The Mission of God in the Gospel of Luke: Part 1 – Introduction

In November (hereand December (here) I posted two blogs about Christmas. In both of those we looked at passages from the Gospel of Luke, and I tried to convey just how much of the Christmas story in Luke is about the mission of God in the world. That was not a hard task because much of the Gospel of Luke is taken up with the truth that the good news about Jesus is not just for Israel in the first century. The gospel is for the whole world until the end of the age and beyond. So, now that a new year is upon us, it is fitting for us to spend some time looking at the rest of the Gospel of Luke and seeing how the mission of God is demonstrated throughout. Luke has a message for us, and we need to hear it.

The Gospel of Luke was written to a man named Theophilus. We know almost nothing about him except that he was someone who had been taught many of the truths about Jesus. But he still had a lot of questions (Luke 1:3-4). With only a quick reading of Luke, it isn’t hard to discern what at least one of those questions was. Given his name, Theophilus was almost certainly a gentile, but those first missionaries who went around the known world with the Gospel were Jewish. They brought with them the Holy Scriptures which were written by Jews and viewed by most as for Jews. They preached a Jewish Messiah, Jesus, and all the events of the Gospel—his birth, teaching, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—all happened in and around this little spot on the map called Judea. Theophilus, and any other thoughtful non-Jewish reader of the Gospels, had to wonder, “What does all this have to do with me? Does any of it have anything to do with me?”

Surely Luke, a gentile himself, had these same questions, because throughout his Gospel, Luke makes it abundantly clear that the good news about Jesus isn’t just for Jews (though it is for them!). It is good news for the whole world. Saving all the nations is, and has always been, God’s mission.

Luke’s Structure

In many places in Luke’s Gospel, Luke follows the structure and chronology of the story of Jesus laid out by Mark. Matthew also largely follows Mark’s structure and chronology. But it is in Luke’s significant departures from the normal way of telling the life of Jesus that clue us in to his focus. Right in the middle of Luke’s Gospel, he includes a lengthy “travel narrative,” a collection of narratives, parables, and teachings of Jesus as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Most of the material that is unique to Luke is in this section (Luke 9-19), and it is this material that most clearly highlights Luke’s purpose. Of all the stories about Jesus that Luke had to tell, he selected and arranged this particular collection for Theophilus and us to tell us about the mission of God. In the six blog posts that will follow this one, we are going to examine this collection. Specifically we are going to consider the following:

Luke and John the Baptist – Though outside the “travel narrative” in Luke, John the Baptist figures prominently in Luke’s Gospel and is an especially potent reminder of the mission of God to save the world. We see the visit of the angels and John’s miraculous birth in Luke 1. We see John’s preaching, Jesus’ baptism, and John’s imprisonment in Luke 3. We see John’s teaching being used as a weapon against Jesus in Luke 5. And we see John’s own doubts about Jesus in Luke 7. Ultimately Luke uses the John the Baptist to remind us all of the words of Isaiah, that it has always been God’s intention that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” We’ll talk more about this in February’s blog post.

The Parables – In the “travel narrative” in particular we get a collection of parables that highlight non-Jews and outcasts and specifically point us toward God’s love for and desire to save the whole world. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) makes a religious and national enemy of Israel the hero of the story and God’s definition of a “good neighbor.” The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) ends with God, the master of the feast, sending his servants out into the world “to the highways and the hedges” to bring in all those who proper religious people considered undesirable and unworthy of God’s love. The triple parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons (Luke 15) remind us that Jesus didn’t come to put on a show for people who think they are righteous. He came to save sinners among all the nations. We’ll talk more about this in March’s blog post.

The Gentile Narratives – Interspersed with the parables, Luke tells a series of stories that highlight gentiles, outcasts, lepers, and the like. Of all the stories Luke could have told about Jesus, he told these, and he told them for a reason. Luke wants to remind Theophilus and all his readers of God’s love for the whole world, especially the outcasts, outsiders, and the downtrodden. April’s blog post will focus specifically on the amazing story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, because here Luke and Jesus make the message of the gospel abundantly clear.

Condemnations – Throughout Luke’s Gospel Luke highlights Jesus’ condemnations of the powerful and the religious insiders. “Woe to you Pharisees . . . and to you lawyers also!” Jesus proclaims in Luke 11. “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy!” Jesus proclaims in Luke 12. He condemns them for how they use their power to self-promote and how they use their power to oppress. Their bad behavior obscures the gospel and preaches a distorted picture of God. We’ll talk more about this in May’s blog post.

Teaching – The Gospel of Luke is filled with Jesus’ teaching on God’s love for the nations and God’s plan to save the nations. In Luke 11 Jesus equates himself with Jonah, the missionary prophet, that God sent to the gentile nation of Assyria. Jesus also uses the “queen of the south” as an example of God’s love for the nations and his interest in their salvation. We’ll talk more about this in June’s blog post.

Conclusion – Finally, we will wrap up this blog series by discussing how Luke ends his Gospel, with the “great commission.” Jesus calls his followers “witnesses” of “these things” and tells them that the good news of Jesus should be proclaimed “to all the nations.” We’ll conclude on this topic in July’s blog post.

As I said above, it is fitting for us to spend some time looking at the rest of the Gospel of Luke to see how the mission of God is demonstrated throughout. Luke has a message for us, and we need to hear it. I look forward to talking with you about it in the coming months.

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