Psalm 142, Ecclesiasticus 39: 1 – 11 and Acts 1: 1 – 8
The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. Psalm 142: 7b
He preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of the parables …. He travels in foreign countries, learning at first hand human good and human evil …. When he goes to his long rest, his reputation is secure. Ecclesiasticus 39: 2, 4b and 11b (REB)
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. Acts 1: 1 – 2
Today we observe St. Luke’s Day. Without Luke we would lack from our Bibles the gospel book that casts Jesus in the most empathetic way, that shows his compassion for the sick with a doctor’s eye for medical detail, and was most accessible to contemporary audiences who were not of a Jewish background. Perhaps most significantly, had Luke not chronicled the early history of mission activity by Peter and then Paul, we would have a very sketchy idea how the gospel spread from Judea (as commanded by Jesus) towards the goal of reaching the ends of the earth. If you look at the thickness of the pages taken up by Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, you might be surprised to find Luke was responsible for over a quarter of the New Testament, only equalled by all Paul’s epistles and then followed by John’s writings.
Who was Luke? We have only a few definite facts about his life. We know he was Greek and wrote for the benefit of a Greek readership. It is also known that he accompanied Paul on some of his Mediterranean travels, as a helper and chronicler of events, because of the sudden change in Acts 16: 11 where Luke starts writing ‘we’, denoting he was actually there with Paul on his second missionary journey from Troas. Paul refers to Luke’s presence with him in three of his epistles (Colossians 4: 14, 2 Timothy 4: 11 and Philemon v 24), so he was an eyewitness to many of the events, and could draw on first-hand witness accounts from Paul and other contemporaries to fill in the earlier detail. Tradition has it that Luke was a doctor and may have been an early member of the church in Antioch. Less certain is a suggestion that Luke knew Jesus personally and was one of the 72 disciples sent out on the trial mission in Luke 10, or even that Luke was one of the travellers who met Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. Whatever the details of his life, he was an accomplished writer who could paint beautiful word-pictures to describe the teaching and miracles of Jesus, along with all the human interest. Luke was also particular about accuracy, clearly wanting his accounts to stand scrutiny, because archaeologists have verified places and events described in Acts.
Luke had a clear objective in writing. His gospel opens by mentioning the many who had tried to compose an account of Jesus’ life, and that he wanted to do the same, in an orderly and accurate fashion, so that Theophilus (a Gentile government official) might know the truth. The introduction to the Acts of the Apostles continues in the same vein, with a repeat account of the Ascension as a bridge to the real starting point as the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. In his Gospel, Luke placed an emphasis on the themes of prayer, the Holy Spirit and mercy, suggesting he himself was a compassionate, spiritual man. Although apparently writing to Theophilus personally, Luke had a bigger objective in showing the truth of the gospel to a much wider Gentile audience, showing Jesus’ openness and mercy. His account in Acts of Peter grasping the significance of Gentiles being included in the offer of salvation (Acts 10) was an invitation to all people to come to faith. In Luke’s attention to detail, he does not avoid describing the sufferings of Paul and his companions as they were imprisoned and mistreated. But he also describes the miracles and the wide response from the most hostile and unlikely people, as the Church took root. Tradition has it that Luke did not marry and died at the age of eighty-four.
May we be thankful for the dedication of Luke and others like him, who faithfully recorded so much of what Jesus said and did, and later recounted the experiences of some of the Apostles, as the Holy Spirit opened the way for the gospel to be propagated. Without these records it would be much harder for us to know about both the truth of Jesus and the salvation he offers, and that work of the Holy Spirit in overcoming fierce opposition to go on transforming lives and defending Christians down through the ages.