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by William Barclay
INTRODUCTION TO THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT LUKE
A Lovely Book And Its Author
The gospel according to St. Luke has been called the loveliest book in the world. When once an American asked him if he could recommend a good life of Christ, Denney answered, "Have you tried the one that Luke wrote?" There is a legend that Luke was a skilled painter; there is even a painting of Mary in a Spanish cathedral to this day which purports to be by him. Certainly he had an eye for vivid things. It would not be far wrong to say that the third gospel is the best life of Christ ever written. Tradition has always believed that Luke was the author and we need have no qualms in accepting that tradition. In the ancient world it was the regular thing to attach books to famous names; no one thought it wrong. But Luke was never one of the famous figures of the early Church. If he had not written the gospel no one would have attached it to his name.
Luke was a gentile; and he has the unique distinction of being the only New Testament writer who was not a Jew. He was a doctor by profession ( Colossians 4:14) and maybe that very fact gave him the wide sympathy he possessed. It has been said that a minister sees men at their best; a lawyer sees men at their worst; and a doctor sees men as they are. Luke saw men and loved them all.
The book was written to a man called Theophilus. He is called most excellent Theophilus and the title given him is the normal title for a high official in the Roman government. No doubt Luke wrote it to tell an earnest inquirer more about Jesus; and he succeeded in giving Theophilus a picture which must have thrilled his heart closer to the Jesus of whom he had heard.
The Symbols Of The Gospels
Every one of the four gospels was written from a certain point of view. Very often on stained glass windows the writers of the gospels are pictured; and usually to each there is attached a symbol. The symbols vary but one of the commonest allocations is this.
The emblem of Mark is a man. Mark is the simplest and most straightforward of the gospels. It has been well said that its characteristic is realism. It is the nearest to being a report of Jesus' life.
The emblem of Matthew is a lion. Matthew was a Jew writing for Jews and he saw in Jesus the Messiah, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the one whom all the prophets had predicted.
The emblem of John is the eagle. The eagle can fly higher than any other bird. It is said that of all creatures only the eagle can look straight into the sun. John is the theological gospel; its flights of thought are higher than those of any of the others. It is the gospel where the philosopher can find themes to think about for a lifetime and to solve only in eternity.
The symbol of Luke is the calf The calf is the animal for sacrifice; and Luke saw in Jesus the sacrifice for all the world. In Luke above all, the barriers are broken down and Jesus is for Jew and gentile, saint and sinner alike. He is the saviour of the world. Keeping that in mind, let us now set down the characteristics of this gospel.
An Historian's Care
First and foremost, Luke's gospel is an exceedingly careful bit of work. His Greek is notably good. The first four verses are well-nigh the best Greek in the New Testament. In them he claims that his work is the product of the most careful research. His opportunities were ample and his sources must have been good. As the trusted companion of Paul he must have known all the great figures of the church, and we may be sure that he had them tell their stories to him. For two years he was Paul's companion in imprisonment in Caesarea. In those long days he had every opportunity for study and research and he must have used them well.
An example of Luke's care is the way in which he dates the emergence of John the Baptist. He does so by no fewer than six contemporary datings. "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (1), Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea (2), Herod being tetrarch of Galilee (3), and his brother Philip being tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis (4), and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (5) in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (6), the word of God came to John" ( Luke 3:1-2). Here is a man who is writing with care and who will be as accurate as it is possible for him to be.
The Gospel For The Gentiles
It is clear that Luke wrote mainly for gentiles. Theophilus was a gentile, as was Luke himself, and there is nothing in the gospel that a gentile could not grasp and understand. (a) As we have seen, Luke begins his dating from the reigning Roman emperor and the current Roman governor. The Roman date comes first. (b) Unlike Matthew, he is not greatly interested in the life of Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy. (c) He very seldom quotes the Old Testament at all. (d) He has a habit of giving Hebrew words in their Greek equivalent so that a Greek would understand. Simon the Cananaean becomes Simon the Zealot. (compare Luke 6:15 and Matthew 10:4). Calvary is called not by its Hebrew name, Golgotha (compare H1538 and H1556) , but by its Greek name, Kranion ( G2898) . Both mean the place of a skull. He never uses the Jewish term Rabbi ( H7227) of Jesus but always a Greek word meaning Master. When he is tracing the descent of Jesus, he traces it not to Abraham, the founder of the Jewish race, as Matthew does, but to Adam, the founder of the human race. (compare Matthew 1:2 and Luke 3:38).
Because of this Luke is the easiest of all the gospels to read. He was writing, not for Jews, but for people very like ourselves.
The Gospel Of Prayer
Luke's gospel is specially the gospel of prayer. At all the great moments of his life, Luke shows us Jesus at prayer. He prayed at his baptism ( Luke 3:21); before his first collision with the Pharisees ( Luke 5:16); before he chose the Twelve ( Luke 6:12); before he questioned his disciples as to who they thought he was; before his first prediction of his own death ( Luke 9:18); at the Transfiguration ( Luke 9:29); and upon the Cross ( Luke 23:46). Only Luke tells us that Jesus prayed for Peter in his hour of testing ( Luke 22:32). Only he tells us the prayer parables of the Friend at Midnight ( Luke 11:5-13) and the Unjust Judge ( Luke 18:1-8). To Luke the unclosed door of prayer was one of the most precious in all the world.
The Gospel Of Women
In Palestine the place of women was low. In the Jewish morning prayer a man thanks God that he has not made him "a gentile, a slave or a woman." But Luke gives a very special place to women. The birth narrative is told from Mary's point of view. It is in Luke that we read of Elizabeth, of Anna, of the widow at Nain, of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. It is Luke who makes vivid the pictures of Martha and Mary and of Mary Magdalene. It is very likely that Luke was a native of Macedonia where women held a more emancipated position than anywhere else; and that may have something to do with it.
The Gospel Of Praise
In Luke the phrase "praising God" occurs oftener than in all the rest of the New Testament put together. This praise reaches its peak in the three great hymns that the church has sung throughout all her generations--the Magnificat ( Luke 1:46-55); the Benediclus ( Luke 1:68-79); and the Nunc Dimittis ( Luke 2:29-32). There is a radiance in Luke's gospel which is a lovely thing, as if the sheen of heaven had touched the things of earth.
The Universal Gospel
But the outstanding characteristic of Luke is that it is the universal gospel. All the barriers are down; Jesus Christ is for all men without distinction.
(a) The kingdom of heaven is not shut to the Samaritans ( Luke 9:51-56). Luke alone tells the parable of the Good Samaritan ( Luke 10:30-37). The one grateful leper is a Samaritan ( Luke 17:11-19). John can record a saying that the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans ( John 4:9). But Luke refuses to shut the door on any man.
(b) Luke shows Jesus speaking with approval of gentiles whom the orthodox Jew would have considered unclean. He shows us Jesus citing the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian as shining examples ( Luke 4:25-27). The Roman centurion is praised for the greatness of his faith ( Luke 7:9). Luke tells us of that great word of Jesus, "Men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at the table in the kingdom of God" ( Luke 13:29).
(c) Luke is supremely interested in the poor. When Mary brings the offering for her purification it is the offering of the poor ( Luke 2:24). When Jesus is, as it were, setting out his credentials to the emissaries of John, the climax is, "The poor have good news preached to them" ( Luke 7:22). He alone tells the parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Man ( Luke 16:19-31). In Luke's account of the Beatitudes the saying of Jesus runs, not, as in Matthew ( Matthew 5:3), "Blessed are the poor in spirit," but simply, "Blessed are you poor" ( Luke 6:20). Luke's gospel has been called "the gospel of the underdog." His heart runs out to everyone for whom life is an unequal struggle.
(d) Above all Luke shows Jesus as the friend of outcasts and sinners. He alone tells of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair in the house of Simon the Pharisee ( Luke 7:36-50); of Zacchaeus, the quisling tax-gatherer ( Luke 19:1-10); of the Penitent Thief ( Luke 23:43); and he alone has the immortal story of the prodigal son and the loving father ( Luke 15:11-32). When Matthew tells how Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he says that Jesus told them not to go to the Samaritans or the gentiles ( Matthew 10:5); but Luke omits that altogether. All four gospel writers quote from Isaiah 40:1-31 when they give the message of John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God"; but only Luke continues the quotation to its triumphant conclusion, "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God" ( Isaiah 40:3-5; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23; Luke 3:4; Luke 3:6). Luke of all the gospel writers sees no limits to the love of God.
The Book Beautiful
As we study this book we must look for these characteristics. Somehow of all the gospel writers one would have liked to meet Luke best of all, for this gentile doctor with the tremendous vision of the infinite sweep of the love of God must have been a lovely soul. Faber wrote the lines,
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of man's mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
Luke's gospel is the demonstration that this is true.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
the Sixth Week after Easter