Luke 2:41-52

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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.]


Although Scripture does not provide much information about the first thirty years of the life of Jesus, Luke records one event which took place when He was twelve years old. Luke includes this event to show that even at a young age, the prophecies about Jesus and the expectation for Him as the Messiah were already coming true.

The passage really begins with 2:40, but since this was discussed in 2:36-40, only a summary of the commentary on that verse will be repeated here. Verse 40 serves as a conclusion to 2:1-38, and an introduction to 2:41-52. It is a hinge verse, pointing back to a similar statement made about John in 1:80, and also pointing forward to a final summary statement in 2:52. This shows that the text of 2:41-51 builds on all the expectations of Jesus that were announced in 2:1-39, and also reveals that since two of the three statements are about Jesus, He will surpass John. The two statements about Jesus enclose 2:41-51, a passage which shows how Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man, even from a young age.

That Luke includes only this one account from the childhood years of Jesus is not surprising. The emphasis in all Four Gospels of Jesus are about the ministry and mission of Jesus, and so the writers had to be selective in their use of material. Furthermore, “Hellenistic biographies usually featured one childhood incident that was taken to foreshadow the character of the adult. Luke provides this for his knowing (educated) Greco-Roman readers. In this section of the narrative Luke is also engaged once again in moving Jesus up the scale of honor” (Malina 2003:234).

2:41. To provide an historical and cultural reference, Luke records that Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover which is also the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Feast of Passover commemorates the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt through the death of all the first-born sons. With the image of Passover, Luke raises again the Jewish expectation for a Redeemer who will deliver Israel, both from sin and Roman occupation.

2:42. Luke states that this Passover was when Jesus was twelve years old. Other than this event, and His birth, circumcision, and blessing in 2:1-38, we know nothing else of the first thirty years of Jesus’ life. That Jesus is twelve is significant in light of what follows. Generally, it was between the ages of twelve and fourteen that young Jewish men began their formal training in the synagogue, were received into Judaism as a “son of the law,” and were expected to begin strict obedience to the law (Barclay 1975:29; Bock 1994:264; Edersheim 1988:235; Pfeiffer 1971:200; Keener, 1994:195; Pentecost 1981:76; Radmacher 1999:1254). Since Jesus is twelve indicates he is surpassing what was expected for someone His age. Josephus records that the Prophet Samuel began his work as a prophet at the age of twelve, and so there may be an allusion here to Jesus being in the story of Samuel’s birth and upbringing (Evans 2003:62).

Joseph and Mary went with Jesus up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year, for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which begins with Passover), the Feast of Weeks (which begins with Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Exod 34:23). Nevertheless, most Jewish people who lived far from Jerusalem were able to attend only once in their lifetime. Yet attendance was mandatory for those living within fifteen miles of Jerusalem (Barclay 1975:29). Joseph and Mary went each year (v 41), indicating their piety and obedience (Bock 1994:263)..

The feasts play an important role in the New Testament, as God frequently seems to do something important when a large number of Jewish people are gathered together in Jerusalem. This allowed God to spread a message or show a sign to a large number of people. When the people who heard the message or saw the sign went home, the light from Jerusalem spread with them. For a good summary of the historical and political landscape of this time period, see Edersheim 1988:233-254.

2:43. Joseph and Mary most likely did not spend the entire Sabbath week in Jerusalem. They were allowed to return home on the third day if they desired. Furthermore, it was only during the week of Passover that the religious leaders held their public discussions in the temple courtyards (Edersheim 1988:246). If Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had remained in Jerusalem for all seven days of the Feast, Jesus would not have been able to remain behind and participate in such discussions (contra. Bock 1994:265; Pentecost 1981:76). So, Joseph and Mary probably departed on the third or fourth day. The Boy Jesushowever, lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it. Very likely, Joseph and Mary had other children at this point, which they were looking after. The term Luke uses to describe Jesus as a boy (Gk. pais) refers to a young child, still dependant upon it’s parents. This is probably how Mary and Joseph viewed Jesus, though the text reveals progress in this matter. Here, Jesus is a child. In 2:48, He is a son (Gk. teknon) of Joseph and Mary. But in 2:49, Jesus explains that His Father is God, and by inference, a Son (generally the Gk. huios of God. In this way, Luke is revealing the transition from boyhood to adulthood, and beyond.

2:44. Joseph, Mary, and their family did not make this trip alone. Since Jewish families from all over the Roman Empire would journey to Jerusalem for this feast, they would often travel together. The women would generally leave first, since they traveled more slowly, followed by the men, who would catch up to them by nightfall (Pentecost 1981:76). So Joseph and Mary, if they traveled separately, both assumed that Jesus was with the other parent, or [b]in the company[/] of other friends and family from the vicinity of Nazareth. The journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth was 80 miles, and would take a caravan of people three or four days (Bock 1994:264). After the end of the first day’s journey, Joseph and Mary searched for Jesus among their relatives and acquaintances.

2:45. When they were not able to find Jesus, Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him.Verse 45 is almost certainly hides the frantic concern that Joseph and Mary felt in their search for Jesus. They had been given responsibility to teach, raise, and protect the promised Messiah of Israel, and now, they had lost Him. It was not due to carelessness, however, as both assumed He was with one of the others in the caravan.

2:46. It took Joseph and Mary three days to find Jesus. It is uncertain if Luke means that they searched Jerusalem for one day, which when added to the two days of travel (one day away from Jerusalem, one day back) makes three days, or if Luke means they searched for three days, making the total separation five days (one day of travel out, one day of travel back, three days of searching). The second option seems best. Furthermore, if they spent three days in Jerusalem for the Feast, two days traveling, and then three days searching, they would have found Jesus in the Temple on the eighth and final day of the Feast of Passover. But whether the total time of absence was three or five days, Joseph and Mary were almost certainly filled with worry. When they finally found Jesus, He was in the temple. This is the last place the average parent expects to find their twelve year old son, but that is where they found Jesus.

Luke also records what Jesus was doing in the temple. He was sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. This does not suggest that Jesus is lecturing or teaching the religious leaders. Rather, it simply shows that He was fully engaged in the theological discussions of the teachers (Evans 2003:63). It was the custom of the teachers to meet in public in the temple courts during the Feasts to discuss religious and theological questions where everyone could listen and learn (Barclay 1975:29). During Passover, they most likely discussed questions and issues related to Passover history, tradition, and observance (Edersheim 1988:248). This is where Joseph and Mary find Jesus, among a crowd of other students. Questions from the crowd of students were often permitted, and Jesus was among those who asked questions of the teachers, and helped provide answers.

2:47. Those who heard Jesus were astonished at His understanding and answers. This foreshadows the future reactions of the crowds to the teaching and miracles of Jesus (e.g., 4:32; 5:9; 8:56; 9:43). Such amazement indicates that He is gaining honor in their eyes (Malina 2003:235). At twelve years old, His wisdom and understanding of the Scriptures were on par with that of the religious leaders of the day. Through reading and study, Jesus had gained such great knowledge and insight into the Scriptures, that He was able to converse with the most learned teachers. This learning was probably accomplished through His father, Joseph, and from attendance at the local synagogue in Nazareth. Later, the questions and answers between Jesus and the religious leaders would become a challenge-riposte contest, where each tries to bring shame on the other. But here, the crowds are amazed at Jesus, which hints at the possibility that the Jewish religious elite would accept Jesus as the Messiah.

2:48. However, in contrast to the amazement of the crowds, when Joseph and Mary found Jesus, they also were amazed, but for different reasons. They were amazed that Jesus had been in the temple for so many days, knowing that Joseph and Mary were looking for Him and worried about Him. Mary even chastises Jesus by saying, ”Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” Joseph and Mary were understandably a little upset at Jesus. She calls Himson (Gk. teknon), which might be better translated “child.” She still views Him as a child, but he corrects her in His reply. The word anxiously (Gk. odunomenoi) indicates “deep mental pain or trauma” (Bock 1994:268). The reader is reminded of Simeon’s words in 2:35 that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. The inner trauma she has experienced here foreshadows the future pain she will suffer. She has been frantically looking for Him, and now, when they find Him, He is calmly sitting in the temple, studying Scripture. Mary’s frustration is understandable, and she states it using the language of complaint (Bock 1994:268).

2:49. The wisdom of Jesus is evident even here, and set in contrast to Joseph and Mary. Though they have been worried about Him, He gently explains to them that there was no need to seek for Him. They probably should have known that if He was the Messiah, the most logical place for Him to be was the temple. Furthermore, as the Messiah, He would be about [His] Father’s business. Some texts read in my father’s house which does not significantly affect the meaning of the text (cf. the views in Bock 1994:269). Either way, He was doing what God wanted Him to do, and in so doing, was under God’s protection (cf. John 4:34). He is gently telling his earthly parents that He must do the will of God, and they must entrust His safety to God. Furthermore, Jesus turns Mary’s use of father in verse 48 to explain that His true Father was in heaven.

There is some debate about when Jesus knew Who He was. It seems that from this text, He at least knew by the age of twelve that He was not the son of Joseph, but rather, the Son of God. Pentecost believes that this statement by Jesus proves “that at this time He was fully conscious of His person, His relationship to His Father, and His mission. There never was a time when Jesus did not know who He was, who His Father was, and why He had come into the world” (Pentecost 1981:77; cf. Bock 1994:271).

2:50. However, despite His growing understanding about His identity, they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Jesus was always being misunderstood, by religious and political rulers, by His disciples, and even by His own family. Part of this is due to His tendency to speak in riddles and parables, but most of it is due to the fact that most people simply didn’t understand what kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. All of them must come to understand Who Jesus was, and what He came to do, which is something it seems He already understood. The statement of Jesus in 2:49 is enigmatic in that Joseph and Mary probably didn’t think of God as the Father of Jesus, and so the family business was that of Joseph: carpentry. The wisdom and stature of Jesus is set in contrast to everyone else around Him.

2:51. And lest the reader get the idea that Jesus was rebellious and rude, Luke makes sure to write that Jesus went down with His parents to Nazareth, and was subject to them. Jesus was about His Father’s business, and part of that business at this point in His life was to obey His parents; to be subject to them. He submitted to them even though they didn’t understand what He was about. Their uncertainty about His identity and mission would not only mirror that of other characters in the Gospel, but also those who read Luke’s account. In this way, the reader is encouraged to keep reading, and investigate the claims made by Jesus, what He does to prove the validity of those claims, and see how various people responded to such claims. The reader is thus invited to make a similar decision about who Jesus is.

Mary, as usual, kept all these things in her heart. Luke has recorded several times now how Mary wonders and ponders about the things she learns about her Son (1:29; 2:19, 33). Possibly, Mary recalls the words of Gabriel that her son would be named Jesus, and be the Son of God (1:31-32, 35). Now, all have been fulfilled (Green 1997:153). He was named Jesus (2:21), was designated as holy (2:23), and proclaimed Himself as God’s Son (2:48-49).

2:52. This verse concludes the triple inclusio began in 1:80 and continued in 2:40. As such, it indicates the conclusion of the birth and childhood development narrative, that Jesus has surpassed John. The primary difference between 1:80, 2:40, and 2:52 is that now Jesus is said to not only be increasing in wisdom…and in favor with God as have been emphasized previously, but now Jesus is also growing in stature and increasing in favor with men. The first shows that Jesus is growing physically, but the second shows that as the promised Messiah, Jesus is fulfilling all expectations which have been spoken about Him by Zacharias, Mary, Elizabeth, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. The stage is set for Jesus to begin His Messianic mission.

Luke seems to be intentionally making the birth narrative of Jesus parallel to that of the Prophet Samuel (Quote is from Evans 2003:63):

Just as Samuel is presented to the lord (1 Sam 1:22), so is Jesus (Luke 2:22); just as Hannah (Anna in Greek) sings praises of thanksgiving because of the birth of Samuel (1 Sam 2:1-10), so does Anna when she sees the infant Jesus (Luke 2:36-38); just as Eli blesses Samuel’s parents (1 Sam 2:20), so Simeon blesses Jesus’ parents (Luke 2:34); just as Samuel’s growth is summarized (1 Sam 2:21, 26), so is that of Jesus (Luke 2:40, 52); just as Samuel ministered in the temple and showed remarkable spiritual discernment (1 Sam 3:1-18), so Jesus visited the temple and impressed the religious leaders (Luke 2:41-51).