19 July 2024

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‘An extremely readable introduction to Luke-Acts’

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Bob Derrenbacker

19 May 2024

Michael F. Bird, A Bird’s-Eye View of Luke and Acts: Context, Story, and Themes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023). 

In this creatively titled book, Ridley College deputy principal and New Testament lecturer Michael Bird provides a thoughtfully written thematic introduction to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Comprising more than one-quarter of the New Testament, Luke and Acts are rightly treated together by Bird. Both were written by the same author, with the gospel written in anticipation of Acts. They share several themes, topics and interests.  

Designed to accompany traditional commentaries, this book introduces its readers to questions related to their origins, purpose or purposes, and to important discussions around Luke as both historian and theologian. On these topics, Bird’s conclusions are generally consistent with the consensus Luke-Acts scholarship. For example, Bird dates both works to somewhere between AD 80-90, with the author having access to the text of the Gospel of Mark as his chief written source. These are important points that directly impact how Luke and Acts are read and interpreted. 

What follows is a survey of several dominant themes in Luke and Acts. Included are Luke’s Christology and his understanding of salvation, his use of the Jewish scriptures, the topic of discipleship, female characters, the themes of material wealth and poverty, Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit, Luke’s perspectives on Judaism and Empire, and the eschatology of both. 

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Bird rightly encourages his readers, for example, to avoid the anachronistic description of Luke the author as a “feminist” when seeing his emphasis on female characters. Bird offers a more historically nuanced conclusion: “Luke-Acts was by the standards of its time a liberative work for women and very pro-women. Luke commends women, shows genuine concern for the plight of women … and believes that women are significant in the story of Jesus and the growth of the Jesus movement”. 

Likewise, Bird concludes that because Luke “has much to say about possessions and wealth and about how to live faithfully whether in poverty or flush with material goods,” Luke-Acts “propels us to address matters of consumerism, greed, and social justice”.  

Similarly, discussing Luke’s eschatology, Bird concludes that much Luke-Acts scholarship has over-emphasised the significance of the “delay” of the Parousia. (That is, the second “coming” or “return” of Christ). Instead of being a “theologian of eschatological crisis management”, Luke’s vision of the end does not at all eclipse or usurp the importance of the Church manifesting “perseverance under duress and participation in mission” in the present. 

Bird says many important things on Luke and Acts’ themes, both in his thorough interaction with contemporary scholarship and his helpful suggestions about how his scholarly conclusions on the texts can inform Christian readers. Bird introduces each chapter colloquially to lead into its topic, and helpfully concludes each with discussion questions and a bibliography. This makes the work particularly beneficial for small group church or Bible study. 

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While Bird discusses a broad list of Luke-Acts topics and themes, this reviewer was surprised there was no similar treatment of important Lukan themes such as meals, food and banqueting, or the motif of prayer.  

There are, for example, several food and meal-related episodes in the Gospel that are particularly “Lukan”. For instance, the anointing of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus’ discourse against the Pharisees (Luke 11:37-52), the healing of the man with dropsy and Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:1-24), and Jesus’ post-resurrection meals with his followers (Luke 24:13-49). This emphasis in Luke (and Acts) shows how mealtime can be a venue for ministry, with meals often being symbolic of membership in the Kingdom of God.  

As well, prayer is important to Luke. Prayer uniquely precedes significant events in Luke-Acts, such as Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21-22), his transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), and the inbreaking of divine activity (Acts 4:31, 16:25).  

This reviewer recognises that books can only be so long; however, the distinctively Lukan themes of meals and prayer could have also been deserving of chapter-length treatments. 

This reviewer was also surprised that more was not made of how geography shapes the structure of both Luke and Acts. There is definite geographic movement in the Gospel from Galilee to Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51) where the Gospel concludes. Then in Acts, there is a geographic movement from Jerusalem outwards as the Christian mission expands. For instance, see Acts 1:8 – “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. Acts concludes with Paul making his way to Rome (Acts 27-28). The geographic movement of Luke-Acts propels its narrative movement, a vital feature of its overall story.  

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Regardless of these minor protests, Bird’s Birds-Eye View of Luke and Acts is an extremely readable introduction to Luke-Acts. It makes Lukan scholarship accessible and relevant to the contemporary reader, especially readers of faith. As such, it comes highly recommended by this reviewer, a book that should be found on the bookshelves of interested laypeople, theological students, and clergy, especially in anticipation of Year C – the Year of Luke – in next year’s lectionary cycle. 

The Reverend Canon Dr Bob Derrenbacker is dean and Frank Woods Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity College Theological School. 

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