Some people much smarter than I like to debate to what degree Luke was interested in addressing the Roman empire in his gospel.¹ I believe the problem with this debate is that for many it focuses only on Luke’s gospel account and excludes the book of Acts. On one hand the clear separation between Luke-Acts is warranted as we do not have any manuscripts in which they appear joined together nor did the early Church leaders treat them as one single volume.² Only until the last few decades have scholars pressed us to attend to what they call, “the literary unity” of both volumes, including stylistic, structural and thematic elements.³ I suggest that it is within the stylistic and thematic elements that we find Luke’s implicit and at times explicit interest in how God’s kingdom pushes against the empire. But it must be said that Luke’s primal aim was not to contrast and compare imperialism with the gospel or the empire with God’s kingdom. For Luke it is the implications of Jesus as King and Lord that create the themes that naturally speak to the reality of living in and between two prevailing governmental and social systems.
I think Luke’s writings can be summarized this way. He tells as one story God’s promises to Israel fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth and spread of the church as witnesses to God’s kingdom. For Luke this re-describes humanity and re-orders all social systems from Jerusalem and beyond, to include all people, Jew and Gentile. Inevitably this narrative will eventually run against the narrative of the Roman empire.
My position is that in the single witness of Luke-Acts, Luke announces what God is doing in Jesus and the church for the sake of the world, and tells the story in such a way that “what happens with Jesus foreshadows the church’s experience and what happens in the church finds meaning as the continuation of Jesus’ story.”4 Luke’s Plot Line
Lets revisit the plot line so we can see our text more clearly over the next 3 to 4 posts. Bear with me as this may seem a little heady, but I think it is critical. Luke begins his account by detailing the birth story of Jesus emphasizing that God is bringing to fulfillment the promises He made to Israel (1:1, 45, 55, 73), including the forerunner (John the Baptist) that He promised would prepare the way (1:17, 76). Curiously, Luke moves from bearing witness to God’s providential and redemptive action to intentionally naming Roman emperors and officials (2:1-2; 3:1). Considering that providence is a common first-century belief in an empire’s ideology, Theophilus is reminded that Augustus may have the power to issue decrees but only the God of the Jews (3:23-38) has the power to exercise history affirming, future-changing providence (1:46-51; 2:29-32), even the toppling of thrones (1:52, 71). This is revolutionary!
Luke goes on to specifically connects these events to the house of David (1:32-33, 35, 69) coupled with royal language most likely familiar to Theophilus in order to help him see that the result of this event is the birth of a new King who is Lord.5 Of course, this makes sense in light of a holy and infinite God who as Ruler operates in ways far different from other rulers, and does so on His own terms. Finally and most notably, Luke refers to Jesus as King more than Matthew, Mark or John, almost two-hundred times in Luke-Acts and about one-hundred in each. It is as if Luke is systematically and creatively developing Jesus as both King and Lord as the confession of his Gospel. In Luke’s gospel this is the road Theophilus walks along as he makes his way to the steps of the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preaches His first sermon in Luke 4:16-30.
But before that, here is a possible takeaway. Luke reminds us that the implications of Jesus as King and Lord will at times naturally put us at odds with the prevailing governmental and social systems that surround us. The values and ethics held sacred in our society will often run contrary to what King Jesus holds sacred. The key is knowing the difference and remaining faithful to our pledge of allegiance to His Lordship.
As we will see in the audience’s response to Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4, this is nothing new. We will listen to his sermon next time. In the meantime, enjoy the footnotes. 😉