Jesus’ Friends in Low Places
This excerpt is from the introduction of my new book, Luke: Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws. I hope you enjoy it as you look ahead to celebrating the season of Lent and planning a Lenten study in your own congregation.
Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)
I turned fourteen in the summer of 1978 and was preparing to begin high school that fall. My parents had divorced a couple of years earlier. My mom remarried a guy who was kind and who I really loved . . . when he wasn’t drinking. We’d experienced drunken rages where my stepdad took a sledgehammer to the inside of our house as we were told to be quiet and eat our supper. I’d come home from school with my stepdad’s stuff on the front lawn. We moved to three homes in two years. I knew no one I would be attending high school with. I felt alone, lonely, and sad. And if you would have asked about my faith that summer, I would have told you with great conviction that I was an atheist.
Then one day, a man named Harold Thorson knocked on my door while my mom and stepdad were at work. He spoke with what looked like a microphone pressed to his throat—it was an electrolarynx—and he invited me and my family to worship at the church he attended.
I attended that first Sunday, met three cute girls, and decided I was interested in getting more involved. I didn’t believe in God, but I believed in girls and so I began attending church regularly, and eventually Sunday school and youth group. I ultimately married one of those girls, right out of high school. We just celebrated our fortieth anniversary the year I wrote this book.
But while it was my interest in girls that led me to get more involved in church, it was reading the Gospel of Luke that led me to become a follower of Jesus. That summer of 1978, I decided to read the entire Bible, starting with Genesis. By the time I got to the Psalms I had come to believe in God. And it was as I read the Gospel of Luke and saw its emphasis on Jesus’s concern for the lowly, the marginalized, the broken, the picked on and pushed around, that I came to love Jesus. On the night I finished reading Luke, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and prayed, “Jesus, I want to follow you. I’d like to be your disciple. I know I’m just fourteen years old, but if you can use me in any way, I offer my life to you.”
My life was changed by reading Luke’s account of the life, message, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That decision to follow him did not end the chaos at home. But it did bring a sense of inner peace, a sense of strength, an awareness of God’s care for the broken, the outsiders, the outcasts.
In this book we’ll study many of the most loved passages in Luke, passages in which this emphasis on God’s concern for the outsiders is front and center, passages that remind us that Jesus, like Garth Brooks, had “friends in low places.” As a young man reading this Gospel, I felt in its words that Jesus would befriend me. I hope you feel that as you study this Gospel too.
Authorship, Dating, and Major Themes
Scholarly commentaries on the various books of the Bible typically begin with their own introduction describing what can be known about the book’s authorship, date of composition, and major themes. I’ll give you a very brief summary of the consensus of mainline scholarship.
One thing to note as you study these questions about any New Testament book is that conservative scholars tend to defend the traditional authorship of the New Testament’s books and date the books as early as possible. Secular scholars tend to question the traditional authorship claims of the New Testament books and usually make the case for much later dates. Most mainstream evangelical and mainline scholars land somewhere between the two, supporting traditional authorship in many cases but questioning it in others. Likewise, they’ll tend to support early dating in some cases; but, with few exceptions, their dating is later than conservative dates and earlier than secular dates.
When it comes to Luke, conservative scholars accept the traditional claims that Luke, the beloved physician, composed the book sometime as early as the mid-fifties to the early sixties AD. Secular scholars note that the Gospels were all written anonymously, and that Luke’s name does not appear in the Gospel. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later based upon church tradition. They often date Luke to near the end of the first century or the first quarter of the second century. Finally, evangelical mainstream and mainline scholars recognize the Gospels are anonymous, with many accepting that Luke, Paul’s sometime traveling companion, may have composed the Gospel, while some are less certain. The mainstream evangelical and mainline consensus is that the Gospel of Luke was written between AD 75 and 90.
As noted above, unlike nearly all the letters of the New Testament, none of the New Testament Gospels identify their authors. They are anonymous. But early in church history they became associated with their familiar names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were apostles, and Mark was believed to have known Jesus. He was a cousin of Barnabas and an early traveling companion of Paul.
While Luke’s name appears nowhere in the text of the Gospel or in Acts, he is mentioned by name in Colossians 4:14 where Paul writes of “Luke, the dearly loved physician” in a way that makes clear that he was with Paul while in prison as he wrote Colossians. Many point to the interesting medical details and terminology found in the Gospel of Luke as being consistent with Colossians 4:14 identifying Luke as a “dearly loved physician.”
We also find Luke mentioned in Philemon 24. There Paul mentions his companions who are with him wherever he is imprisoned— perhaps in Caesarea Maritima or in Rome. Paul notes that Luke was among those companions. We read something similar in 2 Timothy 4:11, whose setting is near the end of Paul’s life. He is in prison, awaiting execution, and there Paul notes, “Only Luke is with me.” These references make clear that Luke was seen by the early church as a faithful traveling companion with Paul and a steadfast friend during Paul’s various times of imprisonment.
This idea is consistent with multiple passages in Acts where the author speaks in the first-person plural of Paul’s travels. An example of this is Acts 16:11-12 (emphasis added), which begins the “we section” of Acts,
We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days.
The author’s use of “we,” many believe, is not accidental, nor is it a literary device, but indicates that the author, presumably Luke, was traveling with Paul for the events described. The early church accepted that this was evidence of Luke and Acts being written by a traveling companion of Paul: the dearly loved physician, Luke. If Luke did indeed write this book, I can’t help wondering if some of the material in the book came from Paul himself. Paul seldom quotes Jesus, and even less often refers to stories from his life, but Luke’s writing of this Gospel would suggest that Paul knew the Gospel stories as he preached and taught about Jesus. It’s been said that Mark’s Gospel was shaped by Mark’s association with Peter. Perhaps Luke includes much of what Paul knew and preached about Jesus but did not include in his epistles.
To Whom Was Luke Written and Why?
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person and to the same recipient, one “Theophilus”—a name that means “lover of God” or “friend of God.” Some believe the name was not that of a person but used to describe anyone who sought to be lovers or friends of God and who were followers of Jesus. If that was the case, then each of us who seeks to know Jesus, or who is already committed to following Jesus, might be Theophilus.
Yet the consensus is that Theophilus was a real person, a person wealthy enough to fund Luke’s work in researching and writing the Gospel. This was no small task. Luke tells us he met with eyewitnesses (did he travel to Jerusalem for this?) and acquired copies of other early gospels or pre-gospels in order to write what he hoped would be the most accurate account of the birth, life, teachings, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel may have been commissioned by Theophilus, but it was no doubt intended for a much broader audience. Theophilus certainly got his money’s worth as, nearly two thousand years later, the Gospel has been read by billions of people throughout history.
Ultimately, we may not know with certainty when Luke was written or even whether the author’s name was Luke. What we can know is that the author, presumably Luke, took his job seriously. In the introduction of Luke, a passage you’ve seen at the opening of this introduction, he wrote,
Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received. (Luke 1:1-4, emphasis added)
Notice that Luke mentions that many had already compiled accounts of the story of Jesus. This is fascinating. The only Gospel we know of that is believed to have been written prior to Luke is Mark. So where are these other compilations? It’s thought that they are preserved in Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps even Mark. Each of these Gospel writers had sources available to them, some of which were compilations of Jesus’s teachings and stories of his life. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark. Some suggest that Luke had access to Matthew, or that Matthew had access to Luke (though we might suppose that there would not be so many areas of disagreement between these two Gospels if one relied on the other). More likely, both Matthew and Luke had access to compilations of Jesus’s teaching, his miraculous healings, passion narratives and Easter stories, and more. We know that Luke and Matthew both quote Mark, virtually word for word at times. But they also both seem to quote at least one other source, perhaps more.
What is most important to note from Luke’s introduction is that he has carefully researched his Gospel and he wants the reader to have confidence in the veracity of what he has written and ultimately in their faith.
Like each of the Gospels, Luke was not merely a biography of Jesus. It was a gospel (which means good news) meant to confirm and deepen the faith of those, like Theophilus, who had already come to believe. It was also meant to persuade those who were interested in or open to hearing the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—to become Jesus-followers. Luke sought to paint a compelling picture of Jesus, but this picture of Jesus was particularly compelling to those who identified with Luke’s stories.
John tells us at the end of his Gospel that “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written” ( John 21:25). Even if John deploys a bit of hyperbole, the point is clear: there were many stories from the life and ministry of Jesus that could have been told. John chose certain ones for his purpose. Luke chose others for his purposes. And what are Luke’s purposes? He wants to confirm and give confidence to the faith of those who have come to believe. But he also writes to beckon people to put their faith in Christ. In particular, he seems to want to appeal to the same people he notes Jesus appealed to: the outsiders, the outcasts, and even the outlaws, or, said another way, the marginalized, the broken, the poor and pitiable, and all the people who felt unseen or alone, or second class.
It was reading this Gospel when I was fourteen—this Gospel for the outsiders, the outcasts, and the outlaws—that I fell in love with Jesus and decided to commit my life to him. My hope is that in studying this Gospel, if you are not yet a Christian, you might hear the good news of Jesus and decide, as I did, you want to follow Jesus and be his disciple. And if you are already a follower of Jesus, I hope your faith grows deeper, and your commitment stronger, as you seek to embody his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, in your life.
I’d love to invite you to join me in this prayer,
Lord, as I begin this study of Luke’s Gospel, open my ears to hear, and my heart to receive, all that you want to say to me. Help me to see you, to hear you, and ultimately to follow you. Amen.
 Paul is the stated author of Colossians (Colossians 1:1 and 4:18). Many mainline scholars believe it was written after the time of Paul by one of his followers who sought to apply Paul’s words and message to a generation sometime after Paul’s death. Either way, Colossians and 2 Timothy, of which the same is thought, record the place Luke played in the life of Paul and the early church.