In the previous post, all of the models discussed focus primarily on the meaning of Jesus’ life as reported in the Gospel of Luke. There has been less scholarly discussion as to the meaning of Jesus’ death. Indeed, a recent book entitled The Death of Jesus in Luke-Acts states that Luke “seems uninterested in piercing through to an understanding of the theological reason for the death or in analyzing what it was intended to accomplish.”‘ This is quite a contrast from the approach of writers like Mark and Paul, for whom Jesus’ death on the cross is the starting point for theological reflection.
Luke’s apparent disinterest in the cross can be seen in the fact that he links God’s gift of salvation variously to Jesus’ birth (2:11), his life and ministry (19:9-10), and his exaltation (Acts 5:3 1), but never to his death. The missionary speeches in Acts seem to treat Jesus’ death not as the accomplishment of salvation but as a potential obstacle to its accomplishment that is subsequently overcome. Luke omits Jesus’ reference to giving his life as “a ransom for many” (22:25-27; cf. Mark 10:42-45). Nevertheless, he insists that Jesus’ death is necessary, that it is part of God’s plan (9:22, 44; 24:7, 26, 44). What, then, does it mean?
Some scholars have suggested that, while Jesus’ death does not have soteriological significance for Luke, it is important for other reasons. For one thing, it serves a moral purpose, portraying Jesus as the exemplary martyr whom persecuted Christians should imitate.
In addition, it is inspirational, intended to evoke sympathy for the suffering Christ and facilitate conversion to his cause.” Evidence for the first view is drawn from the observation that Jesus’ passion serves as a model for the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts. The second point is substantiated by Luke’s unique report that those who witnessed the crucifixion were so moved that they returned home beating their breasts in repentance (23:48).
Recently, there have been attempts to show that Jesus’ death does have salvific value in Luke’s Gospel, even though it is not conceived of as an expiation for sin. Two different models have been tried, one that views martyrdom itself as redemptive, and another that interprets Jesus’ death in Luke as the foiled temptation of a “new Adam.”
It is taken for granted that Luke presents Jesus’ death as a pious martyrdom. Some scholars have pointed out, however, that in the Judaism of Luke’s day, a martyr’s death could be considered redemptive. The martyr dies for the sake of others and makes it easier for them to follow where he has gone. Robert Karris has taken up this theme afresh in Luke: Artist and Theologian. According to Luke, only God can save from sin and death, but God uses the death of the innocent Jesus to do so. Jesus’ passion presents a “double test case” for the integrity of Jesus, the persecuted one, and for the fidelity of God.
By remaining faithful in death, Jesus demonstrates his righteousness and awakens faith in those who see him as the innocent suffering righteous one (23:40-42, 47-48). God demonstrates his fidelity by raising Jesus, who typifies God’s creation held in the power of sin and death. It is ultimately the faithfulness of God that is the basis of salvation for Luke, and Jesus, as a “model of faith,” opens the way to trust in this faithfulness.
Jerome Neyrey also believes the faith of Jesus is the key to understanding the meaning of his death in Luke, but he emphasizes that this faith serves as more than just a model of trust. In his study of The Passion According to Luke, Neyrey proposes that Luke ascribes soteriological significance to the faith and obedience of Jesus through an implicit presentation of Jesus as the “new Adam.” The view that Jesus abrogates the effects of the first Adam’s sin and implements a new creation is found in the writings of Paul and in the letter to the Hebrews. In both cases, emphasis is given to the obedience, faith and righteousness of Jesus. These same themes prevail in Luke’s presentation of the passion (22:42; 23:46-47).
Luke presents Jesus as the new Adam in that he is the founder of a new period of history. This is brought out in the juxtaposition of the baptism and the genealogy pen-copes, which identify, respectively, both Jesus and Adam as God’s sons (3:22, 38). Adam, however, is not ultimately known as God’s son because of his sin and disobedience, and so the appropriateness of this term for Jesus must also be tested. Like Adam, Jesus is tempted by Satan, in the wilderness (4:1-13), in the garden of Gethsemane (22:39-46), and finally on the cross (23:32-49), but, unlike Adam, Jesus remains obedient (22:42) and faithful (23:46). Accordingly, the realm of paradise that was closed after Adam’s sin is now reopened and Jesus is able to promise repentant sinners that they will have a place there (23:43).
Neyrey, then, believes that Jesus’ death does have soteriological significance for Luke even though he does not present it as an expiation, a ransom, or a sacrifice for sins. Jesus’ acceptance of death in faith and in obedience to God’s will is the culmination of a radical holiness that has characterized his entire life. As the new Adam who does not succumb to temptation, Jesus initiates a new period of history: a time of salvation that may be described as the end of Satan’s reign (10: 18) and the inauguration of God’s reign (11:20-22). This is why, in the book of Acts, he can be referred to as the unique source of life, holiness, and salvation (3:15; 4:12; 5:31).
The Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension
Richard Dillon has contributed a major study of Luke’s resurrection account titled From Eye-Witnesses to Ministers of the Word. After an exhaustive investigation of the traditions behind Luke’s resurrection narrative, Dillon forms conclusions based on the evangelist’s redactional activity. Basically, Dillon finds that the evangelist has combined sayings and narrative material to form a unified composition that emphasizes the importance of the resurrection for church mission.
Luke presents the risen Jesus as instructing his followers in a way that dispels their confusion and blindness and brings them to Easter faith. There are two significant points here. First, it is not the historical facts of the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances that bring about this faith, but the words of the risen Jesus. Second, the lifting of the veil is experienced as a pure gift made possible by the teaching and activity of the risen Lord.
Accordingly, Dillon takes issue with those who think Luke’s main interest is to ensure the historicity of the resurrection and to establish the apostles as guarantors of the historical fact. Rather, Luke makes it clear that the facts are incomprehensible even to these eyewitnesses until the Lord’s revealing word transforms them. As such, they will witness primarily to an Easter faith that proclaims the pure gift of God. Just as the revelation comes to them sola gratia, so the content of that revelation is a message of divine grace and forgiveness. The resurrection of Jesus not only undoes the work of those who rejected him but also facilitates the declaration that they are forgiven.
Jesus tells his disciples that it was necessary for the Christ to die and be raised so that “repentance and forgiveness of sins might be preached in his name” (24:47). In this way, the instruction of the risen Lord reveals the positive value not only of the resurrection but also of the passion. For Luke, the traditions of the rejection and murder of Jesus display not the irredeemable perversity of humanity but the invincible persistence of divine forgiveness. Before the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were completely in the dark as to the meaning of his passion predictions (9:45: 18:34). In the Easter stories, however, they come to understand what only the risen Christ could reveal: where human failure is total, God rules most powerfully.
What is disclosed to the disciples through divine revelation will be the hallmark of the church’s mission. God responds to human rebellion with renewed grace and continues to offer forgiveness even to those who reject the harbingers of forgiveness. Luke’s story of Jesus’ resurrection shows the divine purpose most triumphant at the very point where people’s rejection is most dramatic.
Luke, however, does not conclude his Gospel with stories of the resurrection, but, rather, with a story of Jesus’ ascension. Gerhard Lohfink, in his monograph, Die Himninelfahrt Jesit identifies this story as expressive of a tradition that is uniquely Lukan.22 Although some New Testament passages apparently assume the idea of an ascension (John 6:62; 20:17; Eph 4:8-10; 1 Tim 3:16), it is only Luke who reports the event, and he gives two separate descriptions at that! (Cf. 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11.) Lohfink also observes that, contrary to the other Gospel writers, Luke consistently records the departures of angels and other heavenly personages (1:38; 2:15; 9:33; Acts 10:7; 12:10; cf. Luke 24:3 1). Accordingly, he feels compelled to recount the departure of the risen Lord rather than simply closing with the latter’s final words (cf. Matthew28:20).
Luke’s motive for reporting the ascension as an observable event may be attributed, in part, to his interest in history, and, more precisely, to his concept of salvation history. A visible ascension appeals to him because, as a historian, he wants to concretize events that otherwise could become subject to cosmic speculations. By fixing the ascension as an event in space and time, furthermore, he integrates the traditional theme of Christ’s elevation into his particular scheme of salvation history. For Luke, the ascension marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Henceforth, Jesus will be absent, or, at least, he will not be present in the same way that he was before. The two accounts of the ascension in Luke and Acts separate the time of Jesus and the time of the Church.
A recent study by Mikeal Parsons reinforces many of Lohfink’s insights from the perspective of “narrative criticism.” In The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts, Parsons illustrates how Luke uses traditional literary devices for “endings” and “beginnings” in his two accounts of the ascension. The version given at the end of his Gospel closes out the work by recalling elements mentioned earlier and resolving major story lines. The mention of Jesus’ priestly blessing (cf. 1:23), the disciples’ return to Jerusalem (cf. 2:45), and their continuous blessing of God in the Temple (cf. 2:37) all make allusions to situations in the first part of the story.
Furthermore, the concluding reference to the disciples in the Temple provides a certain resolution to the conflict that has been developed with regard to that institution throughout the narrative: at the end of Luke’s story, the Temple is at last a “cleansed house” (cf. 19:45-48). When the resurrection and ascension stories in chapter 24 are taken together as a unit, such instances of “closure” are even more numerous, leading Parsons to believe that Luke intends them to be read as the dramatic conclusion to his work. The final image that he wishes to impress upon his readers is that of the disciples, despite the absence of their Lord, blessing God and obeying his commands with joy.
Parsons goes on to analyze the ascension narrative in Acts and finds that it serves the opposite literary purpose of opening rather than closing a work. In fact, the various discrepancies between Luke’s two accounts can be accounted for in terms of their literary function: one closes out the Gospel and the other opens the story of Acts.
It would seem, then, that Parsons confirms in his literary study what Lohfink held to be the theological significance of the two accounts: they separate the story of Jesus in the Gospel from that of the Church in Acts. In another sense, however, the two accounts may be considered a bridge between the two books. What Luke wants to emphasize is that the Church provides the ending to the story of Jesus, just as Jesus provides the beginning to the story of the Church. In the final analysis, the literary effect of beginning one book with the same incident that ended another ties the two works together and stresses the continuity rather than the distinctiveness of their contents.
In his study, Christ the Lord, Eric Franklin deals with still another aspect of the ascension in Luke, namely the apparent change of status it confers upon Jesus. Before this event, Jesus is presented primarily as one obedient to God, but, afterwards, he becomes himself the object of worship (24:52). In Acts, the disciples pray to him (7:59) and call upon his name (9:13-14). In one key passage, Peter even proclaims that it is through the exaltation that God has made Jesus Lord and Christ (2:32-36).
The change in status is only apparent, however, for Luke makes it clear that Jesus is both Lord and Christ from his birth (2:1 1). Furthermore, his subordination to the Father does not cease altogether after the exaltation (Acts 4:24-30). What the ascension signifies is the visible and concrete revelation of Jesus’ status. It is as much a transition in the apprehension of the disciples as in the career of Jesus, for it is not until this moment that understanding and joy come to them (24:52-53).
As such, the ascension account that ends Luke’s Gospel puts the whole volume into perspective and shows its significance. In his first book, Luke concentrates on presenting Jesus as the Christ, a role that is further defined in terms of the Old Testament concepts of “Prophet” and “Servant of God.” Like the disciples, however, Luke’s reader is compelled by the glorification of Jesus at the ascension to reconsider this presentation. It is then recognized that the life described is that of the one now known as “the Lord.” What Luke does in his Gospel, then, is present the earthly life of Jesus in such a way that it can be seen, in retrospect, to congeal with the more explicit Christology of Acts. Luke considers Jesus to be the ever-present, exalted Lord who is worshipped by the community. Accordingly, he tells the story of Jesus’ life as a movement toward exaltation and as a fitting prelude to the recognition and glorification that he now receives.
Salvation History and Eschatology
The question of the continuity between Luke’s story of Jesus and his story of the Church touches on what has been perhaps the most controversial issue in Lukan scholarship: Luke’s view of salvation history and eschatology.
As indicated in Chapter One of this book, Hans Conzelmann set the stage for much future discussion of Luke’s Gospel when he proposed that Luke divides history into three distinct periods: the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. The break between the first two periods is indicated in 16:16 when Jesus says, “The law and the prophets were until John; since then, the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached.” The break between the second and third periods is indicated by the division between the Gospel and Acts and by the latter’s unique description of a community that must persevere for an extended period of time in the absence of its Lord.
Conzelmann’s identification of the first break in time is generally recognized, although there has been much discussion as to whether Luke intends to place John the Baptist in the first or second period. The second break, however, is more debatable and the ramifications of its acceptance more momentous. By introducing the “time of the Church” as a major era of history and by placing Jesus in “the middle of time,” Luke, according to Conzelmann, accepts the delay of the parousia as inevitable and prepares his Church for the long haul. He sacrifices, however, something essential to the eschatological proclamation of the Gospel, namely, the present accessibility of salvation.
Conzelmann claims that, for Luke, salvation was available in the past and it will become available again in the distant future, but, for now, the Church survives on memories and promises. Luke “historicizes” the salvation brought by Christ; he is the only New Testament writer who features the historical Jesus as announcing, “Today salvation has come...” (19:9; cf. 2:11; 4:21; 22:43). But for Luke’s community, this “today” belongs to the past; it does not carry the immediacy of, say, Paul’s proclamation that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). For Luke, the time of salvation is not “now,” it is past, and its return at the end of time has been postponed indefinitely. In the meanwhile, the Church may be strengthened through the gift of the Holy Spirit, but it will also have to endure many trials (Acts 14:22).
Conzelmann’s thesis found initial wide acceptance and influenced the work of many. Gerhard Schneider wrote that Luke replaces the hope of an imminent parousia with an exhortation to always be ready. Jacques Dupont suggested that he substitutes for the ultimate hope an “individual eschatology,” by which salvation is received by the believer at the end of his or her earthly life. Gunter Klein observed that the effect of Luke’s enterprise is to make reception of salvation dependent upon communion with the sacred past, which is only accessible through legitimate tradition.;’ In one way or another, all these proposals are variations on the basic theme sounded by Conzelmann.
Helmut Flender, in his book St. Luke: Theologian of Redemptive History, proposes a somewhat different model. To understand Luke’s thinking aright it is necessary to realize that his scheme is influenced by a distinction between earthly and celestial modes of being. Salvation history and eschatology have a vertical as well as horizontal dimension, for the earthly and heavenly spheres exist concurrently. Basically, Luke understands things as working out according to the scheme described in Revelation 12: a victory in heaven first, and then the restoration of all things on earth. From Luke’s point of view, the first step is completed and the second is in the process of being fulfilled.
According to Flender, the ascension of Jesus should not be understood negatively, as a departure that precedes a period of absence, but positively, as the inauguration of his present reign. In fact, Luke has transferred many functions usually associated with Christ at his parousia to his exaltation, notably, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Observing that Daniel 7:13 did not originally refer to the Son of Man coming to earth but to his enthronement in heaven, Flender affirms that, for Luke, the ascension and the parousia are virtually identified. The day of the Son of Man’s revelation on earth (17:30) will be but one of the “days of the Son of Man” (17:22) that have already begun.
It has been said that Flender simply restates Luke’s predicament in spatial rather than temporal terms. Whereas Conzelmann sees salvation as removed to the past or future, Flender represents it as removed to the heavens.” He insists, however, that salvation remains perpetually present in a dialectical sense. Although Christians continue to live a historical existence, they are not caught in a dismal period of transition. Rather, they enjoy communion with the risen Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, which Flender considers much more than just a “substitute” for genuine salvation.
Accordingly, when Christian preachers tell potential converts that God will send Christ to them (Acts 3:20), they are in effect promising a personal parousia to all who repent. Similarly, Jesus’ words regarding the “today” of salvation are to be read existentially. Luke intends for his readers to hear the promises of fulfillment and salvation as applicable to their own “today” in a way that transcends the historical sense. The Church, then, shares in the basically changed situation brought about by Jesus while, at the same time, participating in the renewal of the world. This mission takes place under the direction of the heavenly Christ and the guidance of the Spirit. The message of a salvation already completed by Christ transforms the world in a way that prefigures the consummation of that salvation on earth.
Observations and Conclusions
Though many various ideas concerning Luke’s view of Jesus are presented in this chapter, the careful reader will have already noted points of convergence between them. It is widely recognized that the Gospel and Acts present different portraits of Jesus, but most scholars believe that the same Christology is behind them and that a reading of the second book is necessary to understand the first. Luke wants to present Jesus as the Messiah, but also as “more than the Messiah.”
Kingsbury, Bock, and Franklin all indicate ways in which he does this: by the use of confessional titles, Old Testament references, and the story of the ascension, Luke moves beyond reporting the bald facts of Jesus’ life to indicate more fully who he is. Similarly, the models from the ancient world that Luke uses to describe Jesus tell only part of the story. Jesus may be likened to the divine philosopher, the mythological immortal, or the Hellenistic benefactor, but, above all else, Luke wants to say that he is unique (Acts 4:12).
It can be said without question that Luke believes Jesus has brought the salvation of God, but just how that salvation was procured and how it is to be received is less certain. Part of the problem is that Luke himself uses cryptic speech, describing what Jesus “accomplished at Jerusalem” as his “exodus” (9:31) and as his “being taken up” (9:51). These expressions could refer to his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, or, and this seems most likely, to all three.
Luke has been accused of harboring a “theology of glory” because he puts so little value on the death of Jesus. Though some would contest this outright, others say that what he really does is broaden the locus of salvation:35 Jesus brings salvation during his earthly life (19:9), in his death (23:43), and after his glorification (Acts 2:21, 38). The “message of salvation” (Acts 13:26) is understood in Luke’s day to include the entire contents of his first volume, that is, everything that Jesus did and taught from his birth through his ascension (Acts 1:1). It is only in this sense that one can understand the rather ambiguous promise, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Obviously, salvation has a paradoxical quality for Luke. All scholars would agree that Luke sees conditions now as different from what they were before Jesus came. It is also agreed that he recognizes things are not yet what they shall be. The argument turns on which side of this paradox receives the emphasis: some view the evangelist as proclaiming the salvation that is already present, while others emphasize his struggle to come to grips with the reality of what is “not yet.”
As the leader of the latter camp. Conzelmann has had his day and his ideas continue to be influential. The increasing trend among scholars, however, is to do justice to the continuity that Luke sees between the time of Jesus and the time of the Church and to his recognition that salvation is a present reality for both eras. In fact, many are prepared to dispense with Conzelmann’s threefold scheme altogether and to speak only of two periods: a “time of promise” on the one hand, and a “time of fulfillment” or “time of salvation” on the other.