Unique and surprising narrative twists in the Gospel of LukeWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
From the outset, Luke’s stated purpose for writing his Gospel was to compile a carefully researched history of the life of Jesus. But this was no dry catalogue of facts. Like all good history writing, Luke’s Gospel is a narrative designed to inspire and persuade his readers.
Luke was an educated Greek physician, a friend of the Apostle Paul and a member of his ministry team. He’s the only non-Jewish author of Scripture and his Greek is among the most articulate in the New Testament.
As a gentile, Luke had a concern for outsiders, foreigners and women. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he included details that would’ve subverted the assumptions of his original audience, even scandalized some of them. This is especially so in his record of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it’s no accident. These narrative twists grab the reader’s interest and give Luke’s account the ring of truth. After all, who’d make up such a story and try to pass it off as history?
Grace and respect for social outcasts
At various points, Luke inserts stories of social outcasts, presented in a favourable light, that are found only in his Gospel. There’s the conversion of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector whose job made him a traitor to the Jews. There’s also the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a despised foreign national becomes an example of mercy in action. And there’s the parable of the Prodigal Son, about a rebellious wild child who finds forgiveness from his father, but not from his self-righteous rule-keeping brother.
Luke sustains this theme of grace and respect for outsiders in his account of the Crucifixion. All four Gospels mention the fact that two others were crucified with Jesus, one on either side of him. But only Luke records that one of these two turned to Jesus in faith during his final moments, and that Jesus promised him they’d be together in paradise that same day.
Matthew and Mark describe the two men as robbers, while Luke calls them criminals. The Greek word he uses, kakourgos, literally means evildoers. These weren’t street thugs caught robbing a fruit stand, but hardened felons deemed worthy of state execution under Roman law. They would’ve aroused little sympathy among onlookers, or among Luke’s original readers. And yet his version of events shows the extreme grace of Jesus, reaching the most unlikely people even at the moment of death.
Prominent women support the ministry
Luke’s concern for women is evident from the beginning of his Gospel, and is seen throughout. Not only is his the most detailed account of the Nativity, but it also relies heavily on the perspectives of the women involved. Elizabeth utters the first human announcement of the Messiah’s arrival while he’s still in the womb. Mary sings her Magnificat praising God for fulfilling his ancient promises through the coming birth of her Son. And Anna the prophetess, upon seeing the infant Jesus, becomes the first evangelist to publish the good news of deliverance in his name.
Later on, Luke describes a group of prominent, well-to-do women who travel with Jesus and his disciples, supporting his ministry out of their means – the lone Gospel author to record this detail. First among these women he names Mary Magdalene, the only time she’s mentioned outside the context of the Cross and Tomb. He also lists Joanna, the wife of a high-ranking official in Herod’s court, and another woman named Susanna, noting there were many others, as well. So it seems that Jesus, who never shied away from confronting cultural prejudices, had no problem with a group of women being a primary means of support for his ministry.
All of the Gospel writers record the presence of several women during and after Jesus’ Passion. At the Cross, they stayed and watched after the men had fled, and they were also the first to see the Empty Tomb. In fact, Mary Magdalene was the first person to encounter the risen Jesus. However, Luke not only places Mary at the tomb but also Joanna and those with them, thereby linking the earlier circle of prominent women to the Resurrection.
In film and TV versions, the scene at the Tomb typically includes two or three poor, older women, wrapped in rustic shawls, plus a younger, prettier Mary Magdalene, based on the idea that she was a reformed prostitute – a story not found in Scripture. But Luke paints a different picture. He draws a wider circle of women from diverse backgrounds that includes mothers of fishermen as well as wives of royal officials. Even so, when this sizable group of intelligent women reported what they’d seen to the disciples, their testimony was dismissed as an idle tale – a common attitude in that culture, and sadly in many others since.
Humour on the road to Emmaus
The episode on the road to Emmaus is also unique to Luke, and one of the longest accounts of a post-Resurrection appearance by Jesus. It’s packed with realistic details, all the more surprising since it focuses on a pair of lower-profile disciples who weren’t part of the inner circle. It feels like a digression, although it’s anything but. It highlights the fact that Jesus didn’t just appear to a few prominent followers like Peter and John and Mary Magdalene, but to numerous others during the days and weeks after his Resurrection.
The story also displays a sense of humour, something one might not expect at this point in the Gospel narrative. These two average disciples are walking along when Jesus shows up and joins them – his identity hidden – and basically asks them what’s going on. One of them, Cleopas, breaks out the sarcasm and asks whether Jesus is the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know about the things that have been happening. Jesus wryly asks what things he’s referring to – at which point the floodgates open and the two rush to fill Jesus in, barely pausing to catch their breath.
They wrap up with a sheepish admission that they hadn’t believed the women who’d seen the angels at the Tomb and reported that Jesus was alive. Jesus then gently rebukes them for their reluctance to believe and explains to them everything in the Old Testament Scriptures that pertains to himself. The three of them have dinner together, and when Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks, they finally recognize him. The entire episode radiates a warm, human, lived-in atmosphere, the kind one would expect from a genuine slice of history about ordinary people.
A revelatory snack in the upper room
There’s a famous painting by Caravaggio showing the Apostle Thomas in the upper room, placing his finger into the spear-wound in Jesus’ side. It’s a dramatic moment, taken from the Gospel of John, and it lends itself well to artistic representation. By contrast, Luke records a different upper room moment that may not make as good a subject for art, but is no less compelling for that.
The first time Jesus appeared to the eleven, he invited them to examine his hands and his feet, to touch and see that he was solid flesh and bone, and not merely a spirit. When they were still uncertain, he asked them for a piece of fish and ate it in front of them. After all, everyone knows that ghosts don’t eat. If Jesus had been a ghost, the fish would’ve just fallen through him and landed on the floor.
There’s a casual quality to this impromptu snack in the upper room, hardly the stuff of which religious paintings are made. Instead, the incident feels modern and empirical, like forensic evidence being presented. Although it’s a disarming moment, it comes as no surprise that a physician like Luke would include it among his array of convincing proofs for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus is the subject of all Scripture
In Luke’s narrative, the meeting in the upper room follows on the heels of the Emmaus episode. Cleopas and his friend rush back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven about their encounter, right before Jesus appears to the gathered disciples. On both occasions, Jesus opens the minds of those present to understand the Scriptures, that all of them – the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms – are about himself.
This claim would’ve raised a few eyebrows among Luke’s first-century readers, as it still does among some modern ones. In every era, there’s a temptation to reduce the Scriptures to an instruction manual on morals, a collection of do’s and don’ts for successful living. The interpretive question is, “What does this passage say about me, in my present context?”
But in these two post-Resurrection episodes, Luke doubles down on the fact that Scripture is ultimately about Jesus, and not about us. That’s not to suggest every chapter contains the same concentration of Gospel clarity. Neither is it an invitation to allegorize every verse, digging for hidden spiritual meanings. But it is to approach the text prayerfully, relying on the Holy Spirit, and asking the correct interpretive question: “What does this passage say about God and the Gospel?”
The grounded history of the Ascension
Aside from a passing mention at the end of Mark, Luke is the only Gospel author to describe the Ascension of Jesus in some detail. In fact, he uses the Ascension as a bridge between his Gospel and the Book of Acts, his two-volume history of the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church. His portrayals of the event in the two books are complementary, each focusing on different details for different purposes, but combining to form a complete picture.
At the beginning of Acts, Luke’s narrative gaze turns upward, following Jesus as he disappears into the clouds. But at the end of his Gospel, his attention remains horizontal, fixed on Jesus’ friends and earthly surroundings. He gives the location where the Ascension occurred, in or near the village of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and the place where Jesus and his disciples would stay during their visits to Jerusalem. There’s a mood of intimate friendship right to the end, as Jesus leads his disciples out to the village and blesses them before parting from them into heaven.
Skeptics dismiss the Ascension as myth, and even believers often picture it as a near-mythic “religious” event, barely connected to the real world. But Luke presents it as grounded, relational history that happened in a small village involving everyday people. There’s no mythologizing or bombast on display here. It’s a fitting coda to a realistic yet intimate account, whose narrative twists would’ve subverted many of the religious and cultural assumptions of both Jewish and Greco-Roman society.
Luke’s Gospel is not the type of story one would invent to promote a new faith or philosophy. But it’s precisely what one would expect from a carefully researched historical narrative designed to inspire and persuade its readers concerning the certainty of the things they’d been taught – just as Luke intended.
This is the first of two articles examining some of the unique and surprising narrative features found in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. The second article is available here.
Sources and further reading
Darrell L. Bock, Luke, (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Baker Academic, 1994.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, (New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1997.
R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2014.
Leon Morris, Luke, (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), IVP Academic, 1988.
Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, (Reformed Expository Commentary), P&R Publishing, 2009.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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