The Four Gospels: Luke
Preached: August 7, 2011
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:
When the glory of the Lord appeared to the Prophet Ezekiel, he saw four angelic cherubim each with four faces: the face of man, of a lion, of an ox, and of an eagle. During the Middle Ages the church adopted these images to symbolize the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Each of the four proclaim one and the same Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior from sin and death. Each one has the same purpose: to kindle faith in our heart and fan it into a roaring fire so that you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord, your Savior from sin -- a faith which humbly repents, which rejoices in God's forgiveness, which lays hold of eternal life with sure hope, and which produces the fruit of kindness and service toward our neighbor and love that prays even for our enemies.
These four books are unique. Although everything they record is factual history, they are not history books. Although they tells us about events in the life of Jesus, they are not his biography. Although they are full of doctrine, they are not theological text books. What are they? They are Good News, the Best News. They bring you your Savior, Jesus Christ, so that you believe and are saved.
To preserve this Good News for us and all ages, the Holy Spirit used four different men to write down the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He used them according to their different gifts, abilities, backgrounds, circumstances, and life-experiences. Although they all proclaim one and the same Gospel and all that they write was verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore completely true without contradiction, yet each book has its unique character. In the past two weeks we looked at Matthew and Mark as we focused on the image of the man and the lion to symbolize their character. Today we look at Luke and the image of the ox.
Luke wasn't one of the twelve Apostles. In fact, he probably wasn't even a Jew, but rather a Gentile. We meet Luke indirectly as we read Acts, which he also wrote. In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul is on his second missionary journey. He and his partners have traveled through what we'd call Turkey, revisiting some of the congregations from the first journey. But where should they go next?
Paul arrives at the western coast of Turkey at the city of Troas across from Macedonia, which we'd call northern Greece. During the night Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man begging him to come and help. Then instead of saying that Paul and his companions left, Acts says "*we* got ready at once to leave for Macedonia" (Acts 16:10 NIV1984, emphasis added). Luke had joined them and traveled with them to Philippi. That's where Paul drove out a demon from a girl, spent the night in prison, and shared the Gospel with the jailer. When Paul had to leave, Luke stays behind. But when Paul comes through again on his third missionary journey, Luke again travels along. From here until the end of Acts, we often find Luke in the company of the Apostle Paul.
In Colossians we learn that Luke was a doctor (Colossians 4:14 NIV1984). And in his last Epistle, 2 Timothy, as he awaits his execution in prison, Paul writes, "Only Luke is with me" (2 Timothy 4:11 NIV1984). Just as we saw last week that Mark had a close connection with the Apostle Peter, Luke has a close connection to the Apostle Paul.
Think about Paul's apostleship. Unlike the other Apostles, he was not a disciple during Jesus' earthly ministry. In fact, after Jesus' ascension, he led the persecution against the Christians in Jerusalem. He even got permission to go to Damascus and hunt down the Christians there. But you know how Jesus appeared to him on the way and called this persecutor to repentance. And later, Jesus himself instructed Paul, so that he became an eyewitness of the risen Jesus and received the Gospel from Jesus himself, even as the other Apostles had.
Maybe the best summary of the character of Paul's ministry comes from his first letter to Timothy. Paul writes: "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life" (1 Timothy 1:13-16 NIV1984). We see Luke express the same character. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly, even the worst of sinners.
But how does an image of an ox bring out this theme? Consider the ox compared to the lion, the eagle, or man. Isn't it the lowliest of the four, just a beast of burden to pull the plow and work the ground? Many of the working and words of Jesus that Luke records bring out this theme of seeking and saving the lost and lowly. For example, only Luke records that Jesus said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10 NIV1984). But that's Luke 19, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
When we turn back to chapter 1, we see Luke bringing out how Jesus came for the lowly. Rather than focusing on Joseph, the head of the house, as Matthew did, Luke focuses on Mary, the young virgin, probably just a teenage girl, an insignificant figure in Jewish society. The Lord sent Gabriel to announce to her that she would be the mother of the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32). In her song of praise to God, Mary declares, "He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly" (Luke 1:52 HCSB).
The Savior himself comes in lowliness, laid in manger because there was no room in the inn. Angels don't minister to him but rather announced the glad tidings of great joy to lowly shepherd keeping watch over the flocks by night. At the temple the baby Jesus is not greeted by the high priest and the Sanhedrin but by Simeon and an old woman named Anna. Read Luke 2. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly.
Several of the parables and events that only Luke records, feature the lowly. For example, the Samaritans and tax collectors were considered the scum of Jewish society. But in Luke we find Jesus holding up the example of the Good Samaritan to show us who are neighbor is (Luke 10). Of the ten lepers only the Samaritan returns to give praise to God (Luke 17). Jesus contrasts the proud pray of the Pharisee with the humble plea of the tax collector, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13 NIV1984), and makes it clear that the tax collector went home justified. And only Luke tells us of Jesus visit to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19). In fact, that's where Jesus said, "[T]he Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10 NIV1984). Do you see how again and again Luke brings out the theme: Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly, even those as lowly as an ox?
But maybe that theme comes out most clearly in Luke 15. We could call that the chapter of the lost. With three parables Jesus brings home that he came to seek and to save the lost and lowly. A shepherds leaves his ninety-nine sheep and searches for the lost one until he finds it and carries it home on his shoulders with great joy. That sheep is you, dear friend. A woman who lost one of her ten silver coins lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches diligently until she finds it and then rejoices with her neighbors. "In the same way, I tell you," Jesus says, "there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10 NIV1984). The angels rejoiced over your repentance that looks to Jesus alone for forgiveness. And then the parable of the lost or prodigal son who wasted all that his father had given him in extravagant living and then returned home with a humbled, penitent heart. Your heavenly Father welcomes you, repentant sinner, with open arms. He dresses you in the best robe and slaughters the fattened calf. For as the Father explains to the older brother, "[W]e had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (Luke 15:32 NIV1984). Jesus came to seek and save the lost and lowly. He came to seek and to save you, dear friend.
But don't think that the lowly were saved because some special virtue in them, as if a low station in life makes a person worthy in God's sight. Not at all. Rather the fact that Jesus came to seek and to save even the lowly emphasizes that nothing in us attracts God's favor or love. He came even for the outcasts. What grace God shows! It's like the Apostle Paul said that if God would save even him who persecuted the church, how great his grace must be! So also that God would save a sinner like Zaccheus or like you and me, how great his grace! How great his grace that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly!
And such grace calls forth faith, faith that turns from our sins and clings to God's word of promise. Even a sinner as bad as I am is forgiven! From the beginning Luke clearly brings out that faith takes God at his word. Consider how Zechariah the father of John the Baptist doubted God's message announced by Gabriel and so his ability to speak was taken away due to his unbelief. But Mary believed that God could do the impossible. Faith takes God at his word.
And such faith produces fruit. In Luke 13 Jesus says, "[U]nless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5 NIV1984). Then he tells of the tree that has not produced fruit for three years, the owner said, "Cut it down," but the caretaker asked for one more year to dig around it and fertilize it. If after that it produced fruit, good. If not, then cut it down. See God's grace and patience that seeks and saves the lost and lowly. Yet it's not a grace to trifle with or a patience to abuse, but a promise to believe. He came for you. Believe it, no matter how lost and lowly you may feel at times. And faith in that promises changes us to serve God and our neighbor, just as Zaccheus was changed. Such faith clings to God's promise that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly, including you and me.
And how did Jesus do it? Just as Matthew, Mark, and John lead us to the cross, so does Luke. Jesus gave himself as the sacrifice in our place. Just as an ox was one of the animals used for sacrifice in the Old Testament, so also Jesus sacrificed himself to pay for your sins and mine.
Even as Jesus carried the sins of the world and suffered God's wrath and punishment in our place, he sought the lost and lowly. Luke alone tells us that Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NIV1984). Luke alone recounts how Jesus told the repentant thief, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43 NIV1984). He came to seek and to save the lost and lowly to the very end.
And his mission did not fail. For Luke also records Jesus' victorious resurrection. He goes into detail of how Jesus appeared to the Emmaus disciples and explained how all this was God's plan revealed in the Scriptures. Later Jesus sums it up for his disciples telling them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46, 47 NIV1984). That's how this Good News came to you and to me. For Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and lowly. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.