The opening chapter of the gospel of Luke tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and contains her famous song of joy that has traditionally been known as "The Magnificat.”
We read first that the angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah, a priest of the temple in Jerusalem, and promises him a son, to be named John, who "will be filled with the Holy Spirit." When Zechariah protests that he and Elizabeth are too old to conceive a child, Gabriel takes away his ability to speak until John is born and named. The story reminds us of the promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, of their disbelief because of their old age, and of the hope that God's promises will be fulfilled. (Gen. 17:15-22)
The story of Elizabeth's pregnancy prepares the way for the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, identified in this gospel as a descendant of the family of King David. Gabriel tells Mary that, although she is a virgin, she will conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that her son "will be called Son of God." The angel informs Mary of Elizabeth's pregnancy to prove to her that "God's promises can never fail." So, Mary visits Elizabeth to see for herself. When Elizabeth hears Mary's greeting, her baby stirs in her womb. Then Elizabeth is "filled with the Holy Spirit" and exclaims, "God's blessing is on you above all women, and God's blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?"
Elizabeth proclaims that Mary will rejoice, because she "has had faith that the Lord's promise to her would be fulfilled!" As Abraham and Sarah trusted in the promise of God, so has Mary. Then Mary praises God, as her Lord and Savior, who "has routed the proud" and "filled the hungry with good things" but "sent the rich away empty." We notice immediately that the gospel of Luke has none of the reticence about using the word "God" that marked the gospel of Matthew. This is additional evidence that the gospel of Luke was written primarily for Gentiles.
The Birth of Jesus
After spending three months with Elizabeth, Mary returns to her own house. The first chapter of the gospel of Luke ends with the birth of John and the song of Zechariah praising the Lord God of Israel for the birth of a child who "will be the Lord's forerunner, to prepare his way and to lead his people to a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." The gospel of Matthew begins with statements about the fulfillment of prophecy, and the gospel of Luke begins with the birth of a John will will be a prophet.
The second chapter relates the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds to the stable where Jesus is born. The gospels says Joseph and Mary are forced to travel to Bethlehem because of a census decreed by the Roman Emperor that requires each family to return to its traditional home. Those who are familiar with the Christmas story will now realize part of the story is in the gospel of Luke and part is in the gospel of Matthew. The two accounts are independent of each other and differ in details. For instance, in the gospel of Luke the shepherds visit Jesus at a stable and Jesus is been laid "in a manger," but in the gospel of Matthew the wise men enter a house to bring their gifts to him. In the life of the church, these two stories have been combined into the familiar Christmas story.
There are factual difficulties with the dating of this account. Herod the Great ruled during the years 37 BCE to 4 CE. Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6-7 CE. As their reigns do not overlap, the assertion by the gospel of Luke that both were ruling during the time of the census cannot be true. Moreover, there is no historical record of this census in Palestine. Very likely the author of the gospel uses a census as a reason for Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, so the birth of Jesus will fulfill the prophecy in Micah 5:2 about a king being born in Bethlehem. As contemporary readers, we misunderstand the gospel of Luke if we assume it as a factual account of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. It has the form of a biography, but is a testimony to the good news proclaimed by the early church.
The gospel of Luke relates that the parents of Jesus follow the commandments of Jewish law by bringing Jesus to the temple for circumcision eight days after his birth. They make an offering of two turtledoves or two pigeons, in keeping with the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:2-8), so that Mary can be judged clean by a temple priest after her bleeding during childbirth. (The gospel does not say that the couple paid a fee for their firstborn son, as is required in Numbers 3:47-48.) Those who are familiar with Jewish law will realize at once that Joseph and Mary are poor, because these new parents cannot afford to sacrifice a ram and a bird but instead have to purchase for sacrifice two birds. The story not only affirms that Jesus was circumcised, but also that his parents were poor.
Mary and her son are the focus of this gospel story. In the gospel of Matthew the angel Gabriel comes to Mary once, but appears frequently to Joseph to guide him. However, in the birth story related by the gospel of Luke, Joseph is a minor character. We know from Paul's letters that women were important leaders in the Greek-speaking churches. Might the birth story in the gospel of Luke have been written with them in mind? Certainly, it gives women a prominence in the story of the beginnings of the church that is without parallel in the New Testament.
In the temple two witnesses attest to the destiny of Jesus. Simeon, "an upright and devout" man "who watched and waited for the restoration of Israel," is moved by the Holy Spirit to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah. The words of Simeon are taken from three passages in Isaiah (52:10, 42:6, and 49:6) and make it clear that the Messiah has not only come to save Israel but "the Gentiles" as well. Furthermore, Anna, who is described as a prophetess, also gives thanks to God and testifies "to all who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem." The shared leadership in the church of women and men is reflected in these two stories of recognition.
Then the gospel of Luke relates the only story of Jesus as a youth in the New Testament. When he is twelve years old, Jesus remains behind in Jerusalem after his parents have left for Nazareth and amazes the teachers in the temple with his intelligence and wisdom. When Mary later chastises Jesus for worrying her and his father, he replies: "Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father's house?" We read that his parents do not understand his reply, but "his mother treasured up all these things in her heart." We are not surprised to learn that as Jesus grows older, "he advanced in wisdom and in favor with God and men."
The Baptism of Jesus
The third chapter of the gospel of Luke begins with details about the Roman and Jewish rulers of the day. Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. The year is probably 28 or 29 CE. The phrase, "the word of God came to John," identifies John as a prophet like Isaiah (38:3) and Jeremiah (1:1). This confirms an earlier statement in Luke 1:76, and later in Luke 7:26 the gospel will again refer to John as a prophet. The report about John the Baptist in the gospel of Luke is very similar to that in the gospel of Matthew, which suggests that the two gospel writers are using the same source in adition to the gospel of Mark for their accounts. But the gospel of Luke relates that John is arrested before the baptism of Jesus. This not only contradicts the other gospels, but also the summary of these events in Acts 1:21-22 written by the same author! This change in the sequence of events means John does not baptize Jesus.
The gospel of Luke relates that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, during "a general baptism of the people." It appears that the author of the gospel of Luke wants to minimize the role of John the Baptist. This makes more sense when we discover in the Acts of the Apostles that disciples of John the Baptist are competing with the apostles of Jesus for followers.
In the gospel of Luke, John says the one coming after him will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." In the gospel of Mark John says the one coming after him will baptize "with the Holy Spirit," but the gospel of Matthew has the same statement as the gospel of Luke. We will see in other places that the gospels attributed to Luke and Matthew often make the same change to the text of the gospel of Mark. This suggests the hypothesis that these two later gospels are each using additional material, as they rewrite the gospel of Mark. In the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the gospel of Luke, the author also affirms that the coming of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by fire.
The third chapter of the gospel of Luke concludes with a genealogy that traces the lineage of Jesus (who is now about thirty years old, we are told) all the way back to Adam, the "son of God." The emphasis here is not simply on the Jewish ancestry of Jesus, as in the gospel of Matthew, but on the relationship between Jesus and all humanity descended from Adam. A close comparison of these accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke reveals discrepancies. If the early church had intended the gospels to be read as historical reports, it could have combined the four gospels into one authorized version of the history of Jesus and edited out the factual contradictions. By including in the New Testament four gospel accounts, each of which differs in some respects from the others, the church affirmed a plurality of witnesses to the good news.
Jesus' Ministry Begins
After his baptism, Jesus enters the wilderness "full of the Holy Spirit" and confronts the temptations of the devil. The gospel of Luke reports the same story as the gospel of Matthew (Mt. 4:1-11), but presents the second and third temptations in the opposite order. Then, "armed with the power of the Spirit," Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his ministry by teaching in the synagogues. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry by calling on the people to repent. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 that speaks of the "Spirit of the Lord” (which in Isaiah would be LORD) anointing a person "to announce good news to the poor," to "proclaim release for prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind." Jesus claims that this messianic prophecy has been fulfilled in him. When the people of Nazareth reject him and threaten to throw him down from the hill on which the town is built, Jesus expresses with dismay that a prophet is generally not recognized in his own country.
Because of stories such as this in the synoptic gospels, it is generally believed that Jesus was rejected by his family and neighbors. Yet, the gospel of Mark admits at the end that his mother was with him during his ministry in Galilee. Moreover, his mother is present at his crucifixion in all four gospels, and Acts 1:14 reports that after the crucifixion and resurrection, his mother and "his brothers" gather with the disciples and the women who have followed Jesus in the upper room in Jerusalem. Other Jews from Galilee, including his disciples, choose to follow him. Perhaps the stories of his rejection at home are meant to represent Jews who refuse to be converted in the first generation of the church.
It may also be that the story of the rejection of Jesus in Nazareth by his synagogue symbolically represents the struggle between Paul (and other ministers among the Gentiles) and the Jewish Christian leadership in Jerusalem. After all, Paul was rejected by "his people" and by the synagogues he visited on his travels. Might not the violent reaction of the synagogue in Nazareth to the teaching of Jesus mirror the treatment that Paul (and presumably other apostles) encountered in spreading the gospel throughout the cities of the Roman Empire?
In the gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. Paul says the resurrection confirms that Jesus is the Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-19), but the story of the baptism of Jesus suggests Jesus is the Christ because he is full of the Spirit of God. This seems to be why the voice from heaven accompanying the descent of the Holy Spirit says, "You are my beloved Son."
The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that John the Baptist later sent a message to Jesus to inquire if he was the Messiah. This would seem to mean that at the time Jesus was baptized neither John nor his disciples heard the voice or saw the Spirit descending like a dove. (The gospels of Mark and Matthew say that Jesus hears the voice and sees the dove.) In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus answers the inquiry from John the Baptist by pointing to the miracles he has performed: "the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news." The words used by the two gospel authors are almost exactly the same. (Neither the gospel of Mark nor the gospel of John records this message from John the Baptist or the answer that Jesus gives.)
From Nazareth Jesus goes to Capernaum, teaches in the synagogue on the sabbath, and casts out of a man the demon that has identified Jesus as "the Holy One of God." The gospel is now following the account of the gospel of Mark. (The author of the gospel of Luke uses about half of the material in the gospel of Mark in his own account.) Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law of a high fever, heals many others who are ill, and forbids evil spirits who know his identity to speak. But word gets out anyway, and the gospel reports that Jesus is "the talk of the whole district."