Luke's Teaching On the Christian Life

A Short Study Outline of the Gospel According to Luke

Introduction: A Literary Note

The most striking feature of Luke, taken as a whole, may be its thematic unity. Luke visit certain important themes, such as salvation, the authority of Jesus, and the reversal of status under the kingdom of God, in almost every chapter. Luke takes on the role of teacher and shows us the truth about these matters in different ways, hightlighting different aspects of the truth and gradually building a more complete understanding as the story proceed. One way of studying this gospel would be to follow the development of these themes through the book.

Another feature of Luke is the dramatic structure to the story. Almost like a novel, this gospel uses a variety literary techniques to build tension to the dramatic climax of the crucifixion., then rapidly resolves the action with the resurection appearances. This drama is supported by a loose geographic structure in which the action moves from Jerusalem and Judea to Galilee and the surrounding regions, then moves back to Jerusalem. A second way to study Luke would be to focus on the literary development of the story.

This outline is designed to help uncover still another type of organization to the book, based on the content of ideas in Luke's gospel. Luke uses the technique of framing major ideas between pairs of related passages. Reading the gospel from this point of view is to see the book as "Luke's onion" in which we peel back each part of the story to find an even more wonderful part inside.

All of these unifying principles coexist in Luke's gospel. No one of them can truly be said to dominate. This interweaving of various strategies forms the basis of the high degree of literary craftsmanship present in the book.


An outline of the Gospel According to Luke will not follow the familiar, hierarchical structure we normally associate with outlines. Luke's gospel does not consist of a series of main points, each with its associated subpoints. instead, the book is built of paired passages which curround and frame the central issues.

Luke uses this technique to construct the gospel as a whole and also to structure many individual incidents. The nested structure is particulaly evident in the teaching at Nazareth [3:16-20], the healing of Jairus' daughter [8:40-56], and the sending of the 72 [10:1-20]. In these episodes, the nested structure is clearly visible not only in the thematic content but also in the phrasing and word choices. (I first recognized this concentric style in an unpublished diagram of Luke 4:16-20 by Charles Homer Giblin which was made available to me by John Craghan.)

This outline will focus on the broad structure of the entire book, leaving detailed examination of individual incidents to other studies. We will begin, therefore, with a diagram of the book taken as a whole.

The Good News According to Luke

Prologue. [1:1-4]

The bulk of the gospel appears in the sections H and H', which we will diagram and discuss later on. The rest of this diagram shows how Luke frames these central sections. We will begin by looking at each pair of framing passages to see what light each one gives to the central message of the good news.

Prologue. [1:1-4]

Luke opens with a short prologue and dedication of his work. From this we learn that the book is to be an orderly account. The purpose, however, is not to recite events in historical sequence but to show the truth of Christian teaching.

A. Incense offering in the temple [1:5-10] A'. Praise in the temple. [24:52-53]

The gospel opens and closes in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple represents the meeting place of human beings with God. Luke gives a special place to the temple throughout the gospel, probably because he sees this as a story of meeting God.

Zechariah is engaged in the traditional Jewish ritual of offering incense to God. All the proprieties are observed: proper lineage, proper time, proper place, with all the people waiting outside. This ritual can be traced to Israel's wandering in the wilderness when incense was first burned at the place "where I shall meet with you" [Exodus 30:1-6].

At the end of the gospel the disciples are found in the temple. They are offering praise to God and they do so continually. Between the offering of incense and the offering of praise these disciples have met the Christ.

B. Songs of the coming. [1:11-80] B'. The risen Christ. [24:1-51]

The encounter with the Christ begins even before his birth with the appearance of angels, with songs of promise, and with surprising strrings of life in the wombs of Elizabeth and Mary. Gabriel signs to Zechariah and to Mary - he speaks, but the words are songs - about a new Elijah and about a new king for Israel. In response, Mary and Zecharaiah sign of the faithfulness and mercy of God.

After Jesus' death, new life surprises from out of the tomb and, and the two angels, Jesus himself appears. he speaks no more of hope, but of fulfilment of the promises. The songs of anticipation are not sung again; the feast of the kingdom is begun.

C. Human beginning. [Chapter 2] C'. Human endings. [23:26-56]

Jesus' life on earth begins in a stable, but it is heralded by angels. He is attended by shepherds. The testimony of Simon and Anna note his special place.

Jesus' life on earth ends with a criminal's cross, but it is heralded by portents in the sky and on the earth. He is attended by the people who have followed him from Galilee. The testimony of the centurian and the crowds, who leave beating their breasts, note the significance of this death.

From beginning to end, Jesus' life is subject to the Roman power and to the other circumstances of the times. Yet the significance of this life can be seen in signs that secular power can't suppress.

D. Proclaimed by John. [3:1-20] D'. Condemned by the world. [23:1-25]

John's role is to prepare the way for Jesus' ministry. John appears in the wilderness, condemning the ways of the world. He preaches a change of mind for the people and their rulers and he proclaims the power and justice of the one who is to come.

Pilate's role is to clear the stage for the world's condemnation. After examining Jesus, and letting Herod also do so, Pilate convokes the established religious leaders and the people. Now the world condemns Jesus. They prefer murder - and a murderer. Pilate knows full well what jsutice demands but cannot find power within himself to render justice.

E. The Son of God. [3:21-38] E'. The Son of God. [22:39-65]

Jesus is the Son of God. This title is never used by Jesus, but it is given to him at th beginning and end of his ministry. It is announced from heaven at his baptism and it is offered again by the council sitting in judgement. Like each of us, Jesus can trace his ancestry ultimately to the creative act of God. (But of course we don't. Even the thought of carrying the geneology back that far tells us about Jesus' uniqueness.) The title carries messianic connotations as well, and Jesus clearly sets a messianic context before allowing the council to use this phrase of him.

Jesus does not choose the title "Son of God", but he does not deny it; the words are not his, but they are true.

F. The temptation. [4:1-13] F'. The betrayal. [22:39-65]

Jesus' ministry begins and ends alone, face to face with evil. In the Judean wilderness he is alone, without any companions. There the devil presents the options of wealth, domination, and security. Jesus rejects them all. Then the devil goes away, for this is not his time.

In the garden, Jesus is alone in loyalty to his mission. His disciples are with him, but they fail him, betray him, and deny him. In the end, Jesus is left alone with mocking soldiers. By attacking through his disciples, Satan seems to win, for this is the night of Satan's power.

Jesus, however, remains steadfast through both of these episodes.

G. Inaugration of the ministry. [4:14-44] G'. Inaurguration of the kingdom. [22:1-38]

After the period of tempatation, Jesus inaugurates his formal, public ministry on two Sabbaths, one in Nazareth and the other in Capernaum. Jesus converts these Sabbath observances into a time to lay out the purpose and plan of his ministry.

Before the time of betrayal, Jesus converts the celebration of the Passover into the inauguration of the kingdom of God. The meal eaten as a memorial of an ancient act of salvation becomes a sign of the new and present salvation. A kingdom is passed on, but a kingdom of service. And the enemies are present here as well, both spiritual and secular; indeed, they are at the gate.

H. Jesus is Lord. [chapters 5-9] H'. Let us follow him. [Chapters 10-21]

Luke has framed the gospel by setting it firmly between the Jewish heritage and the coming of the kingdom of God. Now we come to the main body of the book. here Luke answers the questions, "Who is Jesus?" and, "What is the Christian life?"

Luke has so carefully framed the good news that the answers seem almost obvious. But in fact there is still much to be said.

Jesus is Lord

Who is Jesus? He is a human child ("son of man") who demands of us that we follow his example, who has the authority to make this demand of us, and who leads us out of bondage. This is the message of chapters 5-9 of Luke.

As we look at the detail of Luke's gospel, it is well to recall that this outline highlights only one aspect of the book. As these ideas are being presented, Luke is also pursuing the dramatic story line and developing additional themes.

1. "Follow me." [5:1-11] 1'. "Follow me." [9:51-62]

Who is Jesus? At the first level, Luke portrays Jesus as aperson who demands a commitment. Jesus is a teacher, to be sure, but not a teacher who is interested in intellectual knowledge alone. After teaching from Simon's boat, Jesus "pays" for its use with a huge catch of fish. The fishermen do not stay to enjoy their reward; instead they leave everything to follow Jesus.

When Jesus takes the road for Jerusalem, these fishermen are still with him. (True, they are not completely with him in spirit, but the commitment remains even though their support is sometimes misguided.) As they travel, Jesus extends his demand for total commitment to three others and, by implication, to us.

Luke defines Jesus as someone who demands commitment, but delays the full discussion of the nature of this commitment to the next section, on following Jesus.

Jesus' Authority

2. The testimony of marvels [5:12-26] 2'. The master of the world [8:22-56]

Jesus makes an impressive demand. It is natural to want impressive acts from one who asks such radical loyalty. Luke's next layer of narrative provides just this evidence. In the earlier of these passages, Jesus demonstrates that he is both willing and able to heal both body and sould by curing a leper and a paralytic. In the matching passage, Jesus calms a storm, returns a madman to his right mind, cures a woman's bleeding, and restores Jairus' daughter to life. By these miracles Jesus is shown to be master of the full range of nature: weather, psychology, medicine, life itself.

By such marvels we recognize that Jesus' claim at least deserves a hearing.

3. Describing the new order [Chapter 4] 3'. Growth of the new order [8:1-21]

These two sections contain Jesus' own statement of where he stands and what he believes in. (As such, there is much here which is also important to living the Christian life.) In chapter 6 jesus addresses the purpose of religious law, true happiness, and true love and compassion. Throughout, he emphasizes that people are more valuable than rules or comfort. In view of that, it is more necesary to do good than to study it. Those who do will bear fruit like a good tree.

In the second section, Jesus uses parables to show that those who are gowing in spiritual maturity are the ones who commit their whole lives to the kingdom.

Both sections use the metaphor of growing plants: the trees in the earlier paassages and grain in the later one. Both take note of who are in the kingdom: the list of apostles in the first, the women with him and his true familiy in the second. And both sections conclude by saying that in the new order a person must act in order to belong.

4. Deputy of God [Chapter 7]

Luke now colinches the argument with a series of stories which show that Jesus acts with the full authority of God. Such a person has the authority to lay out the rules of the new order and to command us to follow.

The beginning of this section consists of cures which in themselves are no different from those in layer 2. The first is the cure of the centurian's slave, the second is raising the young man of Nain. But the centurian's own faith and humility make his story a powerful declaration of Jesus' authority, and the incident at Nain evokes the memory of the great prophet Elijah (see 1 Kings 17, an incident Jesus referred to in Nazareth [4:25]). In this way these incidents lead more strongly to the central passages about John.

At the end of the section, the incident of the disreputable woman anointing Jesus' feet shares similarities with other incidents. In this case, however, the woman's behavior demonstrates the effectiveness of forgiveness, a forgiveness which Jesus ratifies for her after explaining what has already happened.

Between these stories the narrative seems to focus on John the Baptist, though actually John is only a foil for discussing Jesus. First, John's disciples ask about Jesus and he replies with his actions. These are not just random wonders, but are specifically chosen to show the fulfilment of the messianic prophecies (especially those which Jesus read in Nazareth [4:18-19]). Then Jesus turns to the people. He does not merely praise John; he also names John as the one who precedes the messiah. Bay all this, Jesus claims the status of God's deputy, one who acts for God in all things.

But this is not the end of the claims Luke makes for Jesus. More is to be said in the second subsection.

Leader Out of Bondage

5. Empowering the disciples [9:1-17] 5'. Power is for service [9:46-50]

Jesus gives power and authority to the 12 apostles and sends them to perform the kind of ministry which Jesus himself has been performing. Then, when the crowds interrupt their retreat, Jesus again places the apostles in charge. In the second pasage, Jesus corrects the apostles' concept of their power by emhasizing the primacy of service and by denying exclusivism.

These passages are only loosely connected by content - each is concerned about the power given to the apostles, but the situation and the point of view is quite different. Nevertheless, it is instructive to read them together, since the each complement the other's view of power. This is, I think, Luke's intention, for these passages form a frame to some of the most significant statements about Jesus to be found in the gospel.

6. The Christ of God [9:18-27] 6'. Christ on the way [9:37-45]

In the first of this pair, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter's famous reply is, "The Christ of God." More significant is Jesus' response, in which he deinfes rather starkly what it means to be the Christ of God: suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. Everyone who wishes to be identified with the Christ must accept the same burden.

After the transfiguration, Jesus comes down the mountain to find a boy in need of healing. Jesus does heal, and the people are awestruck, but the focus of the story is on Jesus' desire to be on his way. "How much longer must I be with you?" he asks, and afterward he tries to turn the disciples' attention to the events fo the passion. It is clear that the miracles are not at the heart of who Jesus is.

7. The transfiguration [9:28-36]

Jesus promises the sight of the kingdom [9:27] and about a week later Peter, John, and James are taken up the mountain to see an amazing sign of the kingdom. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. (These two great and powerful prophets and may be seen as representing the Law and the Prophets. They also left the world mysteriously; Moses died and was buried secretly by God [Deuteronomy 34] and Elijah was taken directly into heaven [2 Kings 2]. Because of what they did and because of how they left the earth they were associated with messianic and apocolyptic expections.) The three converse about Jesus' "departure". The word could also be translated as his "exodus", which would emphasize the parallel with Moses' actions and with the Passover. Luke, however, seems more concerned to rank Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together.

Moses and Elijah appear in glory and Jesus is transformed as well. But now a cloud overshadows them all. This can only be a reference to the presence of God. From the cloud, from God, comes a voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Jesus is unique even in such iillustrious company.

Let Us Follow Him

The path on along which Jesus leads is the road to Jerusalem, death, and finally triumph. Luke uses the final trip to Jerusalem as the literary vehicle through which he can also present the nature of the Christian life. That is, the journey of Jesus becomes the matephor of our following him. (Of course, Luke is simutaneously working out the drama of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. This outline, as has been said before, looks at only one aspect of a complex book.)

Luke has defined Jesus in terms of authority and power which are set in a context of sharing and serving. It is no surprise to find that the life he calls us to live is to echos these themes.

The section on the journey in faith may be outlined this way:

While studying this portion of Luke's gospel, remember that it is set during Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

1. Spreading the news [10:1-24] 1'. Teaching at the temple [Chapter 21]

Anyone undertaking to follow Jesus needs to keep in mind the final goal. That is the message of this pair of passages, which are otherwise quite different.

In the first, 72 (or 70) disciples are sent to announce the coming of the kingdom in advance of Jesus' own arrival. They are sent out with none of the normal preparations for a trip. They are given power over demons and disease and their success gives joy to them and to Jesus. But Jesus makes the point that this power is not the goal; the goal is to reveal the kingdom and to arrive safely there.

At the end of this section, the action has moved to Jerusalem and the temple precinct. Jesus notes the widow who gives up her entire livelihood, then discourses on how both Jerusalem and the disciples will have to give themselves. Just as there was no lack when the 72 went out to preach, Jesus promises that there will be no lack of eloquence or wisdom in the face of persecution. Yet it is still necessary for his followers to keep their attention on the ultimate goal.

2. What is most important [10:25-42] 2'. Leaving conventional authority aside [Chapter 20]

With our faces firmly set toward the goal of the kingdom of God, how do we deal with mundane, daily concerns? In the first of this pair, Jesus accepts the guidance of Mosaic rules for life, but in the story of the good Samaritan he shows how that love which is commanded in the Law of Moses is an active (and even revolutionary) principle which can define the decisions we must make. Later, Martha allows herself to be distracted by things of lesser importance. When a choice is needed, jesus tells her, it is best to choose to be a disciple and let other things go.

Similarly, in chapter 20, a series of questions is raised concerning competing authority. The religious authority of the scholars and priests is dismissed, taxes are not to be an issue, social customs are lost in the greatness of God's rule, and traditional understanding, even about the messiah, gives way to clearer understanding. Jesus does not advocate overthrowing these other sources of authority; he dismisses them as having no real substance.

3. Making the commitment [Chapter 11] 3'. Total commitment [Chapters 18 and 19]

These chapters contains a variety of incidents and teachings each of which ties into an overall concern for the commitment which a Christian must make in order to be loyal to God. Because of the variety and number of points, it may be helpful to lay the two passages side by side.

Jesus begins with teachings about prayer:
the Lord's prayer, the persistent friend, and the certainty of God's answer.
Jesus begins with teachings about prayer:
the persistent widow and the humble tax collector.
Jesus refutes charges of being an agent of the devil
with the parable of the divided household.
Jesus includes the children and makes them examples for all.
Just cleaning out devils is not good enough.
Life must be filled with doing God's work.
Doing the minimum required by the Law is not good enough.
It is necessary to renounce every other concern for the kingdom.
The only sign will be "the sign of Jonah". The Son of Man will suffer, die, and rise.
The interior light illuminates the entire person. The blind man of Jericho receives his sight and follows Jesus.
Pharisees and lawyers have fallen in love with rules
and fail to do what the rules really require.
Zacchaeus repents and repays.
Even in secular affairs, the uncommitted servant is worth nothing.
Jesus commits himself publicly as the messiah and asks for total commitment from Jerusalem and even from the temple merchants.

In each passage, we see that Jesus calls us to an unfaltering loyalty in prayer, in attitude, and in action.

4. Starting out as a disciple [Chapter 12] 4'. Growing in holiness [Chapters 16 and 17]

These chapters are really a continuation of the theme of commitment seen in the previous pair, with a variation in emphasis. In the first of this pair, Jesus assures his disciples, whom he calls firends, that hypocrisy and duplicity will have no lasting power. Then he rejects trust in riches in favor of trusting God. Finally, Jesus warns that one should make the commitment and not wait.

In chapters 16 and 17, Jesus begins with converting money to true wealth. Then he discusses humility in termsn of forgiveness, doing one's duty, and gratitude. Finally, he reiterates the message about the time or its lack.

The unifying theme is to "make friends" before it is too late, to commit everything to God's cause and be on the winning side.

5. What is the kingdom of God like? [Chapter 13] 5'. Regaining the lost [Chapter 15]

All of this is stirring rhetoric, like a patriotic speech, but we should now be asking about the platform. Where is this commitment leading? The answer forms the next layer of this section.

In view of the warning tone of the previous layer, we might wonder whether the kingdom of God is in the business of cutting down sinners. No, says Jesus, but the warning is there. In the kingdom of God the hope is to find some way to make everyone fruitful and to free each person from bondage. Therefore the kingdom grows quietly but conquers in the end. nevertheless, the door does not stay open forever.

In the meantime, the goal is to regain those who are lost, not to cut them out.

6. Pride and humility [Chapter 14]

At last we reach Luke's "summa" of the Christian life. This chapter reiterates the essence of the message contained in the outer layers and, by its selectivity, gives these essential points the emphasis they need. The main points are these:

  1. Rules must take second place to helping.
  2. Sacrifice honor and reward for a true reward in the kingdom.
  3. Sacrifice relationships, possessions, anything which would hold you back from a permanent commitment.


From this analysis, the heart of Luke's gospel is seen to be this: Jesus is a man with the authority of God and who is the Son of God, greater than the prophets. Jesus calls us to follow him in total commitment to God's kingdom of love and service. This is a simple message, but Luke is able to embed it into a rich matrix of story and perspective.

July, 1992
April, 1999
(March, 2014)


Pivot Rock Ensign