If Mark is the shortest and punchiest of the gospels, Luke is the most detailed and meticulous. Luke claims to have done very careful research (Luke 1:1-4), and everything about this book bears that claim out.
“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them” (Acts 16:9–10).
Some Background on Luke
It may seem odd, in a message summarizing the gospel of Luke, to have the text be from Acts. But when we consider that we are dealing with the collected works of Luke in two volumes, the picture changes somewhat. In this passage, the gospel has not yet come to Europe. Paul was in Troas, and had a dream. In that dream a Macedonian man appeared to him, and summoned him to come over into Macedonia. At that moment, the narrative of Acts suddenly adds the first person plural—we. Luke joins them there, and it is quite possible that he was the Macedonian man in the dream.
Luke was almost certainly a classically educated Gentile. His preface to the gospel of Luke followed the classical style, and his care shows up in many ways and in many details. An educated guess places the composition of Luke at around 60 A.D. and the book of Acts shortly after that. In Col. 4:14, Paul calls Luke the beloved physician, and says that Luke was with him when he wrote Philemon (Phile. v. 24). Paul wrote both those letters in his first imprisonment in Rome, and this agrees with the last two chapters of Acts. At the end of his life, Paul wrote “only Luke is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11). According to an early prologue to his gospel, Luke lived until he was 84, and died in Boeotia in Greece.
There are a number of details about Christ’s life that we would not know if it were not for Luke. These would include the annunciation (1:26-38), the angels appearing to the shepherds (2:1-20), the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve (2:41-52). These instances would indicate that one of Luke’s sources was Mary, the mother of the Lord. Other unique details would include the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (7:11-17), the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:30-37), the story of the ten lepers (17:11-19), the story of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), and Jesus before Herod (23:6-16).
Marked Emphases of Luke
Luke contains a number of emphases that we do not find in the other gospels. Note that these are not contradictions or disagreements. But they are emphasized and given to us for a reason.
Luke emphasizes the Lord’s ministry to the outcasts of pious society. Not only did Jesus come for the lepers and other losers (Luke 14:12-24), but also for the rich and compromised—tax collectors, soldiers and courtesans. Zacchaeus was not a homeless bum. Never forget that there is more than one way to be an outcast from pious society. One is to be a meth dealer, of course, but the other is to work for the IRS, or to be a Marine colonel in the Pentagon.
In Luke, we see the marked beginning of the very Christian impetus to elevate the status of women, bring them both privilege and respect. There were the women who financed the ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The women were the last at the cross (Luke 23:55) and the first at the tomb (Luke 24:1). And after His resurrection, the Lord appeared to the women first (Luke 24:5-8).
Luke balances, in a wonderful way, the corporate and the individual. He alternates between crowd scenes and individuals in quite a striking way. For example, right after the feeding of the five thousand, we are told of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ (Luke 9:10-22). Another thing he does is “zoom in on” an individual in the midst of a huge crowd, as he does in the Zacchaeus story.
If you remember to include the book of Acts, it is easy to see that Luke has a particular emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit empowers individuals to speak God’s words throughout both Luke and Acts. This emphasis on the Spirit is likely the reason that Luke’s two volumes are characterized by songs in a way that the other gospel are not.
The Great Quest
The gospel moves in a very straightforward way, left to right, and in literary form, it is a quest. Jesus has a mission to complete, and the importance of the mission is apparent from His infancy on. The word must be fulfilled, the mission must be completed.
There is a long middle section in Luke that the other gospels do not have (Luke 9:51-19:27). “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:51). Of course, in the subsequent chapters, He teaches and He heals as He goes, but He is resolutely determined to make it to Jerusalem. The reason for this is that His death and resurrection are the whole point. He goes there in order to fulfill the will of His Father, the will of the Jews, the will of Judas, the will of Herod, the will of the mob, and, of course, His own will. He does this because He is the appointed one, He is the anointed one.
As an aside, note that in the book of Acts we have the same kind of quest—Paul sets his face to go to the same city, Jerusalem, with the full expectation that bad things will happen to him there.
Back to the gospel—the Lord explains all of this after the fact to the disciples He met on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27), and then again in His appearance at Bethany (Luke 24:44-47). The story is set in motion as the shining angels sing to the shepherds (Luke 2:9), and the story is completed with shining angels in the tomb (Luke 24:4).
That same story is continued as the Lord’s disciples fan out across the map in order to tell the story. And as the book of Acts is completed, we are heartened to realize that there is no place in the story where the Spirit is taken up into Heaven. That does not happen, and cannot happen. Everywhere the words of this story are spoken, the Spirit rests upon them. Everywhere we tell people that the Lord fulfilled His mission, we are fulfilling ours.