We are in the season of reading Luke’s gospel, and will remember that great evangelist this coming Wednesday, on October 18. So much could be said about this remarkable evangelist and the witness that he has left to “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), those things “delivered to us by eyewitnesses and ministers,” as well as those things concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in the early Church. This lively writer tells us, both at the beginning of his gospel and his Acts that he has researched and set in order a narrative of those things that God fulfilled—not only for Theophilus, but for all of us who aspire to “love God” (as the literal meaning of Theophilus’ name inspires us to do).
Nor is this father in Christ only a careful scholar; for he was a minister alongside Paul, mentioned particularly by the apostle in his letter to Philemon, and staying with him until the very end, it seems.
It is only from Luke the evangelist that we hear of: the babes’ meeting in the wombs of Mary and Elisabeth, the genealogy of Jesus taking us back to Adam (“son of God”), a bracing story of Jesus as a young man, the meditation of the Theotokos as she remembers what has happened, Jesus’ heart-breaking teaching of woes as well as blessings, poignant parables of the lost things (sheep, coin, son), stories about women, the great parable of the Good Samaritan, the eery experience of the three apostles as they entered the glory cloud at the Transfiguration, the work of the seventy, the constant presence of the ministering women and especially the Theotokos, two stories of Jesus’ ascension, discombobulating parables such as that of the dishonest steward, Jesus weeping over wayward Jerusalem, the solid presence of Jesus in his resurrection body, and the Lord’s manner of interpreting the Old Testament on the road to Emmaus. So many unique teachings, not found anywhere else!
It was, indeed, this last event that gave me the idea for this entire series of podcasts (with their matching blogs), “A Lamp for Today.” For Peter, in calling attention to the witness of the apostles and how they have delivered to us the prophetic word of the Old Testament, made more sure, was certainly referring to Jesus’ way of interpreting the Scriptures as pointing forward to Him, a pattern that was followed by the apostles, and kept alive throughout the history of the Church. Luke exemplifies this way of reading the Old Testament throughout his gospel and the Acts. As we read, we find constant references to what “is written.” This little phrase, indeed, occurs more times in his gospel than in any of the others, and six times in the Acts! The very use of it signals to us his great reverence for the written word of God, and his assurance that this word of God, from beginning to end, points forward to the Lord Jesus. With this phrase, he makes explicit reference to Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and Amos!
These references come at key places in his two-volume work. Here are all the things that such references are used to explain: Jesus’ presentation in the temple, the ascetic life of the Baptist, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the Father’s preparation for Jesus’ ministry by the Baptist, what is the central teaching of the Torah, the purpose of the Son of Man, the purpose of the Temple to draw the nations, the inevitability that Jesus would be rejected but would still triumph, Jesus’ identity as the Suffering Servant, the betrayal of Judas, the promise of the Holy Spirit, the shameful idolatry of Israel, the divine Son-ship of the Messiah and his incorruptibility, and the rebuilding of David’s house to include the Gentiles.
And these are only the EXPLICIT references that come to us with the little tag “it is written” attached to them. There are numerous other passages woven into the evangelist’s presentation, introduced by the words “as God says” or “as the Holy Spirit says,” or just quoted or echoed without an introduction. The evangelist writes both for those who know the Scriptures well, and will pick up references to Old Testament figures and events just by the language that he uses, and for the beginner, who needs to be told that these things are in the Hebrew Scriptures.
His gospel neither leaves behind those who do not know the Old Testament well, nor bores those who already have an intimate knowledge of it. The student of the Old Testament is delighted to ever find more and more subtle connections with the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, finding language that reminds him or her of the sojourn of Israel in the wilderness, of the prophets Elijah or Elisha, of the ancient stories of Hannah, or Eli, of the beauties of the Psalms, and so on. Here *is a lover of the written word, who makes connections with great sensitivity, and shows them forth to us, so that we can better love the One who is the Word.
Besides the little refrain, “it is written” we hear frequently about how something has happened, or something is to be understood because it is testified to “by all the prophets” or because it is pointed towards “in the law, the prophets and all the writings.”
The evangelist Luke’s gospel goes in two directions for us. First, it highlights Jesus, putting him in center stage, as in the Transfiguration, Jesus is left “alone” before our eyes and the Father’s voice directs us to “Listen to Him!” Secondarily, though, it commends to us a careful, diligent and constant reading of the Old Testament, that Bible of Jesus and the Apostles, which cannot be mastered in a single year, and which constantly surprises us by showing forth Jesus in a new way. For years, I have longed to be one of the two on the road to Emmaus, having my heart burn within me as He shows, from all of the Scriptures, how the Christ must suffer and enter into His glory. And yet, all of us DO have access to that first great Bible study of the Resurrection: for the LORD’s way of approaching, reading, and understanding the Old Testament is modeled for us in the Scriptures, and most especially in Luke’s gospel. Just as we are invited into the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in the same communion as those two when they reached the Inn, so we are invited to feed upon the written Word, inwardly digesting it, as we contemplate the words of the evangelists, who sends us back to every part of God’s first testament to His people.
The Acts of the Apostles closes with a striking picture of St Paul, teaching Jews and Gentiles in Rome about the reign of Christ, “trying to convince them about Jesus” by leading them to the Old Testament (Acts 28:23). Though he was imprisoned, he was able to teach about the Lord Jesus Christ “quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30), because he had freedom to meditate upon God’s written word, and to show its wonders to those who had inquiring minds. We too have that freedom—and it is even more pronounced than the freedom of the apostle Paul, for written Bibles, in multiple versions, are available everywhere for us to read, and to give to others, and to compare.
We may look wistfully back on days when we had more religious freedoms and more avenues of explicit service as Christians. But, in fact, we are freer than most Christians have been throughout the ages, and have numerous gifts that have been delivered to us so that we can read the Scriptures—including the Old Testament! As we are reminded by St. Paul, “the word of God is not fettered” (2 Timothy 2:9). But we can only deliver to others what we have received. And so let us make sure that we listen and digest the FULL word of the apostles and the evangelists, including their delivery of the Old Testament, with all its twists and turns, warnings and encouragements, wonders and sobriety. This involves some hard work, but it is worth doing: reading about the patriarchs, the Hebrews, the Israelites, their sojourn among the pagans, their desire for God’s action, is a necessary part of our growth in Christ. For this is OUR story, not simply a defunct testament of bygone days. May the evangelist Luke be for us one of those lights, shining in the darkness, marking the way for us to see Jesus in full splendor—by way of the ancient Scriptures, by which He was first understood in the Early Church, and by which continues to be honored.