Luke’s prologue sets the stage for the story of Jesus’ life as it later unfolds between his baptism and the great 50 days from his crucifixion, to his resurrection, to his ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The angelic announcements, the birth stories and the infancy narratives all look forward to later aspects of Jesus’ public ministry.
The story of the Holy Family’s visit to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve years of age fits this pattern (Luke 2:41-52).
Certainly Luke gives us a very human story of a pious Jewish family and their precocious son. Mothers and fathers everywhere can probably relate to the panicked feeling that comes when they suddenly can’t put their eyes on their child – and the feelings of frustration and anger that arise when they do find them.
More foreign to us, perhaps, is the level of trust Mary and Joseph put in their large extended family; they just knew that their son had to be somewhere within the long parade of kinfolk that were walking together from Jerusalem back to Nazareth. It must have been so normal for older children to spend time with extended family – perhaps even eating or sleeping with kinfolk – that no special arrangements were required.
Luke gives us some insight into the lives of ancient, pious Jewish families, but he has bigger things on his mind.
Most obviously, the temple visit anticipates Jesus as the expert interpreter and teacher of the Torah, par excellence. All who heard the young Jesus talking with the teachers were amazed (Luke 2:47) at his understanding. Then, as soon as Jesus began his public ministry, those who heard him teach were similarly amazed (Luke 4:32). The young boy who listened to the teachers comes to be addressed as “teacher” himself.
The theme of amazement continues throughout the gospel of Luke. The people are amazed at Jesus’ teaching, at his calming of the storm (Luke 8:25), at his casting out demons and works of healing (Luke 9:43 and 11:14), his raising of the dead (Luke 8:56) and ultimately at his own resurrection (Luke 24:22).
The temple visits looks forward to the resurrection in two other ways. Mary – the model disciple in Luke’s gospel – cannot find him for three days (Luke 2:46), anticipating the “three day” theme associated with Jesus’ death and resurrection (Luke 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7, 24:21). And just as the angel at the tomb asked the women (the other Mary’s) “why are you seeking (ζητέω) the living among the dead,” (Luke 24:5), so Jesus asks his mother Mary, “Why were you seeking (ζητέω) me?”
Jesus’ Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his parents (Luke 2:45) anticipates Jesus final visit to Jerusalem for Passover before his crucifixion (Luke 22:1).
And while Jerusalem and its temple are invisible throughout most of Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ begins his life by visiting the temple (Luke 2:22, 2:41); he ends his earthly ministry with a visit there as well (Luke 19:45-48, etc.). The evangelist’s picture of the temple in Luke 2 has a bittersweet tone. In it, we see what could have been: the temple as a place of holy learning, spiritual growth, divine fellowship, faithful service and encounters with God. In his later years, by way of contrast, there is only conflict and rejection, leading to Jesus’ death and his prophecy of the temple’s destruction. Luke ends his gospel, however, by reporting that the disciples continually worshiped in the temple following Jesus’ resurrection. Even with all of its faults and its destruction looming on the horizon, the temple in Jerusalem still played a role in the economy of God.
(In English, the word “house” as a reference to the temple also appears to link Luke 2:49 and Luke 19:46, but the word “house” is absent from the Greek of Luke 2:49. As a youngster, Jesus says that he “must be in the things [indefinite plural reference] of my father.” He could be speaking about a place, but more likely he is speaking about actions – that is, his father’s business.)
Finally, the temple visit at the end of Luke 2 also anticipates a major theme of Luke’s gospel: God seeks the lost. The holy family’s long search for Jesus will find its voice again in the parables of Luke 15. God is like a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). God is like a woman will do everything in her power to find the thing of great value that she’s lost (Luke 15:8-10). God is like a father who never gives up looking for his son to come home (Luke 15:11-32). The son of man came to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10).
Related: The Boy Jesus in the Temple