How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Luke
Luke 1:3-4: “With this in mind, ever since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
This week we come to the third of our four gospels. Matthew and Mark shared a lot of similarities, and both were tied to the memories and experiences of specific apostles. Matthew was himself an apostle, of course, and it is commonly thought that Mark was writing the personal experiences and stories of the apostle Peter. But Luke is unique in that he is not writing based on the direct experience of an apostle or as one close to an apostle. Luke is a Gentile, the only Gentile author in the Bible, and he is writing to fellow Gentiles about how the promises of this Jewish Messiah have now spilled over on to them, drawing them into the Kingdom of God. In both the Gospel of Luke and in Acts, Luke will show how the Gospel began in Galilee and Jerusalem with the life and death of Jesus, but it has now expanded out into the whole Roman world. This was all a part of God’s mysterious plan, accomplished in his own Son.
Since Luke does not have personal experience with Jesus to draw from, he tells us in the opening words of his book that he has given himself to the task of researching the details of this story so that he can write an orderly account for his audience. You will notice in 1:3 that the book is addressed to “most excellent Theophilus.” It is quite likely that Theophilus was a wealthy patron who was funding Luke to be able to write his gospel. Writing was not cheap in the ancient world. The materials were expensive, especially for a long book like Luke’s Gospel. It is not likely that Luke was writing for Theophilus alone, but Theophilus was underwriting the work in order to be able to bring it to a wider group of Gentile Christians that were in need of this teaching. Whatever the case may be, Luke’s Gospel is a carefully crafted story, and it is worthy of close attention.
The book can be split up into four different sections. Section one goes from 1:1 to 4:13. After the prologue that states Luke’s purpose, he then tells the early stories of Jesus and John the Baptist. Unlike the other Gospels, Luke goes back to the angelic prophecies that were given to the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist. This section reveals Luke’s deep research. He is telling us things that were not included in either Matthew or Mark’s account. Many of our favorite Christmas stories come from these opening chapters. They are a special record of the days leading up to the birth of the Messiah.
Part two goes from 4:14 through 9:15 and primarily tells the story of Jesus’ early ministry in the region of Galilee. Unlike John, who presents Jesus in Jerusalem early in his ministry, and visiting there several times throughout his career, Luke will tell his story in such a way that Jesus begins in Galilee, and then makes a long journey to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there. Part one ended with Jesus’ baptism and testing in the wilderness, and part two launches Jesus into his public ministry. In this section, Jesus is rejected by his hometown in Nazareth, he performs many miracles and casts out unclean spirits, he chooses disciples to be his special students and apprentices, and he begins to have conflict with the religious rulers. There are several lengthy sections of teaching in this passage, including the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, which is a close parallel to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 through 7. In chapter 9, near the end of this second section, Jesus predicts his death for the first time. Having taught and preformed many miracles, and yet, mostly been rejected by the people and rulers, Jesus foreshadows what is soon to come.
This leads to the third portion of Luke’s Gospel. This section goes from 9:51 to 19:28. It is the longest section of the Gospel and can be summed up well by 9:51: “As the time approached for him to be taken to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” This third section of the Gospel is a travel log of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and to the suffering and death that await him there. Jesus continues to teach as they travel toward Jerusalem. Some of our favorite parables, like the parable of the prodigal son, come from this section of the Gospel. The closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more opposition he faces from the religious rulers. Jesus tells many parables in this section that hide the truth from his opponents but open the mysteries of the kingdom to those who have been given ears to hear.
The final section of the Gospel goes from 19:29 through the end of chapter 24. Here Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem. At first he is welcomed and greeted as a king. But soon his encounters with the religious rulers in Jerusalem turn sour. Jesus confronts the rulers of Jerusalem with parables and specific teachings, but all of this is leading to his final betrayal by Judas, and the suffering and death that is to follow.
The book ends in a unique way. After telling the story of the empty tomb that is found in both Matthew and Mark, Luke goes on to tell several stories about Jesus in his post resurrection body. One story is when Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Another story is Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, asking them to touch his wounds to verify that it is indeed him. The book ends with Jesus promising to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples. He then ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind to worship him in awe. This sets up Luke to tell the rest of the story in the book of Acts.