In my first post on Luke, I noted how important Jerusalem was for the way he tells his story. The story begins in Jerusalem with Zechariah’s temple service, and ends there too with the disciples in the temple praising God. From the time of the transfiguration, Luke talks of Jesus journeying to Jerusalem, arriving there on that first Palm Sunday. And in his second volume, Luke tells the story of how the good news is carried from Jerusalem at the beginning of the story, to Rome, the heart of the empire, at the end.
The story of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) is a key moment. Unlike the other gospels, Luke provides some content for Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration. This story in all three synoptic gospels should be read as owing much to the literary genre of apocalyptic: a conversation with heavenly figures that (explicitly only in Luke) reveals the significance of what is happening in history.
While all three synoptic evangelists link the story with Jesus beginning to predict his death, Luke spells out that death as the subject of the conversation: they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Luke’s word for “departure” – a perfectly normal meaning of the word – is “exodus”. It is at least possible that he expects his listeners to hear the echo of the historic exodus: Jesus’ death will accomplish some kind of liberation.
Luke appears to write mainly for a Gentile audience, represented by the person to whom he addresses his work, Theophilus (a name meaning “friend of God”). Despite that, he is influenced by ways of thinking we find in Jewish apocalyptic literature, as most of the early Christians are. One particularly striking example, which is often misread, comes when Jesus commissions his disciples to share his work.1
When his disciples return from their preaching mission, seriously impressed with their new ability to cast out demons, Jesus exclaims: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18) Traditionally, this has been understood as a reference to a “time” before time when some angels fell. Jesus’s vision has been interpreted as a reference to something he saw in his eternal existence as the Son with the Father. However, in Luke’s first century context, we should probably understand it as a heavenly vision Jesus sees as the disciples successfully begin sharing his mission to liberate the world from the power of evil. It is the successful widening of Jesus’s mission that, for Luke, heralds the defeat of Satan.
The cross as God’s triumph over the power of evil is further announced when Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem reaches its climax. Luke’s story of Jesus’ final approach to the city is notable for some of the details he includes. While the other gospels refer to crowds shouting “Hosanna”, Luke specifically attributes the exclamation of praise to “the multitude of disciples”. What they shout appears to be a deliberate echo of the angels’ song at Jesus’s birth:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!Luke 19:38
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
The birth of the king is a promise of peace on earth, the death of the king (the end the listener knows is coming) will accomplish peace in heaven. If the cross is the moment when Jesus comes into his kingdom,2 the entry to Jerusalem is the beginning of it.
The apocalyptic idea that heavenly events correspond to earthly ones is again present, but this time Luke stands it on its head. What happens in Jerusalem will affect what happens in eternity. The war between good and evil in the heavenly realm will be brought to a triumphant end, and God will indeed be glorified. Satan is indeed fallen from heaven, and the missionary work of the apostles will now, in Luke’s sequel, begin.
Jesus’ earthly ministry ends in a strange victory, as the king returns to the king’s city to enter into his kingdom. The sequel is all about the announcing of that good news: that Jesus has become God’s true anointed king. It is time in Acts to take the good news of that victory out from Jerusalem to the whole world, showing the practical effects worked by the Holy Spirit because of the triumph of the cross.
- Luke 10: 1-20, a slightly shortened version of this is read as Year C, Proper 9, the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
- This appears to be the implication of the conversation between Jesus and the so-called penitent thief: The time the bandit refers to as “when you come into your kingdom” is referred to by Jesus as “Today”. (Luke 23:42-43)