The Boy Jesus in the Temple

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Luke 2:52

Luke 2:41-52 – 1 Samuel 2:18-26

Who is this Jesus?

Up to this point in Luke’s gospel, Luke’s answer to that question seems to be: the Davidic king and the deliverer of Israel. That’s what the angel Gabriel tells Mary (1:32-25), and her words in response praise God’s strong arm for delivering Israel. Scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, lifting the lowly, filling the hungry and casting out the rich are poetic aspects of Israel’s deliverance – not a program for humanitarian assistance to the poor. The lowly and hungry are the people of Israel in their subjugation; the proud, mighty and rich are Israel’s oppressors.

Likewise, the angels tell shepherds (David was a shepherd) outside of Bethlehem (the city of David) that the messiah (the anointed king) has been born (2:11). (However, the angelic description of Jesus as christos kurios is also interesting. It is the formula of an old confession of faith).

Moved by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesies:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear … (1:68-74)

Luke begins, then, with the picture of Jesus as the promised royal descendant of David who will deliver Israel from its enemies and establish it in peace. (Interestingly, both Mary and Zechariah also see the Jesus story as a fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.). Luke, of course, will qualify and spiritualize (for lack of a better word) the nature of Jesus’ reign over the course of his writings, but he begins with the conventional language of military-political victory.

If Jesus is the king, he is also the prophet above all prophets. The story of the boy Jesus in the temple rings a bell in the mind of devout readers: a miraculous birth, a boy at home in the temple of God – I know that story – the boy Samuel. In fact, Luke makes the comparison explicit. Like Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26), Jesus grows and gains favor with both God and man (2:52). It was the prophet Samuel who would anoint David as king (1 Samuel 16:13). Jesus combines both offices – prophet and king – in one.

The Model Family

Luke’s announcement, birth and childhood narratives are prologue. In the pattern of Roman-era biographies, Luke wants to answer the question: how can we account for the extraordinary life of the protagonist? (Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke). One aspect of the answer to that question is, “God did it.” There are fingerprints of the divine all over the early chapters of Luke’s gospel: angelic announcements, spirit-enabled prophecies, and miraculous births to name the most obvious. Jesus is who he is because of the power of God at work in him from before his birth.

There is another dimension, however, to the explanation of Jesus’ extraordinary life. That dimension is utterly human. Jesus had a godly upbringing.

Twice Luke tells us that Jesus grew (2:40, 52). He grew taller, wiser and in favor (charis) with God and people. That is an amazing thing to say about the “son of God,” conceived by the Holy Spirit and announced by angels.

Jesus was truly human, and human beings grow in families. Jesus’ family is the model of piety.

Mary is the model disciple (1:38) in her response to Gabriel’s announcement.  Jesus’ parents did not neglect their religious duties, circumcising him (2:21) with the sign of the covenant and fulfilling the law’s requirements for purification and sacrifice after his birth (2:22-38). Each year, they made the required pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (2:41). The law, by the way, only required males to attend the yearly Passover feast (Exodus 23:14-17, Deuteronomy 16:16), but Mary went beyond the letter of the law by making the pilgrimage as well.

Jesus’ extended family also played a role in Jesus’ life. Luke specifically describes the piety of Mary’s cousin and her husband – Zechariah and Elizabeth (although we don’t have any indication of contact between Jesus and his mother’s cousin). Moreover, in the words of Senator Clinton, “it takes a village” to raise a child – at least it did back then. Jesus’ whereabouts are unaccounted for because Joseph and Mary are part of village-wide procession to and from Jerusalem. They expected him to be with relatives and acquaintances from home. They trusted their kinsfolk and neighbors to help rear their children.

We should note that while Jesus is the model son living in the model family, there is still inter-generational tension in Jesus’ household. His parents were worried and asked, “Why have you treated us so?” (2:48). Jesus asked, “Why were you looking for me?, Did you not know …” (2:49). Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand” (2:50) their son completely, despite angelic visits, prophetic announcements and his miraculous birth.

Even Jesus’ family experienced worry and misunderstanding. It is a universal phenomenon. I find that comforting. We worry for our children, even when they are doing God’s work. When I read this story, and hear Jesus telling his incredulous parents that he must be in his Father’s house, I can’t help but think of my own worries and mixed emotions when my children told me essentially the same thing – they want to go into Christian ministry as a profession. I should take that as a good thing, right? But I know some of the heartaches and disappointments they will be facing. I wonder what the simple, faithful carpenter from Nazareth and his wife thought about their son hanging around the center of power and politics in Jerusalem.

How do people become who they become? Certainly, the people in their lives help shape them as they grow: parents – relatives – neighbors – teachers. All play a role in Jesus’ development. It’s hard to overestimate the influence of the environment in which we grow.

Let me make an argument here about Christian baptism. (I know that I’m a week early in raising this subject. The celebration of the “Baptism of Christ” is next week).

Some of my Baptist friends chide me because I baptize infants by effusion or sprinkling. They believe that only those capable of making their own decision for Christ are proper candidates for baptism, and that immersion is the proper mode. I don’t want to get into the old arguments about baptism here, but I do tell my Baptist friends that I believe in immersion – immersion in the grace and love of God.

Those infants whom we baptize we expect to grow up immersed in the knowledge and love of God in their parental sponsors and in their fellow church members. We expect them to be immersed in the life of the body of Christ and in the means of grace. And we expect this immersion to help shape their lives. There is a divine aspect to the promise of baptism, and a human part. We see this modeled for us in the life of Christ.

Let me also pause to praise the ordinary and mundane life of faithful believers. Some of my fellow Christians too easily dismiss the lives of believers who aren’t out doing heroic, remarkable things for Jesus. In Mary and Joseph, we see an ordinary family living an ordinary life – with extraordinary consequences. In simple faithfulness, they reared their son, the savior of the world.


The second purpose of Luke’s prologue is to foreshadow events and themes to come. Even the simple statement that Mary and Joseph found the missing Jesus “after three days” (2:46) foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection. Following Jesus resurrection, the angels ask the women who are looking for Jesus body: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (24:5-7)

More obviously, Jesus’ boyhood episode in the temple foreshadows his teaching ministry. The boy who was growing in wisdom and favor with God could hold his own in rabbinic discourse. Not only did the young Jesus learn from the teachers (2:46), he impressed them. Luke tells us that “all who heard him were amazed” (2:47). His townsfolk will experience that same astonishment in his first “sermon” in Nazareth after his baptism. “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?'” (4:22) And yet, Jesus teaching will engender as much opposition as acceptance, even in his hometown. His neighbors ultimately grew so angry at his teaching that they wanted to throw him off a cliff (4:29). Amazement and hostility will continue to mark Jesus’ teaching ministry.

Finally, Jesus presence in the temple forms a set of bookends around the Gospel narrative. The Gospel both begins in the temple and returns there. This passage paints one picture of Jesus in the temple at Passover, and the passion narrative paints another.

Luke’s prologue paints a generally positive picture of the temple. Zechariah is performing service in the temple when he has a vision at the altar of incense (1:8-20). When Jesus is dedicated at the temple, Simeon and Anna are moved to recognize and proclaim his glory (2:25-38). The temple contributes to Jesus’ growth in wisdom and favor with God as the holy family visits it year (2:41) and Jesus interacts with the teachers (2:46).

Whatever Jesus later says about the temple and its leadership, Jesus loved and respected the temple. He calls the temple “my Father’s house” (2:49).

Contrast the early chapters of Luke, however, with Luke’s picture of the temple beginning in chapter 19. Here Jesus again identifies the temple as “my house” but denounces its occupants as crooks: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” (19:46) He drives out the sellers and sets the stage for the conflict to come. He returns to the temple daily to teach, but his teaching engenders lethal opposition (19:47). Chapter 20 consists of a series of disputes with temple leadership. (Unlike Mark and Matthew (especially Matthew!), Luke does not record any disputes with Pharisees after the triumphal entry). In chapter 21, Jesus announces that the temple is doomed.

Like many Old Testament prophets, Jesus foretells the God’s coming judgment on an institution that God loves. Luke’s readers will know that the temple is now a memory. Given this context, Luke’s picture of the temple in these early chapters has a bittersweet tone. In them, we see what could have been: the temple as a place of holy learning, spiritual growth, divine fellowship, faithful service and encounters with God. Alas, even God’s temple has fallen prey to human sin.


Who is Jesus? Here Luke reminds us that he is – among other things – the prophet above all prophets. Perhaps we should not only give thanks for his life, but listen to him, believe him and obey his word.

How do you account for Jesus’ extraordinary life? His life was shaped not only by the direct action of God’s spirit, but by the influence of a godly family. Perhaps we should give thanks for God’s power at work through such ordinary means, both in Jesus’ life and in our own, and recognize the extraordinary influence that we have in ordinary acts of faithfulness.

Where does God shape lives today? While the temple had a central role in ordering the life of Jesus’ community, Christ’s church has a similar role today. In fact, the apostle Peter compares the church to the temple: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Like God’s temple, Christ’s church can be a powerful force for both good and evil. While the church of God can be a destructive force in this world, it can also, like the temple of Jesus’ childhood, be a place where God shapes and touches lives for good. By the power of God’s spirit, may we be the church God intends us to be.

Related: Foreshadowing in Luke 2:41-52