Boy in the Temple

Jesus’ dwelling in the Temple harkens back to the Annunciation

Jerusalem Temple from 2nd Temple Period
"Jerusalem Temple from 2nd Temple Period." Creative Commons image by KOREPhotos on Flickr.

January 3, 2021

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Commentary on Luke 2:41-52

Luke is the only canonical gospel to include a story of Jesus’ childhood.

While it makes sense for Luke to include Jesus’ age to write as specific of a history as possible, the age 12 is important. At that age Jesus is still considered a “child” since he would not have been expected to fully embrace his ancestral traditions; that would happen when he turned 13. Thus, Jesus in the Temple serves as a bridge between the infancy narrative and Jesus’ upcoming ministry, which will start with his (second) encounter with John the Baptizer, this time at the Jordan River. For Luke the number “12” is important as a continuation of God’s revelation—the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, replacing Judas to maintain 12 apostles.

That Jesus stayed behind to engage with the teachers of the Temple at the age of 12 demonstrates that he has reached an ability that is not measured by chronological years. Note that the text states that Jesus was listening and asking—it does not state that he was debating or correcting. It is also unclear if Jesus is just learning or if he is also teaching, but he does give answers. The preacher should be careful to not set Jesus and the teachers against one another; rather, Jesus is engaging in practices that would have been expected, although for someone at least a year older. Those who heard Jesus were “amazed,” which does not need to be read in a negative way.

Jesus’ dwelling in the Temple harkens back to the Annunciation, where Gabriel announces the upcoming birth to Mary. Mary is told that Jesus will be called “Son of God” (Luke 1:35), and now Jesus tells Mary that he is in his “Father’s house” or is about his “Father’s interests.” Either interpretation works, as the Greek does not include the noun—what is certain is that Jesus identifies what is happening in the Temple with his father.

The extra-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which had some level of popularity in the early church, attempts to fill in the gaps by detailing Jesus’ life from ages five to twelve, including a retelling of this pericope of Jesus in the Temple (see Infancy Gospel of Thomas, chapter 19). The Jesus characterized in Thomas is not what one would expect but may be more realistic of a child of that age. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, in the History Channel show Banned from the Bible II, refers to Jesus in Thomas as “Dennis the Menace” since he seems to act as a brat. It may be that early Christians connected better with the child Jesus that acted more like their own children. Of course, Luke paints Jesus as somewhat sarcastic in responding to his parents when they asked why he had stayed behind.

Although she appears not to understand all that is being revealed at the moment, Mary continues to treasure these events in her heart, just as she treasured what the shepherds had said about Jesus earlier in Luke 2. The NRSV translates Simeon’s caution to Mary about the sword as piercing her “soul,” but the Greek word is “heart,” the same as used in Luke 2:19. Thus, the very place that Mary stores her treasured thoughts about her son is also that which is vulnerable to damage because of what is to come.

The end of this pericope states that Jesus increased in wisdom. The transitional verses between last week’s reading and this week’s (Luke 2:39-40) also note that Jesus grows in wisdom. Near the end of his ministry, Jesus will impart words and wisdom to his followers, so that their adversaries are unable to endure (Luke 21:15). Yet, this wisdom is different from the wisdom of the world (see Paul’s critique of the “wisdom of the world” and affirmation of Christ as the “wisdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 1). The last verse of this pericope gives us a clue, that this wisdom in which Jesus increases (and that Jesus himself is) is related to both divine and human favor. Although an official doctrine of Christ’s two natures will not be constructed until centuries after the gospel is written, the infancy narrative and this transitional passage certainly highlight that Jesus is both human and divine, as the Son of God and the son of Mary.

Because both this week and last week’s readings take place in the Temple and include the entire Holy Family, the preacher may wish to see these two passages together, especially since both events continue the theme of revelation and God’s ‘with-ness’ to creation.


God of all learning,
When the boy, Jesus, stayed in the temple to learn from the elders, it was the elders who in turn learned from him. Teach us, Lord, as you have taught others, and grant us wisdom and willingness to learn. Amen.


Jesus, what a wonderful child ELW 297, GG 126, NCH 136, TFF 51
Good Christian friends, rejoice ELW 288, H82 107, NCH 129, UMH 224
Our Father by whose name ELW 640, H82 587, UMH 447
Love has come ELW 292, GG 110


Jesus Child, John Rutter
In Stature grows the Heavenly Child, English part-hymn, Thomas Tallis Cantata 154, J.S. Bach (based on Luke 2:41-52; solo voices with chorale)