Reading: Who Was Luke?
Shared from Biblical Archeology
Human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, thus we are a tricotomous (three-part) being with a body, soul and spirit (cf. Gen. 1:26-27; 1 Thess. 5:23). The Apostle Paul concluded his first epistle to the Thessalonians with these words: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this essay, we will examine the life of Dr. Luke and see how his life and his writings ministered, not only to the soul as Eusebius said, but to the whole person – body, soul and spirit. Dr. Luke used the 52 chapters of the gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts to minister to our physical needs (body), emotional needs (soul), and spiritual needs (spirit).
Dr. Luke is only mentioned by name three times in Paul’s epistles (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11), although he might be hinted at on several other occasions. When he wrote his gospel and the book of Acts, he did not mention his name at all (Acts 1:1), nor did he mention his brother Titus. Dr. Luke was a humble person and he did not want to call attention to himself or his family, but rather, he wanted to point people to the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in His Church.
His Ethnicity – An Antiochian Gentile
At the end of Paul’s epistle to the church at Colosse, written about AD 62, he sent greetings from different people who were laboring with him in Rome, even though he was under house arrest and waiting for his trial before Nero. He wrote: “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bare him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you” (Col. 4:10-14).
These verses imply that Dr. Luke was a Gentile. Paul recounted greetings from Aristarchus, (John) Mark, and Jesus/Justus and identified them as being of the circumcision, i.e. they were Jewish. The next three names, by implication, were Gentiles: Epaphras, Luke, and Demas. Luke may also have been a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who followed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but who did not undergo circumcision in order to enter the Jewish nation.
As previously mentioned Eusebius stated that Luke was “by race an Antiochian.” Sir William Ramsay, the noted authority on the historicity of the Book of Acts, pointed out that: “Eusebius, however, does not say that Luke was an Antiochian; he merely speaks of him as ‘being according to birth of those from Antioch.’ The curious and awkward expression is obviously chosen in order to avoid the statement that Luke was an Antiochian” (1896: 389). He went on and conjectured that Luke had some kind of family connection with Antioch. On the other hand Jerome, a near contemporary of Eusebius, stated that Luke was “a physician of Antioch” (Lives, 1994: 363). I will assume in this essay that he had some personal connection with Antioch.
Dr. Luke had the distinct honor of being the only non-Jewish writer of the New Testament. If that is the case, then it would rule out Church traditions that identified him with Lucius (Acts 13:1; Rom. 16:21; Wenham 1991b; Lewis 2010), or one of the “seventy” (Luke 10:1-20), or the companion of Cleopus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33). In fact, Luke implied in the introduction to his gospel that he had not seen the Lord, but rather, heard about events in the life of the Lord Jesus from other eye-witnesses (Luke 1:2).
It is hinted in the Book of Acts that he is an Antiochian. He mentioned this city a number of times and gave details of it and showed some “civic pride” (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1; 14:26-28; 15:22, 30-35; 18:22). Interestingly, when he wrote about the six deacons in Jerusalem who were waiting on tables, he mentioned them by name, but only Nicolas is identified by where he was from – Antioch (Acts 6:5). Luke also mentioned the fact that the believers in the Lord Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch (11:26).
His Profession – Physician
During Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, he wrote to the believers in Colosse and identified Luke as: “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). Reading through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in Greek, one is struck with the abundant use of medical terminology in these books (Hobart 1882; with words of caution from Marx 1980a: 168-172).
Luke is the only gospel writer that recorded Jesus’ statements about physicians. “Physician, heal yourself!” (Luke 4:23). “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31). He also extended “professional courtesy” to his fellow doctors when he recounted the events surrounding the woman with the issue of blood for twelve years. John Mark writes, “Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse” (5:25-26). Dr. Luke toned his account down in an almost clinical statement about the inability of the woman to get healed: “Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any” (8:43).
It is interesting to conjecture where Dr. Luke got his medical training. There were important Greek medical centers in Pergamum, Tarsus, Athens, Alexandria in Egypt, Berytus (Beirut in Lebanon), Laodicea ad Mare (“by the sea,” Latakia in Syria), and the Asklepion shrine on the island of Cos that was established in honor of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. Interestingly, Luke did not record anything about this medical center or what transpired on the island when he and the Apostle Paul landed on the island on their way to Jerusalem at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. All Dr. Luke recorded was: “And it came to pass that, that when we had departed from them [the Ephesian elders] and set sail, running a straight course we came to Cos, the following day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara” (Acts 21:1).
Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine because he broke from the traditional Greek view of sickness and disease. In his day it was believed that a person was sick because the gods were angry at the individual. So the solution to the problem was to offer sacrifices to the offended deity. On the other hand, Hippocrates brought medicine into the realm of science. He diagnosed the patient ailments and disease by his clinical observation of the body and enquired about the patient’s lifestyle. Hippocrates also understood the inner workings of the body because he dissected some of his patients, presumably after they died! Hippocrates believed in a cause and effect relationship between the patient and the disease. In essence, you were sick because of your lifestyle – what you ate, what you drank, what you did or did not do to your body. If you were sexually promiscuous, chances are you would get a sexually transmitted disease! This was interesting because in the Greek world, the gods and goddesses were immoral and sexually promiscuous and the people just emulated their deities. So why should the gods be angry at the people and give them a sexually transmitted disease if the people were only emulating the gods?! This does not make sense. I’m sure Hippocrates understood the inconsistency of Greek mythology which led him to the conclusion that you got sick because of your lifestyle.
Hippocrates also looked for natural remedies for people’s sickness. On the island of Cos there was a white willow tree. Hippocrates observed that the bark and leaves from this tree cause the pain in a patient to diminish or cease. Only recently did scientists analyze the bark from this tree and found out that the active ingredient is what is found in Aspirin. Hippocrates was 2,300 years ahead of Beyer Aspirin!
In the Greek world, medicine was considered an art, or a philosophy, but not so much a science. There were at least two philosophical schools of thought concerning medicine and healthcare in Luke’s day. The first school of thought had been championed by the Athenian philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BC). In this philosophy, the doctor made medical, and health care, decisions to advance the good of the society, thus their primary job was to protect the welfare of the state (Grey 2011: 29-41). Plato wrote: “… but that, when bodies were diseased inwardly and throughout, he did not attempt by diet and by gradual evacuations and infusions to prolong a wretched existence for the man and have him beget in all likelihood similar wretched offspring? But if a man was incapable of living in the established round and order of life, he did not think it worth while to treat him, since such a fellow is of no use either to himself or to the state” (Republic 407D; LCL 5:279).
On the other hand, the Hippocratic school of thought on medicine and healthcare was patient centered and emphasized the doctor/patient relationship. The first principle of Hippocrates was “Do no harm to the patient.” The Hippocratic Oath still stands as a cornerstone in modern medicine and it even forbids doctor assisted suicide and abortion. The Hippocratic School was patient oriented, and not state oriented.
Again, it could be conjectured which school of thought Dr. Luke might have favored. Dr. Luke was called a “beloved physician” indicating that he cared for his patients, and was also the personal physician to the Apostle Paul. This would suggest that Dr. Luke followed the Hippocratic philosophy and not the statist Platonic philosophy. (For a discussion of some of the other philosophies, see Marx 1980a).
James Smith, a classical scholar and yachtsmen, has also suggested that Luke was at one time a ship doctor because he was versed in nautical matters, and described them in the appropriate language of seamanship (1978: 21). Luke used many detailed nautical terms when he recorded the voyage to Rome in Acts 27-28. (1978: 20-28).
A Possible Reconstruction of His Life
The Scriptures are silent as to when or where Dr. Luke came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. We do know that the Apostle Paul did not lead him to the Lord; otherwise, he would have called him his son in the faith. Perhaps he was part of the Hellenist (Greek) group was the converted in Acts 11:20-21.
If it is reliable, there is an interesting addition in Acts 11:28 of the Codex Bezae D, a 5th century AD manuscript that is now housed at Cambridge University. It would demonstrate that Luke was part of the early church at Antioch. It reads: “And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. And there was much rejoicing; and when we gathered together one of them [Agabus] stood up and said” by the Spirit that there would be a famine (11:27-28). The word “we” is a late addition to the text, but it may reflect an earlier account that Dr. Luke was in Antioch at the time of the famine. The Apostle Peter was also in Antioch at this time and it would account for how and where Luke got his information about Peter when he wrote Acts 1-12 (Finegan 1998: 189).
Jerome, in his Lives of the Illustrious Men, wrote that Luke was: “An adherent of the Apostle Paul, and companion of all his journeying.” Does that mean Luke was with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (AD 47-48)? Luke does not say “we” were there, yet if the account is read carefully, it does sound like an eye-witness account.
In the Book of Acts, there are three “we-sections” (Acts 16:10-40; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:14). These are passages where Luke includes himself in the narrative because he was with the Apostle Paul. The first “we-passage” occurs during Paul’s second missionary journey (AD 49-50). Paul, Silas, and Timothy arrived at Alexandria Troas. While there, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia who said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Luke then records: “Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (16:10). Luke now included himself with the Apostle Paul and his team. William Ramsey suggested that Luke was the man who appeared in the vision to Paul, but others do not concur with his view. When they arrived at Philippi, Paul and Silas, both Jews, were arrested and brought before the magistrates (Acts 16: 19-21). Luke and Timothy are not arrested because both were Gentiles. After Paul’s release from prison, the magistrates encouraged Paul and his party to leave the city. They did and Luke continued the narrative by saying, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica” (17:1). Luke is no longer with them because he stayed back at Philippi. Some have suggested this was his home town, or at least his adopted home town.
Luke does not include himself in his narrative again until the second “we-section” at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey (April/May AD 57). Luke joined Paul and seven other brothers who were taking the collection to the needy saints in Jerusalem (Acts 20:5-21:18).
In the Land of Israel
Dr. Luke went to Jerusalem with Paul at the end of his third missionary journey. After Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and imprisonment in Caesarea, nothing is heard of Dr. Luke until Paul appealed to Caesar and boarded a ship towards Rome. It was at this time that Luke and Aristarchus boarded the ship along with Paul (20:4, cf. 27:2). What was Dr. Luke doing for the two years (AD 57-59) while Paul was in prison? I am certain that he was one of those visiting Paul in prison (Acts 24:23). But more than that, most likely, he used this time to gather material for his gospel.
In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke it is written: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seems good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you and orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (1:1-4). There are several things to note in this passage. First, there were other gospels already circulating. According to Church tradition, Matthew was the first gospel written, and Mark, writing on behalf of Peter, was the second gospel written. Both were composed and circulating before the middle of the 40’s of the First Century AD. Second, eyewitness accounts of the life of the Lord Jesus were given to Luke, and probably Aristarchus [“delivered them to us”].
Luke took advantage of this time in the Land of Israel (cf. Matt. 2:21) and visited the sites in Jerusalem, Samaria, Perea, and Galilee where the Lord Jesus had ministered and interviewed the people who had seen and heard the Lord Jesus. I am sure he spent time in Nazareth talking with Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, and obtained the details of the birth of the Lord Jesus from her. The account in Luke 1 and 2 was written in medical language. Perhaps he stopped in Nain to interview the widow woman’s son who was raised from the dead (Luke 7:11-17), an account that only Dr. Luke recorded and was a medical miracle!
The third thing to notice is that the gospel was addressed to the “most excellent Theophilus.” The title “most excellent” seems to suggest he was a high ranking Roman official. The identity of this individual has been debated in scholarly circles and a number of individuals have been suggested. The most interesting and intriguing possibility that I have found so far, and probably the most plausible, is Werner Marx’s thesis that Theophilus was King Agrippa II (1980b: 17-26). You will recall Agrippa’s famous line after the Apostle Paul gave his defense and testimony at the Praetorium in Caesarea. He said to Paul, “Thou almost persuaded me to be a Christian!” (26:28). The Gospel of Luke was written to remind Agrippa II “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” by the Apostle Paul (Luke 1:4; Marx 1980b: 21-22).
The Voyage to Rome
The third “we-passage” is Acts 27:1-28:16 and recounted the voyage to Rome in AD 59-60. Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus embarked on a ship bound for Adramyttium. When they reached the port of Myra they transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship headed for Rome. Dr. Luke gave a vivid nautical description of the journey, the storm, and the shipwreck on Malta.
While on Malta, Paul and Luke had a healing ministry. “And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went into him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed (iasato) him. And when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed (etherapeutonto)” (Acts 28:8-9). Two different Greek words are used in this passage for healing. Paul “healed” Publius’ father by prayer and faith (28:8), but Luke cured the sick people with medical treatment (28:9; Harnack 1907: 179. 28:3-10; Ramsay 1956: 16-17). The spiritual and physical go hand-in-hand in a healing ministry.
With Paul in Rome
During the Apostle Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome (AD 60-62) he was under house arrest while waiting his trial before Nero. He was allowed to have visitors and Dr. Luke was one who attended his physical and medical needs. When Paul wrote to the saints in the Lycus Valley, he sent greetings from Luke. “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you” (Col. 4:14). “Epapheas, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. As do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers” (Philemon 23-24).
Luke was known in Colosse and by Philemon who also lived in Colosse. This has raised some interesting questions. When did they meet Luke? Had he been to the Lycus Valley? If so, when? I would like to suggest that Luke had been through the Lycus Valley on his way to Philippi. A possible reconstruction of events is that Peter, along with Silvanus and John Mark, planted the churches in the Lycus Valley in AD 40-42. Peter and / or Paul suggested Dr. Luke go to Philippi in Macedonia. Luke travelled through the Lycus Valley and gave greetings from Peter and told them about Paul.
While in Rome, Paul had daily prayer meetings in a rented apartment. These meetings included those who were ministering with him and to him (Col. 1:1; 4: 7-14). “We … praying always for you” (1:3); “We also … do not cease to pray for you” (1:9). Luke considered prayer important. When he wrote his gospel, he recorded a number of instances where Jesus prayed or talked about prayer. However, he recorded eight instances that were unique to his gospel, and not in the other three gospels. The Lord Jesus prayed at His baptism (3:21); at the Transfiguration (9:28-29); before choosing His apostles (6:12); for His enemies on cross (23:34, “Father, forgive them”); for His disciples to learn the lesson on prayer (11:1); and talked about prayer in the parable of the persistent friend (11:5-10); as well as two other parables on prayer (18:1-14): the widow and the unjust judge, as well as the Pharisee and tax collector when they were in the Temple praying. Dr. Luke was a man of prayer and thought the subject matter important.
Did Luke Leave Paul in Rome?
During Paul’s first imprisonment, he wrote a letter to the Philippians believers. This was a group of people who knew Luke well and he knew them. I found it odd that Paul does not send greetings from Luke back to the church at Philippi. One can only conjecture what happened. Perhaps Paul had sent him back to Philippi with the news of his imprisonment and the church sent Epaphroditus to Rome with the financial gift for Paul. If this is the case, more than likely Luke stayed in Philippi and was there when the letter arrived.
Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey
After Paul was released from prison in AD 62, he went on a fourth missionary journey, one not recorded in the Book of Acts, but pieced together by looking at Paul’s later epistles. This journey lasted for about five years (AD 62-67). It included Crete, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and probably Spain. Luke apparently met Paul again when he traveled through Philippi and joined him in his travels. Paul was eventually arrested, probably at Nicopolis, and imprisoned in Rome again (AD 67). While there, he wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy, and asked him to come to Rome and to bring John Mark with him. He mentioned his loneliness because only Luke was with him (2 Tim. 4:11). Demas had deserted him, and Titus and Crescens were off on an apostolic mission. Yet Paul recognized that “the Lord stood with me and strengthened me” (4:17). Yes, the Great Physician and the beloved physician stuck closer to him than a brother (Prov. 18:24).
Dr. Luke was probably at the beheading of Paul, perhaps at a distance. More than likely it was the good doctor who buried the body of his friend, co-worker, and fellow traveler on the road of life.
Dr. Luke in Thebes of Boiotia
Church tradition has said that after the death of Paul (AD 67), Dr. Luke went and ministered in the region of Boiotia in central Greece today, and particularly in Thebes of Boiotia. Tradition also stated that he wrote to Theophilus who was the governor of Achaia. If we follow Marx’s suggestion, however, that Theophilus was King Agrippa II. It is plausible that Luke handed him a copy of the Book of Acts when he went through Achaia to Rome during the winter of AD 68/69 (Josephus, Jewish Wars 4.499; LCL 3:149).
Church tradition also stated that a mob arrested Luke in Thebes at the age of 84, flayed him alive and crucified him on an olive tree which some say is still there today. This ended the earthly life and ministry of the beloved physician, Dr. Luke. The story of his bones will be recounted elsewhere!
Life Lessons to be Learned from the Life of Dr. Luke
There are at least five lessons we can learn from the life of Dr. Luke, the beloved physician. The first lesson is that Dr. Luke showed humility. God lists seven things that He hates and considers an abomination. The first on God’s hate list is a proud look (Prov. 6:16-18). The opposite of pride is humility. Luke exemplified that by not calling attention to himself or his family, but rather the person of the Lord Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Second, Dr. Luke used his medical training and ability as a mission field and a tool to further the gospel. Medicine, if one follows the Hippocratic philosophy, is patient centered and ideal for Christian involvement. Dr. Luke was a personal physician who was patient oriented. Thus the adjective “beloved” is used to describe him. The medical field could be a great missionary field for individual Christians. I once had a doctor, who on his business card placed the statement, “An assistant to the Great Physician” under his name. He acknowledged that he used medical treatments, but it was the Lord Jesus who was the Great Physician and ultimate Healer.
A young lady who was in fellowship at Valley Bible Chapel graduated from nursing school and had to decide what area of nursing she wanted to go in. She chose the cancer ward. Folks, people who go there are terminal! They are about to check out of this life and into Eternity. Some people who go there may be in denial, but most people realize they are about to hit the end of the road. She chose this field because she wanted to show Christian love and compassion towards those who were in pain and about to die. It was also a great opportunity to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus because people want to know where they are going to spend eternity when they died: Heaven or Hell. Nancy made it clear that they could be assured of a home in Heaven when they died, also the forgiveness of sins, and the righteousness of God freely given to them, if they put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9; 1 John 5:13). It is because of His death on Calvary’s cross and His bodily resurrection from the dead that all sin had been paid for in full. All a person has to do, the only thing a person can do, is to trust the Lord Jesus as his or her Savior.
Third, Dr. Luke demonstrated loyalty to his friend the Apostle Paul. Prov. 18:24 states: “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” We like to sermonize this passage and say it’s the Lord Jesus that always sticks closer than a brother and that is true, but Dr. Luke stuck close to Paul in his darkest hour when everybody else had left him for another task, or even deserted him completely. Haunting words, “Only Luke is with me.” How many people can we count on as friends who will be with us through thick and thin during our lonely hours when everybody seems to have deserted us? But to put the shoe on the other foot, how many people will we be loyal to when they are going through rough times? Do we stick closer to them than a brother?
Fourth, Dr. Luke was a man of prayer. He did it and he wrote about it. How is your prayer life? Is it a priority in your life? Do you set a specific time apart for this spiritual exercise? Do you rejoice when you see God answer your prayers, sometimes in the most unexpected ways?
Fifth, Dr. Luke ministered, by his life and writings, to the whole person. Human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, thus we are a tricotomous (three-part) being with a body, soul and spirit (Gen. 1:26-27; 1 Thess. 5:23). We should follow the example of Dr. Luke when we minister to an individual; he ministered to the whole person. At times we have to deal with peoples physical needs (body). The epistle to James had already been written. In it, James the son of Zebedee gives an example of lack of faith toward our fellow human being. There was somebody in the assembly who did not have cloth or food and asks his fellow believers for some of these items. One of the brothers or sisters said, “God bless you, be warmed and filled,” but did nothing to help that fellow believer. James said that persons faith is useless – dead (James 2:14-17). Dr. Luke took care of Paul’s physical needs when he was imprisoned in Rome. He also gave medical treatment to the people on Malta.
At other times we need to attend to people’s emotional needs (soul). Dr. Luke ministered to Paul’s loneliness when others had left him. Finally, at times we need to attend to people’s spiritual needs (spirits). Dr. Luke was actively involved in Paul’s ministry as a co-laborer, but he had his own writing ministry that touched the spiritual being in each individual. The written Word of God, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, strengthened and encouraged individual believers in their walk with the Lord. As he wrote to Theophilus: “That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” These books also built up the Body of Christ.
So, how are we doing in our ministry to dispense spiritual medicine to the whole person - body, soul, and spirit?!
Bruce, F. F.
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