Chapter 10: The Gospel According to Luke

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 10: The Gospel According to Luke

The acts and sayings of Jesus seem from the earliest times to have been taught by Christian missionaries to their converts, and by these in turn to those who afterward became Christians. Paul reminds the Corinthians how he had delivered unto them what he had himself received as to the Last Supper, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul had been taught these things after his conversion, and he was accustomed to tell them to his converts. In this way the principal facts of what we call the gospel story became known to all Christian believers.

But the story was not always the same. Scores of missionaries were at work about the eastern Mediterranean, but not all of them had been taught the gospel story by Paul or by the men who had taught him. The Christians who fled from Judaea when the persecution in connection with Stephen’s work arose, and who carried the gospel into various parts of the eastern world, probably did not tell their converts precisely the same series of acts and sayings of Jesus. After these early missionaries had left Judaea, new stories and sayings about Jesus’work must have come out as the value of such memories became more evident. Here and there people took the trouble to write down these stories for their own instruction and enjoyment or for use in their missionary work. Fifty years after Jesus’ death there had in these ways arisen a variety of partial accounts of his birth, his ministry, and his death and resurrection, which to a thoughtful mind must have been very perplexing.

It was this perplexity that led Paul’s friend Luke, a Greek physician living somewhere on the shores of the Aegean Sea, to write his Gospel. With this confusion of partial narratives and oral tradition intelligent Greek Christians hardly knew what to believe about the life and teaching of Jesus. One such at least, a certain Theophilus, a man of position and intelligence, was a friend of Luke’s, and perhaps suggested to him his perplexity and what ought to be done to relieve it. For him and for the growing class of intelligent Christian people Luke undertook to bring together into one comprehensive and orderly record what was most valuable in the tradition and narratives which had sprung up in various parts of the world.

Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus not simply to David and Abraham, but back to Adam the son of God, thus emphasizing his human nature more than his Jewish blood, and preparing the way for his later emphasis on the universal elements in Jesus’ ministry. At the same time he declares Jesus to be in a special and immediate sense the child of the Holy Spirit. The consciousness that he is God’s son attends Jesus even in his youth, when after a visit to Jerusalem he lingers in the temple, calling it his Father’s house. At the very outset of his ministry Jesus appears in the synagogue at Nazareth and declares that Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah with good tidings for the poor and wretched is fulfilled in him. In the spirit of this prophecy Jesus, though rejected by his townspeople, goes to Capernaum and by his cures and teaching achieves an immediate success. Four fishermen of the neighborhood become his followers. He goes about Galilee teaching the people and healing the sick and demon-possessed. His disregard of scribal precepts and his claim that he has power to forgive sins offend the Pharisees, and they begin to plot against him. He calls twelve men to him to be his apostles, and in a great sermon explains to his disciples the moral spirit which should govern their lives. Accompanied by the Twelve he continues to travel about Galilee, teaching and healing, and even restoring dead persons to life. The Twelve, who have now seen something of his work and spirit, are sent forth through the country to heal the sick and cast out demons and to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God

On their return Jesus feeds a multitude with a few loaves, and afterward asks the disciples who the people think him to be. They give various answers, but Peter pronounces him the Messiah. Jesus charges them to keep this to themselves, and tells them that rejection and death lie before him, but that the Kingdom of God will soon come. The transfiguration gives his closest intimates a better idea of the kind of Messiah he is to be, and he again foretells his death and resurrection.

At length Jesus sets forth on the momentous journey to Jerusalem, sending messengers before him to make ready for his coming in the villages through which he is to pass. Teaching and healing as he goes, he is more than once entertained by Pharisees, and on one occasion is warned by them of the danger threatening him from Herod, but he only grows more earnest in his warnings against them. In the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son, he defends his course in associating with sinners, that is, persons who did not fully observe the Jewish law. As he approaches Jerusalem, he reminds the Twelve that death and resurrection await him there. Reaching the city he enters it in messianic state amid the acclamations of the people. He goes into the temple and clears it of the traders who use its courts for their traffic. The Jewish leaders protest and demand his authority for this act. His answer does not satisfy them and they prepare to kill him. But he teaches daily in the temple, already crowded with those who had come up for the feast of the Passover, and in the parable of the Vineyard he sets forth the peril of the nation in rejecting and destroying him. After a series of clashes with Pharisees and Sadducees, he foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the return of the Messiah on the clouds of heaven. He eats the Passover supper with his disciples, and immediately after is arrested in a garden on the Mount of Olives. After a series of examinations before the high priest, the Jewish council, the Roman procurator, and Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, who is in the city, and although neither Pilate nor Herod find him guilty, he is condemned and crucified. Immediately after the Sabbath, however, he appears, first to two of his disciples, then to the eleven apostles and their company in Jerusalem. He reminds them that all this has been in accord with the Scriptures, declares that repentance and forgiveness are to be preached in his name to all nations, and is taken from them into heaven.

More than any other evangelist Luke claims to have a historical purpose. His aim is to acquaint himself with all the sources, oral and written, for his work, and to set forth in order the results he ascertains. It is this historical aim that leads him to fix the date of Jesus’ birth by the Augustan enrollment under Quirinius, to date the appearance of John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, and to tell us how old Jesus was when he began to preach. He is the only writer in the New Testament who sees the need of such particulars and tries to supply them. Indeed we are not to think of the Gospel of Luke as a mere gospel; it is really the first volume of the history of the rise of Greek Christianity, of which Acts is Volume II.

Luke is evidently a Greek writing for Greeks. The fate of the Jewish nation interests him less than the universal elements in Jesus’ work. The stories of Jesus seeking hospitality in a Samaritan village, of the good Samaritan, and of the grateful Samaritan leper, suggest Jesus’ interest in people outside his own nation and foreshadow the universal mission. Luke’s Gospel shows a peculiar social and humanitarian interest; the poor and unfortunate appear in it as the especial objects of Jesus’ sympathy and help. A few echoes of medical language in the Gospel to remind us that Luke was, as Paul calls him in Colossians, "the beloved physician."