In our opening conversation about the Christmas story, we considered reasons why Mark, writing the first book about Jesus to be included in the New Testament, did not include anything about the birth of Jesus. He had reasons that at this distance in time, fit well into the picture he drew. He was presenting Jesus the Servant–the one spoken of by prophets in the Old Testament.
Soon after Mark had completed his portrayal of Jesus the Servant, Luke takes up his writing instruments and develops a picture of Jesus from what he knew and had heard. In addition, right in the opening sentences Luke disclosed the method and purpose for his writing: 1“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke 1:1-4.
You will notice that Luke admits he was not an “eyewitness” to the events he is writing about. However, by researching and conferring with those who did witness the events, he assures his reader, Theophilus, that he could be certain of the truth of his writing. He surely made use of Mark’s writing about Jesus as one of those sources that could be trusted. It is not known whether Theophilus was a specific individual or a generic name for readers who were “lovers of God” as the Greek word Theophilus signifies.
Regardless of what individuals he had in mind, Luke carefully examined and detailed the background of Jesus’ ministry. Alone of all the gospels, Luke weaves in the political landscape of the region and empire as it affected Jesus and his birth. He also described some of the priestly organization within the Temple as well as the requirements of Jewish law pertaining to circumcision. You will notice this method in the opening verses of Luke 2.
As another example of Luke’s careful detailing of the power structures of that time, consider these verses from Luke 3:
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
This careful handling of detail, particularly those pertaining to the Jewish Law and temple, will help validate who Luke was writing to—who he hoped to reach. But we will have more so say about that as we continue examining his gospel.
Jesus in Bethlehem
Luke’s story of Jesus in Bethlehem is one of the most widely recognized narratives of the Bible. For most people, each year around December 25, we have depictions and live reproductions of shepherds, angels, Joseph and Mary and the Christ-Child with an assorted group of animals. Matthew’s gospel adds the visit of the Magi that would come later in time than the account in Luke.
And unlike Matthew, Luke gives a prominent role to Mary in his telling of Jesus’ birth. Then it was shepherds who heard and saw the angelic beings. It was the same shepherds who saw the Child in the manger and went all over Bethlehem spreading the news given to them by the angels. It was an old priest named Simeon and an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna, both in the Temple when Jesus’ parents brought him to fulfill the requirements of the law. These two added further validity to Luke’s story of the Messiah’s arrival.
None of the political and religious leaders whom Luke identified had direct connection with the actual birth of Jesus. The major players within the story, including Jesus’ parents, were on the margins of society. The nobility and wealthy of the land had no part in this event, even to the point that Jesus’ birth was in a barn or stable. So right from the beginning of this man’s life, he was among common people, those without status or standing in the community. So in his arrival, Jesus is pictured to be a man of the people.
In Luke’s narrative, Jesus goes from a childhood Temple scene in Jerusalem to the River Jordan as an adult. Jesus steps into the river where John (Jesus’ cousin) was baptizing all kinds of people. Among the crowd waiting their turn to join others in a sign of repentance were tax collectors and soldiers, and this unknown man who had been born in Bethlehem. It’s almost a comic setting: Luke records the names of the powerful and prominent men who were in the capitals of the world. Then he quickly shifts to the edge of the wilderness where we meet up with unknown commoners and riff-raff–even tax collectors.
But catch how Luke describes the event of Jesus’ baptism: Luke 3: 21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Out of the blue comes a voice announcing that this one being baptized is the Son!
“Yes,” Luke continues, “and here is what else I’ve found—he is the son of Adam.” And in Luke 3:23-38, he lists Jesus’ genealogy. This becomes the template for the entire gospel that Luke sends to his Greek friend, Theophilus! What does all this mean about Luke’s gospel? What was his intention in researching and listening and writing and traveling to talk with and question people about Jesus? Let’s look further.
A dominant feature about Jesus in Luke’s gospel is that he is in regular communication with his heavenly Father. Now we know that each gospel includes accounts of Jesus in prayer. For example, in Matthew, Jesus’ praying is mentioned 8 times; in Mark it is 4 times. However in Luke, Jesus is seen praying 13 times.
Yes, while Jesus is truly God there is a constant flow of conversation between him and his Father. This demonstrates that although he is God-incarnate, he was also completely human, relying continually on his Father in heaven for what he said and did. Listed here are the verses where Luke mentions Jesus praying: Luke 3:21, 22; 5:12-16; 6:12, 13; 9:18; 9:28-35; 10:17-21; 11: 1; 19:41-44; 22:31-34; 23:34; 23:46; 24:13-35; 24:50-53.
He is the Son of Man
Finally, in Jesus’ own words Luke presents him as The Son of Man. While that title was sometimes used in the Old Testament in different ways, in this gospel Jesus takes the title and cloaks himself in it. He refers to himself as “. . . the Son of Man” 21 times. On the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, one of the angelic beings that met the devout women at Jesus’ tomb quotes Jesus as referring to himself as “the Son of Man.” See Luke 5:24; 6:22; 7:34; 9:22; 9:26; 44, 58; 11:30; 12:8, 10, 40; 17:22; 24, 30; 18:8, 31; 19:10; 21:27; 22:22, 48, 69; 24:7.
Yes, the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bare “the Son of the Most High,” and that he would be called “the Son of God.” But throughout Luke’s story about him, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. To reinforce that, we note that only Luke tells the story of “the good Samaritan.” Only Luke reveals that of the 10 lepers who are healed, only one returns to say “thanks you!” And he was a Samaritan. As we noted earlier, Luke shows that women and children, outcastes and tax collectors received special attention from Jesus. All people and nations were inside the boundary of his love and grace.
Yes, in truth, he is God sent to all mankind. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10) That chapter is where Jesus invited himself to have lunch with Zacchaeus, a leader among the community of tax collectors in Jericho, and probably a Gentile. But he was just the kind of person in Luke’s gospel that Jesus is seen reaching out to and claiming as one of his followers.
By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus in no way diminished his standing as the Son of God. Some may make the mistake of saying Jesus was only human while others might exclude his humanity from his divinity. In truth, Jesus is the “God-Man” sent from the Father to truly unveil the nature of the God who so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son to give his life for all who believe. The full disclosure of the God-Man to humanity was like examining a multi-faceted diamond under a dissecting scope: No matter from which direction you look, it is an exquisite gem that shows its character from any angle. In this way, each gospel takes a picture of the man Jesus and sees in him the Son who is God.
In the third gospel of what are called the Synoptic Gospels, we find a Levite, a man thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament writing and practices. Curiously, with that background, we also have a man who had become a tax collector for the Roman occupiers—a vocation that drew the scorn and ridicule from most of the Jewish population. We now go to the gospel of Matthew, placed first in the New Testament writings.