The New Testament in Review: The Gospel of Luke 1-6
Thank you for coming back to read more of this series, The New Testament in Review.
The Gospel of Luke
I am a little surprised at how hard it is to keep up this pace. I am pretty sure I am going to start spreading out the post dates for these posts. I might go from twice a week to once a week. The downside is it would take the equivalent of a month to get through some of the longer chapters in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew). What say you?
We are up to the Gospel of Luke. I have good feelings about this one.Two things I notice about Luke’s gospel that may or may not hold: 1) Luke is a lot more complete. He seems to give details of who is around Jesus, and other events that are happening. 2) Luke sounds a lot more like an Old Testament writer. NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: Luke also turns out to be one hell of a writer, and his gospel quickly becomes my favorite book in the Bible. It is masterful. My review below does not do it justice.
The worst opening line ever written: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us”
Seriously, WTF? If you are one of those who swear by the King James Version, even after reading that I just have to assume that you are masochists. Or that you haven’t read that verse (or the many like it). Seriously, step out of the 17th century already!
My translation of choice (as you may have noticed) is the International Standard Version, which renders a much more logical “Since many people have attempted to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” Sounds much better.
Luke has written this Gospel for Theophilus. I had to look it up too. No one apparently knows who Theophilus was. His name is recorded, but otherwise Theophilus has been lost to history.
Anyway, that is besides the point. Luke starts ahead of the beginning of the story, taking us 6 months into the past. Luke wants to introduce us to Zechariah – a priest of the order of Abijah, and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was barren, which will play into the story in a bit. One day at the temple, The Angel of the Lord (in this case, Gabriel) appears to Zechariah, tells him that Elizabeth is going to get pregnant and to name the baby John. Zechariah is a bit doubtful, so the angel strikes him mute until the child is born.
Interestingly enough, after reading that Zechariah couldn’t talk to anyone, I wondered why he couldn’t just write down what he wanted to say. Turns out I was reading ahead a little without even realizing it. He’s a smart one, that Zech. He just needs to learn how to speak reverently with an angel. Gabriel doesn’t have a sense of humor about this kind of stuff.
Elizabeth gets pregnant, and about 6 months in, her friend Mary turns up pregnant. Mary is, of course, pregnant by the Holy Spirit (or by Joseph, depending on your point of view) with Jesus. Elizabeth, it turns out, is pregnant with John the Baptist. No wonder why they grow up to be such friends!
Oh, wait, this is still Chapter 1. This may be the longest chapter in the Bible. Luke goes on for 80 verses before moving on to Chapter Two. And while a lot of those verses are very nice, I have to repeat: 80 friggin’ verses! I thought that I can be verbose? sheesh!
A lot of those verses are taken up by psalms. The first is one that every Catholic in the world knows by hear: “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42) But there is a great song from Mary to the Lord (v. 46-55) and from Zecheriah (v. 68-79) Both are good, Mary’s is very good:
From now on, all generations will call me blessed
because the Almighty has done great things for me.
His name is holy.
Chapter 2 (really)
My god, 52 verses. I’ll tell you one thing about Luke: he isn’t into brevity. But I have to say, I am really liking Luke. He is adding a lot of context and subtly to his story that Matt and Mark were sorely lacking. He is also anchoring the setting of his story, both in location and history. Matthew and Mark sat down to write reports on what happened, while Luke decided to write a novel.
As you can guess by its length, a lot happens in chapter 2. In the first half, Caesar Augustus orders a census. Quirinius, Governor of Syria, demanded all Jews return to their hometowns to be counted. The names and historical events help ground the story, and help future generations consult ancient records and find when and where the story took place. I love this!
We know the story from here: all of the inns in Bethlehem (the city of David, since Joseph is from the house of David) were full, so they had to stay in a stable. The baby was born, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger. Gabriel commanded that the baby’s name would be Jesus (I didn’t realize Gabriel named Jesus). Angels appeared to nearby shepherds and proclaimed the baby Christ, the shepherds traveled to see the child, they left after 8 days and the poor child was circumcised.
Of course, Luke writes this in a more eloquent style, and adds some amazing subtext. Like this small bit from v. 18-19: “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, but Mary continued to treasure in her heart all these things and to ponder them.” Mary is painted as a real woman, a real mother. You can feel her love for her new baby. To her it doesn’t matter whether or not he is the son of God. He is her son; that is what is important.
Jesus grows up in chapter two, and we see some of it. As a baby, he keeps getting labeled as someone holy, normally by priests or elders at the temple. One man (Simeon) dies in peace because he has finally seen the Christ. Luke likes psalms and songs, so Simeon of course has to give one before he dies. I like it, so I’ll quote it in full:
Master, now you are allowing your servant to leave in peace according to your word.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared for all people to see
a light that will reveal salvation to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.
One day, when Jesus was 12, the family made the journey from Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem. On their way back, Mary and Joseph realized they had no idea where Jesus was. After three days of frantic searching and retracting their steps, they finally found Jesus learning from teachers at the temple.
Mary reacts exactly like you’d expect a mother to react: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been worried sick looking for you!” Luke doesn’t mention it, but I am certain that Jesus ended up being grounded after that stunt.
One last line, to show just how well Luke understood Mary: “His mother continued to treasure all these things in her heart.” No matter what Jesus did, whether it was to be respectful or to scare the living hell out of her, Mary loved him with all of her heart.
I don’t know if I mentioned this already or not, but Luke’s Gospel could be made into a musical. Everyone breaks into song, including Mary, Zecheriah, Simeon, and now John the Baptist. Who actually becomes a Baptist here; before this he was just John. John is a very strict, stern tearcher: he warns the people that they are damned unless they are baptized. And who would be foolish enough not to be baptized after hearing that?
There’s a bit of a time discrepancy here: in Matthew and Mark, John baptizes Jesus long before John is arrested on Herod’s orders. In Luke, John is arrested very early. In verse order, John is arrested (v. 20) and then Jesus is baptized (v. 21). On this timeline, John didn’t baptize Jesus. Some unnamed someone did. Which, in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean much: Jesus was baptized, it doesn’t matter by who. But that’s definitely an inconsistency in the Bible.
Oh, there’s one more Biblical inconsistency in the next verse. In Mattew and Mark, when heaven opens up God speaks to everyone in the area, saying “this is my son.” In Luke, when heaven opens up, God speaks directly to Jesus, saying “You are my son, whom I love.” It’s a small discrepancy, but contextually it is much bigger. In Matt and Mark, since God tells those listening that Jesus is his son, I assume that Jesus already knows. In Luke, since God is telling Jesus, I assume that Jesus either doesn’t know, or doesn’t really believe.
This chapter is kinda dull. since Jesus is already in the wilderness, he goes out and is tempted by the devil. The only difference of note is that the devil is planning to tempt Jesus again (“he left him until another time”). When was that time?
Jesus heads back to the temple to do some more teaching, and he’s a little cocky about it. He reads a long excerpt from Isaiah, then tells the temple-goers “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is in Nazareth, by the way, and the Nazarenes are shocked that Jesus is actually teaching with this kind of authority. But then something unexpected happens: Jesus rebukes them. And he does it in song! (Well, maybe not in song. But it would be awesome if he did.)
Jesus tells everyone listening that he will not perform the miracles and healings that he did in Capernaum, because “a prophet is not accepted in his hometown.” Jesus then goes on to compare the people of his hometown to widows and, in a brilliantly-worded insult, to “many lepers in Israel in the prophet Elisha’s time, yet not one of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
The people listening to this paused for a second, then erupted with anger. A crowd formed around Jesus, and they forced him out of the city, and up to the edge of a hill. They stopped there, trying to get up the courage to toss Christ over the side. Instead, Jesus just walked through the crowd and shook the dust of the town off his sandals.
Okay, I must say, that was an awesome story. I take back some of the things I said about this chapter.
Luke must’ve been a fisherman, because he knows a whole lot about fishing. Enough to go into some detail. In Matthew and Mark, Christ’s recruitment of the fishermen Simon Peter, John and James is given a mere sentence or two. In Luke, they are given a whole paragraph, v. 4-11. Jesus escapes being crushed to death by hopping on board Simon Peter’s boat and having Simon row him out to sea. In thanks, Jesus allows such a big catch of fish that one boat cannot hold it. It’s a small thing, but Luke’s detail really enhances the story.
Interesting: In Luke, Matthew is referred to as Levi. Christ calls upon Levi to follow; Levi leaves everything behind to follow. It’s standard stuff, but I just found it interesting that Matthew refers to himself by name, but Luke calls him Levi. There’s probably good explanation for this, right?
We are six chapters in, and Luke finally decides he should capture some of Jesus’s major teachings word-for-word. He records Jesus’s speech on the hillside. I’ve mentioned before how much I love this part. I found another line in that speech that I don’t remember but love just as much: “One blind person can’t lead another blind person, can he? Both will fall into a ditch, won’t they?”
New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.