The Gospel of Luke: beginnings of the ministry of Jesus
Chapters three and four in Luke are rich with Old Testament references. In chapter three, the ministry of John the Baptist is used to point to Jesus’ mission. John himself uses a reference from the Hebrew scriptures that would have special importance to his audience. Luke sets this ministry into a historical context, which according to Gonzalez (48), was a time of oppression for the Jewish people under the Roman empire. It is fitting that John would quote a portion of Isaiah (40:3-6), that also spoke to the people during a time of hardship, the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE. In this pericope John the Baptist is affirming that he is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah is coming and will fulfill all the promises of the prophets.
Another important part of chapter three is the genealogy of Jesus in vv. 23-38. Luke’s account of Jesus’ ancestry differs from that of Matthew’s, in that Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry backwards to “…son of Adam, son of God.” (3:38) Luke utilizes this list to show that the promise of Jesus is for all people and that the fulfilling of this promise has been a part of God’s plan since creation.
Chapter four has other important parallels to the Hebrew scriptures. The temptation of Jesus conjures up images of the temptation of Adam in the garden and Jacob along the river Jabbok. Luke places this story at the start of Jesus’ public ministry in order to show that he is filled with the Holy Spirit and doing the work of the Lord. The devil tempts Jesus three times, which Jesus rebuts with texts from Deuteronomy (Spencer 119). First, in an interesting parallel with Adam, and an allusion to the time the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, Jesus fasts and is tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread. Utilizing Deuteronomy 8:3, Jesus states “One should not live by bread alone.” This parallels Adam’s story, because while Adam was forbidden to eat from a certain tree, Jesus was instructed to fast for 40 days, and disobeying that would be disobeying God. Jesus defeats evil and begins to undo some of the history of Adam.
The second temptation has the devil offering Jesus the opportunity to rule over many kingdoms of the world if Jesus will worship the devil. Jesus responds with Deut. 6:13, “You should worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” In this, Jesus is saying that he will not serve anyone but YHWH, not worldly kingdoms, also serving to set up his later crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
In the final temptation, utilizing Psalm 91, the devil asks Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and command that his father save him. Jesus answers, “You should not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut 6:16). In the Hebrew scriptures this passage originally commanded the Israelites not to test God in the wilderness, and by stating this, Jesus is affirming that he will not be tempted to test God in his own wilderness. This is a poignant allusion to what will come later as Jesus hangs on the cross.
The final portion of chapter four narrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He finds himself back in Nazareth, reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah, which Luke uses as an opportunity to further illustrate that Jesus is coming to fulfill the promises made to the people. He quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” With this, we learn that Jesus is filled with the spirit, commanded to heal and reconcile the people. With his use of Old Testament references, it is clear that Luke is emphasizing Jesus’ role as the Messiah and by carefully constructing the narrative, he is helping his audience to understand the story of Jesus as part of an ongoing story for all of humankind.