At the moment we are looking at a number of possible changes. You know that we have been looking at the times of our services and the elders will be considering that further this week. But there are other changes in the wind as well. One of them is that Rachel and I will be sharing the preaching. Rather than both of us preparing sermons each week, we will take turns and we will preach in both services. So, this term, Rachel is going to be preaching and she has chosen the theme of prayer, based on Luke’s gospel. This week and next I will still preach but I will introduce Luke’s gospel.
As you know, if we look at the four gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are quite similar while John is very different. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels. “Synoptic” means “to look together”, that is, the synoptic gospels are so similar they are seen to be looking at things the same way.
Having said that, even the synoptic gospels are quite distinctive. Look at this diagram from Wikipedia.
Only 41% of Luke’s material is also in Mark and Matthew. 23% of Luke’s material is also in Matthew but not in Mark. 35% of Luke is unique to Luke. It is not found elsewhere.
In some ways the unique material is the most interesting if we want to ask, “What is distinctive about Luke’s presentation of Jesus?” “If Luke has a particular emphasis, what is it and why?”
We will look at that but there is also the danger that if we focus only on what is distinctive, we would overlook the really big themes that all of the gospels emphasise (the 65%).
One of the things that is unique about Luke is that he wrote a 2-volume history – the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The gospel, like the other gospels, tells the story up to the resurrection and the days immediately after it. But the Acts of the Apostles continues the story of the church and of the spread of the message about Jesus. Because they are both part of the same work, we see many of the same themes in Acts that we see in Luke.
For example, Luke contains more references to the Holy Spirit than the other synoptics. Even just in chapter 1, the angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth; Mary would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit; Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when she heard Mary’s greeting; and Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. Luke has 13 references to the Holy Spirit. The others have only 4 or 5 each. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is particularly important to Luke. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit has a huge role. People have suggested that it should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
Luke tells us why he wrote this book in 1:1-4. The book is addressed to someone called Theophilus. Luke says that he has written the book “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (1:4). Theophilus was either interested in the Christian faith or was a new believer. He had received some teaching but Luke wanted him to be utterly convinced. “I want you to know that these things are true.”
In other words, Luke’s purpose was to make a disciple and that ties in with the book of Acts which is about the proclamation of this message about Jesus, throughout the known world.
How then did Luke seek to persuade Theophilus? He simply told the story of Jesus. He emphasised at the beginning that he had investigated carefully; he had spoken to eye witnesses (probably including Mary, Jesus’ mother) and he had written an orderly account. In other words, he had been very careful with the facts. And actually, when scholars check up on his historical detail and his geographical detail, Luke is shown to be thorough and reliable.
Luke’s evangelistic approach was simply to tell Theophilus about Jesus. He would give the facts and let them speak for themselves.
All of the gospels, of course, have Jesus front and centre. It is all about Jesus. That is not unique to Luke.
Luke himself was a Gentile – not a Jew – and Theophilus was a Gentile. Maybe Luke knew that he was really writing for a larger audience – Theophilus’ circle of friends and family and whoever else, but Gentiles. Of course if you are writing to Gentiles, you write very differently from you would to Jews. You don’t assume a lot of knowledge about the Old Testament or quote a lot of Old Testament scriptures. Matthew, for example, writing to Jews, frequently says, “This fulfilled what the prophet had said” but Luke doesn’t do this because his readers wouldn’t have known about the prophets.
But what conclusions would Theophilus come to? What image of Jesus would he get? What does Luke emphasise about Jesus?
Luke starts with the birth story. Only Luke and Matthew do. He starts with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth and then the announcement of Jesus’ birth. There are angels involved in both. Both of the conceptions are miraculous and both of them talk of God’s plan being fulfilled through the ministries of these men. The angel said to Zechariah (about John the Baptist), “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of righteousness – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (1:16-17)
The angel, Gabriel, said to Mary (about Jesus), “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.”
Right at the beginning, Theophilus is told that this is miraculous; this is God acting; this is a turning point in the history of the world. God was acting to save the world. John would prepare people for the Lord; Jesus would be the eternal King.
Luke is the only synoptic gospel to describe Jesus as “Saviour”. The angels announced to the shepherds, “Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord.” (2:11)
This is only the beginning of the story. Luke doesn’t expect Theophilus to necessarily be persuaded already but Luke is upfront about saying, “Jesus is the Saviour of the world” and Theophilus can weigh up the evidence in the rest of the book to see if it supports that claim.
You might remember that after the visit of the angel, Mary burst into a psalm of praise – what we now know as The Magnificat. Likewise, after the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and burst into song. Then Simeon, in the Temple, expressed his praise in words that look like a song. All of those are unique to Luke and illustrate another of his emphases: worship and joy, because of God’s salvation. Luke uses the words “joy” and “rejoice” more often than the other writers.
Zechariah’s song picks up that theme of salvation: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God.” (1:76-78)
Some scholars have suggested that the verse that perhaps best sums up the message of the gospel of Luke is Luke 19:10: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Mary’s song, The Magnificat, in particular talks about how God cares for the poor and the humble.
Luke 1:51-55 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’
Luke focuses on Jesus’ compassion for the poor and the dispossessed and the marginalised and the rejected. God brings down the powerful and the proud and raises up the humble and the hungry.
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, the first statement doesn’t mention the poor in spirit. It says “Blessed are the poor” (6:20). It is not the poor in spirit but the literal poor who are blessed. Jesus, when He described His own ministry, in the synagogue in Nazareth, quoted words from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind. To set the oppressed free” (4:18-19).
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) is unique to Luke. A rich man who was self-indulgent and cared nothing for the beggar at his gate, and the beggar, both died. The beggar went to heaven. The rich man went to hell and was tormented. He cried out for mercy but was reminded that the situation was now irreversible. He had had a life of privilege while Lazarus had suffered at his gate. Now their situations had been reversed. That is an unusually descriptive story about hell and it shows that God is not impressed by riches. God lifts up the humble.
Luke’s is the only gospel that contains the parable of the rich fool – the super-successful farmer whom God called a fool because he died having store up things for himself but with no relationship with God.
This is typical of Luke: 14:13-14 says: But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
Luke’s is the only gospel that includes the parable of the Good Samaritan – the hated Samaritan outcast who turned out to be the hero of the story – and the story of the ten lepers who were healed. Only one returned to give thanks and he was a Samaritan. Luke was saying to his Gentile audience that the gospel was also for Gentiles and that is a major issue later, in Acts.
Tax-collectors and sinners also get a sympathetic treatment in Luke. They were the most disreputable, and the most hated, people in that society but Jesus loved them and mixed with them. Only Luke has the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus and the story of the tax-collector and the Pharisee praying in the temple and the story of the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee – and whom Jesus declared to be forgiven while Simon was not (7:36-50).
Speaking of that prostitute, women in general have a prominent place in Luke’s gospel. Luke’s account includes far more women than any of the other gospels, from Mary and Elizabeth, to Anna in the temple, to a woman who was bent over and crippled for 18 years, but whom Jesus healed, to the forgiven prostitute, to the group of well-to-do women who travelled with Jesus and supported His ministry.
All of the gospels present Jesus as the Saviour (whether or not they use that word), of course. It is just that Luke emphasises that He is the Saviour of all. He is the Saviour of rough diamond shepherds. He is the saviour of the poor and the humble and the socially unacceptable and those who have no status. Theophilus, Jesus is the Saviour of the Gentiles.
We will continue and look at more characteristics of Luke’s gospel, next week. God wants us also to have certainty about the things we have been taught. He has provided these pictures of Jesus in the gospels so that we, taught by the Holy Spirit, might be sure. He also has made salvation available to all. We might not be rich or famous but God cares about each one of us and wants us to be saved.