Luke 2:21-52 – An Unconventional God

Luke continues his exclusive account of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.  This part of the story shows ordinary humans in contact with supernatural events and also shows that young Jesus does not take long to understand His nature and mission.  Ultimately Luke takes pains to make his readers understand that normal people are involved in Jesus’ birth and childhood, but there’s nothing normal about it at all.  And what that tells us about God should affect how we pray and how we trust.

Mary and Joseph abide by all facets of the Law regarding Jesus’ birth.  As He is a male child, they’re required to circumcise Him on the eighth day (at which time they name him ‘Jesus’ just as Gabriel commanded) and Mary remains unclean for forty days after the birth (it would be 80 days if she gave birth to a girl).  At the end of forty days, they bring Jesus to the temple to present Him as their firstborn son.  Since He’s the firstborn, He’s claimed by God (Ex 13:2,12), so they must redeem Him with a payment of five shekels (Num 18:15-16 – this payment isn’t reported by Luke but almost certainly takes place).  For Mary to be clean, she and Joseph must offer a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two pigeons (this is the sacrifice allowed for those who can’t afford a lamb, thus showing us something about Mary and Joseph’s financial situation).

[We pointed this out before, but it deserves restating.  God just isn’t concerned with so much of what concerns us.  Jesus is born in a stable, announced to Shepherds, and grows up in a family that can’t afford a lamb for a sacrifice.  We spend way too much time worrying about and being impressed with all the wrong things.]

While Joseph and Mary are in the temple, they meet a man named Simeon.  Simeon is righteous and devout and looking for the Messiah.  He’s been told by the Spirit that he won’t die until he sees the consolation of Israel (a reference to the Messiah’s promised comfort for the nation – He is the One who will remove sorrow and make all things right).  The Holy Spirit is upon him (similar to John the Baptist – 1:15) and the Spirit apparently spurs him to come to the temple at just the right time to meet the new parents and their baby.

Simeon is truly a unique character in the Bible.  He’s similar in some ways to Enoch (Gen 5:21-24) in that we don’t know anything about him other than he’s exceedingly righteous.  And like Enoch, he’s afforded an amazing privilege by God.  Simeon – alone among just about every human who’s lived since the time of Abraham – gets a personal guarantee from God that he will live to see the Messiah.  Why God grants him this incredible honor is not explained other than he’s apparently a prophet of God to be specifically used to prophesy for Mary and Joseph and thus allowed to know the Messiah will come in his lifetime.

Something about Simeon causes Joseph and Mary to allow him to take Jesus into his arms.  Once he does, he blesses God for allowing him to fulfill his life’s purpose and tells God he’s ready for death now that he’s seen the Messiah.  He describes Jesus as God’s salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all peoples.  He says that Jesus is a light of revelation to the Gentiles (a quote from Isaiah) and the glory of Israel.  With his words, Simeon makes it clear that Jesus isn’t just the Messiah for Israel, but for the whole world.  He is the glory of Israel – he’s Jewish – but He’s here for all people.

Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph too, but then directs his words to Mary specifically.  He tells her that Jesus will not be a conquering hero to be adored by all.  He will be accepted by some but opposed by many.  He will force people to choose.  He will divide world history and all mankind.  Nothing will be the same after His life on earth.  And, ultimately, a sword will pierce Mary’s soul as His mother.  This is clearly a prediction of Jesus’ death (and remember that Simeon speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit).  Simeon shows that Jesus’ birth isn’t only about celebration and happiness.  The baby he holds comes to die.

It’s interesting to consider the effect of Simeon’s words on Mary.  Remember that by our standards, Mary is very young – likely in her mid-teens.  That means she’ll only be in her mid-to-late forties when she stands at the foot of Jesus’ cross.  Will Simeon’s words come back to her then?  It shows there are downsides to being God’s choice to bear the Messiah.  She’s uniquely blessed but she’ll also uniquely mourn.  The life she’s in for will have hardships she wouldn’t have had if she weren’t Jesus’ mother.

Joseph and Mary meet a second person while they’re in the temple – Anna.  Anna is called a prophetess, which means she speaks the words of God (and that means Mary and Joseph meet two prophets in the temple as Simeon is clearly a prophet too).  She’s essentially the same as Simeon – filled with the Spirit and speaking through the Spirit’s wisdom and power.  Anna is old – she’s either 84 or she’s lived as a widow for 84 years (the Greek isn’t entirely clear) – and spends all her time in the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.

The text doesn’t record what Anna says when she sees Jesus, but she thanks God because she knows who Jesus is.  She also begins to tell others who are looking for the Messiah that He’s come.  The text makes it sound as if this becomes her way from this day on – she continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (second name for Jesus used in this text – He will console Israel and redeem Jerusalem (the epicenter of Jewish worship)).

Anna joins the shepherds as the two (groups of) people identified in this chapter who spread the news about the Messiah’s coming (2:17).  Think about who these messengers are.  The shepherds are held in no esteem and a widow is typically among the poorest of the poor.  It shows again God’s priorities and perspective and how different they are from ours.  As we said above, we worry about and are impressed by all the wrong things.

After presenting Jesus in the temple, Joseph and Mary go back to Nazareth.  Or so says Luke.  What he leaves out – and there’s no way to know why, other than it doesn’t have anything to do with the message he wants to communicate about why Jesus came and His ultimate ministry to both Jews and Gentiles – is the family’s trip to Egypt to flee Herod’s hunt for the rival king of the Jews (Matt 2:13-23).  This goes along with what we said about the gospels not being biographies.  A significant trip to Egypt where the family likely lived for a number of years is not even mentioned because it’s not part of Luke’s message.

Notice what verse 40 says about Jesus growing in wisdom.  It’s clear that He’s not – at least as a young man – omniscient.  There’s no way to know when He realizes who He is – we’re about to see that it’s at least by the time he’s twelve – but regardless of when it happens, He apparently doesn’t retain all the aspects of His divine nature while He’s on earth.  It’s another element of what He lays down to become the Son of Man (Phil 2:5-7).

The story fast-forwards twelve years.  Joseph and Mary make it their practice to go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover.  When Jesus is twelve, He goes with them (and perhaps has been going His whole life).  When the feast is over, the family makes its way back to Nazareth along with other families in a caravan.  Typically, the women and small children go first, followed by the men and the older children.  In this case, Mary and Joseph each likely think Jesus is with the other.  After going one day’s journey away from Jerusalem, they realize He’s not with them and return to search for Him.  They spend one day returning to Jerusalem, search one day for Him (one day of travel out, one day back, one day of searching comes to the three days Luke references in verse 46), and finally find Him in the temple discussing theology and the Law with religious teachers.

The teachers sitting with the boy are amazed at His understanding and His answers.  Here is a twelve-year-old boy who can hold His own with educated men who’ve spent their lives dedicated to studying the Law.  They’ve not seen anything like it.

Joseph and Mary are also astonished – who expects to find their young son debating religious leaders? – but also a little irritated.  Mary says what any parent would say under the circumstances: “Son, why have you treated us this way?  Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.”  It’s been three days so it’s certainly not unreasonable that Mary’s relief in finding Jesus is quickly followed by exasperation at what He’s done.

Jesus responds with His own question.  “Why is it that you were looking for Me?  Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”  He essentially says, “Why were my whereabouts a mystery?  Didn’t you know I’d be here?”  Notice His wording.  Mary had asked why He had treated her and ‘your Father’ the way He did.  Jesus responds that He was actually about His Father’s business in His Father’s house.  Jesus – perhaps for the first time – tells His parents He knows who He is, and His life is not the life of a typical child.  He is not here to simply exist.  He’s here to fulfill His Father’s plan.  And while yes, Joseph is his earthly father and He will defer to his authority, His ultimate Father is God and it’s God’s will that Jesus must obey.

Surprisingly, Joseph and Mary don’t understand what Jesus says. This is odd since they know who He is and know all that was said about Him at His birth.  Perhaps they don’t understand all the ramifications of His identity.  It’s been twelve years so maybe they’ve lost track somewhat of what it means that He’s the Son of the Most High (1:32).

Notably, this event doesn’t change how Jesus treats His parents.  The three of them leave Jerusalem and go back to Nazareth, where Jesus continues to be a dutiful Son who respects the authority of His parents.  Here again, we read that Jesus continues to grow in wisdom (see note above) but also that He grows physically and in favor with God and men.  Apparently, Jesus is well-thought-of by those around Him as He grows up.

[Aside – This is the last reference to Joseph in the gospels.  Nothing is said in the text, but the assumption is that he dies sometime before Jesus begins his public ministry.]

It has to be interesting to be the mother and father of Jesus, doesn’t it?  Notice that twice in this text they are amazed (vs 33) or astonished (vs 48).  The lives Joseph and Mary lead as parents are unlike any other parents in world history.  They are in authority over a perfect and divine Son who ultimately answers to a much higher authority than theirs.  On the one hand He’s perfectly obedient, but on the other He’s also somewhat independent.  And He never needs disciplining.  Never.  Think about how that might affect the parent’s interactions with their other kids.  “We treat all you kids the same.”  Really?  (And having to live up to the standards set by the oldest in the family might be a little tough for His siblings – this may explain why His brothers don’t believe Him during His ministry – Jn 7:2-5).  There’s no deep application point here, it’s just interesting to think about parenting in a way that’s never been done before and will never be done again.

Along those same lines, notice that on two occasions Luke says Mary treasures events in her heart.  She does it on the night Jesus is born (vs 19) and immediately after her exchange with Jesus in the temple (vs 51).  Why does Luke tell us this?  For one reason, it’s interesting to know from a human-interest standpoint.  It’s also logical, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t YOU remember the things Mary sees and experiences as the mother of the Messiah?  But there might be another reason too.  It could be that he’s identifying Mary as a primary source of the information he relates here.  Remember, Luke is the only one who records these events.  Perhaps he wants the reader to understand where he heard about them.  He said at the beginning of the book that he used eyewitness accounts to write this gospel (1:2).  Perhaps this is his way of identifying one of the eyewitnesses he used.

Lastly, and we’ve touched on this several times, but this whole story (all of Luke 1 and 2) shows God going about His plans in unconventional ways.  How the Messiah is born, who He’s born to, where He’s born, who He’s announced to, who celebrates Him, all show a God doing the unexpected.  Almost nothing about the birth narratives are in line with what we would do if we were in charge.  God simply doesn’t do things the way we would do them.

Knowing this – and knowing that He even specifically SAYS that His ways are different (Isa 55:8-9) – why do we consistently expect God to work in our lives according to our plans?  And accordingly, why do we lose faith when things don’t go as we expect or hope?  God ISN’T us.  God doesn’t think like us.  God doesn’t have our limited perspective and priorities.  God doesn’t hold the same things dear (although as we progress in our sanctification, hopefully our thoughts and priorities will begin to more closely model His).  So why do we pray and become stressed and disappointed when He doesn’t answer within the box we’ve carefully laid out for Him?  Shouldn’t we read Luke 2 and conclude that our duty is to pray and bring our requests and then trust that the God who chose to bring His Son to earth in such an unconventional way will take care to answer our prayers in the way that glorifies Him the most and is for our best even if it’s totally outside of what we thought we wanted?  The Luke 2 God we pray to is to be trusted, not boxed.

We are to pray; trust; repeat.

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