Jesus and the Law: Matthew 5:48

This note deals with Matthew 5:48, which concludes chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount (and the Antitheses in vv. 21-47); it is supplemental to my article on the Antitheses (“Jesus and the Law”). In this note I will discuss the following, in turn:

    1. Exegesis of the saying in verse 48 (on its own)
    2. Comparison with the similar/parallel saying in Luke 6:36
    3. Its relation to the Antitheses in chapter 5

1. Matthew 5:48

e&sesqe ou@n u(mei=$ te/leioi w($ o( path\r u(mw=n o( ou)ran/io$ te/leio/$ e)stin
“therefore you shall be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”

e&sesqe e)stin—these two forms of the (existential) verb of being are emphatic, placed at the beginning and end of the verse. The future indicative form e&sesqe can be understood in the sense of a prediction/promise (“you will be…”) or an imperative (“be ye…”). The use of the form in Luke 6:35 is parallel to that of the aorist subjunctive (ge/nhsqe, “[that] you may come to be”); while the use further in Matt 6:5 suggests an imperative meaning. The closest formal parallel surely comes from the LXX of Leviticus 19:2 (also cited in 1 Peter 1:16):

a%gioi e&sesqe o%ti e)gw\ a%gio$ ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ u(mw=n
“you shall be holy, (in) that I (am) holy the Lord your God”

which is a close rendering of the Hebrew. The command of Lev 19:2 is very much in view in this saying of Jesus (but note the differences in the Lukan parallel, below). The imitation of God is stressed by the position of the two verbs of being—Jesus’ followers shall be as God the Father is.

te/leioi / te/leio$—the adjective te/leio$ (téleios) is typically translated as “perfect” in reference to God, and as “mature” (or the like) when referring to believers (or other human beings); however, more properly, it should be rendered “finished, complete”, being related to the noun te/lo$ (“end, limit, finish, completion”, or sometimes “goal”). God, of course, by any standard theological definition, is complete, and believers, by imitating God (and Christ) will become complete. For other use of the adjective in the New Testament, see Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Phil 3:15; Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; 4:12; Heb 5:14; 9:11; James 1:4, 17, 25; 3:2; 1 Jn 4:18. In the Old Testament (LXX) it typically translates <ym!T*, most notably in the context of a whole (unblemished) sacrificial offering (Exod 12:5); for other usage, cf. Gen 6:9 (and Sir 44:17); Deut 18:13; Song 5:2; 6:9; and note also Wisdom 9:6. It is generally not used as a description of YHWH himself, though it does appear as an epithet for Zeus, Apollo, etc, in Greek literature (cf. references in TDNT VIII.86). As for the context here in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-47), note the following uses especially in relation to the Law:

    • Matt 19:21: in the Matthean version, Jesus tells the ‘rich young ruler’, ei) qe/lei$ te/leio$ ei@nai… (“if you wish to be complete…” it is necessary not only to observe the commandments (the fundamental precepts of the Decalogue are cited), but also to sell off possessions and follow Jesus.
    • James 1:25 has a reference to “the complete law of freedom”—this unusual expression (which also appears in 2:12) presumably relates to verse 8: “if you complete [telei=te] the royal law according to the Scripture… you do beautifully”. The “love-command” (citing Lev 19:18) is primarily in view, but the thought and language of the Sermon on the Mount otherwise pervades much of these chapters in James.

Both references appear to relate back to Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:17—as previously noted, I understand the use of the verb plhro/w in verse 17 (“[I have come] to fulfill [the Law and Prophets]”), in the sense that Jesus completes the Law (and the Prophets), by way of his teaching, his work, and (it may be said) in his own person. It is, of course, Jesus’ teaching that is prominent in the Sermon on the Mount.

o( path\r u(mw=n o( ou)ran/io$—God is referred to as “Father” some 250+ times in the New Testament, the majority of instances coming from the Gospels (by Jesus himself). The Gospel of John contains the most occurrences, with Jesus referring to God as “the Father” or “my Father”; with a high number also in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew), Jesus often uses the qualified expression “the/my Father in Heaven (or the heavens [pl])” or, less frequently, “the/my heavenly Father”; for instances in the Sermon on the Mount itself, cf. Matt 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9, 14, 26, 32; 7:11, 21. Within the (polytheistic) religion of predominantly patriarchical societies, the main/high deity was typically thought of as Father (progenitor) of the gods and all creatures (including human beings); in Israelite monotheism, too, YHWH was the father of human beings (as Creator) and in his covenant relationship with Israel—of the many references, see specifically Deut 32:6; Psalm 89:26; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:9; Mal 2:10. In particular, Israel (and/or the king as divine representative) may be referred to as God’s son[s] (Exod 4:22; Deut 14:1; 2 Sam 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 1:2; Jer 31:9, etc); however, the expression “son[s] of God” in the Old Testament is usually applied to heavenly beings (Gen 6:2; Deut 32:8 [LXX and Qumran]; Psalm 29:1; 82:6; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Dan 3:25). In the New Testament, the expression “sons of God” (i.e. “children of God”) is used of believers and/or the promise of their (future) destiny—Matt 5:9; Luke 20:36; Jn 1:12 (cf. also 11:52); Rom 8:14, 19; 9:8, 26; Gal 3:26; Phil 2:15; 1 John 3:1, 10; 5:2; note also Matt 5:45; 13:38; Luke 6:35; Gal 4:31; 1 Thess 5:5. At least two different concepts or metaphors are at work, neither of which captures the meaning completely: (a) adoption, by which believers share in the same rights and relationship as Christ the Son of God, and (b) imitation, i.e. the natural image of the child imitating everything he/she sees the parent doing (and saying). This latter concept better fits the situation in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the moral-ethical sense—Jesus’ true follower is one who imitates (and so demonstrates) the character of God.

2. Luke 6:36

gi/nesqe oi)kti/rmone$ kaqw\$ [kai\] o( path\r u(mw=n oi)kti/rmwn e)stin
“(you shall) come to be compassionate, even as [also] your Father is compassionate”

This is a parallel form (or version) of the saying in Matt 5:48, with several differences, most notably the use of the adjective oi)kti/rmwn (“compassionate/merciful”) instead of te/leio$ (“complete”). The word oi)kti/rmwn is rare in the New Testament (otherwise occurring only in James 5:11), but somewhat more frequent in the LXX—in reference to God (YHWH) it is used most prominently in Exod 34:6 (cf. also Deut 4:31; Isa 63:15, etc). The related verb oi)kti/rw (“have pity/compassion [on]”) and noun oi)ktirmo/$ (“pity, compassion, mercy”) are more common. The Lukan saying better fits the immediate context of Matt 5:38-47 / Lk 6:27-35, with its emphasis on loving one’s enemies. The parallel teaching of Matt 5:45 / Lk 6:35 further makes the point that love and kindness towards “good” and “evil” people alike reflects the character of God Himself; following God’s own example, will lead to the (eschatological) promise of becoming like Him—”your payment [i.e. reward] will be much” and:

e&sesqe ui(oi\ u(yi/stou
“you shall be sons of (the) Highest (One)”
Matt 5:45a: o%pw$ ge/nhsqe ui(oi\ tou= patro\$ u(mw=n tou= e)n ou)ranoi=$
“how that you may come to be sons of your Father in (the) heavens”

This same idea is central to the Beatitudes, cf. especially Matt 5:7-9. The association of purity/completeness and mercy in this context (emphasizing the nature and character of God) may derive from Psalm 18:25 [MT/LXX 26]: “with the kind/merciful you show yourself (to be) kind/merciful, with the complete [i.e. blameless] you show yourself (to be) complete”. The Hebrew adjective <ym!T* is usually translated by te/leio$, as in Matt 5:48 (see above).

3. The relation to the Antitheses in Matthew 5

Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:48 relates most directly to the sixth Antithesis (on loving one’s enemies, vv. 43-47) just prior, as the parallel saying in Luke 6:36 makes clear. However, there can be little doubt that the saying (in Matthew at least) is meant to summarize the teaching of the Antitheses as a whole—and probably also the entirety of chapter 5. Even if Matt 5 was not uttered together as a unit by Jesus on a single occasion, the literary structure of the text as we have it can be taken as a whole:

  • The Beatitudes (vv. 3-12) promise eschatological blessedness/happiness to those so characterized—that is, those who pursue justice/righteousness (v. 6, 10), following the teaching (and example) of Jesus. The original background of the Beatitude form had to do with the (righteous) person being admitted to share in the blessed life (of the gods) after death. In Jesus’ Beatitudes we also find prominent the idea of being (and becoming) like God (esp. vv. 8-9) and of belonging to His Kingdom (v. 3, 10).
  • The sayings in vv. 13-16, especially those comparing Jesus’ followers to light, likewise suggest that they (should) reflect something of the exemplary character of God.
  • The central sayings of vv. 17-20 introduce the theme of fulfilling the Law (Torah) (v. 17), and, in turn, of fulfilling the righteousness/justice of God (v. 20).
  • The six Antitheses of vv. 21-47, each demonstrate (in different ways) that following Jesus involves going beyond what is written in the Law—not in the sense of transgressing the Torah commands, but by touching upon the deeper purpose and intent of the Lawgiver himself (God the Father), as newly revealed in Jesus’ teaching.
  • The concluding saying of v. 48 summarizes the themes and specific teachings in each of these section with beautiful symmetry (see above). Ultimately, it is not so much a question of completing (that is, fulfilling) the Torah as it is of becoming complete [te/leio$] oneself, just as God the Father is perfect and complete.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 3:22

Luke 3:22

The John/Jesus parallel of the Lukan Infancy narrative continues on into the Gospel proper—the account of Jesus’ baptism as narrated in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:2-11 par). The main difference in Luke’s account is that he records the beginning and end of John’s ministry at the same point (cf. the detail in Lk 3:18-20). This effectively clears the way for the introduction of Jesus’ ministry in verse 23. The Lukan narrative describes the baptism of Jesus as part of the process—the people being baptized—but the author also sets Jesus apart from the crowd through a simple syntactical variation. Verses 21-22 utilize a construction e)geneto de/ (“and it came to be [that]”) + infinitive—which is almost impossible to translate literally in English. The action is described with a succession of infinitives:

    • all the people being dunked [i.e. baptized]
    • the heavens opening up
    • the holy Spirit stepping down upon him {Jesus}
    • a voice out of heaven coming to be

John the Baptist is a transitional figure, between the Old Covenant and the New, associated specifically with the Prophets (1:16-17, 76ff; 3:4-6; 7:26-28)—the completion of the Age of the Law and the Prophets (16:16 par). As discussed at numerous points in the Lukan Infancy narrative, Jesus was seen as fulfilling the types and forms of the Old Covenant—and this process is completed with the baptism. In Matthew’s account, this expressed in terms of fulfilling the righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God (“so it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”, Matt 3:15). In Luke’s version of the baptism scene, Jesus is among the crowd coming to be baptized, but is still set apart:

“And it came to be, among all the people being dunked, and (with) Yeshua being dunked and speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], and the heaven opening up and the holy Spirit stepping down upon him in bodily appearance as a dove, and a voice coming to be (from) out of heaven, (this voice said)…”

There is a definite Messianic significance to the baptism scene in Luke-Acts, indicated by several points:

  • The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus (4:18 [Isa 61:1f], cf. verse 1, 14)
  • The declaration of Jesus as God’s Son, especially in light of Psalm 2:7 (cf. below)
  • The parallel declaration in the Transfiguration scene
  • The gospel statement in Acts 10:37-38

While these are common to the Synoptic tradition, several of the details are given greater emphasis in the Lukan account.

The Voice from Heaven

In the majority of manuscripts, the words of the heavenly voice (3:22b) match those of the other Synoptic versions: “You are my Son [su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou], the (Be)loved One [o( a)gaphto/$]; I have good thought/consideration in you [e)n soi eu)do/khsa]”. There is probably an echo of Isa 42:1 here, a Messianic passage for which the parallel is even closer in the Lukan version of the voice at the Transfiguration (cf. below). However, in Codex Bezae [D], along with several Old Latin MSS and writings of the Church Fathers, the voice in Lk 3:22 actually quotes Psalm 2:7:

“You are my son; today I have caused you to be (born)”
ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron geg/nnhka/ se

This verse, of course, came to be a primary Messianic reference as applied to Christ, though usually in connection with the resurrection, not the baptism (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5). The title “Beloved” (a)gaphto/$) in the Old Testament (LXX) tradition is associated especially with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:2, 12; for a similar context, cf. Amos 8:10; Zech 12:10). For more on the text-critical issue in 3:22, cf. the daily note for January 13.

The Transfiguration

The Messianic significance of the corresponding scene at the Transfiguration is due, in large part, to its position in the Synoptic narrative, following Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Anointed One (9:20) and Jesus’ first prediction of his coming death and resurrection (9:21-22). We also have the identification of Jesus with the Prophet figure-types of Moses and Elijah. In many MSS, the heavenly voice in 9:35 matches that of the majority text of 3:22; however, the best reading shows a slight difference:

“You are my Son, the One Gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One]; I have good thought/consideration in you”

The title e)klelegme/no$, parallel to a)gaphto/$ in 3:22, more properly aligns the declaration with the (Messianic) Servant song of Isa 42:1ff. A related title e)klekto/$ is used in 23:35, in close connection with xristo/$ (“Anointed One”); cf. also the variant reading in Jn 1:34, where it is used with the title “Son of God”.

Son of God

Drawing upon the earlier discussion of Jesus’ saying in Lk 2:49 (cf. the previous note), we may outline three ways of understanding Jesus as God’s Son in 3:22:

  • Identification with the people of Israel as God’s “Son” (Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1, etc). Jesus’ participation with the people in baptism may be intended to bring out such an association—cp. Lk 1:77 with Matt 1:21 (2:13-15ff).
  • The Messiah (the Davidic Ruler) as God’s Son (Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:12-16, etc)
  • Sonship in terms of exalted, heavenly position and status. In early Christian tradition, the use of Messianic Psalm passages such as Ps 2:7; 110:1 were applied to Jesus in the context of his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). Eventually, this was also understood in terms of Jesus’ pre-existent deity.

The parallel declaration in 9:35 suggests that the second option is the one primarily in view. According to Gospel tradition (cf. Acts 10:37-38), it was at the baptism that Jesus was (first) identified as the “Anointed One”, though the title was applied directly only with Peter’s confession (9:20).

The Geneaology in 3:23ff

The Lukan situation is complicated by the peculiar insertion of Jesus’ genealogy at 3:23, directly following the baptism account. Essentially, it serves to introduce Jesus at the time of the beginning of his (public) ministry, but it plays on the same idea of sonship addressed in 2:49. There, Joseph was referred to as Jesus’ parent (vv. 41, 48a) or father (v. 48b), establishing the contrast with the saying of v. 49, where Jesus identifies God as his Father. In a similar way, the genealogy of 3:23 is introduced:

“And Yeshua {Jesus} (him)self, beginning (his ministry), was as though (about) thirty years (old), being the son, as it was thought/considered, of Yoseph…”

The genealogy—his legal ancestry through Joseph—continues through verse 38, all the way back to the first human being (cf. the Genesis creation account):

“…the (son) of Enosh, the (son) of Seth, the (son) of Adam, the (son) of God”

The line is thus traced back to God himself, God the Father (Yahweh/El). This turns out to be a very clever way for the author to restate the idea that Jesus is the “Son of God”. It should be noted that the word “son” (ui(o/$) is only implied, and is not actually present throughout the genealogy of vv. 24-38. Nevertheless, the basic concept is certainly there—Jesus’ true genealogy goes back to God. A literal treatment of vv. 23-38 would simply indicate Jesus’ common human heritage—of the people Israel, stretching back through their ancestors to the Creation. But the author’s actual emphasis is on the point of contrast—Jesus was only the son of Joseph in a conventional (and legal) sense; his true sonship is divine. The framework of the Gospel narrative means that the author (trad. Luke) did not really bring out this aspect of Jesus’ sonship until after the resurrection and exaltation. Yet it is certainly foreshadowed earlier in the Infancy narrative (1:32-35; 2:41-50) and here at the baptism.

Birth of the Son of God: Luke 2:49

Traditionally the Sunday after Epiphany commemorates the Holy Family—Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph—as marked by the last scenes of the Lukan Infancy Narrative, Luke 2:39-40, 41-50, 51-52. The scene in Lk 2:41-50 is especially significant, narrating the family’s journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (vv. 41-42), and Jesus’ decision to stay behind in Jerusalem (without his parents’ knowledge, v. 43). On the way back, Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is missing (vv. 44-45) and eventually return to Jerusalem to find Jesus sitting in the Temple precincts (as a devout pupil) with the teachers of the Law (vv. 46-47). The popular image of the boy Jesus teaching in the Temple (often depicted in Christian art), while understandable as a pious sentiment, is unwarranted and reads or assumes much into the text that is not there. I have discussed this episode, including the question of his parents (v. 48), with Jesus’ famous response (v. 49), in a prior article. Today I will focus in detail on the phrase e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou.

Luke 2:49

“…did you not see [i.e. know] that it is necessary for me to be e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou?” (v. 49)

As I have mentioned previously, the words in Greek here from Jesus’ response in v. 49 have customarily been rendered “in my Father’s house [i.e. the Temple]”. While this is tolerable as a translation in itself, it is really not accurate, and is actually rather misleading, for Jesus is not talking about the Temple building per se. If the Temple were meant specifically, Jesus (or the author rendering/recording the words) could easily have used oi@ko$ (“house”), which is regularly used for the Temple (i.e. house of God). The expression here literally reads “in the (thing)s of my Father”, with the preposition e)n (“in”) either in the sense of “involved in” or, more likely, “among”—”did you not know that it is necessary for me to be among the (thing)s of my Father?” Let us look at the immediate context to see how this is best understood.

  • Mary and Joseph look for Jesus among their relatives and others known to them—e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$ (v. 44)
    At the historical level, the journey to and from Jerusalem would have been made by caravan train, with family, friends and fellow travelers (with their belongings) moving together in a group, largely for reasons of safety and protection.
  • Not finding him, they turn back to Jerusalem
    —searching up (and down) [a)nazhtou=nte$] for him
    —and after three days
  • They found him in the Temple
  • Mary and Joseph question Jesus, with his reply to them—e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (v. 49)

Note the juxtaposition:

  • Not finding Jesus among the relatives and acquaintances [e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$]
  • They find Jesus in the Temple | among the teachers [e)n tw=| i(erw=| | e)n me/sw| tw=n didaska/lwn]

Moreover, there is a chain of phrases, marked the preposition e)n (“in, among”) + the dative, indicating the place where Jesus is (or is supposed to be):

  • e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$ (“among the relatives and the [one]s known [i.e. acquaintances]”)
  • e)n tw=| i(erw=| | e)n me/sw| tw=n didaska/lwn (“in the sacred place [i.e. Temple]” | “in the middle of the teachers of [the] Law”)
  • e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (“in/among the [thing]s of my Father”)

The twin phrases of v. 46e)n tw=| i(erw=| | e)n me/sw| tw=n didaska/lwn—give us a sense of what the expression in v. 49 means: (1) the sacred place (the Temple precincts), and (2) study of [and devotion to] God’s Law (the Torah). However, when one compares the expression of v. 49 (e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou) with the phrase in v. 44 (e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin…), this, in  turn, sheds light on Jesus’ response to his parents—”th(eir) relatives [i.e. in the caravan]” | “the things/ones of my Father”. This parallel contrasts Jesus’ earthly/familial relations with his (heavenly) Father:

    • “your father”—in Mary’s question to Jesus (v. 48)
    • “my Father”—in Jesus’ reply (v. 49)

The closing words of Jesus’ reply are also significant: dei= ei)nai/ me “it is necessary for me to be”—i.e. “it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father”, with e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou set first in emphatic position within the clause. The particle dei= (“[it is] necessary”) is used frequently in Luke-Acts, including a number key statements by Jesus regarding his Divinely-appointed mission (Lk 4:43; 9:22, etc).

There are of course many references throughout the New Testament to Jesus as the Son (of God) and his relation to the Father; however, this theme holds a special place in the Gospel of John.

Jesus the Son and God the Father in the Gospel of John

There are dozens of instances in the Gospel of John where Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” and/or his unique relationship with God “the Father”—so many, in fact, that it is not possible (or useful) to list them all here. A fair percentage of them can be grouped into several related categories:

The basic image is of a dutiful child who says and does what he hear/sees the father saying and doing. This involves more than parental instruction and filial obedience. In most families, children—especially the eldest/only son—would typically take up the father’s trade; this meant the role of an apprentice, learning all the ins and outs of particular occupation or craft in detail, developing skill and expertise in the work. That Joseph was a carpenter is well-established in Gospel tradition, though it is not known for certain whether, or to what extent, Jesus followed in this trade. In any event, Jesus uses this imagery to describe his relationship with God, the heavenly Father—he does the Father’s work, which he was sent to do, as he learned it from the Father. This takes on deeper theological (and Christological) significance at several key points in the Gospel—most notably in the great prayer that concludes the discourses of John 13-17:

  • John 17:1-5 (echoing the earlier 13:31-32)—the Son shares in the glory of the Father
    • indicating Divine pre-existence (v. 5)
  • John 17:18ff—the Son is sent by the Father into the world
    • indicating Jesus’ incarnation and (human) birth (cf. Jn 1:14; 18:37)
  • John 17:20-23ff—a reciprocal relationship is established with believers (as sons of God) (cf. the key verse 11)
    • union/unity with the Father (cf. Jn 14:20)
    • binding unity is established through love (vv. 23-26)

There are three noteworthy passages in the subsequent death and resurrection scenes in the Gospel:

  • John 19:25b-27—Jesus’ address (on the cross) to Mary “his mother” in which he relinquishes the familial ties of his earthly existence (cf. above)
  • John 20:17—his words to Mary Magdalene, referring to his ascension/return to the Father (cf. Jn 13:33, 36; 14:2-4ff, 12, 28; 16:15ff, 16-17ff, 28; 17:11, 13)
  • John 20:21—Jesus sent by the Father | sends the disciples
    Here the specific context is two-fold:
    • The disciples’ receiving the Holy Spirit
    • Their mission to proclaim the Word of God (implied), cf. 17:20

With regard to the last reference, these are two elements specifically connected with the birth of believers as sons/children of GodJohn 1:12-13; 3:3-8, cf. vv. 17-21.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 2:49

Luke 2:49

Today’s note looks at the final episode of the Lukan Infancy narrative (vv. 41-50), and, in particular, the saying of Jesus in verse 49. I have discussed this in some detail during a prior Christmas season note, and will not repeat all of that analysis here. Today I will be examining the saying from the standpoint of the current series—in terms of the names and titles of Jesus, especially that of “Son (of God)”. This is a title that really only occurs in the Annunciation scene, twice, in 1:32 and 35:

“He [i.e. the child Jesus] will be great and will be called ‘Son of the Highest’…” (v. 32)
“therefore the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (v. 35)

Somewhat surprisingly, there is no suggestion of it in the birth narrative itself, not even in the Angelic announcement to the shepherds, which otherwise makes use of exalted (and Messianic) language. For the remainder of the Infancy narrative proper, Jesus is referred to in realistic (human) terms as the “baby” (bre/fo$) or “(little) child” (paidi/on)—cf. 2:12, 16, 17, 27. To the extent that Jesus’ sonship is mentioned, it is entirely in reference to his human parents, Joseph and Mary (2:22-23, 27, 39, 41ff, 51). Verse 51a, in particular, emphasizes how Jesus was submissive to his parents, as a dutiful son—and this, in spite of the declaration in v. 49 (cf. below).

It is only here, in the account of this episode of Jesus at the age of twelve, that there is any kind of tension between Jesus as the son of Joseph/Mary and his identity as the Son of God. The realistic detail of the narrative brings out the human familial relationship:

  • The repeated mention of Jesus’ parents (gonei=$) in vv. 41, 43 (cf. also 48, 51). The word, which literally relates to a child coming-to-be (i.e. born), is used generally, even when it is a matter of legal (rather than biological) parentage.
  • The cultural setting of the pilgrimage festival (Passover)—vv. 41-42
  • The traveling caravan of relatives and friends (v. 44)
  • The parental concern (and rebuke) expressed by Mary (v. 48, cf. vv. 44-45)
  • The specific reference to Joseph as Jesus’ father, and Mary as his mother (vv. 38, 51b)

Set within this narrative framework is the central detail of Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem, while the rest of his family had set off on their return trip (vv. 43-44). When Joseph and Mary find him again, after three days’ searching and travel, Jesus is said to be

“in the sacred place [i.e. Temple], sitting in the middle of the ones teaching [i.e. Teachers], both hearing them and asking them (question)s” (v. 46b)

Pious tradition has interpreted this scene as Jesus himself teaching the adult teachers, but there really is little (if any) indication of this in the text. There is no reason to see Jesus here as anything other than an interested pupil, albeit one most gifted, with a special understanding of the Scriptures and the Law (Torah). The general location is important to the symbolism of the scene, as Jesus is sitting “in the middle [e)n me/sw|] of the ones teaching”. The emphasis is not on Jesus’ position (i.e. student vs. teacher) but on exactly where he is located—among those teaching/discussing the Law of God. This is significant when we come to Jesus’ saying (v. 49), in response to his mother’s rebuke:

“(For) what [i.e. why] did you do this to us? See, your father and I, being distressed, (have been) search(ing for) you!” (v. 48)

“(For) what [i.e. why] (is it) that you (are) search(ing for) me? Did you not see [i.e. know] that it is necessary for me to be among the (thing)s of my Father?” (v. 49)

The contrast between “your father and I” (Joseph/Mary) and “my Father” (God/Yahweh) is certainly clear. Even more interesting is the notice that Joseph and Mary had been searching among the things of their relatives and neighbors, rather than among the “things of God”. This parallel is generally lost in translation, but a literal rendering of the Greek brings it out:

  • e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$ (v. 44)
    among the (thing)s of the ones coming to be together (with them) and the ones known (to them) [i.e. relatives and acquaintances]”
  • e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (v. 49)
    among the (thing)s of my Father”

Jesus’ phrase is often translated “in my Father’s house”, but it should be noted that the word corresponding to “house” (oi@ko$), i.e. the Temple as God’s house, is not present. If the author (or Jesus as the speaker) wanted to emphasize the Temple precincts or building as such, it would have been easy enough to do. More accurate would be “in the household of my Father”—i.e. the “things” referring to household belongings (like the belongings of the caravan in v. 44), generally and collectively. Such an interpretation must also include the people—that is, those spending time in the Temple, devoted to the Scriptures and the “things of God” (cf. the description of Simeon and Anna in vv. 25-27, 37-38).

With regard to the precise meaning of the expression “my Father” by Jesus, we must consider three possibilities:

  • His identification with the faithful/righteous of Israel as God’s “Son”—cf. Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6; Isa 43:6; 64:8; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Jer 31:19; Wisd 2:16-18; 18:13, etc. This association is much more direct in the Matthean Infancy narrative, Matt 1:21; 2:13-15ff, but note the positioning of the Lukan genealogy which follows in 3:23ff.
  • As a firstborn child consecrated to the service of God. The parallels with the Samuel story, that run through the Lukan narrative (cf. 1:46-47ff; 2:22ff, 40, 52, etc), make it highly likely that this aspect of the scene is intended by the author. While Samuel would spend his childhood in the Temple precincts, this can only be represented symbolically in the case of Jesus, who otherwise grew up with his parents in Nazareth (vv. 39, 51-52; 4:16ff).
  • As the unique Son of God in something like the orthodox Christological sense. This is hinted at already in the Angelic annunciation, though the parallels with the Qumran text 4Q246 (cf. the earlier discussion) should caution us against reading a developed Christology too quickly into this passage. Overall, the emphasis—in both Luke 1:32-35 and 4Q246—would appear to be Messianic. The situation is, I should say, somewhat different in the baptism scene which follows in Lk 3:21-22. And this will be discussed further in the next note, the final one of this Christmas season series.