Book Review: Justo González, The Story Luke Tells


González, Justo. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 141 pp. Pb; $14.   Link to Eerdmans, including a short interview with González.

Professor Emerita at Columbia Theological Seminary, Justo González is known for his popular two-volume The Story of Christianity (1984) and three-volume A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1987). In this short meditation on Luke’s Gospel, he offers a historian’s view of the theology of Luke/Acts. There is very little on authorship issues or whether the two books should be read together. Regardless of origin, González assumes the two books are to be read as a unit and his theological observations cover both books. González does not interact with other monographs on Luke’s theology nor is he particularly interested in exegetical details. There are no footnotes or references in these short reflections.

In the first chapter González makes a series of observations about Luke’s interest in history. Luke is the only author shows a particular interest in dating the events he discusses. He does this by placing the story of Jesus in a particular social, political and religious context by mentioning a number of characters by name who are known from history. Luke is also interested in geographic and political data. For example, Luke mentions the bay of Fair Havens on the island of Crete, the type of geographical detail a historian would include. One curious feature of Luke/Acts is that the history is unfinished, not only in terms of chronology but also geography (11). González suggests Luke wrote his history in this way in order to invite both the original and modern readers to continue the ongoing history of God’s work in this world (13).

In his second chapter González introduces the idea of typology frequently found in the Bible. By typology, he means patterns which repeat throughout the history. He first shows that God’s redeeming action in Jesus is a typology drawn from God’s redeeming action leading Israel out of Egypt. In Luke, Jesus is the Passover lamb; just as the blood of the lamb was used to redeem Egypt in the past now, the blood of the first born of God will redeem all people in Jesus. González’s second example is Luke’s development of an Adam/Jesus typology. While this is usually considered a Pauline idea, Luke connects Jesus and Adam in his genealogy and temptation. For González, these sorts of typological connections are not intended as foreshadowing, but to argue Jesus is the culmination of the plan of God. González says the fulfillment typology in Jesus is not necessarily the end since the church participates in the ongoing expansion of Christianity. We often forget Acts “is not only the history of the expansion of Christianity through the work of Paul and others; it is the beginning of the process through which Jesus Christ announces and claims his Lordship over all history and humankind” (27).

In the third chapter, Gonzalez traces what he calls the “great reversal.” He has in mind here the common biblical motif of the lesser being elevated above the greater (i.e., the younger son is given the blessing, the least likely son becomes the king, etc.) This great reversal is both religious and social (32). In Luke, those who had expect to enter into the kingdom usually are on the outside. In contrast, it is a Gentile or a woman who finds forgiveness in Jesus. For González this is the main idea of the Great Feast in Luke 14. The social aspect of this great reversal is seen in the story of Lazarus (Luke 16) where a poor man is elevated while a rich man finds himself in Hades. This theme of the poor entering into the kingdom appears repeatedly in the third Gospel. González points to the beatitudes, which are much more focused on riches and poverty in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus proclaims the year of “the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4), referring to the year of Jubilee, a time when the poor have their debts forgiven. In the Book of Acts, the great reversal includes people who were on the fringes of what it means to be a Jew, such as women, Samaritans, and Gentile God-fearers. González also detects the motive of a great reversal in the appointment of deacons in Acts 6 since they are drawn from the Hellenistic Jews.

One feature often observed about Luke’s Gospel is his interest in the female disciples of Jesus. Women are witnesses to who Jesus is from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. In his fourth chapter González surveys all of the women were featured in Luke in both Luke and Acts. Like many who studied this feature of Luke’s Gospel, González points out later church writers may have suppressed Luke’s interest in female disciples. He explains how the Western text of Luke’s Gospel reverses the order of the names Priscilla and Aquila. Gonzalez detects the work of a copyist who preferred putting the husband first. As a result of this sort of thing “much of what Luke has to say on the matter of gender lays hidden under layers of interpretation that we have received from earlier generations” (59).

In the fifth chapter, González surveys Luke’s view of salvation. While the title “savior” is a very Lukan term, the source of the image is the Old Testament. Terms like “redemption” and “to redeem” only appear in Luke, but the Christian reader often overlooks the Old Testament background of the Redeemer who is the “holy one of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14). But there is more to word savior in the context of the first-century Roman world. Gonzalez asks what the shepherds might have thought about “salvation” in Luke 2:1. For peasants living under the oppressive and exploitive Roman Empire, hearing an announcement of salvation may have brought to mind the end of Roman rule in Judea. Undoubtedly the angels’ announcement included salvation from sin, but that salvation would have looked like a New Exodus to Jewish shepherds. While the shepherds had an incomplete understanding of the angels’ announcement, but we too have an incomplete understanding if we are not aware of the political dimensions of salvation. Another aspect of Luke’s view of salvation often overlooked is the language healing. When Jesus heals, Luke uses the language of salvation. Modern over-emphasis on healing in contemporary Christianity obscures Luke’s theological point. This does not mean God will not heal, but it does mean that while we proclaim the message of salvation of the sins of eternal life “we also have to proclaim the same message in the sense of liberation from every power of evil” (74).

In the sixth chapter examines the frequent use of food and drink in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 7:34 Jesus’ opponents describes him as a “glutton and drunkard” because he frequently shared meals with sinners. In many cases in Luke, a meal is an opportunity to announce the great reversal. González uses the Sabbath meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) as an example. The Pharisee expected to be saved, but it is the sinful woman who goes away justified (82). There is, however, a great deal more to be said about meals than González is able to cover in this short chapter. Who Jesus eats with is often very important in the Gospel and I expected more historical and sociological commentary on meaning of table fellowship in this chapter. There is also an eschatological aspect to these meals, Jesus is demonstrating who he is by inviting everyone (poor and rich) to participate in his messianic banquet.

Luke’s Gospel begins with four of the most important hymn in Christian tradition. The Book of Acts also includes several stories where early Christians worship. These meetings appear to include food, the reading and instruction from Scripture (González calls this the service of the Word). González has a great deal to say on the Lord’s Supper, pointing out all the Gospels include the Last Supper and all highlight the eschatological dimension of the meal. The last supper “points to the future, to the feast of the wedding of the lamb, to a time when people will come from the east and the west and north and the south and eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). We have “sadly often lost that eschatological dimension of the Lord’s supper” (101). González connects the Last Supper to several examples of breaking bread in the Book of Acts. However. I am not convinced all of the references to “breaking bread” refer to Communion in the strictest sense. One such example is the storm in Acts 27. Paul does “take bread,” “give thanks” and he does “break the bread” before they begin to eat. The verbs are found in the Last Supper, but at least in my mind it is unlikely Luke intended this “last supper” on the boat as communion meal. Most of the participants were not Christians. Nevertheless Gonzalez thinks the meal provides hope for those who are traveling with Paul.

The final chapter of this book concerns Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit. González surveys the passages in Luke’s Gospel which do not have parallels in the other Gospels. In doing so he is highlighting Luke’s particular view of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is active in Jesus’s birth in early years, the Holy Spirit accompanies Jesus into the desert and when he returns to Galilee Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. González thinks it is significant that Luke uses the language of the “filling” with respect to the Holy Spirit. This looks back to the Old Testament, using Micah 3:8 for example. While the prophets were “filled with the Spirit of the Lord,” Eph 3:19 also prays that the readers would be “filled with all the fullness of God” (114). In the entire New Testament only Luke uses the word “to fill” to refer a person’s inner emotions: people are filled with rage, filled with villainy and deceit, filled with joy, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Since all these phrases commonly used among Christians today it is clear Luke’s contribution to the Christian doctrine of the Spirit is unparalleled in the New Testament (116).

Conclusion. While this book is not a full-blown theology of Luke/Acts, it is a simulating meditation on the theological contribution of Luke. It would make an excellent supplemental text for a college or seminary Gospels class, but it is accessible to the layman who wants to have an overview of a few of Luke’s major themes. The chapters are short enough the book could be used as in a small group Bible study.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on   on Reading Acts.