The Gospel According to Luke: Part 1 :: By Dr. Donald Whitchard

(Five-Part Series)

Part 1: An Exposition

“In as much as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you many know the certainty of these things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-4, NKJV).

This gospel is my personal favorite, seeing as it was written by not just a physician, a man of science, but who was a student of history as well. I majored in History in college, had a career as a history teacher for several years, and as a Christian, I saw the Scriptures not just as the Word of God, but also as historically accurate accounts of the events and direction of the nation of Israel and its place in the affairs of humanity. Conservative biblical scholars, teachers, archaeologists, and others have made it a priority of theirs to affirm this belief and show that the Book revered by both Jews and Christians is the undisputed truth of God’s declarations, laws, warnings, and His grace.

Luke’s detailed record of historical places and people have been a specific area of study for scholars and preachers alike over the centuries. Scholars such as Sir William Ramsey, a noted skeptic of the nineteenth century, made it his mission to try and dismiss Luke’s gospel as legend and myth, believing that the historical record he wrote was inaccurate and thus strike a blow to the Bible’s claim of inerrancy. However, after several years of exploration and research, he concluded that what Luke had written was “history of the highest order” and “worthy of being in the same category as the Greek historians.” Ramsey also became a Christian as a result.

Books, commentaries, and countless studies written for Sunday schools, colleges, and individual examination have been written about the Gospel of Luke over the years. It, as well as the other books of the Bible, are to be studied (2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11), analyzed, and researched. An objective individual will see that the Scriptures are not just stories of faith, but are logical, rational, present an accurate view of human nature stripped of self-exaltation, are superior over other religious writings, and, most importantly, the fruit of writers inspired by the Holy Spirit to present the truth of God and His sovereignty over all things (Psalm 119:1-2, 89, 105; Joshua 1:1-8; Acts 17:11; Luke 24:27; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Romans 3:10-18).

What about Luke himself? He was probably from the major Roman city of Antioch, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in what is today the area of Lebanon/Syria. It was in Antioch where the name “Christian” originated, specifically due to the work of the apostle Paul and his associate Barnabas in teaching the new believers about the life and mission of Jesus (Acts 11).

It is likely that Luke was led to Christ as a result of these two men’s faithful instruction, and he ended up as a member of Paul’s traveling and ministry companions. Luke is mentioned in Scripture, specifically through Paul’s letters to the church at Colossae, to Timothy, and to his friend Philemon (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). After Paul’s martyrdom in or around A.D. 67, Luke continued to travel, preaching the Gospel and working with the churches scattered primarily through Asia Minor. He may have worked with John, who was by this time the last living apostle and the only one who would die a natural death around A.D. 96-100, shortly after composing the book of Revelation while in exile on the penal island of Patmos. Tradition states that Luke also died a martyr’s death in the mid 80’s A.D., probably by hanging.

Luke is the only biblical writer who was not Jewish. He was of Greek ancestry, trained as a physician and writer of history, and noted for attention to details unique to his account of Jesus’ life and mission. He wrote his gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles around A.D. 60-62. This early date is the most probable since Paul was still alive and under house arrest (Acts 28) awaiting an audience before the Emperor Nero to present his case. There is also no mention of any record of persecution, which started in A.D. 64 after Rome was nearly destroyed by a fire, which many people believed Nero started in order to build a new palace and surrounding accommodations. Nero needed a scapegoat, and accused the Christians, who were already under suspicion, of starting the fire. Severe persecution broke out, and Paul, as well as Peter, were killed while in Roman prisons.

A major reason many scholars give for an early date of writing was the fact that the destruction of the Temple as prophesied by the Lord Jesus had not occurred (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6). Something as cataclysmic as this would have been recorded as a proof of both Jesus’ prophetic office as well as His divinity.

Any student or writer of history will go to the earliest written record of the event as to attest to the accuracy and most trustworthy account of the event in question or of the life to be studied. This method of research is found in this gospel, as Luke gathered material such as the testimonies of those who had heard Jesus teach, the written sayings of Jesus already in existence, the accounts of the apostles as first- person witnesses, talking with the aged mother of Jesus, Mary, who was under the care of John, and those of the five hundred eyewitnesses who had seen the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Matthew 28:11; Mark 1:45, 2:12, 5:15-16; Luke 24:35; Acts 4:12, 20; 2 Peter 1:16-21; 1 John 1:1-4; John 20:24-29).

Scholars who argue for a late date seem to not take these factors into account. It would be more affirming to conclude that almost all of the New Testament accounts were written before A.D. 70, save for John’s writings, which were composed in the 90’s, but still under the watch of an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life and work. While the original manuscripts are long gone, so far as we know, the copies, some of which date back to the second century A.D., continued to present an accurate record of the events.

Even with mistakes in spelling and grammatical structure, known as textual variants, the essential doctrines of the faith have not changed or been altered in all of the manuscripts that have been collected and studied, in languages such as Greek, Latin, Syriac, Hebrew, Aramaic, and others. As of now, there are an estimated minimum of 5,500 available ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament alone, more than any ancient historical record or story in existence today. What we have are assured and verified facts, not hearsay or legend. The early church fathers (A.D. 100-400) such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Papias (a disciple of the apostle John) all declared that Luke was the author of the gospel that bears his name, a claim that no modern scholar disputes in this day.

The recipients of Luke’s account were the Gentile citizens and servants within the Roman Empire who were not familiar with monotheistic Jewish history and religion, but who had come to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior through Paul’s mission work and the spread of the faith by other believers over the years. Luke’s primary benefactor was a Roman official named Theophilus (“lover of God” – Greek translation), who had either just become a follower of Christ or wanted to get more information about this new faith. He commissioned Luke to do the research and put both written and oral information down as a permanent record of the life and work of Jesus. There are both Roman and Jewish sources that verify the historical existence of Jesus as well, such as the historians Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, Lucian, as well as the Jewish writings from sources such as the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrash, all from the first and second centuries A.D., early enough to verify these incidents as part of history within the Empire.

Luke’s uniqueness as part of the gospel records show specific characteristics worth noting, such as the emphasis on the universal grace of God (2:32, 3:6, 24:47); the sympathetic attitude of Jesus on the poor, the outcast, and the lowly, those not worthy of concern by the average Roman official or citizen. The ancient historical value placed upon life in general was hazardous and often cruel. Virtues and acts of character were rare, and Rome was brutal on those nations it conquered. The “Pax Romana,” or “Roman peace” historians write about was kept primarily by the point of a sword or spear upon anyone who rebelled or questioned the Emperor and his rule.

Fathers who rejected their children had the authority to leave them outside to die of exposure, hunger, or become the property of slave traders and deviants who roamed the cities and countryside. Those accused and tried of crimes were often crucified, died as victims of gladiatorial combat, eaten by wild animals, enslaved on Roman galleys, exiled, thrown off cliffs, drowned, beheaded, or by a number of ways often cheered on by a crowd of spectators who were anxious to see bloodshed. Sexual deviancy was rampant, with all types of behaviors and practices done without any thought of consequences on the lives of the victims, often children and adolescents who were slaves of the wealthy and the Imperial court itself.

Prostitution in both sexes was rampant and was often a part of the worship of varied gods and goddesses whose temples were found in major cities such as Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, Caesarea, Rome, and the ruins of Pompeii, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Archaeologists have found phallic symbols and brothel sites in excavations of the city, showing that sexual impropriety is not an exclusive fabrication of modern society and what is defined as liberation and progress.

It should be noted that one of the traits of the early church was its concern for those whom society had neglected or mistreated, such as the poor, children and infants, the elderly, and the sick and infirm. The Christians provided aid, food, shelter, care, comfort, places of refuge for abandoned children and infants, prostitutes, and the destitute in general. This compassion was a direct reflection of what the Lord Jesus had done for the people around Him. Luke draws our attention to the downtrodden and ordinary, such as the apostles themselves (6:20), the sinful woman (7:37), the demon-possessed Mary Magdalene (8:2); the Samaritan (10:33), tax collectors and sinners (15:1), beggars (16:20-21), lepers (17:12) and the dying thief (23:43).

This gospel is also noted for its many parables told by the Lord Jesus. Luke writes down more of the parables than we find in Matthew and Mark’s respective accounts. In Luke we have the story of building on the Rock (6:46-49), the sower (8:4-8), revealed light (8:16-18), the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), the friend who comes at midnight (11:5-8), the faithful and wicked servants (12:35-48), the rich fool (12:13-21), the barren fig tree (13:6-9), the great supper (14:15-28), the lost sheep, coin, and son (15:1-32), the unjust manager (16:1-13), the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31); the persistent widow (18:1-8), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14), the talents (19:11-27), the wicked vinedresser (20:9-19), and the cursing of the other fig tree (21:29-33).

Luke also highlights the importance and necessity of prayer as demonstrated by the Lord Jesus during His time of ministry. There is the time of His baptism (3:21), the time in the wilderness (5:16), the choosing of the twelve (6:12), the time of the Transfiguration (9:29), before He gave specific teachings on prayer (11:1-4), the inevitable restoration of Peter from his time of denial (22:32), the agony in the garden (22:44), and on the cross itself (23:46).

To sum up what has been presented, Luke has given us an orderly narrative (1:1), the importance of eyewitness testimony (v. 2), the importance of an interested inquirer (v.3), and the certainty of the truth (v.4). This is seen in the first four verses of the opening chapter. Like a student composing his thesis, the “beloved physician” presents his case, using original sources, accurate testimony, and a personal motive in presenting Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. This subject is certainly worthy of study for the sake of our souls and a further proof of the reliability of the Scriptures.

Let our journey now commence.