Luke 2:41-52….Jesus in the Temple

The Text in Context

With this unique glimpse into the period of Jesus’s adolescence, Luke bridges the thirty-year interval between Jesus’s infancy and the beginning of his public ministry. His special relationship with God that is revealed in this story begins to fill out the promises associated with his birth. Mary and Joseph remain central to the story, as Jesus is still in their care; Mary in particular continues in her role as a thoughtful observer of her son’s development (cf. 2:19, 34–35). But the setting in the temple among the religious teachers also foreshadows the confrontation that will take place in the same location when Jesus has grown up (chaps. 19–21).

Historical and Cultural Background

The annual Passover visit to Jerusalem was required in the law (Exod. 23:17; Deut. 16:16), and many Galilean Jews fulfilled this obligation (John 4:45). Jerusalem thus became seriously overcrowded for this period (perhaps up to six times its normal population), with many sleeping in camps around the city, so that the confusion as the Nazareth contingent set off for home is understandable.
The temple courts were the focal point of the festival and of the touristic interest of visitors to Jerusalem. The vast court of the Gentiles offered ample shaded space for teachers to gather listeners around them, which, as Luke notes, Jesus later did (19:47; 21:37–38). Because Luke mentions that Jesus was twelve years old, it is sometimes supposed that he was in the temple for his bar mitzvah, but there is no evidence until several centuries later for this Jewish coming-of-age ceremony (eventually fixed on the thirteenth birthday, when a boy was reckoned to become a full member of the religious community). In view of Luke’s careful reference to the routine ceremonies after birth (2:21–24), it would be surprising if he failed to mention such a specific focus for this story. He presents it simply as a regular annual visit.

Key Themes of Luke 2:41–52
■ At the age of twelve, Jesus is already remarkable for his spiritual insight.
■ He feels at home in the temple (“my Father’s house”).
■ There is a tension between his duty to his human parents and to his divine Father.
■ His adolescence is in keeping with the quality of his adult life.

Interpretive Insights

2:44 Thinking he was in their company. The failure of Joseph and Mary to be aware that Jesus had stayed behind shows how relatively normal their family life must have been. It was natural for Jesus to be with his friends from the village, and his parents would not consider it odd for him to be elsewhere in the traveling group rather than staying close to them. Even though this story will reveal the special character of the boy, Luke knows nothing of the docetic tendency that in later Christian legends made Jesus more like an alien than a normal, sociable village boy.

2:46 in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers. Jesus would not have been the only person listening to teachers in the court of the Gentiles. The teachers may have been officially recognized scribes, though Jesus’s own later practice shows that others could set themselves up as teachers without being formally licensed. The subject of teaching is likely to have been the interpretation of the law and its implications for both theology and ethics.

2:47 amazed at his understanding and his answers. Jesus seems to have attracted attention, partly no doubt because of his age, but also because he knew what he was talking about. Luke’s words do not necessarily suggest supernatural knowledge, but rather an ability to contribute to debate in a way that belied his years. He is not portrayed as offering his own teaching, as he would do some twenty years later, but as asking questions and joining in discussion. Perhaps he was already trying out some of the radical ideas that later would lead to his rejection by the religious establishment.

Mary and Joseph found Jesus “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers” (2:46). The porticos at the perimeter of the court of the Gentiles were shaded locations where Jewish teachers could conduct their classes. Education involved dialogue between teachers and students where both parties asked questions and offered answers. This photo from the Second Temple model focuses on the royal stoa, the portico area adjacent to the court of the Gentiles.

2:48 Son, why have you treated us like this? This very natural protest contrasts with Luke’s portrayal of Jesus elsewhere as the dutiful son. Objectively, his behavior appears at least thoughtless, but here, as later in 8:19–21, Jesus sets the natural expectations of family loyalty in contrast with a prior commitment to the service of God. In 14:26 he will demand the same sense of priorities from those who follow him, using the uncomfortably exaggerated language of “hating” parents.

2:49 I had to be in my Father’s house. “House” is not in the Greek, which literally says “in the things of my Father,” hence the traditional rendering “about my Father’s business.” Either rendering would fit the context, but since this is offered as a reason for not needing to search for him, it is perhaps more likely that he refers to a specific location. Jesus’s reference to God as “my Father” is in striking contrast to Mary’s phrase “your father and I” in 2:48. The adolescent Jesus is already aware, as surely his parents should have been, that he is God’s Son rather than only theirs.

2:50 They did not understand. Given the clear indications that Mary and Joseph had received from Gabriel, from the angels, and from Simeon, this seems incongruous, especially in the light of the fact that Mary had “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19). But perhaps we are to assume that twelve years of normal family life had blunted their awareness of the special character and destiny of their son.

2:51 and was obedient to them. Luke maintains the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary. For all the unique self-awareness that we have just witnessed (and the apparently inconsiderate behavior that it had led to), Jesus continued to fit appropriately into the conventions of normal family life.

His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Luke has used very similar words in 2:19; see comment there. These “asides” given by Luke invite the reader to join Mary in thinking out what these stories reveal about the real Jesus.

2:52 Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. This is Luke’s second summary of Jesus’s childhood development (cf. 2:40). It is interesting to compare these two summaries with that concerning the growth of John in 1:80: Jesus’s childhood appears to have been more normal, and it did not involve separation from society as John’s did. The two summaries in 2:40, 52, which remind us of the accounts of the child Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:21, 26, use the same Greek terms to speak of Jesus’s “wisdom” and of the “grace (favor) of God,” themes that have been illustrated in the story of 2:41–50. But this time we hear also of Jesus’s good reputation in the village (“favor with … man”). His supernatural origin did not make him into the enfant terrible that some later Christian legends made him. We will discover in 4:16–30, however, that there was a limit to his fellow villagers’ approval once the true nature of his mission became clear.

Theological Insights

Through this story runs the tension between Jesus being both Son of God and also son of Mary and Joseph. In view of Luke’s clear affirmation in 1:34–38 that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph, it is remarkable that he is prepared to include references to Joseph as Jesus’s “father” in 2:33, 48 and to Mary and Joseph as Jesus’s “parents” (a term that normally implies biological parenthood) in 2:27, 41, 43. But this is not necessarily inconsistent, since by naming Jesus, Joseph has officially accepted him as his son (this point is more clearly explained in Matt. 1:18–25); so he is Jesus’s “father” (and “parent”) socially, even if not biologically. That term then allows Luke to play on the different levels of “fatherhood” in 2:48–49 (“your father and I” … “my Father’s house”).

Jesus’s first recorded words thus emphasize his special relationship with God and his sense of a unique calling (“I must …”).

Nevertheless, Luke portrays a normal home life. His Jesus is not the superhuman cuckoo in the nest suggested by later legends that reflect the docetic heresy (that Jesus was not truly human but a divine being masquerading as a human). The Jesus of the summaries in 2:40, 52 is special, and yet truly one of us. The fifth commandment (“Honor your father and your mother”) applies to him as well as to us, though his special calling as Son of God puts it under strain in this episode. This same tension will run throughout Luke’s Gospel.

Scripture records very little about the early childhood of Jesus. Speculation about these years was recorded in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. During the medieval period, legends like these were illustrated on tiles discovered in Tring, England, and dated to the early fourteenth century AD. The scene on the left of the tile shows a boy struck dead after leaping onto the back of Jesus in play. He is restored to life in the scene on the right.

Teaching the Text

This passage is primarily christological, emphasizing Jesus’s growing awareness of his unique relationship with God. The prophecy of 1:32 is coming to fulfillment as the Messiah and Son of God prepares to fulfill his God-ordained mission. Yet equally important is the contrast between human and divine allegiances. Though Jesus remains faithful and obedient to his earthly parents, his greater (and ultimate) allegiance is to his heavenly Father. Invite your audience to consider this application for their own lives, as well as the lives of their children and grandchildren. Although we owe it to our families and neighbors to love and care for them (the second greatest commandment), our ultimate allegiance is to love God (the greatest commandment) and advance his kingdom purposes. The temptation for parents is to see our children as fulfilling our goals and our ambitions. Yet, ultimately, these precious ones are merely on loan to us and our role is to equip and prepare them for God’s service—to give them back to him.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
This collection of legends from the mid-second century (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas, which is an early noncanonical sayings collection) includes the following stories:
• Jesus breaks the Sabbath by making model birds out of mud, but he gets out of trouble by making them fly away.
• Jesus curses the son of Annas because he has spoiled Jesus’s game, and the boy withers up.
• A boy bumps into Jesus, who curses him, and he dies.
• Jesus is sent to school, and he humiliates his teacher by baffling him with allegorical imagery.
• One of Jesus’s playmates is killed falling from a building, and Jesus is blamed; but he raises the child to life and is exonerated.
• A pitcher is broken, so Jesus carries the water in his garment instead.
• Joseph cuts a piece of timber the wrong size, but Jesus stretches it to fit.
• Another teacher slaps Jesus for answering back, and he is cursed by Jesus and collapses; but a third teacher praises Jesus’s wisdom, and so Jesus is pacified and heals the other.
• People comment, “This child is not earth-born.”
• The book finishes with a slightly expanded version of Luke 2:41–52.

Another approach to this unique story about Jesus’s childhood is to get people to imagine what it would be like to have an omnipotent, omniscient child growing up in a village home. The teacher might then introduce them to the legends about the child Jesus collected in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an imaginative writing from the second century that testifies to the irresistible desire to fill in the gap in Jesus’s biography left by the silence of the canonical accounts. See the sidebar for some of its contents. Those who have read John Wyndham’s science-fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos will recognize the genre. The resultant portrait is impressive rather than attractive: Infancy Gospel of Thomas has been irreverently described as the “Gospel of the Superbrat.”

By contrast, Luke’s one brief glimpse into Jesus’s childhood is reassuringly “normal,” despite the theological tension outlined above. Consider why Luke, alone among the evangelists, decided to lift this corner of the curtain, and what his inclusion of this story has contributed to our understanding of who Jesus really was.

R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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