Everyone should read the Gospel of Luke.
Why should everyone read the Gospel of Luke? For starters, a strong case can be made that Jesus is the most significant person who ever lived. (Time magazine ranked him #1 among the most significant people in history, back in 2013. I cite this not because Time is an authoritative source, but to show that even mainstream secular media outlets acknowledge Jesus’ importance.) A strong case can also be made that Jesus is the most polarizing figure who ever lived. Jesus claimed He was the Son of God, and some two billion people around the world today recognize Him as their Lord and Savior. Many other people reject Him, and many other people avoid Him, wary that a decision to believe in Him will be a life-changing one.
But how many people, especially among those who reject or avoid Jesus, really know Him? The gospels are the authoritative accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry and teaching. They describe His life, death and resurrection. It’s easy to form a vague opinion of Jesus today. There are plenty of opinions of Jesus out there, based on half-truths, three-quarters truths, ten percent truths, and no truths. If you want to learn who Jesus really is, read the gospels, or at least one gospel. They are short books, but ever challenging, filled with light, richly detailed but remarkably concise. Whatever you think of Jesus after reading one of the gospels, it will be time well spent.
(I would add, as a secondary reason, that everyone should read one of the gospels, just as everyone should read at least one play by Shakespeare, and a novel by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, among others. It’s just part of being a well-educated, well-read person. Maybe this isn’t the best argument for reading a gospel, but I think any argument that gets people to read a gospel is a good one.)
If you’ve never read a gospel, and aren’t sure which one to read, I would recommend the gospel of Luke. Mark’s gospel (probably the first one to be written) is the shortest. John’s gospel (probably the final one to be written) is the deepest. It is best read last, as a culmination of encountering Jesus through the gospels. (John in fact presumes that his readers are familiar with stories about Jesus found in the other gospels). I would recommend Luke over Matthew as a starting point for most people for a couple of reasons. First, alone among the evangelists, Luke was a Gentile convert to Christianity. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience, and his gospel quotes the Old Testament more than any other, to demonstrate to his audience that Jesus is the Messiah the Jewish people had longer for. While Luke alludes to the Old Testament frequently, his writing is more tailored for an audience that is not necessarily familiar with the Old Testament.
Even more important than that, Luke’s gospel is the gospel of mercy. To be sure, all of the gospel writers reveal the great mercy of God made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus, but this theme is the most explicit in Luke. Luke includes several stories about and parables of Jesus (including the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son) that are unique to his gospel. Luke shows a particular concern for the poor and for women. Only Luke and Matthew include narratives of Jesus’ birth, and Luke’s is told through the eyes of Mary. The wise men visit baby Jesus in Matthew’s gospel; the shepherds visit baby Jesus in Luke’s gospel.
Some background about Luke. He was most likely from Antioch in Syria. He addresses his gospel to a man named Theophilus. He acknowledges that he himself is not an eyewitness to the events he describes, but that “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us” (Luke 1:2). He likewise acknowledges that other narratives of the life of Jesus have been written, and that his goal is “to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:4).
Paul mentions Luke in three of his epistles. Luke was a doctor – Paul describes Luke in his letter to the Colossians as “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). In writing Acts of the Apostles, there are several sections where Luke uses the first person plural, beginning at 16:11, where he states, “Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace…” Luke alternates between first person and third person plural thereafter, indicating that he traveled and assisted Paul on some but not all of his missionary journeys. Paul also states at the end of his second letter to Timothy that “Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11). Paul was writing this letter at the time of his imprisonment in Rome between 60 and 62 AD, so we can place Luke with Paul at that time.
Scholarly debate on the composition of the gospel of Luke (and its sequel, Acts) range from the late 50’s to the late 80’s AD. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin argues persuasively that Luke’s gospel was likely completed around 59 or 60 AD. Its sequel, Acts, ends abruptly with the imprisonment of Paul in Rome around 60 AD, and it is highly implausible that Luke would have omitted such significant events as the fire that destroyed Rome in 64 AD, the emperor Nero’s subsequent persecution of Christians that followed, which included the deaths of Peter and Paul (the two principal figures in Acts), and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, had he written his gospel after these events occurred. He must, therefore, have written Acts sometime between 60 and 64 AD, and his gospel shortly before then.
I’ll look at chapter 1 of Luke in my next post.
Image: 15th Century painting of Saint Luke the Evangelist (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).