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The Living Voice of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke
by Arthur A. Just
Viva vox Jesu—the living voice of Jesus—is what we hear when his written word is read and preached. In lesson and sermon, this word, transcribed in the divinely inspired pages of the Holy Scriptures and canonically received by the Church, is proclaimed as the living voice of Christ in the here and now of Christ’s body, which is the Church. By this bodily proclamation, Christ is present in his Church in a bodily way. It is his living voice.
This sense of Christ’s presence serves also as a principle of the Word’s interpretation. Exegesis is always kerygmatic and therefore homiletical, and to interpret Scripture rightly requires a proper hermeneutical method that reflects a biblical theology of preaching.
Consequently, to confess our preaching as viva vox Jesu is to speak of the Christocentricity of Holy Scripture. Preaching renders Christ present. When the Word is proclaimed, it is Christ who is heard. We recognize this as the teaching of the Apostle Paul:
But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14–17 ESV, emphasis added)
Luke, Preacher & Catechist
This perspective seems particularly characteristic of the writings of Luke. We may observe this by considering the prologue to his Gospel (1:1–4):
Since many have endeavored to reproduce a narrative (in Greek, diegesis) concerning the events that have come to fulfillment among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and became ministers of the Word delivered these traditions to us, it seemed good to me also, after investigating from the beginning every tradition carefully, to compose systematically a narrative for your benefit, most excellent Theophilus, in order that you come to recognize completely (epignois) the reliability (asphaleian) concerning the words by which you have been catechized (katechethes).
Luke’s stated purpose in writing his Gospel is, first, kerygmatic. By describing his gospel as a “narrative” (diegesis), Luke certainly places it into a literary genre familiar to the first century, subject to a specific kind of literary analysis. Yet his Gospel is not merely historical but also kerygmatic: a theological presentation of the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth that bring to “fulfillment” God’s plan revealed in the Old Testament. The catechized person will listen to Luke’s Gospel to hear how Jesus fulfills biblical prophecy.
From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke places Jesus within the context of Old Testament prophetic history as one who is now the final voice of God because he is the very Son of God. Gradually and systematically Luke demonstrates who Jesus is. Indeed, the major question in his Gospel is the identity of Jesus. Every event in Jesus’ life fills in the portrait. The Gospel is Christology.
Furthermore, in treating the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Luke follows a pattern discernible in the prophetic writings, one that reads the lives of the prophets as well as hears their words. This pattern guides his christological interpretation of the Scriptures and his proclamation of Jesus’ “kerygmatic presence.” In Luke, there is both a living voice and a life that embodies what that voice proclaims.
As the catechized listener attends to each part of Jesus’ story, he knows the end, or goal, of that story. In hearing the facts of the gospel, he recognizes the theological significance of the events as they are interpreted by the evangelist, the inspired catechist who knows their meaning within salvation history. Thus, Luke’s prologue instructs believing listeners of all times to seek to discover the theological significance of the events that are about to be narrated.
This catechist, Luke, does not give an unbiased, “neutral” narration, but a persuasive, confessional one, filled with christological meaning. As catechesis about Christ, it is a christology. But at the same time, it is catechesis about the Old Testament, understood from a messianic perspective.
The evangelist is the recipient of a tradition that was handed down by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and became ministers of the Word. Luke is not only continuing this tradition, but he is shaping it for a particular “Theophilus” who represents a particular audience, a community of catechumens and the baptized. Luke’s narrative is a reliable source for both preaching and catechesis. It provides a single, christological interpretation, which may be discerned by careful analysis.
So Luke states his purpose in writing his Gospel as not only kerygmatic but also catechetical: He writes it “in order that you come to recognize completely (epignois) the reliability concerning the words by which you have been catechized” (1:4). The root word for this complete knowledge of which Luke speaks is ginosko (“to know”), the derivatives from which form part of his standard language for faith. The purpose of the gospel, then, is a fully informed, steadfast faith that endures to salvation.
This faith comes through the gospel’s additional catechesis (katechethes) that assures its reliability (asphaleian). Luke asserts that his Gospel is a kerygmatic narrative crafted to complete Theophilus’s earlier catechesis. For Luke, “catechetical” entails “kerygmatic.” Testimony regarding historical facts and proclamation of their doctrinal significance are elements of catechesis—as also of any of the Church’s evangelistic activity.
The Voice of the Prophets
The kerygmatic character of Luke’s Gospel may be demonstrated from many passages. Of special importance in this regard is Luke’s account of the first post-resurrection instruction of the Church, when the risen Jesus revealed himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Perhaps the story is best approached from the words with which Jesus interrupts the sadness of the two grieving disciples: “And he himself said to them, ‘O foolish and slow in heart to believe in all the things that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And after beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27).
The risen Lord’s personal presence and instruction is the element that sets Jesus’ act of teaching on the road to Emmaus apart from all other teaching. The resurrection itself is the sign of fulfillment, bringing to completion the kerygma of suffering before glory and also the table fellowship of Jesus. His teaching readies the disciples for the meal with him, the risen Christ, at the inn in Emmaus, by giving them faith to believe all that the prophets had spoken. Later in Christian worship, the teaching of the proper understanding of Jesus’ suffering and of the real presence of his Body and Blood in his Supper will be prerequisite for participating in the Meal in which the guests receive the forgiveness of sins for their own resurrection life.
Jesus builds the faith of the Emmaus disciples on the foundation of the prophets. This prophetic theme will dominate the kerygmatic statements in Luke 24 and become progressively broader. All three of Jesus’ appeals to Scripture (24:25, 27, 44) should be understood as encompassing the entire Old Testament, since the christological, prophetic voice of the Spirit sounds forth from every passage of the inspired canon.
That christological perspective is the hermeneutic lens through which Jesus teaches his disciples to look as they view the Old Testament. Luke’s repeated use of “all” (pas) in 24:25–27 emphasizes the totality of the prophetic witness. The hearer is struck with the fact that the Old Testament provides a prophetic witness that is, in its totality, christological. According to Jesus, his passion and resurrection as the sign of fulfillment is the major thrust of the entire Old Testament.
When Jesus reproves the two disciples for neglecting the prophets, he is reproving them for neglecting the prophets themselves as well as their words, because their lives and ministries of teaching, miracles, and rejection adumbrate the life, the teaching, the miracles, and the crucifixion of Jesus. The Emmaus disciples are foolish because they did not take to heart (1) the lives of the prophets, (2) Jesus’ incorporation of the prophets into his own life and ministry (cf. Luke 4:16–30; 7:18–35; 22:37; 23:30, 32–36), and (3) the prophetic life of Jesus himself.
Had they listened to the voice of the prophets, they would have understood the necessity of the Christ’s suffering before entering into glory. Now, on the third day after his atoning death, Jesus’ voice—the voice of the final eschatological prophet—opens up the Scriptures to them and interprets all things in terms of himself.
The kerygmatic passion and resurrection formulae of Luke 24:26 are supported by the scriptural foundation given by the risen Lord himself: “And after beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). Just afterwards, in Luke 24:44, the formula “Moses and the prophets” is expanded to include the psalms.
Much earlier in the Gospel, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:29–31), Jesus linked Moses and the prophets with the resurrection from the dead. That is to say, he showed that the doctrine of resurrection is consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures. In Luke’s final chapter, however, Jesus goes farther by expounding the doctrine of his resurrection as a teaching found “in all the Scriptures” (24:27). The tenor of the verse is that Jesus did more than cite isolated prophecies of his passion and resurrection. It implies that the entire Old Testament is christological, its every theme leading to and centering in the crucified and risen Christ.
A Prophet Without Honor
Luke introduces Jesus’ own teaching about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy at the very beginning of his public ministry: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he entered according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath, into the synagogue and he stood up in order to read” (Luke 4:16). The Lord then proceeds to proclaim passages from Isaiah 61 and 58:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because of which he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to send away in release the broken ones, to proclaim the year of jubilee” (4:18–19, emphasis added).
This hermeneutic proclamation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry stands parallel to his proclamation on the road to Emmaus at the end of it; the two scenes form a kind of kerygmatic inclusio. In this first sermon, he makes it clear that the event is a climactic moment in salvation history. Here is Jesus, the Word made flesh, entering into a liturgical context in order to read the inscripturated word from Isaiah. Jesus’ entire purpose in coming to the synagogue in Nazareth was to read the word of God and interpret it christologically.
This text from Isaiah—and this episode—are programmatic. They reveal what Jesus will preach throughout his ministry. It is significant that three of the four infinitives in this text refer to evangelism: proclaiming (evangelisthasthai) the good news to the poor, and, twice, preaching (keruchsai) release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the acceptable year of the Lord.
For Luke and the other evangelists, the proclamation of Jesus is performative speech—that is, Jesus’ words create what they say. They effect reality and enact it. His word is a creative word, as in Genesis, so that when he speaks, things happen. Jesus’ preaching declares and enacts the new creation that comes through the presence of his flesh—the flesh of the Creator—coming to his creation to make all things new. Jesus announces this by means of the Old Testament, where he now interprets texts christologically and sees those texts becoming reality by means of his voice, which brings this new reality into existence.
With the word “Today,” Jesus announces the inauguration of the eschaton. This is a profound christological statement that identifies the Kingdom with Jesus. He announces in Galilee that the Jubilee year is now present in him and his ministry. This message of release unites the Old and New Testaments. It reveals to the listening believer how his baptism initiates him into a life of continual release, sustained in the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus shows that the essence of his proclamation is release: release from the bondage of sin, sickness, and Satan. This proclamation is demonstrated in the miracles he performs, which testify to the presence of God in him for salvation. Miracles certainly show that Jesus is the Son of God, but at the same time, they reveal that present in Jesus is the freedom he had announced at Nazareth, as he casts out demons, heals the sick, forgives sins, and raises the dead. Wherever Jesus is and his voice is heard, there is the miracle of God’s presence in the flesh for our salvation. Thus, Jesus’ teaching and miracles proclaim that God’s salvation is present and active in his ministry to release the creation from its bondage.
Ironically, Jesus’ fellow citizens and friends testified against him and wondered how from Joseph’s son such words of grace about the Messiah could proceed (Luke 4:22). Jesus knows that they reject him for his teaching—his living voice that “today” they heard fulfilled in their ears—for like all the prophets before him, he is not honored in his homeland (4:24).
Jesus corroborates this thesis by two illustrations from the Old Testament (Luke 4:25–27). Elijah and Elisha were prophets well known for their teaching and miracles. But at critical times they received no welcome “in Israel.” And so God sent Elijah to the (Gentile!) widow of Zarephath and let the (Syrian!) leper Naaman be cleansed by Elisha. The Gentile mission is anticipated already here.
And the people of Nazareth understand well what he says. No longer confused, they are filled with anger: angry that he will not be the Messiah they want (4:28–29). They reject Jesus to the point of attempting to kill him, the only place in Luke outside of the cross where he suffers such violence. Like all the prophets before him, Jesus is rejected—even is his hometown—for being the voice of God. The people of Nazareth fulfill his prophecy.
The Apostolic Cross
This same anger, demonstrated by the ancient Israelites against their prophets and by the citizens of Nazareth against Jesus, will also be directed at the apostolic bearers of the Word. The Lord himself foretells this in the commission he gives to the apostles: “Go your way; behold I am sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). This is the first part of the christological principle of ministry.
This commissioning of the seventy ministers of the Word is christological and sacrificial in nature, as Jesus clearly implies when he describes them “as lambs in the midst of wolves.” They will be rejected and suffer for announcing the presence of the Kingdom of God. They are about to enter a cruciform ministry of preaching and healing that the world will hate and attack. Like their Lord, they will become sacrificial victims for the gospel that calls for a reversal of the world’s values. They are sacrificial lambs, who go forth in full knowledge of the world’s enmity.
But in their proclamation they will show that they are not ashamed of Jesus and his words. They are part of that privileged group to whom the Father, through Jesus, has revealed the secrets of the Kingdom of God (compare Luke 10:21 and 8:9–10).
Moreover, these seventy carry in themselves, in their own bodies, Jesus’ redemption and his peace. As his emissaries, they now represent Jesus. They carry “in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in [their] body” (2 Corinthians 4:10). This is the christological principle of representation, according to which the emissaries bear in themselves the person of Christ. In bearing the cross daily, they also bear the image of the Passover lamb who must be sacrificed for the people.
Thus the twelve disciples and the seventy follow the pattern of sacrifice first exhibited in the prophets, “from the blood of Abel until the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the temple-house” (Luke 11:51). As Jesus said to them: “Many prophets and kings wished to see what things you are seeing” (10:24). By calling them “lambs,” Jesus asserts they must depend completely on the Lord and expect to give up their lives for the Kingdom.
The Triumphant Kingdom
If we understand the earlier reference to sacrificial sheep as the first part of the christological principle of ministry, the next verses contain the second part. Jesus is clear in the ministry he confides in them. When they enter a city, they are to “heal the sick in it, and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near’” (10:8–11).
These verses describe the disciples as spokesmen for Jesus and the Father by speaking his prophetic words with his voice. These sacrificial lambs are both a mouthpiece for God and a representative of his presence: “Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (10:9).
The message of peace is now expressed in more concrete acts of peace: healing and proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom. Because Jesus is present, the seventy sacrificial lambs announce to the towns the arrival of the Kingdom. This mission of deed and word continues the pattern of the prophets, which Jesus fulfills in his ministry. This is, moreover, the pattern of the Christian mission portrayed in Luke’s other book, The Acts of the Apostles.
The effects of this mission are astounding. When Jesus reports seeing Satan falling like lightning from heaven, he is summing up the effects of the mission of the seventy. In their preaching and in their healing, in their activity of proclaiming Christ and his gospel, comes the victory over Satan and his angelic armies. As the disciples exclaimed, “Even the demons subject themselves to us in your name” (10:17).
As the Twelve and seventy now go into the world healing diseases and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, they do so as members of the household of faith. Wherever they preach the gospel and it is received, there is the oikos, the household of God. Their ministry creates the new temple of God (cf. John 4:20–24). The dust from any place that does not receive their preaching is profane, to be shaken off, lest it stain God’s people and be brought into God’s house as they enter the presence of the “new temple.”
As the new temple of God, Jesus is at one and the same time the sacrifice, the priest, and the altar. In the proclamation of the Kingdom that comes in Jesus and in the miracles that testify to the Kingdom’s presence, the Kingdom is “among you” (17:21). Proclamation of the Kingdom and healing in Jesus’ name have replaced the Old Testament temple. The new place of redemption is the cross and wherever the cross is proclaimed through the voice of Jesus. Thus, the Twelve and seventy must conform their conduct to the pattern of the cross, in order to demonstrate that this is true.
It is important that the words of Jesus ring in the ears of those whom he sends into the harvest. Twice he tells them to say to the people of the world: “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9,11). In the very preaching of Jesus’ emissaries, the Kingdom of God has already become a present reality and the Kingdom of Satan is firmly defeated. In their proclamation, the presence of Christ to redeem a lost and dying world ensures that Christ’s Kingdom will triumph because “the one who hears you hears me” (10:16). Hearing the Word through Jesus’ disciples is the same as hearing the Word from Jesus himself.
On the other hand, the person who does not hear the Word’s messenger rejects the Word. This entails a rejection of the person of the messenger, a rejection of his bodily presence. Jesus will be rejected in his body in the crucifixion, just as the people of Nazareth dragged his body to the precipice of the hill in order to kill him. Similarly, just as those who receive the messengers of the gospel provide physical sustenance for them (10:7–8), so those who reject the messengers may do physical violence to them. The disciples who are sent out must be prepared for this, because he is sending them as lambs into the midst of wolves.
The Living Word
One of the most important lines in the entire Gospel is that which declares that Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). To hear Jesus by hearing his voice resonating through prophets and apostles is part of the prophetic pattern whereby God’s Word creates what it says, for it is a christological word.
This sense of Christ present and living in the proclamation of his word is essential to the Christian ministry of proclamation—as also is the christological principle of ministry. It serves as a principle of the proclamation itself. Jesus’ Word is interpreted within the believing community, broken open in the homiletic ministry of the Church, as the hearts of believers burn through the commentary—the midrash—of both prophet and apostle.
This truth is conveyed in Luke’s description of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. In that scene, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the Lord demonstrates his kerygmatic hermeneutic in his interpretation of Isaiah. In the very presence of his flesh within creation, his words and his actions make all things new. This performative power of Jesus’ word is also shared with those who are called and ordained to the ministry of preaching, in which his living voice is heard.
The living word, moreover, creates what it proclaims, coming forth from the Word made flesh, a word with power to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and release us sinners from our sins. With the Old Testament saints, we confess that God’s Word is God’s food for hungry pilgrims. It is food for those who have journeyed in Christ through a baptism of his death and resurrection towards a final destination of full communion with him in heaven. “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears,” says Jesus to his friends here in the Nazareth of our worship (Luke 4:21), and so it is. Even now, the Scripture is fulfilled in our ears, as his word becomes alive in our midst.
Arthur A. Just is Dean of the Chapel and Professor of New Testament at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the Concordia Commentary Series (Concordia Press, 1996, 1997).