The presentation of Jesus in the temple in Luke 2

The lectionary reading for Epiphany 4 in Year C is Luke 2.22–40 as we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem; this is also celebrated as the feast of Candlemas(s) and in many churches it marks the formal end of the Christmas season. (In the Church of England lectionary, we have this reading both for Epiphany 4 and the Presentation, though other versions of the RCL continue reading in Luke 4 for Epiphany 4. In Years A and B, the readings for Epiphany 4 are from Matthew 5 and Mark 1.)

If you are following Luke in the lectionary, this will all feel slightly odd; last week we heard about the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, and have already reflected on the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own baptism, as well as the miracle in Cana. So this is a step back in the narrative before we move on to the catch of fish in Luke 5 and then loop back again to the temptations of Jesus at the beginning of Lent. It feels a bit like playing gospel narrative hop-scotch!

James Blandford-Baker and I discuss the passage in the video here; below it you can find the usual article discussing the text in detail underneath it.

This section in Luke 2 continues Luke’s unique nativity material; Matthew moves straight from the events surround the birth, including the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt, to the ministry of John the Baptist. But, in keeping with first-century expectations of a ‘life’ of a significant person, Luke offers (brief) descriptions of Jesus’ upbringing, including the episode in the temple when he is 12 years old.

The narrative once more includes three characteristic emphases of Luke’s work: the importance of Jewish pious devotion as the context for all that happens; the active role of the Spirit in directing events; and the understanding of Jesus as the fulfilment of eschatological hopes.

1. Jewish pious devotion

The whole narrative section begins and ends with an emphasis on pious devotion in fulfilment of the requirements of the law; the ‘requirement of the law of Moses’ in Luke 2.20 is matched by ‘required by the law of the Lord’ in Luke 2.39. We have already been told that Jesus was circumcised (and named) on the eighth day in the previous verse, and now Luke describes two important acts that follow on, the purification of Mary and the dedication of the child, interleaved as  chiasm:

A    ‘purification rites’
B     ‘present him to the Lord’
B’    ‘as it is written… “every male is to be consecrated..”‘
A’    ‘to offer the sacrifice…’

The regulation cited in the outer theme A–A’ is set out in Lev 12.1–8; a woman who has given birth is ceremonially unclean (which, note, has nothing to do with sin) for different lengths of time (depending on whether the child born is a boy or a girl) in this case, for 33 days, so we are a month on from the date of circumcision. It is often noted in preaching that Mary and Joseph offer the more affordable of the two possible sacrifices as a concession to poverty—but in fact Luke makes nothing of this, and the emphasis is not on this, but on their compliance with the requirements set out in the Law. And we need to beware of projecting our own socio-economic framework on a different culture, where even skilled craftsmen might still be not far from subsistence living. Like other aspects of the birth narrative, this doesn’t really suggest that they were particularly poor; it just identifies them as ordinary.

The inner theme of Jesus’ presentation comes from the offering and redemption of the first-born sons (and animals) set out in the Exodus narratives. This offering and redemption appears to have two explanations. The first is in connection with the Passover deliverance itself; in Exodus 13.1–16, the firstborn are to be dedicated to and redeemed from the Lord in parallel with the loss of the firstborn of the Egyptians when the angel of death passes over.

This offering of the firstborn is reiterated in Num 18.14–16, though now in the context of the priestly role of the the tribe of Levi. This goes back to the incident of the Golden Calf in Ex 32; whilst those in the other tribes committed idolatry by bowing down to the calf, the tribe of Levi alone kept themselves pure, so that we read in Num 3.11–12 that the tribe of Levi now has this priestly task.

Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a kohen – i.e. that family’s representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5 Rashi)

But then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: “Make your choice – either God or the idol.” Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. At that point, God decreed that each family’s first-born would forfeit their “kohen” status – and henceforth all the kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (Numbers 3:11-12)

What is striking in Luke’s narrative is that, though Jesus is dedicated to the Lord in the temple, he is not redeemed and thus exempted from priestly service. Like Hannah’s dedication of Samuel in 1 Samuel 1.24–28, Jesus remains dedicated to the Lord, which makes the episode in the temple when Jesus is 12 seem to follow on quite naturally. It also signals that Jesus’ ministry will restore to God’s people their priestly role, an idea that is picked up in Revelation as one of its points of connecting with Luke’s gospel. In Rev 1.5–6, Jesus is the one who has ‘freed us from our sins’ and ‘made us to be a kingdom and priests’ to serve God, taking up the pre-Golden-Calf language of Ex 19.6. In Rev 7.3, God’s people are sealed on their foreheads with the seal of the living God, which turns out in Rev 14.1 to be the name of the lamb and God, and by Rev 22.4 this turns out to be the high-priestly adornment as they do priestly service in the presence of God in the New Jerusalem which is shaped as a cube like a giant Holy of Holies.

The integration of these two rites serves to emphasise Mary and Joseph as pious observant Jews, which has two effects. First, it undoes the common claim that Jesus welcomed the outsider, but rebuked the religious; throughout Luke it is both the religiously observant and the ‘sinner’ who hears the good news. Second, it contributes to a consistent assertion that God honours the devotion of his people, a theme continued in Acts as the early followers of Jesus continue to worship in the temple.

2. The role of the Holy Spirit

The emphasis on pious devotion is interweaved in this passage with the importance of the role of the Spirit, just as it has already been in the case of Mary (humbly devoted and then clothed with the Spirit and power) and will be in Jesus’ temptations (disciplined obedience which leads to being filled with the power of the Spirit).

Simeon is ‘righteous and devout’ (dikaios kai eulabes); the term for ‘devout’ here only occurs in Luke’s writings (Acts 2.5, 8.2 and 22.12) but its cognates also occur in Heb 5.7, 11.7 and 12.28 to describe Jesus, Noah and the gathered followers of Jesus in worship. Although the ‘righteous’ are contrasted with the ‘sinners’ Jesus has come to call to repentance, it is clear in Luke (and especially in Matthew) that being ‘righteous’ is a positive quality to be desired and pursued. But along with this, there is a threefold emphasis on the Spirit: the Spirit is ‘upon him’; the Spirit has ‘revealed to him’ that he will see the Messiah; and the Spirit ‘moves him’ to go to the temple at that moment. It is safe to assume that the Spirit has also moved him, like Mary and Zechariah before him, to utter a prophetic oracle often now known by its opening line in Latin translation, the Nunc Dimittis (‘Now you dismiss…’). Given the juxtaposition of pious devotion and the Spirit, it seems fitting that Simeon’s prophetic utterances now finds its place in Anglican pious devotion as part of Night Prayer in Common Worship (previously in Evening Prayer in the BCP).

The description of the prophetess Anna provides a parallel with the description of Simeon, as one of Luke’s many male-female pairs. Her pious devotion is expressed in narrative terms, as she prays and fasts in the temple in her widowhood. The detail on fasting reflects a special interest of Luke; he offers us detail that the other gospels omit, namely that Jewish devotion involved ‘frequent’ fasting (Luke 5.33), and that this took place on two days a week (Luke 18.12) which we know from the Didache happened to be Mondays and Thursdays. Luke makes much of meals and eating, as symbolising messianic rejoicing; as its converse, fasting symbolises both sorry for sin and exile, and a longing for the messiah to come. Thus here is is connected with Anna’s anticipation of the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ (the city serving as a metonym for the whole nation). Luke doesn’t mention the Spirit explicitly in relation to Anna, but like Simeon she offers a prophetic comment on the child.

We might say that, for Luke, the disciplines of pious devotion form the vessel into which he pours his Spirit, and without the Spirit such a vessel is empty. On the other hand, the work of the Spirit issues in these devotions of discipline, and without such disciplines the work of the Spirit is incomplete.

3. The fulfilment of God’s promise

The statements of both Simeon (recorded in detail) and Anna (offered in summary) are saturated with the theme of the eschatological fulfilment of the promise of God, as have (in their different ways) the first two of the three canticles in this part of the gospel. This theme will be repeated again in both the ministry of John the Baptist and the teaching of Jesus in Nazareth. There are some important things worth noting about the nature of this fulfilment.

First, Simeon follows Mary in seeing God’s promises already fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Where Zachariah, in the Benedictus, retains a future sense, Simeon (with the Magnificat) uses the language of realised salvation. Even though all that was promised has not yet happened, the confidence in the person of Jesus is such that it is as if we already have all the answers to the hopes that we longed for.

Second, this fulfilment is rooted in Scripture. Every line of the Nunc Dimittis echoes one of the promises in Isaiah 40–66.

And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. (Is 40.5)

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles. (Is 42.6)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. (Is 60.1)

(See also Is 46.13, 49.6, 52.10 and 56.1).

Thirdly, this biblical pattern of promise is also personally fulfilled. Just as God has promised something to his people, which he now fulfils in Jesus, so God has promised something to Simeon (that he will not die…) which he now fulfils in Simeon’s encounter with Jesus (…until he has seen with his own eyes). The Spirit of God in Simeon has brought the word of God to Simeon, just as the Spirit has brought the word of God to his people in scripture.

Fourth, all these announcements are marked by joy and wonder, as have all the events around Jesus’ birth, both for those bringing the word of disclosure and for those who hear those words. The theme of joy continues to be a significant part of Luke’s account, both in the gospel and in Acts.

Fifth, and in some contrast, they also include warnings of division and pain. This will affect both the nation (‘the rising and falling of many’, Luke 2.34) and the individuals involved, especially Mary herself. The ‘sword that pierces her heart’ (Luke 2.35) might refer to the demotion of Mary in importance for Jesus as she takes second place to the imperative of gospel ministry, but it surely reaches its clearest fulfilment in her witnessing her son’s excruciating death on the cross.

Joel Green, in his NIC commentary on Luke, notes the wide number of themes in this short passage which interconnect with themes already present from the beginning of the third gospel.

There is much to learn from the individuals in the narrative, but if we are going to focus on the most important thing in preaching (not what we must do but what God has already done) we might note in this passage that God honours pious devotion, God sends his Spirit to guide, reveal and speak, and God fulfils all his promises in the person of Jesus.

(The artwork at the top is The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple by Philippe de Champaigne, 1648.)

Come and join me for a Zoom teaching afternoon on Thursday 3rd February to explore all the issues around the ‘end times’ and end of the world.

We will look at: the background to this language in Jewish thinking; Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and Mark 13; the Rapture—what is it, and does the Bible really teach it; what the New Testament says about ‘tribulation’; the beast, the antichrist, and the Millennium in Rev 20; the significance of the state of Israel.

The cost is £10 per person, and you can book your tickets at the Eventbrite link here.

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10 thoughts on “The presentation of Jesus in the temple in Luke 2”

  1. Ian,
    One of the striking aspects concerning Jesus to be found in these early chapters of Luke is the stress on his authority and power : “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” [1:16] ; “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit —and was led by the Spirit in desert”[4:1]; and “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit —–and he taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.” [4:14].
    And yet – in Nazareth? They too recognized this authority and power, but if we allow Mark to contribute to this scene, it compliments what Luke is declaiming: “He could not do any miracles there — — he was amazed at their lack if faith” (ESV -“unbelief”) [Mark 6: 5-6].
    Jesus did not acquiesce in this atmosphere of outright hostility and venom. He did not try to placate his detractors. On the contrary he went on the offensive (not, I hasten to add, by his attitude and demeanour, but by employing the Tanach to devastating effect)!
    There are (at least ) two conclusions to be drawn from this:-
    First, This passage illuminates the forcefulness, the singlemindedness and the refusal to compromise the truth of the Word of God; something that is clearly exhibited, not only in Christ’s preaching/teaching , but in his whole being.
    Secondly, this encounter begins a train of events (and continued in The Acts) which reveal that being empowered by the Holy Spirit does not neseassarily lead to unalloyed bliss. On the contrary, it led to persecution and death. And it is no different for this generation!

    • Yes, I would agree with you. I note quite often in the texts on Luke that he specifically makes reference to power, sometimes where the other gospels omit it.

      I think this continues through Acts—the apostles exercise a spiritual power which is at odds with the institutional power of the Jewish leaders.

  2. Than you Ian. You put a lot of work into these posts.

    Does Jesus not being ‘redeemed’ also point to his sinlessness; there was no need for him to be redeemed?

    You speak of Jesus’ priestly role. I agree. Christ acted as a priest but was not formally a priest. Sometimes we lose sight of the book of Hebrews – if Jesus were on earth he would not be a priest. He came from the wrong tribe. And so his priesthood comes through Melchizedek. It functions from heaven as part of his enthronement and his indestructible life.

    Your point that all God’s people are now priests is intriguing. We are all kings too. I’m wondering if the Bible comments on the democratising dynamic. Christ has made us a kingdom of priests. Is this the work of the indwelling Spirit that equips us for a priestly role?

  3. Ian Paul – that was a very nice post – many thanks for putting it up and all the work you put into it.

    One issue that arises is pious devotion. Some of the things you mention were clearly prescribed in the Pentateuch; they are meticulously following these things, but they belong to the ceremonial law which was fulfilled and no longer plays any role (circumcision, the length of time one is ceremonially unclean after birth, what one is supposed to do at the end of this period, etc …).

    Other things don’t seem to fall into this category. Is there any mention in the Pentateuch of fasting, specifically on Mondays and Thursdays?

    So I’m wondering – what would constitute `pious devotion’ which is pleasing to God for Christians living in the 21st century? Clearly the Pharisees thought that their rigorous lifestyle corresponded to `pious devotion’, but Jesus only has condemnation for them. So – what should we be doing?

  4. ” – the apostles exercise a spiritual power which is at odds with the institutional power of the Jewish leaders”.
    Absolutely true! However let’s bring this up to date. “In the last days —- there will be times of difficulty ——–“. There will be those who have “the appearance of godliness but denying its power”.
    Without entering into a debate on the meaning of the last days, we are now witnessing a Westernised Christianity (not least within Anglicanism) which possesses a form of institutional *authority” – but with a growing declivity in *spiritual power* ; a manifestation I would suggest of a desire, among other things, to recreate a Jesus Christ who somehow conforms to the ever present need in some quarters for *relevancy* (conformity?) to secular values; a Jesus, perhaps, who in response to the question ” Is this not Joseph’s son ?” would probably have answered: ” That doesn’t matter really. I’m only here for you”.

    • Colin – perhaps true where you are. Right now, I’m living in a Catholic country, where the regime panders to the ultra-religious head bangers. They’re certainly not trying to recreate a Jesus Christ who conforms to secular values – quite the opposite.

      • How does one comment regarding a situation where information regarding the country is non-existent and where the ecclestical information is sparse – except to say that I have a long- standing, working knowledge of a European country with a Catholic majority. As far as I am concerned, what you have presented Jock is the exception; not the rule!

    • Colin – absolutely no problem – you’re right about it being the exception. I’d simply prefer not to go any further down that road and give details, since Ian Paul put up a very nice post – and I don’t want to be responsible for taking the comments section `off topic’.


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