Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Atonement in Luke-Acts – One Scholar’s Perspective

Sam Shamoun

We are currently writing a multi-part response to the assertion of certain Muslin taqiyyists such as Shabir Ally and internet dawagandists that the author of Luke-Acts did not put any atoning significance to the death of the Lord Jesus, and even seemed to have gone out of his way to deny it. Lord Jesus willing, our massive rebuttal should be coming out sometime in the near future. In the meantime, however, we have decided to quote the comments of renowned NT scholar Robert H. Stein concerning these claims since this will help all serious students of the Holy Bible, as well as committed, conservative Christians see the utter fallaciousness of this argument. So enjoy!

“Luke did not emphasize the atoning significance of Jesus' death in his two-volume work. Some have even argued that he in fact rejected a soteriological significance for the cross. This is seen primarily in two editorial changes made to his sources. The first involves his omission of Mark 10:45, where Jesus' death is described as a 'ransom for many.' That Luke omitted Mark 10:45 from his Gospel is obvious. But it must be pointed out that Luke omitted the entire pericope, Mark 10:35-45, from his Gospel and replaced it with another tradition at a different place-Luke 22:24-27. Furthermore Luke was following a different source in 22:24-27. As a result we cannot say that his omission of Mark 10:45 proves his rejection of the atoning significance of Jesus' death. For some reason Luke chose to omit Mark 10:35-45, but to say that he omitted this entire account because he disagreed with Mark 10:45 is not permissible. If this were true, he could have included Mark 10:35-44 and simply omitted v. 45. More likely Luke omitted Mark 10:35-45 because of his inclusion of similar material in 22:24-27 and his desire to avoid a doublet (two similar accounts). It may also be that Luke omitted Mark 10:35-45 due to his desire to portray the disciples in an exemplary light. It could even be that Luke omitted the Markan account in order to bring the travel journey to a close.

“A second reason Luke has been seen as opposing an atoning significance for Jesus' death is his modification of 'poured out for many' in his account of the last supper to 'poured out for you' (cf. Luke 22:20 with Mark 14:24). Yet this entire expression is missing in the Pauline version of the last supper, and it certainly would be incorrect to argue that the lack of this expression in Paul's version of the last supper indicates that he saw no atoning significance in the death of Jesus. Actually the Lukan change is due less to theological grounds than to literary ones. After the reference to the bread in Luke 22:19, Luke used the expression 'given for you,' which is paralleled in 1 Corinthians but not found in Matthew or Mark. As a result it was quite natural for Luke in 22:28 [sic] to change 'poured out for many' in his Markan source to 'poured out for you' in order to give the same rhythmic balance after each element of the last supper. Thus, we have, 'This … given for you’ and 'This … poured out for you.'

“There are several additional reasons why one should hesitate in saying that Luke saw no soteriological significance in the cross. For one, we find in Acts 20:28 the statement that God has 'bought' the church 'with his own blood.' The fact that in the Lukan crucifixion account 'blood' is not mentioned supports the view that Acts 20:28 is not simply referring to the fact that Jesus died on a cross but rather that his death was sacrificial. To this we can also add the reference in Luke 22:20 where Jesus referred to the cup as 'the new covenant in my blood.' The interpretation most available to Luke and his readers was that Jesus' death was like the sacrificial offering in Exod 25:5-8. Here the sacrificial blood of the Passover lamb is covenantal blood 'poured out' for the people. It is a blood that makes atonement and brings forgiveness of sins. That this was the normal understanding of Exod 24:8 is evident from the Targum Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan, where this aspect of the blood of the covenant is made explicit by the addition of the phrase 'to atone for the people,' and by Matt 26:28, where the Evangelist likewise made explicit the implicit dimension of the blood of the (new) covenant by adding 'for the forgiveness of sins.' (Cf. also Heb 9:20-22.) It is difficult to imagine that Luke and his readers would not have interpreted these references to Jesus' blood and death in light of the OT passages dealing with sacrifice and in particular with respect to the Passover sacrifice.  

“Along with these specific references are also several possible allusions to the atoning significance of Jesus' death in Luke-Acts. In the account of the last supper we read, 'This is my body given for you' (Luke 22:19). The term 'given' can have sacrificial implications as 2:24; Mark 10:45; Gal 1:4; 1 Tim 2:6; and Titus 2:14 indicate. In the context of the reference to 'blood' in Luke 22:20, given may well mean given in sacrifice for you. It should be observed that give is used with reference to sacrifice in Exod 30:14 and Lev 22:14. The references to Jesus 'hanging on a tree' (Acts 5:30; 10:39; cf. 13:29) probably should be interpreted in light of Deut 21:23 (cf. Gal 3:13), where such a person is 'cursed.' Luke did not develop this thought, but an understanding such as we find in Gal 3:13 is not impossible. The references to the divine necessity of Jesus' having to suffer naturally raise the question of why. To claim that Jesus had to die because this was the plight of all the prophets (13:33) loses sight of the fact that Jesus was much more than a prophet and that no prophet's death was portrayed as providing the 'blood of a covenant.' For Luke salvation did not come despite Jesus' death on a cross. Rather it came because of Jesus' death on a cross. (Cf. how the cross and forgiveness are associated in 24:46-47.)

“Jesus' death as the Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; cf. Luke 23:47) does not emphasize primarily that he was innocent. Paul also was innocent in his trial, but he was not described as 'the' or even 'a' righteous one. Rather he was described as undeserving of death or imprisonment. Even if one refrains from reading into this the theology of 2 Cor 5:21 or 1 Pet 3:18, the source of this title is most likely the Righteous Servant of Isa 53:11. Luke's references to Jesus as 'servant' (pais, Acts 3:13,26; 4:27,30) make it difficult to imagine that Luke expected these references to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah to be interpreted in an altogether different manner from the other NT writers in Rom 4:25; 1 Pet 2:24; 1 John 3:5.

“Finally, even though Mark in contrast to Luke is understood to have portrayed Jesus' death as having soteriological significance, only two explicit references to this are in his Gospel-Mark 10:45 and 14:22-25. If one interprets the various allusions listed above as suggested, the Lukan emphasis may in fact be greater.

“Luke in his portrayal of Jesus' death usually went no further than to explain it as due to divine necessity. In those instances, however, where Luke did address himself to why there was this divine necessity (Luke 22:20; Acts 20:28), he made use of the sacrificial terminology 'new covenant in my blood' and 'bought with his own blood.' Most probably Jesus' death can be referred to as the shedding of blood because Luke, like the other NT writers, understood that 'the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life' (Lev 17:11).” (Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) [B & H Publishing Group, 1993], Volume 24, Introduction 8, (8) The Atonement, pp. 54-56; bold emphasis ours)