What is distinctive about Luke’s Gospel?

Each of the four Gospels presents a unique perspective on the life of Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s Gospel is well known. Of the three Synoptic Gospels, Luke shares many similarities with Matthew and Mark, but much is distinctive about Luke’s portrayal of Jesus. Four points deserve comment.


First, only Luke explicitly identifies his purpose in writing (Lk 1:1-4). True, John states his purpose (Jn 20:31), but Luke’s explanation is more detailed, he frames his task as scholarly history, and he expects his work to be compared with other church materials claiming to recount the apostolic “eyewitness” testimony about Jesus.

Unlike Matthew and John, Luke was not one of the disciples who accompanied Jesus and learned first-hand from him. Luke’s chief witnesses are “the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word” who faithfully handed down the story of Jesus’ life “to us” (Lk 1:2). Luke bases his work on the testimony of those who saw Jesus, and who subsequently preached and passed on the story. 

Luke writes for a primary audience of one, Theophilus, about whom we know only what Luke tells us. Luke tells us nothing about himself, but it is clear that he was an accomplished literary writer who selected and edited his material according to a definite structure displaying key themes. More about Luke in the next study.

Second, Luke is the only Gospel with a sequel. Although separated in our English Bibles by the Gospel of John, Luke and Acts are a narrative unity. Luke’s project in writing the Gospel identified with his name is continued in Acts. In Luke, Jesus is the proclaimer of the inbreaking kingdom of God; in Acts, Jesus is proclaimed by the new community he founded. As Joel Green notes,

Among the NT evangelists, Luke stands out first and foremost for his decision to continue the story of Jesus into the story of the early church – and then to present the whole as a seamless narrative that carries the reader from Israel’s story, through the story of Jesus’ life and mission, and into the ripple effect of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and its mission (DJG, 550).

Together, Luke-Acts comprise 27.5 per cent of the New Testament. Luke contains just over 14 per cent of the New Testament, and is almost 10 per cent longer than the second longest book, which is Acts.

Third, Luke’s prose style is distinctive. As David Jeffrey observes: 

in his vocabulary … Luke reveals a command of Greek literature and vocabulary unmatched by the other Gospel writers, and even Paul. He uses several hundred words found in no other New Testament writer, though most may be found in Hellenic secular texts. This range of classical vocabulary permits him a richness and verbal nuance not so readily available to the other evangelists, for whom Greek is not their first language (Jeffrey, 2).

Fourth, almost half of the content of Luke is not found in the other three GospelsAccording to Eugene Boring,

Many stories, sayings, and images found only in Luke have become an indispensable part of Christian consciousness. The Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Pharisee and the Publican, the encounter with the Risen One on the Road to Emmaus, the Magnificat, the angel’s song Peace on Earth are only in Luke, but it is difficult to imagine the Christian tradition without them (Boring, 556).

There is more that is unique to Luke’s Gospel. For example, much of the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood (Lk 1-2) is not found in the other Gospels. His famous synagogue “sermon” (Lk 4:15-30), which led to his rejection at Nazareth and launched his public ministry, is recorded only by Luke. Luke records nine prayers of Jesus, of which only two appear in the other Gospels. The following are also recorded only by Luke:

    • a large number of parables told by Jesus
    • the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (7:11-17)
    • the healing of the woman diseased for 18 years (13:10-17)
    • the healing of the diseased man on the Sabbath (14:1-6)
    • the healing of ten lepers (17:12-19)
    • the sermon on the plain (6:17-49)
    • the mission of the 72 disciples (10:1-20)
    • the question about the few who will be saved (13:22-30)
    • the account of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (19:41-44)
    • the special warning to Peter (22:31-32)
    • several details of the events in Gethsemane (22:43-44)
    • Pilate’s decision to send Jesus to Herod after his arrest (23:6-16)
    • the penitent thief (23:39-43)
    • three of the “seven sayings” of Jesus from the cross (23:34, 43, 46)
    • Jesus’ ascension while blessing his disciples at Bethany (24:50-53

In his commentary on Luke, J. C. Ryle lists 58 “principal circumstances” recorded by Luke alone (Ryle, 394-395).

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