Episode 26 - Anna - Opening Up the Gospels

In the last two episodes we looked at Simeon in the Temple with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. As we saw earlier in Luke 2, they brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him before the Lord and to offer a sacrifice for their purification. Jesus is still only a little over a month old when Simeon holds Him and declares that He would be like a sword that would cut through the midst of Israel, dividing and exposing what was really in their hearts towards God. This is one of the biggest themes of the Gospels that we’re going to come back to over and over. But again, just think about how shocking this must have been to Mary and Joseph. I wonder if they actually came to a point where they were wondering what the next crazy thing related to Jesus was going to be. Think about all that’s happened… Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy as a sign, the angel Gabriel’s visit to her husband Zechariah and then again to Mary, the scandal, Joseph’s dream, the shepherds and their story, and now Simeon. Remember, all of this is the way that God chose to do things. We’ve got to take the time and ponder how this tells us so much about what God is like. In this episode, we’ll continue in the Temple in Luke 2 starting at verse 36: “And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36–38 ESV) So here we are, it’s the same day that Simeon met Jesus and Luke goes on to tell us about another person, a widow named Anna. Anna is in the Temple when she looks and sees Mary and Joseph carrying Jesus, and it seems like she sees Simeon hold Him and hears the proclamation made about Him, because of what Luke says in verse 38: “coming up at that very hour”. Other translations say “coming in that moment” or “coming in that instant”, meaning she came right after Simeon had finished speaking of Jesus. Anna is described as a prophetess. Later on in the book of Acts (21:9), Luke mentions the daughters of Philip who were prophetesses. And in 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul also talked about women who prophesied. In the Old Testament, we see Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3) all portrayed as prophetesses. When we read that Anna was a prophetess, we shouldn’t think she was some fortune teller or predictor of the future. Luke is not trying to make some huge statement about the gift or the nature of prophecy here, he’s just underscoring the point that Anna had insight from God into who that Baby that Simeon was holding really was. This is why she goes on to proclaim Him to all of her friends and fellow Jews who were expectant for God to fulfill His promises and restore Jerusalem as the Old Testament records. If God did not give her divine insight, she probably would have dismissed the whole scene with Simeon as just some really excited old guy in the Temple. Luke gives us more information about Anna. Her name means “grace”, and is the same name as the Old Testament’s “Hannah”. She was the daughter of Phanuel, which is just the Greek transliteration of the familiar Hebrew name Peniel. Remember that name from the story of Jacob in Genesis 32? He wrestled with the Angel of the LORD all night, his name was changed to Israel, and he called the place “Peniel”, because he said “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” Luke also tells us that Anna was from the tribe of Asher. Asher was Jacob’s eighth son and his name means “happy”, because his birth made his mother Leah happy. Asher was one of the northern tribes of Israel and was relatively small and insignificant. Now you may wonder, what’s the point? Luke honestly could have left these details out and it probably wouldn’t matter much to us because we have no idea who Phanuel is and we may not even have heard of the tribe of Asher. Though Luke doesn’t explicitly state the importance of why he mentioned Anna’s father or tribe, he does mention them. We can’t really be sure, but maybe it has something to do with the meaning of each of the words? Like “grace”, “face of God”, and “happy”? Or maybe this Anna became well-known among those in Jerusalem and then the early church for the way she spoke of Jesus and Luke is differentiating her from other Annas so that people in his day would say “oh, THAT Anna”. Who knows. Some commentators have speculated some other things. I don’t have the answer, but speculating things gets my imagination going and actually makes Anna not just a character in a story but a real person who was so confident that Jesus would be the one to restore Jerusalem as God had promised. Anna was very old. Luke says she was “advanced in years”. She had married and had lived with her husband for seven years. The next verse, verse 37, says that she was a widow until she was eighty four. This is a little bit troublesome here because other translations make it sound like she had been a widow for eighty four years, not that she was 84 at the point she saw Jesus. The phrase literally reads “and she a widow up to eighty four years”. So there are two possibilities that commentators point out here. The first is what I already mentioned, and it’s what the ESV seems to take – that she was 84 years old when she met the baby Jesus. The second possibility – say she was only 14 years old when she married – which is totally possible because Jewish women often, but not always, married very young, she would then be 14 plus 7 years of marriage, plus 84 years of widowhood, making her 105 years old. My goodness! Nonetheless, whatever it might be, Anna was very old. The bigger point than precisely deducing her age is that she was a widow for the rest of her life and didn’t remarry after her husband had died. Luke goes on to say that Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day”. The Temple was the center of Israel’s religious life and a constant reminder of who God had called them to be. For Anna to be worshipping often there meant that Israel’s hopes were always on her mind. This fits in perfectly with what we looked at in the last episode with Simeon, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”. Now Luke isn’t saying here that Anna would have been in the temple 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as if she actually lived there or something. Women were not normally allowed to stay in the temple during the night. Plus the temple was actually closed during the night and there was no public worship going on. So Luke is just using hyperbole here, saying she was probably a very regular attender to all of the specific public and private temple services. Think about the person in your church who not only comes on Sunday morning but is basically at church for all of the other various things going on during the week. Because of that you could almost say “he lives there”, but of course that’s not meant to be taken literally. The point Luke is emphasizing here is Anna’s single-minded devotion to God, especially after describing her age and her widowhood. Luke has already given us Zechariah and Elizabeth and Simeon as examples of ones who are devout and righteous in Israel and now Anna joins the ranks. Anna is also portrayed as worshipping God in the temple with fasting and prayer. We can’t think “church service” or “solemn assembly” here – the temple in Jerusalem was nothing like our modern western services today. Anna was a participant in the daily evening and morning prayers, which is probably what Luke is referencing when he says she was there “night and day”. The Jewish day actually began at sundown, which is totally different from us in modern times where it practically begins at sunrise. Anna was also there for the special services for the Sabbath, and feasts like Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication. And she was probably there for many private services as well, which might explain why she was there for Mary and Joseph’s purification and the presentation of Jesus. Contrary to some modern ways this passage has been talked about, Anna wasn’t in the temple interceding and changing the spiritual atmosphere of Jerusalem with her fasting and prayer, nor was she trying to earn more favor or get more spiritual authority from God. Through her fasting, she was mourning and expressing humility. Those are the two purposes that the Bible outlines for fasting. She was specifically longing for the restoration of Jerusalem and for God to bring forth the messiah and his kingdom. This is strikingly similar to Daniel in passages like Daniel chapter 10. Daniel was also righteous and devout. Remember, he was faithful to continue to pray for God to restore Jerusalem 3 times a day, even when he was in captivity and there seemed like there was no hope for His people. Daniel humbly postured himself before God with fasting as he prayed for the restoration of Israel, and that’s exactly how Luke characterizes Anna here. So this righteous woman, Anna, was in the right place at the right time in the Temple. Maybe she was in the area of the temple called the “Court of Women” when she sees Mary and Joseph coming with Jesus. She probably watched Simeon take up Jesus into his arms, hears the words he speaks about him, and perhaps comes close to the four of them. She too is now convinced that this child is indeed the Messiah. He is the consolation of Israel, and He would be the one to restore the nation of Israel. And what does she do? She gives thanks to God and speaks of Jesus to everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. As I talked about in episode 24, this idea of redemption and consolation refers back to many passages in Isaiah. Both Simeon and Anna share the same hope, and Luke presents these two witnesses early on in his gospel as a picture of the righteous remnant of Israel. Well I’d encourage you to spend some time pondering Anna and her story this week. Think about what it might have been like for her. She spent her whole life believing God for Israel’s restoration. This scene is so precious – two old but very pious Jewish people, a newly married couple, and a 40-day old baby, all part of the story of God in the flesh. Talk to Jesus about this. In the next episode we’re going to jump to Matthew’s gospel and begin to look at the visit from the Magi.