The Gospel of Luke 3:1-38

Luke 3:1-38

We’ve switched back to John’s part of the story, and we find him in the Judean wilderness – the countryside around the Jordan River. This doesn’t just give us information about where he is, but also where he isn’t. This renewal movement isn’t happening in the religious and political (not easily separated) center of the nation, but away from it.

Furthermore, he is tapping into a long held hope of the Jewish people that God might manifest himself by returning to be with them and restore them. This preparation to which John is calling his country men and women is one of repentance and ritual cleansing. A few things in particular stand out about his call to repentance… 1) There is a sense of urgency about his proclamation. 2) John is issuing this call to his own people. They have failed at something and he is calling them to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. 3) The notion that not just the Jews will benefit when Yahweh comes to be with them, but “all nations” even if they need to raised up from “stones.”

And as the King returns, so also his kingdom. And in this kingdom, a new (old?) ethic of concern for their fellow man is the standard. Issues of charity, honesty, and integrity are promoted out of a desire to see “righteousness/justice” for all.

Luke’s record of Jesus’ baptism is the shortest in the gospels. Perhaps this is due to its being part of a larger narrative addressing the question of “Whose son is Jesus?” This is certainly the point of the genealogy that immediately follows. Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, presumably to highlight Jesus as the long awaited Jewish Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, follows his lineage all the way back to Adam and God. This way of following Jesus family tree is a dramatic way of bringing one to the conclusion affirmed in the last words of the chapter. Jesus is “the Son of God.” However, by taking Jesus ancestry back beyond Abraham, it seems likely that this is another way Luke is evoking the “This Jewish Messiah will be for all people” refrain.

The Gospel of Luke 2:1-52

Luke 2:1-52

It is difficult to come at Luke 2 with anything other than the serene picture many of us carry around of the “silent night” of the first Christmas Eve. And yet, this passage is replete with subversive undertones. It is this upsetting of expectations that provides the subtext of the entire chapter.

The census that Rome mandates isn’t the benign form we are familiar with in 21st century America. A census in the ancient world was taken to figure out what various subject regions “owed” the Empire. It was an intrusive reminder that they were a people oppressed by a foreign power. They weren’t free to determine their own steps.

And yet, little does Rome know that there is a Power far greater at work even in and through their attempts to exert imperial authority. God’s purposes and promises have been slowly and quietly unfolding over centuries. So as Caesar Augustus’ decree moves a small “insignificant” family to the father’s ancestral home of Nazareth, God’s promise of an eternal dynasty from the line of David is coming to fruition this small town. The question that lingers is “who is in control?”

The birth itself is rather unremarkable, “the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger.” Even more unremarkable are those that welcome the savior into the world… shepherds. Not power brokers. Not religious elite. Not even respectable middle-class citizenry. Just common shepherds. The subversive question here is “who really matters?”

Even something as simple as presenting young Jesus at the Temple turns into a chance to see the Messiah with fresh eyes. The young family is greeted by two old faithful Jews, both of whom were eagerly looking forward to the one who would save Israel. And yet, the brief exchange between old and young records a cryptic prophecy concerning not just salvation for Israel but all people. Perhaps even more disconcerting would have been Simeon’s words about the “falling and rising of many in Israel” and the “sword that will pierce” Mary’s soul in some way. The question here would be “Is the mission of the Messiah really what we have thought it to be all along?”

The story of tween Jesus lost in Jerusalem for three days only to be found in discourse with the religious academics poignantly carries the subversion of expectations motif forward. When Mary finds him, she scolds him in the way that most any mother would, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” And yet, Jesus’ response is perhaps the beginning of the soul-piercing spoken of a few verses earlier, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” While I don’t think this is an example of Jesus copping a pre-pubescent attitude, the question posed here (as well as the next couple chapters) is “Exactly whose son is this?”

The Gospel of Luke 1:26-80

Ok, now I know why people take years to write commentaries. Because that’s the sort of time it would take to give the attention to the Scriptures that they deserve.

I don’t have that sort of time. Not now, and not in the foreseeable future.

So in order to finish this project in a timely manner (end of summer), we’re going to need to move things along. At least for a while, I’ll be shooting for breadth and not depth.

Luke 1:26-80

The remainder of Luke 1 narrates the angel’s appearance to Mary, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, Mary’s song, John’s birth, and Zechariah’s song (which will be followed by Jesus’ birth in chapter 2).

You may have noticed them already, but there are some obvious parallels going on with John’s and Jesus’ stories.

Like John’s conception, Jesus’ conception is miraculous, but to an even greater extent. In fact, in some ways, Mary/Jesus’ story is meant to be an intensification, a “one-upping” so to speak, of Zechariah/John’s story.

Mary’s response to the angelic visitation is one of belief and humble obedience, while it seems that Zechariah’s was one of disbelief and doubt.

Mary’s Song comes in advance of Jesus’ birth. While Zecharaiah’s is a response to John’s birth. Of course, you could make a pretty good argument that Zecharaiah couldn’t sing a song because he couldn’t speak at all. Nonetheless.

John’s birth is a fairly short narrative. Jesus’ will occupy all of chapter 2. None of this is meant to diminish who John was as a person, but is perhaps a technique that Luke is employing to highlight the even greater significance of who Jesus is. A point that John himself would make in chapter 3.

The reason I bring all of this up is to help us be continually reminded that Luke is indeed crafting a story. That doesn’t mean that these things didn’t happen. I certainly believe they did. It does mean that Luke isn’t “reporting” events in television reporter kind of way (although, truth be told, television reporters are telling a story, as well). Luke has a mind for sequencing, scene changes, emphasizing certain things, while ignoring others.

And it is a story that has been well thought through. It is a big story that tells the grand narrative of God at work throughout all history, and particularly the promises made to God’s people throughout the ages. However, against the backdrop of this big picture, we have individuals – “little people” – whose own dreams and hopes and actions matter. An old couple who may have longed for children all their lives are visited by God. A young couple of humble means fearful about what the future holds who are entrusted with carrying God’s Son.

God is moving his huge over-arching cosmic purposes forward. But that doesn’t mean that the details of our comparably small and insignificant lives are overlooked in the process. In God, everything matters. Global hunger and our next meal. Ecological meltdown and our very next breath. The witness of the Church universal and my next act of kindness.

And of course, the large and the small are inevitably intertwined.

God’s grand story and our small story? Equally so.

The Gospel of Luke 1:5-25

Most of my ideas on the front end seem like good ones, but in retrospect are often not so hot. I’m not sure how I’m going to get through Luke 4, much less Luke 24. So, here’s the deal, expect average content throughout… less than average for about a month… and then possibly slightly above average towards the end of the summer. Now, with expectations set fairly low, let’s forge ahead.

Luke 1:5-25

Two characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are introduced in such a way as to evoke “echoes” of some of the birth miracles of the Old Testament. Abram and Sarai, Jacob and Rachel, Samson to name a few. Aged and childless, they conducted their lives in such a way that they were called “righteous in the sight of God.” They are portrayed as ordinary Jewish people going about their lives. Ordinary people through whom God is going to doing an extraordinary thing. In some ways, this anticipates a recurring theme through Luke (and Acts, and the gospels, and the New Testament in general) that God uses regular people for his purposes. And since their story precedes Jesus’ own miraculous conception, it is a foreshadowing of sorts that God is on the move.

Verse 5 also makes mention of Herod. The Herod’s of the New Testament can be very confusing. This one is not the same one that is encountered later in the gospels. And that’s not the same one that is encountered in Acts. The Herod in verse 5 is the ancient equivalent of George Foreman. Everyone in the whole family is more or less named Herod.

Ok, we’re about done here, but a word about priests. Zechariah would have had normal priestly responsibilities in attending to temple worship. And as Providence would have it, while he is going about his daily priestly routine, he is chosen by lot to be the one who enters the holy place to offer incense. This isn’t to be confused with the Holy of Holies. That would be where the high priest alone could go and only once a year. Still even to be chosen to do what Zechariah was appointed to do that day would have been seen as a special honor.

Like I’ve said, I think the important question to ask is “What did Luke intend to communicate in this passage?” I also think the question, “What did God intend to communicate?” is an important one as well. It could be more than Luke had in mind, but certainly not less.

As best, I can tell Luke is really still setting the stage for what is to come. By highlighting God’s work on behalf of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I think the idea is that more and bigger is to come.

The Gospel of Luke 1:1-4

I’m not sure what the best way to approach this is going to be. Verse by verse exposition or taking larger sections and giving the overall force of the passage? I guess in a real commentary doing both is ideal. I think what I’ll do is make an attempt at summaries of sections with some comments about specific things in the text where I think helpful.

Ok, let’s dive in.

Luke 1:1-4

The overall intent of these verses is plain enough. Luke has taken up the task of writing his gospel after surveying what others have done (possibly including Mark and Matthew) and determining that there may be need for an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection. “Orderly account” doesn’t have to mean that his is more factually correct than other gospel accounts. Naturally, this taps into a much larger and complicated discussion of what is “correct.” In what sense does Christian biography (which the gospels seem to be a form of) need to be factually true in order to be “the truth.”

Luke does seem to have a tendency to include more information than the other gospels (it is the longest of the four). However, I tend to view the “orderly account” as being an explanation for how the Jesus movement went from a Jewish thing to a Jewish-plus-Gentile thing.

We also learn from these opening words (v.2) that Luke wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and ministry. During his work with Paul (also not technically an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly life), he likely had interactions with various early church leaders, and feasibly a fair number of Jesus’ original disciples. Whether he did or not, he affirms that he has “investigated” the traditions handed down by those earliest followers.

The letter is addressed to “Theophilus,” which could be an individual with that name. My own opinion is that Theophilus is any of us. And by that I mean any of us who would seek to be a “lover of God,” which is what the name itself means. Either way, Luke’s intent is clear. He wants to provide people with some sense of assurance about things they have been told about Jesus.

Dang. We are going to be moving pretty slow if I take this long to explain stuff. I’m going to need to keep this moving right along.

The Gospel of Luke… Intro

Before we jump into the text proper, a few introductory words might prove helpful. Let’s do this in a question/answer format.

Who wrote The Gospel According to Luke?

Seems easy enough, right? Church tradition has identified Luke as the author, so in my mind it would take some conclusive evidence to demonstrate otherwise. One argument for Luke’s authorship of the gospel goes something like this. It is pretty much universally accepted that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts. The “we/us” passage of Acts indicate that whoever wrote Luke/Acts was one of Paul’s partners in ministry who travelled with him. According to Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon, Luke was someone who was known to Paul and co-labored with him on a regular basis. So while neither church tradition nor the textual evidence is strong enough on their own to establish Luke as the author, both pieces taken together make a fairly strong case.

When was The Gospel of Luke written?

If Luke is the author, then the latest the gospel could have been written is the early 80’s when it is believed that Luke died. A fairly even-handed guess would be sometime between the mid-60’s (after the final events recorded in Acts) and before the early-80’s. The question that drives some of the speculation is whether the destruction of Jerusalem is predicted by Jesus in Luke or is it a Lucan literary device to refer to something that has already happened. Confusing, I know. Don’t lose sleep over it.

Why was this gospel written?

This may be the most important thing to understand as we follow Jesus through the pages of Luke. If Luke did co-labor with Paul in his missionary endeavors, presumably that would have taken them well beyond the borders of the Jewish world and deep into Gentile territory. As they presented Jesus the Messiah as the rightful Lord and Savior of every tribe, tongue, and nation, questions along the following lines were sure to follow… “How has it come to pass that a failed Jewish revolutionary has come to be revered as the universal Lord over all the world?” It is a fair enough question, and one that Luke takes a stab at answering. As we go through the gospel, we’ll be sure to stop along the way and see how Luke seeks to answer this question.

I’m also going to throw in a map. I like maps. I think they are helpful. One of the things a map does is to serve as a reminder that the events that Luke records aren’t just stories that sort of float around out in space. No, the story Luke tells happened in a real time and a real place.

The Gospel of Luke… starting now

Today, at church, we started a new series on the Gospel of Luke. I got us started, and my enthusiasm for sharing all that I know and love about the gospels may have got the better of me. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I pretty sure that people left today thinking, “that guy knows a lot about Jesus,” but not necessarily having tons of helpful things to grab hold of. Not that I think having “helpful things to grab hold of” was the intent of any of the gospel writers, which was in fact one of the points I was making. I think you get the idea.

So in my very limited ability, I tried to convey that there is so much to know and understand about who Jesus is in the gospels. The problem is that I may have tried to share all of that in one 30+ minute message. My text was mostly chapter 4 of Luke, and it really could should have been at least three different sermons.

Which brings me to why I’m here. I was pretty excited about everything that I had to say today, but sometimes EVERYTHING isn’t the best thing. You know… too much of a good thing.

So, instead of ambushing unsuspecting church-goers with more than they bargained for, I’m going to move a good bit of my discussion to here. I’m doing this for a few reasons.

First, as I’ve already said, I need an outlet. I’ll be studying Luke with the church and a couple different small groups. But I’ll enjoy having a place to say all that I’d like to say that, frankly, most people aren’t all that interested in.

Second, while looking for resources geared towards helping people study Luke on their own, I was fairly disappointed with the quality of what’s available for free online. I don’t want to denigrate the work that people have done to explain this gospel, but it just seems like they weren’t asking, “What is going to be helpful for people who are trying to make sense of Luke as they are sitting in front of their computer.” I’m absolutely certain that my efforts will suffer from the same deficiencies, but it won’t be from a lack of trying.

And third, I am hopeful that those who are studying Luke this summer and have questions will feel free to ask away. Church services generally don’t allow for that sort of interaction, nor would it be entirely helpful. Even if we made the opportunity available, people don’t ask the questions they have; either because they feel dumb asking or they think others will judge them for saying off-the-wall stuff. Hopefully, this can be a place where neither of these things get in the way of some good interaction.

So ideally, this will end up being a combination of commentary and online Bible study. We’ll see.

There are, however, a few obstacles with doing what I plan to do here.

1) While I know more than your average person about the Bible, I fall a far cry short of anything resembling a Biblical scholar. I’ll try to do decent research for what I put together, but please take it all with a grain of salt. I’m just a guy who loves studying the Bible, but probably gets it wrong about as often as I get it right.

2) I have a day job. It is called “being a pastor.” And while there should be more time for stuff like this, the days fill quickly. I’ll try to be fairly consistent, but we’ll see.

3) The first two obstacles pale in comparison with #3. I am about to be out of town for the better part of a month. And where I’m heading, internet access is going to be sketchy at best and more likely non-existent for long stretches of time. I’ll just need to get creative about how this gets done.

Ok, as you can see, this little project is going to require a lot of grace. However, with all that out on the table, I’m looking forward to diving in. My hope is that this really will be a resource for anyone who would study The Gospel of Luke (whether this summer or in the future). And be it known, the question that will drive the conversation day after day, at least for me, will be “What is it that Luke actually intended to communicate?”

I, for one, think this is an important question to ask. You might, as well.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright

I’m thinking of renaming the blog “Four for Friday,” because that’s about all I’m able to make time for these days. So I’m sneaking a quick one in just before Friday to try to maintain some blog-cred.

Another alternate name could be “N.T. Wright Fan-Boy,” since that’s about the only other thing I talk about around here. A friend of mine was reading Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and asked if I had read it. Much to both our surprise, I hadn’t. He said he was finding it challenging and would love hear my thoughts on it. Never needing much of any encouragement to read more Wright, I promptly ordered it and dove right in. As chance would have it, I finished it up this past weekend, a day or so before this same friend tied the knot.

As you might suspect, the book is good. Really good. Wright successfully (IMHO) navigates between the warring conservative and liberal advocates in the “Battle for the Bible.” One group of Christians argues for a kind of inerrancy that the Bible doesn’t really seem to affirm about itself. While the other group writes off the Bible simply a man-produced piece of literature and therefore no more authoritative than “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or “Harry Potter” or Oprah or whatever.

Or as Wright says it himself…

Much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.

So many good thoughts and not really anytime to unpack them, so I’ll just fire away a few more memorable quotes and let the chips fall where they may.

On how the Word is authoritative…

The apostolic writings, like the ‘word’ which they now wrote down, were not simply about the coming of God’s Kingdom into all the world; they were, and were designed to be, part of the means whereby that happened, and whereby those through whom it happened could themselves be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

On role that “religious experience” should play in constructing truth…

We could put it like this. ‘Experience’ is what grows by itself in the garden. ‘Authority’ is what happens when the gardener wants to affirm the goodness of the genuine flowers and vegetables by uprooting the weeds in order to let beauty and fruitfulness triumph over chaos, thorns, and thistles. An over-authoritarian church, paying no attention to experience, solves the  problem by paving the garden with concrete. An over-experiential church solves the (real or imagined) problem of concrete (rigid and ‘judgmental’ forms of faith) by letting anything and everything grow unchecked, sometimes labeling concrete as ‘law’ and so celebrating any and every weed as ‘grace.’

Ok, there’s more – always more – but that’s enough to try and wrap one’s brain around for one day. Oh, one other thing. Scot McKnight also recently wrote a bit about the book. Lot’s more interaction over there.

See you tomorrow with some insanely great music in hand.

Always Wright

Don’t get flustered. I realize it is Friday (our very last according to some). I will be getting around to our beloved Four for Friday a little later today.

But first, I wanted to drop some wisdom on the reading masses. It is no secret that I have a man-crush on N.T. Wright. I don’t think he knows everything… but pretty close to it. Anyway as chance would have it, I came across two articles written by him. Both well worth reading.

The first is a piece he wrote on “The Rapture” nearly ten years ago that someone thought fitting to resurrect in light of our pending doom.

The second is a lengthier more recent article written on Bible translation. It seems that 2011 is going to be an interesting year in the world of Bible translations. The venerable King James Version is celebrating it’s 400th year anniversary. The NIV is getting a fresh update. And Wright himself is offering up his own translation of the New Testament. This article is well worth reading every word. I can’t begin to unpack every issue he touches on, but there are many. Here’s a taste…

Translations must be concerned with accuracy, but there are at least two sorts of accuracy. The first sort, which a good Lexicon will assist, is the technical accuracy of making sure that every possible nuance of every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph has been rendered into the new language.

But there is a second sort of accuracy, perhaps deeper than this: the accuracy of flavour and feel. It is possible, in translation as in life, to gain the whole world and lose your own soul – to render everything with a wooden, clunky, lifeless “accuracy” from which the one thing that really matters has somehow escaped, producing a gilded cage from which the precious bird has flown.

You really should read the whole article.

If any of this sparks an interest in getting more into the mind of one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, as always I recommend starting here

Readable and Insightful

So good. Really.

Alright folks, now time to crank out some Four for Friday. I will resist the urge to theme it around the end of the world.

favorite spot (continued)

I left off a few days ago talking about my favorite spot… within the pages of a really good book. At least one person took issue with my “spot” not being a more substantial location. Like I said at the outset, I felt like the question was vague enough for whatever creative license a person felt inclined to exercise. So maybe my spot is really an activity. My activity might end up being a spot. No need to split hairs.

Plus, as I sometimes have to point out, I do whatever I want around here.

Like write about boring theology books. Which brings me back to my recent favorite “spot”. Here it is…

Thrilling, I know.

You might be tempted to jump to at least two conclusions about this book based on the cover and title alone.

First, you might think that what you will find on the inside is some pretty heady stuff. And you would be right. As usual, I make no apologies for books written on a college (or perhaps in this case graduate school) reading-level. It is ok to every now and then read books that are a little ahead of us. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are good. Or that they are even “right”. It does mean we’ll need to work a bit more. And that’s ok. There’s a reason that the Harry Potter series was a best-selling phenomenon, and that this one, well… isn’t.

One could also be lead to believe that because of the above statements that the book is cold and lifeless. On that count, you would be dead wrong. This book spans the gamut… How we engage culture? What does it mean for the Spirit to speak through the text? The importance of community? How our destiny informs our present? Of course, it does so in an attempt to answer the question suggested in the sub-title.

“How does one engage in doing theology in a post-modern world?”

I can tell that you aren’t sold. Let come at it a different way.

Have you ever been suspicious of the certainty that some religious people/institutions/organizations exhibit when it comes to explaining “truth?”

If you answered “yes” (and let’s be honest, you most likely did), then that “certainty” with which you have a problem is what this book calls foundationalism. And that “suspicion” of yours more or less demonstrates that you are most decidedly a “post-modern” person… whatever that is.

I can see we are getting nowhere fast, so let’s wrap up with a few choice quotes…

“Disengagement from the objectified world formed the foundation for the modernist ideal – namely, individual autonomy – understood as the ability to choose one’s own purposes from within oneself apart from the controlling influence of natural and social forces and hence to create one’s own identity or self.”


“The contemporary acknowledgment of the relationality of personal identity suggests that the divine image is a shared, communal reality. It implies that the image of God is fully present only in relationships, that is, in ‘community’… the doctrine of the Trinity asserts, throughout all eternity God is ‘community’ … According to the New Testament, the focus of this image-bearing function is humans-in-relationship but, more specifically, the church as the foretaste of the new humanity … Only in community can we truly show what God is like, for God is the community of love, the eternal relational dynamic enjoyed by the three persons of the Trinity.”

For some, this might sound more than a little familiar. I may have shared a thought or two along these lines last Sunday.

But to get to the goods, one occasionally has to work through slightly denser material. Like this…

“The Christian tradition is comprised of the historical attempts by the Christian community to explicate and translate faithfully the first-order language, symbols, and practices of the Christian faith, arising from the interaction among community, text, and culture, into the various social and cultural contexts in which that community has been situated.”

Well, there’s more. So very much more. But at this point, I would recommend that you just take it up and read it for yourself.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t share that this book was given to me nearly ten years ago by a student in the youth ministry I helped lead in Seattle. So Jeff, a heartfelt ‘thanks’ goes to you for putting such a wonderful book into my hands. It has been a breath of fresh air.

P.S.S. Stan Grenz (one of the authors) unexpectedly passed away a few years back. Nevertheless, he was fairly prolific and managed to write more than a few books during his lifetime.  If the two or three that I’ve read are any indication of the quality of the others, I imagine that they are all good.