Yesterday, I preached on Christ’s crucifixion as recorded in Luke 23. Luke’s account has some significant differences from the other Gospel accounts, and I found it helpful to list them to get a better handle on what Luke was emphasising.
Synoptic / non-Synoptic
Luke is one of the Synoptic Gospels. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is related to the word “synonym” — a word of a similar meaning. “Synoptic” combines the prefix “syn-” (meaning “with, together, related,” from the Greek sun) with “optic” (related to vision, seeing). So “synoptic” has the sense of “a similar or related view.”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are Synoptic Gospels because they give a similar view of Christ’s ministry, in the events recorded and even, at times, in wording. Luke said at the beginning he knew of other accounts and had researched the matter, so it is hardly surprising if he drew on the account of Matthew or Mark.
In recording the crucifixion, Luke is “non-Synoptic.” From Luke 23:26 to the end of the chapter, I count seven details not recorded in any other account. Of the seven recorded sayings of Christ on the cross, three are only in Luke (who has none of the statements which others record). If we add His last recorded words before the cross (from 23:27-31), then four of the final eight sayings of Christ before His death are only in Luke.
Luke appealed to eyewitness knowledge, and his unique account in this chapter shows he relied heavily on eyewitnesses here, including perhaps Mary (the mother of Jesus), maybe other women who followed Jesus, and possibly either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimethaea.
When God gives multiple accounts of the same event, our tendency is compare / contrast / harmonise those accounts, so that we can lay it all out in order. For instance, I’m pretty sure I can tell you the order in which Christ made those seven statements on the cross — there are enough clues in the text to harmonise it all.
Harmonisation is a valuable process. We believe in, rely on, the historical truth of something that actually happened. Those multiple accounts, harmonised, confirm and strengthen our faith in the historicity of those events.
As I’ve preached through Luke this time, I’ve not harmonised with other accounts. I’ve checked them to make sure I’m not misinterpreting Luke’s record, but I wanted to view the Word the way God gave it through Luke. The Holy Spirit directed Luke to record these particular events and teachings, in this particular order, for a purpose. I wanted this series to be a look at Luke’s letter to Theophilus, not a historical study of the Life of Christ.
In such a study, focusing on the unique characteristics of an account can help “clue us in” to what Luke (under the guidance of the Spirit) was emphasising for his reader, Theophilus, and what the Lord would have us learn and receive from it.
Seven Unique Aspects of Luke’s Crucifixion Account
As I looked at the text, I identified seven things that we don’t see in other accounts:
- Christ’s interaction with the women of Jerusalem in verses 27-31 (first unique saying).
- “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” in verse 34 (second unique saying).
- Treble repetition of “If thou be…” (or a variation) in verses 35, 37, & 39. We see the statement elsewhere, and the fact that rulers, people, and thieves reviled Him, but Luke alone repeats those words three times. There was a repeated direct challenge to His identity at the cross, and Luke draws our attention to that fact.
- The account of the believing thief, in verses 40-43, and the promise, “To day shalt thou be with Me in paradise” (third unique saying).
- “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,” in verse 46 (fourth unique saying).
- The grief of the people, in verse 48.
- The fact that Joseph had not consented to the evil actions of the Jewish leaders, in verse 51.
A Message for Theophilus
Theophilus was probably not a believer when Luke wrote to him. The title “most excellent” which Luke used in 1:3 was commonly used for government officials, but (according to several commentators I read, anyway) there is no record of it ever being used among Christians when addressing another Christian (and it is not in Luke’s address to Theophilus at the beginning of the Book of Acts).
Luke was probably a “Gospel tract,” a letter to a government official with some knowledge of Christian belief who was not yet a believer. Luke wrote to lay out the facts so he could “know the certainty” (have a settled faith). By the time Luke writes to Theophilus again, he addresses him as a fellow believer, no longer using the “most excellent” title.
If we read this account, then, as to an interested but unbelieving recipient, when we see its unique aspects they help us understand Luke’s (and the Lord’s) purposes it its record.
The Compassion of the Christ
We see the compassion of the Christ emphasised by in his interaction with the women of Jerusalem, where He turns His attention, not to His suffering, but to their suffering to come. We see it in His prayer for His tormentors to be forgiven, and in His response to the dying thief. Even in His greatest suffering, He had compassion on others. God’s compassion has been greatly in view in Luke, from chapter 15 (the Prodigal Son) on, and it is no surprise to see Luke reiterating it here especially.
We see an evil-doer, one who by his own admission was worthy of death, turning from his unbelief to plead for mercy. We see people, who with the chief priests had been mocking Him (verse 35 and other accounts), turn to grieving by the end (verse 48). The centurion, who participated in all the cruelties of the crucifixion, eventually declared that “this was a righteous man” — something he could not have said if he did not believe Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God.
Hearts changed at the crucifixion. Some who had not believed, who had mocked, who had opposed the very Son of God, found their hearts touched. And there is an appeal here to Theophilus — “many there, who had not believed, came to faith — and will not you also?”
“If Thou Be…”
There were repeated, direct challenges to Christ’s identity at the crucifixion, and Luke brings that out more than any other Gospel account. Was He the Christ (the promised Messiah), the Chosen One, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the One who can save? All of that was called into question at the cross.
Luke brings that question to the forefront by repeating the question three times for Theophilus. It is a question we all must answer, for if He was all those things, He still is, and if He is, then His death and resurrection speak to us in compelling voices. “If Thou be…” — the question for Theophilus, the question of the ages.
Pretend You are Theophilus
You’ve read this long letter from Luke. You’ve read of the joy, the wonder, the working of the Spirit, the power, the miracles, the teaching, and now you’ve read of the cross and His burial when you hit the end of chapter 23. You read Him foretelling His death, and His promise that He would rise again (9:22, 18:31-33) — and now, He’s dead.
When you hit the end of chapter 23, would you stop :)? “The story is over. He died, and was buried. It was an interesting story, but He died, and I won’t bother to read anymore.” Or would you read on, to find out if His claim that He would rise would come true?
If you read on, four verses later you find yourself with the women at an empty tomb:
4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
5 And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?
6 He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,
7 Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
If thou be…? He was, and still is, the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Son of God, the Saviour. The empty tomb apparently proved it to Theophilus, and it speaks as clearly to us today. The question of the ages is answered. He is, He always was, He always will be.
Luke’s unique account challenges people today, just as it did then. This “Gospel tract” has reached its climax, pointing us to the compassionate Christ, the One to whom we can no longer say, “If thou be….” Hearts changed at the cross. Will ours?
Related: 3-D Chess / Noughts & Crosses