Luke 2:39-52 – Jesus as a Young Child
In the only Gospel passage describing Jesus between his infancy and the beginning of his public ministry, he and his family travel to Jerusalem to observe Passover. After Jesus’ parents lose track of their twelve-year-old son, they discover him three days later in the temple, where he astonishes the religious teachers with his insights.
No other New Testament book offers information about Jesus’ life between his infancy and his public ministry, which begins when he is about thirty years old (according to Luke 3:23). Yet even these verses say very little about him. They situate Jesus and his family within a context of observant Judaism and underscore his exceptional nature as someone with insight into the ways of God.
Ancient audiences were accustomed to hearing tales about heroic figures’ displays of extraordinary characteristics even as young children. The beginning and closing verses of this passage summarize Jesus’ development, as a maturing child and a person full of wisdom. The passage follows immediately on the heels of Luke’s account of Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in Jerusalem on the eighth day of his life. Remarks made then by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) are confirmed in this passage by the initial comments about Jesus’ wisdom and God’s favor (Luke 2:40). Later, concluding comments about wisdom and favor (Luke 2:52) attest that the boy Jesus continues to warrant the high expectations placed upon him in all of Luke 1-2. Jesus is already validating the promises that he is someone special, God’s own Son. Still, his actions evoke more wonder than understanding from those who observe him.
Luke’s Gospel begins in the Jerusalem temple and ends there. In this passage Luke signals that Jesus was no stranger to Jerusalem, for his family customarily traveled there to celebrate Passover (Luke 2:42). Jesus’ identity, piety, and ministry are deeply rooted in a Jewish environment. At the same time, Jesus is no ordinary pilgrim. He somehow eludes his parents and their traveling party. (Jerusalem during Passover was packed with visitors, and Galileans might have traveled to and from the city in large groups for security or to prolong the celebrations.) Seemingly oblivious to the commotion he has caused, Jesus remains in the temple, his “Father’s house,” where he displays his impressive theological understanding. Luke implies that Jesus’ insight came naturally to him, or that he was an exceptionally fast learner. God’s hand must be upon such a remarkable prodigy.
With this dramatic story Luke also begins to sever some of the strong family ties featured so much in Luke 1-2. Ultimately, Jesus is God’s Son, engaged in his divine Father’s business. This relationship takes priority over the one with his earthly parents, even though it does not make him reject or act disobediently toward them. The reality of this relationship sets the stage for Jesus’ supernatural identification as God’s Son after his baptism (Luke 3:22) and the devil’s tests concerning what it means for him to be the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13). Mary ponders the whole situation in her heart, perhaps with delight or perhaps with confusion; in any case, she heightens the story’s sense of anticipation as she possibly wonders where all this will finally lead.