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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Luke’s “Orderly Account”

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.

In the prologue to Luke’s gospel narrative, he informed his readers that he sought to write “an orderly account” of the life of Christ (Luke 1:3). Based upon this statement, some tend to believe that everything in Luke’s narrative must have been recorded chronologically. Others have come to the conclusion that this statement must also mean that Luke’s account avoided the omissions that the other writers made from time to time. The evidence suggests, however, that though Luke’s account should be understood as being orderly to a degree, it is erroneous to contend that everything in Luke’s narrative is arranged in a precise chronological sequence.

One indication of Luke’s “orderly account” not being a strict sequence of events is found in Luke 3. Immediately following the record of John the Baptizer teaching the Jews about the coming of the Christ, Luke wrote: “And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison” (3:18-20, emp. added). Had Luke already covered everything that John the Baptizer accomplished before his imprisonment and subsequent death, this statement might still be considered sequentially in order with everything else in the life of Christ. The fact is, however, the very next paragraph clearly indicates that Luke sometimes strayed from a normal chronology. Luke proceeded to inform his readers of Jesus’ baptism, saying, “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized” (3:21). John baptized Jesus prior to his imprisonment (cf. Matthew 3:1-17; 4:12; John 1:29-34), yet Luke places John’s imprisonment before Jesus’ baptism. Although Luke does not indicate why he mentioned this event earlier than one might expect, Luke’s account is still very much characterized as being “orderly” and logical. It seems clear that Luke simply wanted to move John off the stage before focusing on the ministry of Christ. Luke did mention John a few more times in his narrative (cf. 5:33; 7:18-35; 9:7,9,19; 11:1; 16:16; 20:4,6), but “the story of John’s active ministry as a free man ends here” (Hendriksen, 1978, pp. 212-213).

A second indication that Luke’s “orderly” narrative should not be understood as being a strict chronological order of everything that Jesus ever did or spoke comes from Luke 4. In the first thirteen verses of this chapter, Luke recorded how Satan confronted Jesus and tempted Him three times: first, to turn stones to bread; second, to worship him; and third, to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Interestingly, Luke’s order of the temptations is different than that found in Matthew’s gospel account. Matthew recorded that Satan’s second temptation involved him trying to persuade Jesus to throw Himself down off of the temple, while the third temptation was Satan’s attempt to get Jesus to worship him. Some might assume that because Luke had earlier professed to write an “orderly account” that his specific arrangement of the temptations of Christ must be the correct order. Most biblical scholars, however, believe that Matthew was concerned more with the order of events in this story because of his use of words like “afterward” (4:2, Greek husteron), “then” (4:5, Greek tote), “again” (4:8, Greek palin). These three adverbs strongly suggest that Matthew recorded the precise order of the temptations. Luke merely links the events by using the Greek words kai and de (4:2,5,6, translated “and”). [NOTE: The NKJV’s translation of kai as “then” in Luke 4:5 is incorrect. It should be translated simply “and” (cf. KJV, ASV, NASV, and RSV)]. Similar to the English word “and” not having specific chronological implications, neither do the Greek words kai and de (Richards, 1993, p. 230). In short, the evidence suggests that Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus is arranged chronologically, whereas Luke’s account is arranged in some other orderly fashion—perhaps thematically, or possibly climactically.

A final example indicating Luke’s “orderly account” is not as chronological and all-encompassing as some might initially think, appears near the end of his narrative. Luke began his final chapter “on the first day of the week” when Jesus rose from the grave (24:1). He concluded this chapter (and the narrative as a whole) informing the reader of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Of interest, is that Luke never indicated that the events of chapter 24 covered any more than one day. Someone might read the entire chapter and assume that Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to His disciples, and ascended into heaven all on the same day, when actually what Luke recorded in this final chapter covered a period of more than five weeks (cf. Acts 1:3). Luke simply omitted most of what Jesus and the apostles did during this time, including the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Galilee mentioned by both Matthew (28:16) and John (21:1ff.). Luke chose to focus most of his attention on what happened in (and around) Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. In order to get a more comprehensive chronological view of what occurred after Jesus’ resurrection and before His ascension, a person must consult the other gospel accounts.

Luke’s narrative certainly is an “orderly account.” It begins with the announcement, birth, and ministry of John the Baptizer—the forerunner of Christ, and then proceeds to focus on the life and teachings of Christ—from birth to death, and from resurrection to ascension. Luke’s account is not confused or haphazard, but “orderly.” Nevertheless, one must be careful not to force his orderly account into a strict arrangement in which every single detail falls into chronological order. In fact, according to Greek lexicographer Frederick Danker, the Greek word Luke used for “orderly” (kathexas) can refer to “sequence in time, space, or logic” (2000, p. 490, emp. added). Thus, similar to modern-day history books that are arranged chronologically, yet occasionally include nonsequential discussions of people, places, and events in order to accomplish a specific, intended purpose, Luke obviously wrote certain portions of his inspired account of the gospel in more of a thematic or climatic order.

REFERENCES

Danker, Fredrick William (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago), third edition of Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich.

Hendriksen, William (1978), Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House).

Richards, Larry (1993), 735 Baffling Bible Questions Answered (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell).




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