We have arrived at Luke 2.21-52—the last text Luke includes on Jesus’s youth before beginning to speak about his adulthood.
In today’s passage, Luke’s going to showcase for us two different things. First, he’s going to begin giving us details about Jesus himself—even as a baby, as a young boy, who he is is explicit. Secondly, he’s going to give us some portraits of people who come into contact with Jesus: namely Simeon, Anna and Mary. This is something he will do repeatedly over the course of the gospel—he’ll tell us about Jesus, and he’ll tell us about the people who interact with Jesus. And every time he does this, he will let us in on a different aspect of who this man is and how we are meant to respond to him.
This message will be weird because we’re going to skip around a bit. We’re going to look at these portraits we have of these four characters—Simeon, Anna, Jesus and Mary—and we’re going to try to see what Luke is telling us about Jesus through what we see him do, and how we see others reacting to him.
Simeon & Anna
Luke goes into great detail about the people surrounding Jesus in these early days.
Eight days after Jesus is born, Jesus is circumcised according to the Law. And after the time allotted for a post-birth purification has passed (about a month later), Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, to offer the sacrifice for the purification. In the temple at this time is a man named Simeon. Luke says in v. 25 that Simeon was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
So he has been waiting (who knows how long?) to see the Messiah. And on this day, he sees Mary and Joseph coming in with the baby, and he knows. The Spirit shows him that this baby is the Christ, the Messiah he was promised he would see before his death. He takes the baby in his arms, and he prays a prayer of joy.
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
You could preach entire sermons on these four verses alone. Jesus does not give salvation—he is salvation. When Simeon sees Jesus, he sees God’s salvation—there is no salvation apart from him.
Jesus is glory for God’s people. He is the accomplishment of all the promises God had made to his people Israel. God had made a covenant with Israel, and Israel could never live up to it—so God fulfilled their part of the covenant for them by sending his Messiah as a perfect Israelite. Finally, Israel enjoyed the glory which was theirs as God’s chosen people.
But Jesus is not only glory for Israel—he is also a light of revelation to the Gentiles. This is huge, because the Gentiles were outside of the covenant. They were not part of the promises God had made to his people. And yet, God had promised to Abraham that through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed. This not just good news for the Jews; it is the ultimate good news for all of humanity.
This is a glorious prayer, and there is such a note of victory to it that what he says to Mary just afterward is jarring. V. 34:
34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
In other words, “Today is a happy day, but you will not be happy for long.” (We’ll come back to this in a bit.)
After this, there is a woman named Anna, who is also old, and who is also full of the Spirit, and who is also in the temple. Luke says that Anna (v. 37) did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. We don’t see any actual interaction between Anna and the baby, but evidently she knows that he’s there, perhaps she just sees him from afar…and that is enough. V. 38: And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Let me just make a couple of observations at this point. What is the point of these two characters? Luke brings them up after having previously shown us two other elderly people, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in chapter 1. These elderly characters are all figureheads of the “Old Israel”—the older generations of Israelites who have been actively waiting for the Messiah for years. They are devout, they are reverent, and they will foreshadow something that will become very important later on.
In chapter 5 we’ll be introduced to a group of characters called the “Pharisees.” The Pharisees and the Scribes are religious leaders in Judaism at the time, and they are in many ways set up as the human antagonists in the gospel narratives. They are devout men, fiercely committed to the Law of Moses, and they will oppose Jesus at every turn. They oppose him because God had established a covenant with the people of Israel, the terms of which are found in the Law of Moses, and at first glance Jesus seems to be bucking against that covenant.
Luke will want us to immediately recognize that these Pharisees and Scribes are falsely devout—their faith is hollow and void—and he helps us see this by introducing us to genuinely devout characters at the beginning: Zechariah and Elizabeth (whom we saw before), and Simeon and Anna (whom we see today).
He sets up a contrast which will pay off later: he shows us here that the people who are truly devout are also the people who are the most open to the Messiah’s arrival. These people recognize that there is no conflict between the Old and the New—as Jesus himself said in Matthew 5.17, I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them. These people get that, and their understanding provides a weighty contrast to the Pharisees when they finally show up.
Now—what does Luke say about Jesus?
A perfect representative
When I was a kid, we were in church every time the doors were open. My dad worked as a pastor my whole life; for a time we actually lived in the parsonage next door to the church. I learned to ride a bike in the church parking lot. We almost literally lived at church. We were there for every service, every holiday, every prayer meeting… And I was a very well-behaved boy (mostly because I was terrified of getting in trouble in front of the entire church). I did everything I was supposed to do. For a while anyway (at least until I was a teenager; things kind of went south at that point), I was the poster child for what a good Christian child was meant to look like.
Similarly, Jesus comes from a devout Jewish family. His parents bring him to be circumcised when he is eight days old (according to the Law of Moses), the ritual sacrifice is offered for him and his mother (also according to the Law of Moses); and when he is a boy his family participates in the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem (which would have required a lengthy journey). And we see in v. 46 that Jesus wasn’t just blindly following his parents; as a boy he was engaged in the traditions and the law. He was even more devout than his parents!
The point of all of this is that being from this family, and being this type of Jewish child, Jesus—even from childhood—perfectly represented the people of God. God’s plan in sending them a Messiah was that God would become a man, in every way like the people he was coming to save. That salvation extends to all of us who aren’t Jews (as we saw in Simeon’s prayer), but first and foremost the promise was made to the people of Israel. So Jesus came as a perfect Jew: he was circumcised on the eighth day, purified according to the law of Moses, and performed all the necessary rites and rituals that were required of Jewish young men. He represented God’s people perfectly.
Next, Luke shows us that Jesus was indeed human. And he does so by giving us a certain number of details that are surprising.
Firstly, we see that as a baby, he was entirely dependent on his parents. This one sounds relatively obvious—he’s a baby. We wouldn’t expect him to act like Benjamin Button.
His parents named him—v. 21: And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. His parents brought him to the temple for purification—v. 22: And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… Simeon takes him into his arms in v. 27: can you imagine what it would be like to hold the Messiah as a baby?
Secondly, we see that when Jesus is a boy, he goes to Jerusalem with his parents for the Feast of the Passover, and he goes into the temple. And there, he listens to them; he asks them questions—v. 46: After three days they [his parents] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
There is a tremendous amount of speculation as to exactly how much Jesus was aware of when he was growing up—did he know that he was the Son of God? When did he discover that? There are many books—like some apocryphal books, or more modern works like The Last Temptation of Christ—that spend a lot of time pondering those questions. We have no definitive answer; the gospels never include that information. But we see here that he did indeed learn; he was curious; he was inquisitive.
Thirdly—and this is perhaps my favorite—he inadvertently frightens his parents. After the feast of the Passover his family heads home with their whole caravan. His parents clearly had enough faith in him to trust that he would be with the caravan. But he wasn’t there. V. 43: And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. When they can’t find him, they of course freak out. They come rushing back to Jerusalem, and they find him in the temple. When they find him, Mary scolds him (v. 48): And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”
Here’s another question that’s up for a lot of debate: Was Jesus sinning when he stayed behind? Clearly his parents didn’t want him to do this; they expected him to be with them. Was this willful disobedience on his part? It’s an important question, because it it was willful on Jesus’s part, then he wasn’t “without sin” as the Bible claims he was (Hebrews 4.15)…which would mean he wasn’t a sinless sacrifice, which would mean he doesn’t have the power to save anyone.
R. Kent Hughes offers what I think is a good explanation for what happened. He said that although Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover before, now he was twelve. At age thirteen Jewish boys were allowed full membership to the synagogue (similar to the bar mitzvah ceremony observed today). Fathers were encouraged to begin bringing their sons to the synagogue for the reading of the Torah a year before the rite—so this would have been Jesus’s first time hearing the Torah read aloud by the priests in the synagogue. “So,” says Hughes, “twelve-year-old Jesus, brimming with energy and excitement, was brought along to observe and learn as much as he could about the heart of Israel’s religious life.”
This all would have been a first-time experience for him, and it would have been mind-blowing, for as he listened he would have recognized that these Scriptures being read are speaking about him. Hughes writes, “The combination of his authentic adolescence and the immensely absorbing revelation regarding his own person so occupied his mind that he did not imagine that staying in the temple would cause anyone alarm. Jesus did not sin in any of this. The sinless twelve-year-old Son of God was simply following the logic of the massive spiritual revelation of that week.”
That’s a supposition—take it for what it is. But it is as good a supposition as I’ve heard.
The point of all this is that Jesus acted like a twelve-year-old—he was absorbed in his own thoughts, he was absorbed in the discussions he was having in the temple, and assumed that his parents would understand. This perhaps more than anything we see here shows us that Jesus was indeed fully human—he grew like any human child, he thought like a human child, and he acted like a human child. He was without sin, but still a kid.
But Luke does not merely dwell on Jesus’s humanity; he also gives us details that speak to his divinity—the fact that although Jesus is fully human, he is also fully God.
Firstly, he is not merely questioning the teachers in the synagogues; he is engaged in discussion with them. And the things he is saying astonish them. V. 47: And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Jesus was able to see things in the Scriptures no one else was able to see—how many times during his ministry does he say to the chief priests and the Pharisees that although they thoroughly know the Law, they interpret it wrong? Jesus shows his divinity in his depth of understanding of the Law, even at such a young age.
Secondly, he is aware that God is his Father. V. 49—when Mary comes to him to scold him about staying behind, Jesus’s response—his first recorded words—is very telling: And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?"
Not a single time in the Old Testament does anyone refer to God as his or her own “Father.” There were many ways to address God for the people of Israel—but never one so personal and intimate. Already, as a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus understood that he had a unique relationship with God; he understood that he was “apart,” that he was not like other boys.
Thirdly—and here’s where his divinity really stands out—when his parents don’t understand what he’s talking about, he recognizes their weakness and he obeys them anyway. V. 50: 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.
Our last portrait is of Mary; Mary is the last person whose encounter with Jesus is described in detail by Luke, and I think that is intentional on his part. Because with all this talk of the Messiah and the Son of God, we can often forget that Mary was not just a Jewish woman; she was also Jesus’s mother.
We see her interaction with Jesus most acutely in v. 41-51, when Jesus stays behind after the Passover. Mary and Joseph realize Jesus isn’t there with them, so they rush back to Jerusalem to find him.
When they finally find him in the temple, Mary scolds him (v. 48): “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” (How many of you mothers have had this experience with your kids in the supermarket? This is what it’s like to be a mom.) Jesus explains why he stayed behind, but we see in v. 50 that Joseph and Mary did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.
And yet, despite their lack of understanding, they see that Jesus submits to them, and goes with them rather than putting up a fight. And Luke adds this little phrase at the end of v. 51: And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. This is not the first time this has happened. After the shepherds came to see the infant Jesus and told Mary everything the angel had announced to them, she did the same thing (v. 19): But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
I’ve thought a lot about that over the years: that Mary “treasured up these things in her heart.” And I’ve often wondered what exactly she thought of.
Surely in the first instance, it was amazement and gratitude—a healthy baby boy, the idea that an angel would announce his coming. But mixed in with that gratitude was surely a good amount of confusion, as we saw last week—why would God send his own Son, and then only announce his birth to a group of poor, dirty shepherds? Why not kings? Why not the priests?
Then, a few days later, she takes the baby to see Simeon. Simeon prays his amazing prayer of thanks to God in v. 29-32: My eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
And in v. 33 we see that his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. Of course! Imagine being a new mother, and hearing such things be said about your baby!
But then, immediately after, Simeon turns to Mary and says to her (not to her and Joseph, but to her, v. 34-35): “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
This is a sour note to end on, is it not? Everything said about Jesus up to now has been predominantly positive. What must it have been like for her to hear that her son was going to cause not just the rising of many in Israel, but the fall of many? to hear that her precious baby boy would one day meet with opposition, because he would reveal the innermost thoughts of people’s hearts? to hear that a sword will pierce your own soul also?
We can only speculate, but Mary’s experience with Jesus up to the moment of the Passover must have been wonderful. (How great would it be to raise a child who was without sin?) But when Mary realized Jesus was missing, when she and Joseph hurried back a day’s journey to Jerusalem to find him, I wonder if the words of Simeon didn’t echo through her mind again—“I told you, a sword will pierce your heart.” When Mary scolded Jesus for remaining behind, Jesus calmly responds by asking her why she was so upset (moms, can you imagine?). I wonder if at that point she didn’t feel that first prick of a sword piercing her heart. (This is going to be harder than I thought…)
But then to see her son—who had put such a fright into her and who doesn’t seem to understand why it’s such a big deal—accept his parents lack of understanding and submit to them anyway, she must have felt the pride that any mother would feel: My twelve-year-old seems to think I’m wrong about this, but he’s obeying me anyway!
Luke tells us twice that Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart”—all these things. The arduous birth, the beautiful baby, the shepherds, Simeon’s prayer, Simeon’s cryptic prophecy, Jesus’s disappearance, Jesus’s statement about God being his Father, Jesus’s obedience… All these things, Mary treasured up in her heart.
Now, I told you this would be a weird message. There’s a lot going on, and it could be hard to see why Luke goes into such detail. So I’d like to offer a couple of observations here that may help us to see the coherence of the whole.
Firstly, feelings about Jesus are not simple. We’ve seen this from the beginning: God does not do things the way we expect him to. If I were God, and I were planning out the sending of my Messiah to the world, I would send Superman. (And what is the story of Superman but an attempt to “one-up” the story of Jesus?) I would send him as a man, but as a superhuman dressed in recognizable attire (say, blue tights and a red cape, so you know he’s different?), who can’t be hurt and who can bring the bad guys down with one lazer-shot from his eyeballs.
This is, of course, not what God does. There is victory here, absolutely; there is power here; there are miracles here. But they come in almost under the radar—no one knows about Jesus’s coming but a select few, and those people aren’t people anyone would esteem all that much. And mingled in with that victory and power is a good amount of trepidation: “Yes, this will be wonderful; this will be victorious; but it will also be very, very painful.”
Jesus causes us to wonder and worship; but at the same time, he causes us to fear and tremble. Even at this early age, he makes us aware that if we follow him, it will be difficult—it will require real sacrifice and real anguish of soul. It will be joyful, but it will be painful as well.
Some people meet Christ and are absolutely overwhelmed with joy at knowing him (as we should be). But for some of us, the joy we feel is mixed with a kind of disquiet—a disquiet that knows how good this is, but at the same time knows that not everyone is going to see it that way, and that for us, it will certainly include some hardship or heartache. Perhaps that heartache will be rejection from your family, or confusion from your colleagues, or simply the fact that you don’t understand why God calls you to do the things he calls you to do.
Luke takes the time to show us that Mary’s own experience with her son was not monochromatic—there was definitely joy, but there was also pain, and confusion, and (as Simeon said) a sword piercing her heart. (And we won’t see the full extent of that pain until Jesus’s death on the cross.) I think Luke takes the time to show us these things to remind us that this is the way it is, and that that’s okay. If your experience with Jesus is only joy so far, then you probably haven’t lived for him for very long, or you haven’t taken seriously a lot of what he said.
Secondly, while our feelings throughout our Christian lives are not simple, our reactions to Jesus very much are. Reactions to Jesus are inherently bidirectional. With all of the infinite complexities of why we make the choices we make, all of our choices regarding Jesus go either in one direction or the other: we either trust and believe him (with all the potential pain that comes with it), or we reject him.
These are our only options: we rise or we fall.
Jesus is like a rock. If you are in a boat, you can either tether your boat to the rock, so that it stays steady; or your boat can be dashed against the rock and destroyed. There are no other options—he is our only hope, and if we reject him, we reject everything, we reject life itself. Each one of us will either rise with Jesus or fall because we’ve rejected him.
Luke’s goal here, obviously, is to set up the person of Jesus so that when he arrives on the scene as an adult and begins his ministry, we’ll go into it knowing full well who it is we’re dealing with. He wants us to understand before anything else gets started that Jesus is not a mere teacher; that he is not simply an example to imitate. He is the only hope for life and for eternal joy that we have.
So our call in this text is to know that this child Jesus is both man and God. He is fully human, but he is also fully divine. He is the perfect representative we need to be accepted by God. And he did not fail us.
Our call is to take stock of the situation presented to us: to know that the Christian life is a hard life, and to have no illusions about it. But at the same time, to know that although there is pain in our future, there is great and eternal joy which far outweighs the pain. Think of Simeon, who upon seeing Christ, says, “Now I can die. In complete peace. Because I have seen your salvation—he is light, he is life, and he is glory. He is all I need.” The joy promised to us far outweighs whatever swords will pierce our hearts throughout our lives.
Let us rest in that, and be thankful.