The Lucan Cycle

AFTER CELEBRATING THE EXULTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS, our Church begins to read St Luke’s Gospel at the Divine Liturgy. This “continuous reading” begins with Luke 3:19-22, telling of the baptism of Christ and the arrest of John the Forerunner. These events mark the start of Christ’s public ministry in Galilee.

Each Gospel passage read at the Liturgy has its own message, but the entire work also has an underlying point which helps us to see how each scene relates to the divine plan for our salvation. In the author’s words, the aim of the Gospel of Luke is “to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1). The Gospel describes the mystery of Christ among us and presents each aspect as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies which looked for a Messiah to come.

Christ’s entire ministry of teaching and miracles is presented by Christ Himself as the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah 61:1, 2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 3:18,19).

In Luke 7:27 the Lord describes John the Forerunner as fulfilling Malachi 3:1: “This is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’ Further along in this Gospel the Lord speaks of John as the last of the prophets, the very end of the Old Covenant: “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” (Luke 16:16).

The Lord’s most striking indication that He was the fulfillment of the prophets came at the end of His earthly life. “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’ But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Lk 18:31-34).

This was not the first time that Christ had spoken of His death and resurrection as the fulfillment of the prophets’ writings. In Luke 11:29-32 He spoke of Himself as fulfilling the “sign of Jonah.” In Matthew’s Gospel this “sign” is explained more fully: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

As Luke had noted, the disciples “understood none of these things”(Luke 18:34). It was only after the Lord’s death and resurrection that they were brought to understand what they had been told. We read that, when the risen Christ appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself… And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’”(Luke 24:27, 32).

The Gospel tells us that one of the two disciples was Cleopas. Since this story appears in detail only in Luke, it has been inferred that Luke himself was Cleopas’ unnamed companion. Another early tradition recorded by St Cyril of Alexandria is that the second disciple was Cleopas’ son, Symeon.

Luke’s Gospel concludes with Jesus explaining His passion, death and resurrection as fulfilling the Scriptures: “‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written,and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:44-48).

More Has Been Fulfilled

In Christ, the promise that the Messiah will come is fulfilled; but the “things which have been fulfilled among us” include more than the life and work of Christ, so Luke’s narrative continues in a second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. Acts narrates the progress of the early Church from the upper room to the gates of Rome itself. God’s plan is to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to “all nations” (Luke 24:47) and beyond, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus would be fulfilled the prophecy uttered by Simeon that the Lord Jesus would be “A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Jerusalem, the Mother Church

The first Church depicted in Acts is the small community gathered in the “upper room” which had been put at their disposal. This group of Jesus’ followers were led by the remaining apostles, “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers”: a group said to number “about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:14, 15). It is this group who chose Matthias to replace Judas and upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost.

In response to the Pentecost miracle of tongues and Peter’s preaching which followed (see Acts 2:1-42), “that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (v. 42). This number would have included natives of Jerusalem and its surroundings as well as “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” who had come to Jerusalem for the festival: “both Jews and proselytes” (vv. 5 and 10). Proselytes were those Gentiles who had come to belief in one God, accepted the teachings of Judaism, been circumcised and were now considered part of the people of Israel. Their mention here signifies that the Gospel has spread from Jesus’ Galilean disciples to the centers of the Jewish people.

The first few chapters in Acts focus on the growing Church characterized by the preaching of the apostles, the response of the Jewish leaders and the development of the office of deacons. The apostles all appear to still be in Jerusalem, at the heart of this community. St Luke summarizes this first phase in the Church’s life as follows “… the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

The Church Disperses

The next period in the Church’s life comes as a result of the preaching of Stephen, one of the first deacons. Some members of the Freedmens’ Synagogue denounce him to the council of Jewish leaders. Stephen is convicted as a blasphemer and stoned to death (see Acts 6:8-7:60). As a result, we are told, “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles… Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:1, 4). The scattered members of the original Church in Jerusalem found themselves preaching Christ and forming believers and Churches throughout these provinces.