Characters in the Shadows: Luke

Everyone knows Luke as the man who  wrote the gospel with the most detailed Christmas account. But have you ever given any thought to Luke, the person? How much do you know about him? Very little would be my guess. Kind of deceptive, isn’t it: everyone reads your name at Christmas, but nobody knows anything about you.

Why not? Because Luke is another character in the shadows: someone God uses in a significant way with the glory going to God, not the vessel.

The Man

Luke, we are told, was St. Paul’s physician. He also happened to be a writer. (Hey, I tell myself, God can even use writers in His kingdom — imagine that.) He happened to be a humble writer, never inserting himself overtly into his accounts of the gospel of Luke or Acts. Therefore, we have to look deep into the shadows and draw upon inference, elimination and deduction to see him better.

Most historians agree that Luke was not from Jerusalem, but from somewhere in what today is Turkey. Our only clue as to his whereabouts is the subtle change in Acts 16:10 from the third person description (“they” and “he”) to the plural first person (“we”). That transition happened as Paul left Troas, which leads us to believe Luke must have been from that neck of the woods — far from Jerusalem, or even Antioch (which emerged as the second epicenter of Christianity).

In other words, he was not an “insider,” neither in the Jewish hierarchy, nor in the newly developing inner circle of Christianity. He missed all the “big occasions.” He never met Jesus, never heard Him preach, didn’t see Him crucified, wasn’t there at the resurrection, wasn’t in Jerusalem those forty days after Jesus rose from the dead and walked around Israel, and wasn’t there at the ascension. He didn’t wait and pray in the upper room with the minor throng, and he wasn’t among the first few thousand that were saved when the Holy Spirit descended with full visible force and sound.

Luke had no credentials to give him a seat at the inner sanctum meetings of the insiders. He didn’t sit at anyone’s feet, nor did he apprentice himself to become an ordained teacher, evangelist, prophet, pastor or other distinguished officer in God’s growing army of Christian heroes.

He was, in other words, a regular Joe, from nowhere, doing a simple job, for which he probably was paid the going wage. Doctors in those days didn’t carry the stature they carry today. Medical science was rudimentary back then, and practitioners weren’t particularly plentiful or well-paid.

The Encounter

Nothing is said, but it’s easy to imagine: Paul arrived in Troas, and had a bout of whatever ailed him. He did the obvious thing and asked for a good doctor, and Luke showed up. You can think Paul, as usual, wasted no time laying the gospel on the (apparently random) physician. Luke was an educated man, and after hearing Paul’s brilliant logic, delivered so persuasively, Luke obviously agreed that believing this Jesus is a no-brainer.

Paul, as we recall from the passage in Acts 16, got the dream with the call to Macedonia while in Troas. I suspect he probably wasn’t fully healed, prompting him to talk Luke into accompanying him for the one journey. Who knows? Paul may have had in mind only that Luke come along on that single trip, with a view to getting healed up and sending Luke home. We don’t know what Paul’s thinking was. But we know that’s not what happened. Luke stayed with Paul till the very end, if 2 Timothy 4 is anything to go by.

Luke’s addition to the army of God, then, was not based on his spiritual credentials. Rather, he came as an ordinary man, and remained an ordinary man, plying his ordinary trade in obedient humility and obscurity. He probably didn’t even do it sacrificially, but received something approaching the going wage. He did leave his hometown, if Troas indeed was his hometown, and clearly he never had a family life as we would know it, because he was with Paul till the very end.

Luke carefully abstained from inserting himself into the narrative, other than the word “we.” It’s almost like God chose someone who didn’t want to attract attention to himself. Jesus alluded to this when he talked about giving and fasting in Matthew 6: don’t do it to be seen by men. Luke lived that advice, eschewing earthly acclaim in exchange for the reward that surely awaited him in heaven.

The Plan

How instrumental was Luke in God’s plan for us on earth? Much more than you might have imagined. Think about it: there were 11 other apostles who were scattered abroad, healing the sick, raising the dead, delivering people from oppression, preaching the good news and making disciples wherever they went. Well, we assume that… because they left no written record of their exploits.

The only exploits we know about are those of the apostle Paul. And why do we know those exploits, so carefully documented in Acts?

Because Luke was there to record them.

I can only marvel at God’s exquisitely crafted plans: if Paul wasn’t sickly, he would not have needed a doctor… and we wouldn’t even know about his (Paul’s) existence. Does any other New Testament writer ever mention Paul in any of their accounts? The only other mention of this pivotal figure in the unfolding of God’s plan on earth is in 2 Peter 3:15, where Peter says:

14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.

Hardly the acclaim of arguably the most pivotal figure in the early church. Were it not for Luke, Paul might have been yet another character in the shadows we wondered about… if we even noticed his name.

And yet, because Paul had an affliction, he called for a doctor in Troas, and that doctor happened to be a writer. The Bible isn’t clear about it, but I think it’s a safe guess that Luke was the scribe of many of Paul’s epistles, as well. Who would Paul choose as his scribe when he had the writer Luke on his team? If true, that would mean Luke was the pen behind most of the New Testament. Not the author, because that is the Holy Spirit, but the pen the Spirit used.

And Luke probably had no idea he was bring used in such a profound way.

Even Paul had no idea what was happening: while faithful and fruitful, he nevertheless complained to God about his unrelenting “thorn in the side.” God, as we know, kindly blew those complaints off, pointing out that His grace is sufficient. My guess is neither Paul nor Luke knew God was using Paul’s sickness to draw Luke in to His plan of spreading His Good News across the world.

Come to think of it, Paul probably had no idea that his main contribution to the Lord would not be his indefatigable travels and preaching, but his example and the doctrine contained in his letters… recorded by a character so deep in the shadows we don’t see him, even when we mention his name every year at Christmas.

You probably have no idea of how the Lord is using your skill and craft to further His kingdom, a kingdom not of bricks and mortar, gold and military might, but light, peace and, above all, love.

Not knowing doesn’t mean not being used.


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