Luke 2:21-24

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[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]


Mary and Joseph, as the parents to the promised Messiah, were responsible for making sure that Jesus obeyed the Law of Moses and the conditions of the covenants even from birth. This was both to train Him in obedience, and also to make sure that He was able to fulfill the Law in its entirety. They did this by circumcising, naming, and redeeming Him, as well as making sure Mary was ritually pure. All of this reveals that Mary and Joseph were unquestionably pious (Green 1997:140).

2:21. When an Israelite boy was eight days old, the parents were required to circumcise the Child as a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen 17:11-14; Lev 12:3). That it was done when the boy was eight years old, in a public setting, indicates that the father was publically acknowledging his responsibility to raise the boy according to the Torah (Malina 2003:342). Circumcision was the beginning step in this training, and was done in obedience to Leviticus 12:3. It indicated that the boy was set apart for service to God. This ceremony was so sacred, it could even be carried out on the Sabbath (Barclay 1975:24).

It was at the circumcision ceremony where Jewish parents would officially name their son, and here, Mary and Joseph gave their son the name Jesus. Jesus (Gk. Iesus) means “Yahweh saves” and is equivalent to the Hebrew name “Joshua” (Heb. Yeshua). This name was the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb as Luke recorded in 1:31. As such, it represents ongoing faithfulness to God’s instructions through the angel, and parallels the similar faithfulness of Zacharias in the naming of John in 1:57-66 (Bock 1994:225).

There is some indication that Jesus was not born on December 25 as traditionally celebrated, but more likely on the day when the Feast of Tabernacles began. (The Feast begins at sunset on Tishrei 15, which, depending on the year, falls in late-September to mid-October.) There is really no way to be sure, but if this was the day of His birth, then the day of His circumcision and naming would have fallen eight days later, on the seventh and final day of the Feast of Tabernacles.

It would, of course, be significant if this was the day He was named. The first and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles are sacred, and are treated like Sabbath days – they could do no regular work on those days (Lev 23:33-36). The first six days of the feast were for celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and how the cloud of God’s glory lived among them, and led, guided, and protected them during the wilderness wanderings. To symbolize this cloud of protection, the Israelites build tents to dwell in during the feast.

One of the key features of the week is the teaching. As indicated by Nehemiah 8, the people would meet in the morning, when a passage was read from the Scripture, and then one of the priests would explain it. After the morning teaching, the people then go and eat, celebrate, sing, and rejoice. In the afternoon, they would gather to hear another teaching from Scripture, followed once again by feasting and celebration. .

This was the typical schedule for the every day of the Feast. But the last day of the feast, called Hoshana Rabba, was the greatest day. It was a solemn day for reflection on what had been learned that week. It was a day to remember all that God had done for them in times past and all that God had promised to do in the future. On this day, during the morning service, the priests would make seven circuits around the altar with palm branches. As they walked, they beat the branches on the floor while those present chanted in unison, “The voice announcing the coming of the Messiah is heard!” (Fuchs 1985:77).

So if this is the day that Jesus was circumcised and named, then as the worshipers chant “The voice of the coming of the Messiah is heard,” Jesus would be crying out in pain from being circumcised. And Joseph, lifting up Jesus in his arms, would be praying, “Our God and the God of our fathers, raise up this child to his father and mother, and let his name in Israel be called Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (cf. Matt 1:21).

Regardless of what day Jesus was circumcised and named, the point is that Mary and Joseph obeyed the Word of the Lord, and in this way, the arrival of the Messiah was announced and His life of obedience begun.

2:22. Mary and Joseph did not only follow the Law regarding the circumcision of Jesus, but also in Mary’s purification according to the law of Moses. Leviticus 12:4-5 requires a woman to wait 40 days after the birth of a son and 80 days after the birth of a daughter before she offers her purification sacrifice. According to Leviticus 12:6-8, the purification offering consisted of one lamb, and one turtledove or one pigeon. Families that were extremely poor could offer two turtledoves or two pigeons instead (cf. v 24).

When Mary came to Jerusalem for her purification offering, she also brought Jesus to present Him to the Lord. This is another aspect of the Law, which Mary and Joseph were careful to observe, and which recalls Hannah’s presentation of Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam 1:22-24). This is explained more fully in v 23. (For discussion about the plural pronouns they and their when only Mary needed purification, see Bock 1994:236).

2:23. The law required Mary and Joseph to present Jesus as their firstborn in the temple (Exod 13:11-16; Lev 27:1-8; Num 18:15-16). The summary of this law is that “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” This law was a result of the tenth plague in Egypt, when God struck dead all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, and any of the firstborn sons of Israel who did not have the blood of the Passover lamb smeared on the door posts of their house.

In light of the Passover events, God wanted Israel to set apart all the firstborn animals and all the firstborn males for Himself. The firstborn animals were to be sacrificed to the Lord, and the firstborn males were to be set apart for life-long service of the Lord as priests (Exod 13:11-16). Later, however, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the law, and he saw the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, he called all men to himself who were on the Lord’s side (Exod 32:26). The men of Levi responded to his call, and Moses sent them to kill the idolatrous Israelites. Such obedience revealed their zeal for obeying God, and so the Lord set apart the Tribe of Levi to be the priests of God.

But God didn’t need both the Levites and all the firstborn males. So He set up a way in Leviticus 27 for the parents of firstborn males to redeem, or buy back, their firstborn sons from the Levites, by paying five shekels of silver to the Levites for their son. The Levites then used this money for money for personal and religious needs. Though firstborn sons did not become priests, they nevertheless were always considered as “belonging to the Lord” (Bock 1994:237).

Since Jesus was the firstborn son of Mary and Joseph, they redeemed Him in the temple for five shekels (about 2 oz.) of silver (Lev 27:6; Num 18:16). This must be paid after the boy reached 30 days old, and so most likely, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus with them when they went to Jerusalem for Mary’s purification sacrifice (Barclay 1975:24; Edersheim 1988:194). Mary and Joseph did not have to bring Jesus with them when they paid the five shekels, and so were going above and beyond what the law required (Bock 1994:235). Most likely, the priest who performed the ceremony of redemption was Simeon of 2:25-35 (Pentecost 1981:65).

2:24. Luke now returns to the idea of the purification of Mary, by stating that the sacrifice she brought was according to the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” With this statement, Luke reveals that Mary and Joseph were very poor. Typically, the purification sacrifice required a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon. But those who were poor could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons instead (Lev 5:11; 12:6-8). Mary and Joseph could not afford to bring a lamb for sacrifice. Generally, Jewish people with land also raised sheep on this land, and so it appears that Joseph and Mary did not even own land (Malina 2003:233). Jesus was born into a poor family, which helped Him identify with the very people He came to deliver (cf. 1:52; 4:18-19; 6:20). With both the redemption of Jesus and the purification of Mary, there are numerous details about the Jewish law and customs which would have been followed, and which can be found in Edersheim 1988:194-198.

It seems that Luke’s structure in this short passage intends to emphasize two things. First, the careful and accurate obedience of Mary and Joseph to the Law. Even from birth, Jesus was fulfilling the Law. But beyond this, Luke places the redemption of Jesus at the temple (v 23) between two statements about Mary’s purification (vv 22, 24). In this way, Luke foreshadows the redemption that will come through the Messiah Jesus to all who seek purification through the Law.

The careful obedience to the law on the part of Mary and Joseph and the redemption of Jesus introduce the prophetic messages of Simeon and Anna in 2:25-38.

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