The Gospel of the Savior for Lost People Everywhere
Have you ever walked out of a movie or finished a book and said, “There has to be a sequel!” Something about the story just wasn’t quite finished; there were loose ends to tie up, more angles to explore, a conflict yet to be resolved.
One of the most important keys to understanding Luke’s gospel is to realize that when we get to the end of the gospel the story is not yet finished.
Luke-Acts, a Two-Volume Work. Luke was the only one of the four gospel writers to include a second volume that answers the question, “What happened next?” While Luke’s gospel tells the story of Jesus from his conception by the Holy Spirit to his ascension to heaven, the book of Acts tells how his followers, in the power of the same Holy Spirit, took his message of salvation from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (acts 1:8). At the beginning of Acts, Luke refers to his previous book about “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (acts 1:1, emphasis added). The book of Acts is therefore about what Jesus continues to do and to teach through his church by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are therefore more than just two books by the same author. They are two parts of a single work. The story that begins in the gospel does not reach its narrative conclusion until the end of Acts. Because of this theological and literary unity, scholars use the hyphenated designation “Luke-Acts” to describe the two books.
Two Great Movements: From Jerusalem to Rome; from Jews to Gentiles. Two great movements guide the story of Luke-Acts. The first is a geographical movement, from Jerusalem to Rome. The gospel begins in the temple in Jerusalem, at the very heart of Judaism (1:8). Jerusalem plays an important and two-sided role in Luke-Acts. On the one hand, it is a positive role, since Jerusalem is the place of God’s holy temple where his presence dwells. In the Old Testament it is prophesied that God’s word would go forth from Jerusalem to the world (isaiah 2:3). Israel was to be a light to the nations (isaiah 49:6) and Jerusalem symbolized that light. Sure enough, in Acts the church takes the message of salvation “from Jerusalem . . . to the ends of the earth” (acts 1:8).
At the same time Jerusalem plays a more negative and sinister role, representing the stubborn and rebellious nation Israel. In the past Jerusalem has killed God’s prophets (luke 11:47–48; 13:33–34; 19:40–41) and will ultimately kill the Messiah (acts 7:52). For this reason the city will experience God’s judgment and destruction (luke 13:34; 19:43–44; 21:20, 24).
The importance of Jerusalem is evident in Luke’s “travel narrative” (or, “journey to Jerusalem”) which is the most unique structural feature of Luke’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus first heads toward Jerusalem from Galilee, it takes him less than one chapter to get there (mark 10:32–11:11). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus heads to Jerusalem in 9:51 but doesn’t get there for ten chapters (19:45). Jesus wanders from place to place, but always with an eye on Jerusalem (9:53; 13:22, 33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11). The destination clearly has theological significance, symbolizing both the rejection of Jesus by his own people and the salvation Jesus will accomplish through his death and resurrection.
Luke’s gospel is all about the movement from Galilee to Jerusalem to accomplish God’s salvation, but the book of Acts is about the church’s movement outward from Jerusalem to proclaim that salvation to a lost world (acts 1:8). This geographical movement is also an ethnic one, from Jews to Gentiles. All along it was God’s plan that the salvation that began in Israel would go to the ends of the earth. The church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, represents the people of God in the present age of salvation.
This emphasis confirms one of Luke’s most important themes: continuity. There is continuity between the Old Testament and the New; between God’s promise and its fulfillment; between Israel, the people of the old covenant, and the church, the people of the new. The church of Jesus Christ is not a new religion; it is the continuation and fulfillment of God’s purpose and plan through Israel to bring salvation to the world.
The theme of the gospel for all nations is central to Acts, but it already plays out in many ways in Luke’s gospel. Consider these examples: (1) Luke dates Jesus’s career by events in world history, such as the reigns of Roman emperors (2:1; 3:1). (2) At the end of Matthew we learn that the gospel will go to “all nations” (matthew 28:18–20); in Luke we know this by the second chapter (luke 2:32). (3) Each of the gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to describe John the Baptist as “a voice . . . in the wilderness,” but Luke extends the quote to Isaiah 40:5 to show that “all people will see God’s salvation” (luke 3:6. emphasis added). (4) Though Matthew’s genealogy goes back to Abraham (1:1), the father of the Jewish nation, Luke’s goes back to Adam (luke 3:38), the father of all people. (5) In Luke, the theme of Jesus’s introductory sermon in Nazareth is that God wants to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews (a message that almost gets him killed! 4:24–30). In these and many other ways, Luke shows that Jesus is the Savior for all people everywhere.
The Gospel for the Outsider: Seeking and Saving the Lost. Another way this theme plays out in the gospel is with Luke’s consistent emphasis on God’s love for those on the margins. Jesus shows special care for outsiders and those with low social status. This includes the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, people with leprosy, Samaritans, women, and children. Jesus offers forgiveness to the soldiers who are crucifying him (23:34) and to the criminal crucified beside him (23:43). Many of Jesus’s most well-known parables appear in Luke’s “travel narrative” (luke 9:51–19:27) and concern God’s love for the lost and the outcast: the Samaritan (10:30–35), the Great Banquet (14:15–24), the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son (15:1–32), the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–31), the Persistent Widow, and the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:1–14).
The climax to these “outsider” stories is the account of Zacchaeus, which occurs shortly before Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem (19:1–10). Zacchaeus is not just a despised tax-collector, he is a chief tax-collector, the worst of the worst. Yet when he welcomes Jesus into his home and repents of his sin, Jesus announces that, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” The true people of God are those who repent and turn to him in faith. Jesus’s next statement is not only a fitting climax to this story, but is also a theme verse for the whole gospel: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10, emphasis added). From Luke’s perspective, Jesus is the Savior for lost people everywhere.