F I WERE TO PARAPHRASE LUKE’S introduction to his Gospel in modern English, it would read something like this:
“Dear Brother Theophilus:
“There have been a number of accounts of Jesus written down, and I have read each one of these. I have also spoken to people who were eyewitnesses of the events, and listened to others who were not only given firsthand accounts but also shared in His ministry, a ministry that has now been fully completed. I have gone into everything carefully and feel it wise for me to write down an orderly account of events as they happened from the very beginning. I send this to you to affirm your faith in what you have been instructed.”
The paraphrase may help some reader have a clearer grasp of what Luke meant, but it does not come near the beauty of the passage in Greek. It’s an example of the finest Greek writing, and emulates the best of Greek historians. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, an earlier historian, wrote an introduction to his work. Notice how similar it is to Luke’s: “Before beginning to write I gathered information, partly from the lips of the most learned men with whom I came in contact, and partly from histories written by Romans of whom they spoke with praise.”
Besides writing a most important story, Luke was also aware that his Gospel would be read by a man of education and social standing. Thus, he had good reasons for writing to the best of his ability. The introduction is unique in Scripture. It not only gives evidence of scholarship, but also informs us of how inspiration works. The Holy Spirit channeled Luke’s research skills into an inspired account of the life and ministry of Jesus.
Some have called the Gospel of Luke the loveliest book in the world and certainly, of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is, for many, the most delightful one to read. There is a legend, traceable to the sixth century, that Luke was a painter; and seven centuries later he appears as the patron saint of painters. Such traditions are suspect, yet we can say that through the centuries his Gospel has inspired many works of religious art.
Personally, I prefer to think that he was a musician—or, at least, a lover of music, for his Gospel is full of singing. Only he tells of Mary’s three-month visit to Elizabeth, recording the song that she sang upon her arrival. The song is called “The Magnificat,” from its first word in the Latin Vulgate, and it expresses the humble adoration and thankfulness of Mary.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (1:46-50).
Zechariah also sang when John the Baptist was born, and Luke gives us a record of it:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (see 1:68, 69).
Put yourself in the home of Elizabeth when these events occurred and allow the Spirit of God to fill you with the same sense of awe and joy at the thought of what the Lord has done.
An Interest in Heaven’s Joy
Luke is also the only one who gives us a glimpse of heaven’s joy at the birth of Jesus. The angel sent to inform the shepherds of Christ’s birth was suddenly joined by a “great company” of other angels. Unable to suppress their joy, they burst into song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (2:14).
Each Gospel writer had a certain point of view. Matthew wrote with the Jewish people in mind and, therefore, began the genealogy of Jesus with Abraham, the father of the Jewish race. Luke, a man of broad sympathies and one who had a special concern for Gentiles, traced the genealogy of Jesus to Adam, the father of the whole human race.
Our most loved parables stand among those that only Luke recorded. The story of the prodigal son holds the supreme place in the hearts of Christians. Read it again and note the details that Luke gives. The father’s love is unbounded. We know that he welcomed the prodigal home and did everything to make him feel accepted. But there is a detail we often miss—namely, that sin has its consequences. The father, seeking to reassure the older son, said, “All that I have is yours” (15:31, NKJV).* This means to me that there would be no further division of property; the younger son had used up his portion.
Read the other 18 parables recorded only by Luke. Among them, the two debtors (7:36-48); the rich fool (12:13-21); the barren fig tree (13:6-9); the shrewd manager (16:1-13); and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). In fact, all of chapters 15:11 through 17:17 are found only in Luke’s Gospel.
A Man of Prayer
Luke must have been a praying man, for prayer is a significant feature of his Gospel. Only he records the prayer of the persistent widow. She kept coming to the judge with a plea. “Grant me justice against my adversary” (18:3). Then Jesus drew the lesson: “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (18:7, 8).
Some of our prayer requests are delayed, but here Jesus tells us that when we pray for release from our adversary the devil, the answer will be immediate. Then Luke adds the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, a lesson about the right and wrong way to pray. It’s for those “confident of their own righteousness.” The Pharisee “prayed about himself” and thanked God that he was not like other men, while the despised tax collector simply cried out, “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (18:9-13). Few of us are totally immune from the Pharisee’s odious comparison between himself and the tax collector. I have seen and heard Pharisees in the church, and sometimes glimpsed one in my own heart.
Luke records nine occasions when Jesus Himself prayed. Of those nine, seven are found only in his Gospel. Jesus prayed at His baptism, before choosing His disciples, and when He received the report of the 70 missionaries He had sent out. And Luke graphically describes the agony of Jesus as He prayed in Gethsemane. Jesus was “in anguish,” Luke wrote. He “prayed . . . earnestly,” and “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (22:44, NKJV). Luke alone tells how Jesus prayed for those who
crucified Him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).
A Heart for the Underdog
Luke’s evident sympathy for Samaritans and the outcasts from Jewish society comes through loud and clear. He records the healing of the 10 lepers and notes that the one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan (17:11-19). On the way to Jerusalem, John and James, the “sons of thunder,” were ready to take revenge when the Samaritan village refused them hospitality. “Lord,” they asked, “do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” However, Jesus would have none of it. He rebuked them, and they went to another village (9:51-56). No Jew would enter the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. But Luke records that Jesus did. Then he wrote: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (19:10).
The sermon Jesus preached in Nazareth is recorded in its fullest detail in Luke, and he included the part of Jesus’ message that made His hearers angry: “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian” (4:25-27). It is a lesson we need to learn.
Simeon in the Temple, as he took the child Jesus in his arms, praised God that He would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” and John the Baptist preached that “all mankind will see God’s salvation” (2:32; 3:6).
The conversation between Jesus and the dying robber is recorded only by Luke. When his companion hurled insults at Jesus, the robber rebuked him, saying: “Don’t you fear God? . . . We are punished justly, for we are getting what
our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40, 41).
Then Luke recorded his request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”; and Jesus’ compassionate response: “I tell you the truth, today [—today, in the face of these adverse circumstances, today when we hang apparently helpless on the cross—I tell you the truth today] you will be with me in paradise” (23:42, 43).
The Perspective of a Physician
One outstanding feature about Luke is that he was a physician, and gives evidence of an attention to detail. In his account of the healing of the demoniac, he notes that the demon first “threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him” (4:35). Luke also noted that it was the right hand of the man in the synagogue that was shriveled (6:6). He records that when Peter drew his sword and struck Malchus, he cut off his right ear (22:50).
An interesting medical term used only by Luke is belones, a surgical knife. A rather rare medical word, it was used by Galen and before him Aristophanes. Luke also uses technical language when he describes the woman “who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.” She was “bent over” and not able to “straighten up at all” (13:11). According to Hobart (in The Medical Language of St. Luke), these were terms used by medical writers.
Mark, in his account of the woman healed from perpetual bleeding, writes that the woman “had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse” (Mark 5:26). Not an uncommon complaint today. But notice Luke’s professional protection of his physician colleagues’ reputation. He says: The woman was subject to bleeding “for twelve years, but no one could heal her” (8:43).
Luke shared the shipwreck on Malta and recorded that after Paul healed Publius’s father, the rest of the sick on the island came and were “healed.” Whereas the father of Publius had been “cured” (iasato), the other islanders were “treated” (etherapeuonto). Here he used a word from which we get our modern English term, therapeutic. (Did Luke set up a clinic for the people on the island?)
That Luke was a caring physician is reflected in his Gospel account. But that’s not all. Paul, writing from prison, calls him “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). The word Paul uses is agapatos, from agape, the term used to describe God’s love.
It described Luke’s character well. And I like to think that Paul chose that word deliberately.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Lyndon McDowell is a retired pastor living in Arizona.