Four standard works. Five books of Moses. Fourteen letters of Paul. We even have four Gospels! Why do we need four accounts of the Savior’s ministry? If we were to read just Matthew and John, would we really lose much by dropping Mark and Luke? Or does Luke, for example, contribute a perspective on Jesus’ teaching that we would miss were we not to have this Gospel?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. Together, let us explore why this is true. 1
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85), of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, moved us toward the answer when he said, “It is apparent … that each inspired author had especial and intimate knowledge of certain circumstances not so well known to others, and that each felt impressed to emphasize different matters because of the particular people to whom he was addressing his personal gospel testimony.” 2
Following Elder McConkie’s lead, we may see the Gospels as facets of a diamond. Each one brightens and highlights the picture of Jesus we receive, with each facet adding brilliance and clarity to the whole. Each gospel bears witness of Jesus Christ and teaches the plan of salvation, but each has a slightly different clarity, cut, and color. It is our opportunity here to explore the unique colors and highlights that radiate from Luke’s portrait of the Savior.
Luke was not one of the original Twelve and probably did not know Jesus personally. Yet he is considered to have been a careful, deliberate historian who gathered all the information he could from “eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2; all references are to Luke unless otherwise indicated) as he wrote his two-part work—Luke and Acts, which he dedicated to Theophilus, a person otherwise unknown to us.
Luke probably lived where there was a large Gentile community, where many wanted to know whether the gospel was for them or only for the Jews. Luke himself was a Gentile and a missionary companion of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He knew that the gospel was for all people—Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free. Thus, Jesus’ words about the all-inclusive nature of the gospel become a focal point of Luke’s message.
Luke saw certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry as being particularly important for people like himself, namely people who were not Israelites. Luke also had a concern for those who were on the fringes of society. Was the gospel for them too, or was it only for privileged classes? It was important to him to explain what it meant to be a disciple, including the place that prayer and the Holy Spirit should have in a Christian life. We find most of these concerns highlighted first in the birth narratives of Luke 1 and 2 [Luke 2]. From there, we can trace them through the Gospel of Luke and into Acts, for many of his emphases find their fulfillment in the apostolic ministry recorded in Acts.
Luke’s narrative is an authoritative witness of Jesus Christ because it is based on the testimonies of original witnesses who met, walked, and talked with the Lord, or who were accurately informed about Him. Luke notes that Jesus’ birth was heralded by appearances of Gabriel to the witnesses Zacharias (Luke 1:11–20) and Mary (Luke 1:26–38), while the baby in Elisabeth’s womb leapt in witnessing recognition of the baby in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:41–44). Both Simeon (Luke 2:25–35) and Anna (Luke 2:36–38) received a divine witness of Jesus’ messiahship and bore witness of Him.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, people were always with Him, hearing His words and seeing His acts (Luke 5:1; Luke 6:17; Luke 7:1, 11; Luke 8:1–4, 19, 40, 42). The same thing was true on the long trips to Jerusalem (Luke 11:29; Luke 12:1; Luke 14:25; Luke 19:37). Finally, in choosing an Apostle to replace Judas, the remaining Apostles determined that the person was to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ entire ministry so that he could bear authoritative witness, or testimony, of the historical acts and especially of the Resurrection of Jesus:
“Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,
Eyewitnesses were the foundation upon which the testimony of the life, ministry, Atonement, and Resurrection of the Lord were to be proclaimed. One witnessed first by seeing and then bore witness by telling the gospel message to all who would listen. The Gospel of Luke reflects the eyewitness accounts of the companions of Jesus, and Acts reflects the witnessing proclamation of the disciples from Jerusalem to the center of the known world, Rome:
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8; emphasis added).
A Universal Gospel
Because Luke was a Gentile, the question of whether the gospel was for all people was important to him personally. He knew, although not all early Christians knew, that Jesus had said the gospel was for everyone—men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.
Women. From the very beginning of Luke, the reader is made aware of the Lord’s concern for women. In the birth narratives, women are clearly the dominant figures. Elisabeth (Luke 1:5–7, 24–25), Mary (Luke 1:26–56), and Anna (Luke 2:36–38) play prominent roles. Zacharias and Joseph are essentially silent; Simeon is the only male, apart from Jesus himself, who plays an active role, that being to affirm Jesus’ identity and mission. It is Mary, not Joseph, who receives Simeon’s witness (Luke 2:34).
Luke alone among the synoptic 3 writers included the account of the raising to life of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12–15), the sinful woman’s anointing of Jesus (Luke 7:37–50), the identification of some of the women who followed Jesus (Luke 8:1–3), the account of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), the woman with a spirit of infirmity (Luke 13:11–17), the woman searching for the lost coin (Luke 15:8–9), the woman and the unjust judge (Luke 18:2–8), Jesus’ words to the women on the way to His Crucifixion (Luke 23:27–28), and the account of the women who amazed the disciples by telling them they had seen glorified messengers who testified that the Son of God was resurrected (Luke 24:10–11, 22–24).
The Poor and Despised. While Matthew focused on Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s visionary experiences, and the coming of the Magi, Luke chose to stress another element. He knew that people with little or no status in society were the first to hear the message of the Messiah’s birth. Thus, we have from his hand the account of the shepherds to whom the heavens were opened (Luke 2:8–20) and who received the glad tidings.
Only Luke among the synoptic writers recorded Jesus’ announcement in Nazareth that He was appointed to preach good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Similarly, Luke gave us the accounts of the centurion who had the sick servant (Luke 7:2–10), the response to John the Baptist’s disciples which stressed the healing of the downtrodden and simple folk (Luke 7:22), the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37), the parable on humility and the great supper (Luke 14:7–24), the accounts of the lost coin and the prodigal son (Luke 15:8–32), the account of the 10 lepers (the only one who returned to thank Jesus being a Samaritan) [Luke 17:11–19], the tax collector’s prayer in the temple (Luke 18:13–14), and the story of Jesus abiding at the house of Zacchæus the tax collector (Luke 19:2–10).
Luke knew that Jesus had thrown open the door of the kingdom to all, especially after His earthly ministry was complete, if they would but come to Him. None was to be excluded except those who excluded themselves; often the rich. Jesus warned against treasures on earth, for wealth had a way of corrupting even the best of intentions. Consequently, Luke recorded Jesus’ warning against covetousness (Luke 12:15) and against planning without considering God’s purposes (Luke 12:20–21). Similarly, Jesus charged the Pharisees with being lovers of money (Luke 16:13–15) and pronounced the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).
Gentiles. Each of the Gospel writers recognized that, in due time, Jesus intended the message of the kingdom of God for all persons, not merely for the Jews, and Luke shows this most clearly: “His mercy is on them that fear him” (Luke 1:50). It is for those “that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), and it is to bring peace on earth and “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). More specifically, it is for “all people” (Luke 2:10). Simeon actually surprised Mary and Joseph, who already knew that Jesus was the Son of God, when he said,
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
“Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
“A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32; emphasis added).
Even Mary and Joseph did not comprehend the scope of Jesus’ work or the full graciousness of God, and thus Luke recorded, “Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him” (Luke 2:33). Why? One reason may have been because He was to be a light to the Gentiles.
Luke recorded the Isaiah passage that John the Baptist quoted (Isa. 40:3–5), including the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6; emphasis added). In addition, the genealogy in Luke is more clearly universal than the one found in Matthew, for Luke traces Jesus’ lineage not merely to Abraham but to Adam and ultimately to God (Luke 3:38).
Jesus created opposition in Nazareth, not because He claimed that salvation might be present in Him but by implying that the saving gospel would go to the Gentiles because the unrighteous Jews would not receive it. He made the point by reminding them of Elijah’s being sent only to the woman of Sidon and of Elisha’s cleansing of Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:26–30). We also have solely in Luke the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave (Luke 7:1–10) and the explanation “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47; emphasis added). The universality of the gospel and its special application to the Gentiles is finally delineated by the entirety of Acts. There we see the gospel proceeding forth to the ends of the earth—among the Gentiles.
Israel and the Gospel
Whether we are born or adopted into the house of Israel, we can each inherit the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Abr. 2:10–11). Luke knew this truth too, and he knew he had to tell people about it. But how to do it? Explaining the relationship was a fairly simple matter for Matthew, because he was writing to a Jewish-Christian audience thoroughly familiar with the writings of Israel: the Old Testament. In essence he would say, “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying …” (Matt. 1:22; see also Matt. 2:5, 15, 17, 23, etc.). His readers knew what he meant.
But Gentiles, to whom Luke’s account is addressed, would not have that scriptural link to Israel. Luke’s concern was tying the house of Israel and the Church together and showing their congruence and continuity to Gentiles. He brings the two together by drawing attention to a very clear element in Jesus’ ministry. To Jesus, Jerusalem and the temple were sacred places. Even Gentiles would know that. They might not know about the Jewish scriptures, but they most probably knew about the Jews’ sacred city and their sacred temple.
Thus, Luke augments his and the Lord’s references to the Jewish scriptures by stressing the importance that the Father and Jesus placed on Jerusalem and the temple. Luke’s Gospel begins in Jerusalem in the temple with Gabriel’s appearance to Zacharias (Luke 1:5–20). Jesus is brought to Jerusalem and to the temple at the time of Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22). Jesus taught in the temple at age 12 (Luke 2:42, 46–49). He cleansed the temple (Luke 19:45–46). He taught in the temple during His last days (Luke 19:47; Luke 20:1; Luke 21:37–38), and His disciples worshiped in the temple (Luke 24:53) even after Pentecost (Acts 2:46–47; Acts 3:1–8; Acts 5:20; Acts 21:26).
Could even Gentile readers miss the implication that the Church is rooted in Israel? Could they doubt that Jesus was heralded by Jewish scriptures when it was so clear that the sacred places of Judaism were also sacred to Him and His disciples? Luke probably hoped this emphasis on Jerusalem and the temple would help the Gentile converts appreciate the importance of the Old Testament in preparing the way for Christ.
Prayer and the Holy Ghost
Luke provided us with deep insights into Jesus’ spiritual life. We see Jesus constantly at prayer in those moments when major events were about to occur. In those instances where Luke parallels Mark’s account, Luke alone added the observation that Jesus prayed. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Ghost descended while Jesus was praying (Luke 3:21–22). Jesus went to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16). The night before He called the Twelve, He withdrew into the hills and prayed all night (Luke 6:12–13). Before He asked the disciples, “Whom say the people that I am?” He prayed (Luke 9:18). He went up the Mount of Transfiguration to pray, and while He was praying He was transfigured (Luke 9:28–29).
It was the result of Jesus’ praying that led the disciples to ask Him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). He told Peter that He had prayed for him so that Satan might not have Peter (Luke 22:31–32). And, of course, prayer was central to the experience in Gethsemane. Jesus commanded the disciples to pray, and He prayed in His agony (Luke 22:40–46). It is in Luke alone that we find Jesus’ parables about prayer: the parables of borrowing bread at midnight (Luke 11:5–8) and of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8). Thus, prayer was the very lifeline between the Father and the Son. If Christ needed to pray, how much more do we need prayer?
In addition to teaching the power of prayer, Luke also highlighted the role of the Holy Ghost in the life of Jesus. Throughout the birth narrative in Luke we see the constant work of the Holy Ghost. John was filled with the Holy Ghost, even in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). The Holy Ghost would “come upon” Mary (Luke 1:35). Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost when Mary came to her (Luke 1:41). Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost and prophesied of Christ (Luke 1:67). Simeon was guided and spoke by the Holy Ghost as he testified of the arrival of the Lord’s salvation (Luke 2:25–27, 30).
As with the use of prayer in Jesus’ life, Luke makes it clearer than does Mark, for example, that it was the Holy Ghost who descended on Jesus at His baptism (Luke 3:22). By the power of the Spirit, Jesus was led into the wilderness for 40 days, and in the power of the Spirit He returned to Galilee (Luke 4:1, 14). Only in Luke is the passage from Isaiah 61:1 [Isa. 61:1] referred to: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18). The Holy Ghost would teach and comfort Him in times of need and give additional power to His divine ministry (see JST, John 3:34). The Prophet Joseph Smith confirmed this when he taught that Jesus had “greater power than any man” because He was the Son of God and had “the fullness of the Spirit.” 4 Luke also records that Christ taught that the Father will give the Holy Ghost to those who seek Him (Luke 11:13; Luke 12:12).
Thus, the Gospel of Luke not only testifies of the role of the Holy Ghost in helping the Savior fulfill His mission but also points to the role of the Holy Ghost in leading and strengthening the Church. This significant theme begun in his Gospel received even greater emphasis by Luke in the book of Acts, where we read of the great new mission fields of the Church being blessed by the coming of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:4; Acts 8:17; Acts 10:44; Acts 19:6).
Through the eyes of Luke, we see the Savior, but we see aspects of His life and ministry that would have been lost to us without this Gospel. Luke teaches us that the gospel is for all persons, be they Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, men or women, shepherds or kings. Nobody is left out. Israel continues to be special in its relationship to God, but the Church draws Gentiles into Israel, as well as others who may have been considered to be outside the pale of God’s chosen, or elect, people. We also learn that the gospel is built upon the eyewitness reports of people who saw all that Jesus did and heard all that He said. Thus, they were true witnesses for Him, people who told what they had experienced and knew. And finally Luke teaches us, through Jesus’ own example, about the essential nature of prayer and the critical role of the Holy Ghost.
What beauty would have been lost had Luke been left out of the scriptures! A diamond truly sparkles when all of its facets can be seen. How much brighter the gospel of Jesus Christ shines because of the insights of Luke the beloved physician.
This article is condensed and revised from a larger article “Mark and Luke: Two Facets of a Diamond,” in The Lord of the Gospels, ed. Bruce A. Van Orden and Brent L. Top (1991), 83–98.
Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (1966–73), 1:69; emphasis added.
The word synoptic means to see from a similar viewpoint. Reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one sees many similarities in the portrait of Jesus; hence the name “synoptic.”
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 188.