The opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel reveal how God was at work in human history preparing for the coming of Jesus. They tell how Jesus was born into a Jewish family that was deeply committed to obeying God’s will and purpose.
Luke shows how God acts in dramatic ways to fulfill his plan for the renewal of his people. John the Baptist, for example, has a major role in preparing Jesus for the work he is to do for God. John is born to an older couple who had had no children (Luke 1.5–25), and Jesus is born to Mary while she is engaged to Joseph and before they have had sexual relations (1.26–38; 2.1–20). Jesus comes from a Jewish family whose ancestors go back through David (Israel’s great king), and Abraham, and then all the way to Adam (3.23–38).
Abraham had been promised that he would have a son, even though he and his wife were old and childless, and that through him God would bless the whole human race (Gen 12.1–3). Before Jesus was born, Mary his mother visited her cousin and sang a hymn that celebrated how God was especially concerned for the poor and the oppressed, and how such people would share in the new kingdom of God that was coming (Luke 1.46–55). At his birth, the only place for Jesus to rest was on a bed of hay in a stable, and those who came to celebrate his birth included two very different kinds of visitors: a throng of angels who told how he would bring peace on earth, and a group of humble shepherds from nearby fields (2.8–20). They represent the sharply different social groups that were to be followers of Jesus.
Jesus was born when the Romans ruled the whole Mediterranean world, including the land of Israel. The emperor then was Augustus, who reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. Every few years the Romans forced people to go back to their hometowns to be put on a tax list. That is why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. When Jesus was circumcised and then presented in the temple for purification (Luke 2.21‑22; Lev 12.6), a devout man named Simeon declared that this child would bring benefits for all people, and light for all nations (Luke 2.29–32). When John was preparing the way for Jesus, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah that all humanity will be able to see the glory of God (Luke 3.6; Isa 40.5).
Later, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14–37), Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John. God’s Holy Spirit came upon him and God declared that Jesus was his own “dear Son” (Luke 3.21–23). Jesus began to do God’s work in public when he was about thirty years old (3.23).
Back in Galilee, Jesus told the people at a Jewish meeting what God was doing through him (Luke 4.14–15). In his hometown of Nazareth he told people at another meeting that God’s promise to the prophet Isaiah (Isa 61.1–2) was being fulfilled through him. Jesus said he was chosen and given power by God to bring good news to the poor, to set free prisoners, and to give sight to the blind (Luke 4.18). The word translated “chosen” means literally “anointed” and was used when oil had been poured on the head of those chosen to be king or priest in Israel (Exod 29.4–7; 2 Sam 5.3). The Hebrew word for anointing comes over into English as Messiah, and the Greek word comes over as Christ.
As the chosen one of God, Jesus had a special concern for the needy, the deprived, and the religious outsiders. He taught that they will be among those who share in the life of the new people of God that he is calling together. Jesus says that his concern for the needy and the outsiders is not a new idea. The ancient prophets, for example, met the needs of those who were not members of the people of Israel (Luke 4.23–27) as when Elijah provided food for a widow from the land of Sidon (1 Kgs 17.8–16) and Elisha cured of leprosy an officer in the Syrian army (2 Kgs 5.1–14).
When Jesus chose his inner circle of followers, one of them was Levi, a man hated by his fellow Jews because he collected taxes for the Romans. Such tax collectors had constant contact with people and things that most Jews considered to be impure and untouchable. Among those people that Jesus healed was the servant of an officer in the Roman army (Luke 7.1–10). Even though Jesus broke with Jewish tradition in these ways, he still respected the main part of that tradition. For example, he chose twelve followers to be his disciples, and he sent them out to tell the good news about God’s kingdom (9.1–6). He probably chose twelve (6.12–16) because that was the number of the tribes of Israel. From the beginning Jesus claimed that what he did and said fulfilled the promises God made to Israel through the prophets (4.21). After Jesus chose his twelve disciples, who were certain that he was “the Messiah sent from God” (9.20), he picked seventy-two more followers (10.1–20), the number of the nations of the world in Jewish thinking. They were all to go out and prepare many towns and villages for Jesus to come and preach God’s kingdom and heal the sick.
Jesus wanted his hearers to obey the Law of God as set out in the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures. He was once asked about how you could be sure of sharing in the life of the coming kingdom of God (10.25), and he answered by pointing out two basic laws: love of God (Deut 6.5) and love of neighbor (Lev 19.18). In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37), which is the main focus of this study, the person Jesus pointed to as an example of obeying these rules was not a Jew. He was a hated outsider.
When Jesus visits Jerusalem for the last time before he is put to death, he arranges to ride in on a donkey (Luke 19.28–40), a very simple way to enter the city in contrast to a powerful king who would come in on a fancy horse. But the prophet Zechariah (Zech 9.9) had said that the king would come to his people one day as a humble man, riding on a donkey. There were large crowds of followers along the way down the hill from the Mount of Olives and into the city who shouted out that he was the king sent by God, just as the psalms had said (Luke 19.38; Ps 118.26). But the religious leaders did not accept this claim and told Jesus to make his followers be quiet. Jesus then told the leaders that God was going to punish Jerusalem by allowing enemies to surround it with armies and destroy its great buildings, including the temple (Luke 19.39–44).
In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was a very impressive city because Herod the Great, the king that the Romans put in power in 37 B.C., had rebuilt it. The biggest and most famous building was the temple, which was built on an enormous platform made of gigantic stones that were 36 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 12 feet high. It took hundreds of workers years to build the temple, and when complete it was more than half a mile around the outside. Not only Jewish people but travelers from all over the world came to see it. Its major importance was not its beauty and size, but the Jewish belief that God was present there in the inner part of the temple. Only the high priest could go into this holy space, and he could enter only once a year on the Day of Atonement, when he presented a sacrifice for the sins of all the people (Exod 30.10; Lev 16). Around the sanctuary was a space where only priests could go, and around that was the section where male Israelites could go. Outside the Court of Israel was the Court of Women. Gentiles or non-Jews could enter only the outer area around the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, and a warning sign told them that the punishment would be death if they went farther. The priests made lots of money by charging people to change their money for offerings and by selling animals to be sacrificed in the temple. Jesus chased away these people who were selling things in the temple (Luke 19.45), and he said that foreign armies would destroy the temple (21.1–6) as well as the whole city of Jerusalem (21.20–24). The priests and leaders were furious with Jesus for saying that such things were going to happen. They began to make a plan to have him killed, and they paid one of his followers, Judas, to help them capture Jesus (22.1–5). Forty years later (A.D. 66–70) the Romans really did attack and destroy the temple and the city.
Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, and used the cup of wine and the loaf of bread to tell them that he was going to die, but also to show that his death would be the basis for the “new agreement” between God and his people, an agreement that would come to fulfillment in the new age when God’s rule or kingdom would be effective over the whole world (22.14–21). After the meal, Jesus took his disciples out of the city to the Mount of Olives, and he prayed for them there (22.39–46). Judas, however, brought the temple police to the Mount, where they arrested Jesus and took him back into the city. Peter then denied that he had ever been a follower of Jesus (22.47–63).
Jesus was examined by the council, which consisted of the local leaders. They were furious at Jesus’ claim to have a unique relationship with God (22.66–71). They then turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor of the region called Judea (23.1–5). Such regional councils had freedom in running cities and districts according to their own local laws, but when matters came up that threatened the peace or were political, the Roman authority took over. The Jewish leaders made this point when they told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be their king, but Pilate could not find any basis for this charge. So Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who was the man that the Romans had made ruler of Galilee, where Jesus lived. He ruled Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39 and built a Roman-style capital city on the shore of Galilee that he named Tiberias for the Roman emperor, Tiberius. Herod also could not find anything wrong with Jesus, but he made Jesus put on fancy clothes to make fun of him as though he claimed to be king (23.6–16).
Pilate assumed that Jesus was claiming to be king of the Jews, which was a serious political charge since it suggested that he was trying to start a revolution of the Jews against the Romans. Because of this political charge, the Romans condemned Jesus to death and they fastened an inscription over the cross of Jesus to show why he was being executed: “This is the King of the Jews” (23.38). He died on Friday afternoon, shortly before the Jewish Sabbath began at sundown.
A member of the Jewish council named Joseph disagreed with the decision to kill Jesus, and so he took the body of Jesus and quickly buried it in his own tomb, which had been cut out of the rock (23.50–54). Some women followers of Jesus wanted to prepare his body for burial with sweet-smelling spices, but they had to wait until Sunday morning when the Sabbath was over (23.55–56). When they returned, they found the tomb empty and Jesus’ body gone. They were told that he had been raised from the dead, and they reported this to the disciples, who did not believe it. Then Jesus, risen from the dead, met his disciples and told them that his death and resurrection were foretold in the Scriptures. He shared bread with them, to remind them of their last supper together and to assure them that he would continue to meet with his people as they shared the bread and the cup. He urged them to read and study the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets in order to understand what God has done and will continue to do through him to renew his people. Then he was taken up from them to be with God.
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