The Purpose of Luke-Acts

Baur’s hypothesis crumbled before the end of the 19thC, but alternative enquiries into Luke’s intention flowered only well into the 20th C. Henry Cadbury raised the question in his erudite way in his book, The Making of Luke-Acts, and made some perceptive observations and suggestions, but his style was to ask questions, not prescribe answers. It was in 1954 that Hans Conzelmann propounded an answer to the question far removed from any suggestion of Cadbury or Baur.[2] “Luke’s” church was demoralized by the failure of Jesus to return in the manner expected and “Luke” set out to remedy this with a strongly edited revision of Mark and a companion volume, Acts. According to Conzelmann, the first coming of Jesus was not the end of the age, as the early Christians thought, but a second stage is a three-stage salvation history consisting of the OT period of promise, the “Satanless” period of Jesus, and the age of the church. This church age is not to be thought of eschatologically (part of the last days), but as ordinary history. The parousia is pushed into the distant future where it ceases to be of great significance is determining the shape of Christian life. Like Baur, Conzelmann regarded Luke not as an interpreter, but a falsifier of history. In the early and mid twentieth centuries the idea that history and theology were incompatible was commonplace. The presence of theology in a historical narrative was seen as a sure sign that the history had been “tweaked” if not outright invented.


Conzelmann had a wide following and his approach to Luke continues to influence. It did not go unchallenged, however. It was an evangelical, I. Howard Marshall, Professor of NT at the University of Aberdeen, who in 1970 responded to Conzelmann in a book entitled Luke – Historian and Theologian . Marshall argued that there is no necessary conflict between history and theology. Theology is interpretation. It can be true or false interpretation, but either way it does not need to falsify the account of the events it records. Luke understood himself as an accurate recorder of things that happened and wherever one can check him he proves generally trustworthy, notwithstanding a few problem statements. Where he uses Mark, for example, he uses him responsibly. Marshall contends for Luke as a competent historian, albeit according to the standards of his own day. But – and here we meet the question of intention again – he does not create a mere chronicle for the sake of recording events for posterity. He writes with purpose for the people of his day. His purpose, says Marshall, can be inferred from his major theme, which is salvation. Luke-Acts is essentially evangelistic, not necessarily in the sense that it is written as tracts for unbelievers, but that its focus is the essential message of salvation, which, whether someone reads it in Luke or Acts or hears it from a Christian who has clarified his or her understanding with the help of Luke-Acts, is intended to convert.

There is great strength in Marshall’s approach. It must be true that the major theme or themes of a work of literature are part of the author’s purpose, and as a first approach to understanding Luke-Acts one could not recommend anything better than Marshall. However, the careful reader of Luke-Acts as of Marshall – will want to ask questions and perhaps push further.

  • Is salvation the central theme?
  • Why did Luke use the vehicle of Gospel and Acts, which leave aside many of the ideas one would want to incorporate into a doctrine of salvation, and include many less related ideas?
  • Has Marshall correctly understood what Luke understands by salvation?
  • Was there no need more specific than for a general treatise on the subject of salvation?
  • Marshall suggests Luke may have written simply because he had information that no one else had yet put into writing. Could there have been a burning issue (or issues) – tensions – that drove Luke and his project?

In 1982 Robert Maddox of the United Theological College in Sydney, Australia published a book entitled The Purpose of Luke-Acts, in which he carefully examines many previous suggestions of purpose, and works out his own conclusion.[3] At the outset he addresses the essential question of when the author wrote. If that can be determined and we can learn what was going on at the time, we will be in a better position to discern the “subtext” and discuss the author’s purpose. He pumps for a date of publication abut 85-90, after the Jewish War, but before the persecution of Domitian.

His second chapter deals with attempts to discern Luke’s purpose along ecclesiological lines.  Something is going on in Luke-Acts with Jews and Gentiles and Christian identity –

… the rejection of the Christian message by Judaism …is clearly for Luke a major concern, and thereby a major hint towards identifying the purpose of his book.[4]

Having surveyed other approaches and garnered additional insights Maddox returns to this as the clue to Luke’s real purpose and concludes that he wrote to strengthen and confirm the faith of Christians living at a time when Judaism was asserting itself as the truth: Jews are the true people of God and Christians are heretics.

“…his (Luke’s) deep concern to explain the intentional rift between Christian and Jews …. is very much at home in the early years of Gamaliel II’s presidency of the Rabbinic Academy at Jamnia where from the Jewish side the exclusion of ‘Nazareans’ as heretics was formalized.”[5]

Maddox is adamant that Luke-Acts was written for a Gentile Christian church aimed at “clarifying the Christian self-understanding”.[6]

He is just as certain that Luke had no evangelistic purpose.

“The fact that Luke-Acts ends with a long section about the imprisonment and trial of Paul blunts the edge of any suggestion that Luke’s aim was evangelistic, indeed at no point in our investigation has  anything emerged to make this aim seem likely.”[7]

Maddox’s book is well-researched and written and deserves its place as a standard work on the purpose of Luke-Acts, but this last assertion seems to me to be so wide of the mark as to demand a careful scrutiny of his solution.

The Gospel in Luke-Acts

If we go by Marshall’s principle (with which Maddox agrees) that major themes are clues to purpose, what are we to make of the presence of five major evangelistic sermons in Acts? We should probably add to these two defence speeches in which the gospel is central. This is in addition to Stephen’s speech, various summary statements of the gospel, and Paul’s three defensive speeches.

If, as is generally admitted, the speeches are an important mechanism for the author to impart his own theological emphases, we must concede at the very least that Luke wants to make crystal clear the content and character of the Christian gospel. What motive would drive him to this other than the desire that the gospel should be heard – in various forms? I regard it as near as obvious that Acts was written with an evangelistic purpose, which is not to say this was Luke’s only purpose, nor to close the discussion on whether it was intended for Christian or non-Christian readers.

The Purpose of Luke’s Gospel

It is a mistake, in my view, to argue a purpose for Acts and apply it automatically to both volumes. Without doubt we are dealing with a two volume work, but each volume could have a different purpose. One must consider separately, therefore, the purpose of Luke. Luke’s primary achievement in his Gospel is to give a fresh representation of Jesus as “Lord and Christ”, implying a profoundly gospel purpose.  Indeed we could parallel the evangelistic speeches of  Acts with some of the angelic declarations of Luke 1-2 as indicative of an evangelistic purpose from the very outset, so that, whichever end one starts at the same conclusion is reached: one of Luke’s primary intentions (passions) was to present Jesus in his person (identity), mission, character and achievement. At least this is the case until Acts 10; something else manifests itself in the second half of Acts, which requires that we consider Luke’s other interests. Luke- Acts cannot be understood in terms of a single intention/purpose, as many scholars have concluded.


I.H. Marshall identifies salvation as the pervasive theme – therefore purpose – of Luke-Acts. He has made it clear that Luke’s interest in this theme – at least insofar as it is betrayed by his use of the salvation (soter-) word group distinguishes his gospel from the others. He is able to trace the theme through the Gospel of Luke and to the very end of Acts which he subsumes under the heading “The Word of this Salvation”.[8] Marshall recognizes that Luke’s purpose must be evangelistic, at least in giving the Christian community “an effective basis for the evangelism of those who had not yet come to faith”.[9] With this we must agree even if we would question the correctness of summarizing the whole of Luke-Acts under the heading of salvation.

It may seem pedantic, but I would suggest that it is truer to see Luke’s thought structure as focused on Jesus, with salvation as his mission and achievement, than on salvation, with Jesus as the instrument. So much of Luke-Acts deals with the identity of Jesus distinct from his mission – or sometimes his mission is understood as achieving his kingship.  The Pentecost sermon, for example, answers a question about Jesus’ identity and status, before it addresses the question of God’s answer to the human predicament. In my opinion we are on safer ground to see two related evangelistic themes here, and not one. In interpreting Luke one will wish to pay attention to his passionate concern to portray Jesus and to a very distinctive emphasis on salvation. We are dealing with the two foci of an ellipse, rather than a single centred circle. But does this account for the whole of Luke-Acts?

Luke’s Great Improvement

When Luke re-read the gospel of Mark and first conceived a gospel of his own he already had in his hand an effective evangelistic tract which answered the questions who Jesus was/is and what he came to do. Cadbury suggests he may have written “because it occurred to him that he was in a good position to write.”[10] I suspect it was rather the desire to improve on Mark that impelled the researches and material collection that put him in such a good position to write. So what defect did he find in Mark? One that stands out is the small amount of Jesus’ teaching it contains. Luke proceeded to meet this need with, among other things, ten chapters of dominical teaching (ch 10-19), most of it absent from Mark. [11] The central section of Luke makes up almost half his Gospel. This must be taken into account when one considers Luke’s intentions. It is hard to account for if his purpose was purely evangelistic. It bespeaks a pastoral purpose. If we imagine him at one stage of his career caring for a congregation (or congregations) in, say, Macedonia,[12] with something like Mark and the OT as his main written teaching resources we can sympathize with his wishing that he had more of the teaching of Jesus to bring to bear on the manifold needs and questions of his congregation/s.

This thought leaves me scratching my head as to why there should not be something equivalent in Acts: a compilation of apostolic teaching on discipleship. There is, of course, one significant piece of non-evangelistic apostolic teaching in Acts 20, but it is addressed to Christian leaders. This passage points to a definite interest in equipping Christian leaders. What I wish to conclude at this point is that Luke-Acts evidences not one, but a collection of themes and purposes. So far we have identified four themes (Jesus, salvation, discipleship, ministry) and two or perhaps three purposes (evangelism, pastoral care, ministerial equipping).

The Audience

I wish now to insist that Luke-Acts is far from being simply a collection of Christian themes, rather like a theological student’s first sermon, where he wants to tell you everything he knows about everything. We must not ignore Luke’s own statement that he has investigated everything carefully and intends an orderly account which will provide assurance to his readers. Luke has carefully chosen his material and structured it into a purposeful account which was intended to hit some very specific targets. I am unhappy with Maddox’s particular identification of Luke’s readers, but I agree with the importance of the question.

Richard Bauckham has edited a serious of essays which question whether it is helpful to seek specific audiences (communities) for the Gospels:[13] as now, so then, most authors want everyone to read their book. This I concede, and agree that it is a futile exercise trying to reconstruct a “Lukan community” by mirror reading Luke-Acts.[14] Indeed there are indications that Luke is at times addressing different readerships, and that is what we should expect. The author of a major treatment of the origin of Christianity – the largest to emerge from the first century – could well have had the needs of various groups in his mind. That being so, I wish to demonsrate that there is still value in examining his work with the question of the implied audience(s) in mind.

Who Needs the Gospel?

If Luke’s evangelistic concern is directed in any particular purpose, most scholars would finger the Gentile world. No one doubts Luke’s passionate interest in the movement of the gospel into the Gentile world. But if it is Gentiles whose needs are uppermost in Luke’s thoughts, how does it come about that of the five major evangelistic sermons in Acts three are addressed to Jews, two to Gentiles, and only one of these to outright pagans.[15] It may not be significant – Luke may have judged addresses to Jews as equally beneficial to Gentiles – but it is curious, especially if we add Peter’s two gospel-laden defences and Stephen’s exposition of the OT story to the Jewish Sanhedrin, and three defence speeches on the part of Paul to Jews.[16] This adds to nine for Jews, two to Gentiles. Luke surely had access to many examples of evangelistic addresses to Gentiles, which would more directly have met the needs of Gentile readers and their compatriots. Whether to judge his selection curious but accidental, or intentional and indicative of a different audience than normally imagined must be judged from the rest of Luke-Acts.

Indications of Audience in Luke

Simply posing the question whether Luke might have written with Jewish readers in mind is to recall the strong Jewish flavour of the infancy narratives. This has been remarked by many scholars, especially since Conzelmann studiously avoided them in his own exposition of Luke’s theology.

If we imagine Luke drafting a synopsis of his work, utilizing Mark as his starting point and kernel, it is striking to observe the way he has framed it. Mark begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness and concludes with an angelic announcement that Jesus would appear in Galilee. Luke begins in the temple and ends in the temple. The infancy narrative itself begins and ends in the temple. When we move to Acts we find it too begins in Jerusalem, with the temple a recurring motif in its first seven chapters.

We should take care not to attribute all this to Luke’s creativity. We are reading which intends to be historical. Nevertheless, his selection and arrangement cries out for an explanation. Bradley Chance has explored the Lukan interest in Jerusalem and the temple and reaches a theological conclusion: unlike his contemporaries who saw Jewish expectations about Jerusalem and the temple fulfilled in the church (a theology of replacement) Luke believes in more literal fulfilment: Jerusalem and the temple is where God’s salvation appears and where the Messianic Kingdom is initially accomplished. Many of Chance’s observations are pertinent, and his conclusion worthy of attention. Yet he falters when he comes to the question of Luke’s motive, for like most scholars he assumes a post-70 Gentile readership. He suggests there may have been Gentiles who thought they had replaced Israel (compare Romans 11). He declines to commit himself, but offers no alternative, concluding emphatically –

“By showing that in the nascent period the gospel was closely related to the most important physical symbols of Judaism, his description of Christianity as emerging from Jewish roots is enhanced.”[17]

Although Chance thinks Luke had a different “theology” of Jerusalem and the temple to his contemporaries (Mark, Matthew, Paul, etc) he observes no polemic against their replacement idea, which leads him to the following query.

“This might lead one to conclude that Luke’s view of Jerusalem and the temple per se was not the decisive issue … Rather it seems to function for Luke as a means to an end.”[18]

If we consider for a moment the possibility that Luke might have had Jewish readers in mind we are able to see what this end may have been and have a cogent motive for his passion: might Luke have wanted to convince Jews that far from being subversive to the faith Christianity – Jesus and the church – are its true fulfilment and continuation.

Signs of an Implied Readership

Reading Luke 1-2 with a mind to their effect on possible different groups of readers three things standout. The first is that many of the references and allusions would be lost on someone unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures. The significance of Elizabeth’s descent from Aaron, and the allusion to Sarah’s age and barrenness are examples in the first three verses, and there is much more. One questions why Luke would draw the reader’s attention to the great significance of John’s naming without bothering to explain the meaning of the name.[19] The same goes for the name, “Jesus”.[20] Luke 1-2 “works” for a scripturally educated person; much of it is opaque to anyone else. Of course, God-fearers and Christians could fall into this “educated” category, but if Gentiles, only some of whom were scripturally literate, were his major addressees one wonders why so little is explained.

The second sign of implied readership is the prominence of law-keeping in Luke’s description of his characters. Zechariah and Elizabeth, besides being an impeccably qualified priestly couple, are both “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.”[21] What is Luke’s motive for such an effusive description, and for similar descriptions of Simeon and Anna? John and Jesus are both circumcised on the eighth day.[22] Jesus is purified according to the law of Moses, and Luke emphasizes that all the offerings prescribed by the law were subsequently made on his behalf in the temple.[23] Three times in three verses (1.22-24) Luke underlines this conformity to the law, to the point that one is forced to seek an explanation. Jesus’ sinlessness could be the  issue, but one questions why he would go out of his way to emphasize this in relation to obscure ceremonial requirements, if he were writing for Gentiles who were no longer subject to such regulations. For a Jewish reader, however, such a descriptive would resonate, especially in relation to propaganda that depicted Christianity as being against the Mosaic law. Simeon and Anna are two more impressive witnesses to the authentic Jewish origins of the Christian movement,[24] and finally Jesus himself is depicted as at home in the temple sitting with the teachers enquiring after the things of God: a model Jewish boy![25]

The third pointer to an implied readership is the particular way Luke has depicted salvation, not in individual, nor in universal terms, but as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope. Jesus will sit on David’s throne and “rule over the house of Jacob forever.”[26] He comes to help Israel and show mercy to Abraham’s descendants.[27] He is the answer to Simeon’s longing for “the consolation of Israel”, and Anna’s for “the redemption of Jerusalem”.[28] In my judgement this goes beyond any desire to convince Gentiles that their salvation is rooted in God’s promises to Israel; it cries out to the Jewish reader to recognize their own deepest expectation in the mission of Jesus.

Luke 24

We turn now to the conclusion of the gospel with the question of Luke’s readers in our mind. The account of the discovering of the empty tomb essentially follows Mark, except that, as many have observed, Luke removes the impression created by Mark that the resurrection appearances will take place in Galilee, and locates all the action in Jerusalem and its surrounds. Chance may be correct to see a theological motivation in Luke’s wanting salvation to appear in Jerusalem.

The individual features of Luke’s conclusion are Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, Jhis words to the gathering in the upper room about the fulfilment of the Scriptures, and the account of the ascension. The Emmaus story gains its poignancy from the shattered expectation of the travellers: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” We note that this is precisely the conviction of Simeon and Anna in the prologue, and the whole thrust of the Gospel’s conclusion is that he is – he is – he is. Luke’s obvious concern that his readers see the Jesus story as an answer to Israel’s Scriptures can be construed in different ways, but when we take it along with the requirement that the preaching of the gospel must begin from Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit also will be poured out, and with the final picture of the disciples praising God in the temple the question presses us whether it too is intended especially for Jewish readers.

The Restoration of Israel

The Gospel’s depiction of salvation as the redemption of Israel is reinforced by Acts 1.

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel.”

The disciples’ question in Acts 1.6 is often seen as evidence of their lack of understanding. Jesus came to establish a spiritual (or universal) kingdom, but the disciples cannot escape from their material nationalistic mindset. But this is to ignore the direction of Luke’s account. The Gospel begins and ends with the question of Israel’s salvation. The disciples failed to understand the necessity of the Messiah’s death, but now stand in his presence. His resurrection marks the beginning of the eschaton and the coming of the Spirit is more of the same. The query whether the baptism of the Spirit does not bring with it the glorification of Israel is the obvious and natural question, and Jesus neither chides them for asking it, nor corrects a misunderstanding. In addressing rather the question of timing he affirms the event, which is now placed at the time of the parousia.

“He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything as he announced long ago through the Holy Prophets.”[29]

It is a fact that there is little further emphasis on this theme in Acts – attention turns to the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles – but it is not forgotten. Jervell draws our attention to the fact that at the Jerusalem Council James makes the Gentile mission consequent on the restoration of David’s fallen tent.[30] Apparently Luke saw Israel’s restoration as a work in progress and not entirely postponed until Jesus’ return. At the end of Acts when Paul asserts to the Jewish leadership in Rome, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain,” we are surely meant to recall the content of this hope. It has been defined in Luke 1-2 and reaffirmed in Luke 24, Acts 1 and Acts 3. In the absence of any contradiction or retraction we must conclude that it is very much alive in the mind of Luke, even if his attention becomes focused on more immediate matters, and that he purposefully brings it back to his reader’s attention at the conclusion of his two volume work.

There is much, therefore, to move our original suspicion that Luke may be particularly addressing Jews towards a strong likelihood. But there is evidence which allows an even greater certainty.

The Conclusion of Acts

We have come now to the conclusion of Acts, the hottest potato of all in Luke-Acts studies. Paul quotes from Isaiah 6, reminding the Jewish leaders of their prophesied hardness of heart, and declares that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles.

Ernst Haenchen’s commentary on Acts stands as the authority for a particular reading of Acts as a story which moves increasingly to the final dismissal of the Jews and their replacement by the Gentile church.[31] But such a reading ill-accords with the sympathetic treatment of all things Jewish which is stronger in Luke-Acts than anywhere else in the NT writings. Numerous scholars have demurred from Haenchen’s conclusion, but most continue to view Acts as adressed to Gentiles at a time when mission to Jews had ceased to command attention.[32]

But let us deliberately don our Gentile Christian reading spectacles and note another curious thing about Acts 28. Luke has taken us from the home of Cornelius to Rome itself. The Gentile mission is initiated from heaven and the wave has rippled out through Antioch, Cyprus, Asia, Greece and now Italy, with Paul its leading protagonist. The story begs for a climax: if not Paul’s martyrdom or release, then at least his preaching to Romans in the capital, and a picture of the Roman church. Our only glimpse of the church is “the brothers” who come to meet Paul before he reaches Rome at the forum of Appius, and of this meeting we learn only that Paul was encouraged. Then two days after his arrival he calls for the leaders of the Jews and addresses them, not on the subject of the gospel, but of his own innocence. Is this not a strange ending to the book of Acts, and does not the mere fact that the concluding speech of Acts is addressed to Jews – if this were all the indication we had – point towards a deep concern on Luke’s part to address such people?

The Hardening of Israel

The charge that Luke is writing off the Jews hangs very much on what we make of Paul’s motive in quoting from Isaiah 6 and the translation of the following verse.

“Go to this people and say, ‘You will be ever hearing, but never understanding… For the people’s heart has become calloused…and they have closed their eyes…'”

Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (NIV)[33]

The translation (mistranslation?) and punctuation here are the NIV’s, but it is not untypical. If we render the last phrase, “they too will hear,” the meaning and implications are very different. The position of the kai almost demands that it be so. The reason the NIV translates it as “and” (the RSV omits it altogether) is that it has already opted to translate akousontai as “listen”. It makes no sense to say “they too will listen!” That painfully literal translation, the Revised Version of 1881, says it as it is, “They will also hear,” with no exclamation mark and no prior judgement on whether they will believe or reject. Luke’s statement is not as anti-Jewish as it sounds in some translations. It simply echoes a pattern that has been several times repeated in Acts: wherever he travels Paul goes first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles when the Jews turn hostile. But at no point does this amount to a writing off of the Jews, for the same pattern is repeated in the next location. Why should it be different in Rome?

What then of the Isaiah quotation? On the surface it looks like mission to Jews in a lost cause. But that is also the impression it gives when we encounter it on the lips of Jesus in Mark 4, yet there it is juxtaposed with the passionate entreaty, “He who has ears let him hear,”[34] It occurs again at a pivotal point in the Fourth Gospel, summing up the Jewish rejection of Jesus that was moving Jesus toward the cross.

“For this reason they could not believe, because as Isaiah says….:”[35]

For the Fourth Gospel the Isaiah quotation, along with Isaiah 53.1, shows clearly that Jesus’ rejection by his own people was according to prophecy, precisely the point made by Paul in Romans 11.8 with a similar quotation from Deuteronomy 29.4.  Neither Paul nor John uses this idea to demonstrate any final rejection of the Jews, but conversely to explain their rejection of Jesus.[36]

It is likely that Isaiah 6 was an OT topos of the first generation church commonly used to explain Jewish rejection, the point being that if this rejection was part of God’s predestined plan, it was no disproof of Jesus’ messiahship. Could not Luke’s point be the same? Acts’ concluding comment that Paul “welcomed all who came to see him” sits poorly with any intention to “write off” the Jews.

The Intention of Acts 28

We are now in a position to reflect on what Luke’s intention might be in Acts 28. In the final section of Acts Paul and Luke are preoccupied with the Jews. The initiative to gather the Jewish leaders is Paul’s. At their first meeting he declares his innocence and assures them that he has not come to Rome with any charge against his people. Rather, his chain is “because of the hope of Israel”. When they visit him again he expounds the gospel to them. Luke summarizes this as he has already spelled it out for his readers on several occasions. The response is the usual one in Acts: some believe and there is disagreement amongst the rest. Paul’s concluding quotation of Isaiah is most naturally to be read as addressed to the unbelieving Jews: they are only fulfilling what was prophesied of them in Scripture. The Jews who have just believed (and the readers) are surely meant to draw the conclusion that their unbelief is no argument against the gospel. Paul has discharged his obligation to the Jews and will now extend his ministry to the Gentiles. Acts ends on a triumphal and universal note: nothing will hinder the proclamation of the gospel to all people. Nevertheless, it is an appeal to the Jews that concludes the book of Acts.

The Judgement of Jerusalem

I hope I have now provided a strong enough case for us to conclude that Luke has an ongoing interest in mission to the Jews, and that Luke-Acts, whatever other purposes it is designed to serve, is planned with them in view. It cries out to Jewish readers to recognize in Jesus their Messiah and the bearer of their promised salvation. And it urges them to see the church, not as a sect, but as the true people of God. But is not Luke’s emphasis on the judgement of Jerusalem a counter-indication? What were Jewish readers meant to make of that?

I do not think we can step aside from the gospel witness that Jesus believed that in some way he carried Israel’s salvation in himself, but warned of catastrophe should he be rejected. At one point his feeling towards Jerusalem is overwhelming sorrow –

‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather you children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”[37]

As he enters Jerusalem at the start of that fateful week he weeps over it.[38] Perhaps Luke omits Mark’s account of the cursing of the fig tree to avoid any impression that this was something Jesus wished to inflict judgement on them.

Luke’s own attitude can be inferred from the absence of anything about Jerusalem’s fall in Acts.[39] If he was a free inventor of dominical sayings and apostolic speeches, as some scholars believe, and if the fall of Jerusalem fitted happily into his own conception (or if he wrote after the reality) he would surely have carried the theme forward into Acts. But he does not. Its absence in Acts testifies to three things. Firstly, his testimony in the Gospel is loyal to the historical facts of Jesus’ life and teaching. Second, Jerusalem’s judgement was not a major part of the apostolic preaching. Third, Luke himself had no independent desire to underline it for Jewish readers. It was something Jesus’ predicted. There was precedent for it in Jeremiah, other predictions of it in Daniel, and speculation about it in intertestamental Jewish writings. Therefore its presence in the Gospel of Luke is neither vindicative nor anti-Jewish nor a pointer to an exclusively Gentile readership.

The Gentile Mission

The amount of attention Luke gives to the Gentile mission in Acts (with precursors in the Gospel) demands that we see it in connection with his major purposes, and especially his purpose for writing a second volume. It is clearly his intention in Acts to demonstrate that though the Gentile mission may have come about historically through an accidental (providential) set of circumstances – some refuges from Saul’s persecution “spoke also to Greeks … the Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord “[40] – it was nonetheless authorized by a revelation to Peter which led him to the house of Cornelius.[41] There are two things which Luke emphasizes from the Cornelius story. The first is that “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life”. This establishes the rightness of preaching the gospel to Gentiles. The second point is that it is proper now for a Jewish Christian to accept hospitality from a Gentile – to eat his food – because Gentiles are no longer to be viewed as “unclean”, but “cleansed” by God and therefore as much his people as the Jews. Luke tells the story once, and, and then again as Peter is forced to explain his actions to his critics in Jerusalem. Evidently he feels these great issues needed stating and reemphasizing, but to whom? Was it really that important for Gentiles in the ninth decade (or even the seventh) to be persuaded that Jews were allowed to eat with them?

The Jerusalem Council marks a further stage of Gentile acceptance. Considerable space is devoted to proving that neither circumcision nor the other cultural requirements of the law are required of Gentiles, apart from a few provisions in the interests of fellowship.

The Jerusalem decree has been controversial given the absence of any mention of it in Paul’s letters. Indeed Paul seems to be more liberal than the decree in his advice to the Corinthians and Romans.[42] Was Luke out of step with Paul on this? Was he writing to enjoin on Christians a stricter observance of certain food laws than his mentor? One strains to imagine a situation in which this could have happened. But if he is at pains to reassure Jews that their law was/is respected, and that Gentile Christians would not willy-nilly act in an offensive manner in their presence, his emphasis on the decree makes sense and is identical in motivation to what Paul says elsewhere.

Starting with Acts 10, therefore, and going through to Acts 15 Luke has presented a case for the acceptance of Gentile as full members of the people of God without the requirement of circumcision and with full practise of table fellowship. This makes good sense as an argument to Jewish readers. Non-Christian Jews needed to be convinced of these things if they were to embrace Christianity, and some Christian Jews continued to have scruples with regard to table fellowship and the need of circumcision. It should be noted that in this section of Acts there is an encounter with pagans and Gentile God-fearers, but that the major example of preaching is still to Jews.[43] The short speech to the pagans in Lystra is an appeal against idolatry and for worship of the creator God; it falls short of being a full gospel presentation.[44] In fact, it is just the kind of preaching to Gentiles that might commend Christianity to Jewish readers.

In this part of Acts Paul is a player, but not the main figure. Peter, James and to a less extent Barnabas are the authorities vouching for the God-directedness of the movement to Gentiles. Only from chapter 16 does Acts become a story about Paul exclusively.

The Paul Story

We cannot claim to have made sense of Luke’s purpose until we come to terms with the towering figure of Paul in the second part of Acts. It is an exaggeration to say that Acts is about Paul as the Gospel is about Jesus, but it makes a point. Luke has Paul in view from Chapter 8. For the next eight  chapters Paul moves in and out of the story and he is the exclusive focus for the last thirteen. It is this preoccupation with Paul, and especially the repeated defence of him in the latter part of Acts that made Maddox conclude that the purpose of Luke-Acts could not be evangelistic. At first glance this seems justified, but other indicators of an evangelistic concern lead us to caution.

Let us reflect on what major issues might have confronted a Jew of the first century contemplating conversion to Christianity. The first, of course, was Jesus. Could he be the promised Messiah? Luke deals with this firstly with a portrayal of his person, mission, teaching, death and resurrection, and second with the gospel preaching of Acts. The question which logically follows is whether Jesus’ mission in any real way corresponded to Israel’s hope for salvation. The Gospel and Acts depict his mission in the colours of Israel’s national hope. Israel’s restoration, though vastly complicated by their rejection of the Saviour is underway and will be completed at his coming again. The third obstacle is the church, and it is this that necessitates a second volume. By the time of Luke the church and the synagogue stand opposed with the church easily dismissed as a sectarian breakaway. The first seven chapters of Acts are, among other things, an apology for the church. The church stands in continuity with the church in the wilderness,[45] and it bears all the marks of God’s holy presence.[46] A fourth query for the Jewish enquirer relates to Christianity’s free and open intercourse with Gentiles. What does that mean with regard to Israel’s election and the law? Luke will show how the decision to go to Gentiles came about – not lightly or accidentally, but in a manner that to reject it would be to reject God. Far from compromising Israel’s election, it had always been God’s purpose that salvation would come to the Gentiles through Israel.

What then of Paul? Is it possible that Paul himself constituted a serious objection to Jews embracing Jesus? One has only to pose the question to see the answer. Paul returns to Jerusalem at a time of nationalistic fervour and finds that he is being vilified in his absence as one who teaches Jews to abandon the law of Moses, and cease the practice of circumcision.[47] James saw that some serious damage control was called for. Luke may have been similarly motivated. Paul is not just Luke’s hero: he believes him to be an instrument of God chosen to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, and also to be an expert witness to the Jews of the genuineness of God’s work in Jesus.[48] He can hardly ignore Paul. Besides belonging to his party, he believes God’s plan of salvation is being lead forward by him. So he will put the record straight: tell the story of his conversion (three times), tell how Barnabas introduced him to the work in Antioch, his missionary journeys, return to Jerusalem, various defences against Jewish accusations, and journey to Rome.

The repeated defences demand explanation in terms of Luke’s intentions. He speaks to the people, the Sanhedrin, to the High Priest in the presence of Felix, and then King Agrippa. All these defences are addressed to primarily to Jews. It is instructive to read them as an enquiring Jewish reader. His defence to the people is addressed to “brothers and fathers” and is delivered “in the Hebrew dialect.” Saul declares himself a Jew, raised in Jerusalem, thoroughly trained under Gamaliel “in the laws of our fathers.” The man who comes to him is “devout according to the law, attested by all the Jews living there (Damascus).” The speech has a quietening effect on the audience, but only for a while, and the mob begin to cry for his death, but what might its effect have been on later Jewish readers?[49] To the Sanhedrin he claims he is a Pharisee on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead. Some of the Pharisees are even willing to concede he may have had a revelation. Before Felix Paul mainly defends himself against the charge of stirring up trouble.  It is the Roman proconsul who is judge, yet still one feels it is the Jews whose sympathy is sought  when Paul insists that he worships “the God of our fathers”, that he had gone up to the temple to worship, that he had brought “alms for the poor of my nation and offerings”, and so on. One does not wish to make too much of it. One expects an apology to Jews to contain material of this kind, but why so much and why four times over? The speech to Agrippa is more of the same, the testimony of a faithful Jew on trial “because of the hope in the promise made by God to our fathers.”[50] One does not wish to labour the point. Is it not likely that four speeches delivered in Paul’s defence climaxing with a fifth at the conclusion of the book betoken a real and present need to defend the apostle to his readers? And since all are delivered to Jews or in their presence the suspicion is that it is Jewish critics of the apostle which Luke has in mind. These defences stand alongside the evangelistic speeches not as themselves evangelistic, but serving an evangelistic purpose, to clear away a potent barrier to the reception of the gospel.

An Appeal to the Jews

I do not wish to claim too much in my conclusion. I am not arguing that that “Theophilus” was an unbeliever or even necessarily a Jew. I think on balance of probability that he was. He name was not unknown amongst the Jews; it was even born by one of the high priests.[51] It is immaterial to my case whether the patron who Luke hoped would copy and promote his books was a Jew or a Gentile. Nor am I wishing to argue that Luke is not addressing Gentiles. It is probably he wished to place in the hands of his churches a work that would meet a range of purposes and the needs of various classes of people.  The sheer quantity of Jesus teaching in the Gospel, and the address to the Ephesian elders argues for this. I am rather concerned with which class of reader is most consistently and deliberately addressed by Luke and Acts. Did Luke experience an inner tension that caused him again and again to frame his account in a particular fashion? If one examines the structure, the rhetoric, the emphases, the detail – it is the unbelieving Jew whose needs dominate the author’s attention. Luke does everything in his power to present Jesus as their Messiah and the bearer of their salvation, the church as the community of faithful Israel, the Gentile mission as largely a Jewish mission integral to the purpose of God led by faithful Jews, and Paul as God’s faithful servant par excellence, unswerving in his commitment to Israel’s hope as he carries forward his commission to proclaim light to the Gentiles. It does not do justice to Luke-Acts to explain this merely as Luke giving ammunition to his churches to counter Jewish opposition. He appears rather to address them directly, and with passion. If the author of this two volume work was Luke, the companion of Paul, he was in touch with churches that still consisted of Jews and Gentiles and were in active mission to non-Christian Jews.  It is to be expected that he would defend to the last drop of blood the Gentile mission, and Paul, its protagonist. At the same time, he evidently shared his master’s “heart’s desire and prayer for the Israelites … that they may be saved.”[52] In other words, there may, have been a double direction to his evangelistic zeal.

Did Luke actually think that unbelieving Jews would read his books (or listen to them read)? He would certainly have expected that Jewish Christian’s would. But he writes like one who addresses the non-Christian Jewish world. They truly are his imagined readers, and I suppose he hoped that somewhere, somehow, some of them might.

21st Century Reflections

For a modern reader who regards Luke and Acts as sacred Scripture the foregoing conclusions lead inevitably to the question of their normative significance. The first and obvious question which arises is whether Christians today should be engaged in mission to Jewish people. This is an emotional issue which many would answer with a categorical no. But what has changed since Luke took up his pen? If his story is essentially true, and he succeeds in giving modern readers a similar “certainty” as his original readers, then Jesus will again be seen as, first and foremost, Israel’s Messiah, salvation will be understood in part as Israel’s restoration, not yet completed, but materially inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection. Even the coming into being of the Christian church (originally Jewish!) can be viewed as part of Israel’s restoration.[53] Luke wrote to convince Jews of those verities; readers today may be equally convinced.

To be sure, the dark shadow of Christian maltreatment of Jews over many centuries, and the shameful horror of the Holocaust, the stain of which Christianity cannot totally exonerate itself, makes a mission to Jews sensitive and complex. Only mission arising from genuine humility (tapeinosis, humbled-ness) and love will have a chance, but have not Luke and his crucified master shown us the way in this? Why does Acts go out if its way to insist on Christian respect of Jewish food practices? Why does Luke tell us that Paul circumcised Timothy?  He says it was “because of the Jews in that place.”[54] Timothy had been raised on the Jewish Scriptures by his mother and grandmother, but never circumcised because of his Gentile father. Paul (and Luke) clearly saw him as a valuable addition to the Jewish arm of their mission. Does this not teach us especially to value the ministry of Jewish Christians to their own, and to understand and encourage their cultural Jewishness: to see them as Christian Jews as well as Jewish Christians! Followers of Luke, therefore, will not turn their back on mission to Jews, however unpopular this may be. His answer to the whether question is, “yes”, and to the cultural question, “sensitive accommodation”.

Thirdly, he also helps us some way with the question what message should be communicated to them. For if, as I have argued, his two volume work is especially crafted to answer Jewish questions – if far from being subversive to Judaism, the gospel announces its glorious fulfilment – can we not emphasize this in our theological writing, preaching and apologetics? And make no mistake: in the arena of theological writing some Jews are reading us, especially in Biblical studies. An observant study of Luke-Acts should certainly cure us of the replacement theology which has dominated Christian (and Muslim) thinking for more than a millennium, which is such an obvious betrayal of God’s “irrevocable call” of Israel,[55] and which so deeply sours Jewish – Christian relationships.

In fourth place I believe he helps us with an issue of method. Not that he answers it fully, for method requires continual rethinking and adjustment. But perhaps there is still a place for the gospel-centred tract written sympathetically with a Jewish readership in mind – perhaps even a modern apology for the church. The latter is a difficult call, but oh so needed. At least, could not editions of Luke and of Acts and of Luke-Acts be produced for Jewish readers? Has Acts ever been published in any context as a stand-alone evangelistic tract? Has anyone ever given an enquirer a copy of Acts to read in the hope that it might persuade him or her to embrace Jesus? Yet this was Luke’s purpose.

For the New Testament scholar I would add a further challenge: what about simple commentaries that reflect Luke’s sympathetic theology: a commentary on Luke or an introduction to Acts? They are more likely to be read by modern Jews than ever before since the second century. And everything I have said in fourth place will be as useful to Gentiles as to Jews, as were Luke and Acts.

My last comment relates to the world-wide mission and is a reflection on the psychology implicit in Luke’s method. He is engaged primarily in a mission to Gentiles, but stretches back towards those who are being left behind. Let me draw an analogy with, say, Australians engaged in cross-cultural mission. You may apply it as you will. The reality is that the majority of my own countrymen, even many in sending churches, have no true faith in Christ and no sympathy for mission. Indeed in this postmodern age they are likely to be hostile, or positive only because they misunderstand our mission in terms of social upliftment. Could we not somehow pursue our cross-cultural mission in a way that carefully includes these “heathen”? Could not the very unpopularity of our enterprise be an invitation to us to provide a gospel-laden explanation, which may under God be the means of salvation to some who at present see no sense in it? What I am suggesting is that we take a lead from Luke for a two-edged mission: the obvious one to our hungry and responsive (relatively speaking) “Gentile” mission field, the other to the sophisticated post-Christian doubters at home.


[2] Hans Conzelmann, Die Mitte der Zeit (Tübingen, 1954); English translation: The Theology of St Luke (London:, 1960)

[3] Robert Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982).

[4] Maddox, Purpose, 56

[5] Maddox, Purpose, 180.

[6] Maddox, Purpose, 181.

[7] Maddox, Purpose, 181

[8] Acts 13.26. Marshall, Luke, 157-187.

[9] Marshall, Luke, 2.9


[10] Cadbury, Making, 303.

[11] Matthew addresses the same lack in a different way.

[12] Besides the traditional association of Luke with the region around Macedonia, Acts itself suggests a connection.

[13] Edited Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for all Christians (Grand Rapids & Cambridge:Eerdmans, 1998).


[14] Stephen C. Barton, “Can we Identify the gospel audiences?” in Bauckham, Gospels, 186, 189

[15] To Jews: Acts 2, 3, 13; to pagans Acts 17; to God-fearers Acts 10.


[17] Chance, Jerusalem, 150.

[18] Chance, Jerusalem, 149


[19] Luke, 1.13;59-66.


[20] Luke 1.31.

[21] Luke 1.6.

[22] Luke 1.59; 2.21.

[23] Luke 2.22-24.

[24] Luke 2.41-52.

[25] Luke 2.41-52.

[26] Luke 1.32-33.

[27] Luke 1.54-55. Compare 1.68, 72-73.

[28] Luke 2.25,38.

[29] Acts 3.21.

[30] Acts 15.14-18. J.Jervell,

[31] Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971). This tradition reaches its zenith with Jack T Sanders, The Jews in Luke-Acts (London: SCM, 1987) who argues that Luke is anti semitic.

[32] Even Jervell …

[33] Acts 28.26-27; Isaiah 6.9-10.

[34] Mark 4.9,12.

[35] John 12.39.

[36] See John 12.42;Romans 11.1

[37] Luke 13.34.

[38] Luke 19.41.

[39] The only possible mention is the charge against Stephen that he said Jesus would destroy “this place”. Luke labels the charge as “false witness”. Acts 6.14.

[40] Acts 11.20-21

[41] Acts 1 DA

[42] 1 Corinthians 10.23-33;Romans 14.14

[43] Acts 13.16-41

[44] Acts 14.15-17

[45] Acts 7.38.

[46] Acts 2.43; 4.31; 5.1-11.

[47] Acts 21.21

[48] Acts 9.15;26.16-18

[49] Acts 22.1-12

[50] Acts 26.6

[51] Theophilus the son of Ananus was High Priest about AD37. See Emil Schürer, the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, ed. G. Vermes et al. Vol.2 (Ediburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1979), 230. Cf. Matthias son on Theolphilus ibid, 229.

[52] Romans 10.1

[53] We are indebted to Jacob Jervell for recovering this Lukan perspective.

[54] Acts 16.3.

[55] Romans 11.29.