The Gospel of Luke—Its Theme and Author
“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou has been instructed.”
In taking up the study of any one of the Gospels it is always well to look at it in relation to the other three. We have four Gospels in the New Testament, and the questions are often asked, “Why are there four?” and “Why do they differ one from the other like they do?” and “Would it not have been just as easy to have given us one continuous biography of Christ rather than four accounts, all written by different writers?” That was not God’s desire. By giving us four different records written by four different men, we have stronger foundation for our faith in the stories of the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are told in Matthew 18:16, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” God has given us this testimony not only from three, but four witnesses, each one written individually by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Another reason why He has given us the four Gospels is to present our Lord Jesus Christ in four very different aspects. Matthew was chosen to present Him as the promised Messiah, the King of Israel. Mark presents Him as Jehovah’s perfect, faithful servant. Everywhere in Mark’s gospel we see active service to God and man. John presents Christ as the manifestation of deity, the eternal Son of the Father, who became Man to bring us salvation. He deigned to become flesh: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
But when we turn to Luke, Jesus is presented as Man in all Perfection, the “Son of Man.” That is Luke’s favorite expression. As we examine this book carefully, we will see many evidences of this.
Luke dwells much on the prayer life of Jesus Christ, and prayer, of course, is connected with His manhood. Jesus never makes a move but he looks first to His Father in heaven. We see him praying, praying, praying, as every important occasion arises.
In this Gospel we also see the Lord Jesus Christ frequently as a guest in the homes of various people. He sat with them and ate with them and talked over their problems. No other Gospel presents Christ going out to dinner so often as Luke does. Jesus shares their joys and sorrows and partakes of the good things that are presented to Him. When you meet a man at the dinner table you find out what he really is. I had read forty or fifty biographies of Martin Luther, but he always seemed to be a figure on a pedestal, until I read “Luther’s Table Talks.” Then I felt that he and I were friends. I felt that I knew the man as I could not have known him otherwise. So these accounts of Christ at the dinner table give us an understanding of His manhood, which we would not get in any other way.
Luke was an educated man. He was a “beloved physician” and yet a very humble man. He never mentions himself, either here or in the book of Acts. He and Paul met at Troas on the second journey. After that, Luke was almost a constant companion of the apostle, but as you read the book of Acts from the sixteenth chapter on, you will notice that whenever Luke was with the company, he says, we or us. When he remains behind and Paul and the rest move on, he changes to they and them. When Luke joins them again he reverts to we and us. He was with Paul to the end. In his last letter from Rome, Paul writes, “Only Luke is with me.” He was a widely traveled man, highly educated, and was of a scientific mind and temperament. In all likelihood he was a Gentile. He may have been of Jewish descent, but his name is a Gentile name, and he writes for the information of Gentiles. His special object in writing this letter was to make clear to a Gentile the facts concerning the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His friend, who is mentioned here in the prologue in verse 3 as “Most excellent Theophilus,” was possibly a governor of a Roman province. He uses the title given to a high Roman official. Theophilus was, we gather, a Gentile Christian who evidently held high position in the Roman Empire, and Luke was an intimate fried of his. He wrote this Gospel to give Theophilus a clear understanding of what had taken place in Palestine.
Luke gives us a great deal of information that is not found in the other Gospels. It is he alone who relates the stories of the visits of the angel Gabriel to Zacharias and to Mary. No one else tells us of the song of Mary and the prophecy of Zacharias. The birth of Christ in a stable is only recorded here, as also the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. The presentation of the child Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem, and the welcome given by Anna and Simeon, are only mentioned here. The first meeting in Nazareth, as recorded in chapter four; the great draught of fishes; the interview with the woman of the city in the house of Simon the Pharisee, as found in chapter seven; the beautiful incident of Mary at the feet of Jesus; and the mission of the seventy (chapter 10) are only found here. Much of the material of chapters eleven to eighteen inclusive are told only by Luke, as also the story of Zaccheus. It is he alone who mentions the coming of the angel to our Saviour to strengthen Him in His Gethsemane agony. And had it not been for Luke, we would never have known of the penitent thief, nor of the visit of our Risen Lord with the two disciples on the way to and in their home at Emmaus.
Then when we think of the parables, it is striking to note how many are only related in this Gospel. The story of the good Samaritan, the rich fool, the barren fig-tree, the great supper (not to be confounded with the marriage of the King’s Son as given in Matthew) the lost coin, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, the story of Dives and Lazarus, the unjust judge and the widow, the Pharisee and the publican, and the parable of the pounds are all given by Luke. The last mentioned, while similar to the parable of the talents, is, nevertheless, quite a different story.
How much then we would be bereaved of, if Luke had not been moved by the Spirit of God to search out so many things that no other inspired writer has recorded. There is nothing redundant here. All is of great importance and cannot be over-estimated, so far as its value to the church of God is concerned, and also its importance in presenting the Gospel of the grace of God in its manifold aspects.
The book divides itself into four parts. The first four chapters deal with the birth, baptism, and temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ. The second division, chapters four to eighteen, gives the opening up of the way of salvation and approach to God. The nineteenth chapter to the end gives us the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.
In each Gospel the crucifixion is linked with a different offering, as found in Leviticus one to five. Matthew presents it as the trespass offering. Mark gives us Christ as the sin offering. John takes up Christ as the burnt offering. Luke brings Him before us as our great peace offering—Christ making peace between God and man by shedding His blood on the cross. The trespass offering sets forth the death of Christ because of the sins actually committed against God and man. The sin offering speaks of Christ dying for what we are, not only for what we have done. The burnt offering speaks of Christ dying to glorify God. The peace offering speaks of peace made by the shed blood of the Lamb of God.
In the book of Ezekiel we have the four faces of the cherubim—the lion, ox, eagle, and man. These answer to the four Gospels. In Matthew we have the majesty of the lion; in Mark the patient service of the ox; in John the penetrating eye of the eagle—the heavenly One; Luke shows us the face of the Man.
Luke was a careful and conscientious investigator. He sought out those who had known the Lord Jesus personally and learned the facts from their own lips. He was, of course, inspired by God, but the Spirit of God led him to make use of all reliable sources of information. Notice how he begins his book: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first,”—
Let us stop there for the moment. Luke was sure of his ground. He knew the certainty of the things of which he wrote. There were doubtless many uninspired records, now lost, setting forth much that was commonly reported concerning our Lord’s life and ministry. These, however, were not authoritative; God would not leave us dependent upon untrustworthy records. Early in the next century, many such apocryphal gospels appeared, none of which have the dignity, the transparency, the sanctity of the inspired Gospels. People talk of the lost books of the Bible. But this is all wrong. We have all the Bible God ever meant us to have, in the Old and New Testaments. The so-called lost books are unreliable and legendary.
Whether Mark and Matthew had written earlier than Luke we cannot say. But if so, he did not copy from them. He wrote as divinely-directed, just as they did. John, we know, was not written until many years afterwards. It is the last of the Gospels in point of time. Luke was not seeking to cast doubt on any other apostolic record, but he wished Theophilus to have an altogether accurate account of “all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up” (Acts 1:1) so he wrote as an independent investigator.
He speaks of those who were “ministers of the word.” The last term may be either the word of the Gospel, or perhaps we should capitalize it and read “the Word,” thus referring to Him who, though the eternal Word, became flesh for our redemption. Whether we think of Christ’s servants as ministers of the written word or of the living Word, it comes to one and the same thing, for Christ is the theme of all Scripture. He is the Gospel personified.
We may think of Luke as going to Palestine, seeking out the still living friends of Jesus, interviewing them and so learning firsthand many facts concerning the Lord’s words and ways that others were not led to put on record.
This is the only one of the four Gospels that gives us the wonderful account of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, though it is corroborated by Matthew. Luke was a physician, and the facts brought out here are facts which could only be expected of a physician. He had exact knowledge of everything he wrote. He probably knew the virgin mother intimately and learned from her own lips the great mystery of the incarnation. In the same way he would learn of other facts. And so he wrote in order that Theophilus might “know the certainty of the things wherein he had been instructed.”
May I say to the young people who are troubled with doubts as to these things: If one has an open mind and an honest heart, the Holy Spirit will reveal to you the truth of God’s word. Let me ask that you give special attention to the details Luke sets forth, and pray that the Holy Spirit of God will open the word to you, as He did to this beloved physician and to many millions since his day.