The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts together make up more than twenty-five percent of our New Testament—more than the letters of Paul. These books, a carefully crafted two-part account of Jesus and the early church, were written by a single author, traditionally identified as “Luke the physician” (see Colossians 4:14). But who was Luke, and what can we learn from this figure who has given us so much of our New Testament?
At first glance, it might seem like there’s not much we can know about Luke. He’s only mentioned by name three times in the New Testament (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24). Though he refers to himself in the first person in places throughout his writings, he doesn’t reveal much. But I’ve found that, with a little careful reflection, Luke tells us quite a lot about himself, about our Bibles, and about what it means to walk with Jesus.
Who was Luke?
Luke was a doctor and a companion of Paul on some of his missionary journeys (Colossians 4:14). In fact, Paul calls him “the beloved physician,” which tells us that he was very dear to Paul. We know that Luke was a faithful friend, since Paul, writing from prison, notes that “Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11 ESV).
At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke tells us that he took great pains to write an accurate and orderly account of Jesus and the early church, which means that he wrote as an historian. In addition, throughout some of the most dramatic parts of the Book of Acts, Luke uses the pronoun “we,” indicating that he was a missionary alongside Paul (see Acts 16:10-13 and Acts 27—28). Additionally, there are at least three lessons I’ve learned by reflecting carefully on this remarkable man and his work.
No fake news
The first thing Luke has helped me to learn is that the Bible is trustworthy. Notice what Luke says at the very beginning of his Gospel:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Theophilus is likely a Christian convert whom Luke wants to instruct in the Christian faith. And Luke stresses to Theophilus (and through him, us) that he has gone to great lengths to make sure that what he writes is true. He also lets us know that underneath the Gospel accounts is a bedrock foundation of eyewitness testimony. The ancient world, like ours, had problems with “fake news.” But when an historian back then mentioned eyewitness testimony, it was a way of telling readers that what he wrote could be checked for accuracy.
Luke, like the other Gospel writers, was not following “cleverly devised myths” when he wrote about Jesus (2 Peter 1:16). While the Gospel accounts are far more than just history, they are certainly not less than that. Luke reminds us that the things he wrote about really happened, and we can trust our Bibles.
A beautiful Gospel
The second thing I’ve learned from Luke is that the Bible is beautiful. Luke’s writings, saturated as they are with references to the Old Testament, bear witness to the awesome beauty of God’s plan of redemption. Sometimes these references are obvious, such as when Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, tells the disciples that everything that has happened to him has been in fulfillment of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 44–47).
Sometimes, though, the biblical allusions and symmetry in Luke are far more subtle. For example, have you ever noticed how Luke’s Gospel begins with a couple who can’t have a child (Zechariah and Elizabeth), an angel who tells them they can, and a marvelous, world-changing birth? Think back to the Old Testament, and before long several similar stories will come to mind, such as the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel.
Or consider Luke 7:11–17, where Luke records an account of Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead. The way that Luke tells this story echoes a similar story from the ministry of Elijah (see 1 Kings 17:17–24). Once again, if we know the Old Testament, we can’t help being drawn back to the earlier stories to see the parallels with Jesus.
What Luke is doing by subtly echoing the old, old stories is telling us that the things he writes are the ultimate fulfillment of a beautiful plan and pattern set into motion long ago.
On mission with Jesus
The third thing I’ve learned from Luke is that we are all called to be on mission with Jesus. We see this in many ways, including Luke’s own example: even though Luke was what we would call a “professional,” he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in ministry. Luke, though by training a physician, was also a brilliant historian and author, and a dedicated missionary as well. I have enough trouble doing one thing well, but Luke seems to have found a way to pull off a multifaceted kingdom ministry for Jesus simply by using his unique talents and training. Despite his remarkable skill, Luke went through the deprivations of travel and suffering with Paul in order to see the gospel go to the ends of the earth.
But Luke points to the call to mission throughout the narrative of the Book of Acts. Luke knows that even though Jesus is physically absent for most of the Book of Acts, he is still very much alive and at work. The book of Acts tells the story of what Jesus continues to do and to teach—through his church (Acts 1:1). When the disciples take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), it is Jesus himself, through his Holy Spirit, who is doing the work. And like Jesus’s disciples, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, because Jesus is on mission through us.
Acts finally ends with Paul in custody in Rome, awaiting trial before Caesar (Acts 28). Careful readers have long noticed something odd about this ending: Luke never tells us how the trial turned out. While perhaps this is simply because he was writing before the outcome was known, theologians since at least the fourth century have proposed another possibility: Luke is leaving things deliberately open, in order to draw us into the story.
Acts 28 might be the end of Luke’s writings, but it’s not the end of the story. Luke’s careful account of Jesus’s ministry, as carried on by his disciples, is left open-ended. We can be encouraged by his writings to continue the mission. We too are Jesus’s disciples. We are a part of this same body—the body of Christ, his church.
So Luke, it turns out, has a lot to tell us. Not just about himself, but about God’s Word and our calling to walk with Jesus. Even though I have never met him in person, I feel like, in some small way, I know him. And when I read Luke and Acts, I am moved not simply to be like Luke, but to be like the One whom Luke was moved by; to be not just a scholar, writer, or missionary, but to be something that surpasses them all: a disciple and servant.
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