What is Luke’s Gospel and how and why did he write it?

  • 17 March 2019

Introduction

Along with Matthew and Mark, Luke’s Gospel is one of the three synoptic gospels of the New Testament. The longest of the Gospels, it is the first of a 2-part volume, along with the Acts of the Apostles, which together account for over a quarter of the New Testament.

A simple and concise description of Luke’s Gospel is given by Luke himself in the opening verses of Acts which states:

“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…” (Acts 1:1-2a, ESV). 

 
Luke therefore provides the most expansive account of Jesus earthly life, beginning with His birth and concluding with his ascension.

Authorship

Although Luke is nowhere mentioned in his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, based on the external and internal evidence, his authorship is virtually incontrovertible.

External Evidence

The earliest Lukan MSS date from the first quarter of the second century. According to Daniel B. Wallace “no MSS which contain Luke affirm authorship by anyone other than Luke.” (Wallace, bible.org) Likewise, church fathers, such as Iranaeus, Origen and Tertullian all affirm Lukan authorship. No uncertainties were ever raised as to its authorship and no alternatives ever suggested. The external evidence is both unanimous and early.

Internal Evidence

That the same author wrote both Luke and Acts provides further corroboration for Lukan authorship. Wallace summarises five arguments for common authorship:

(1) Both books are dedicated to the same man, Theophilus; (2) Acts refers to the first treatise, which is most naturally understood as the gospel; (3) the books contain strong similarities of language and style; (4) both contain common interests; (5) Acts naturally follows on from Luke’s gospel . . . It may safely be concluded that the evidence is very strong for linking the two books as the work of one man, a conclusion which few modern scholars would dispute. (Wallace, bible.org)

 
We learn elsewhere that Paul referred to Luke as “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14), his “fellow worker” (Philemon 23) and one who was faithful to Paul to the end (2 Timothy 4:11). Acts was clearly written by a companion of Paul as indicated by the “we” passages (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1–28:16). Clearly the author could not be any of those mentioned in these sections i.e. Silas, Timothy, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus or Trophimus. Further, Luke is mentioned in Paul’s prison epistles which were likely written during the “we” passages in Acts i.e. when Luke was with Paul. Conversely, Luke is not mentioned in those epistles written during Paul’s second and third journeys, a period not covered by a “we” section.

Why He Wrote

As with all the Gospels, the author likely had more than one purpose in mind. Here we will consider what Luke makes explicit in his prologue.

For Theophilus

Both Luke and Acts are written to a man named Theophilus. Although the name may be metaphorical (“lover of God,” or “loved by God”), most scholars agree it probably refers to a real addressee (Wallace, bible.org). Luke’s designation of him as “most excellent” likely indicates he was a government official, or someone of high social rank or authority; the term is used in Acts (23:26; 24:3; 26:25) of both Felix and Festus, procurators of Judea. As such, it is likely that Theophilus was a Gentile who held an important position in the Roman government. As such, he may have acted as Luke’s patron, to meet the costs of publishing.
 
It is not clear if Theophilus was a true believer. Morris (Luke, Leon Morris, p. 74) suggests that if he had been a true believer, Luke would have referred to him as “brother”. Furthermore, although the Greek behind the verb “taught” in verse 4, can be used of Christian instruction (Acts 18:25; Gal. 6:6) it can simply mean informed or even a negative report (Acts 21:21, 24). Others, however,  suggest it unlikely an unbeliever would provide support for Luke to write his Gospel.

For Everyone

Although Theophilus was to be the primary recipient, it is likely that Luke also had a broader audience in mind. The formal dedications contained in Luke-Acts are not like the address of an epistle. Rather, according to Wallace, Luke’s “prologue to both the gospel and Acts emulates so much the ancient historians’ prefaces that it is quite evident that he wanted the work published”. (Wallace, bible.org)

A Historical Apologetic to Provide Certainty

Luke’s primary purpose in writing for Theophilus (and others) was that he “...may have certainty concerning the things [he had] been taught”. (Luke 1:4, ESV) Whatever the “things” Theophilus had been taught and whether or not he was a Christian already, Luke wanted to provide certainty; “asfaleia”, meaning firmness, stability, undoubted truth. N.B. Stonehouse states that the “main impact of the prologue is that Christianity is true and is capable of confirmation by appeal to what had happened” (Leon Morris, Luke, p74) One theory put forward by Wallace (bible.org) and others is that Luke was writing a historical apologetic, specifically precipitated by Paul’s upcoming court appearance in Rome.

How He Wrote

Luke seems to have had two sources of testimony which he used to write his Gospel; extant narratives and eyewitness testimony. Luke also states he had followed all things closely from the beginning and was therefore well placed to write his “orderly account” (Luke 1:3).

Extant Narratives

Luke’s prologue states “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us…it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account…” (Luke 1:1,3, ESV) Evidently, accounts of Jesus life, death and resurrection were already extant at the time Luke began his project, whether this be gospels or other types of narrative. 
 
The general scholarly consensus on Markan priority suggests that the Gospel of Mark was almost certainly one of those sources. According to Morris (Luke, Leon Morris, 1988) Luke generally follows the Markan framework and contains approximately 350 of Mark’s 661 verses and about 53% of Mark’s actual words. 
 
Another source generally accepted by biblical scholars is the Q document, a hypothetical document that is thought to have contained sayings of Jesus common to both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. Morris says there are about 250 verses common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark. (Luke, Leon Morris, p. 53)

Eyewitness Testimony

Luke further states that these source documents concur with what had been reported to him by “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke was clearly not an eyewitness himself, but had consulted with those who were. “Ministers of the word” would suggest that these men were not just academic historians reporting facts, but faithful men who believed what they preached.
 
Piper (desiringgod.org) suggests these men were the apostles themselves. It was to the apostles Christ gave the task of bearing witness and ministering the word. In appointing Judas’ replacement, the qualification was someone who had been an eyewitness “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22) Peter refers to the apostles as those devoted to “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). At Paul’s apostolic commision, Christ said “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to minister and to bear witness” (Acts 26:16). 

An Orderly Account

Luke also states that he himself had “followed all things closely for some time past” (Luke 1:3) Although some suggest this means he was personally present, it is more likely meant in the sense of ‘track down’ or ‘investigate’, as we have already seen that Luke does not claim to be an eyewitness. It would seem, then, that Luke was personally invested in these things and had been doing thorough research in preparation. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the “we” sections suggest Luke was, at least for a time, a close associate of Paul who would have provided him with much of his material. This then allowed him to write his “orderly” account. Although this may mean ‘in chronological order’ Geldenhuys thinks it more likely to mean ‘logical and artistic arrangement’. (Luke, Leon Morris, 1988) 

Conclusion

Aside from the considerations of Luke’s immediate purpose, occasion and method, it should be remembered that Luke, guided by the Holy Spirit, was as much theologian as historian. Themes particular to Luke’s Gospel include Jesus compassion for the outsiders; Gentiles, Samartians, women, children, the poor; human fear in the presences of God; forgiveness; the role of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus relentless progression toward the cross. As Morris states:

“...it is clear that Luke has written with a profoundly theological purpose. He sees God as at work bringing salvation...more interested in conveying religious and theological truth than he is in writing history;...the cross dominates the whole” (Luke, Leon Morris, p.31,46, 51)

Bibliography

ESV Study Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2011.
Morrise, Leon (1989). Luke NICNT. Bakers
Piper, John (1980). The Aim of Dr. Luke. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-aim-of-dr-luke.
Wallace, Daniel B. (2004). Luke: Introduction, Outline, and Argument. https://bible.org/seriespage/luke-introduction-outline-and-argument.
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