Theology of Luke

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The Evidence

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 considered.

Narrative Structure

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).

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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 in Acts).


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 information.

Theological Themes

Some of the specific themes and topics in Luke are:


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 Shunem.


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 Acts 1.


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 throughout Acts.

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).

Recent Study

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 Luke-Acts.

Also, see:
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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