Gospel of Luke Setting
Where It All Goes Down
Jerusalem, The City of Destiny
All roads lead to Jerusalem.
This is where the story begins, with Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah in Jerusalem's temple (1:8-20); and this is where the story ends, with the disciples praising God in the temple after Jesus's departure to heaven (24:52-53). And, if we look forward to the sequel (the Book of Acts), Jerusalem is where the disciples will begin their work of communicating the good news of Jesus.
Just think of all of the major events of cosmic significance that occur in Jerusalem:
- Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah (1:8-20)
- Simeon and Anna's prophecies about Jesus (2:25-38)
- The precocious young Jesus questioning religious leaders in the temple (2:41-52)
- The celebratory welcome of Jesus to Jerusalem (19:29-40)
- The so-called cleansing of the temple (19:45-46)
- The last supper, betrayal, trial, arrest, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and resurrection-appearances (22:1-24:52)
Whew. It's not surprising then, that even when Jesus isn't in Jerusalem, the focus is on getting there.
Not only is Jerusalem the sacred city for Jews, but it's also the place where Jesus's fated death is supposed to occur. Jesus himself tells us that the prophets wrote long ago about his suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem (18:31-34; also, 9:31). The city draws Jesus in like a magnet and holds him in its grip with the force of an inescapable destiny. Intense, right?
Jerusalem actually has a pretty sad destiny of its own. The city's rejection of Jesus will have consequences—as Jesus tells us again and again—in the form of its eventual destruction by the Romans (13:34-35; 19:43-44; 21:20-24). This historical event went down in the year 70 at the end of the Jewish War, and Luke is clearly writing after the fact.
On the whole, Jerusalem gives out a sad vibe, even leading Jesus to tears (19:41). Considering he's a pretty unemotional guy, that's sure saying something.
Luke's Geo-Political Map
Luke also takes pains to position his story in the wider context of Roman imperial power and international politics. He's writing a story that belongs in the World News section of the newspaper—not the Locals.
Already in 1:1 and 2:1-2, Luke begins to transfix his story onto the wider imperial-political map. John and Jesus are born during the reign of Augustus, who's the first of a long line of emperors, at the time when Herod the Great is king of Judea and neighboring regions and Quirinius is governor of Syria. In 3:1-4, Luke adds that John and Jesus start their work when Tiberius Caesar is in the fifteenth year of his long reign as emperor. Pontius Pilate is currently governor of Judea, and Herod is tetrarch of Galilee. Other tetrarchs in neighboring regions are mentioned as are two Jewish priests. (For more details about all of these rulers, their dates, and problems with Luke's chronology, check out the "Detailed Summary.")
And that, folks, is where John and Jesus start their work. A tough act to follow, sure, but they make it happen.
Luke's Cosmic Map
Luke also superimposes on his story a cosmic map. Translation: otherworldly regions beyond the earth make their way into the story, too. Luke doesn't give us any coherent description of these realms or where they are with respect to one another, but it's a fun challenge to try to map them as closely as possible on the basis of this text alone. Here at least are a few of the building blocks of Luke's extraterrestrial cosmos.
Heaven is the most prominent of the otherworldly spheres. It is the place where angels (2:13; 15:7; 16:22), the Holy Spirit (11:13), God (3:22; 11:2), the whole heavenly army (2:13), and even Abraham (16:22) hang out. Jesus also goes there after his resurrection-appearances (24:51) and will someday return from there (21:27). Mortals will also have access under certain future conditions to the rewards that are there (6:23; 12:33; 18:22). Location? Unclear, but definitely upwards toward the sky (4:25; 9:16, 54; 10:15, 18; 18:13).
Gehenna and Hades are both translated as "hell" in the KJV (10:15; 12:5; 16:23). Their location is downwards (from earth or from heaven?) (10:15; 16:23). We do know that when the Rich Man is in hell and Lazarus in heaven, the Rich Man can see Lazarus. So are the two super close together? Or did they just have better contact lenses back then? Either way, a "great chasm" or "great gulf" (16:26) lies between heaven and Hades, so no passage between the two is possible.
There's also the abyss (NRSV) or deep (KJV), which the Legion of demons is afraid to enter in 8:31. We're not quite sure what it's relationship is to Gehenna and Hades, but the brood of demons begs Jesus not to send them there, so we're guessing it's pretty nasty.
For extra credit, we dare you to make a visual depiction of Luke's otherworldly geography. And then send it to us.