, God’s end-time salvation has arrived. It is available to all who respond in faith, whatever their past life, social status, or ethnicity.
The Resurrection: The Vindication of the Suffering Messiah
A fourth passage in Luke’s Gospel that brings out key themes is his account of resurrection appearances in Luke 24. Like the other Gospels, Luke describes the discovery of the empty tomb on Sunday morning by a group of women (Luke 24:1–12). His unique contribution to the resurrection narratives, however, is an account of Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to the town of Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). As these two are walking along, the resurrected Jesus joins them, but they are kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks them what they were talking about on the road and they share the recent events in Jerusalem. Jesus’ remarkable teaching and miracles confirmed that he was a prophet sent from God. But they had hoped that he might be more—the Messiah, Israel’s Redeemer. Sadly, his crucifixion had dashed their hopes.
Jesus responds by correcting their misconceptions:
“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Jesus says that all along it was God’s plan that the Messiah would suffer and die. While Jesus had spoken previously about himself as a suffering prophet (Luke 4:24, 6:23, 11:47–50, 13:33–34) and as the suffering Son of Man (Luke 9:22, 9:44, 18:31, 22:22, 24:7), this is the first time in the Gospel he explicitly says that the Messiah must suffer and die. From this point on in Luke’s narrative, this refrain is repeated again and again (Luke 24:46; Acts 3:18, 17:3, 26:23). Jesus’ crucifixion does not negate his claim to be the Messiah. Rather, it confirms the claim, since it was predicted in Scripture and was God’s purpose and plan that the Messiah would suffer and rise on the third day, bringing the forgiveness of sins. The disciples’ mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit, would be to take this message of salvation to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:44–49; Acts 1:8).
The Ascension: Exalted Lord Empowering His Church through the Holy Spirit
A fifth event unique to Luke is Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Luke recounts it briefly at the end of his Gospel (Luke 24:50–51) and then in more detail at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:1–11). The ascension is crucial for Luke’s narrative for two key reasons. First, together with the resurrection, it serves as vindication that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. In his preaching on the Day of Pentecost, Peter points out that although wicked people put Jesus to death, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand as Lord and Messiah. Jesus’ ascension is proof of his vindication (Acts 2:22–36). Second, it is from this position as reigning Lord and Messiah that Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). The Spirit’s coming serves as confirmation that the end times have begun (Acts 2:16–21, citing Joel 2:28–32) and becomes the empowering and guiding force for the apostles throughout Acts, as they take the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Who Was Luke and Why Did He Write?
Though the author of the third Gospel does not explicitly name himself, church tradition identifies the author as Luke, a physician (Col 4:14) and a coworker with the apostle Paul (Philemon 24). Indirect evidence for Lukan authorship comes from the so-called “we” sections in the Book of Acts, where the author at places stops referring to Paul and his associates in the third person (“he,” “they”) and uses instead the first person plural (“we”). This indicates that the author was present on those occasions. From these passages, we learn the author joined Paul in Troas on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16:10–17) and apparently stayed at Philippi (thought to be Luke’s hometown) after Paul left. He then rejoined Paul there when the apostle was returning from his third missionary journey (Acts 20:5–21:18). He subsequently stayed with Paul after the apostle’s arrest and accompanied him to Rome (Acts 27:1–28:16).
Luke was clearly a faithful friend of the apostle Paul and appears with him during the apostle’s second Roman imprisonment (2 Tim 4:10–11), which ended in Paul’s execution. In Colossians 4:11–14 Paul associates Luke with his Gentile rather than his Jewish coworkers. This Gentile identity may help to explain Luke’s strong interest in the universal scope of the Gospel. It is a message of salvation for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Luke addresses his two volumes to an individual named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). We don’t know for sure who Theophilus was, but he clearly had high social status since Luke refers to him as “most excellent Theophilus.” Our best guess is that he was the patron who sponsored the writing of Luke and Acts. He may also have been a recent convert to Christianity or perhaps an interested unbeliever. Having investigated everything carefully, Luke wants to provide a trustworthy account “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).
Though Luke’s Gospel and Acts are dedicated to Theophilus, Luke clearly has a larger audience in mind. Since he has so many passages affirming the universal scope of salvation, and since he spends so much time in Acts defending Paul and the mission to the Gentiles, it seems likely that he is writing to a church or group of churches that were predominantly Gentiles. These believers are likely under fire from those challenging the legitimacy of their faith. Luke writes to confirm that Christianity is not a new religion. It is rather the fulfillment of God’s promises given to Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus is certainly the Jewish Messiah, but he is also the Savior of the whole world. His death, resurrection, and ascension brought forgiveness of sins, not only to Israel but to all people who respond to him in faith. The church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, represents the true people of God in this new age of salvation.