Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Luke 2:41-52




This is the only canonical story of Jesus’ boyhood, and is found only in Luke’s Gospel. Apocryphal works tell other stories that seem fanciful and out of character, such as Jesus striking down children and raising them up again. Like those apocryphal works, this story from Luke emphasizes that Jesus was great even in boyhood (Cousar, 73).

The model for this story is the birth of Samuel to Hannah and Elkanah in 1 Samuel 2. Note the parallels:

• Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) is very similar to Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10)

• Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord. Samuel was raised by Eli, a priest, in a temple-like setting. The “temple” was literally Samuel’s home, and the priest was his surrogate father.

• Hannah and her husband went to this temple yearly to make their sacrifice (1 Samuel 1:3, 7, 21; 2:19).

• “The child Samuel grew on, and increased in favor both with Yahweh, and also with men” (1 Samuel 2:26. See Luke 2:52)

• It was in the temple that Samuel grew to understand his calling.


41His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover (Greek: pascha).

“went every year to Jerusalem.” Women are allowed but not required to observe Passover. Jewish men who live within 20 miles of Jerusalem are required to attend Passover annually, while others aspire to do so at least once in their lifetime (Barclay, 24). The fact that both Joseph and Mary make this trip to Jerusalem every year signals their deep piety.

Luke will also tell us of Jesus’ circumcision and dedication as well as Mary’s purification, which also confirm their observance of the law (2:21-40). Later, Luke will show us Jesus’ openness to tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles, but first he shows us Jesus’ deep roots in a highly observant Jewish tradition.

“at the feast of the Passover.” Luke will later speak of this festival as “the feast of unleavened bread” (22:1, 7), although Passover and Unleavened Bread are, in a sense, related but separate observances—Passover coming first and Unleavened Bread following immediately afterward. Exodus 12:1-13, 43-49 prescribes the protocol for Passover, and Exodus 12:14-20; 13:3-10 prescribes the protocol for Unleavened Bread.

Passover requires killing a lamb and smearing its blood on the doorpost to commemorate the passing over of the death angel in Egypt. Unleavened Bread requires removing all leaven from the house and eating unleavened bread for seven days to commemorate the eating of unleavened bread in preparation for the Exodus.

The Greek word that is translated Passover in English Bibles is pascha, which is where we get the term, paschal lamb—the lamb sacrificed during the observance of Passover. Paul speaks of Christ as our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Jewish males are obligated to keep three festivals: The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Festival of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Festival of Booths (Tabernacles) (Deuteronomy 16:16; Exodus 23:14-16; 34:23).

This is a significant journey from Nazareth—about 60 miles (100 km) as the crow flies and even further by road—requiring several days travel each way in addition to a week in Jerusalem. Such a trip involves a significant commitment of time and money—like a two-week vacation. This is an expensive pilgrimage for Joseph and Mary—an act of true devotion.

Luke will tell us about two additional visits by Jesus to Jerusalem. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the devil will take him to Jerusalem and tempt him to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (4:9). At the end of his ministry, Jesus will visit Jerusalem again for the Passover (9:51 – 19:28). While there, he will cleanse the temple (19:45-48), be crucified (chapters 22-23), rise again from the dead (24:1-12), and appear to the disciples (24:36-49).


42When (Jesus) was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, 43and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, 44but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him.

“When he was twelve years old” (v. 42a). At age twelve, Jesus is not yet obligated to keep the festivals, but will become obligated on his thirteenth birthday (Fitzmyer, 440).

“they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast” (v. 42b). Given that his parents attend Passover every year in Jerusalem, Jesus has surely made this journey several times in the past. Imagine how a boy from a small Galilean town would feel on a visit to the big city of Jerusalem with its splendid temple.

“and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning” (v. 43a). Passover observance lasts for eight days (Leviticus 23:5-6). Pilgrims are not obligated to stay for the full eight days, but many do.

“the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem” (v. 43b). Traveling in caravan, men tend to gather with other men—and women with women. Children play together. It is not difficult to imagine how Joseph and Mary could assume that Jesus is present in the caravan.

“Joseph and his mother didn’t know it” (v. 43c). We might ask how they could have overlooked Jesus’ absence—or where Jesus would find food and lodging for three days. But Luke’s greater purpose for this story is to let us know that Jesus, even as a boy, understood his unique identity and mission.

“but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey” (v. 44a). They go a day’s journey, perhaps twenty miles, before realizing that Jesus is not with them. It requires another day to retrace their steps.

“When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him” (v. 45). Any parent can imagine the range of feelings experienced by Joseph and Mary. They must be both frightened and angry—alternating between “Please, dear God!” and “Wait till I get my hands on him!” The slow journey back to Jerusalem and the search in the city must be sheer torture.


46It happened after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. 47All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

“It happened after three days they found him in the temple” (v. 46a). We don’t know whether their return trip constitutes part of the three days. It is possible that they searched Jerusalem for three days before finding Jesus. This is the only place where Luke uses the phrase, “three days.” When referring to the resurrection, he will use the phrase, “the third day” (9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).

“sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions” (v. 46b). Sitting is a teaching posture, but we must be careful not to over-interpret; students can also sit (Culpepper, 77). Jesus is not teaching teachers, but is listening and asking questions. Teachers rejoice in finding a student who asks good questions. Such questions indicate an active mind and invigorate a classroom. Questions and answers are a staple of Jewish teaching, and these teachers have heard many of both. They are amazed to hear such good questions and answers from a twelve-year-old boy.

“All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (v. 47). Luke establishes that Jesus, even as a child, demonstrates the promise that will blossom into real wisdom and authority. Later, people will praise Jesus for his teaching in the synagogues (4:15). They will be amazed at the gracious words that come from the mouth of this local boy (4:22). They will be astounded that he teaches with such authority (4:32). Jesus will open the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures (24:45).


48When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.”

49He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must (Greek : dei—it is necessary) be in my Father’s house?”

50They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them.

51And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

“When they saw him, they were astonished” (v. 48a). The people who heard Jesus were amazed at his wisdom, but Mary and Joseph are astonished at his lack of consideration for their feelings.

“and his mother said” (v. 48b). The Gospels present Joseph as a man of action, obeying God’s instructions to the letter (Matthew 1:24; 2:13-15, 19-22), but they give him no speaking parts.

“Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you” (v. 48c). Mary’s question only hints at the anguish that she must have felt when she discovered Jesus missing—and the shame that Jesus’ mischief brought to the family.

“Why were you looking for me?” (v. 49a). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in this Gospel. At the open tomb, the angel will ask much the same question (using the same verb—zeteo)—”Why do you look (zeteite) for the living among the dead?” (24:5). “In both cases we have the sense that Jesus constitutes a deeper reality than anyone around him can comprehend” (Marty, 307).

“Didn’t you know that I must (dei – “it is necessary”) be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49b). This verse reveals the central purpose of this story, which is to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God—a fact first told to Mary by the angel in 1:35—and soon to be affirmed by God at Jesus’ baptism (3:22). Jesus will also speak of God as his father in 10:21-22; 22:29, 42; 23:34, 46; and 24:49.

“Didn’t you know that I must” (dei—it is necessary—implies a Godly requirement). Jesus will use that word repeatedly to reflect the obligations imposed by his mission:

“I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God” (4:43).

“The Son of Man must suffer many things” (9:22).

“I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, for it can’t be that a prophet perish outside of Jerusalem” (13:33).

“But first, (I) must suffer many things” (17:25).

“I must be in my Father’s house.” Note the play on words reflected in “father” (v. 48) where Mary refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father—and “my Father’s house” (v. 49) where Jesus refers to God as his father. Barclay says, “See how very gently but very definitely Jesus takes the name father from Joseph and gives it to God” (Barclay, 25).

Some scholars treat Jesus’ words in verse 49 as a rebuke of his parents, but Nolland noting that Jesus quickly becomes submissive (v. 51b), argues convincingly that Jesus is surprised rather than reproachful at Mary’s question. (Nolland, 131. Stein echoes those sentiments, 122-123).

“They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them” (v. 50). In the very beginning, Gabriel told Mary, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom” (1:32-33). However, Mary does not have our advantage of hindsight. She cannot read the Gospels to see how Jesus’ life will unfold, what it will mean, and how it will end. Jesus’ ministry will be quite different from that which is expected of the Messiah, so Mary must be confused. Her awakening understanding of Jesus’ ministry will come painfully.

“And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth” (v. 51a). “Went down” (katebe) is true in two senses. Jerusalem is on a mountain—geographic high ground—and it is also the site of the temple—spiritual high ground.

This going down to Nazareth mirrors the going up to Jerusalem at the beginning of this story (vv. 41-42). These two phrases form brackets around the story, marking its beginning and ending.

“He was subject to them” (v. 51b). Just as he voluntarily “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7) to come down from heaven, so Jesus now voluntarily submits to his parents, fulfilling the commandment to honor his father and mother.


52And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature (Greek: helikia—years, height, maturity), and in favor with God and men.

“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (v. 52; see also 2:40). As this verse attests, Jesus did not spring fully-formed from the womb, but grew. Here we see Jesus, at age twelve, coming to grips with his identity and calling. He has been at home in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, but now, in the temple, he feels the pull of his special vocation. “I must,” he says. “It is necessary.” This will not be the last time that his vocation creates problems for his earthly family (8:19-21. See also 12:53; 14:26). He is not being disrespectful to his parents, but his greater obligation is to his Father in heaven. “I must be in my Father’s house?”

This verse tells us that Jesus grew in four dimensions, each of which is essential to a well-balanced person: (1) Wisdom goes beyond knowledge of facts to an understanding, not just of what is, but of what counts. (2) “Stature” connotes both physical stature and spiritual maturity. (3) Divine favor involves relationship with God. (4) Human favor involves relationships with other people.

The fact that Jesus increased in each of these dimensions shows that he had room to grow. The church will later emphasize that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Being fully human means that Jesus began life with the limitations of an infant. He grew to become a twelve-year-old boy, and later grew some more to become a man.

After this story, Joseph is mentioned again in this Gospel only in Jesus’ genealogy (3:23), and Mary is mentioned again (not by name) only when she comes to see Jesus but cannot reach him because of the crowd (8:19). The emphasis from this point forward is not on Jesus earthly parents but on his heavenly Father.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)

Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol, 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)

Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)

Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)

Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)

Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)

Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)

Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1970)

Gilmour, S. MacLean & Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)

Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)

Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)

Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)

Marty, Peter W. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)

Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)

Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)

Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)

Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)

Copyright 2006, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan