Luke’s gospel is the longest book in the New Testament and one of the most sophisticated. While most Christians are familiar with the birth of Christ in chapter 2, not many are familiar with some of the nuances of the third gospel that enrich our understanding of the person of Christ. Below we will attempt to carve out three areas that are often overlooked: the purpose of the book, the exaltation of the humble and the humbling of the proud, and Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament.
1. The purpose of Luke.
New Testament authors don’t often inform the readers why they are writing a letter or gospel. But two of the four Gospels do such a thing. Luke explains to Theophilus in 1:4 that he’s writing to him so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” While we don’t know much about Theophilus, scholars believe that he was likely a gentile who converted to Judaism and then subsequently to Christianity. Theophilus may have even funded Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, since publishing in the first century was a costly endeavor. In any case, the point is that Luke writes Theophilus to confirm what Theophilus already knows. It appears, then, that Theophilus is familiar with the broad strokes of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and Luke pens his gospel to fill in the gaps of Theophilus’ knowledge with the purpose of preserving his faith. This is an incredibly important principle, a principle that the church in the twenty-first century must value. One’s knowledge of Christ’s ministry is directly tied to one’s personal faith. When doubt creeps into our hearts, as it inevitably does, we must turn to the Gospels and refresh our minds with the truth of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection.
2. The exaltation of the humble and the humbling of the proud.
Hymns in the Bible often encapsulate key themes, themes that are woven throughout the book (e.g., Dan. 2:20–23; Dan. 4:1–3, 34–35; Dan. 6:25–27). Luke, too, contains four hymns that summarize a great deal of the book’s theology: Luke 1:46–55 (the Magnificat), Luke 1:68–79 (the Benedictus), Luke 2:14 (Gloria in Excelsis), and Luke 2:29–32 (the Nunc Dimittis). The following lines are from the first hymn, the Magnificat, the most well-known of the four:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51–53, emphasis added)
This hymn strikingly resembles Hannah’s famous prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, wherein Hannah thanks the Lord for providing her with Samuel—one of the most notable prophets in Israel’s history—who played a critical role in establishing the Davidic dynasty. King Jesus, like King David, will be the means by which God exalts the lowly and demotes the mighty. This explains why Luke often underscores a reversal of fortunes. For example, Christ’s faithful obedience in the wilderness (Luke 4) empowers Him to expel the devil and his minions from the created order. In Luke 10:18, Jesus, alluding to Isaiah 14:12, exclaims, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The point is that a tectonic shift is taking place—Satan has lost his position of power (Luke 11:20–23) and his kingdom is crumbling (Rom. 16:20). In stark contrast, Jesus embodies lowly character throughout His life; He was born in the humblest of circumstances (Luke 2:7), lived in the unremarkable town of Nazareth (Luke 4:16), and died an undeserving death for His people (Luke 22:1–23:56). But, on account of Jesus’ faithfulness, God vindicated the Son and exalted Jesus to the Father’s throne (Luke 24:50–53). Believers must take this pattern to heart because God promises that we too will undergo difficult circumstances. We will not be publicly vindicated until our physical resurrection at the consummation. Only in the eternal state will God’s people enjoy an exalted existence.
3. Jesus and the Old Testament.
Luke begins his gospel by describing the ministry of Christ as “events that have been fulfilled” (Luke 1:1, NLT). A careful reader would ask, “What Old Testament texts does Luke have in mind?” The short answer: all of them. There are more than thirty explicit Old Testament quotations and hundreds of Old Testament allusions in the third gospel, so we should assume that Luke is steeped in the Old Testament and has tremendous insight into how to interpret it. At every point in Jesus’ ministry, Luke invokes the Old Testament to explain the significance of the event. At the end of the gospel, Jesus famously reproves the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus doesn’t simply fulfill a handful of the Old Testament passages. He fulfills the whole of it. Today, even in evangelical circles, many shy away from reading the totality of the Old Testament with Christ as the focus. One problem with this view is that it fails to account for Jesus’ own reading of the Old Testament. If we should live like Jesus, shouldn’t we also read like Jesus?
Luke’s gospel, while dense at times, is a treasure trove of knowledge that builds up the body of Christ and reinforces the faith of the people of God.