A Commentary by John Stott
c. Luke the Theologian-evangelist.
The value of ‘redaction-criticism’ is that it portrays the authors of the Gospels and the Acts not as unimaginative ‘scissors and paste’ editors, but as theologians in their own right, who conscientiously selected, arranged and presented their material in order to serve their particular pastoral purpose. It was in the 1950s that redaction-criticism began to be applied to the Acts, first by Martin Dibelius (1951), next by Hans Conzelmann (1954) and then by Ernst Haenchen(1956) in his commentary. Unfortunately these German scholars believed that Luke pursued his theology concerns at the expense of his historical reliability. Professor Howard Marshall, however, who has built on their work (while at the same time subjecting it to a rigorous critique), especially in his fine study *Luke: Historian and Theologian*(1970), urges that we must not set Luke the historian and Luke the theologian in opposition to each other, for he was both, and in fact each emphasis requires the other:
Luke is *both* historian *and* theologian, and … the best term to describe him is ‘evangelist’, a term which, we believe, includes both of the others…. As a theologian Luke was concerned that his message about Jesus and the early church should be based on reliable history …. He used his history in the service of theology.
Again, Luke was ‘both a reliable historian and a good theologian…. We believe that the validity of his theology stands or falls with the reliability of the history on which it is based…. Luke’s concern is with the saving significance of the history rather than the history itself as bare facts’.
In particular, then, Luke was a theologian of salvation. Salvation, wrote Howard Marshall, ‘is the central motif of Lucan theology’, both in the Gospel (in which we see it accomplished) and in the Acts (in which we see it proclaimed). Michael Green had drawn attention to this in his *The Meaning of Salvation*. ‘It is hard to overestimate the importance of salvation in the writings of Luke…’, he wrote. ‘It is astonishing… that in view of the frequency with which Luke uses salvation terminology, more attention has not been paid to it.’.
Luke’s theology of salvation is already adumbrated in the ‘Song of Simeon’ or *Nunc Dimittus* which he records in his Gospel. (Lk. 2:29-32). Three fundamental truths stand out.
First, *salvation has been prepared by God*. In speaking to God, Simeon referred to ‘your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people’ (Lk. 2:30-31). Far from being an afterthought, it had been planned and promised for centuries. The same emphasis recurs throughout the Acts. In the sermons of Peter and Paul, not to mention Stephen’s defence, Jesus’ death, resurrection, reign and Spirit-gift are all seen as the culmination of centuries of prophetic promise.
Secondly *salvation is bestowed by Christ*. When Simeon spoke to God of ‘Your salvation’, which he had seen with his own eyes, he was referring to the baby Jesus whom he held in his arms and who had been ‘born a Saviour’ (Lk.2:11). Jesus himself later made the unequivocal statement that he had come ‘to seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk.19:10), and he illustrated it by his three famous parables of human lostness (Lk. 15:1-32). Then after his death and resurrection his apostles declared that forgiveness of sins was available to all who would repent and believe in Jesus (Acts 2:38,39; 13:38,39). Indeed salvation was to be found in no-one else (Acts 4:12). For God had exalted Jesus to his right hand ‘as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins…’ (Acts 5:31).
Thirdly, *salvation is offered to all peoples*. As Simeon put it, it has been prepared ‘in the presence of all peoples’ (literally), to be both a light to the nations and the glory of Israel (Lk. 2:31-32). Without doubt it is this truth on which Luke lays his major emphasis. In Luke 3:6, in reference to John the Baptist, he continues his quotation from Isaiah 40 beyond where Matthew and Mark stop, in order to include the statement ‘all flesh will see God’s salvation’. In Acts 2:17 he records Peter’s quotation of God’s promise through Joel: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’ These two words *pasa sarx*, ‘all flesh’ or ‘all humankind’, stand as a signpost near the beginning of each of Luke’s two volumes, in both cases embedded in an Old Testament prophecy, to point to Luke’s principal message. Jesus is the Saviour of the world; nobody is beyond the embrace of his love. In his Gospel, Luke shows Jesus’ compassion for those sections of the community whom others despised, namely women and children, the poor, the sick, the sinful and the outcast, Samaritans and Gentiles, while in the Acts Luke explains how Paul came to turn to the Gentiles, and describes the gospel’s triumphal progress from Jerusalem the capital of Jewry to Rome the capital of the world.
The prominence given to the universal offer of the gospel comes with particular appropriateness from the pen of Luke. For he is the only Gentile contributor to the New Testament. Well educated and widely travelled, he is the only Gospel-writer who calls the Sea of Galilee a ‘lake’, because he is able to compare it with the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. He has the broad horizons of the Graeco-Roman world, its history as well as its geography. So he sets his story of Jesus and of the early church against the background of contemporary secular events. And he uses the word *oikoumene*, ‘the inhabited earth’, more often (eight times) than all the other New Testament writers together.
But Luke the theologian of salvation is essentially the evangelist. For he proclaims the gospel of salvation from God in Christ for all people. Hence his inclusion in the Acts of so many sermons and addresses, especially by Peter and Paul. He not only shows them preaching to their original hearers, but also enables them to preach to us who, centuries later, listen to them. For as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, the promise of salvation is for us too, and for every generation, indeed ‘for all whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39).
Tomorrow: Introduction to the Acts (Acts 1:1-5).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.