The Gospels: Luke’s "Orderly" Account – An Examination of Biblical Precision

Luke tells us that his book is an “orderly” account of the story of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:3, NIV). What is the nature of Luke’s order? The Greek word is kathexes, which is also used in Luke 8:1 (where it is translated “afterwards”), Acts 3:24 (“on”), Acts 11:4 (“precisely”) and Acts 18:23 (“from place to place”). The word refers to sequence — chronological, geographical or logical. Let’s look first at the context of Acts 11:4.

Acts 10 and 11

After the visions of Peter and the conversion of the gentile Cornelius, some believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter. So Peter “explained everything to them precisely [kathexes] as it had happened” (Acts 11:4). His explanation, however, is not strictly chronological.

Peter begins the story with his vision (11:5), although Luke has already told the reader that two other events happened earlier: Cornelius had a vision and sent two servants to Joppa (10:1-8). But in Peter’s orderly account, he does not mention the servants until the point in the story that he learned about them (11:11). Although the servants told Peter about Cornelius’ vision of an angel (10:22), Peter does not mention that. According to Peter’s account, he does not learn about the angel until Cornelius himself tells him (11:13).

What Peter says is not false — it is orderly and true — but it is not strictly chronological. Acts 10 gives one perspective, Acts 11 another.

Gentiles in the church

One incident that may be reported out of chronological sequence is the conversion of gentiles. Many people think that Cornelius (Acts 10) was the first gentile Christian. But Acts 2:11 tells us that gentile proselytes to Judaism were part of the Pentecost audience, and presumably some of them became Christians. Because proselytes were circumcised, no one questioned whether they could be in the church.

Acts 8 tells us about the conversion of Samaritans, who were regarded as gentile by some Jews but not by all Jews. Acts 8 also describes the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, but it does not tell us whether he was Jewish. The account stresses his status as a eunuch. Both Samaritans and eunuchs were on or outside Jewish margins of acceptability.

Acts 10 describes the conversion of Cornelius, who we are clearly told was a gentile who worshiped God (10:1-2). Cornelius and his group received the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues and were baptized (10:44-48). This incident helped Peter and the Jerusalem church realize that God was saving gentiles (10:45; 11:18). Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism first — they did not have to be circumcised.

Acts 11 then moves to the city of Antioch, and it also moves back in time by mentioning the persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom (11:19; 8:1, 4). Thus Luke avoids specifying the exact sequence.

As Christians moved away from persecution, they told others the gospel message (11:19). Most of them spoke only to Jews, but some spoke to gentile Greeks, too (11:20). Some of these may have been converted before Cornelius. But there is no report of controversy. As later sections of Acts show, the Antioch church was more open-minded about gentiles. God did not need to give visions and miracles to convince the Antioch Christians that gentiles could be saved.

Luke has organized the story by showing expansion from a Jewish center, to Jews on the fringes, to gentiles near Judaism, and finally he reports the gospel going to gentiles with no previous connection to Judaism.

The commission of Paul

Luke gives three perspectives on the conversion or commission of Paul. Paul was named Saul at the time, but I will use the better-known name Paul. Some people do not like to call his experience a conversion, since he did not decide to leave one religion and join another. Rather, even decades later he considered himself a Pharisee (23:6). However, the Holy Spirit changes a person so much that it is appropriate to call Paul’s change a conversion. He certainly had a change of mind and a change of direction in his life.

But it may be best to call Paul’s experience a call rather than a conversion because his experience is not typical of a conversion. It does not set a pattern that other believers must experience. The significance of Paul’s Damascus Road experience is far beyond conversion. It was a call to ministry, a commission to be an apostle to gentiles.

The first story is told by Luke in Acts 9:1-30; the second by Paul, speaking to a crowd in Jerusalem (22:3-21); the third by Paul, speaking to King Agrippa (26:9-20). It is instructive to compare these stories, because this will reveal some of Luke’s method of “ordering” his narrative. In the linked file, I have formatted the three stories into a “harmony,” which graphically shows the areas of overlap and the areas of omission.

Comparing the three accounts is similar to comparing the three synoptic Gospels, except that in this case we are clearly discussing only one event, described by the same writer, who in each case knew the same facts. Nevertheless, there are several significant differences in the way the story can be told — different ways of reporting who said what when.

The story begins with Paul persecuting Christian Jews in Jerusalem (9:1; 22:4; 26:10-11). He requested authority to persecute Christians in Damascus (9:2; 22:5; 26:12). About noon (22:6; 26:13), as Paul neared the city (9:3; 22:6), a bright light from heaven flashed around him (9:3; 22:6) and his companions (26:13).

Articles about the Gospel of Luke

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Paul tells us that he and his companions all fell to the ground (22:7; 26:14). But Luke, even though he knew Paul’s story, tells us that Paul’s companions stood (9:7). The easy way out of this apparent contradiction is to suppose that they all fell down but immediately scrambled to their feet in the blinding light. Or perhaps we might suppose that “stood speechless” is an idiom that has nothing to do with posture, but simply means “didn’t move or talk.”

No matter what the speculative solution, it illustrates the flexibility that an ancient history writer had in retelling the story. Luke did not feel a need to explain the difference between falling down and standing speechless, because that detail was not essential to the significance of the story. It shows us that we also need to focus on significance, not on irrelevant details. It would be a mistake to focus on a word that was not important.

Paul’s companions “heard the sound” (9:7) but “did not understand the voice” (22:9). The NIV obscures what in Greek is an apparent contradiction. Acts 9:7 says they heard the phone; 22:9 says they did not hear the phone. Phone can mean either voice or sound, and akouo can mean either hear or understand, so the NIV used different translations to avoid a contradiction. But in Greek, the apparent contradiction remains. Luke was inspired to use contradictory phrases within his own book. He did not explain it; it was not relevant to his purpose.

Paul’s companions saw the light (22:9) but did not see anyone (9:7). But the way Acts 9 presents the story, it looks like Paul didn’t see anyone, either. We are simply told that when he opened his eyes, he saw nothing. It is only later in the story that we are told, by Ananias, that Paul had seen Jesus (9:17; cf. 9:27; 22:14). We might conclude from Acts 9 that Jesus appeared like a bright light. If we ask whether Paul’s companions saw the same light, we would be dealing in the irrelevant. It does not matter what they saw or heard. The minor differences remind us to be cautious about reading too much into specific details that are not relevant to the main point. Omissions are likely.

A greater difference is found in the presentation of Paul’s commission. Was he told to go to Damascus to get his commission (9:6; 22:10), or was he told right away what it was (26:16-18)? In 9:15-16, the commission is give from the Lord to Ananias. In 22:14-15, it is from Ananias to Paul. It is easy to see that both may be true. But in 26:16-18, it is from the Lord to Paul — Ananias isn’t even mentioned! It seems that Paul has abbreviated the story for the benefit of King Agrippa. The importance is in the commission, not in the sequence of messengers or the location.

In all these commissions, Paul is sent to gentiles and Jews. In 9:15, Paul is simply to carry Jesus’ name (Acts 9 emphasizes the name of Jesus). In 22:15, he is to be a witness of his experience. In 26:16-18, he is not only a witness but also a preacher of forgiveness and sanctification by faith. Acts 9 reports him as preaching primarily that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (9:20, 22); Acts 26:20 says he preached repentance. Apparently Luke considered these to be synonymous messages; we would err if we made too much of the differences in terminology — not only here but also elsewhere — not only in Luke but also in other biblical writers. We must allow for literary variation and differing emphases.

Acts 9:10-16 tells us about the vision of Ananias — a vision other accounts omit. Acts 9:12 tells us of a vision Paul had, a vision not otherwise described. Acts 22:17-21 tells us of yet another vision. Nowhere in Acts are we told about three years in Arabia and Damascus or the 14 years that went by before Paul went to Jerusalem again for the apostolic conference (cf. Galatians 1:15-2:1).

Most of these differences are simply omissions, not contradictions. But they show that we cannot assume that any version of any story includes all the details we think are relevant. Nor can we assume it is in strictly chronological order or that every passage of time is chronicled. The variations show the flexibility with which an inspired historian could tell the story.

Discrepancies in prophecies

We saw above that Luke didn’t mind putting an apparent contradiction in his history. We see another example in Acts 20:22; 21:4. The first verse says that the Holy Spirit compelled Paul to go to Jerusalem; the second verse says the Spirit inspired some Christians to urge Paul not to go. Is the same Spirit giving contradictory direction?

In 21:11, we see another discrepancy — Agabus was inspired to predict that the Jews would bind Paul. It would be easy for modern interpreters to see this prophecy as clearly predicting who would do the binding. But as the account develops, we find that the Roman soldiers were actually the ones who bound Paul (21:33). Instead of the Jews handing over Paul to the gentiles (21:11), Paul was actually rescued by the gentiles (21:32). The prophecy was fulfilled in principle, in the end result, but not in the literal details of sequence. It would be a mistake to insist that all prophecies must be literally fulfilled.

Paul creates a prophetic discrepancy, too. In 27:10, he predicted that the voyage would bring great loss of life; in 27:22 he modifies this by saying that no lives will be lost. Why does Luke record a prophecy that he knows will be rescinded? His reasons may not be clear to us, but it is clear that we cannot hold Luke to a standard of accuracy that was never part of his intention.

These minor discrepancies do not negate the inspiration of the Bible. God, who cannot lie, caused these differences to be recorded in the canon. They warn us to be careful when examining biblical details. They were not intended to have the precision we sometimes want to ascribe to them. It is a mistake to press the details beyond the intention of the author.

Gospel of Luke

Let us now look briefly at the Gospel written by Luke. He begins Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4:14. After two summary verses about Galilee, Luke tells us about an incident in the Nazareth synagogue (verses 16-30). But we should not conclude from this that Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth came early in his ministry. (Matthew 4:12-13 begins Jesus’ ministry by noting that Jesus went away from Nazareth.) Luke 4:23 mentions that he had already done notable works in Capernaum.

Luke had a literary reason to begin the story with Nazareth — the incident is a miniature of Jesus’ entire ministry, from his mission statement, the initially favorable reaction, his expulsion and an attempt to kill him. The Nazareth story sets the scene for the other events in Jesus’ ministry.

Various other events in Luke’s story are in a different order than we find in the other Gospels. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law comes early in Luke (4:38-39) but midway in Matthew (8:14). Jesus calls four disciples after that in Luke (5:1-11) but beforehand in Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20, 29-31). Which sequence is correct?

We cannot assume that any narrative sequence necessarily indicates a chronological sequence — even if temporal connectives such as “then” or “immediately” are sometimes used. Although the reported events happened, they did not necessarily happen in the sequence they are reported in.

One of the narrative techniques Luke uses is to organize many of the stories in the context of a trip from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Luke 9:51, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Luke 13:22, 18:31 and 19:28 say that Jesus was still on his way to Jerusalem and imply that everything between 13:22 and 19:28 happened on this one trip. But that is reading too much into Luke’s geographic notes. Several of the intervening events are set in Galilee or Jerusalem by Matthew or Mark.

Luke presents it all as a journey because Jesus’ ministry was, figuratively speaking, a one-way trip to death in Jerusalem. Luke doesn’t tell us when Jesus went back to Galilee and began his journey toward Jerusalem again. What Jesus said and did is important — but when and where is not as important.

Jesus healed a blind man near Jericho, for example. Was it while he was going in (Luke 18:35) or while going out (Mark 10:46)? It is possible that Jesus healed one blind man while entering and another while exiting, but it seems unlikely that both men would use the exact same words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Perhaps Jesus went out the city gate, heard the man calling, and then went back in to heal the man — thus Jesus was exiting and entering at the same time. Or perhaps he was leaving old Jericho and entering the newer city. Hypothetical reconstructions can weasel out of a contradiction, but they sometimes seem overly ingenious — and they certainly are not the focus of the inspired writers.

Matthew says that there were two blind men at Jericho, both healed while Jesus was going out (Matthew 20:29-30). So was there one man, two, or three? Why don’t Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus healed more than one? Such details are extraneous — the main point is that Jesus healed blindness, and that even a blind man could be inspired to recognize him as the Son of David, the Messiah.

This is not to say that the Gospels are totally inaccurate about time and space. Most of the sequence and settings are probably accurate. But a few exceptions occur, which means we must be cautious about constructing a modern history of Jesus that is concerned about the details that the writers were not inspired to be concerned about. The big picture is more important than the details.

Consider Peter’s confession of Christ, for example. What did Peter say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). We could say that Peter said both of these phrases, but it seems an unlikely and unnecessary redundancy. Another legitimate possibility is that Matthew or Luke was inspired to translate Peter’s Aramaic words with a dynamic equivalence appropriate for the original readers. The significance is conveyed — not necessarily the precise words. We see a similar equivalence in John’s account, where Peter’s recognition of Jesus is phrased, “You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

The ascension

Luke’s ascension stories provide a brief example about jumping to chronological conclusions. Luke 24:1-12 is dated on the Sunday after the crucifixion; 24:13-32 is dated “that same day.” Verses 33-44 are a few hours later — probably Sunday evening. Verses 45-49, introduced by “then,” probably refer to Sunday evening, too.

Verses 50-53 describes the ascension, without any indication of any passage of time, or any trips to Galilee. If this were the only account we had, we might assume that Jesus ascended that same Sunday night. In this case, however, we have other accounts, including one written by Luke himself, that inform us otherwise.

In other cases, we do not have parallel accounts that expand our information. It is dangerous to assume that a parallel account, if found, would not inform us about a change in location or a long delay. We cannot assume that “then” means “the very next event” or assume that one event followed right after another. Even though the writer may say nothing about it, weeks may have passed. The Gospel writers wanted to tell us what happened, but in most cases the when was not important enough to be worth specific mention.

Chronological precision apparently wasn’t necessary or expected in Luke’s “orderly” account — and we cannot assume it in any of the Gospels. We could use a harmony of the Gospels to construct a chronology, but that in itself could not prove that our result was accurate. The inspired writers had some flexibility in details as they told the stories for different audiences and purposes. So we must be cautious about using such details for purposes they were not intended for.

These observations encourage us to focus more on the big point than on the details — more on the theological purpose of each passage and less on the chronology and geography. Those timeless truths had historical roots (and it is important that they do), but it is rarely important to specify precisely when and where the events happened.

Instead of focusing on details that have little relevance to Christian life today, we need to focus on spiritual principles and timeless truths. Thus our time would be well spent — certainly a positive result.

Author: Michael Morrison


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