What Child Is This? A Study of Luke 2:22-52

Luke reports two events between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his ministry. These are not reported out of idle curiosity, however—both events point forward to his importance in God’s plan of salvation. Remarkable prophecies were spoken when Jesus was presented to the Lord, and Jesus himself alluded to a special role when he was coming of age.

Presented to God

The Law of Moses required every firstborn son to be redeemed and dedicated to God, since God had spared all the firstborn sons of Israel in the 10th plague on Egypt (Ex. 13:11-16). The Law further specified that, for a son, the mother should wait 40 days and then bring a burnt offering and a sin offering to the sanctuary. She was to bring a lamb and a bird, or if she could not afford a lamb, two birds (Lev. 12:1-8).

Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were obedient to the Law of Moses: "When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’ " (vv. 22-24).

Apparently the family could not afford a lamb. It is also interesting that Luke speaks of "their" purification, although the Law spoke only of the purification of the mother. It is ironic that the Law required redemption for the Redeemer, and a sin-offering to purify a divinely caused conception.

It was at this trip to the temple that some significant prophecies were given:

"Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts" (vv. 25-27).

This godly man earnestly wanted God to rescue Israel, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him (as he had spoken to the Old Testament prophets) and caused him to come to the temple at the right time.

When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple courts for the dedication and purification ritual, Simeon intervened: "Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’" (vv. 28-32).

 simeon

Simeon sees the Messiah before he dies. [From The People’s Bible History, 1895]

The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that this child was the answer to his hopes and faith; although the salvation itself had not been completed, it was sure. God had kept his promise to Simeon. His lifelong desire was coming to pass, and he felt his life was complete. He had seen the answer, and he knew that this child would be the salvation not only of Israel but all the Gentiles, too. He was God’s Anointed One, who would be the "light to the Gentiles" (Isa. 42:6).

Joseph and Mary "marveled at what was said about him" (v. 33). Could it be that Joseph and Mary didn’t quite believe that this miraculous child would be the Savior of all peoples? Or more likely, Luke tells us this for our benefit, so that we think more deeply about the significance of what was said. We should also marvel at these auspicious words.

After Simeon had blessed Jesus, he also blessed Joseph and Mary. But the salvation of Israel would not be a bed of roses—Simeon also spoke of troubles to come: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too" (vv. 34-35).

The Savior of Israel would cause some to rise in God’s favor, but would also cause some to fall, because some people would speak against him. They would not like the salvation that he brought, and their thoughts would be exposed as ungodly. They would reject his brand of salvation, thinking that they did not need it. And Mary herself would suffer as a result. We are not yet told how—Luke keeps us in suspense.

The prophetess

Luke also tells us about Anna, who was known to be a prophetess. He does not quote her words, but nevertheless includes her involvement:

"There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem" (vv. 36-38).

Anna, an elderly model of piety, was apparently inspired to understand that this baby boy was the Savior who would redeem the people of God, and she spread the good news about him. More and more people were learning that the time of salvation has come.

Luke then wraps up this part of the story with some general comments: "When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him" (vv. 39-40). Luke says nothing about the family’s trip to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23). He simply brings Jesus to Nazareth, his childhood home. There he grew in wisdom, and God was with him.

Jesus in the temple

Jesus’ parents, as Law-abiding Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (v. 41). When Jesus was 12 (13 was considered the age of spiritual maturity), they went as usual to the Passover festival.

"After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it" (v. 43). (They must have had other children to take care of.) They simply assumed he was in the traveling party, which might have included a large number of friends, neighbors and other children.

"Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day." But probably when he did not join the family at night, "they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him" (vv. 44-45).

Click here for illustrations of the 12-year-old Jesus

After a day traveling north, and one traveling south and a day of searching, "they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers" (vv. 46-47). Later, people would not merely be amazed at Jesus—they would be angry. But at this point, Jesus was simply amazing. Even his questions showed an unusual depth of understanding for someone his age.

But when his parents finally found him, "they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you’ " (v. 48). Mary felt that Jesus had done something wrong. They had trusted him to join the group traveling back to Galilee, but he hadn’t.

Perhaps it was an innocent mix-up. Jesus may have tried to find his parents, too, but eventually had to go back to a location where they could find him, and while waiting, he used his time well. We do not know, but Jesus thought they should have known to look for him in the temple. Where he slept, we do not know.

"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?" (v. 49). It was necessary, Jesus said, that he would be doing the work of God. Jesus was referring to his heavenly Father and his divine mission, "but they did not understand what he was saying to them" (v. 50). They knew their child was the Messiah, that he had a special mission, but they did not know the details of how he would do his work. There was a bit of mystery to this child—but Jesus knew what he had to do.

His time had not yet come, so "he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (vv. 51-52).


Questions for application

  • Joseph and Mary set a good example of obedience (vv. 22-24). Although the law they obeyed is obsolete, their attitude is still exemplary. Am I as dedicated to God as they were?

  • How well do I respect the spiritual service of elderly saints?

  • Have I experienced pain as well as salvation from Jesus Christ? (v. 35)

  • Do I have a sense of mission like Jesus did? (v. 49) What am I dedicated to?

  • Do I grow in favor with God and with other people? (v. 52) Is it sometimes necessary to have less favor?

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