The Radical Message of Luke’s Gospel
Last week I was leading a study week for Northern Training Institute of which I’m the director. I led a seminar introducing Luke’s Gospel. Here’s an extract from my talk.
I want to highlight three key themes in Luke’s Gospel:
- inclusion and reversals
- the importance of God’s word
- the dangers of wealth
I’ve marshalled the evidence of this in an appendix at the bottom of this post.
What do these themes suggest about the overall message of Luke’s Gospel?
Luke says in his prologue that he writes to Theophilus so ‘that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught’ (Luke 1:4). The key question is: what is it that Theophilus has been taught? We might assume that it is the story of Jesus, but if this is the case it is not clear how a retelling of those events would add greater certainty to what Theophilus already knows. If someone tells you of an event and you remain sceptical about the authenticity of their account, you are unlikely to be more convinced if they simply retell it to you. Luke is not writing to persuade Theophilus that Jesus lived, died and rose again. The events of the life of Jesus are already in the public domain through ‘eyewitness and ministers of the word’ (1:2). Instead Luke emphasises that he writes ‘an orderly account’ (1:3). Luke is providing a fuller account – he has investigated ‘all things’ – and an ordered account that will give Theophilus confidence in what he has heard.
I want to suggest that what Theophilus has been taught is this: that there will be a day of eschatological reversal. This was at the heart of the Christian kerygma, but it is an assertion that demands evidence if is to be held with ‘certainty’ (1:4). Luke writes from the conviction that the evidence is to be found in the story of Jesus. Here in the life of Jesus we see the proof of God’s eschatological intentions.
As a testimony to his grace, there will be an eschatological reversal in which God will include the marginalised and Gentiles, and exclude (judge) the self-important, self-serving and self-sufficient, exemplified in the religious elite of Israel. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Luke’s readers should believe this word of eschatological promise and put this word into practice by aligning ourselves with the grace of God through the inclusion of the poor. We should, as it were, ensure we are on the underside of history when the eschatological reversal takes place. In the light of the coming reversal, we should adopt a reversal of values. And perhaps the greatest threat to this is the power of money.
Theophilus may be a real person, but he may also be a hypothetical reader (Theophilus simply means ‘one who loves God’). It may be that Luke writes to those sympathetic to Christianity (God-fearers and God-lovers) to convince them of its eschatological message. Whatever the identity of Theophilus, the Gospel of Luke is written so that Luke’s readers might align themselves, or continue to align themselves, with the sect of Jesus the Messiah. Although this messianic people are now small, persecuted and marginal, on the final day they will be vindicated and glorified. ‘Blessed is the one who is not offended by me’ says Jesus to John and Luke to Theophilus (7:23). Theophilus has been taught eschatological reversal and the story of Jesus as it is narrated in the Gospel of Luke gives certainty of this future reality by allowing us to glimpse a foretaste of it in the ministry of Jesus, especially in the ways in which Jesus anticipates the messianic banquet.
This understanding of the message of Luke brings together two of the key themes of the Gospel:
- the sufficiency of God’s word
- the inclusivity of God’s grace (exemplified in the inclusion of marginalised)
The Gospel of Luke stresses that God’s word is sufficient. Trusting God’s word and putting it into practice is what defines the people of Jesus. Luke wants Theophilus to trust what he has heard. He wants him to have confidence in the gospel’s word about the future – about things as yet unseen. The evidence of a day of eschatological reversal is the grace of God in the life of Jesus. Jesus accepts the marginalised and rejects, and is rejected by, the proud. This revelation of the gracious character and purposes of God is the basis of our conviction that sinners will be accepted to the messianic banquet while the self-important and self-righteous are turned away.
The evidence of this thesis is found in the text itself. Luke’s ‘orderly account’ repeatedly draws attention to Jesus’ gracious inclusion of the marginalised and Gentiles and the centrality of trust in the word of God.
Luke, then, is writing from his class to his class: as a professional to those who are ‘most excellent’. It is an apologetic for noble people.
The following survey of the Gospel highlights the prominence of inter-related themes of:
- the inclusivity of God’s grace and the reversals of God’s kingdom
- the sufficiency of God’s word and the importance of trust in God’s word
The emphasis on wealth also fits this hypothesis as it is one of the prime things that prevents people, especially the wealthy, aligning themselves with God.
Luke’s Gospel and Acts
In Acts the focus on the ‘poor’ in Luke become a focus on the ‘nations’. The nations are included while the Jewish establishment are left out (or omit themselves). Time and again Paul goes first to the Jewish synagogue until he is rejected when he then turns to the Gentiles. Meanwhile some of the powerful – the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia – align themselves with the marginalized sect of Christians.
While there seems to be a broad shift of focus, the inclusion of the nations is present in Luke’s Gospel. Luke 2:32 desacribes Jesus as: ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ Like Matthew, Luke quotes Isaiah 40, but only Luke includes the line: ‘And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ (Luke 3:6) Moreover, lots of Gentiles figure in the story. In Luke 4, for example, it is the mention of blessing to Gentiles – a Gentile soldiers and a Gentile widow – that provokes the people of Nazareth. Then in Luke 7 a Gentile soldier and a Gentile widow finding blessed.
1. The sufficiency of the word of God and the centrality of faith in the word of God are important reminders for evangelical Christians today. When evangelicals are looking to experiences to sustain them, we need to affirm that it is the word of God that sustains us through the hour of darkness. And when people promote ‘power evangelism’ and ‘worship evangelism’, we need to affirm that people come to faith through the word of God. Not even resurrection appearances will persuade those who reject God’s word (Luke 16).
2. Luke provides us with a radical social theology that does not simply sit alongside gospel proclamation, but is rooted in the gospel. Our experience of God’s gracious inclusion is to be reflected in our inclusion and care of the needy and marginalised. We are to align ourselves with the underside of history in the light of the eschatological reversals that are coming.
3. Luke warns us of the dangers of money and material wealth – a pertinent message for our consumerist age which worships the god of mammon. That which will prevent us aligning ourselves with the underside of history is the desire for wealth. But neither is Luke commending a cold asceticism – one of his favourite images for the kingdom of God is a party. ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking’ (Luke 7:34).
Inclusion and reversals
1:48, 51-53; 2:8, 11, 34; 3:7-9; 4:18-19, 24-27; 5:1-6:11 (5:1-11 see Jeremiah 16:14-16); 6:20-26; 7:9, 11-15, 22, 29-30, 36-50; 8:1-3; 9:1-17; 10:21; 13:10-35; 14:7-14, 15-24; 15:1-2, 25-32; 16:19-26; 17:33; 18:9-14, 15-17, 18-20, 35-43; 19:1-10, 26-27; 20:16-18; 21:24
- He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
- Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.’ (Luke 2:34)
- … But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and “sinners”?’ … (Luke 5:29-32)
- At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.’ (Luke 10:21)
- When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:17)
- ‘Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.’ (Luke 13:30)
- ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)
The importance of God’s word
1:19-20, 45; 2:20; 3:4, 4:1-13, 21 (compare 4:23 and 4:31-32); 4:43-44; 8:15, 18, 21, 25, 50; 10: 38-42; 11:28, 29-32, 33-36, 37-52; 16:17, 27-31; 24:6-7, 25, 44
- ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’ (Luke 1:45)
- ‘But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.’ (Luke 8:15)
- ‘Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.’ (Luke 8:18)
- He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.’ (Luke 8:21)
- The ‘one thing [that] is necessary’ is to ‘listen to [Jesus’] teaching’ (Luke 10:38-42).
- ‘Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it’ (Luke 11:28).
- ‘He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:31)
The dangers of wealth
Luke 1:53; 4:18; 6:20, 24, 29-30, 34-35, 38; 8:14; 9:25, 58; 11:42; 12:15, 16-21, 22-31, 33-34; 14:18-19; 16:9, 13-14, 19-26, 33; 17:32-33; 18:22-23, 24-25; 19:8-9; 21:1-4; 22:3-5
- Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.’ (Luke 6:20, 24)
- ‘The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.’ (Luke 8:14)
- Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop …’ (Luke 12:15-21)
- Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear … But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Luke 12:22-31)
- ‘Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Luke 12:33-34)
- ‘In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:33)
- ‘I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ (Luke 16:9)
- ‘No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. (Luke 16:13-14)
- Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 18:24-25)