The Big Story (According to Luke)

We’ve been talking a lot about the “big story” of Christianity recently. Continuing in that vein, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at the way that one New Testament writer tells that story. 

Luke has long been identified as the standout historian of the New Testament, often drawing comparisons to the works of Josephus. Many have inferred from this that, because Luke is good at collecting eyewitness sources, he must be less interested in theological or artistic expression than, say, Matthew or John. This misunderstanding stems largely from the naively positivistic split between history and theology in the Enlightenment, but another reason is that the canonical order of the New Testament has kept many readers from approaching Luke’s writings in the way that he intended.  

Recent narrative analysis of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles has shown that their author is a much better storyteller than is often supposed. Luke begins the book of Acts by referring to his earlier volume as dealing with “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), suggesting right away that the present volume concerns things that Jesus continued to do and teach. As I. Howard Marshall puts it, “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were intended by their author to be regarded as Part 1 and Part 2 of one single work” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 59). 

The narrative unity of Luke-Acts has huge implications for how the two books should be interpreted. Reading them together reveals the theological and artistic brilliance of their author. Luke was a historian, but he was also a literary artist who wished to present the founding story of the church in a particular theological light. One of the ways he does this is by presenting his story in the form of a giant chiasm, a type of inverse parallelism commonly used by ancient writers to highlight details of particular importance. 

It is widely recognized that Acts 1:8 provides a rough geographical outline for the events narrated throughout Luke’s second volume: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What is less often recognized, however, is that Luke’s first volume follows the exact same geographical progression, only in the reverse order. This inverse parallelism, or chiastic structure, is apparent from the geographical references throughout each volume.

While the events narrated in Acts move outward from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching “the ends of the earth” in Rome, the events narrated in Luke's Gospel move inward from Galilee, through Samaria and Judea, climaxing with the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in and around Jerusalem.

Craig C. Blomberg explains the significance of this for Luke’s overall theological emphasis: “One expects to find the most important part of a chiasm, or inverse parallelism, at its center, and one is not disappointed. The resurrection and ascension, twice narrated, form the heart of the Christian ‘kerygma’ (proclamation) for Luke” (Jesus and the Gospels, 162).

Not coincidently, we find this same narrative emphasis articulated in the early evangelistic sermons which Luke records. There are ten or twelve evangelistic discourses in Acts, and in each of them the cross, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus are all central themes (e.g., Acts 2:22-36; 13:27-39; 17:18). And yet, conspicuously absent from both Luke’s larger narrative and the sermons which he records are many of modern evangelicalism’s favorite subjects, such as hell, penal substitutionary atonement, or the details of the end times.    

Returning to our larger point, however: Luke was not haphazardly writing two separate books with different intentions for each, but rather a highly sophisticated two-volume work of sacred history with one overarching goal. While Mark focused purely on the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, Luke’s aim was much larger. As Marshall puts it, Luke “gathers together the story of Jesus and the story of the early church, and sees these as forming together the foundational narrative of the church” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 20).  

The story of Luke-Acts is our origin story. It tells us who we are. And at the center of this story lies the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That’s the turning point of Luke’s whole narrative because, as far as Luke is concerned, it is the turning point of human history.

Recommended Resources In This Post

Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC]
Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC] By I. Howard Marshall / IVP Academic

In Acts, renowned and ground breaking Evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall has provided lay persons, teachers, and ministers with an invaluable and accessible resource for studying the book of Acts.

Readers will find that although Marshall is one of the most important scholars of the last 3o years, he delivers his insights and research in a clear and concise manner without compromising details or content. Prepare to be taken on an expert historical journey around the Mediterranean World in this informative and revealing study of the expansion and spread of the Christian faith. This series is an excellent resource for Christians looking to build a solid foundation in Scriptural knowledge.

Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition
Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition By Craig L. Blomberg / B&H Books

This second edition of Jesus and the Gospels prepares readers for an intensive study of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the events they narrate. Craig Blomberg considers the historical context of the Gospels and sheds light on the confusing interpretations brought forth over the last two centuries. The original 1997 book won a Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and this updated version, factoring in new scholarship, debate, critical methods, and the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus, ensures the work will remain a top tool for exploring the life of Christ through the first four books of the New Testament.