September 30, 2020

God Visits and Saves His People (Luke – 1)

First Things First
Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church
Part Five:  — God Visits and Saves His People (Luke-1)

• • •

Jesus-shaped Christianity will grow out of the soil of a Story-shaped Gospel. The more we immerse ourselves in the Story and get to know the Gospels, the greater the impact the Gospel of King Jesus will have in and through us.

That is the burden of this series, which encourages Christians and churches to make the Gospels (and Acts) the primary documents for forming our Christian identity, theology, and calling. At this point in the series we are giving brief introductions to each Gospel to prime the pump for your individual and congregational study and contemplation.

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Luke’s literary metier is the story. He is, simply, a gifted storyteller. His composition is filled with short, sharply defined vignettes. Each of them summons for the reader an entire imaginative world.

…[But] Luke is more than a miniaturist. He forges these short stories (many of them already circulating in some form) into a single narrative which draws the reader imaginatively from the mists of antiquity all the way to a rented apartment in Rome, and in the short space of 52 chapters communicates an impressive sense of historical movement.

– Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina

INTRODUCTION TO LUKE

Part one of a two-part work
Luke is the only Gospel with a sequel, the Book of Acts. It is clear that the author intended these to be read together as two parts of one continuous history of God’s work—compare Luke 1:1-3 with Acts 1:1-3. Though these books are separated in our New Testaments because of the desire to put the four Gospels together, most Bible scholars today speak of Luke-Acts as a single work. By itself, Luke is the longest book in the NT. When combined with Acts, Luke’s writings make up over 1/4 of its material.

Together, this two-part book shows how God fulfilled his plan of salvation through Jesus and communicated the message of salvation from Jerusalem to Rome, the main city of the civilized world.

  • ​LUKE: What Jesus BEGAN to do and teach. God fulfills his plan by visiting his people in Jesus​. Geographical movement = from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.
  • ACTS: What Jesus CONTINUED to do and teach. God fulfills his plan by sending his Spirit-filled people to the ends of the earth​. Geographical movement = from Jerusalem to Rome.

Prologue states the book’s purpose
Luke and John are the two Gospels with clear statements of the authors’ purposes. While John records his at the end of his book (John 20:30-31), Luke introduces his at the beginning:​

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, ESV)​

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2, ESV)

Observations:

  • First, Luke addresses his book to Theophilus, an official who was probably the patron who paid for the publication of this Gospel.
  • Second, this person probably represented the kinds of people that Luke expected to be the primary readers of his Gospel—either Gentile seekers who were seriously investigating the faith or Gentile believers who needed deeper assurance and certainty in their faith.
  • Third, Luke did careful research in order to produce a well-ordered account of Jesus’ story so that those who read it may have certainty about how God fulfilled his plan through the Jesus’ mission.

Luke…sets out to write the continuation of the biblical story, showing how the Gentile Church of his own day emerged in continuity from a faithful and restored Israel, organizing his narrative as a whole into the pattern of the Prophet and the people.

– L. T. Johnson

​In our next post, we will continue with observations on structures and themes in Luke’s Gospel.

Comments

  1. This is good timing. I just picked up Luke For Everyone by Tom Wright and started reading it last night.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Not intending to start a discussion away from the subject of Luke and Acts, but thanks for including material from Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic scholar teaching at the present time in a Methodist school. He is a strong proponent of creedal faith, who nevertheless can many times manage to scare those in authority.

    His emphasis on the story telling Luke is to me of utmost importance in an age when we can get bogged down in theological niceties.

    I’m looking forward to more of the “Restoring the Gospel…” series.

  3. Marshall says

    “Theophilus” appears to have a root meaning of “Lover of God”; it reads to me like a generic “Dear Reader”. If Luke’s metier is “story”, then here he is pulling up a chair with us by the fire; he wants to address each believer in a direct personal way. I don’t understand why commentators universally assume that Theo is some actual but otherwise unknown patron. Is there more behind the assumption than the common heavy-handed literalism?

    • The name may indeed not be literal (but descriptive), Marshall, but it was common in this kind of literature for people to have a dedicatory introduction to their patrons, which is why most think the name may reflect an actual individual.

      • Marshall says

        There you go, and it makes sense to me that Luke spins that convention to his own purpose. More than just consistent, it advances the gospel meaning if Luke puts the average seeking Joe in the place of the patron, rather than some high priest or … well, what kind of person would it be? Those who donated money are surely present in NT times, but they aren’t celebrated. Luke isn’t big on authority figures, eg all the funny Peter stories.

        I admit that Theophilus may have been a real person, but it surprises me considerable that the other possibility is never mentioned. Or maybe it is and I am speaking from ignorance? I am only an egg.

        • Your interpretation is a possibility, and I have heard it mentioned. What I have heard more often as a variation of what you are suggesting is that unnamed citizens of standing (such as a real Theophilus might be) were the intended audience. Luke is writing a history and using a style of Greek and history writing that would have been more familiar and appealed to them. They would have been more educated, able to read (not a given in the ancient world), and more prominent in society. This would also fit with the emphasis Luke places on Jesus’ ministry to types of people normally looked down upon by people of means and the encouragement throughout Luke-Acts to remember the poor.

  4. “Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church.” I am having difficulty with this approach. Cetainly, the Gospel is primary. But the Gospel is presented in different ways throughout the N.T. Approaching the N.T. by putting certain books above others would seem to open up a lot of issues.

    The stated goal is “Jesus-shaped Christianity.” Is this not the goal of the other books of the N.T.? Is this a convenient way to write our own epistles (interpretation of Christian living), since the epistles have a lot of difficulties for current living?

    My question is “Where is this going”?

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