The structure of Luke’s Gospel

Ancient Jerusalem as painted by James Tissot, ca. 1890.

The writers of the four canonical Gospels arranged their texts with purpose in mind. It has been said that, for Luke, “theology does not so much order narrative as arise from it.”[1] If this is true, the structure of Luke’s story of the life of Jesus is worthy of reflection. What are some key features of Luke’s narrative? 

Luke varies the pace of his story. He devotes significant space to the so-called “birth narrative” (1:5-2:52), but 2:40 covers 12 years and 2:52 a further 18 years. He shortens the account of the Galilean phase of Jesus’ ministry (Lk 4:14-9:50; cf Mk 1:14-8:26; Mt 4:12-16:12) and devotes ten chapters to the final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51-19:46). In contrast, Mark gives this just one chapter (Mk 10), and Matthew gives it two (Mt 19-20). The pace of narrative time in Luke picks up from 17:11, with the events of Luke 22:7-23:56 covering just 48 hours. 

Geography similarly shapes the story. Perhaps most notable is the city of Jerusalem, which features prominently in Luke’s Gospel. For Luke, the city and temple are more than historic locations: they are symbols of the people of Israel, the practice of Jewish religion, and the birth of the church. In the travel narrative, Luke offers regular reminders that the goal of the journey is Jerusalem (e.g., 9:51, 53, 56, 57; 10:1, 38; 13:22, 31, 33; 14:25; 17:11; 18:31, 35f; 19:1, 11, 28). See further below on Luke 24.

On arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus teaches in the temple for several days, departing to the Mount of Olives each night to rest (19:47f; 20:1; 21:37f). It is in and around Jerusalem that Jesus is tried, sentenced, crucified, and buried, and where he rises from the dead. After the ascension of Jesus into heaven, his disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they were continually in the temple praising God” (24:51-53). Compare this with Luke’s account of the prophetess Anna, who “never left” the Jerusalem temple, and spoke about God “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:37f).

In Acts, the narrative continues in the opposite direction. There, the story begins in Jerusalem, but its focus moves away into Judea, Samaria and ultimately to Rome (Ac 1:8; 28:17-31). As David Wenham suggests, “it may be that Luke is beginning from a context of Roman rule (notice Luke 1:5; 2:1; 3:1) and ending his two volumes at the heart of the Roman empire.”[2]

The speeches in Luke, and in Acts, also fulfil important narrative functions. Luke inserts these into his narrative in the manner of a Hellenistic historian, allowing the speeches to interpret the significance of each situation. This is one reason why Luke’s chronology differs from that of Mark and Matthew. “Luke arranges Jesus’ sayings so that they both reflect and interpret the narrative progress surrounding them (e.g., Luke 4:16-30; 14:7-24; 15:1-32).”[3]

Finally, Luke ends his Gospel in a distinctive manner. All four canonical Gospels include a scene outside the empty tomb (Mk 16:1-8; Mt 28:1-10; Jn 20:1-18; Lk 24:1-12). But Luke omits the subsequent appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Galilee (Mk 6:7; Mt 28:16-20; Jn 21:1-14), along with the “Great Commission.” Instead, Luke has Jesus appear only to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-32, unique to Luke’s Gospel), and in Jerusalem (24:33-49; cf Jn 20:19-29).

John Squires observes that “The focus on Jerusalem has a dual purpose. It looks back in time, to evoke the prophetic traditions concerning the significant role of Jerusalem on the Day of the Lord. It points forward in time to underline that the movement which will emerge from Jesus remains in continuity with Judaism.”[4]

A suggested structure of Luke’s Gospel:

  1. Preface (1:1-4)
  2. Birth narrative (1:5 – 2:52)
  3. Preparation for public ministry (3:1 – 4:13)
  4. Ministry in Galilee (4:14 – 9:50)
    • The good news of the kingdom of God (4:14 – 7:50)
    • Preparation for the journey to Jerusalem (8:1 – 9:50)
  5. Travel narrative (9:51 – 19:46)
    • The final journey to Jerusalem begins (9:51 – 11:54)
    • Ministry in rural towns and villages (12:1 – 14:24)
    • Ministry to small groups and large crowds (14:25 – 18:30)
    • From Jericho to Jerusalem (18:31 – 19:46)
  6. Teaching in the Jerusalem temple (19:47 – 21:38)
  7. Arrest and death (22:1 – 23:56)
  8. Resurrection (24:1-53)

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, bush walking, and reading a good book. 


References


[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 2.

[2] David Wenham & Steve Walton, Exploring the New Testament. Volume 1: A Guide to the Gospels and Acts (third edition; London: SPCK, 2021), 263.

[3] Johnson, “Luke-Acts, Book of,” in David Noel Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary (vol. 4 of 5; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 409.

[4] John Squires, “The Gospel according to Luke,” in Stephen C. Barton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 165.

Image source: JNews

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