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.