Luke-Acts, Theology of

Luke-Acts, Theology of

The initial verses of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts indicate they were written to an otherwise unknown person named Theophilus. Acts 1:1-3 refers to the "former book" in which Luke has described the life and teachings of Jesus, an obvious reference to a writing like the Gospel. The author considers Acts as the second of a two-part work. A second-century document, the Muratorian Canon, states that the third Gospel and the Book of Acts were written by "Luke." Luke is mentioned in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11 as a companion of Paul, "the beloved physician." In Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27-28 (the "we" sections), the pronoun changes from the third to the first person, indicting the writer was a participant in the events described. Otherwise, little is known of Luke save that he was probably a Gentile, possibly from Syria. Although much contemporary scholarship has raised objections to the conclusion that Luke-Acts was written by Luke, an occasional travel companion of Paul, there is no solid reason for concluding otherwise. At the same time it should be noted that Luke drew information from a variety of sources, a fact he himself acknowledges in the first three verses of the Gospel.

Dates of the events recorded in Luke-Acts can be fairly easily established. The birth of Jesus, according to Matthew 2, took place before the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c. The data of Luke 3:1-2 locate the ministry of John the Baptist and the beginning of that of Jesus about a.d. 27-28. Acts 24:27 refers to the change of Roman governors, about a.d. 59, as Felix succeeded Festus. Paul's trip to Rome ( Acts 27 ) took about a year. Paul then lived in Rome for two years (28:30), which places the end of the book about a.d. 62.

The theology of Luke consists of two parts: (1) that which he shares in common with the other Gospel writers, especially Matthew and Mark; and (2) his own distinctive material, emphases, organization, and contributions, both in the Gospel and in Acts. With the other Synoptic writers Luke shares the basic outline of the ministry of Jesus and includes much the same content as they do. Luke also portrays Peter's confession ( 9:18-19 ) as an important turning point, and, both by the amount of space devoted to it and the content included, depicts the arrest, trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the focal point and climax of his Gospel. He shares the Synoptic evaluation of the person of Jesus as the messianic son of David, the kingly Messiah, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, and the heavenly Son of Man who was predicted "in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" ( 24:44 ).

The differences between Luke and Mark are found in: (1) the distinctive ways in which Luke presents and emphasizes the material found in both Gospels; (2) the inclusion of primary "sayings" (teaching) material also found in Matthew but not in Mark ("Q"), primarily located in Luke 6:20-8:3 and 9:51-18:14; and (3) in the material Luke includes but which is not found in any other Gospel. Luke's special material ("L") may be grouped into the following categories:

  1. John the Baptist and Jesus: the mission of John ( Luke 3:1-6 Luke 3:10-14 Luke 3:18-20 ) and the genealogy of Jesus ( 3:23-38 )
  2. The rejection at Nazareth ( 4:16-30 )
  3. Certain mighty works/miracles, including the wonderful catch of fish ( 5:1-11 ); the raising of the son of the widow of Nain ( 7:11-17 )
  4. Special lessons and teachings: to the disciples in Samaria ( 9:51-56 ); to the seventy ( Luke 10:1 Luke 10:17-20 ); to Martha ( 10:38-42 ); about the master and the servant ( 17:7-10 ); to the ten lepers ( 17:11-21 ); to Zaccheus ( 19:1-10 )
  5. Parables found only in Luke: the good Samaritan ( 10:25-37 ); the friend coming at midnight ( 11:5-8 ); the rich fool ( 12:13-21 ); the barren fig tree ( 13:1-9 ); on seeking the honored place and hospitality ( 14:7-14 ); of the lost sheep, coin, and son (chap. 15); the unjust steward ( 16:1-12 ); the rich man and Lazarus ( 16:19-31 ); the importunate widow ( 18:1-8 ); the Pharisee and the publican ( 18:9-14 ); the parable of the pounds ( 19:11-27 )
  6. Warnings and controversies: opposition from Pharisees (11:53-14:4); warning about Sabbath observancethe hunchback woman ( 13:10-17 ) and the man with dropsy ( 14:1-6 ); about Herod Antipas ( 13:31-33 ); on counting the cost ( 14:28-33 )
  7. Jesus' final visit to Jerusalem: approach to the city ( 19:37-44 ); apocalyptic sayings ( Luke 21:11 Luke 21:18 Luke 21:25 Luke 21:26 Luke 21:28 Luke 21:34-36 ); the passion and the resurrection ( 22:14-24 )

Luke's distinctive emphases are numerous. Some include his special concerns for time, geography, and history. Even a cursory survey of Luke's two-part work shows his deep concern and interest in history. He dates events by references to rulers and relates some events in his account to those of the greater society and world. Before presenting the ministry of Jesus, he establishes its setting. Luke details Jesus' birth, experience at age twelve (chaps. 1-2), and a genealogy ( 3:23-38 ). He appears to associate certain themes with geographical locations at which they were prominent. Although his is not a complete history of either Jesus or the early church, it is an account in which historyreliable historyis a significant element.

As a Gentile Luke stresses the universal scope of Jesus' ministry as Savior of all humankind, not just the Jews; he frequently points out the ethnic-national background of persons. He focuses on the church as both an institution and an organization and its relation with the state. Luke stresses the role of the Holy Spirit in both the ministry of Jesus and the church. Commentators frequently note Luke's concern for the underprivileged: the poor, the downcast, women, children, publicans, the sick, the Gentiles, the Samaritans. Similarly he shows a special interest in "social concerns, " and responses to human need by Jesus and the church. Both by relating Jesus' words and recounting the experience of early Christians, Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and teaches that discipleship is costly. He stresses the return of Christ (the parousia [parousiva]) and such concepts as praise, forgiveness, glory, joy, weeping, peace, love.

Of course, the most obvious unique fact about Luke's writing is that, unlike other Gospel writers, he includes a second volume. Acts portrays the establishment of the church and its early activities in Jerusalem (chaps. 1-7), as well as the scattering of its members as a result of persecution, and their subsequent proclamation of the gospel in other areas (chaps. 8-11). Of particular concern is the inclusion among the believers of persons and groups other than Jerusalem JewsSamaritans, an Ethiopian, inhabitants along the coastal plain of the land of Israel, a Gentile (Cornelius), and unnamed Jews and Hellenists in the Syrian Antioch; this section also notes the conversion of a Jewish persecutor, Saul, later called Paul ( 9:1-31 ). Chapter 12 marks shifts in leadership away from the original Twelve to James and Paul and of the geographical center from Jerusalem to Antioch. The final fifteen chapters (13-28) show evangelistic activity, under Paul, moving into the larger world, as far as Rome; it shows how significant numbers of Gentiles came to be included in the church. The Council of Jerusalem (chap. 15) depicts the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, clarifying its understanding that Christian salvation comes by grace through faith.

The History of Salvation. The history of salvation in Luke-Acts must be understood in two parts. First is the basic assumption that God works out salvation within a special history that is also a part of general world history. Micah calls his readers to remember certain events of the history of the nation Israel, "that you may know the righteous [saving] acts of the Lord" ( 6:5 ). This history begins with creation and the fall of humans into sin and ends with the return of Christ and the end of the world as now known; its time is virtually synonymous with human history. The events Luke surveys are a part of this larger stream of God's history of revelation and redemption; they depict God at work in the time and space of this world.

Second, Luke is intent to present the Jesus-event as not just another event in God's special saving history, but as the event in that history. His birth was through the miracle of the virgin birth, which was predicted and heralded by angels. Even as a babe righteous persons recognized him as God's "salvation" ( 2:30 ) and associated him with "the redemption of Jerusalem" ( 2:38 ). As a boy of twelve Jesus was aware of a special relation with God and a special mission ( 2:41-51 ). Throughout his Gospel Luke intimates that "more than meets the eye" is involved in such things as Jesus' baptism and temptation ( 3:21-22 ; 4:1-13 ), parables and miracles, his awareness of the presence of the kingdom of God ( 17:20-21 ) and of the overthrow of Satan as his disciples preached ( 10:17-18 ), the transfiguration ( 9:28-36 ), arrival at Jerusalem ( 13:34-35 ; 19:41-44 ), appearance before Herod (Antipas) as well as Pilate at his trial ( 23:6-16 ), and even his journey to the cross, which was marked by the lament of the daughters of Jerusalem ( 23:27-31 ).

Although Luke's direct quotations from the Old Testament are proportionately fewer than those in Matthew and Mark, he firmly establishes its relationship with the events he relates. He makes numerous allusions to Old Testament events and concepts. At a crucial point, the post-resurrection appearances, he shows that Jesus himself saw his life and ministry within the larger context of the Old Testament ( 24:12-49) . This is also the practice of the apostolic preachers, who make constant reference to the Old Testament as the setting within which the Jesus-event must be understood. Jesus is the climax of God's saving work; therefore, "salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" ( Acts 4:12 ).

The Day of Salvation. Throughout the Old Testament the "Day" refers to critical points at which God moves decisively in judgment and salvation. A common Jewish view of history divided it into two "ages." The first was a time of proclamation and preparation in which God often worked indirectly and figuratively. The second age was the "age of fulfillment, " when God would work personally and directly to deal with human sin and resultant problems; at that time he would reestablish his sovereign control (the kingdom of God). This second period would last until the "world (or age) to come, " the consummation of God's work and of world history. The point of passage from the former to the latter age was expected to be marked by the direct intervention of God, either personally or through his agent (the Messiah). At that point the kingdom of God, the age of fulfillment, the messianic age, the age of salvation, would become a present reality.

Luke opens his account of Jesus' mission proper with the scene in the synagogue of Nazareth ( 4:16-30 ). Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2a, which poetically predicts the coming time ("the acceptable year of the Lord") of deliverance and salvation. Jesus then dramatically announced the arrival of that age with his own appearance: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21). Jesus pointedly stopped in the middle of Isaiah 61:2, omitting the prediction of a time of judgmentthat, in Jesus' view, would come at the end, not the beginning, of the period just inaugurated. The rejection by his fellow townsmen came not because of his claim to be the Messiah (and that is the essence of his statement) but because he challenged the assumption that God's work and favor would be extended beyond the limits of the Jewish people.

Acts begins with a similar announcement of the arrival of the age of fulfillment. Peter, explaining the ecstatic behavior of the disciples at Pentecost, quotes Joel's ( 2:28-32 ) prediction of a coming time at which God would break into history in a unique way. What Joel spoke of as future ("it shall come I will pour out , 2:28 ) Peter declares as present ("this is what was spoken, 2:16 ). The intent of the two passages is inescapable; Jesus is the crisis point in time; he and his ministry are not the middle period (as Conzelmann asserts), but the central, decisive moment, the "Day" in God's saving history. The teachings of Jesus, the preaching and actions of the apostles, assume that what was future to Old Testament writers is now present; Jesus had harsh words for those who failed to recognize it ( Luke 12:56 ). God's work had entered a new phase; things would never be the same again. It was for this reason that old patterns, law, practices, and the rest could and must be reevaluated. Life between the arrival and the consummation of this new age of salvation is the theme of Luke-Acts and the rest of the New Testament.

The Messengers of Salvation. The messengers of salvation are Jesus, his associates, and all those who proclaim his person, work, and their significance. Jesus is the messenger of salvation; he is the self-revelation of the God who saves, the one who proclaims the presence, kingdom, and will of God, and the one in whom God's will and work are carried out. Here the whole of Luke's Christology, a part of the message of salvation, is relevant.

In the Gospel other messengers include the Twelve and the seventy whom Jesus sent out ( Luke 9:1-6 Luke 9:10 ; Luke 10:1-12 Luke 10:17-20 ). Just before Jesus' ascension he commissioned others as "witnesses" ( 24:48 ). The Twelve and a growing number of converts become the "witnesses" in Acts. The Twelve, the apostles, were especially chosen persons who had been with Jesus from "John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up" ( Acts 1:21 ). This special group seems to have been expanded to include such persons as Barnabas, James (the brother of Jesus), and Paul. Their task was both to proclaim and to give the significance of Jesus and his work.

The Message of Salvation. For Luke Jesus was not only the messenger of salvation but also its message. The message of salvation involves first, the person and then the work of Jesus. Information about the person and nature of Jesus is weaved throughout the Gospel. He, the supernaturally born babe, "will be called the Son of God" ( 1:35 ); angels proclaim him as "a Savior Christ [= Messiah] the Lord" ( 2:11 ). At his baptism God acknowledges Jesus as "my Son with you I am well pleased" ( 3:22 ). Jesus, "full of the Holy Spirit" ( 4:1 ), meets and rebuffs the tempter and takes up his ministry ( 4:1-14 ). He teaches and Acts with authority; a demon recognizes him as "the Holy One of God" ( 4:32-34 ). With Matthew Luke relates that Jesus, in speaking to the messengers of John the Baptist, demands that he be evaluated in view of his words and deeds ( 7:18-23 ; note that Jesus alludes to the words and works prophesied of the Messiah in Isa 29:18-19 ; 35:5-6 ; 61:1-2 )he acts and says what he does because of who he is. Peter acknowledged him as "The Christ of God" ( 9:20 ); the account of the transfiguration ( 9:28-36 ), which follows almost immediately, seems to give credence, commentary, and expansion of the meaning of the statement. As Messiah, Jesus has a ministry to perform, "a baptism to undergo" ( 12:50 ); he is the bearer, definer, and implementer of the kingdom of God. Jesus is aware of a unique relation with God, his Father ( 10:21-22 ; Luke 22:29-30 Luke 22:42 ; Luke 23:34 Luke 23:46 ; 24:49 ).

With the other Synoptic writers Luke records the phrase "Son of man" as Jesus' favorite self-designation. In Luke it appears more often. The origin and meaning of the term are hotly debated. The phrase occurs in Daniel 7:13-14, designating one who comes "with the clouds of heaven" and who approaches "the Ancient of Days." He receives a kingdom unlimited by race or nationality, time or space. It appears that Jesus used the phrase to clarify his mission as a spiritual one to counter the political-nationalistic overtones of the contemporary use of "Messiah." The final evaluation of the person of Jesus is Luke's joining with other writers to report his resurrection. Then, with far more emphasis than others, Luke also describes the ascension.

For Jesus the message of his work was synonymous with "the good news of the kingdom of God" ( Luke 4:43 ) and he, as its representative and spearhead, was at war with the kingdom of Satan and he is winning ( 11:14-22 ). Because of who Jesus was and because of the in-breaking of the new order, past traditions, practices, and expectations need to be reevaluated. Membership in the kingdom requires radical self-denial and identification with Jesus ( 5:10-11 ; Luke 9:23-26 Luke 9:59-62 ; 12:8 ; 14:25-33 ). The message in the Gospel is largely an announcement and clarification of these facts. Jesus' message always has the cross in view. With the other Synoptics Luke relates that from Peter's confession on Jesus spoke openly of the fact and necessity of his coming rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection ( 9:21-22 ).

The early chapters of Acts record a number of titles used of Jesus by the early Christians: Christ = Messiah, Lord, Servant (of the Lord), the Holy One, the Righteous (or Just) One, the Leader-Captain-Ruler-Author-Founder-Pioneer (all these are included in the Greek archegos [ajrchgov], 3:15 ; 5:31 ), Savior, Prophet (like Moses), the Stone, Judge, and Son of Man. Each of these have their roots in the Old Testament, were modified by intertestamental Judaism, and were further adapted by the early Christians to speak of different aspects of the person and work of Jesus. Even more, Jesus is the subject of the message of the early church. It is only through him that God can be known, sins forgiven, and salvation obtained; he is also the Lord, the head, of the church whom believers gladly obey.

Furthermore, the content of apostolic preaching in Acts centers on Jesus and his work of providing salvation. Since C. H. Dodd's The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, it has become common to summarize the preaching designed to win converts, the kerygma [khvrugma], under a number of points that recur in the sermons of Acts. One of the several possible reconstructions is as follows:

  1. The age of fulfillment predicted in the Old Testament has dawned, the promises have been fulfilled, the Messiah has come.
  2. This has taken place in Jesus of Nazareth. He
    1. was descended from the seed of David
    2. went about teaching, doing good, and executing mighty works by the power of God through which God indicated his approval of him
    3. was crucified in accordance with the purpose of God
    4. was raised by the power of God
  3. The church is witness to these things.
  4. Jesus has been exalted into heaven at the right hand of God, where he reigns as the messianic head of the New Israel with the title "Lord."
  5. The Holy Spirit in the church is now the seal of Christ's present power and glory.
  6. Jesus will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things.
  7. Therefore, all who hear should repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.

The apostolic message can also be summarized in Paul's words, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" ( 16:31 ).

The Universality of Salvation. The message of salvation also contains the affirmation of its unlimited character. There are at least three features. First, although many Jews of Jesus' day assumed that God was concerned only with their people and race, frequently only pious Jews, Jesus asserted this is not the case. He associated with the common people, with publicans, prostitutes, and sinners ( 5:30-32 ; 7:34 ; 15:1 ). He pointedly noted that even in the Old Testament God at times showed favor to Gentiles over Hebrews who had the same needs ( 4:23-27 ). He made a hated Samaritan the hero of a parable that cast Jewish religious leaders in a bad light ( 10:25-37 ). Joy comes over the repentance of the lost, not those who are already part of the favored group ( 15:1-32 ; note that the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son probably represents the Pharisaic attitude of earning acceptance with God"All these years I've been slaving for you, and never disobeyed your orders, " (v. 28). The universality of salvation is a major theme of Acts. Jesus' last words before his ascension declared that his associates are to be witnesses "to the end of the earth" ( 1:8 ). The rest of the book depicts the initial, labored steps in carrying out that directive.

The second feature of the message of the universality of salvation is that salvation is not limited to a particular culture and is not to be earned by observing ethno-cultural religious rights and laws, even Jewish ones. This was a difficult truth for the early church to grasp; thus the expansion of Christianity beyond the Jewish people and territory required the clarification of its message. The Council of Jerusalem ( Acts 15 ), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (v. 28), recognized that God makes no distinction (v. 9) and that salvation is by grace through faith (vv. 9-11). This means that in addition to Jews, God accepts "the remnant of men all the Gentiles who bear [his] name" (v. 17). Restrictions of place, ritual cleanness, race, and commandments such as circumcision are not required by God for salvation.

At the same time, the law-free gospel carries responsibilities. The conduct of believers must be pleasing to and in harmony with the nature of the God with whom they are in relationship; they are not to associate with anything pertaining to idolatry, are to observe basic moral behavioral standards, and are to be sensitive to the concerns of their fellow Christians (vv. 19-21,29 this is another way of stating the requirement of Luke 10:27 , to love God and neighbor ).

The third factor of the universality of salvation is the responsibility to make it known throughout the world. It is no happenstance that following Stephen's vision of Jesus, the glorified Son of Man ( Acts 7:56 ), the church began to claim for Christ the territory over which Daniel ( 7:14 ) said he would reign"all peoples, nations, and men of every language his dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." The universality of salvation carried with it the mandate for both evangelism and missions. Luke-Acts ends as Paul, in Rome, proclaims "the kingdom of God and about Jesus that God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles" ( Acts 28:23 Acts 28:28 ). Thus, the good news, the gospel, of salvation reaches the very capital of the human kingdoms of the then-known world.

J. Julius Scott, Jr.

Bibliography. C. K. Barrett, Luke the Historian in Recent Study; F. F. Bruce, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library65/1 (1982): 36-56; H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke; M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles; J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teachings; H. Flender, St. Luke, Theologian of Redemptive History; E. Franklin, Christ the Lord: A Study in the Purpose and Theology of Luke-Acts; W. W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles; E. Haechen, The Acts of the Apostles, A Commentary; C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History; M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity; J. Jervell, Luke and the People of God: A New look at Luke-Acts; L. Keck and L. J. Martyn, eds, Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert; I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian; J. C. O'Neil, The Theology of Acts in Its Historical Setting; J. J. Scott, Jr., JETS21/2 (1978): 131-41; C. H. Talbert, ed., Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Luke-Acts, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.