• • •
We continue our overview of Luke’s Gospel.
The Structure of Luke
Luke is the longest book in the NT. However, the overall structure of the book is simple and clear. It is organized around the motif of a journey. The first part describes Jesus’ coming into the world and his ministry in Galilee. The second part portrays him going on a journey to Jerusalem, where God’s plan of salvation is fulfilled in his finished work.
THE COMING: Jesus Comes into the World (1:1-9:50)
God fulfills his plan by visiting his people in Jesus
- 1:1-4. Prologue
- 1:5-ch. 2. The arrival and reception of the Christ-child
- 3-4. The presentation of Jesus, the Son of God
- 5-6. Jesus, Friend of sinners and divine Teacher
- 7-8. Jesus, Savior of those who believe
- 9:1-50. Jesus, King of the now and not yet
THE GOING: Jesus Goes to his “Exodus” in Jerusalem (9:51-ch. 24)
God fulfills his plan through Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem
- 9:51-10:37. Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem
- 10:38-13:21. Jesus journeys on, proclaiming the Kingdom amidst opposition
- 13:22-17:10. Jesus journeys on, teaching about living in the light of eternity
- 17:11-19:28. Jesus nears his destination, teaching proper attitudes toward the Kingdom
- 19:29-ch. 24. Jesus returns to glory after his suffering/rising/appearing in Jerusalem
One characteristic that the reader will notice is the way Luke groups stories and teachings together by common themes. For example, in 1:5-ch. 2, Luke tells nine stories about the birth, infancy and childhood of Christ that highlight the reactions of faith and doubt that greeted his visitation. Likewise, in 17:11-19:28, we observe two groups of stories and teachings that take place as Christ nears Jerusalem, telling of the coming Kingdom and how people should respond to it.
In other words, as you are reading Luke, it is important not only to read each individual story or teaching section but also be aware of how it relates to the passages in the immediate context because the full impact of Jesus’ ministry is communicated through the entire grouping of material, not simply through the individual accounts.
1. Prophetic style
Luke uses prophecies and their fulfillments as a main structural device in the way he writes his book.
A key example of this is Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34. The entire story that follows is the account of how God’s salvation came to Israel and the Gentiles through the Prophet whose ministry divides God’s people, causing some to fall in judgment and others to rise in God’s favor as their heart-responses are revealed. Even Mary will know the struggle of having to respond spiritually to her own son (2:41-51, 8:19-21, 11:27-28).
2. The fulfillment of God’s plan
As stated in the preface to the book, Luke is primarily concerned with the orderly nature of what God has done in salvation-history to fulfill his promises. Acts 10:36-43 is a concise summary of this plan.
In many places throughout Luke the word “must” signals the outworking of the divine plan:
- Jesus must be about his Father’s business (2:49)
- Jesus must preach the kingdom of God (4:43)
- Jesus must suffer many things (9:22, 17:25, 22:37, 24:26/44/46)
- In Acts: 1:16, 3:21, 23:11, etc.
- The visitation of God’s chosen Prophet
A key word in Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry is “visit” (1:68/78, 7:16, 19:44; Acts 7:23, 15:14). In Jesus, God has visited his people. This words stresses that he came because of his deep concern to look in upon them and show them favor. Sadly, many did not recognize this (19:44).
Jesus is also portrayed as the “prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-18, 34:10-12). See Luke 7:16, 9:35, 24:19; Acts 3:22-26, 7:37. Jesus is the One who was filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly proclaiming God’s Word and setting his people free, working signs and wonders among the people so that they might believe.
3. Unforgettable stories
Luke is the Bible’s premier storyteller. His Gospel has been called, “the most beautiful book in the world.” Here are some of the stories unique to Luke:
- Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:1-20)
- The boy Jesus in the temple (2:41-51)
- Peter’s miraculous catch of fish (5:1-11)
- The good Samaritan (10:25-37)
- Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha (10:38-42)
- The lost sheep, coin and son (15)
- The rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31)
- The healing of the ten lepers (17:11-19)
- The Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14)
- Zaccheus (19:1-10)
- The salvation of the thief on the cross (23:39-43)
- Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus road (24:13-35)
- The divine reversal of human values
Those who have riches, comfort, power and comfort in this life are often not “rich toward God” but those who are poor, lowly and outcast are often most responsive to his visitations.This theme is sounded early in Luke in Mary’s Magnificat (1:51-13). Then, it is played out consistently throughout the Gospel as we see Jesus ministering to those on the fringes of society: women, children, the poor, the disreputable, and foreigners.
In order to highlight this theme as central to Jesus’ mission, Luke moves the story of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue to the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-30). The Isaiah quote in Luke 4:18-19 becomes Jesus’ mission statement setting forth the priorities of what he came to do:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Classic stories told that challenge human expectations include:
- The good Samaritan (an oxymoron to religious Jews)
- The prodigal son
- Lazarus and the rich man
- The Pharisee and the publican
Luke records warnings to those who are well-off, including the parable of the rich fool (12:16-21) and the story of Zaccheus (19:1-10), whose conversion also brought about an economic transformation in his life. Concern for the poor and needy continues into the Book of Acts, as the new community practices genuine love through charity (Acts 2:42-27, 4:32-35, 11:27-30).
5. Salvation and repentance
The other Gospels use the word “salvation” rarely, but it is a favorite of Luke. In fact, he uses the verb “to save” more than any other book in the NT. Many have called Luke 19:10 the key verse of the book: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Acceptance of God’s salvation in Christ involves a radical re-ordering of one’s life through conversion and repentance. Luke describes what true repentance looks like in 3:7-14. He exemplifies it by portraying events in the lives of Peter (5:8), a publican (18:13) and Zaccheus (19:8). He records Jesus saying that unless people repent they will perish (13:3-5), but when they do repent, God himself rejoices in the presence of his heavenly angels (15:7/10). The Book of Acts continues this theme by opening with Peter’s sermon calling for repentance (2:37-41). Wherever the Good News is proclaimed, people are called to repent.
Luke has more occurrences of the word “joy” than any other book in the NT. When God visits his people, the proper response is rejoicing, singing, and giving glory to God through praise.
Passages from Luke have become part of the church’s worship throughout the ages:
- The Magnificat (1:46-55)
- The Benedictus (1:67-79)
- The Gloria in Exclesis Deo (2:14)
- The Nunc Dimittus (2:29-32)
Luke 15 is especially important with regard to this theme. There we find the story of God the Father’s joy when the lost are found.
7. Jesus’ “Exodus”
In Luke 9:31, it says that when Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah on the Mt. of Transfiguration, “They spoke about his departure (exodus) which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” Note the emphasis on fulfillment and covenant through the use of these words. Through his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus did the work that was necessary (“must”) to inaugurate a new covenant of salvation for Israel and the world. As he put it to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, “‘Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (24:26-27, NIV).
When we participate at the Lord’s Table in our churches to celebrate our covenant with God through Jesus, it is Luke’s words that we use as the words of institution: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (22:19-20, NIV).
The conclusion to the Gospel anticipates part two (the Book of Acts), when the Spirit-filled church will participate in Jesus’ continuing work of visiting the world with God’s salvation as his “witnesses”:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them,“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations,beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
- Luke 24:45-53, NIV