Archive for the ‘Luke Commentary’ Category

A survey of commentaries reveals that few have anything much to say about Anna. It’s hard to find a picture of her! She seems like a less interesting female version of Simeon. Though she is ‘a prophet’ she gets no dialogue, sings no song. Coming after Simeon, she seems to duplicate his role without adding much value.

The commentators are generally not good at asking the question ‘why?’ – and with Luke this is so often the key question. Anna’s scene is a  bit mystery. What is she doing here? Why is this woman introduced so briefly into the story, only to fade back into obscurity, never to be mentioned again? Why are we given so many details about her background, and so few about her foreground, her actions in this scene?  How does she contribute to the story? The principle to keep in mind is that Luke very rarely if ever gives details without a reason.

It is worth noting that the name Anna is the same as Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. There are many parallels between the story of Jesus’ infancy and that of Samuel (e.g. Mary’s song based on Hannah’s song), and this name once again recalls that story to mind. Hannah is the woman who was barren but longed for a child, and fasted and prayed earnestly before the Lord. Anna’s story is similar: she serves before the Lord with prayer and fasting day and night. Clearly Anna, like her namesake Hannah, is seeking something – but what? It is not until the end of the scene that we will learn what it is Anna has longed for and sought all these years.

Most notable here is the lengthy (and ambiguous) explanation about Anna’s age and marriage status, including two numbers. When Luke gives a number it is generally of symbolic importance (see above): here he gives two together. This should be enough to focus our attention. What do these numbers mean, and how do they contribute to the story?

The two numbers given, seven and eighty four, are related by a factor of twelve, giving us the equation 84 = 7 x 12. These are two of Luke’s favourite numbers. Seven is the number of completion or fulfilment in Hebrew Scripture (cf. Genesis 2:2; Exodus 21:2; 2 Kings 5:10; Daniel 4:16). Twelve is of course the number of Israel (the twelve tribes). These numbers suggest some sort of completion or fulfilment for Israel.

Tomorrow: Anna and Lamentations

Luke’s use of numbers

Posted: July 16, 2012 by J in Bible, Luke Commentary

You’re not going to like this. But before we talk about Anna, we’d better get it out in the open. Most commentators don’t like this either. They know Luke does funny things with numbers, but they’d rather not get drawn into discussing it. Numerology is traditionally the precinct of cranks and crazies, and also JWs, Bahais and other wacky guys. So the commentators brush over it with the barest mention if any – they don’t want to sound like The Quibbler –  and move on to more respectable aspects of Luke’s writing!

But the thing is, Luke uses numbers to mean things. Symbolic things. There, I’ve said it. Check out the stories in Luke 8:40 – 9:17: they all involve the number 12. Every one of them. Luke is not very interested in counting stuff normally. When there are thirteen, or twenty six, or four of something, he normally doesn’t bother to tell us about it. He’s not really a details man in that sense. But when there are three or twelve, he lets us know. In Luke’s narrative language, numbers provide him an opportunity to say something. Jewish people liked this stuff (and Luke thinks like a Jew).

Before you get worried, Luke doesn’t get too tricky with this. No complex calculations used to predict the arrival of the antichrist, or the downfall of the United Nations. He mostly sticks to a few tried and true numbers that we can all recognise: three (death and resurrection), seven (fulfilment/completion), and twelve (Israel). Occasionally he hides one of these numbers inside other numbers (see the next scene, below), or splits it up into two, but this is rare.

So don’t panic. There are going to be quite a few instances of significant numbers in Luke’s story, you’ll get used to it. Try it out in this next scene, see how it feels. And keep an eye out for recurring numbers in the narrative as you read through Luke-Acts…

Perhaps acknowledging the parents’ misgivings, Simeon further develops this controversial aspect of Jesus’ future role. He tells Mary: ‘Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed’ (v.34). Again we hear of the overturning of the social order, so that the high-placed fall and the despised receive honour. This is the theme of reversal which Mary herself had welcomed as the manifestation of the Lord’s judgement (Luke 1:51-54). However, this upheaval will not be universally welcomed, and so Jesus will become ‘a sign who will be opposed.’ This is our first real hint of the intense conflict and violence in store in Luke’s narrative.

The effect of this conflict will be revelatory – it is part of the judgement Jesus will bring.  People’s reaction to this child will expose their true nature: ‘that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ Simeon is describing a division in Israel: some will rise, others fall. Some will welcome the Messiah and receive blessing; others will reject him and exclude themselves from God’s salvation. In the judgement of God which this child is bringing, people will in a sense pronounce the verdict on themselves. This idea of self-judgement will become a powerful theme later in the Gospel and into Acts (cf. Luke 6:38; Acts 13:46).

Mary and Joseph will not be immune from the conflict nor the judgement: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also’. While this expression is often taken to refer to Mary’s pain at Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke never records Mary’s presence at the cross – that is found only in John. Context suggests we hear it as a continuation of the theme of judgement. Simeon’s prophecy is very like the saying in Hebrew 4:12:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

In Hebrews the sword that pierces and reveals the heart is a metaphor for the testing, exposing power of the gospel of Jesus. It gets right to the core of the person, to uncover ‘what they are made of’. In this sense the gospel brings the judgement or verdict of God. Probably Simeon employs the metaphor in a similar way here, with regard to Mary. The purpose of God for his Messiah will confront and test Jesus’ family also, as Luke will show in the next episode (2:45-48) and again later in his Gospel (cf. Luke 8:19-21).

At this point things take an unexpected turn, as Simeon introduces the idea of the nations. God’s salvation has been prepared ‘in the presence of all peoples’; the light which Zechariah welcomed has dawned not only for Israel but ‘for the nations.’ It is not only Israel but the whole world which has long been in darkness. The phrase phos eis apokálupsin ethnón is often translated ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’, which could be taken to mean no more than that the nations will be witnesses of God’s mercy to Israel. However the original setting for these words, in Isaiah 42, suggests a stronger translation. There, it is clear that nothing less than the salvation of the nations is in view:

I have given you as…
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.               Isaiah 42:6-7


Simeon adds to the prophet’s phrase the word ‘revelation’. In the New Testament ‘revelation’ followed by the genitive case is always used in the material sense, where the genitive phrase identifies the thing revealed. In this case the genitive phrase is ‘of the nations’, suggesting that the nations are themselves revealed by this light. The translation should probably read not ‘revelation to the nations’, but ‘the revealing of the nations’. As the Messianic light goes forth from Israel it will illuminate or reveal all nations, bringing them out from their age-old darkness. It will be Israel’s honour to become the source of worldwide salvation.

This was probably not what Mary and Joseph were expecting to hear! They were ‘amazed’ at Simeon’s words. Given what they had already heard from the angel and the shepherds, what is there in Simeon’s prophecy to produce such a surprised response? Not his identification of Jesus with ‘salvation’, or ‘glory for Israel’ – they have heard those things already. No, the new element here, is Simeon’s reference to the nations. Most Jews were hoping Israel would be saved from the nations. It was no part of the ordinary Jew’s hope for the future that the nations should be saved. Jesus’ parents would have been unlikely to relish the prospects Simeon was opening up.

However, though salvation for the nations was not part of the typical Jew’s hope at that time in history – it was part of the hope projected by Israel’s prophets of old. That’s the point of hearing it from the Simeon, of all people. There can be no doubting his credentials as a son of Israel. The message which shocks Mary and Joseph comes from the lips of a prophet-like figure who has practically stepped forth from the pages of their Scriptures to speak with them ‘live’. It is set at the heart of the most Jewish scene in the entire Gospel. And so this tension between Simeon and Jesus’ parents is revealing and (once again) representative. We see that devout Jews of that time were out of step with the prophets of their own Scriptures. And the direction they had drifted was away from God’s creation-wide purpose of blessing, and towards nationalism and xenophobia.

Luke hints that if Israel was to listen to the true voice of the prophets afresh, they like Mary and Joseph would be surprised and perhaps disturbed by what they heard.

Simeon provides us with an insight into how the devout old covenant believer thought the consolation of Israel would come about: he was waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

In receiving this promise, Simeon stands as a representative Israelite, in a sense symbolising the nation. Israel is in ruins, scattered and exiled for six hundred years. It looks as if the nation is well and truly finished. But the Spirit has revealed through the prophets that Israel will not finally perish but instead be visited and restored by God’s Messiah.

The welcome Simeon gives to the child also represents the nation. He cradles the child in his arms with delight. His song, ‘Now you release your servant in/into peace’, may or may not refer to his own impending death. But either way, what is notable is that Simeon employs the Jubilee imagery and vocabulary of a master releasing his slave (luw, doulos – cf. e.g. Leviticus 25:44; Psalm 146:7; Isaiah 58:6). His prayer takes on a symbolic significance which may be missed on first reading. For in the prophets, Israel is the Lord’s servant (doulos, pais – e.g. Isaiah 48:20; 49:3), awaiting release from captivity. We have already been reminded of this usage in Mary’s song (1:54). And so here at Jesus’ presentation the attentive reader hears the annoucement: finally Yahweh has come to bring the long-awaited release to his servant, Israel. In this moment considered “the climax of the Lukan infancy narrative”[1] as we see Simeon “released into shalom,” we get a foretaste of Isaianic Jubilee for the nation (cf. Luke 2:14).

This theme of release from captivity has by now been established as core for the expectations Luke sets up for his story.

At this point things take an unexpected turn…

Tomorrow: those pesky nations

[1] Tannehill 1996, 71

Jesus at the Jerusalem temple

2:21-39 Compared with the naming of John the Baptist, Jesus’ naming is hurried over almost without comment. Luke is more interested in the presentation scenes in the temple. He introduces this episode with a cluster of Old Covenant terms: circumcision, purification, presentation; no less than five times here we are told that Jesus’ parents did everything ‘following the Law of the Lord’ – i.e. the Law of Moses. As we come to the temple, Luke brings us into an atmosphere of devout law keeping: a decidedly Old Testament realm.

The point of specifying the offering is that Joseph and Mary made use of the poor laws to present a less costly sacrifice than usual. We are left in no doubt of their socio-economic status: they belong to the swelling ranks of the underprivileged and impoverished.

The presentation to the Lord of the firstborn and the substitutionary offering are full of Passover resonances. The ceremony was instituted by Moses. After the  original passover night, Yahweh considered all Israel’s firstborn to belong to him. However they were to be redeemed by an animal substitute. The next time Jesus is presented to God at Jerusalem, it will be at Passover, and he will be an adult. On that occasion the sacrifice will no longer be a substitute: the firstborn son himself will be the offering presented.

Simeon is introduced with two good OT terms for the godly: ‘righteous’ and ‘devout’. It is fairly rare for the Spirit to be mentioned in Luke’s Gospel – he holds the name back for Acts, by and large. But here we are told three times in quick succession that Simeon is under the influence of the Spirit. Also he sings, which in Luke is the evidence of the Spirit’s filling. All of this powerfully establishes his credentials as a trustworthy and even prophetic character. Characters ‘filled with the Spirit’, and especially their songs, give us Luke’s theological perspective on the story, so this scene holds some weight. Simeon is apparently very old: his death is probably mentioned twice here (v.26, 29).

We are given only one insight into Simeon’s personality: he is ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel.’ This is where the significance of the strongly Jewish atmosphere of the scene begins to appear. He appears in the story like a Hebrew prophet of old, preserved through the ages for this moment, still patiently awaiting the arrival of the deliverance the prophets had foretold. His great age emphasises this representative link.

2:15-20 The shepherds’ ‘Let’s go then’, and their haste, serve to emphasise their responsiveness to the good news. These are people to whom the favour of God means a great deal. The chosen poor are the responsive poor.

The NIV’s ‘When they had seen him, they spread the word’ is an overtranslation. More accurate is the NRSV’s ‘When they saw him, they made known what had been told them’, i.e. when they found the baby they reported the story about the angels to the people who were there in the house. This is not a description of late-night ‘stranger evangelism’ around Bethlehem!

 All were amazed at their story. In Luke-Acts, amazement is the right response to Jesus. The term generally functions as a sign that God’s power and glory are being revealed.

For a sympathetic character like Mary to treasure and ponder the shepherds’ story, acts as an encouragement to Luke’s readers to do likewise. We will need to keep the angel’s words in mind as we continue through the narrative, and think on them, for their full meaning has not yet been disclosed.

The shepherds ‘returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told.’ This editorial comment creates a cameo, in which the shepherds stand for the ideal disciples, rejoicing in promises fulfilled.  They  now have certain knowledge of ‘the things fulfilled among them’ (cf. Luke 1:1). In this they foreshadow the apostolic group in the closing scene of the Gospel, who likewise ‘return’ (same word) rejoicing and praising God because of the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes which they have seen in the risen Jesus. And of course Luke’s purpose is that the readers will do the same.