Carefully researched account of God’s Anointed
By Luke, the physician
This Third Gospel account is the work of a physician named Luke. Unlike Matthew and John, Luke is not one of the twelve or an eyewitness to any of the life of Jesus. However, he is a close friend and traveling companion of the most influential missionary of the early church—Paul, the emissary.
Fact, not Fiction
Luke writes with a highly advanced literary style; his is the only Gospel that begins with a formal, literary introduction, a feature characteristic of many books written in his day.
Luke clearly states the method and purpose for writing his Gospel. He has researched the life of Jesus thoroughly in order to correct the misinformation being spread about Him and to provide the most historically accurate report of Jesus’ ministry possible. He wants to assure believers that the Christian faith is rooted in fact, not fiction.
The Compassion of Jesus
Luke addresses his Gospel to Theophilus, a Roman official; but it’s clear that he also writes with a broader audience in mind. In fact, the name “Theophilus” means “one who loves God,” suggesting his account is for anyone who loves God. Luke himself may be an outsider to the Jewish faith.
If so, he is the only Gentile author in the New Testament. Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam (rather than starting with Abraham, as Matthew does) in order to emphasize that Jesus is the Savior of all humanity, not just the Jewish Messiah. Connecting Jesus with Adam also emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, which is repeatedly stressed in this Gospel. Luke, of course, does not deny Jesus’ divinity; he just shows how Jesus exemplifies the perfect human being.
Luke also focuses on the compassion of Jesus toward the disadvantaged members of society, including women, outcasts, and the poor. The Gospel according to Luke turns the world upside down and exalts the humble while humbling the exalted.
Acts of the Apostles
Luke’s story of Jesus is the most comprehensive of the Gospels. It begins with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. It continues through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
But Luke’s story does not end there. After showing his readers how Jesus welcomes all people to follow Him, Luke gives the next chapter in his account of this movement Jesus began—the book known as the Acts of the Apostles.
There he describes how the followers of Jesus moved beyond Jerusalem and the Jews and took the message of Jesus to the outsider nations across the known world.
What GOD Has Done Through Jesus
Luke travels widely with the Lord’s emissary, Paul. Thus, he is a sort of cosmopolitan person, multicultural in his sensitivities, understanding both Jewish culture and the broader Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire.
Moreover, as a physician he is more educated than the average person of his day and has an impressive ability to relate to common people.
Luke is especially skilled as a storyteller, so he isn’t presenting a theological treatise (as good and important as theological treatises may be); he’s telling the story of Jesus, gathered from many eyewitnesses. Based on the name of the intended audience of his book (Theophilus—literally, “God-lover,” translated here as “those who love God”), presumably he wants to help people who love God to love Him even more by knowing what He has done through Jesus.
In the time of Jesus, Jewish life is centered in the temple in Jerusalem. Priests are responsible for the temple’s activities — which include receiving religious pilgrims and their sacrifices (cattle, sheep, goats, and doves). Animal sacrifices may sound strange to a modern society, but in the ancient world, they are quite common.
The slaughter of animals is a daily experience; it is part of any meal that includes meat. So this meal brings together the Jewish family from near and far, seeking to affirm their connections to the one true and living God. Their gift of animals is their contribution to the meal. (The priests, by the way, are authorized to use the meat for the sustenance of their families.)
The presentation of the blood and meat of these sacrifices is accompanied by a number of prescribed rituals, performed by priests wearing prescribed ornamental clothing, according to a prescribed schedule. As the story continues, these solemn rituals are interrupted in an unprecedented way.
Zachariah is a priest working in the temple, but priests don’t normally hear from God. Those who hear from God are called prophets, not priests. One becomes a priest by being born in a priestly family line.
Prophets, on the other hand, arise unpredictably and have no special credentials except the message they carry. So Zachariah has no reason to believe his duties will be interrupted in this way.
Often in the biblical story, when people receive a message from God — after getting over the initial shock — they start asking questions. They push back; they doubt.
Mary is deeply moved by these amazing encounters — first with the messenger and then with her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary’s response can’t be contained in normal prose; her noble soul overflows in poetry. And this poetry isn’t simply religious; it has powerful social and political overtones.
It speaks of a great reversal — what might be called a social, economic, and political revolution. To people in Mary’s day, there is little question as to what she is talking about.
The Jewish people are oppressed by the Roman Empire, and to speak of a King who will demote the powerful and rich and elevate the poor and humble means one thing: God is moving toward setting them free! Soon Zachariah will overflow in poetry of his own.
This political background isn’t incidental: it is crucial to the story. Conquering nations in the ancient world work in various ways. Some brutally destroy and plunder the nations they conquer. Some conquer people as slaves or servants.
Other empires allow the people to remain in their land and work as before, but with one major change: the conquered people have to pay taxes to their rulers. The purpose of a census like the one Luke describes is to be sure that everyone is appropriately taxed and knows who is in charge.
Here again is Luke’s fascination with disadvantaged people. Jesus’ first visitors are not ambassadors, dignitaries, or wealthy landowners.
The first to pay Him homage are simple shepherds, minimum-wage workers in the ancient agrarian economy. They have little to no status in the world.
They are the humble and the poor whom God is now raising up to receive heavenly messages and an audience with the great King. This theme recurs as the story continues.
Little is recorded about Jesus’ life between His birth and the age of 30. But this one episode tells so much.
First, Jesus’ family life is a lot like anyone’s — full of mishaps and misunderstandings.
Second, as Jesus enters young adulthood, He begins manifesting an extraordinary sense of identity. (Remember, a 12-year-old isn’t “just a kid” in Israel — he is becoming a man.) He isn’t just “Mary’s boy” or “Joseph’s stepson.” He has a direct relationship with God as His Father, and He knows His life will follow a path of working for God.
More than any other Gospel writer, Luke wants to situate the story of Jesus in secular history. In particular, he gives details of the emperor, governor, and other client rulers. With a toxic mixture of cruelty and might, these authorities lord their power over the common people.
Yet these high and mighty are — as Mary’s poem describes — destined to be brought down in the presence of a new kind of king and a new kind of kingdom. Jesus will exercise His authority in a radically different way — not through domination and violence, but through love, healing, compassion, and service.
John’s father Zachariah is a priest who serves in Jerusalem at the temple. Among their other duties, priests perform ritual cleansings necessary for Jewish worshipers who become ceremonially unclean — perhaps through contact with outsiders (non-Jewish people), perhaps through contact with blood or a dead body, perhaps through a physical illness.
But when John appears on the scene, he hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps. He’s not fulfilling the role of the priest, but rather of the prophet. He works far outside of Jerusalem, and he baptizes people in the Jordan River, not near the temple.
It’s as if John is performing a symbolic drama: If you want to be in tune with God, the temple and its normal routines can’t help you anymore. Instead of being cleansed there, you should come out to this radical preacher and let him cleanse you in the river. And his message isn’t a polite, tame message. It’s fiery and intense! God isn’t interested in just routine religion. He wants changed lives!
What does it mean for Jesus to be baptized by John?
If John’s baptism symbolizes a rejection of the religious establishment centered in the temple in Jerusalem, then Jesus’ baptism by John symbolizes that He is aligned with this radical preacher.
Jesus isn’t simply coming to strengthen or even renew the centers of power. Instead, He is joining John at the margins to be part of something wild and new that God is doing. And the vivid manifestation of God’s pleasure — the dove like appearance and the voice from heaven — suggests that even though Jesus is in a sense aligning Himself with John, John is simply the opening act and Jesus is the main attraction.
The choreography between John’s work and Jesus’ work continues, but from this point on, Jesus is in the center of the story.
While genealogies may seem tedious, for people in many cultures (including Luke’s), genealogies are important and meaningful because they give a sense of identity and history.
Luke places Jesus in the mainstream of biblical history, connected to King David, Abraham, Noah, and Adam. By connecting Jesus with Adam, and ultimately with God, Luke shows how Jesus is connected to and relevant for all people, and he may also be suggesting that in Jesus God is launching a new humanity, with Jesus as the new Adam.
Unlike the first Adam, though, Jesus will be completely faithful to God, as the next episode makes clear. Perhaps echoing Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent in the garden (Genesis 3:1–7), Luke moves from the stories of Jesus’ beginnings to His temptation.
Luke’s audience doesn’t divide the world into sacred vs. secular or religious vs. political. For them, life is integrated. And for them, these “religious” words from Isaiah have a powerful and “political” meaning: because they see themselves as oppressed by the Roman occupation, Jesus’ words suggest that His “good news” describes a powerful change about to come — a change that will rescue the people from their oppression.
His fellow Jews have long been waiting for a savior to free them from Roman oppression. Jesus tells them their hopes are about to be fulfilled.
But then, just as people speak well of Jesus, He lets them know their expectations aren’t in line with God’s plans. He tells them not to expect God to fit into their boxes and suggests the unthinkable: that God cares for the Gentiles, the very people who are oppressing them! They aren’t too pleased by this.
The essential message of Jesus can be summed up this way: the kingdom of God is available to everyone, starting now. When Jesus refers to the kingdom of God, He doesn’t mean something that happens after death, far off in heaven; He equates the kingdom of God with God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
So the kingdom of God is life as God intends it to be — life to the full, life in peace and justice, life in abundance and love. Individuals enter the Kingdom when they enter into a relationship with Jesus, when they trust Him enough to follow His ways.
But make no mistake, the Kingdom is about more than individual lives; it is about the transformation and renewal of all God has created. It may start with individual responses, but it doesn’t stop there.
Jesus describes His purpose as proclaiming this message. But Jesus not only expresses His message of the kingdom of God in words, He also dramatizes it in deeds.
Luke calls these amazing deeds “signs and wonders,” suggesting that these actions have symbolic meaning, which is significant, and are wonderful, which means they fill people with awe and wonder. In the coming chapters, the wonder that the original eyewitnesses feel is palpable, and Jesus’ actions are significant signs of the kingdom of God.
The miracles Jesus performs come in all types: He heals the sick. He frees the oppressed. He shows His power over nature. He will even raise the dead. But as the story in verses 21-26 shows, one of the greatest miracles of all is forgiveness. To have sins forgiven — to start over again, to have God separate believers from their mistakes and moral failures, to lift the weight of shame and guilt — this may well be the weightiest evidence that God’s Son is on the move.
The kingdom of God doesn’t throw all guilty people in jail; it doesn’t execute everyone who has made mistakes or tell them they’re just getting what they deserve. Instead, it brings forgiveness, reconciliation, a new start, a second chance. In this way, it mobilizes believers to have a new future.
Certainly Jesus has communicated the message of the Kingdom through words and through signs and wonders. Now Jesus embodies the message in the way He treats people, including outcasts like Levi. As a tax collector, Levi is a Jew who works for the Romans, the oppressors, the enemies.
No wonder tax collectors are despised! But how does Jesus treat this compromiser? He doesn’t leave him paralyzed in his compromised position; He invites him — like the paralyzed man — to get up and walk, and to walk in a new direction toward a new King and Kingdom.
The Pharisees are back again, and they stay through the rest of the story. Pharisaism is a religious movement, consisting of lay people (not clergy) who share a deep commitment to the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions. They believe the Jewish people have not yet been freed from the Romans because of the Jews’ tolerance of sin.
There are too many drunks, prostitutes, and gluttons. “If we could just get these sinners to change their ways,” they feel, “then God would send the One who will free us.” How angry they are at Jesus not just for forgiving sins but also for eating with sinners!
After all, to eat with people means to accept them. The kind of Rescuer they expect will judge and destroy sinners, not forgive them and enjoy their company!
Jesus certainly has His detractors. They watch Him closely and voice their opposition to His words and actions. Sometimes they even try to stump Him with questions or publicly humiliate Him. But Jesus refuses to be intimidated. For every charge they level, He has an answer. To the charge of blasphemy, He responds, “I have the authority to forgive sins.”
To the charge that He befriends sinners and parties too much, He answers, “These are My people; I’ve come for them.” To the accusation that He breaks Sabbath law, He quips, “The Sabbath is a great servant, but it’s not your master. I am Lord of the Sabbath.” The crowds are amazed at the tense give-and-take between Jesus and His opponents.
They seem to respect the Pharisees for their strict observance of God’s law, or perhaps they fear them because they don’t want to become targets of Pharisaic criticism. Yet the people are attracted to Jesus because of the peculiar moral authority He exhibits. As time goes on, Jesus crosses more and more lines drawn in the sand. The tension between Jesus and the Pharisees now becomes a major plot line of Luke’s story.
The Pharisees think they have God all figured out. They claim to be experts in the sacred writings — the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus doesn’t fit in with their assumptions and expectations, and He doesn’t submit to their presumed expertise. So they are constantly criticizing Him and trying to trap Him in some obvious wrongdoing or unorthodoxy.
But Jesus responds with questions instead of answers. He seems to decide that the best way to help them is by challenging them to think, to question their assumptions, to see things from a higher or deeper perspective. For example, they argue about what is permissible on the Sabbath Day (the seventh day, the day of rest); this is how Jesus gets them thinking about the deeper purpose of the Sabbath Day.
In addition to teaching and healing, Jesus also gathers disciples, who are simply students or apprentices. Their classroom is the world — hillsides and beaches, homes and country roads, fields and city streets.
Their subject is life — life in the kingdom of God. Jesus has many students, both men and women, but He forms a special inner circle known as “the twelve.” The number “twelve” is highly symbolic because the Jewish people were originally composed of twelve tribes.
However, over the centuries, some of the tribes were decimated. By calling together a new twelve, Jesus seems to be dramatizing a new beginning for the people of God. The original twelve tribes found their identity in the law of Moses, but now Jesus is giving a new way of life for His twelve to learn and follow.
John, it seems, is having second thoughts. Is Jesus really the One we have expected? Is He the Anointed One? But who can blame John for these doubts? After all, John is in prison, unjustly held by a corrupt, immoral ruler.
Ultimately the desert prophet will have his head severed from his body when the drunken, lusty king makes a silly promise in front of dinner guests. So who can blame John for seeking assurance from the Lord? Jesus, realizing fully the kinds of expectations others have, gently reminds John and his disciples of the Scriptures: “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead live, and the poor receive the good news.”
Luke doesn’t say how John responds to the report as he nears his own end. What is clear is that Jesus has the utmost respect for His colleague and cousin. He doesn’t reject him for his doubts but tries to send him reassurance.
Parables are works of art, specifically, works of short fiction. They are intricately constructed and complex in their intent. In some ways, they are intended to hide the truth; they don’t reduce truth to simple statements or formula.
Instead, they force the reader to take things to a deeper level, to engage the imagination, to think and think again. In this way, they invite people to ask questions; they stir curiosity; they create intrigue.
So concludes an almost breathtaking succession of encounters between Jesus and people in need. Each story is unique; Jesus responds to each person as an individual, and there is no detectable formula to His way of treating people — except that in every case, His interactions are characterized by love and compassion.
Now Jesus takes His ministry of teaching the kingdom of God in word and deed to a new level: He sends out His disciples to do what they have seen Him do. Jesus commissions the twelve to multiply His ministry. They will go out from and then return to Jesus with reports of what they’ve experienced and learned. But it’s hard for them to get any time alone to talk. There are so many people who want time with Jesus!
In this section of Luke, Jesus is working hard with the disciples. They have a lot to learn and not much time left to learn it. But their “not-getting-it factor” is quite amazing. Luke’s tone betrays him shaking his head and chuckling as he writes, thinking about how foolish the disciples can be at times.
And, of course, he’s probably thinking of himself too… just as he hopes his readers will when they read about the stupid things the disciples say and do — one moment seeing and hearing glorious things, the next moment missing the point entirely.
This story brings together many themes from Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom. Samaritans are seen as “half-breeds” by Jesus’ fellow Jews — racially mixed and also religiously compromised. By making a Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus is once again tweaking assumptions and breaking out of conventional boxes: “In the kingdom of God,” Jesus is saying, “the outcasts and last can move to the front of the line.”
The focus for Jesus is not on the kinds of sophisticated arguments preferred by the religious scholar; for Jesus the kingdom of God is about living life, and in particular, living a life of love for God and for neighbor — whoever that neighbor may be.
Jesus’ response shows that the Jewish people will be surprised by who enters the kingdom of God. It will not be just the Jews but people from all around the world — east and west, north and south. And they will also be surprised by who does not enter the kingdom, since some Jews will be on the outside looking in.
Jesus continues to challenge Jewish ideas about who will be in the kingdom of God and how the Kingdom will work. Those who have been dishonored on earth will be honored in the Kingdom, and those in positions of economic and religious honor here will be dishonored there.
He also challenges individuals to reconsider their personal value systems. They should not honor their own lives and family above Christ, but rather give them up for Him.
The parable ends. Jesus never reveals how it came out. Did the older brother join the party and reconcile with his younger, wayward brother? Or did he stay outside, fuming over the seeming injustice of his father’s extravagant love?
The story remains unresolved because it is, in fact, an invitation — an invitation to the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus to join Him in welcoming sinners and other outsiders into the joyful party of the Kingdom.
The theme of money and wealth has come up again and again. It’s what really motivates the Pharisees, it turns out. Money might be God’s top competitor.
In the previous parable, Jesus turns the tables. The rich man, who represents what most people wish they could become, turns out to be the one who is hopeless in God’s judgment; he is rich in possessions but poor in compassion, and compassion is what God measures, not wealth.
The kingdom of God, Jesus is making clear, calls rich people to stop working to increase their personal wealth portfolio; instead, it challenges them to join God by using their wealth and power on behalf of the poor.
It is common to speculate about when the kingdom of God will fully arrive. But Jesus, through the previous parable, makes it clear that such speculation is a waste of time. Instead, people should be busy investing their lives in the kingdom of God. Earlier, in His encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus invited the man to stop collaborating with the Roman Empire for his own benefit and to switch sides — so he could start working with the kingdom of God for the sake of the poor.
The man refused; but soon after, a man named Zaccheus volunteered to do that very thing: to stop working for his own wealth by collaborating with Caesar’s kingdom and to start working for justice for the poor by collaborating with God’s kingdom. Speculation about the dates and times of the coming of the Kingdom can obscure the point — believers should live, starting now, in the way of the Kingdom.
In this powerful scene as Jesus comes into the city, echoing the words of Zechariah 9:9, Jesus shows how His kingdom is upside down compared to the kingdoms of this world.
Caesar enters a town riding a white stallion, accompanied by dignitaries and soldiers with weapons. Jesus comes on a little donkey, cheered by common people tossing their coats in the donkey’s path. The contrast between the two ways, He suggests through tears, is the difference between violent destruction and peace.
In addition to the Pharisees, there is a religious sect in Roman-occupied Israel called the Sadducees. They are religious conservatives holding to an ancient tradition in Judaism that doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
Their disbelief in an afterlife seems to make them conclude, “There’s only one life, and this is it, so you’d better play it safe.” That means they are very happy to collaborate with the Romans — and make a healthy profit — rather than risk any kind of rebellion or revolt.
For this reason, they are closely allied with another group called the Herodians, allies of Caesar’s puppet king Herod. Their contemporaries, the Pharisees, who believe in an afterlife, are more prone to risk their lives in a rebellion since they hope martyrs will be rewarded with resurrection. For this reason, the Pharisees are closely allied with the Zealots, who are more overtly revolutionary.
Each group tries to trap Jesus, but He turns the tables on them, using each encounter to shed more light on the message of the kingdom of God. In case after case, Jesus brings His hearers to the heart of the matter; and again and again, the bottom-line issue is money.
The meal that Jesus and His disciples shared is still celebrated today among followers of Jesus. We surround it with varied rituals and music, but the original meal took place in the midst of great drama and tension. The disciples were arguing, and Jesus was teaching them yet another lesson about life in the kingdom of God. Jesus even spoke of His own suffering and their betrayal and denial. Yet through it all, Jesus’ focus remained on the central theme of His life and mission: the coming of the kingdom of God.
There is powerful consistency in Jesus’ life. Again and again, He withdraws from the crowds to pray in solitude. Now, at this dramatic moment, Jesus again withdraws to pray — in a solitude made more intense by the fact that He has asked His disciples to pray, too, but they have fallen asleep. And in this moment of anguished emotion, Jesus mouths a prayer that resonates with His consistent message of the Kingdom.
He has taught His disciples to pray, “May Your kingdom come,” which is a request for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Now, drenched in sweat, Jesus Himself prays simply for God’s will to be done, even if it means He must drink the cup of suffering that awaits Him in the hours ahead.
We often speak of having faith in Jesus; but we seldom speak of the faith of Jesus, a faith He demonstrated consistently throughout His life and especially at its end. In a moment of agony, Jesus still trusted God, still yielded His will to God, and still approached God as “Father,” placing Himself in the position of a child, in trust — profound, tested, sincere.
Crucifixion is a favorite Roman punishment for insurrectionists, slaves, and prisoners of war. Anyone daring to defy the power and authority of Caesar is executed in this public and humiliating way. Jesus indeed is a revolutionary. He doesn’t come to proclaim a new religion, but a new kingdom — a new way of life.
He is indeed a threat to Caesar’s way of doing things, a way that co-opts the religious leaders. Jesus’ revolution is a peaceful revolution. He doesn’t advocate the use of violence — in fact, when one of His disciples uses the sword to try to protect Jesus from arrest, Jesus heals the “enemy” and rebukes His disciple.
So Jesus doesn’t support the regime of Caesar or follow the usual violent path of revolution: He leads a revolutionary revolution — in a path of love, healing, justice, and reconciliation. Jesus appropriates and transforms the symbol of their power into a symbol of His greater power.
He makes the cross not the icon of violent domination, but the reverse. By hanging on the cross and speaking of forgiveness, Jesus shows that there is a greater power at work in the world than the power of domination: it’s the power of God’s saving and reconciling love.
The tearing of this heavy curtain in the temple is highly symbolic. Because this curtain separated the holiest place in the temple from the rest of the temple, some see in this act a symbol of God opening the way for unholy humans to enter into His holy presence: Jesus’ death brought forgiveness and opened the way for all to come to God.
Others see in the curtain’s being torn the opposite meaning: God’s presence can no longer be confined to any single geographical place. The suffering and death of Jesus ended one age of human history, and now a new era has begun. Now God is on the move, at large, invading the whole world. Or perhaps this graphic image means both.
This phrase, “Son of Man,” is very important in Luke’s story and may have many layers of meaning. It may mean “epitome of humanity” or “prime example of what a human can be.” But it also evokes a specific passage of Scripture that is very important to Jewish people, Daniel 7:13-27. There the phrase “Son of Man” refers to a king who receives an eternal and universal kingdom, and it also represents “the saints of the Most High” — the people of God.
In light of Jesus’ central message about the kingdom of God, it is likely that the phrase suggests Jesus is the long-awaited Anointed One who launches a new era in human history and who creates a community of people who represent the eternal and universal kingdom of God. In this way, “Son of” suggests “new generation of,” and “Man” suggests “humanity.”
Jesus is Himself the new generation of humanity (a second Adam, a new beginning), and the community He creates shares this identity (a new creation, a new humanity in Jesus). The two messengers here use this pregnant phrase in a way that shocks everyone: The way this long-awaited Anointed One receives His kingdom is not through conventional military victory where enemies are defeated and killed. No, this King receives His kingdom by suffering, dying, and rising again Himself. Amazing news — good news!
Luke has told his story. It ends with joy and praise. The crucified Jesus has been resurrected and has ascended to heaven to take His place at God’s right hand just as the ancient prophets predicted. For the band of disciples, Easter joy has eclipsed Good Friday sorrow.
This ending point becomes the starting point for Luke’s sequel, known as the Acts of the Apostles. The story isn’t really over; it’s just begun. The life and ministry of Jesus that Luke has just recounted is the mustard-seed stage of the kingdom of God that continues to grow and grow and grow.
Now it’s time for this Kingdom to fill the world. If Luke’s Gospel is about what Jesus began to do and teach, then Luke’s sequel is about what the risen Jesus continues to do and teach through His followers for millennia. Luke writes in hope that future believers will be taken up into this beautiful story that will never, ever end.
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