Almighty God, who calledst Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist and Physician of the soul: May it please thee that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. – The 1662 Book of Common Prayer
It’s important when studying any of the gospels to understand what the gospels are and what they aren’t. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John sat down to write, they didn’t set out to write a biography of Jesus. Their intent wasn’t to give a comprehensive, chronological account of Jesus’ life such that their readers would know as much as possible about His life and times. No, their intent was for their readers to believe. John states this explicitly in his gospel – but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name (Jn 20:31b). Luke also tells his targeted reader – Theophilus – that he writes so Theophilus will know more about the gospel he’s been taught (Lk 1:4).
Understanding this is critical when approaching a gospel. If we expect a traditional biography, we’ll be frustrated at every turn. Unlike a biography, we won’t find a lot of lead-ins for the stories that are told. We’ll be lost if we try to establish the chronology of the events that are recounted (stories are often grouped to show a characteristic of Jesus’ message or ministry rather than as they occurred). Settings are oftentimes missing as stories and locations seem to pop up with no explanation of how we arrived at where we are. People sometimes enter the scene with no introduction or explanation as to who they are or how they got there. Details that would be a part of any good reporting are often left out (for instance, only Luke mentions Jesus’ age or the duration of His ministry). If something doesn’t push the gospel account forward or draw the reader toward belief, it’s likely not included. It can be a hard concept for the linear western mind to comprehend and be comfortable with. [This also applies to the creation account in Genesis 1-2. Moses didn’t sit down to write a textbook on how God created the world; he sat down to write an account of God glorifying Himself through creating. The point is the awesome glory of God and His sovereignty over creation, not a step-by-step description of how He did what He did.]
This is not to say that the gospels’ accuracy is in question. All the gospels include historic people, places, and events that can be verified. Just because the authors wrote to invite belief, it doesn’t mean they weren’t concerned about accuracy and truth.
Once we understand how the gospels were written, it frees us to study with the emphasis the writers intended. As we take on Luke’s gospel, we know he wants us to believe. Or – if we already believe – to know more about what it is we believe and why we believe it. We aren’t here to gain academic knowledge about a historic life; we’re here to know, celebrate, glorify, love, and worship our amazing Redeemer.
Just as it’s important to understand what a gospel is and isn’t, it’s important to understand who it is who writes the gospel we’re about to study. Luke is unlike the other three authors. For one, he’s almost certainly a gentile. This isn’t definite, but his writing style, emphasis, and Paul’s words in Colossians 4:10-14 (where he seems to list Luke among his gentile coworkers), make it very likely that he is. Secondly, he’s a physician (Col 4:14). These two facts lead Luke to take a different approach to his gospel than the other three. For one, he stresses Jesus’ dual roles as Savior AND healer. For another, he includes more stories of Jesus interacting with gentiles to show that He is not just the Savior of Israel, but the Savior of the WORLD (which is good news for us).
Luke is the only gospel writer to not end his account with Jesus’ death. Luke writes Acts as a follow-up to the gospel to show the continuing ministry of Jesus through His Spirit (as a matter of fact, most commentators refer to the books of Luke and Acts as “Luke-Acts” since they were likely meant to be one continuing account; so if you’re ever around a commentary author, make sure to mention you’re studying “Luke-Acts” at church and you’ll show you belong at the cool kids table). This likely has a large impact on how he sees Jesus’ life and what he emphasizes from it. He knows how the gospel will go forth and he specifically knows how it will go to the gentiles through Paul (with whom Luke is close). This unique perspective is something we should keep in mind as we study Luke’s book.
The book of Luke is one of the Synoptic Gospels along with Matthew and Mark (Mark was likely written first at the dictation of Peter – Matthew and Luke likely referenced Mark’s gospel when they wrote their own). This means that Luke covers similar subject matter as the other two. John’s gospel is unique and covers many events that are not in the other three. Though Luke is similar to Matthew and Mark, it’s certainly not identical. Luke is the longest of the gospels (fun fact – Luke is most prolific of the New Testament writers – Luke and Acts together make up more of the New Testament than the writings of any other author, including Paul and John) and contains several accounts the others leave out. The birth story of John the Baptist, the detailed birth narrative of Jesus, the shepherds coming to Bethlehem, Jesus’ circumcision, Jesus in the temple as a twelve-year-old, a description of the ascension, and the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are all only found in Luke.
Luke also includes more stories with women, children, social outcasts, and the poor. He emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for the down-and-out of society and Jesus’ love for sinners. Love is a pervasive theme throughout the book.
Another theme that runs throughout the book is the kingdom of God (31 mentions in the book). Luke stresses this aspect of Jesus’ ministry and makes it clear that it’s a vital part of understanding the gospel story. Luke records Jesus describing His mission on earth as preaching the kingdom of God and that His presence inaugurates the kingdom of God. When Jesus sends the disciples out to heal and cast out demons, He instructs them to preach the kingdom of God. He also tells numerous parables about what the kingdom of God is like. Luke is vitally concerned that his readers understand the kingdom’s importance.
Since that’s the case, it’s important to understand just what Jesus means by the phrase. What exactly is the kingdom of God and if it was initiated by Jesus when He appeared, why is it the world seems so far away from anything resembling what we’d expect God’s kingdom to be?
To understand the term, we need to first understand some facts about Jesus and how He discussed it. First, Jesus throughout His life resisted any attempts to make Him a political Messiah. He was repeatedly hailed as the Savior who would deliver Israel from Rome and in every instance steadfastly refused to accept the role. Second, He described His kingdom as being not of this world (Jn 18:36). Put those two things together and it’s obvious we’re to think more spiritually and less earthly about what the kingdom is.
More facts to consider are how Jesus describes seeing Satan cast down from heaven as a result of the disciples preaching the kingdom of God (Lk 10:18) and tells a parable about a strong man (Satan) being overcome by a stronger man (Jesus) who plunders his house (Lk 11:21-22). Those two illustrations point to the defeat of Satan as part of Jesus’ mission on earth.
Putting these truths together gives us a broader picture of the term. Jesus seems to mean that His coming to earth to die and rise again defeats the kingdom of Satan that’s existed from the fall. As a result, man no longer suffers under Satan’s rule with no expectation of deliverance. Jesus defeats sin and death and brings hope to all who believe. In that way, the kingdom of God is instituted on earth. The full effects of that kingdom, however, are not realized until Jesus returns. The fallen world continues in its fallen state and even believers are not spared its decay and death. But believers are given the strength to resist Satan’s power to tempt and destroy. They are servants of the true King rather than slaves of the evil one. And when Jesus does return and institute His kingdom in full on the new earth, all the effects of a fallen world will go away. In short, the kingdom of God is the embodiment of the gospel.
The now and later aspect of the kingdom of God is summed up in the phrase ‘already but not yet’. We are fully citizens of the kingdom and our citizenship is unquestioned (and we’ll never be more fully citizens than we are now), but the full privileges of that citizenship are in the future. God has defeated sin and death and we no longer must serve and fear them, but our glorified, sinless state is yet to come. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (I Jn 3:2).
Now that we understand a little about Luke’s emphases, we should be better prepared to gain the most from studying his book.
This is Luke’s introduction to the book. He tells us it’s written to someone named Theophilus, the same person he addresses Acts to. No one knows who Theophilus is, but he apparently is a man of means (most excellent) who perhaps has commissioned Luke to write.
Luke says that many others have undertaken to compile an account of Jesus’ life, so it seems fitting that he should put together his own account also. Unlike some, he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, so he assures his reader that he’s closely examined and verified everything with those who were. He has investigated events from the beginning – which he’ll show when he writes the extensive birth accounts – and has written an orderly account.
As we noted above, verse 4 gives the purpose of his writing. He writes so that Theophilus might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Theophilus is likely already a believer. Luke writes so that he’ll better understand the background of what he believes and know the One behind the gospel he’s been taught. Luke wants Theophilus to know Jesus and have confidence in the truth of what Jesus said and accomplished.
KNOW is key. Luke wants for Theophilus and future readers – us – to KNOW that what they’ve been taught is true. Jesus, the Son of Man, the Son of God, truly came to earth and ministered, died, and rose again. We can KNOW this because of the account Luke writes based on careful investigation and the testimony of eyewitnesses and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
And if studying Luke’s gospel enables us to better KNOW the truth and better KNOW Jesus, then studying is truly a joy and a privilege. It’s not just an academic exercise, it’s a journey into a better understanding of our faith and into the love and enjoyment of our Redeemer. Think what lies before us! As we dig into each chapter and verse – which, admittedly, will take a long time because it’s a big book – our joy will increase as our certainty and knowledge increase. We will more fully know the gospel and know our Redeemer and add immeasurably to our lives as a result.
And ‘know’ also is a special word. It means a deep, thorough knowledge. Luke wants his reader to know the certainty of the gospel not only in his mind but in his heart, so that it becomes part of the fiber of his being. Such knowledge may be yours, says Luke. How? By some mystical experience? By a deep study of philosophy? No: by reading and meditating on the plain facts of the story of Jesus, set out here in my Gospel. That is where you may come to know the basic certainties of life. (Michael Wilcock; The Message of Luke; The Bible Speaks Today. 31.)