Only Luke is with me. II Timothy 4:11
A previous article on Onesiphorus (April 1, 2021) laid out the dire circumstances that accompanied the apostle Paul during his final days. These circumstances were the backdrop of his final epistle, a second letter to Timothy who was laboring in Ephesus. Before Paul was to leave this life and join the throng of just men made perfect, he delivered some final requests and greetings to those who were near and dear to his heart.
Onesiphorus often refreshed Paul toward the end of his life (II Tim. 1:16), but as Paul faced the reality of his death one man stood by his side. One man was willing to maintain his relationship visibly with a treasonous “criminal” against the Roman Empire. This man’s name was Luke, and in II Timothy 4:11 we find a simply stated fact, yet one rich with endearment about a faithful and dedicated figure from the early church: “Only Luke is with me.”
When most Christians think about Luke, they recall a physician who wrote the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke. In Luke we find someone instrumental in recording eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:1-4), and then writing the narrative that helps bridge the gospels and the letters of the apostles in Acts (Acts 1:1-4). However, Luke was more than a writer and physician; he was a traveling missionary.
Luke was born a Gentile in Antioch of Syria, most likely around the same time as Jesus and Paul (Col. 4:10-14). Located roughly 300 miles north of Jerusalem, Antioch was the place where God’s people were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Luke was most likely the only Gentile who wrote books of the New Testament, but he was clearly skilled in his ability to recount and tell the story of the early church.
The conversions of Paul and Luke may well have taken place around the same time, shortly after the death of Jesus Christ. The connection between their conversions is striking in other ways beside their similarity in time. As a Jewish Pharisee and rising temple leader, Paul was converted as he stood at the height of his anger towards the early church, “consenting unto Stephen’s death” (Acts 8:1). What followed was an all-out rampage of persecution towards the church, leading him to continue that persecution in Damascus until the Lord turned his heart in an instant (Acts 9:6).
Therefore, the martyrdom of Stephen, the major event that fostered Paul’s anger towards the church, led to a great persecution that brought the gospel to Antioch (Acts 11:19-20), ultimately leading to the conversion of Luke.
A Gentile pagan, Luke was converted from polytheism to monotheism, a major transformation of the heart, but in a way different than what Paul experienced. As a Pharisee, Paul was rescued from his perverted view of God and His exclusive power to save sinners, while Luke was converted from “gods, which are not yet gods” (Jer. 2:11) to “the living God which made heaven and earth” (Acts 14:15). It may seem like Paul’s conversion was much more radical and emotional; yet, Luke’s was equally significant. Both men were given the new life of Christ and a new purpose. What Paul meant for evil towards the early Christians, God meant for good (Gen. 50:20), even using Stephen’s death to bring the gospel message to Antioch, where God worked mightily in the heart of Luke and other Gentiles.
Both Paul and Luke received a complete change of heart that would transform the rest of their lives. In their many travels together, they would have pondered this mysterious truth, namely, how God’s plan always works for the good of His people. How amazing that God would tie their conversions together with Stephen’s death, yet further join these two men together in a desire for the furtherance of the missionary program. This desire culminated in the aforementioned words of II Timothy 4:11, “Only Luke is with me.”
Many Gentiles with whom Luke labored may have questioned their qualification for church membership. Many Gentiles were intimidated by the history and piety of the Jews, but Luke’s personal testimony would have been one of encouragement and confidence concerning their place in the church.
This is why the decision of the Jerusalem Council in AD 50 (Acts 15) is so important: Do not trouble the Gentiles. Do not burden them with laws and requirements that even their fathers were unable to keep (Acts 15:10). Peter’s beautiful testimony spoken on the floor of this great assembly spoke directly to the Gentiles, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (15:11).
Many Jews, specifically the Judaizers that Acts 15 directly condemned, erred in their theology that only the pious members of the church needed the saving work of Christ, foolishly thinking they could add dross to the pure gold of Christ’s work. How wrong they were! The broken sinner is the one who needs the Great Physician to heal him. As a physician, Luke would have been able to relay that beautiful truth in a profound and personal way, understanding intimately the words of Jesus he himself recorded in Luke 5:31, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.”
In this connection, when we think of Luke, we might gravitate in interest toward his vocation as a physician. The assumption may be that as a physician, Luke had a lofty social status with much wealth. The reality, however, may be the opposite. During this time when slavery made up one fifth of the entire population of the Roman Empire, many slaves were trained as physicians. In addition, it was common in the first century for people to be suspicious of physicians because many were dishonest and ill-qualified; therefore, physicians often held a lower social status.
It is entirely feasible that Luke was born into slavery, trained as a physician, and then freed by his master to travel with Paul during his time on the mission field. Regardless of Luke’s specific circumstance, the focus of Scripture is not on his vocation; rather, it reveals the spiritual ability and loyalty of Luke.
Paul’s main regard for Luke was that he was a traveling missionary. The first instance we read of Luke was that he joined Paul, Silas, and Timothy on the second missionary journey in the city of Troas, located in Asia Minor off the coast of the Aegean Sea. After Paul receives the vision of the Macedonian man to “come over and help us” (Act 16:16), Paul along with his three companions sets sail for Macedonia.
Because of the use of the “we” pronoun beginning in Troas (Acts 16:10), some have suggested that Luke was from Troas and was converted by Paul. The problem with this theory is that the missionaries do not seem to linger in Troas before setting sail for Macedonia. Preaching in Troas does not seem to come until some five years later when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that a door had opened for him there (II Cor. 2:12-13).
Luke’s travels seem to pause after the events that take place in Philippi, not continuing on with the missionaries to Thessalonica (Acts 16-17). Luke stays behind to encourage Lydia and the other new converts. The next mention of him (through the “we” pronoun) takes place towards the end of the third missionary journey when Paul, after backtracking through Macedonia, picks up Luke again in Philippi before sailing into Asia (20:4-6).
Luke was an eyewitness to many remarkable events during his time as a traveling missionary with Paul. One of these events is the moving farewell scene between Paul and the Ephesian elders in Miletus, located roughly 60 miles south of Ephesus. Before boarding the ship to set sail for Jerusalem, Paul gives a stirring speech. This is Paul’s last recorded speech as a free missionary, one with instruction, warning, and tears. Luke witnessed Paul’s concern for the future of the church as he prophesied that false teachers would come (Acts 20:29-30).
Paul had faithfully preached to these Ephesians over a three-year period on his third journey, more than any other church (Acts 20:31), and now he speaks to them directly: “I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (20:32). The speech ends with what must have been a beautiful prayer, tears, and farewell kisses. Not a dry eye was to be found as they faced the reality that they may never see Paul again.
As Luke gets on the ship with Paul along with several other church representatives for the trip to Jerusalem (20:4), they endure the hard truth that Paul’s freedom as a missionary is in jeopardy. The experience in Jerusalem over the next few years will prove just that (Acts 21-26).
Luke was loyal to stay by Paul’s side, assisting him in the work of the missionary program in whatever way possible. This is seen throughout the history between the end of the third missionary journey and Paul’s arrival in Rome as a prisoner. After sitting in a dungeon for two years in Caesarea (Acts 23:33, 24:27), Paul finally appeals to Rome as the Roman ruler threatens to send him back to Jerusalem to face the Sanhedrin (25:10-11).
Luke is there, making the necessary preparations to board the ship, prepared to make the long journey to Rome, some 1,400 miles away (Acts 27:1). Luke did not know of course that this long trek would end up with him fighting for his life in the sea, but he went with confidence, wanting to witness Paul’s confession in Rome. This journey is sometimes called the Fourth Missionary Journey, as Paul and Luke were certainly witnesses of the gospel they both loved.
Maritime historians have studied the amazing descriptions of the journey to Rome at sea by Luke in Acts 27. One in particular, James Smith (1782-1867), compared his own experience and study of the Mediterranean Sea with what Luke records in Acts 27, using nautical information about prevailing winds, soundings, and coastlines, to demonstrate that Luke’s description of the shipwreck is authentic.1
As interesting as this may be, this work by an English sailor is far from necessary to prove the accuracy of Acts 27. God’s Word is self-authenticating, and does not need any proof from man for its infallibility.2 Read Luke’s account in Acts 27 and you will be impressed by the detail; but more importantly, you will be led to see the intricate workings of God’s providence in the lives of Paul and Luke, as well as the 274 other men on board the ship who survived (Acts 27:37).
As an eyewitness to this amazing voyage, Luke would have been strengthened in his belief that God’s might and power is beyond the scope of our human understanding. He is faithful to His people, for He promised Paul (and Luke) that they would testify of Him in Rome (Acts 23:11).
He saw that promise through, leading Paul, Luke, and others to safety. As Luke and Paul kissed the ground of Italy, they were received well by the Roman church, now face-to-face for the first time after receiving Paul’s previous letter to them some five years previous (Rom. 16:1-2; Acts 28:15). While Paul waits to be heard by Nero, he lives under house arrest, preaching and teaching the kingdom of God (28:30-31).
Luke’s narrative recorded in Acts ends here in Rome with Paul’s first imprisonment, but the story is certainly far from over. Luke was in Rome for the duration of Paul’s first imprisonment (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24). After release from house arrest, Paul experiences a few years of freedom, traveling to revisit churches that he established and venturing into new territory like Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). It is possible that Luke was with him for these final years as well, and was able to continue to testify of the powerful work of God to new and old converts alike. This freedom they shared ended as Paul was finally arrested by Nero in Troas, the very same place where Luke had joined the group of missionaries some fifteen years earlier. This time, however, Paul is placed in a cold, dark dungeon in Rome (II Tim. 1:16, 4:6-8).
But he has Luke.
God used the spiritual refreshment of men like Onesiphorus to sustain him, but he has Luke with him.
He has his faithful companion, the one who refreshed Paul up to the end, giving him the spiritual medicine that he needs as he faces the reality of his death. He has someone with whom to reflect back on their past together; to see God’s preservation of them and faithfulness to them as together they spread the gospel to new lands.
Luke: physician, writer, traveling missionary, and loyal friend to Paul.
Early tradition has cited Luke’s death around AD 84 in central Greece, living some twenty years past his good friend Paul, and some thirty years after Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders. Did Luke learn of Paul’s prophecy of Ephesus leaving their first love and allowing false teachers into the church (Rev. 2:2-4)? The details are beyond us, yet we can be confident that Luke stayed faithful to the service of the kingdom all the way to the end, knowing full well that his Savior would receive him into everlasting glory.
No more pain, nor more tears, for the healing power of the Great Physician was now fully realized.
1 Smith, James. The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, 4th ed. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1880.
2 Griess, Cory. “The Scriptures are self-authenticating.” Standard Bearer, vol. 95, no. 5 (December 1, 2019), 111-113.