Who is the greatest man who ever lived? A question like that could spur a long debate among scientists, humanists, business and political leaders, even religious leaders. Of course, you would expect a pastor like me to say, Jesus.
Arguably, Jesus of Nazareth is the greatest man who ever lived. I say this emphatically, even though Jesus said John the Baptist was the greatest man born among women for the way he served (7:28). Jesus is the greatest, not only because of the way He served humanity but also because He is the perfect God-man, something even the greatest humanist must concede.
Jesus was not God alone or man alone; He was fully human and fully divine in a unified existence. Christian theologians refer to this as the incarnation, also the hypostatic union, which sounds like a fancy term in English but is quite simple yet profound. The word hypostatic means personal. Thus, the hypostatic union is the personal union of Jesus’s two natures. David Mathis writes, “The hypostatic union is the joining (mysterious though it be) of the divine and the human in the one person of Jesus.”[i]
If Matthew presents Jesus as King of the Jews, and Mark portrays Him as Jehovah’s Servant, Luke portrays Jesus as the perfect God-man, with an emphasis on His humanity. “Behold the Man!” is Luke’s main thrust, which makes sense because he writes to the Greeks, who mused much about humanity and embraced the gods and goddesses of Greek Mythology. In Luke’s gospel, we see God manifest in the flesh primarily, a Savior who identifies fully with our humanity and yet soars sinlessly and excellently above it.
An Orderly Account
Luke, the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14), was the apostle Paul’s close friend, ministry colleague, and traveling companion. He was with Paul in Rome when the Emperor, Nero, beheaded the great champion of the faith (2 Timothy 4:11). The strongest biblical evidence supports the idea that Luke was a gentile (Colossians 4:10-14), making him the only non-Jewish contributor to the New Testament. However, some argue that he was a Hellenistic Jew. His skills in the Greek language are impressive, making Luke’s gospel the most splendid literary presentation of Jesus’s life and ministry.
Luke wrote a two-volume anthology of the life of Christ and the early church, known as Luke-Acts. In the introductions to both books (1:1-4, Acts 1:1-3), he addresses his friend Theophilus, who was probably a Greek businessman who underwrote the cost of Luke’s research, which the careful scientist compiled from the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life and ministry. No doubt, Luke and Theophilus shared Paul’s burden for gospel evangelism to the Gentiles, particularly the Greeks. They desired historically reliable documentation of the Christian faith.
Behold His Birth and Boyhood
Luke starts with the birth of Jesus, as Matthew does; however, Luke lingers longer on the nativity and has a different emphasis. While Matthew starts with a genealogy that links Jesus prophetically to the Davidic throne, Luke inserts the genealogy after Jesus’s baptism (3:23-38), placing primary importance on His humanity through the childhood narratives. Another difference is that Matthew’s genealogy goes back to Abraham; Luke’s genealogy returns to Adam, the first man, linking Jesus, the second Adam, to the first (1 Corinthians 15:45).[ii]
Luke provides a fuller understanding of the familial relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus by interspersing their birth announcements and ministry preparations. He includes a wholesome visit between their mothers, who were both pregnant at the time. When Mary arrives at her cousin’s home and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. Elizabeth graciously says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”. Then, Luke makes one of several references to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Christmas story (1:39-45, 67).
Luke records birth and boyhood episodes from the life of Jesus not found in the other gospels. For example, from Luke we learn about the historic decree made by Caesar Augustus that providentially moved Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and into prophetic position (2:1-8). We hear the angels bring “good news of great joy” about Messiah’s birth to the humble shepherds (2:8-21). We also sing four unique hymns related to Messiah’s arrival, including Mary’s Magnificat (1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), the angel’s Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and Simeon’s Canticle (2:29-32). Luke invites us to attend the circumcision of the eight-day-old baby and consider His presentation at the temple, according to the Mosaic law (2:21-38).
Furthermore, we feel the panic inside the hearts of two first-time parents. After celebrating the Passover feast and starting their journey home to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph realize “the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem” (2:39-52). Oops! They lost the Messiah! Then, we stand amazed when they retrace their steps and find their twelve-year-old son in the temple, sitting among the teachers and astounding them with His wisdom.
Angels appear to Zacharias, Mary, and the shepherds, reminding us that the Christ child is both human and divine. Although we wish for more insights into Jesus’s early childhood, Luke provides two summaries by saying, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (2:40), and “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man (2:52).
Luke concludes this first section with Spirit-filled Jesus emerging victoriously from forty days of fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil (4:1-13). As a man, Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Behold His Miracles and Parables
The next major section of the book (4:14-9:50) begins with Jesus returning to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit. While in His hometown, Nazareth, Jesus attends the synagogue and picks up Isaiah’s scroll to read the following words, which only Luke records, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (4:18-19).
After rolling up the scroll and returning it to the attendant, Jesus sits down and begins applying the Old Testament Messianic prophecy to Himself. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:22). For those who say Jesus never claimed to be God or the Messiah, Luke provides positive proof that He did. By referring to the ministry of Elijah, the prophet to Naaman the Syrian, Jesus goes on to suggest to His hometown friends that Messiah was not there’s alone. Offended by His words, they ran Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff. Before they throw Him down, the Miracle Man walks through their midst untouched (4:16-30).
Then, Luke puts the Son of Man’s compassionate humanity on display by recording sixteen miracles performed by Jesus, who is never too busy to care for people’s real human needs.[iii] Luke also emphasizes Jesus’s ability to touch humanity through His parables. All but two of the twenty parables Luke records start with words like, “There was a certain man …” Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes the kingdom of heaven with parables that begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”
Another way Luke highlights Jesus’s human sympathies is by featuring the prominent place women held in His ministry, including those who “provided for them out of their means” (8:1-3).[iv] Along the way, Jesus foretells His death and resurrection twice (9:21-22, 43-45), followed by the first time Jesus rebuked His disciples for their conversation about who was the greatest (9:46-48).
Behold His Journey to Jerusalem
The longest section within Luke’s gospel, comprising thirty-five percent of the book, can also be the most challenging to read. Known as Luke’s travelogue, 9:51-19:57 appears to wander aimlessly without any sense of organization and plot other than the idea that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Around this idea, we can make some attempt to arrange Luke’s thinking as he reminds his readers at least three more times that Jesus is “on the way” (10:38, 13:22, 17:11). These reminders happen around a weighty question someone poses to Jesus followed by His answer, plus a montage of miracles, parables, discipleship teaching, and confrontations with the religious leaders.
Jesus’s ministry grows, but so does the opposition to Him as He travels closer to Jerusalem for the final time. For example, someone accuses Him of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, to which He responds, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls” (11:14-23).
Also, while dining privately with a few Pharisees, the conversation grows tense. Jesus delivers a series of divine woes aimed at religious hypocrites, which lands like a thud in the middle of the table. Luke writes, “As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (11:53-54).
The epic travel narrative contains more unique material and much that illustrates Jesus’s compassionate humanity, including the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), Parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son (15:1-32), and the Parable of the Publican who humbles himself before God and found mercy (18:11-14). Luke includes two parables Jesus delivered to encourage persistence in prayer (11:5-13, 18:1-8). He also records the real-life story (not a parable) that Jesus told of two men, one rich and one poor, who died and entered the afterlife with different experiences (16:19-31). These stories, and ones that follow, point to Luke’s emphasis on the human connections Jesus made.
Closer to Jerusalem, Luke presents Jesus’s encounter with a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who became an unlikely recipient of salvation (19:1-10). As Jesus makes His way to the Holy City to offer His life as an atonement for sin, He is clearly seeking the lost, like Zacchaeus, for the purpose of saving them (19:10).
Behold His Travesty and Triumph
Luke moves quickly through the familiar scenes associated with Jesus’s betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, but He also offers some unique insights. For example, during the Passover meal He shares with His disciples, Jesus institutes an ordinance of the church known as the Lord’s Supper. Luke gives us these familiar words relating to the bread, which memorializes the broken body of our Lord, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (22:19).
When describing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Dr. Luke writes, “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (22:44). The physician notices the real stress that came upon the Great Physician’s human body, producing a condition called hematidrosis (sweating blood). Luke leaves no room for doubting that Jesus suffered real human pain even before they scourged His body and nailed Him to the cross.
Luke also records three of Jesus’s seven cries from the cross. As cruel malefactors drive spikes into His hands and feet, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:32-38). He says to the thief on the cross next to Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (23:35-43). And, according to Luke, moments before Jesus exhaled His last breath, He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:44-49). In keeping with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’s humanity, he records the centurion who witnessed Jesus’s death as saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (23:47).
Luke’s gospel reaches its climax in chapter 24 with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To this part of the anthology, Luke adds several post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, validating the story through actual eyewitnesses. He starts with two men who encountered Jesus while walking along the road to Emmaus (24:13-35). Astounded by the experience, Cleopas and his friend return to Jerusalem and tell the eleven remaining disciples. Then, Jesus appears to His disciples, and Luke concludes with Jesus’s ascension.
In all, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is the perfect God-man, who is man enough to feel our pain and God enough to do something about it.
[i] “What is the Hypostatic Union?” David Mathis, access on December 8, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-hypostatic-union
[ii] John’s gospel traces Jesus’s lineage even further back than Adam (John 1:1-2, 14).
[iii] The first miraculous catch of fish on the lake of Gennesaret (5:1-10) and the raising of a widow’s son from the dead in Nain (7:11-17) are unique to Luke’s gospel.
[iv] For the prominent role women played in Jesus’s ministry, see Luke 7:11-13, 8:1-3, 10:38-42, 21:1-4, 23:27-31, 49.