Luke and Acts together narrate a sustained story of the arrival of God’s salvation, using nuanced literary parallels and fine literary Greek, and including interesting characterizations of Jews and Gentiles. Widely thought to be written by the same hand, the author (“Luke”) penned both volumes in view of contemporary writings on the same subject material (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1). Written no earlier than 80–90 A.D. (cf. Luke 13:35; 19:43–44; 21:20; cf. Josephus, J.W. 6.2.7), Luke appears to write for readers already committed to the faith, and as a believer himself (“us,” Luke 1:1, 4). Based on perceived discrepancies between the Paul of his letters and the Paul of Acts, some scholars have more recently questioned whether the author was actually Paul’s travelling companion (named in Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 24). Certainly, there are differences between the portrayals of Paul in his letters and that in Acts, and readers would do well not to conflate the two. That said, some of the discrepancies may be credited to literary form (narrative vs. epistle), time lapse, or other factors. In any event, there is no better alternative to the traditional association of the author of Luke-Acts with the early companion of Paul.
Since preparation time for regular preachers is more often than not dictated by the tyranny of the urgent, time in reflection on the broader scope of Luke’s two-volume work typically does not happen, even in Year C of the Lectionary. Given the scarcity of time for reflection, I outline here some of the most important themes in Luke’s writings, followed by “red flags” (i.e., pitfalls) to be avoided by the preacher.
The Journey Motif. The phenomenon of travel pervades Luke-Acts in ways unparalleled in the other Gospels. In Luke’s Gospel, for instance, it is over the course of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51–19:48) that his most central teaching occurs. Even after his resurrection, the classic exposition about the significance of Jesus’ life and death happens during a journey to Emmaus (24:13–35), where Jesus himself “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27, NRSV). Finally, travelling happens in tangible ways throughout Acts, following more or less the outline named in the opening chapter: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Preachers may compare this journey phenomenon with the journeys of change in life (e.g., cultural, societal, liturgical, church life), on which we all are travelling in varying degrees. The narratives of Luke and Acts may imply that it is on such “journeys” that there is most opportunity to learn from the Master.
Literary Parallels. Whereas all four Gospels use literary techniques of various kinds, Luke-Acts abounds in intriguing parallelisms, especially between Jesus and the apostles (e.g., Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60), between Peter and Paul (Acts 1–12; 13–28), and among parallel scenes (e.g., Luke 4:16–30; Acts 13:46–52; 28:16–28). These various parallels create the sense that all of Jesus’ followers will walk the same path walked by their Lord, thereby confirming that they are carrying out his mission as his messengers. In this sense, Luke-Acts proclaims a subtle but profound message of imitatio Christi as the call for modern-day messengers of the good news of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit. More than the other Gospels, Luke-Acts proclaims the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work through God’s messengers (Jesus, Paul, etc.). Beginning with prophet-like proclaimers in the opening chapters of the Gospel (Luke 1:35, 67; 2:25), the Spirit accompanies Jesus throughout his ministry (4:1, 14), and does the same with his followers afterward (Acts 1:5–8; 2:1–42). While the Spirit may assist in various ways (e.g., direction, Acts 16:7), in Acts the Spirit predominately gives a boldness of speech (parresia) that uniquely achieves God’s purposes of proclamation (Acts 4:32). The preacher should thus take comfort in asking for the same Spirit to give such boldness, knowing that this gift is not manifested in volume levels but rather by the message going forth in precisely the way it needs to.
The Ascension of Jesus. Only in Luke-Acts do we have descriptions of Jesus’ ascent into heaven (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:6–11), narrative sections that, despite their differences, indirectly serve to connect the two volumes. At the ascension Jesus’ followers worship him (Luke 24:52), indicating that they understand his coming as God’s own visitation (see 1:68, 78; 19:44). In Acts the ascension is connected with Jesus’ glorification by God and his role in sending the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:33-36; 3:19-21).
Divine Necessity. Throughout Luke-Acts, there is an overarching sense that things happen according to God’s purpose, embodied in the simple phrase “it is necessary” (dei, Luke 4:43; 13:33; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44, etc.). The implied message is that God is ultimately in control of the happenings in Luke’s narrative, a lesson that has similar repercussions for life with God in the modern world: God is ultimately in control, and at work directing God’s good purposes, despite the challenges and hardships we encounter.
Social Concerns. More than the other Evangelists, Luke has in mind a special concern for the poor. Only in Luke, for instance, are the poor blessed (Luke 6:20; not the “poor in spirit” of Matt 5:3) and are woes regularly expressed towards the rich (e.g., Luke 6:24–26). In Luke’s perspective, proper stewardship of money is extremely important but not easily achieved. In general, Luke’s perspective gives the impression that one’s possessions are best used to benefit the community of the faithful (e.g., Luke 8:1–3; Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37). Modern preachers do well to consider that this emphasis of Luke’s is relatively one-sided, focusing on challenging the faith community to share with their impoverished sisters and brothers, no matter the cost. The challenge is valid, but merits nuance and care in expression.
Continuity with Judaism. The portrayal of “the Jews” in Luke-Acts is the issue of greatest debate throughout the twentieth century, and is very much alive still today. Luke-Acts begins at the heart of Jewish tradition—in Jerusalem, at the temple, no less—but whether the Jewish people remain so central at the close of Acts is uncertain. Select passages give the impression that Jewish people are prone to reject the good news of Jesus (Luke 4:16–30; Acts 13:46–52; 28:16–28), and Acts sometimes portrays “the Jews” as a mob of stubbornly resistant individuals. Still, other passages show that not all Jews behave this way, even in Acts (14:1; 28:25–31), and at the close of Acts Paul still welcomes “all” (i.e., Gentiles and Jews) to hear the message of Jesus (28:30–31). In the end, while tensions between Jews and Gentiles certainly swell throughout Acts—as they do historically during the first century, and long afterward—fidelity to Jewish teaching, Scripture, and tradition remains the norm for the earliest apostles in Luke-Acts. Further, given that Luke’s audience may well have had Gentile readers, Luke-Acts is ultimately a story about “where we came from,” a story about Christianity’s roots. We do well to read Luke-Acts from the same perspective today, respecting the heritage and history of Jewish tradition, within which our own story is given birth.
Gentiles. More explicit than in the other Gospels, Luke and Acts together narrate a story of newcomers slowly entering into the faith community: Gentiles (non-Jews). Whereas Jesus alludes to this (Luke 4:16–30), Acts narrates the reality, beginning with the Ethiopian (8:25–40) and climaxing with the Cornelius episode (10:1 – 11:18), which helps prod the early church to conclude that circumcision is unnecessary for faith (15:1–29). Thereafter, the focus of Acts on Paul’s missionary travels throughout the Mediterranean moves deeper into Gentile culture and territory, ultimately concluding at the heart of the Roman world (Acts 28:14–31). Luke-Acts concludes with a bold emphasis upon proclaiming God’s good news to Gentiles: “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28, NRSV). Modern preachers may reflect fruitfully on this progressive development in the early church, as well as the problems and tensions that surround it (Acts 15:1–29), when addressing current issues of inclusion, interracial and interreligious dialogue, and welcome to outsiders. On the other hand, it is crucial to note that Acts narrates the particular history of the inclusion of a particular group of outsiders – Gentiles, a particular inclusion which the Old Testament Scriptures foretold. Thus, the inclusion of Gentiles should not be used as a warrant legitimating the breaking of any and every boundary cultural impulses may suggest today. Luke’s point is to show how God’s particular promises made to Abraham about the nations (cf. Gen 12.1-3 and 18:15-18, esp. v. 18) are fulfilled in the Church’s inclusion of Gentiles.
The Here and Now. As Hans Conzelmann famously pointed out in Mitte der Zeit (English: The Theology of St. Luke), Luke’s Gospel diminishes the apocalyptic features of Jesus’ message. For instance, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus corrects those who think the kingdom of God was to appear immediately (Luke 19:11–27; cf. Matt 25:14–30), and he proclaims that the kingdom “is among you” (Luke 17:21). That said, features of apocalyptic imagery and a forthcoming return of Jesus are not absent (e.g., Acts 1:11). In the meantime, evil remains in the world as a palpable force (Luke 4:6; 23:2; cf. Acts 13:1–12), thwarted and opposed when Jesus’ followers carry out his work (Luke 10:18). In general, these emphases lend themselves well to avoiding philosophies of abandonment (i.e., “Jesus is returning soon”) for the sake of addressing modern concerns about faithful stewardship of our world and the importance of establishing a faith-filled legacy for generations to come.
Common Preaching Pitfalls
Atonement Theory in Luke-Acts? Whereas many Christians regard various theories of atonement as theological bedrock for making sense of Jesus’ death, Luke-Acts presents surprisingly little in the way of atonement theory. Far from portraying Jesus as a sacrificial victim, Luke and Acts characterize Jesus as a righteous prophet who, like most righteous prophets in biblical tradition, will die without just cause (Luke 13:32–34). Given this, Jesus goes to his death with unflinching purity (23:28–31, 34, 42, 46), and at his death he is proclaimed “innocent” (Luke 24:47; not “the Son of God” as in the Matthean and Markan parallels). In Luke’s perspective, then, Jesus’ death is more the natural but climactic clash between God’s righteous purposes and human malevolence, and Jesus’ resurrection the indisputable confirmation of Jesus’ divine status and favor. In short, whereas Jesus’ death is a lawless act, his resurrection verifies that this crucified one is truly God’s Messiah (see Acts 2:23–24, 36). While atonement language is not entirely absent from Luke-Acts (see Acts 20:28), by and large the story of Luke-Acts is one of Jesus the righteous prophet who undergoes suffering because he must (Luke 9:22, 44; 17:24; 18:31–34). Why precisely it is that Jesus “must” is not made readily clear by the Third Evangelist. The preacher does well to consider this nuance, lest he or she make atonement theory the bedrock assumption of all preaching on Luke’s Gospel.
Acts: A Book about Human Heroes? Because Acts narrates miracles of a kind rarely seen or heard of in our modern world, many presume that the apostles in Acts possess some kind of superhuman status. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In Luke-Acts, it is God who sets the mission of witness “to the end of the earth” (1:8) into motion, despite the denseness and resistance of human beings. For instance, it is the Spirit who first initiates witness in Jerusalem (2:1–4:31), and circumstances compel witnesses to enter “Judea and Samaria” (8:1–25). Thereafter, Philip testifies to an Ethiopian only at the Spirit’s prompting (8:29), Paul becomes a witness “before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel” only after his vision is reoriented by Jesus (9:1–19), Peter testifies to Gentiles only because God compels him (10:9–16, 19–20, 28; cf. 10:44–48; 11:17), and the church, in turn, accepts Gentiles as believers only because supernatural occurrences constrain it to do so (11:1–18; 15:12–19). These are only a few examples. In short, however noble God’s human servants are at points, the narrative of Luke-Acts is ultimately one of God and God’s purpose to bring salvation to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), through or despite the work of human beings.
A Theology of the Cross in Luke-Acts? Similar to the preceding point, some readers avoid Acts because they find therein a narrative about God’s presence in the successes and grand miracles (a theologia gloriae), not a message about God’s presence in life’s hardships (a theologia crucis). These readers have not read Acts closely. Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel name where Luke’s theology of the cross manifests itself: “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In short, Luke’s theology of the cross is not visible in an explicit doctrine of atonement, but in a way of life, lived out by the apostles. And so it is for the apostles in Acts, who follow no easy path: despite the miracles that occur, throughout Acts the apostles endure constant persecution (5:40–41; 7:57–8:1; 9:16; 12:1–2; 14:19; 16:22–24; 20:23, 25; 21:31–32; 22:22)—a collective experience that Jesus envisions for all his followers (Luke 9:23–27; see also Acts 14:22; 20:18–35). In sum, Jesus’ witnesses in Acts live out a theology of the cross—a message that God is mysteriously present in the times of greatest darkness—through the pages of their lives.
Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben, Calvary Lutheran Church, Grand Forks, ND
For further reading:
Barrett, Charles Kingsley. “Theologia crucis – in Acts?” Pages 73-84 in Theologia crucis – signum crucis: Festschrift für Erich Dinkler zum 70. Geburtstag. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1979.
Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St. Luke. Trans. Geoffrey Buswell. New York: Harper and Row, 1961. (German: Die Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1954).
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Green, Joel B. The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. New Testament Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Rowe, C. Kavin. Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke. BZNW 139. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006.
Rowe, C. Kavin. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. New York: Oxford, 2010.
Tuckett, Christopher M. “The Christology of Luke-Acts.” Pages 133-64 in The Unity of Luke-Acts. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 142. Edited by Joseph Verheyden. Leuven: University Press, 1999.