Christmas 2 • Luke 2:40–52 • January 3, 2016
By Thomas Manteufel
This story shows the holy family in Jerusalem at the feast of Passover. According to Deuteronomy 16:16, all male Israelites were obligated (though the women were not forbidden to show devotion in this way also) to come to the Lord’s house to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Booths. The young Jesus, having reaching the age of a “son of the commandment” (as described in the rabbinic Talmud),¹ accompanied his parents. While returning home, Mary and Joseph became increasingly distressed to be unable to find him among their kinsmen and acquaintances. They finally found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers and greatly astonishing them with his questions and answers. On feast days and Sabbaths it was customary for the rabbis of the Sanhedrin to hold instruction sessions for the people on religious matters and the meaning of Scripture passages,² and it is likely that such was the setting in which the anxious searchers found him. This is a well-known and loved Bible story, one that has been beautifully depicted in pictures and poetry. But what does it mean? Is it simply a story about parental concerns? Or about a child prodigy? Or something more? Let us ask: To what does Jesus draw attention here?
Jesus in the Temple—Amazing and Uplifting!
I. Jesus in the temple—the center of the gospel
A. Jesus’s divine Sonship
When Jesus’s mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? See how anxiously we have been looking for you!” he candidly but respectfully answered that he had a unique relationship with the God who was worshipped in the temple, calling him “my Father.” Luther’s Bible literally translated the Greek here: Wisset ihr nicht, dass ich sein muss in dem, dass meines Vaters ist? (Don’t you know that it is necessary for me to be engaged in that which is my Father’s?) They should have known that it was completely appropriate for the Son of God to be in his Father’s house, discussing the word of God. Most translators today capture part of this truth: “I must be in my Father’s house.” The Lutheran Confessions observe that his dialog with the learned in the temple showed the divine nature of his Sonship, including it among his incarnation in the womb, his miracle at Cana, and his dazzling of his foes in Gethsemane, John 18:6 (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VIII, 24‒25). His human nature did not always use his divine powers, as when it grew in stature and wisdom, Luke 2:52 (Epitome of Formula of Concord, VIII, 16), but in his communication in the temple he was not expressing what he had learned from others, for the teachers of Israel were amazed by it and his parents did not fully understand it. His questions, filled with profound understanding (vv. 46‒47), may well have included the kind described by Edersheim,³ that is, penetrating inquiries to clarify the meaning of religious speakers, such as he often used in later life (e.g., Mt 15:3; 21:21; 22:42, 45). We note that it is likely, in the time setting of the Luke 2 story, that the meaning of the Passover sacrifice and related messianic prophecies came up for discussion (cf. Is 53:5‒7; Jn 1:29).
B. Jesus, the center of the gospel
While Luke tells us nothing specific of the content of Jesus’s discourse with the teachers in the temple, he does relate it to the truth that he is the Son of the Father. This foreshadows his assertions throughout his ministry about his work for the salvation of sinners, done in full communion with his Father who had sent him for this very purpose (cf., for example, Jn 5:23, 24, 30, 36; 6:29, 38, 39, 57; 7:16, 29; 8:18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:49; 17:2‒3; Lk 10:21‒22; 22:29, 42; 24:49. The Father’s redemptive work through the Son is especially reflected in today’s Gospel (Eph 1:6, 7, 11).
II. Remember, then, who he is
Jesus’s reply to his mother’s scolding may seem harsh and unreasonable: “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know . . . ? But it was in fact a gentle, respectful (as the perfect Messiah was always respectful toward his parents [cf. v. 51]) reminder of the truths that they had been given about him and his destiny, so that they were neglecting, or forgetting, what should have guided and helped them (Lk 1:31‒33, 35, 42‒43; 2:9‒19, 27‒36; Mt 16:24). He was lovingly pointing out the help for such distress. We also may take all this to heart, now that the glorious promises of the Christmas season are still fresh in our minds, as we face the troubles of our own lives. His answer to Mary was in perfect accord with his common practice of lovingly chiding confused and troubled people, directing them to truths about him that need to be known and remembered. For example, he pointed out to the disciples their “little faith” when they in the storm (Mt 8:24‒26) forgot that he was Lord of creation and that he had already begun to tell them of the great work which he and they would do in the future, or failed to consider the implications of the miracles of the loaves (Mt 16:5‒12). Or think of his loving and helpful rebuke of Thomas (Jn 20:27) when that doubting apostle neglected to think of his prediction, three times, that he would rise from the dead, and his claims to be the true Messiah and the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25), etc. In our own times we continually face problems and plaguing questions of faith (Where is the Lord now? Does he really love us?) and often grieve him by neglecting the truths and promises of his word (which is, to put it bluntly, sinful). And so by complaining and doubting we rob ourselves of the comfort and uplift which he wants us to have. He patiently continues to urge us in our weakness and confused thinking, to seek the reviving, encouraging truth in his word, and when we have found it, not to forget to remember it. For his mercy and forgiveness are freely offered (Jn 6:37; Heb 4:16).
¹ Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 182.
² Ibid., 191.
³ Ibid., 346, 349.