Preaching Luke

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of the Concordia Journal as “Proclaiming in His Name: Preaching the Gospel of Luke in Year C.”

At the end of the Gospel according to Luke, Luke records the following words of our Lord, spoken to his disciples moments before his ascension to the Father:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Lk 24:46–47 ESV)

This is neither a prophecy nor a commission. A translation somewhat closer to the structure of the sentence in Greek, trying to emphasis the noun-like force of the infinitives here, would be:

Thus it stands written: the Passion of the Christ and the Resurrection of the Christ from among the dead on the third day and the Preaching in His name of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke’s reader knows that the first two of these, passion and resurrection, have already taken place and so the third, preaching, must also. The divine certainty of the Lord’s word guarantees it. As you take up Luke’s Gospel in this new year, and as you proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name, you, too, become part of this third biblical certainty.

And yet, there’s something hauntingly disconcerting about being part of this 2000-year sermon series. Even if Years A, B, and C have not blurred into one long law/gospel sermon for you, you may still feel like you’ve been preaching basically the same thing for years, if not decades, and that your people have been hearing the same thing from you week after week for years, if not decades. Can it be that we collectively or I in my own congregation have exhausted these texts? When was the last time I read Luke and learned something genuinely new about my Jesus, something truly important that really made a difference? And if the text has nothing new to say to me, where am I going to find something new to say to my people? Has “good news” become just a euphemism for the “old, old story”?

I make my stand with Luke and will try here to defend the claim that Luke has much that is good and new to tell us, much that can truly make a difference. I will also argue that you have the unique (yes, unique!) opportunity in the coming year to experience Luke’s Gospel along with your people in a way that will leave you both changed forever. This will not be easy, and it will especially not be easy for you. But my hope is that you will at least catch a glimpse of why it could be worth it.

What we are presented with in the Gospel according to Luke is a careful study of the life and work of the Lord Jesus, written by a consummate literary artist, in order to strengthen the Christian in faith and knowledge and to entice the world into a study of Jesus based on a true and careful account. Does that sound like something you could use in your parish?

Can you even imagine not just Christendom, but even Western Civilization, without Gabriel’s visit to the young virgin, and Mary’s hymn; without the too-full inn, the angels, the shepherds, the manger, the swaddling clothes of Christmas; the “Gloria in excelsis” of the angels and the “Nunc dimittis” of Simeon; without the boy in his Father’s house about his Father’s business; or the young preacher who quoted to his home congregation from the ancient prophet “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and then proclaimed to them “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”? What about a world without the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son—not to mention the lost sheep; without Zacchaeus and dinner with Martha and Mary? Who would willingly give up the words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” or “Today you will be with me in paradise”? Or the angelic question “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Or the all-too-human question “Did not our hearts burn within us?” All of these are known to us only through Luke’s Gospel. Now the church is asking you to make sure we don’t have a world—now or in the next generation—without these treasures.

But I guess I’m supposed to be helping you to preach, not preaching to you! Let’s get to some of the practical concerns of preaching Luke’s Gospel, then return to look anew at some of the main themes of this work.

One of your greatest challenges in the coming year will be to keep the one Gospel from becoming dozens of pericopes. Of course, you cannot read your people the whole Gospel every Sunday, and, over the course of fifty-two Sundays, we cannot even read the whole Gospel (or could we? It would only be about twenty-two verses each week.). A quick glance at the Year C readings on pages xviii and xix in LSB will show you that, even in this “Year of Luke,” we do not read Luke straight through nor do we read only Luke. Let’s turn to the selections from Luke used in Year C and see just how much Luke we get to work with.

I had initially thought to compare the coverage of Luke in The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), Lutheran Worship (LW), and Lutheran Study Bible (LSB), but decided not to reproduce the results for you: the study demonstrated what most of you probably already know. There was a significant increase in the amount of Luke read on Sunday morning with the change to the three-year lectionary. Readings from Luke accounted for twenty-three of the seventy-three readings in TLH for the Sundays and major festivals of the year; compared with fifty-five of the seventy-nine readings listed for Year C in LSB. I did not take the time to count verses, but my general impression is that the LSB lectionary is also an increase when compared with LW. There is certainly a lot less of the cut-and-paste style readings that I found frustrating with LW. Back, then, to LSB.

We probably would not expect that all the miracle accounts or even all the parables would make it into the lectionary, but there are some places where the structure of Luke’s Gospel, so carefully ordered and interwoven a narrative, is weakened or, at least, obscured. Let’s use chapters 1 and 2 as an example. See how the “triptych” structure of Luke’s birth narrative is dismantled by omitting the cycle of stories concerning John’s birth. The careful step parallelism is no longer visible, a parallelism that provides much-needed context in which to read the story of Jesus’s birth—as parallel to but always “greater than” John’s. Of course, no one’s going to complain that he doesn’t get a chance to preach on the genealogy, but store this in your heart and ponder how still more threads connecting this story to the OT story of salvation have been cut by omitting it.

In looking at what is and is not included in the readings, my greatest concern is the omission of all three passion predictions: 9:21–22; 9:44–45 (introduced ironically by our Lord, “Let these words sink into your ears”); and 18:31–34. Perhaps some of these are made up for from readings from other Gospels, but given the major themes in this Gospel, this is a serious concern for the preacher. Let’s turn to some of those themes now. Let’s try to look briefly at three.

The Purpose of God in Luke

In the garden, Jesus prays that his Father’s θέλημα be done. Fitzmyer comments: “The n. thelēma refers not to a capricious whim of the Father who subjects his son to death in satisfaction for human sins and offenses against divine majesty, but rather to the Father’s plan of salvation for humanity, as the n. is used in Acts 21:14; 22:14.”[1]

This word is part of a “vocabulary of God’s design” that runs throughout Luke’s Gospel. Joel Green summarizes for us:

We may discern Luke’s interest in the design of God by attending to a series of expressive terms—especially βουλή (purpose), βούλομαι (to want), δεῖ (it is necessary), θέλημα (will), θέλω (to will), ὁρίζω (to determine), πληρόω (to fulfill), and προφήτης (prophet). These are not technical terms for Luke, nor is each developed in a discrete way by the Evangelist. Rather, employed in a variety of co-texts, they help shape an understanding of God and God’s purpose that occupies a central place in the theology of the Gospel of Luke.[2]

Note the main points of Fitzmyer’s description of this plan:

a. Luke’s understanding of a fundamental divine plan is central to his understanding of salvation history.
b. God has predetermined that things will happen in accordance with this plan.
c. This is why things are described as “necessary.” This necessity is often expressed by the word δεῖ. The word occurs once each in Matthew and Mark, eleven times in Luke (esp. 24:44), and seventeen times in Acts.
d. The execution or realization of this plan is spoken of by Luke as “fulfillment.”
e. The goal of this plan is the salvation of humankind.[3]

Prior to chapter 22, δεῖ is used three times of the coming suffering of Christ. Only one of those references makes it into the LSB readings. It is hard for me to imagine doing justice to Luke’s story without this theme. Keeping it in the ears and thoughts of your people this year will require some additional work on your part. You will not be able to count on the appointed readings alone to do that for you.

Salvation in Luke

I will have to be brief here, but I challenge you to try to formulate a description of this theme in Luke’s Gospel. Joel Green points out that “Luke uses the language of salvation more than any other New Testament writer, but employs that language in co-texts whose effect is to give salvation broad meaning.”[4] Prominent in Luke’s Gospel is the connection between all that Jesus does and salvation: healing, preaching, teaching—not simply suffering and dying. Think, then, of how much the statement of the crowd betrays their own notion of salvation: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (23:35). What did salvation mean to them, if not simply escaping a present threat? Is this Luke’s way of challenging us to ask ourselves what we think of as salvation? Is it escaping something (and the narrower the escape the greater the feat of salvation) or is it setting all things right? What are we looking for? What is this Jesus offering to us? What does his death and resurrection accomplish? This moment in the preaching of the passion of our Lord is a critical moment for us to pause and let Luke and his Lord correct our inadequate notions of the salvation our God both promises and brings.

Repentance and Forgiveness in Luke

“The concept of repentance is present everywhere in the Gospel of Luke,” notes Green.[5] The language of repentance is also used more frequently by Luke than by Matthew or Mark, as the following table shows:

GOSPEL “repentance” “to repent”
Matthew 2x 5x
Mark 1x 2x
Luke 5x 11x 9x 14x
Acts 6x 5x

 

Exploring what exactly repentance means in Luke’s writings is as worthwhile, fruitful, and necessary as exploring what salvation means for Luke. We must not take for granted that our people or we ourselves truly understand repentance. If you were to share Fitzmyer’s definition of repentance in Luke’s writing—“[it] literally denotes a change of mind. But in the NT, it is almost always used in the religious sense of a turning from sin, repentance for sin. It connotes a new beginning in moral conduct”[6]—you would likely hear protests of “works righteousness” and “the confusion of justification and sanctification.” And if you were to anonymously offer Luther’s definition of the word from his Ninety-Five Theses“the Greek word metanoeite itself, . . . means ‘repent’ and could be translated more exactly by the Latin transmentamini, which means ‘assume another mind and feeling, recover one’s senses, make a transition from one state of mind to another, have a change of spirit’”[7]—how many of your hearers would recognize the definition as Lutheran theology?

It intrigues me that in all of the NT there is only one time when the indicative mood of the verb μετανοέω is used to report that someone actually repented. That one case is Luke 11:32 (=Matthew 12:41); and it refers to the men of Ninevah, who repented at the preaching of Jonah. We would expect that, what with the NT’s emphasis on repentance, we would hear reports everywhere of people repenting. At the end of Luke, our Lord summarizes the whole gospel as “the proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (24:47), so this is an ideal opportunity to force ourselves to wrestle again with the hard question of the relationship between repentance (and faith) and forgiveness (and salvation) (and life). Texts like the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32; Lent 4) and Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10; Proper 26) are just two of the many pericopes that will provide you with the opportunity to do just that.[8]

The Death of the Lord Jesus and His Resurrection in Luke

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a doctoral level course on Luke here at Concordia Seminary, and I posed this as the focus of our semester’s work together: “What is the significance for Luke of the death of the Lord Jesus?” The question has driven my own thinking about Luke ever since. Let me share a few of the conclusions such thought has brought me to.

1. Luke answers the question “How can I be saved?” by narrating the history of God fulfilling in Jesus Christ his purpose to save his creation.

2. One way to describe this story is as a “great reversal” of history’s pattern. In support of this thesis, we can consider the following points:

a. The contrast in the infancy narratives between John and Jesus already begins to cause the reader to question his assumption that Jesus will follow—like John—in the long line of the prophets of God whose arrivals have been announced by means of their wondrous births. Responses to Jesus’s birth support this questioning.

b. The words and wonders of Jesus do more than convince Israel of God’s continued presence among them—often offending them in the process. In other words, Jesus is not simply alleviating Israel’s misery or shoring up their flagging endurance while they wait for God’s redemption.

c. When Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem, his kingship is tied neither to David nor to Israel, and the cosmic significance of his reign is proclaimed. Jesus himself validates this testimony (although he does not, thereby, attest to the completeness of the disciples’ understanding or faith).

d. At the Supper, Jesus inaugurates a new covenant established by his own death.

e. Although his innocence is demonstrated, Jesus must die. This is required for God’s purpose to be accomplished—though neither our Lord nor Luke gives us a clear statement of the why.

f. Jesus is raised from the dead—contrary to the expectations of enemies and followers alike. There is no Simeon in Luke 24.

3. History’s pattern can be reversed only by means of the resurrection. There were many innocent martyrs in Israel’s history—even in recent history—but not one had been raised by God from the dead in the here and now.

4. Peter Doble’s exposition of the “righteous man” model (think especially of the OT Joseph) fits perfectly with this approach—right up to the moment of unprecedented divine action.[9]

5. Had the reversal occurred before the death of Jesus, the reversal would not have been unambiguously God’s doing.

6. Contrary to the commonly expressed view, and as Peter Doble has helped to make clear, Luke does have a theology of the cross. It is true Luke does not include the statement of Jesus that he came to “give His life as a ransom for many” (cf. Mt 20:28, Mk 10:45), but Luke clearly presents substitutionary aspects of the death of Jesus.

a. The Words of Institution: Luke 22:19–20, especially the “given for you/poured out for you.”

b. In the pattern of proclamation: death →Š resurrection Š→ repentance Š→ forgiveness →Š salvation.

c. Jesus is numbered with the transgressors: 22:37.

d. Acts 20:28 (note the context of the one reference to the sacrificial blood of Jesus).

7. Substitution alone, however, would not mean the reversal of history’s pattern nor would it require a new covenant. Note also the pattern in the sermons in Acts: “You killed him, but God raised him.”

The panorama of salvation presented by Luke is literally unequalled in the New Testament. No single author presents us with as much of the life of Jesus, nor places it in the context of as much of the life of the people of God. Let me close with a few points on the hermeneutical significance of the resurrection.

The Resurrection of Jesus According to Luke

The Resurrection Itself

1. Robert Smith, commenting on Luke 24:8–9: “Luke’s view is that God has shaped the history of his people by his words of promise and by his deeds of visitation. He has acted and he will act. Remembering his past utterances, counting on his promises, and taking him at his word are all part and parcel of living as his sons and daughters. Luke theologizes by telling the story, calling to mind the past, and declaring the mighty acts of God on behalf of his people. For him the Old Testament is not a book of law or a set of legal precedents but a great, unfinished historical narrative, a movement rushing to a climax, as the sermons in the book of Acts clearly demonstrate. His theology takes the form of confessional narrative or doxological report.”[10]

2. The resurrection is the great climax toward which all of history has been rushing. Luke is ready, and his readers are ready. The only people who are not yet ready, it seems, are the people actually witnessing this cosmic drama. But we need to be fair:

3. In his “Notes” on 24:11, Fitzmyer quotes from Conzelmann’s An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament: “The significance of [the women’s idle tale] is that it expresses the truth that the Resurrection cannot be deduced from an idea (of Messiahship) or from the historical life of Jesus, but that it is announced as something new. It is only in retrospect that it casts light on Jesus’ life, and it is not until now that the disciples understand what they should have understood long ago. Now, after the event, their misunderstanding really becomes inconceivable.”[11] What, finally, brings them from misunderstanding to understanding (and faith)?

The Risen Lord Opens the Minds of His Disciples to Understand the Scriptures

1. In his provocative essay “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection” (worth reviewing in this Year of Luke), Richard Hays offers the following thesis:

“We interpret Scripture rightly only when we read it in light of the resurrection, and we begin to comprehend the resurrection only when we see it as the climax of the scriptural story of God’s gracious deliverance of Israel.”[12]

2. Jesus the Exegete

a. The risen Lord becomes the definitive interpreter of “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

b. Cleopas and his anonymous companion on the road to Emmaus are well acquainted with all the stories and traditions about Jesus’s life, including the report of the empty tomb and the angelic proclamation of the resurrection (vv. 19–24). Nonetheless, they are departing Jerusalem in a state of gloomy disappointment: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21a). This is a moment of wrenching irony: Jesus, the Redeemer of Israel, stands before them, yet they fail to recognize him.

c. The whole story of Israel builds to its narrative climax in Jesus, the Messiah who had to suffer before entering into his glory. That is what Jesus tries to teach them on the road.

3. Implications for Our Practices of Reading[13]

a. “God is the subject of the crucial verbs in the biblical story.”

b. “When we read Scripture in light of the resurrection, we understand Scripture as testimony to the life-giving power of God. The resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated miracle but a disclosure of God’s purpose finally to subdue death and to embrace us within the life of the resurrection.”

c. “The New Testament’s resurrection accounts teach us to read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.”

d. “Reading in light of the resurrection is figural reading.”

e. “To read Scripture in light of the resurrection is to read with emphasis on eschatological hope. . . . Reading in light of the resurrection in no way nullifies the cross. In some New Testament scholarship, there has been a tendency to disparage resurrection texts such as Luke 24 as ‘triumphalistic’ in contrast to a Pauline theologia crucis. This tendency simply displays a misunderstanding of the way the New Testament’s resurrection stories function: by vindicating the crucified Jesus, the resurrection marks the cross as ‘the decisive, apocalyptic event that makes sense of Israel’s story.’”

f. “Reading Scripture in light of the resurrection produces an epistemological transformation of the readers. Having encountered the risen Jesus, we are forced—enabled—to revise our perceptual categories and our estimates of what is ‘real.’ The epistemological shift is nicely illustrated by Paul’s rhetorical question in his speech before Agrippa: ‘Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?’”

An Historical Afterthought

Eve-Marie Becker has written a study titled The Birth of Christian History: Memory and Time from Mark to Luke–Acts. I bring it up here not to argue its merits or weaknesses but simply to make the point that sometimes, I fear, we give Luke too much credit as the father of Christian history. I think Luke was simply a very good example of what he saw in the apostles, and of what he indirectly encourages every one of us to be: a good witness—someone who keeps his eyes and ears open and watches for the way God is at work in this time and place. Luke didn’t so much create things: he just noticed them—and wrote them down for us.

In a recent return to the connections between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, I noticed something that I had not seen before, something that I think Luke is trying to point out to us. Notice the correspondence between the momentous events of Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost with the pattern of Israel’s life and worship: we have first our Lord’s death as the great Passover, his exodus that he was going to accomplish. This is followed by our Lord’s resurrection, the firstfruits in the great cosmic harvest, Pentecost as the early harvest festival giving promise of a great and final harvest yet to come, and the great, anticipated Festival of Tabernacles that we are now preparing for, when we shall all celebrate the final, superabundant harvest of our God. Luke is not creating anything; he just has his eyes focused on the way that God works as the author of our history as well as of our salvation.

This is the world that you have the opportunity to explore in the coming year; this is the world to which you have been called as a guide for your people. Have we exhausted these texts? I doubt we have even seriously scratched the surface of their message for us.

Endnotes

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X—XXIV Anchor Bible 28A (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 1442.

[2] Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 29.

[3] Fitzmyer, Luke I—IX, 179ff.

[4] Green, 94.

[5] Green, 107.

[6] Fitzmyer, Luke I—IX, 237.

[7] Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses, LW 31, 84.

[8] For a brief review of repentance and forgiveness in biblical thought, see the April 2018 CTCR document “Confession and Absolution,” 4–7.

[9] See Peter Doble, The Paradox of Salvation: Luke’s Theology of the Cross SNTS Monograph Series 87 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[10] Robert H. Smith, Easter Gospels: The Resurrection of Jesus according to the Four Evangelists (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1983),109–110.

[11] Fitzmyer, Luke X—XXIV, 1547.

[12] Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” in The Art of Reading Scripture ed. Ellen F. Davis, and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 216–238. I will not defend the thesis here; Hays does that more than adequately in the essay.

[13] Hays, “Reading Scripture,” 232–238.

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1 Comment

  1. Pastor Tom Eckstein March 8, 2019
    Reply

    Thanks for this! A brief observation. In your article you write: “One of your greatest challenges in the coming year will be to keep the one Gospel from becoming dozens of pericopes. Of course, you cannot read your people the whole Gospel every Sunday, and, over the course of fifty-two Sundays, we cannot even read the whole Gospel (or could we? It would only be about twenty-two verses each week.). ” Your comments raise a significant question: Is preaching on Luke via the Lectionary the best way to teach our people the full message of Luke’s Gospel? Several years ago, my own answer to that question was “No.” Therefore, I decided to preach through the ENTIRE Gospel of Luke – and it took me 2 years, but my people were very blessed by this and came to appreciate the message of Luke’s Gospel in its fullness rather than the disjointed version we get when preaching lectionary texts.

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