Sometimes we need to take a step back to gain perspective. It is one thing for three of Jesus’ twelve disciples to write about the life of Christ; it is quite another for someone who did not know Him to write about Him. Luke never met Jesus, yet chose to follow Him. An obviously educated man who, as Colossians 4:14 tells us, was a physician, Luke learned all that he could about Jesus and shared his findings with us. Thus his Gospel provides a “step back,” a unique perspective on Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection.
Author • Neither Luke nor Acts has a byline, so we are left to deduce the author’s identity. The author writes that he was not an eyewitness to the events surrounding Jesus but had gathered the reports of others. On the other hand, the author was present with Paul at some of the events described in Acts, events that belong to the “we” sections of Acts (see Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). So the author must have been a lately converted Christian who knew Paul and sometimes traveled with him.
Early Christian writings, from the works of Justin Martyr to Tertullian, identify the author as Luke, an identification that was firmly in place by the third century A.D. Luke was an educated man by ancient standards. He was capable of writing in high Greek style, and Colossians 4:10–14 seems to indicate that Luke was not “of the circumcision,” that is, not Jewish. If so, Luke would be the only Gentile author of a New Testament book. Tradition says that after accompanying Paul on some of his missionary journeys, Luke settled in Philippi, investing his life in the ministry of the Philippian church.
Date • Neither Luke nor Acts indicates when they were written, so this too must be deduced. The last event recorded in the Book of Acts is the first Roman imprisonment of Paul; therefore, the earliest Acts could have been written is A.D. 62. Most scholars choose between two times for the Gospel: early to late sixties, or mid-seventies to late eighties. Two factors determine the choice: the date of the other Gospels and the portrayal of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke.
Almost everyone considers Luke the second or third Gospel to be written, though they debate whether Mark or Matthew was the first. The first Gospel, whether Matthew or Mark, is usually dated in the sixties. Those who place Matthew and Mark in the sixties often date Luke after A.D. 70, to allow time for the circulation of Matthew and Mark. Another reason given for dating Luke after A.D. 70 is the claim that Luke presents Jesus’ predictions of the fall of Jerusalem (19:41–44; 21:20–24) in such a way as to indicate that the city had already fallen.
Neither of these arguments is decisive. Given that the major figures of the early church had contact with one another, there is no reason to assume that it took a decade for a major Gospel to get into circulation. The prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke is unique among the Gospel accounts in focusing on the fall of the city and not merely the destruction of the temple. Thus what Jesus describes is a judgment which is the result of covenant unfaithfulness, similar to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fact that Luke includes Jesus’ prediction of a second fall of the city does not mean the city had already been destroyed when the book was written. Since the sequel to Luke, the Book of Acts, does not record either Peter’s death, Paul’s death, or even the fall of Jerusalem (in the face of Jesus’ clear prediction of it), it is most likely that Luke was written in the early to mid-sixties. A date in the later sixties is also possible.
Characteristics • The Gospel of Luke is unique in several ways. It is the only Gospel that has a sequel, Acts. Both Luke and Acts include an account of the Ascension, an event that only Luke describes in detail. Second, Luke is the longest of the four Gospels. Third, Luke records a wide variety of miracles, teaching, and parables, making it the fullest portrait of Jesus’ ministry. Much of the material in chapters 9–19 appears only in Luke; in all, about one-third of the Gospel of Luke is unique. Fourth, Luke is the only Gospel addressed to an individual. Luke writes for Theophilus, who was probably a Gentile believer.
For Luke, Jesus is the promised Messiah (1:31–35), the Son of God (9:35), the Servant through whom God works (4:16–18), and the Lord who is called to sit at God’s right hand exerting His authority and giving the Spirit to those who believe (compare 22:69 with Acts 2:30–36). Though aspects of God’s plan are fulfilled in Jesus’ First Coming, other parts of the plan remain to be fulfilled when Jesus returns (21:5–36; Acts 3:14–26).
Luke wrote his Gospel to reassure Theophilus, a Gentile and a new believer, that God was still at work in the Christian community founded by Jesus. Luke presents God’s grace as revealed in Jesus’ ministry on earth. He emphasizes that this grace is available to Gentiles, even though the promises relating to Jesus’ ministry stretch back into Israel’s history (1:1–4). For this reason Luke also concentrates on Jesus’ relationship to the nation and leaders of Israel. The rejection of Israel does not mean the failure of God’s plan. On the contrary, although they did not know it, their rejection was part of God’s plan from the beginning (Acts 2:22–39). In fact, persecution of the Christian community would be the means by which the church would spread the Good News throughout the world. Jesus Himself had predicted that this would happen (24:45–48).
Structure and Overview • The first two chapters of Luke emphasize the Old Testament and its promises of a Messiah, while 3:1–4:13 demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, who can resist the Evil One. Then, 4:14–9:50 introduce Jesus’ power and teaching. In these chapters, Luke records Jesus’ claims to authority and the numerous miracles that supported them. Even with these miracles as evidence, the people rejected Jesus while the disciples’ faith in Him steadily grew. The growing rift between Jesus and the Jewish leadership is seen in 9:51–19:44. This breach is emphasized most in chapters 9–13, but in chapters 14–19 attention turns to Jesus’ instruction of His disciples. The last section (19:45–24:53) portrays the final controversies, the trial, the death of Jesus, and the Resurrection and Ascension. The book ends with Jesus telling the disciples to wait for the coming of the Spirit. By now, they should have realized that everything that had taken place in Jesus’ life was promised in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (24:43–49). Jesus is the promised Messiah. Forgiveness of sin can be obtained only through Him. The disciples were witnesses to this fact; their mission was to share this Good News with all nations, not merely the Jews. Jesus gave them this task, but He also provided them with the power to carry it out (24:47). Thus it is clear that Luke’s Gospel centers on God’s plan to provide salvation to the world. It closes anticipating the spread of the gospel that is recorded in its sequel, the Book of Acts.
The NKJV Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), Lk.