The Gospel for the first Sunday in the season of Christmas (Luke 2:22-40) includes stories relating to two striking Jewish figures: Simeon the righteous, who is guided by the Spirit (2:27), and Anna the prophet (2:36). Anna praises God because of what she sees happening in the birth of the child, Jesus, while Simeon speaks of salvation for all people now being offered by God through this child. Both express clear Lukan themes.
Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. The story about Jesus that we find in the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us is set in the heart of Jewish piety. The very opening scene of the Gospel, set in Jerusalem in the Temple precincts, reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). What follows in the ensuing two chapters reinforces, over and over, that Jewish context.
The man in the opening scene, Zechariah the priest, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
The words of Anna, although unreported in detail by Luke (2:38), are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being. They, too, are “filled with the Spirit” (John, 1:15; Jesus, 4:1, 14). This is the same Spirit which, according to old traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2) and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30).
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised after eight days (2:21), that his mother was subsequently purified and brought offerings to the Temple (2:22–24), that the family made Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem (2:41) and that Jesus showed an early interest in discussing matters of the Law (2:42-51).
These all reflect typical Jewish activities, mandated by the Law: circumcision at Gen 17:9-14; purification and offerings at Lev 12:1-8; the Passover pilgrimage at Exodus 23:17 and 34:23; and learning the matters of the Law at Deut 6:1-7. Luke ensures that we are aware of this, by noting “it was the time for …” (2:21, 22) and “as usual” (2:41), and by twice referring to the requirement of the Law (2:23, 39).
This continues as the narrative of the orderly account continues, recounting the events of the adult years of Jesus. He regularly attended the synagogue (4:16, 44; 6:6), where he was accorded the status of a teacher (4:20–27; 4:31–33; 13:10). Jesus regularly prayed to God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; etc.). He knew the importance of the daily prayer, the Shema (10:25–28) and the Ten Commandments (18:18–21).
Jesus engaged in halakhic debates with the scribes of Pharisees, touching on various matters of the Law (5:21-24; 6:6-10; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; 15:1-32; 16:14-18; 17:20-21; 20:1-47). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (5:36-38; 6:39-42; 8:4–8; 13:6-9; 13:18-21; 19:11-27; 20:9-19; 21:29-30). Luke alone reports a number of the especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 12:13–21; 14:7-24; 15:3–32; 16:1-13; 16:19–31; 18:1-8; 18:9-14). Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in his teaching style.
Indeed, as Luke narrates the early sequence of events leading to the birth of Jesus, he indicates that Jesus will seek the renewal of the ancient promises which God made to Israel (1:46–55; 1:67–79; 2:29–35). Thus, the Lukan Jesus insists that the purpose of his mission is to fulfil the hopes once spoken by the prophets (4:18–21; 7:18–23; 24:18–27; 24:44–47).
Jesus begins to fulfil that prophetic vocation in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (4:16-30), where he explicitly reads from the scroll of Isaiah (4:17-19) and clearly affirms that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
In his teachings, Jesus is clear that what he has to offer is a grand vision of the kingdom in which all are invited to share in the Messianic Banquet (13:29; 14:15–24). This was a vision which came to expression within Second Temple Judaism, after the return of many of the people,from their Exile in Babylon.
This vision was not shared by all, but it is clear that it was drawn firmly from Jewish traditions, especially as articulated in the latter sections of the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1–6; 52:7–10; 55:1–5; 60:1–7; 66:18–24). So the Lukan Jesus functions as a prophetic voice in Israel, holding the people to this inclusive vision.
Luke does not play Jesus off, over against ‘the Jews’, in the way that we find happening in the work of his near-contemporary, in the Gospel according to John. Rather, the Lukan Jesus is immersed in the midst of his religion; he is one of the people of Israel at his birth, and he remains so even up to his death and beyond.
Luke’s Gospel—and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles—provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. Not even the occasions when Paul encounters rejection at the hands of his fellow Jews, and he leaves saying “we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) or “from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6) are definitive rejections of the Jews—Paul always returned to them! (Paul is back in the synagogue at 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 18:19, 19:8, and note also Paul’s farewell speech at 20:21.)
Even the final scenes of Acts offer the possibility of wider Jewish acceptance of the Gospel: the possibility that they might “listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and [God] would heal them” (Acts 28:27, citing Isaiah 6:10).
(For a more detailed argument along these lines, see the discussions in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2000.)
So the overall story which Luke tells is that the hopes of Jewish faith are brought to fruition in the life of Jesus, and in those who follow The Way set forth by Jesus—and how this renewed vision spreads across the Mediterranean basin, through many nations. This is already in view as he shapes the beginning of his narrative, with those faithful Jewish characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and (very briefly) Joseph, Simeon and Anna.
In Luke’s account of Jesus, then, he sets forth a vision of welcoming community, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. In reporting the preaching of John the baptiser, the prophetic vision was already in view: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6, citing Isa 40:5). Before this, at the moment when the spirit-inspired Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms, he speaks of God’s salvation as being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32).
This is surely what Anna perceives to be at work in the infant she sees being dedicated in the temple, and this is why she “praises God” and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Jesus was to fulfil this grand vision.
The universal implications of the Gospel are thus in view from the very earliest stages of Luke’s first volume of his orderly account. They continue through later scenes, as Gentiles come from Tyre and Sidon to listen to Jesus’ teachings (6:17), as Gentile centurions exhibit great faith (7:1–10) and show sympathy for the dying Jesus (23:47).
They come to full flourishing in the second volume of the orderly account, as the faithful followers of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, even to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Lukan Jesus has clearly set the course for the ultimate inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. This is clear early on, right from the words of Simeon (2:29-32).
As we consider this passage in the days immediately after the remembering of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we are given encouragement to hold to the inclusive vision for the whole world that commenced with the diligence and openness of faithful Jewish people, as they sensed the way that God was working in their world.