Theology of Luke
The theology of Luke may be discerned by observing several converging
lines of evidence. Since a Gospel lacks the logical sequence of
propositional statements characteristic of the epistles, great care is
needed to assess this evidence accurately. The following must be
The careful statement of purpose inserted before
the narrative commences alerts the reader to observe factors that
contribute to assurance regarding the truth of the Christian gospel.
The inclusion of the birth narratives, in contrast to Mark and John,
and with different episodes from those in Matthew, directs the reader
to certain themes regarding the messiahship and sonship of Jesus. The
use of a chiastic structure in Zechariah's Benedictus (1:68-79) focuses
attention on the middle theme, oath/covenant, along with the other
repeated themes: God's "coming" (or "visitation"), his "people,"
"salvation," "prophets," the "hand" of the "enemies," and the
"fathers." The introduction of two witnesses Simeon and Anna, according
to the accepted pattern of two witnesses, draws attention to and
confirms the identity of the baby as the promised Messiah (2:25-38).
Within the narrative of Jesus' ministry certain editorial touches have
great effect in featuring theological themes. For example, by omitting
most of Mark's narrative of 6:45-8:26, Luke is able to move quickly
from the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41; Matt. 8:23-27; Luke 8:
22-25), with its significant climactic question, "Who is this?" pausing
for only a few incidents, mainly those with messianic significance, to
the question of Herod, "Who, then, is this?" (Luke 9:9), and on to the
question at Caesarea Philippi, "Who do you say I am?" Another use of
structure is the inclusion of the unique central section. This not only
contains a collection of Jesus' teachings but features a travel motif.
There is a strong sense of movement toward Jerusalem, the city of
destiny in God's plan (9:51; 53; 13:22; 33; 17:11; 18:31). Cf. 9:31;
19:11, 28 on Jerusalem, and 9:57; 24:13-17 for examples of Luke's
specific references to traveling. The introduction to this section
looks ahead specifically to Jesus' ascension ("taken up," Luke 9:51;
cf. the same term in Acts 1:2). This is a unique emphasis of Luke, the
final event of his Gospel (24:50-53).
Careful observation of word frequency, provides
significant evidence of theological emphasis, especially in comparison
with the other Gospels. Observing the relative frequency of such words
as "salvation," "sinner," "today," "God," "word," "city," and various
words grouped in semantic fields such as those relating to poverty and
wealth (to cite just a few) is foundational in assessing the theology
of Luke. One example is the unusual frequency of "today" (Luke 2:11;
4:21; 5:26; 12:28; 13:32, 33; 19:5, 9; 22:34, 61; 23:43 and nine times
Here we see especially the converging lines of evidence. When
several significant words occur together in a passage which clearly has
theological importance, especially if it is at a crucial point in the
narrative, the reader may be confident that the author is making a
major theological statement. Jesus' conversation with Zacchaeus is an
example. It occurs shortly before Jesus' triumphal entry, centers on
one of the so-called sinners (Luke 19:7), social outcasts, and other
unpopular people featured in Luke as the objects of Jesus' concern. The
vocabulary includes such key terms as "today" and "salvation." Another
significant event occurs at the beginning of Jesus' ministry: his
preaching in the Nazareth synagogue. This contains a programmatic
statement about Jesus' anointing by the Spirit to preach good news to
the poor. The significant use of Isaiah 61 with its jubilee motif (the
"year of the Lord's favor") contributes to its theological importance.
Geographical and Historical Background
Other indications of theology
are seen in Luke's stress on these features. Luke sets the salvation
events within the sweep of human history. His description of Jesus'
orientation to Jerusalem from Luke 9:51 on points to the passion,
resurrection, and ascension.
In summary, every aspect of the Gospel, from individual words to the
larger historical scene, is worth investigating for theological
Some of the specific themes and topics in Luke
As in the other Gospels, Jesus is seen as Messiah (e.g.,
Luke 9:20). He is also the Son of God, as the angel indicates (Luke
1:35) and as he himself recognizes at age twelve (Luke 2:49). One
unique contribution of Luke is the presentation of Jesus as a prophet.
He is compared and contrasted with John the Baptist as a prophetic
figure. Luke hints at his prophetic role in 4:24-27 and 13:33. Also the
ministry of Elisha comes to mind at the raising of the son of the widow
of Nain near where Elisha had raised the son of the "great woman" of
Without question, Luke emphasizes the need and provision
of salvation. The Gospel focuses on the cross through the passion
predictions (9:22, etc.), in common in Matthew and Luke, in the early
foreshadowings of 2:35; 5:35; and especially through the sayings at the
Last Supper (22:19-22). In Acts the cross is seen as God's will, though
accomplished by sinful people (Acts 2:23). If neither the Gospel nor
Acts contains the explicit statements familiar from Paul on the
theology of atonement, that does not mean Luke's doctrine is deficient.
The Gospel presents the need of salvation and the progress of Jesus to
the cross vividly; Acts declares the opportunity of forgiveness through
Christ (e.g., 2:38; 4:12; 10:43; 13:39).
Nevertheless, Luke has a very strong theology of glory. He
emphasizes the victory of the resurrection, with a declaration of the
vindication of Jesus (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 4:10; 10:39-42; 13:26-37;
17:31). The ascension is stressed predictively in the middle of the
Gospel (9:51) and in the middle of Luke's two-volume work, Luke 24 and
This theology of glory finds practical expression in
repeated ascriptions of glory to God. These occur especially at the
birth of Christ (2:14) and on the occasions of healing (e.g., Luke
5:25-26; Acts 3:8-10).
The Holy Spirit
The Spirit is prominent from the beginning (Luke
1:15, 41; 2:25-35). Jesus was conceived by the overshadowing of the
Spirit (1:35). He was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit at the
time of his temptation (4:1). The Spirit was upon him in his ministry
(4:18). The Lord promised the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer (11:13)
and in anticipation of Pentecost (24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit is,
of course, prominent throughout the book of Acts.
This is especially significant at times of crisis in the life
of Jesus (Luke 3:1; 6:12; 9:18) and in the early perilous days of the
church (e.g., Acts 4:23-31; 6:4, 6; 8:15; 9:11; 10:2; 13:3).
The Power of God
Along with the other Gospels, Luke records the
miracles of Jesus and uses the word dynamis. This emphasis continues
Sense of Destiny; Prophecy and Fulfillment
This is a unique emphasis
of Luke. The verb dei, "it is necessary," occurs frequently with
reference to the things Jesus "must" accomplish (Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22;
13:33; 24:7, 26, 44-47). This is seen both in terms of accomplishment
(Luke 1:1, translating peplerophoremenon as "accomplished" or, with
NIV, "fulfilled") and in terms of fulfillment of OT prophecy. "Proof
from prophecy" is a significant aspect of Luke's writing.
This aspect of Luke's work has occasioned much
discussion. It was the view of H. Conzelmann that Luke wrote against a
background of concern because Jesus had not yet returned. Luke
supposedly met this alleged "delay of the parousia" by reworking Jesus'
teachings which the church is to continue. Without dealing here with
Conzelmann's various ideas on this and other topics, we may note that
further study has shown that, while Luke sees a period of faithful
service prior to the Lord's return (e.g., the parable of the nobleman,
or the ten minas, Luke 19:11-27), he also retains strong eschatological
teachings (e.g., 12:35-40) and a sense of imminency (e.g., 18:8). It is
misguided speculation (cf. Luke 17:20-21) which Luke rejected, not the
imminency of the Lord's return. It is against this background that
Luke's unique emphasis on "today" is to be seen.
Israel and the People of God
The word laos, "people," is used with
special meaning in Luke. In contrast to the crowds (ochloi) and the
hostile rulers, the "people" are ready to receive Jesus. Naturally, in
the period of Luke-Acts most of these are Jews. Luke seems to be
dealing with the nature of the people of God, the position of the
church in relation to the unbelieving Jews. He emphasizes that
thousands of the Jews believed (Acts 21:20), even though he shows Paul
as turning to the Gentiles.
The Word of God
This is a more significant theme in Luke's writings
than is generally recognized. Logos occurs in the Gospel prologue
(1:2), in 4:22, 32, 36, and notably in the parable of the sower, which
stresses obedience to the word of God (8:4-15). In Acts the growth of
the "word" parallels the growth of the church (Acts 4:31; 6:7; 12:24).
Luke contains teachings not in the other Gospels. In
addition to 9:23-26, paralleled in Matthew and Mark, Luke has major
sections on discipleship in 9:57-62; 14:25-33.
Poverty and Wealth
The Gospel, addressed to a wealthy person, records
Jesus' mission to the poor (4:18). Luke refers to a future reversal of
social roles in the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Beatitudes (along with
the woes, which only Luke describes; 6:20-26), and the story of the
rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Luke gives direct teaching on
possessions (Luke 12:33), has the only comment on the Pharisees' greed
(Luke 16:14), and emphasizes the church's generosity in sharing with
those in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 11:27-30).
The study of Luke's theology has been pursued with great
vigor during the past several decades. The creative work of Conzelmann
spawned a number of treatises on Luke's theology. At issue have been
the purpose for which Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts, the extent and
significance of his redaction (editing), and the effect the author's
theological tendencies may have had on his historical reliability.
According to Conzelmann, Luke's purpose was to set forth his scheme of
salvation history. Marshall sees Luke's work as a witness to salvation
itself. Others have seen an apologetic motive (e.g., defense of
Christianity for one or another purpose) or a theological motive (e.g.,
the identity of the people of God). Evaluation of the extent of Luke's
redactional work to serve his purposes depends on one's assessment of
several matters. Is "S" given editorial modification due to theology,
style, or sources used? If to sources, were there theological reasons
for using a given source and for allowing its theological data to stand
unmodified? Must it be assumed, as is often done, that Luke's
theological purposes affected his historical objectivity adversely? For
a defense of Luke's credibility as both a historian and theologian, see
Marshall's work below. In conclusion, Fitzmyer's caution against
interpreting Luke's theology in terms of one's own thesis about Luke is
itself a comment on many contributions to this subject.
W L Liefeld
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
C. K. Barnett, Luke the Historian in Recent Study; H.
Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke; N. A. Dahl, "The Purpose of
Luke-Acts," in Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church; E. E. Ellis,
Eschatology in Luke; H. Flender, St. Luke: Theologian of Redemptive
History; J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX; E.
Franklin, Christ the Lord: A Study in the Purpose and Theology of
Luke-Acts; J. Jervell, Luke and the People of God; L. T. Johnson, The
Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts; L. E. Keck and J. L.
Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts; I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and
Theologian; A. J. Mattill, Jr., Luke and the Last Things; J. C.
O'Neill, The Theology of Acts in Its Historical Setting; N. B.
Stonehouse, The Witness of Luke to Christ; C. H. Talbert, Literary
Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, and (ed.)
Perspectives on Luke-Acts; D. L. Tiede, Prophecy and History in
Theology of Matthew
Theology of Mark
Theology of John
New Testament Theology
The individual articles presented here were generally first published
in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed
on the Internet in December 1997.
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