The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are closely related. Written by the same author and for the same purpose, both were addressed to a Christian named Theophilus and were designed for the purpose of presenting to him a complete and well authenticated narrative of the early history of the Christian movement. In the introductory paragraph of the gospel, Luke tells us that many lives of Jesus were written on the basis of eyewitness reports. He does not find these narratives satisfactory in all respects and so has set himself the task of examining the records and writing a new account that will establish for all interested parties the certainty of the things about which Christians were instructed.
The first paragraph in Luke's gospel is especially informative to readers of the New Testament, for it describes the way in which the two narratives attributed to Luke came to be written. Luke evaluated the materials he wanted to use and then supplemented them in whatever manner seemed to him to be the most appropriate. In writing his gospel, he did not simply piece together bits of information that he gathered from different sources; rather, his own contributions include selecting and organizing these materials, along with whatever interpretation was necessary to make a complete and unified narrative.
We can be quite certain that Luke made use of at least three different sources: the Gospel of Mark, the Q source, or "The Sayings of Jesus," and a third source that is usually designated as L to distinguish it from other biographies. The Gospel of Matthew may have existed by the time Luke wrote his account, but nothing indicates that Luke knew anything about Matthew or made any use of it. Luke was a companion of Paul, and he was quite familiar with the different interpretations of the life of Jesus held by different groups within the Christian community. His purpose was to minimize the differences between the various groups and thus promote harmony within the church. He was aware, too, of the criticisms concerning Christianity that were being made by people who were outside the church, and he especially wanted to make an effective reply to those who claimed that Jesus was a revolutionist and hence an enemy of the Roman government. By giving to his readers an authentic account of the life and teachings of Jesus, Luke could show that the charges made against Jesus were false. He was quite sure that if people knew of the kind and sympathetic way in which Jesus met individuals, they would be won by the attractive power of Jesus' wonderful personality. Luke possessed rare ability as a writer, and it has often been said that his gospel is the most appealing of all those in the New Testament.
In the opening chapters of the gospel, Luke relates a number of stories having to do with the birth and childhood of Jesus, including the announcements made to Zechariah and to Mary concerning the births of John and of Jesus, and the story of the shepherds watching their flocks at night who came to worship the newborn child. We also have accounts of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and of the child being wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger "because there was no room for them in the inn." After eight days, the child was circumcised, and later he was blessed by Simeon and by Anna. These stories are not reported in the other Gospels, and we cannot be sure whether Luke learned about them from an older source or from oral traditions. Luke also recorded the only story we have in the New Testament about Jesus' boyhood. When Jesus was twelve years old, he went to Jerusalem with his parents to attend the Feast of Passover. On the way home, when his parents discovered that he was not with them, they returned to the Temple and found him involved in a profound discussion with prominent Jewish rabbis.
After the introductory chapters, Luke follows the outline of events as they are recorded in the Gospel of Mark. However, he does not follow Mark's narrative as closely as Matthew does. Occasionally, he leaves out some material and substitutes an item of his own. For example, he substitutes an illustration of Jesus' preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth in place of Jesus' proclamation at the beginning of his Galilean ministry.
Luke includes a considerable number of Jesus' teachings that are not recorded in the other Gospels. If he and Matthew both used the same source Q, evidently Luke used more material from it than did Matthew. In Luke alone we find the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Publican and the Pharisee who went to the Temple to pray, the rich man and Lazarus, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, the rich fool who would tear down his barns and build greater barns in order that he might store his goods, and the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree in order that he might see Jesus. Each of these parables and stories illustrates what Luke regards as an essential characteristic of Jesus' work. Jesus was not trying to raise opposition to the Roman government, nor was he lacking in sympathy or understanding of those whom the Jews regarded as foreigners. He places the highest value on good character regardless of a person's race or nationality. For example, although many Jews looked with disfavor on the Samaritans, Luke emphasizes that of the ten lepers whom Jesus healed, only the one who was a Samaritan expressed his gratitude for what Jesus had done. And again in the parable of the man who fell among thieves on the road to Jericho, a Samaritan befriended the man and saw to it that he was given proper care.
Throughout his gospel, Luke emphasizes the fact that Jesus was a friend not only to Jews but to Samaritans and to so-called outcasts from different races and nationalities. Chapters 9–18 are often referred to as Luke's "long insertion," for in them he departs from the sequence of events in Mark and introduces a section that includes much of the most valued portions of Jesus' teachings. Here, we have a report of Jesus sending out the "seventy" to carry the message of the kingdom to different places. The number "seventy" is especially significant: In the Jewish Torah, the number refers to all the nations of the earth. Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus' mission is for all humankind and not just for the Jews. In the story that describes the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus, we have the statement "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." And in the introductory chapters of the gospel where Luke, like Matthew, traces the genealogy of Jesus, we find the same emphasis on the universality of Jesus' mission. Matthew traces the ancestry back to Abraham, who is regarded as the father of the Hebrew people; Luke traces it back to Adam, the father of all humanity.
In reporting Jesus' discourses with his disciples concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, Luke does not emphasize the nearness of the event as the other evangelists do. Toward the end of the gospel, he describes the events leading up to the crucifixion, stressing the point of Jesus' innocence of any wrongdoing toward either Jews or the Roman government. Pilate, the Roman governor, declares Jesus innocent of any crime, and a Roman centurion protests Jesus' execution with the words, "Surely this was a righteous man."
The gospel closes with an account of the resurrection and the subsequent meetings of Jesus with the disciples and others. As two men are walking to the village of Emmaus, Jesus joins them, but the men do not recognize Jesus until he sits at a table with them and blesses the food that they are about to eat. Later, Jesus meets with the eleven disciples in Jerusalem and overcomes their suspicions by showing his hands and feet to them. They cook some fish, and Jesus partakes of the food with them. Then follows a farewell discourse to the disciples, during which Jesus gives them instruction concerning what they should do. Afterward, they go together as far as Bethany, and after blessing the disciples, Jesus departs from them.
If the Gospel of Matthew could be called the Jewish gospel because of its leanings toward ideas that were typically Jewish, there is an equal amount of evidence for calling the Gospel of Luke the Gentile gospel. Actually, neither gospel is purely Jewish or purely Gentile in its account of the life and teachings of Jesus, but it is fairly obvious in the case of each of them that the authors were influenced by the point of view with which they were associated.
Luke was a companion of Paul, who came to be known in Christian circles as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul's interpretation of Christianity as a universal religion did much to eliminate the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. He emphasized the idea that all humans are sinners and in need of salvation. Jesus was, for him, the supreme example of what the power of God can do in a human life. This point of view evidently made a deep impression on Luke and is reflected throughout the various parts of his gospel. One sees it first of all in Luke's account of the genealogy of Jesus, which is traced to Adam rather than to Abraham, thus indicating that Jesus was representative of the entire human race rather than simply a member of the Hebrew race, and it is seen in the attitude taken by Jesus toward the Samaritans, the Romans, and others outside the Jewish fold.
When Jews and Gentiles are contrasted in Luke, often the Gentiles are presented in the more favorable light. For example, in the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, both of whom go to the Temple to pray, only the Publican is commended for the attitude that he expresses. Following his journey into the northwest country, Jesus pronounces woes on Capernaum and other Jewish communities and states, "But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you." This saying does not mean that Luke rejects the Jewish people but that membership in the kingdom of God is dependent on the quality of a person's life rather than on racial or religious backgrounds.
Paul has often been referred to as a Christian mystic because of his conviction that salvation comes only by a union of an individual and God. When the Spirit of God dwells in the human heart and mind, as it did in the person of Jesus, then a person belongs to God's kingdom. But Jewish apocalypticism regarded the coming of the kingdom as a future event, when the Son of Man would descend from heaven. In the Gospel of Luke, we find a blending of these two ideas. Luke, like Matthew, makes use of the apocalyptic section in Mark's gospel but with certain modifications. The nearness of the event is not stressed as much, and Luke recognizes that there is a sense in which the kingdom is already present. When Jesus was accused of casting out demons because he was exercising the power of a greater demon, he replied, "But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." In the story concerning Jesus and Zacchaeus, the coming of the kingdom is portrayed in a similar manner. When Zacchaeus stands up and says, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay it back four times the amount," Jesus replies, "Today salvation has come to this house." These passages, as well as many others that might be mentioned, indicate that Luke was sympathetic to Paul's mystical conception of the Christ who lives and abides in human hearts. Luke does not abandon the apocalyptic conception of the coming of the age's end, but he emphasizes the quality of living that alone can prepare one for the coming of the future event.
As nearly as we can determine, the Gospel of Luke was written toward the end of the first century, probably between the years 85–90 A.D. By this time, Christianity was fast becoming a worldwide movement. Starting in Jerusalem, it spread to the surrounding territory and reached as far west as the city of Rome. With the increasing numbers of Christians, the movement not only attracted attention but encountered opposition from several different quarters. Rumors circulated to the effect that the founder of the movement was a dangerous character who was trying to overthrow the Roman government. Luke was a peacemaker, and he was anxious to show that Jesus was not the type of person that these critics supposed Jesus to be. Therefore, Luke takes particular pains to point out that Jesus had no quarrel at all with the Roman government. Pilate finds no fault in Jesus, and a Roman centurion declares Jesus innocent. Although Pilate finally consents to Jesus' crucifixion, it is not until he is pressured by Jews that he does so. Jesus' whole ministry was conducted in a quiet and peaceful manner. He was the friend of the poor and the outcast and had no political ambitions of his own and no intention of trying to interfere with the orderly processes of government.
Writing from the point of view of the Christian church toward the end of the first century, Luke is convinced that the characteristics of the movement that were then being emphasized had been present from the movement's very beginning. He shows, for example, that the opposition to Jesus and his work was present during Jesus' early ministry in Galilee and was demonstrated in people's reactions to the sermon Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth. Those who opposed Jesus continued their harassment throughout Jesus' entire public career, and the cause of this harassment was their resentment of the criticisms that Jesus made of their formalism and hypocrisy. Determined to silence Jesus' criticisms, they invented false charges concerning his disloyalty to the government.
Luke shows the broad humanitarian character of Jesus' work that was manifested from the first in Jesus' attitude toward the Samaritans and others whom the Jews regarded as their enemies. Jesus never failed to commend those who had a humble and contrite heart, and it made no difference whether they were Jews or Gentiles. At the time of Luke's writing, the Spirit of Christ was regarded as the guiding factor in the life of the Christian church. That this guiding factor was only a continuation of what had been present all along is shown by Jesus' repeated references to the Spirit of God throughout the period of his public ministry. What Jesus taught was now accepted to be in harmony with what the church believed. Many of the statements attributed to Jesus were now interpreted in light of what had happened already, implying that at least some of his statements were intended as definite predictions of what was going to occur.