Monday, January 23, 2012

Luke: Beloved Physician (Colossians 4:14)

Which early disciple was a doctor? Luke

Colossians is one of five letters that Paul wrote while imprisoned. Like most of the apostle’s correspondence, the epistle concludes with a series of personal greetings (Colossians 4:7-18). Colossians features three clusters of salutations. These acknowledgments were the ancient version of the “shout out”.

The last two associates that Paul mentions are two Gentiles, Luke and Demas (Colossians 4:14). This same duo is grouped again in Philemon (Philemon 1:24). While Demas receives no description, Luke is given the epithet “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14 NASB).
Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas. (Colossians 4:14 NASB)
Given his familiarity to the church at Colossae, Eric Porterfield (b. 1967) wonders how much influence Luke had on the Colossians. He writes, “It is likely that ‘the Colossians have heard Luke-shaped stories of Jesus’ (Walsh/Keesmaat, 71) and that the word of Christ they were to let dwell in them (Colossians 3:16) comes from what eventually became Luke’s Gospel (Porterfield, Sessions with Colossians & Philemon: On the Move with God , 92).”

Though the word for physician, iatros, is used seven times (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17, 5:26; Luke 4:23, 5:31, 8:43; Colossians 4:14), Luke is the only doctor named in the New Testament. Iatros is translated as both “physician” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) and “doctor” (CEV, NIV, NLT).

This label is the only biographical detail the New Testament provides regarding Luke. The name “Luke” actually only appears three times in Scripture and always in conjunction with Pauline greetings (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24). Luke stays with Paul through thick and thin and he alone is said to be with the apostle at the time of his last correspondence (II Timothy 4:11).

Though Luke is traditionally accepted as the author of Luke-Acts, the Bible itself does not explicitly state this. In commenting on Colossians 4:14, N.T. Wright (b. 1948) reminds, “It is only in this passage that we learn of Luke’s profession, and only by inference, and later tradition that we know him as the author of the great two-volume work which comprises the Gospel named after him and the Acts of the Apostles (Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 158).”

Why does Paul include the unnecessary epithet in describing Luke? What do you associate with doctors? Do you the words “doctor” and “physician” have different connotations? How important is a person’s profession to your assessment of her? What did Luke’s profession say of him?

Marianne Meye Thompson (b. 1954) reminds, “Ancient medicine differed vastly form its modern counterpart. Physicians could treat wounds and employed various remedies to try to treat symptoms of diseases, but they could not halt or cure those diseases. In any case, the study of medicine was not nearly so formalized as today, although Luke’s status will indicate that he was an educated man (Thompson, Colossians and Philemon (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary) , 106).”

Jerry L. Sumney (b. 1955) relays, “The occupation either locates Luke among persons of some wealth or indicates that he was a slave who had been educated to be someone’s personal physician (Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 276).” In his study of Christian doctors, Dan Graves (b. 1950) speculates that it was the latter. Graves writes, “Luke probably was born the son of slaves. Tradition says so, and his single, short name supports the tradition (Graves, Doctors Who Followed Christ: 32 Biographies of Historic Physicians and Their Christian Faith, 20).”

In describing the ancient “physician”, James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) writes:
That indicates a man of some learning and training (though at this time medicine was just becoming a subject of systematic instruction...) And since the title has a favorable ring here (contrast the typical criticism of doctors elsewhere in biblical tradition: II Chronicles 16:12; Job 13:4; Jeremiah 46:11; Mark 5:26) we may assume that he was no charlatan but respected for genuine medical knowledge and healing skills. Beyond that we know nothing firm about Luke. (Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 283)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) notes, “At one time it was argued that the vocabulary of Luke–Acts showed the author to have been a physician. The lexical evidence adduced lacks demonstrative force, but it retains considerable illustrative value (Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 181-82).”

We know for certain only that Luke was Paul’s doctor friend. Some have even speculated that Luke was Paul’s personal physician, and given his numerous trials (II Corinthians 11:23-29), the apostle likely needed one. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) documents that there were allowances for prisoners with medical needs:
Prisoners often had friends to assist them during their confinement. For example, John the Baptist’s disciples tended to him in prison (Matthew 11:2). Pliny notes that a person of respectable position was allowed a few slaves to wait on him when he was in prison (Ep. 3.16). Philostratus reports that Damis went to prison with the philosopher (Vit. Apoll. 7.15). Paul was supposedly granted the privilege of being attended by his friends (Acts 24:23). Ignatius says Polycarp visited him in Smyrna (Trall. 1.2) and the Ephesian deacon Burrhus was sent to him (Eph. 2.1). The Ignatian correspondence shows how letters could be sent from imprisonment with the assistance of helpers. (Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 241)
Do you have any beloved friends in the medical fields? Do you appreciate how blessed you are to live at a time when medicine is so advanced? When you are ill, who do you most want to tend to your needs?

“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” - William Osler (1849-1919), one of the “Big Four” founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital

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