Merciful Children of the Most High: Deification in the Gospel of Luke

Luke’s gospel witness to the life of Jesus from Nazareth comes to an astonishing and climactic ending. As Jesus ascends into the heavens, his followers worship him. Among the clues Luke gives that Jesus shares in God’s divine identity, this is perhaps the most clear. Elsewhere, Luke corrects every impulse to worship a human being (see Acts 10:26 and 14:15). But when Jesus receives the worship of his followers, Luke shows us that Jesus receives what belongs properly only to the God of Israel.

The closing of Luke’s gospel is all the more remarkable when we recognize that the same Jesus who shares in the worship that properly belongs to the God of Israel has just been shown also to share in the mortality that properly belongs to humanity. If the disciples’ worship of the ascending Lord bears witness to Jesus’ divine identity, Jesus’ death bears witness to his full humanity. The narrative artistry of the gospel writer teaches us that the man Jesus – who dies a fully human death – participates in the identity of the God of Israel, who alone is to be worshipped.

REAL HUMANITY, DIVINE IDENTITY

While Luke obviously does not provide anything like the formal dogmatic language of Chalcedon (“one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”), his narrative testimony to Jesus confronts us with stories that indicate both Jesus’ real humanity and his sharing in the divine identity. The incarnational union and the ascension of the incarnate one to pour out the Spirit are the proper starting points for Luke’s narrative theology, which unfolds toward a participatory account of salvation that can be fruitfully described as union with Christ, or deification. Reformed accounts of union with Christ have tended to favor the epistolary literature, where a doctrine of union emerges from relatively straightforward dogmatic statements, but the gospels also provide a narrative witness to the telos of humanity as participants in the life of God. If, in a mode of reading properly suited to narrative, we attend to the storied way Jesus shares in the life of the Father and, subsequently, to the storied way humans share in the life and identity of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, we will discover that the gospel narratives create a sort of theological echo chamber in which story activates story, turning up a participatory account of salvation that – to use Todd Billings’ language from an earlier essay in this publication – helps us begin to see what salvation is for. This brief essay will serve only as a signpost for the way that a doctrine of deification emerges from Luke-Acts, but perhaps these markers will be an invitation to deeper and wider reflection on Luke’s participatory vision of salvation.

What is true of the relationship between the Son of the Most High and the Most High … also can be true of the relationship between the daughters and sons of the Most High and the Most High.

In the angelic word to Mary, we are introduced to Jesus as the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), who has filial relation to God by virtue of being conceived by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:36). While the full relationship of Jesus to the God of Israel is not clear until the doxological scene in Luke 24, it is essential to observe that Jesus is closely connected to the life of the Father from the beginning of the gospel and this sonship is fully the work of the Spirit. Luke’s focus on Jesus as the exemplary Son of God continues throughout Luke 1-4, where Jesus’ filial relationship to the God of Israel is expressed in things like Jesus’ belovedness, Jesus’ unwillingness to use his power for selfish exploitation and Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father in all things. It is fascinating to note, however, that while Jesus is introduced as “Son of the Most High,” the remainder of the references to Jesus’ sonship in Luke 1-4 use the title “Son of God.”

INVITED TO SHARE IN CHRIST’S IDENTITY

It is somewhat jarring when, in the midst of a long discourse about enemy love and radical generosity, Jesus himself returns to the notion of filial relationship to the Most High, only this time extending his exemplary identity to those who take up the practices of the Most High:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

Once readers of Luke have Jesus’ description of the life of the Father in hand, it becomes easy to see how Jesus’ own life is completely colored by practices well-described as enemy love and radical generosity. Jesus, the Spirit-conceived Son of the Most High, forgives his enemies from the cross and shares wildly the gifts of God’s creation – even with those who are of ill repute, even with those who respond with ingratitude. Jesus’ ministry is one long story of participation in the life of the merciful God. This much we would expect, but Jesus offers an astonishing potentiality. Others also are invited to share in the identity of Jesus as (adopted) sons and daughters of the Most High, whose lives are, like God, determined by radical generosity and enemy love. What is true of the relationship between the Son of the Most High and the Most High, this shared life of mercy, also can be true of the relationship between the daughters and sons of the Most High and the Most High. Here we have the sprouting of Luke’s vision of deification, which comes to full flower later in the narrative.

It is only in the coming of the Spirit … that humans are enabled to live out their identity as daughters and sons of the Most High.

To point toward just a single (perhaps unexpected) signpost that closely connects this vision of sharing in the life of the Father with “salvation” and hence with a vision of deification, we can briefly glance at the parable of the merciful Samaritan. There, just a handful of verses after again closely connecting his life with both the life of his followers and the life of the Father (Luke 10:16, 22), Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question about salvation with the parable of the merciful Samaritan. The parable is famous for its surprising treatment of ethnic identity, with Jesus actually resisting any categorization of the wounded man (his identity is irrelevant, given the neighborliness that marks God’s mercy) and establishing a Samaritan as the hero of the story. God-like enemy love is evident in both of these narrative layers – the rehabilitation of the Samaritan and the inconsequentiality of the identity of the wounded man. Is he an Israelite, Samaritan, Gentile? It does not matter. The mercy of the enemy-loving God is even for the wicked, Jesus says. Less frequently noticed, however, is the economic facet of the story. Beyond the use of his oil, wine and bandages, the cost to his schedule and the humility of working with a naked, nearly lifeless human body, the Samaritan offers two days’ wages plus a veritable blank check to the innkeeper (“When I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend”). First-century innkeepers were notoriously shady characters who made a living exploiting those who had no kinship connections, more along the lines of a pimp than a well-buttoned concierge. Yet on behalf of the wounded man and without regard for his own resources, the Samaritan extends the very sort of radical generosity that characterizes God’s life.

At the end of the story, Jesus subverts the lawyer’s soteriological question: When it comes to salvation the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Which one of these was a neighbor?” The lawyer gets it right. The Samaritan is merciful. The Samaritan is neighborly. In Luke’s narrative world, the Samaritan is like the enemy-loving, wildly generous God and thus bears the identity “son of the Most High.” It is no wonder that from the earliest days of gospel interpretation right up until Calvin, the church almost universally identified the merciful Samaritan with Jesus. After all, the Samaritan appears to exhibit the very features that describe the life of God in Luke 6:35-36. It is to this life that Jesus, the Son of the Most High, invites the lawyer (and we along with him): “Go and do likewise.”

THROUGH THE SPIRIT’S POWER

We could be tempted to think that the practices that are indicative of union with God – enemy love and radical generosity – are unspectacular. For Luke, participating in Jesus’ identity is not (in the main, at least) the stuff of pneumatological pyrotechnics. However, in the long canonical story of God’s covenant with Israel for the sake of all creation, it is precisely attributes like enemy love and radical generosity that are most God-like. These virtues, central to the cruciform love clearly seen in Jesus’ self-giving, are the means by which God carries the covenantal relationship in spite of the mediocre faithfulness of the people of God. Luke’s narrative testifies that these virtues are native to the life of God by narrating the abject failure of Jesus’ followers to sustain patterns of life marked by enemy love and radical generosity before the coming of the Spirit. Luke gives us some particularly ugly examples of life apart from the Spirit. In a mere 10 verses in Luke 9, as Jesus and his followers move from Galilee toward Jerusalem, Luke reports arguments among the disciples about who is the greatest (Luke 9:46-48), an effort by James and John to limit access to the ministry of Jesus only to “insiders” (Luke 9:49-50) and – in perhaps the most horrific example of interethnic hatred in the New Testament – the disciples’ offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy an entire village of Samaritans who did not extend hospitality to the little band from Galilee. What a far cry from God-like enemy love and radical generosity!

It is only in the coming of the Spirit, whose presence dwells amidst the people of God and unites them to the life of God in Christ, that humans are enabled to live out their identity as daughters and sons of the Most High. Luke gives us some particularly moving examples of ecclesial life in union with Christ – of the deification of the church: The community of God’s people is a community of radical generosity (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-38). Stephen – explicitly introduced as a man full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5) – offers Jesus-like forgiveness to his murderers (Acts 7:60). Ananias prays for, baptizes, and feeds Saul – the enemy of the early church (Acts 9:17-19) – and Saul is transformed from a murderous persecutor to a follower of Jesus who seeks the good of his enemies at great threat to his own life (Acts 16:24-34; 27:14-36). With subtle but clear narrative artistry, Luke bears witness to the participation of believers in the very life of the enemy-loving, radically generous God of Israel – but this is only through the ministry of the Spirit. In Luke’s narrative, the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus become like God. The challenge of Luke’s testimony is that the deification of the church is not in the church’s hyperspiritual power or its ability to perform spectacular miracles at every turn; instead, it is in the long, slow, cruciform work of loving enemies and sharing the gifts of God even with the ungrateful.

Aaron Kuecker teaches New Testament and directs the honors college at LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas.

Image: The Good Samaritan, David Teniers the younger, 1650-1656, Courtauld Institute; public domain.