Who Was Luke? The Beloved Physician


If I asked you who made the most significant contribution to the New Testament, you’d likely say Paul or Peter or John. If you were cheeky, you’d say Jesus. Of course, the cheeky answer is correct.

But what if I narrowed the question? Who made the most significant contribution in terms of the total number of verses? And who was the only non-Jewish author of any book or letter in the New Testament? And who, of the gospel writers, never met Jesus while he was alive?

The answer to all of these questions is Luke. The two-volume contribution of Luke-Acts is the largest contribution by any single author, making up a quarter of the New Testament. Luke was the only non-Jewish author of any New Testament book. And Luke never, as best as we can tell, met Jesus while he was alive. He learned everything through eyewitness interviews and meticulous research, perhaps via a research grant by the wealthy patron, Theophilus, to whom Luke dedicates each volume (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–3).

Our church recently began studying through the book of Acts on Sunday mornings. It got me thinking about how Luke, the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14), would have introduced himself to us if he could come to our church and share his story.

It’s impossible to know precisely what he would say, but when we piece together the details about Luke in the New Testament, a beautiful story emerges that perhaps would go something like this . . .

*     *     *

Luke, The Beloved Physician

My name is Loukas. I am a physician, or I was a physician. I suppose I’m known better as a historian these days, but you might just know me as Luke.[1]

The year was AD 67. In AD 67, Nero—Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—had been Emperor for thirteen years, and winter was coming soon.[2] I was in prison in Rome with the Apostle Paul before the end of his life, just weeks before they would remove his head simply because he followed Christ and encouraged others to do the same.[3]

Now, I suppose it would be more accurate to say Paul was actually the one in prison, and I was there to care for him and help with his letters.[4] Together in that jail we wrote to a young pastor named Timothy as he pastored a church in Ephesus. Timothy’s father wasn’t Jewish, just like my mother and father.[5]

Speaking of letters, even in the early years of Paul’s ministry when he wrote to the church in Galatia, he said that his body bore “the marks of Jesus.”[6] By this, Paul meant that his body showed the physical scars of suffering for Christ. As a physician, let me assure you that this was an understatement.

Paul’s wounds were frequent and severe. Near the end, he could not even stand fully erect. That’s what happens when you’ve been beaten repeatedly to the point where your back becomes one giant open sore, and you’ve been thrown into the dust and dirt. Then you hobble away, or more likely you are carried away, to a friend’s house that has no antibiotics, no hydrogen peroxide, no Neosporin, and you spend the next week drifting in and out of consciousness as your body fights off infection and fever. As Paul’s personal physician,[7] let me assure you, when Paul said he bore on his body the marks of Jesus, it was an understatement.

Trained as a Doctor

But let me back up. My profession trained me to make observations—how to look, how to interpret, and how to record, then how to re-look, re-interpret, and re-record. As I worked with suffering people, I saw something universally true. I saw that people almost always avoid suffering.

I lived in the early middle period of what was called the Pax Romana, The Peace of Rome. The ideal, although only few could achieve it, was to avoid suffering at all costs. If suffering was necessary, well, then others should do it. Better to direct the common laborers than to labor; better to direct the armies than to fight in them. That’s why, at various times, more than half of the Roman Empire were slaves; we outsourced our own suffering.

It was a decadent and indulgent culture. In these respects, we were not far from your culture where “the good life” drives cars that don’t break, owns computers that never malfunction, has bodies that don’t decay, and treasures stuff that shines. Ah, the good life.

Introduced to Paul

When I first met Paul, it was twenty years or so out from the resurrection of Christ, so roughly AD 52.[8] I met Paul in the city of Troas in what you call Asia, perhaps one hundred miles north of Ephesus.

When I met Paul, he was just traveling through Troas in the middle of his second missionary journey. But, to be clear, Paul never really just traveled through a city. In fact, when I met him, he had recently come from Lystra, where he was stoned and left for dead.[9] Anyway, Paul and I sailed the same ship back across Samothrace to Macedonia.[10] While there, I cared for him; I treated his wounds, which had healed but poorly.

What was odd about Paul—very odd—was how he seemed to move toward suffering.[11]

Introduced to the Gospel

As we traveled and I attended to him, Paul told me how he had been raised in the Scriptures; he studied under the best Jewish teachers.[12] He explained to me how he had originally persecuted those who followed “the Way,” as it was called,[13] those who followed Jesus. He also told me that while en route to the city of Damascus, Jesus appeared to him in bright, stunning light.[14] The light blinded him. But then the lights came on, so to speak. Paul came to understand what he called the gospel, the good news of Jesus: God, in past times, had overlooked sin and not fully punished it, instead choosing to take the full weight of sin and crush the Messiah with it. That’s what he said happened when Jesus was crucified.[15]

To my culture, this was all so strange—foolishness really. At the time, I didn’t know much about messiahs, but I knew they didn’t die; messiahs don’t suffer.[16]

Travels with Paul

I watched Paul minister in Neapolis and then Philippi. I watched this rugged man speak so gently with women. A businesswoman of some notoriety named Lydia even became a follower of Jesus.[17]

After that, I didn’t see him again for five years.[18] When I saw Paul the next time, well . . . he hadn’t gotten any younger. His injuries were worse. Paul was traveling through Philippi on his final missionary journey. He was visiting all the places and churches he had been to before.[19] This time, I would stay with him until the end.[20]

In the interest of saving space, I’m leaving out many details, but eventually we made it back to Jerusalem. By this time, there was no small commotion about Paul. The word was out that Paul defied the Jewish customs and faith. These were only half-truths, of course.[21]

A great chain of events was put in motion over a controversy about who Paul did or didn’t take into the temple grounds.[22] Paul, many times over, could have broken the chain. He could have ended the suffering. Humiliation. Beatings. Imprisonment. Hunger. A shipwreck and snakebite. But he didn’t avoid the suffering; he pressed on.

Paul appeared before governors and kings sharing how the light of God had touched him, appealing even to Caesar himself.[23] When I ended my second volume, Acts, this is where Paul was, waiting in Rome under house arrest.

The Final Days with Paul

Eventually he got out, but not for long. The persecution under Nero intensified. There was a fire in Rome, and the question arose of who to blame it on. Nero chose Christians. So he killed them—he killed us. He burned us as torches at parties, dressed us in animal skins, and fed us to wild animals.[24]

Paul was sent back to prison. Paul, a man who had lived for others, was alone. Well, not exactly. I was there. But his body was failing. His ability to see clearly was gone. He could not stand properly. Each movement caused pain. Sleep was sporadic. In short, suffering abounded. But so did the certainty of Paul’s hope in Jesus.[25]

Together from prison, he wrote to Timothy:

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel . . . [for Jesus] abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel . . . which is why I suffer as I do.[26]

Not only did Paul not avoid suffering, but he actually moved toward it. He didn’t do this for the sake of seeking suffering in and of itself. For the superior joy of knowing Christ and making him known, Paul followed God wherever it lead him, which often entailed suffering. And as Paul did this, he had a certainty about his life and mission. He had a certainty about the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that certainty freed him to love even when it was costly.[27]

I think he felt free because he was certain Jesus had moved toward suffering for him and for the whole world, which is what I wanted Theophilus to know. And this is what I you to know with certainty: Christ moved toward suffering to save sinners.

[1] This has been adapted from a sermon I preached at Community Evangelical Free Church, “Without Hindrance,” October 6, 2019.

[2] Cf. 2 Timothy 4, especially vv. 11 and 21.

[3] This is church tradition.

[4] This was how Paul wrote many of his letters, and it’s likely, based on the end of 2 Timothy, that this was how that letter was written.

[5] Acts 16:1; Colossians 4:10–14.

[6] Galatians 6:17, which is likely the first letter Paul wrote and likely before AD 50 when the Jerusalem Council took place (recorded in Acts 15).

[7] Many commentators say this was likely based on Colossians 4:14.

[8] Acts 16:10ff.

[9] Acts 14:19; 2 Corinthians 11:25.

[10] Acts 16:10ff.

[11] This seems consistent with his character and his explicit statements in the epistles.

[12] Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5; Acts 8–9; 22:3ff.

[13] Acts 9:2; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14.

[14] Acts 9.

[15] Acts 17:30; Romans 3:25–26.

[16] Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18–25.

[17] Acts 16:11–15.

[18] Five years is roughly the time between the “we” passages in Acts 16:10–17 and 20:5.

[19] Acts 20:5ff.

[20] Although the “we” passages cut in and out, it seems that Luke, more or less, is with Paul until the end of Acts.

[21] Acts 21:17–36; 23:17–36 (and beyond).

[22] Acts 21:226–29.

[23] We don’t know whether Paul actually got to see Caesar, but he certainly appealed to him (Acts 25:10–12). And it seems that this request was going to be granted.

[24] This is piecing together the possible timelines of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus as well as common statements about Nero’s persecution of Christians near the end of his reign (AD 54–68).

[25] I’m extrapolating here from the details in 2 Timothy 4, as well as some of his aside comments in other letters.

[26] 2 Timothy 1:8–12.

[27] I’m stressing certainty to highlight Luke’s aim stated in Luke 1:1–4.

* Photo: Saint Luke. Woodcut. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY