Luke wrote his gospel at least twenty years after Mark, probably with a copy of Mark’s well known narrative in front of him as he composed: much of Mark is quoted verbatim and Mark’s basic chronology is recreated in Luke. But Luke had his own sources as well. And he had his own purposes.
How does one tell a story so remarkable? How does one find words and images that give credence to something so unbelievable—and yet believed and trusted by more and more people throughout the Roman Empire as Luke wrote his account of the Christ event? Luke admits he was no eyewitness rather he interviewed those who were there and sought to honor their faithful memories; sought to honor their faith. But Luke had his own perspective as well. Distance can offer the gift of the big picture; it can provide a sense of The Story and how the various chapters build upon one another. Luke definitely understood Jesus to be crux and climax of the story of God’s ongoing, grace-full, redeeming work in Israel. For Luke and the other gospel writers, Jesus weaves together all other stories and reveals something brand new in the universe.
Like Matthew, Luke presents Jesus as one who fulfills the Scripture. The bigger-than-life characters at the beginning set the stage: Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John, was “filled with the spirit and power of Elijah” from conception; Mary was told her son, Jesus, would receive the throne of his ancestor King David; Mary’s Magnificat celebrates the God who continues the promise made to Abraham; the devout man Simeon recognized in the infant Jesus “the consolation of Israel” and the prophet Anna named him as the one Israel had been looking for—the redeemer of Jerusalem.
Like both Mark and Matthew, Luke’s Jesus affirms that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus was “necessary.”
Then the Risen Jesus said to the astonished disciples: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Luke 24:44-48
And like Mark, the Lucan disciples were able to comprehend the meaning of Jesus and the Christ event only through the lens of the resurrection. Only when their eyes and minds “were opened.”
But different from Matthew, Luke’s revelation of who this Jesus is comes quietly, artfully; as in any good story, clues are laid like breadcrumbs. Richard Hays calls this Luke’s “intertextuality.” (I draw heavily for this reflection from Hays’ excellent book: Reading Backwards.) Although Luke the narrator does not often announce that such and such happened “in order to fulfill what was spoken in the Scriptures,” Luke’s characters clearly are acting in the same grand drama that Israel has been enacting from the time of Abraham.
Many of the Old Testament echoes in Luke do not function as direct typological pre-figurations of events in the life of Jesus. Still less do they function as proof texts. Rather, they create a broader and subtler effect: they create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory.
“A narrative world thick with scriptural memory.” Luke weaves delicate threads of the ancient story into the fabric of his own story of Jesus so that any perceptive reader can see the same God, the same Spirit, the same work of redemption revealed now in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke skillfully tells the Jesus story with gentle intersections of the Hebrew story and intriguing intimations that the God of Israel is embodied in this one: Son of God and Lord.
Of course the other gospel writers see Jesus as “Son of God” as well. It was heard as an allusion to royalty: “son” like the king was God’s son. It was heard as an allusion to humanity: “son” like Israel was God’s chosen. It was heard intimating Isaac, the beloved only son of Abraham, offered and received back as if in resurrection. But there is more:
[In Luke,] Jesus’ origins are mysteriously divine, and his personal identity is closely bound with God’s own being in a way that transcends the God-relation of any of Israel’s past kings or prophets.
Thus Luke’s (and Matthew’s) description of a virgin birth:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you [the angel announced to Mary]; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Luke 1:35
There is something unique about Jesus as “son” and both Luke and Matthew seek to express that mystery in their stories of a virginal conception. Here is a metaphorical way to talk about that which is beyond our understanding. This is a method of communicating the Church’s confession that this Jesus is “mysteriously divine.”
“What does this mean?” the New Testament theologians persistently asked. And we continue to ask: “What does this mean?
All of the gospel writers referred to Jesus as “son of God,” but Luke is the only one who regularly uses “Lord” as a title for Jesus. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tetragrammaton is the four-letter “name” for God; it was not often written for it was too holy. So ancient writers in the Hebrew Scriptures substituted the title “Lord” for the one God, Creator and Redeemer of Israel. (Whenever you see the word “LORD” printed in your Bibles with small caps you can recognize that as an indication of the original word derived from the ancient Tetragrammaton.)
When Luke boldly proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord,” he demonstrates an exceptionally “high” Christology—that is, Luke “suggests a mysterious fusion of divine and human identity in the figure of Jesus.”
“Why has the mother of my Lord come to me? Elizabeth asks the newly pregnant Mary.
“Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord,” the angels proclaim to the shepherds.
“The Lord turned and looked at Peter,” after the cock crowed signaling Peter’s denial.
“The Lord has risen indeed…” the disciples testified to one another with a burning in their hearts.
Unlike the other three gospels, Luke’s Jesus continues in the story beyond the resurrection and ascension since Luke is the only one who has written a second volume to the story: the Acts of the Apostles. Throughout, the preachers proclaim unabashedly, explicitly, as Peter did in his Pentecost sermon: “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Then, in Acts 10, Luke has Peter boldly declare to Cornelius the centurion: “[God] sent the word to the sons of Israel by proclaiming the gospel of peace through Jesus Christ; this one is Lord of all.” It is bold on two levels: Luke says to the Roman that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. But he also ascribes to Jesus a place in the fundamental confession of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord alone.”
Gone the delicate threads woven quietly and artfully; now the proclamation is bright and daring. God-in-Christ has redeemed—and is redeeming—all people, all things, all creation. This one is LORD of all.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle developed Living in The Story during her Doctor of Ministry studies at Brite Divinity School. She lives in Paris TX where she blogs about Intersections of Faith and Culture and progressive interpretations of Scripture.
Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014).