Justin S. Ukpong

University of Uyo, Nigeria


(a chapter of A Global Bible Commentary,

General editor: Daniel Patte;

Associare editors:  J. Severino Croatto, Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Archie Lee, Teresa Okure

Nashville;  Abingdon, October 2004)



This reading focuses on Lukes approach to mission, and is  done from the perspective of those being evangelized, rather than that of the missionaries. Two well-known issues associated with the  nineteenth- and  twentieth-century Christian missionary work in sub-Saharan Africa-- negative attitudes towards African culture and the missionaries’ failure to directly confront colonial oppression-- will be the contextual issues for the reading. Using the critical-analytical methodology of inculturation hermeneutics, I intend to show, with specific reference to Nigeria, how the Gospel according to Luke  could be said to legitimate this approach to mission. Luke’s interest in Gentiles and political figures is well-known;  this  reading will focus on Luke’s authorial motivation and ask why Luke was interested in these figures. I shall argue that, for Luke (and also the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Christian missionaries to Africa), mission was directed to Gentiles/non-Christians because they were perceived as dwelling in darkness without Christ. Christian mission meant bringing the light of Christ to them. For Luke, the Christ event culminating in the ascension marked the kairos for this mission, while, for the modern Christian missionaries, colonial exploration opened the way for mission. For both, the process of evangelization did not involve direct confrontation of oppressive colonial power.

Life Context: Nigeria

Nigeria, a former West African British colony that became independent in 1960, is about four times the size of the United Kingdom and the fourteenth largest country in Africa. It stretches about 700 miles from East to West, and 650 miles from South to North. It is the eighth most populous country in the world (with 125 million people), and the most populous in black Africa (making up 20 percent of Africa’s population). There are about 250 ethnic groups with different cultures. Though diverse, these cultures have many common traits. English, the official language, is spoken in the cities alongside Pidgin English and the indigenous languages.

In the late  nineteenth century, Nigeria, along with other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, was the site of intense Christian missionary activity. The missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, arrived by sea in the Southern part of the country that borders on the Atlantic Ocean, and moved northwards spreading the gospel. By the middle of the twentieth century, Christianity had spread to the Northern part of the country, which had been a Muslim stronghold since the eleventh century. Today, Christians make up about 50 percent of the population, and Muslims about forty five percent --- a testimony to the great success of the Christian mission (practitioners of the traditional religion and other religious groups make up the rest of the population). In spite of this success, the early Christian missionary effort was marked by a negative attitude towards Nigerian culture and an absence of direct and open confrontation of the colonial oppression suffered by the people.

Contextual Issues:

            Negative Attitude Towards Nigerian Culture by Christian Missionaries.

Christian missionary activity in Nigeria took place at a time when there was general ignorance of African culture in Europe. The information people got about Africa was generally distorted, unreliable, and exotic, and came from newspaper reports and travelers’ accounts. In nineteenth-century Britain, in particular, a body of literature developed  exemplified by Livingston’s Missionary Travels of David Livingston in Africa and Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa, in which Africans were depicted as savage, barbaric, pagan, primitive, lewd, and inferior to Europeans. There were also films that depicted Africa as the Dark Continent; a fantasy at best, grossly racist at the worst.. Europe’s ethnocentric intellectual climate combined with Darwin’s theory of evolution formed the basis for a theory of social evolution according to which human societies followed a linear development, with the so-called primitive societies at the bottom and European societies at the top. Africa was, therefore, portrayed in the poorest light.

Against this background, mission to Nigeria, for both Catholics and Protestants, meant bringing Christ to people outside the pale of God’s salvation. Both groups possessed an exclusivist ecclesiology: “outside the church no salvation,” for Roman Catholics, and “outside the word no salvation,” for Protestants (Knitter 1984, 50-53). Nigerian culture was thought to be incompatible with Christianity and in need of being Europeanized before Christianity could take root in it. To this end, among other things, the missionaries introduced western education in Nigeria, which, rather than destroying Nigerian culture, led to the development of a Nigerian elite who started the struggle for Nigeria’s political independence—an ironic situation the missionaries themselves did not intend or foresee.

Another way the negative attitude towards African culture manifested itself was the development of separate communities  to shield the newly baptized from “contamination” by the local culture. In Nigeria, these were set up by the Roman Catholic missionaries in Topo Island near Lagos, and Aguleri near Onitsha, and were called “Christian villages.” Modeled after similar institutions in Paraguay during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century the so-called “reductions”), Christian villages were physically remote and politically autonomous from the surrounding traditional villages. The Protestants had none in Nigeria but developed them in other African countries such as Zambia, and called them “mission villages.” Unlike the Catholic villages, they were located within the traditional village around the church compound. The communities had only occasional contact with their non-Christian kith and kin, and tried to practice “Christian behavior”(i.e., European ways of doing things). The idea was to create “cells” of Christian civilization in Africa that would eventually cause the old social order to crumble. Because of conflicts and tensions between the Christian cells and the traditional villages, the project was later abandoned. It could not fulfill the ideal of Christian civilization that had been envisaged.

In addition, Christian missionaries would not admit Nigerian cultural symbols and practices into Christian life and practice. In liturgical practice, the local language, musical tunes and accompaniments, and African liturgical expression in dance were considered unfit for Christian worship. Africans had to worship the European way, and sing using European tunes from European hymnbooks. The use of indigenous African perspectives in theological reflection only began to surface in the 1960s, and was viewed with deep suspicion  (Bujo 1992, 56-66)..

            Christian Missionaries Failed to Critically Confront Colonial Oppression

Christian missionaries from Ireland and England brought Christianity to Nigeria during the golden age of British imperialism in Nigeria. This came with the exploitation of the material and human resources of the country. Nigeria’s palm produce, groundnuts, hide and skin, cocoa, tin ore, coal, and other products (the prices of which were fixed by the British merchants themselves) were exported cheaply to feed British industries. The people had no voice in the way they were governed; they paid taxes but had no say on how the money was spent. The country’s infrastructure—roads, potable water, electricity, etc.—–was not developed. Racial discrimination was rife. In the cities, thewhites  lived in special areas designated as “European Quarters” while Nigerians lived in the slums, there were separate centers of recreation for whites and blacks, and Nigerian workers received only a meager fraction of the wages of their white counterparts. Life for Nigerians was a bitter struggle. Poverty was everywhere. Above all, colonialism brought the dehumanizing commerce in human cargo.  Nigerian villages were raided on a regular basis for able-bodied men and women who were carried away into slavery in  America.

The Christian missionaries posed no direct challenge to colonial exploitation—particularly as colonialism was generally seen as bringing the light of European civilization to Africa. Besides, how could one expect them to criticize the very institution that provided them with protection and financial support in spreading the gospel? Even when they had opportunities to support the people against colonial oppression, they did nothing. For example, in 1949 the coal miners at Enugu, the seat of the Eastern regional administration, organized a demonstration to press their demand for a pay raise.The colonial police fired at them, killing nine people. When the miners’ union organized a funeral service, neither the local Roman Catholic nor the Anglican Church--whose ministers were white--would permit the funeral to be held on their premises, even though some of the deadwere Catholics and Anglicans. The union then moved to a small town, Aba, about forty miles west of Enugu, for the funeral. In protest against the attitude of the Christian churches, they had an open-air funeral, sang traditional religious songs, and used traditional religious rites invoking the ancestors. The occasion led to the founding of Goddianism, a modernized form of African traditional religion, a movement that could have been averted had the missionaries been sympathetic to the cause of the miners (Onunwa 1989, 116-125).

Luke’s Gospel is open to multiple readings, depending on the reader’s perspective and context. For example, it has been read in ways that inspire economic, social, and political liberation (see below, René Krüger’s “God or Mammon:  The Social and Economic Theme of Selected Passages of Luke”). However, by focusing on Luke’s authorial motivation (a choice made in view of the above interpretive context), this reading seeks to identify some of the inadequacies of Luke’s missiology that seem to have influenced Christian mission practice in Nigeria, and that might be masked by the great success of Luke’s Gentile mission. As already pointed out, Luke’s motivation for the Gentile mission was the desire to bring Christ to people believed to be without him. However, the question is, did Christian missionaries bring Christ to the Gentiles? Was Christ not already present among these people even before the arrival of the missionaries? Luke’s interest in political figures also stems from his desire to gain the good will of the empire’s elite. While this may have well served Luke’s cause, it is an inadequate paradigm  for today.


Contextual Comment

Following the general scholarly consensus, I date Luke’s Gospel to about 80 c.e. (or shortly thereafter), and understand his intended audience as predominantly Gentile. Antioch in Syria is generally suggested as a possible location for the book’s  writing, but Rome or any major city in the Roman Empire could have been its base. Although some have proposed a female author, I share the majority opinion that the author is a male who may have been a Gentile or Diaspora Jewish convert to Christianity. Today, it is a matter of debate whether the author was a travel companion of Paul. He need not have been. For writing his story, he depended on Mark, Q, and other special sources that may have been either written or oral.

Like the rest of the New Testament, Luke’s Gospel was written in the context of the first-century Christian mission movement. The mission issues of the time, as well as Luke’s and his community’s experience of the Christian mission, shaped its focus and goal in the light of which Luke reinterpreted the tradition he had received. The Gospel begins with the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus (1:1-2:21); recounts the preparations for Jesus’ ministry (3:1-4:13), Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (4:14-9:50), and his ministry on the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:27); and concludes with his ministry, death, resurrection and ascension in Jerusalem (19:28-24:43). Though he pays attention to history, Luke’s approach is more theological and thematic than chronological.  Luke has many concerns, including women, the poor and their relationship with the rich, Gentiles, and political figures.

As we shall see, for Luke, the Gentiles dwelt in darkness, and the Christ event marked the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring the light of salvation to them. I shall explore this theme below by focusing on passages  selected throughout the Gospel.   With regard to his interest in political figures, Luke is trying to present Christianity in a way that would attract the support of the middle class elite of the Roman Empire but not appear to incite people against Rome’s colonial authority. I find this accentuated in a second series of passages  that I discuss in the second section below.  

            Interest in Gentiles

Luke’s Gospel expresses a strong interest in Gentiles. He alone of the four evangelists gives a detailed account of the early church’s mission to Gentile territory. By dedicating his two volume work to a Gentile, “Theophilus” (Luke 1:4)--who may already have been a convert, was undergoing instruction to be converted, or was merely interested in Christianity--Luke indicates that his message has some relevance for Gentiles. Symbolically, the Greek name (which means “lover of God”) also points to Christians, particularly Gentile Christians, as addressees. Luke depicts Jesus as determined to include Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation: Jesus is seen as the savior of all nations (2:32);  Jesus’ genealogy is traced to Adam the father of all humanity (3:38); Jesus speaks positively of Gentiles (4:25-27); in the Sermon on the Plain, in contrast to Matthew’s account, which presents a Jewish versus Gentile ethic (Matt 5:47), Luke presents a universal ethic for Jews and Gentiles (Luke 6:27-35); and  a centurion acknowledges Jesus to be an upright man (23:47-48).

Luke’s interest in Gentiles is shown in his understanding of the Gentiles as dwelling in darkness awaiting God’s salvation. At the time Luke wrote, the frontiers of Christianity had extended beyond Palestine to Gentile lands, with Gentiles flocking to the church in large numbers. The large presence of Gentiles in the church raised questions, for Luke, of legitimizing Gentile mission and the near total Gentile “take-over” of an originally Jewish heritage . Luke saw, in the Christ event, the time of the fulfillment of God’s Hebrew Bible promise of the redemption of Israel and salvation for the Gentiles who dwelt in ignorance of the true God (Acts 17:23).

In the Gospel’s prologue, Luke states that his purpose for writing is to attest to the proper (scriptural) foundation of the Christian catechesis that Theophilus has received or knows about (Luke 1:4) --- a catechesis whose genuineness is guaranteed by the tradition handed down by eye witnesses of the life of Jesus, and his own careful research (Luke 1:1). As far as can be reconstructed from the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian Kergyma (which formed the substance of this catechesis) included a retelling of the story of Jesus’ life as a fulfillment of ancient prophecies of God’s salvation to all peoples as well as  a call to repentance and acceptance of Jesus. (Acts 2:14-36, 38-41; 3:13-26;  10:42-43 13:17-41). Thus, one purpose of Luke’s two-volume work was to testify to the arrival of God’s time of universal salvation that included Gentiles. Luke announces this theme in the infancy narrative and, in his characteristic way, reviews and refers back to it in the rest of the Gospel (Tannehill 1986).

Luke 1-2: Gentiles Dwell in Darkness

In the infancy narrative in which he introduces some of the major themes of his Gospel, Luke presents his theological viewpoint by commentating on the materials he received. He intersperses  hymns (not all of his own composition) in his narratives of the visitation (1:39-56), the circumcision of John (1:59-79), the birth of Jesus (2:1-20), and Jesus’ presentation at the temple (2:22-35) as his theological commentary on these incidents..

In the annunciation of John’s birth, John’s mission is set within Israel: he is to bring Israel back to God, effect a reconciliation, and prepare them for the approaching redemption (1:11-25). Israel is recognized as having defected but is not excluded from God’s favor. In the Benedictus, Zechariah’s hymn (Luke 1:67-79), the birth of John the Baptist inaugurates the dawn of Israel’s freedom from its enemies, and the establishment of God’s salvation and peace in Israel. Again, Israel is the focus of John’s reconciling mission.

Unlike John,  in the annunciation of Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:26-38),  his mission is ruling over Israel, which implies putting things in order and establishing peace. In Mary’s Magnificat, the theme of God as the savior of Israel is prominent: what God does for her symbolizes what God will do for Israel. Thus, the time of Israel’s redemption has come with the birth of the savior Jesus.

It is in Simeon’s hymn, Nunc Dimitis (which is very likely Luke’s own composition, Luke 2:29-32),that we find the core of the theme of Gentiles being without the light of salvation. Jesus is identified as the glory of Israel (2:32), an allusion to God’s glory that dwelt with the chosen people in the desert on their way to freedom (Exod 40:34), and an indication of the arrival of Israel’s time of redemption. Jesus is also identified as the bearer of “salvation” for all peoples (2:30-31), not just Israel. He is then specifically identified as a light for the Gentiles, a reference to Isaiah’s “servant songs” (Isa 42, 49, 52 ) with the prominent theme of Israel as God’s covenant people who will be a light to the Gentiles. Already in the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79), we know that those for whom this light is to shine (2:32, Gentiles) dwell in darkness comparable to death (1:79). This does not, however, connote an inability to do good, as is clear from the rest of the Gospel (10:13-16; 23:47). Rather, it has to do with the absence of the knowledge of salvation (Isa 49:6b). Jesus is the “light” that makes salvation known to the Gentiles (2:31-32).

Thus, God sets divine salvation and glory within Israel  (Isa 42:6-8).  Though the salvation that Jesus brings is for all people, it is located in Israel, from where its light reaches out to the Gentiles (Isa 49:6, as read by Luke). Israel’s glory and divine salvation are intertwined in Jesus. The resurrection is the point at which Scripture about God’s salvation for the Gentiles is fulfilled and, thereafter, Christian missionaries are to bring the light of Christ to the Gentiles through their preaching (24:44-48). This preaching is important and must start from Jerusalem and reach out to the ends of the earth.  Thus Luke locates the urgency of the Gentile mission and the explanation for the large Gentile influx into Christianity at the resurrection and ascension, whereby God’s plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles is fulfilled. Up to that point, during Jesus’ earthly ministry, such urgency is not apparent.

Gentiles are on the Periphery: Luke 7:1-10, Cure of the Centurion’s Servant

Having announced the theme of Gentiles dwelling in darkness at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke refers back to it in the rest of the book (Jervell 1979). He does this by negatively depicting the Gentiles as people peripheral to the Jews. In the Synoptic Gospels, the only two instances of Jesus healing at a distance involve Gentiles: the healing of a centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10), a Q text, and the healing of the daughter of a Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), a Markan text. Luke generally follows Mark, but omits the latter narrative. (This is a portion  of Luke’s so-called “great omission” of Mark; Luke makes no use of the materials in Mark 6:45-8:26.) Luke may have omitted this story because  the saying that Jesus came for the Jews alone militates against his theology thatJesus also came for the Gentiles.

In a comparative analysis of Matthew and Luke’s versions of the healing of the centurion’s servant, Luke’s redactional emphasis is on the centurion’s peripheral position as a Gentile. In Matt 8:5-7, the centurion approaches Jesus directly with his request; in Luke, he approaches Jesus through Jewish elders. The ground for the Jewish elders acting on the centurion’s behalf is that he is favorably disposed towards the Jews (Luke 7:3-5). His fate is therefore defined in relation to the Jews. In both Gospels, the centurion confesses his unworthiness to receive Jesus in his house (Matt 8:8; Luke 7:6-7), but in Luke the centurion is also too unworthy to approach Jesus in person.

Luke 8:26-39, Healing of a Demoniac

Three things invite our curiosity when we compare the story of the exorcism of the demoniac at Gerasa (8:26-39), a largely Gentile city with a non-Jewish population, with Luke’s story of the exorcism of the demoniac in Capernaum (4:31-37), a Jewish city. First is the reaction of the crowds. In Capernaum, the Jewish residents were at first astonished, then came to appreciate and affirm the power of Jesus (4:36), an act consistent with a more “enlightened” point of view by a well-established and accepted people.   However, in the case of Gerasa, the people who were probably Gentile were seized with fear and asked Jesus to leave their territory (8:37), an action consistent with marginal people.  Second, at Gesara Jesus expelled the demons into a herd of swine considered “unclean” by the Jews (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8) but “clean” by the Gentiles. Destroying such a substantial means of livelihood underscores Jewish “enlightened” contempt for this Gentile “unenlightened” outlook. Lastly, Luke states that, though the exorcized Gesarsene sat at Jesus’ feet (8:35) in an act of discipleship, Jesus does not accept him as a disciple(8:38-39). From the contextual perspective described above, it appears that, even though he acts as a disciple, he is not “worthy” to enter the mainstream of discipleship: a Gentile “disciple” is considered unfit to evangelize others except his own people (8:38-39).

Luke 23: 1-25, Pilate’s Vacillation at Jesus’ Judgment

Luke’s presentation of Pilate in the judgment of Jesus shows that while Pilate (a Gentile) wielded enormous political authority, he could not come to a decisive judgment on Jesus. He was convinced that Jesus was innocent, but hesitated many times, sent him to Herod, then condemned him to death on the basis of pressure from the Jews. From a contextual perspective , it appears that, in spite of his enormous political power, the Gentile Pilate acts from the periphery; it is the Jews that exercise the power in the situation.

Need to Bring Salvation to Gentiles (3:23-38; 4:16-30; 24:44-48)

Luke 3:23-38: Having presented Jesus as the glory of Israel and Gentiles as dwelling in darkness in the infancy narrative, Luke next records Jesus’ ancestry, where he presents the ontological rationale for bringing the light of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Unlike Matthew--who traces Jesus’ genealogy up to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people-- Luke traces it to Adam, the father of all humanity, thus indicating Jesus’ oneness with all humans. With his incarnation, the Gentiles with whom Jesus also identifies are no longer on the periphery; they may now see the light of God’s salvation.

Luke 4:16-30: In this pericope of Jesus’ preaching at Nazareth, Luke reinterprets the material he got from Mark  by expanding it and moving it from its location in the middle of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 6:1-6) to the beginning (Luke 4:16-30). The central text, Luke 4:18-19, a programmatic statement of Jesus’ ministry, is taken from Isa 61:1-2.

Within this strategic section we meet the first Jew/Gentile contrast on Jesus’ lips (4:25-27). In this text, which is unique to Luke, the Jews (whom we know already to be the children of light) are unfavorably contrasted with the Gentiles (who dwell in darkness). This “preferential option” for Gentiles so infuriates the Jews that they want to throw Jesus over a cliff. But Jesus has made his point: though rooted in Israel (4:23-24), his ministry extends beyond Israel to the Gentiles. In this way, Luke claims a historical-theological justification for the mission to Gentiles. Here again, the background is Hebrew  prophecy interpreted by Luke in a new light.

Luke 24:44-48: Luke closes his Gospel with Jesus pointing to the fulfillment of God’s plan for universal salvation: The appointed time has come, hence the urgency and success of the Gentile mission.

Jew/Gentile Contrast

As in the other Gospels, we find harsh words for the Jews on the lips of Jesus in Jew/Gentile contrasts. In Luke 10:13-16 (= Matt 11:20-24), for example, the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon are favorably contrasted against the Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. In the trial of Jesus (Luke 23), Luke contrasts the Jews who want Jesus killed and Pilate, a Gentile who sees Jesus as innocent. Another Gentile, a centurion, confesses Jesus’ innocence (23:47) in contrast to the Jews who see him as guilty. For Luke, Gentiles are marginal people compared to the Jews. He argues this point with subtlety. The contrast is not between the Jews who rejected Jesus and the Gentiles who accepted him, for Luke gives instances (particularly in Acts) of acceptance and rejection on both sides. Rather, the contrast is between the Jews as the children of light, who should know better, and Gentiles who dwell in darkness, of whom not much is expected in the first place. Thus, their acceptance of Jesus becomes significant, while their rejection does not command as much condemnation as that of the Jews.

 Colonial Oppression is not  Directly Confronted in Luke’s Gospel

Luke wrote his Gospel against the backdrop of the first Jewish war (66-70 c.e.), the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue (80 c.e.), localized persecution of Jews/Christians, and the spread of fledgling Christianity into the wider arena of the Roman Empire. There are indications that, though he wrote for his community, he had an eye on the upper middle class readership of the empire as well. The prologue (Luke 1:1-4) is written in elegant and technical Greek. This sets the work within the respected Greco-Roman literary tradition of the time, and makes it one destined to adorn the libraries of the elite. The book is dedicated to a certain Theophilus who bears the title “His Excellency” (1:3, author’s translation) which was used for people of high social status like governors (Acts 24:2). This is an important indication that Luke expects the likes of Theophilus to read his story. Also, Luke constantly refers to the political authorities of the empire in his story: the annunciation of the births of John and Jesus took place when Herod was king of Judea (Luke 1:5); Jesus was born when Caesar Augustus was reigning in Rome (2:1); John and Jesus performed their ministries when Tiberius Caesar was reigning in Rome, Pontius Pilate was governor Judea, and Herod was administrator in Galilee (3:1-2, 19-20); and the passion narrative is set in a similar political context (23:1-25, 47, 50-54). All this suggests that Luke wants to acknowledge the presence and authority of the Roman colonial power in Palestine during the period he writes about, and intends his story to be meaningful within that context.

Against this background, Luke wanted to present Christianity in a way that would not antagonize the colonial authority and would also appeal to the  elite of the empire, as Christian communities needed the goodwill of such people to survive.  This meant avoiding to confront directly, and thus condoning, important part of the ideological position of that class without sacrificing Christian identity and principles. Thus, while not exonerating Pilate, he excuses him for the execution of Jesus by emphasizing that it was on the demand of the Jews that Pilate ordered Jesus’ death (23:24-25). Compared to both Matthew (27:11-14) and Mark (15:2-5), who only record Pilate’s confession of Jesus’ innocence once, Luke records it three times (23:4, 14, 20-22), and has this corroborated by a Roman centurion (23:47). He presents a Jesus who did not directly confront the colonial authorities, but was critical of them within the circle of his followers, who was interested in the poor and marginalized in society, and was against the wrongful accumulation of wealth by the rich.

Contemporary historical research shows the widespread existence of great poverty and deprivation in first-century Palestine and how this was linked to the colonial occupation (Lapide1986, 99). Luke is sensitive to this for, in addition to reminding us of the presence of Roman colonial power in Palestine in his Gospel, he shows much concern towards the poor. Jesus’ programmatic statement of his mission is set within the context of the jubilee proclamation of liberation for the poor (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus pronounces blessing to the poor and woe to the rich (6:20-26), and there are more stories of God’s favor towards the poor than in any other Gospel. Luke’s own community may have been comprised of many who were poor (6:20). However, there is no indication that Jesus directly confronted the colonial power responsible for the grinding poverty in Palestine. The closest Jesus comes to directly confronting the colonial oppressors is his charge to his disciples to carry a sword in the passion story; even so, he restrained their use of it (22:36-38, 48-51). In contrast to the other Gospels, Luke presents a Jesus who represents peace. Unlike Mark, who uses the term eir­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ēnēe (“peace”) once (Mark 9:50); and Matthew, who uses it four times (Matt 10:13, 34); Luke uses it fourteen times: angels pronounce peace on earth to herald Jesus’ birth (2:13-14), Jesus’ words to the sinful woman are “go in peace” (7:50), Jesus advocates making peace with the enemy in advance (14:32), and laments over Jerusalem for failing to know what would bring her peace (19:42). Thus, instead of one engaged in direct confrontation with the enemies of Israel who were responsible for the plight of the common people that were the focus of his ministry, Luke presents Jesus as a peace maker from birth.

However, to say that Luke’s Jesus was a peace maker and did not engage in direct confrontation with the Roman colonial authorities is not to say that he condoned the political status quo. Luke’s Gospel contains indirect and covert revolutionary sentiments and actions against the political status quo. Luke records Jesus attacking the Jewish religious-political leaders, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, agents of the colonial authority (Luke 6:1-5; 11:37-44; 19:45-48; 20:45-47); Jesus did not defer to Herod, calling him a fox  (Luke 13:31-33); he cautioned his disciples against the behavior of Gentile rulers who lorded it over their subjects (22:24-27); above all, the kingdom of God, the theme of Jesus’ preaching, had characteristics antithetical to the “kingdom” of Caesar. In the material unique to Luke, the magnificat has the theme of God’s overthrow of the mighty at the coming of Jesus (1:46-56); the Benetictus has the theme of God’s overthrow of Israel’s enemies the greatest being the Roman colonial power (1:67-79); and Jesus is accused of forbidding tribute to Caesar (23:2). These actions point to an indirect criticism of the colonial power.

Luke’s handling of the tribute issue (Luke 20:20-26) sheds light on his strategy in presenting the political dimension of his story. Jesus’ answer, “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25, author’s translation), was an indirect, and covertly negative response to the question that was asked, “should we pay tribute to Caesar or should we not?” For, since Israel was totally God’s people, and God’s right supersedes Caesar’s, Caesar had no claim on Israel, and therefore no right to demand taxes from them (Ukpong 1999, 433-444). Luke alone records that, at his trial, Jesus was (falsely) accused of forbidding tribute to Caesar (23:2).  Even though Jesus did speak against paying tribute (in 20:25), Luke’s story understands his response to Pilate’s  question as claiming that this is a false accusation. In a similar way, in the entire Gospel, Luke presents a Jesus who did not confront the colonial authorities directly and openly though he did not condone the status quo. Therefore, Luke indicates that the movement Jesus founded to carry on his mission was not a political danger like the violent resistance of the zealots’ movement.

Hermeneutic Conclusions

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Christian mission in Nigeria and Luke’s interest in mission to the Gentiles share a common motivation --- to bring the light of Christ  where it was believed to be absent. Luke interpreted the prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures about the time of God’s salvation as having arrived for the Gentiles, while the missionaries to Nigeria were influenced by the their cultural biases, misconceptions about Africans , and an exclusivist ecclesiology that denied the presence of Christ among non-Christians. The problematic  idea is that Christian missionaries bring Christ to non-Christians. Was the risen Christ not already present and active among the Gentiles and in Africa before the missionaries arrived there? Though Jesus was confined to one locality and culture in his earthly life, by the resurrection he transcends time and space and is made present to all creation as the first fruits from all those who die  (1Cor 15:20-23). Besides, if Jesus is the logos through whom all creation came into being (John 1:1-8), and at the same time the way, the light, and the truth (John 14:6), then we must presume the light of Christ to have been already present among the Gentiles and Africans even before the arrival of the Christian missionaries (Shorter 1988, 83-85; Mbiti 1992, 21-30). This does not negate the need for missionaries but, rather, redefines their role in helping people discover Christ in their midst.

Because of the political atmosphere in which he wrote was unfavorable to Christians, Luke condoned parts of the ideological position of the elite ] Romans in his presentation of Christianity so that it would not appear as a politically dangerous movement. Thus, despite his interest in the poor, he did not present Jesus as directly challenging the colonial authority responsible for the people’s plight in the same way that Luke depicts Jesus challenging the Jewish religious leaders. Given Luke’s influential position on mission to the Gentiles, this approach is potentially paradigmatic for contemporary mission practice, as it seems to have been for the early missionary efforts in Nigeria that did not openly challenge colonial exploitationof the people. Considering that, at the time of the Christian mission to Nigeria, the Bible was read in a spiritualized way, the inspiration we draw today for political action from Luke’s interest in political figures was not drawn by missionaries.

The mission to the Gentiles that Luke championed became a great success. Similarly, there has been an unprecedented phenomenal growth of Christianity in Nigeria because of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionary efforts. However, this success should not be allowed to mask Luke’s missiological inadequacies for contemporary mission practice, nor should the success of the Christian mission in Nigeria be allowed to mask the inadequacies of its original bearers. Contemporary missionary efforts must take note of these inadequacies in Luke’s missionary theology to avoid the mistakes of the past.


Bujo, Benezet 1992 African Theology in Its Social Context. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Jervell, Jacob 1979 Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

Knitter, Paul F. 1984 “Roman Catholic Approaches to Other Religions: Developments and Tensions”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 8 (April 1984) 50-53.

Lapide, Pinchas 1986 The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? Maryknoll: Orbis.

Mbiti, John S. 1992 “Is Jesus Christ in African Religion?” Pp.21-30 in Exploring Afro-Christology. Ed. John S. Pobee. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Onunwa, Udobata R. 1989 “Goddianism: A Resurgence of an Old Cult in Christian Garb” Africa Theological Journal vol.18 no2 (1989) pp.116-125.

Shorter, Aylward 1988 Toward A Theology of Inculturation London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Tannehill, Robert C. 1986 The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A literary Interpretation, Volume 1, The Gospel of Luke. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Ukpong, Justin S. 1999 “Tribute to Caesar, Mark 12:13-17(Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20-26)”, Neot, 33:433-444.