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, with fasting and prayer worshipping 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)
Luke introduces us to Anna the Prophetess. She, like the Shepherds, the Magi, and Simeon, confessed Jesus as the Christ, our Incarnate Lord, even before He celebrated His first birthday on earth. And yet, even though she is an invaluable witness to Jesus Christ, we cannot really recount her actual encounter with Jesus.
Luke gives us valuable information about the scene. We can read the very detailed account of Simeon confessing Jesus as the Christ. Then Anna arrives in the Temple while this is happening, but Luke decides not to explain any further details. Simeon appears in 11 verses, 9 of which describe His encounter with Jesus in the Temple that day. We know Simeon held Jesus in his arms, we can pray the same prayer he prayed, we know how Mary and Joseph reacted and what Simeon says directly to Mary. In contrast, Anna gets only three verses, and only 1 verse alludes to her being in the Temple at the same time as Jesus. What exactly happened? We cannot say. The specific information we do have about Anna and the silence about her encounter with Jesus are both startling, and intentionally so. There is barely a description of her encounter with Jesus. Just where she meets Jesus, Luke decides to fall silent.
We can imagine what happened. Luke explains in detail who Anna is, and he leads us to know that Anna met Jesus. There is a clear purpose here. He sets up the scene for Anna’s encounter with Jesus, and then quickly skips over their meeting and discusses her response to seeing Jesus so that we the reader stop and say, wait a minute, what happened?
Narrative gap is a recurrent feature in Luke’s gospel. Luke is a brilliant writer and often very detailed, so when he’s telling a story and suddenly becomes vague or even silent, as he does here, it’s a calculated move designed to make us notice the sudden pause and meditate on what he’s leaving out. Luke is encouraging the readers to engage the Word with their imagination and to spend some time meditating on the events to which he refers but does not explain.
Based on the information Luke does give us, we can spell out a lot of the significance of Anna. Luke provides specific details about who Anna is, and they teach us how to think about Anna. Following Luke’s lead, we can fill out the meaning of his thought-provoking silence.
Luke mentions two people who bear witness to Him in the Temple: Simeon and Anna. The Bible advises, and for specific cases in the Old Covenant Law even requires, the evidence of two witnesses to establish an important legal charge (Deuteronomy 17; 19). Simeon and Anna are the two witnesses here, a complimentary pair. Both are pious and patiently waiting for Israel’s redemption. They represent the whole human race, male and female. Simeon is the male witness, and Anna the female witness. The man comes first, but it is not good for him to be alone, so the woman comes second, joins to the work of the man, and together they complete their service to the Lord.
Simeon is a prophet, because God includes him in divine council, and Anna is the prophetess, because God blesses her with this grace. Both confess Jesus is the Christ. Their combined evidence is greater than if only one confessed this truth. Simeon confesses Jesus as the Lord’s Christ, and Anna confesses Jesus as the Redeemer of Israel. They both hoped he was the one to redeem Israel, and they were both on target. Jesus grew up to redeem God’s people.
Luke rounds out his gospel with another “testimony of two witnesses” scene in chapter 24. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus meets Cleopas and an unidentified second person. There has been a tradition in the Church that holds the pair to be husband and wife. Not until they listen to the Word and share Supper do they recognize Jesus with opened eyes. Then, these two witnesses bring testimony of the Lord’s resurrection to the eleven disciples in Jerusalem. They strengthen the witness of Simon and establish the case of the Lord’s resurrection. The two witnesses offer convincing proof.
With Simeon and Anna, we have the testimony of two reliable witnesses. It is important to remember where they are. They are in the temple. Even before Jesus can speak or show Himself the Christ, even before His baptism, God announces to His faithful people the birth of His Son. God the proud Father allows faithful Israel to see the Son of God and welcome Him into His Temple. What a contrast to unfaithful Israel. Herod already wants Jesus dead, and when Jesus grows up, temple leaders will scream for His crucifixion. Simeon and Anna shows us how the true people of God receives Jesus: Jesus is Holy to the Lord. He is the Christ. Praise God for preserving a true people for himself. Unless God adopted us into His family, we’d be blind to His Son and oppose His work in the world.
Verse 36 says, And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. Luke tells us Anna’s name, her tribe, and her father’s name.
Anna is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. The meaning of each name is important. The name Anna, or as some translations render it, Hannah, reminds us of the other famous Hannah in the Bible. Hannah presented her son Samuel in the temple as a boy before God, so also, now, Mary is presenting Jesus in the temple as a boy before God. Eli met Samuel in the temple and blessed Samuel. Simeon met Jesus in the Temple and blessed Jesus. Just as Israel knew Samuel as a prophet established over the whole land, so all the true Israel knows Jesus to be the Prophet declaring the whole will of God. The name Anna reminds us of these helpful connections. We see a replay of the events of Samuel in the life of Jesus. He is the New Samuel to lead Israel.
Phanuel is not mentioned in any other Scripture. Possibly, the name Phanuel brings to mind the place where Jacob receives his limp, Penuel (Genesis 32). Phanuel, like the limping Jacob, suggests a people wrestling with God. This meaning certainly fits with Luke’s presentation of the struggle of Anna. She shows us a person from Phanuel, a faithful Israelite, waiting and longing for redemption.
More directly, however, the name Phanuel means “Face of God.” Anna has seen the Face of God named Phanuel, her earthly father, so she can recognize Phanuel when she sees him. Today, though, something better than seeing her earthly father Phanuel happens. Anna sees the face of God in Jesus Christ, the Face of her Heavenly Father. When Anna looks at Mary’s child Jesus, Anna is looking at the Face of God.
The text, by giving us the name of Anna’s father, leads our minds to consider that Jesus is the Face of God. Jesus is Phanuel in flesh. Luke’s friend Paul calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Hebrews 1 says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” We can see God. Look at Jesus. Jesus is Phanuel, the face of God.
Why does it matter that Anna is from the tribe of Asher? Asher was a northern tribe of Israel conquered by Assyria. Asher became known as one of the ten lost tribes. What once was lost is now back. The Lord brought and led the lost tribe of Asher out of the countries where he had driven them (Jeremiah 23:8). The scattered Israel is built back up into the geography of the King Jesus. This is the work of God. God is transforming the 12 tribes into the Church.
Asher is Leah’s son. In Genesis 30:13 Leah says, “Blessed am I! For women have called me blessed.” Therefore she named the child Asher. Asher means Blessed. What do you think? Would Leah’s words resonate at all with Mary and her child Jesus? Yes! In Luke 1:48-49, Mary says “from now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is might has done great things for me, and Holy is His name.” Mary sounds just like Leah. Because of her child from the Lord, she is blessed and so she celebrates. Mary has become a new Leah and Jesus is her Asher. Discovering these connections would lead a godly Asherite, like Anna, to praise God.
Next Luke gives us a brief summary of Anna’s life: Anna 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 was married seven years from the time she was a virgin, perhaps around 14 years old, and then she was a widow 63 years until she turned 84.
Luke respects old age, so there is no reason for him to hide Anna’s age. But the number is also symbolic. Eighty-four represents the fullness of God’s people. 84 = 7 x 12. Seven is the number of creation, or completion, and 12 is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. So 84 is the completion of God’s people.
Anna, like Israel, has come to the fullness of time. With the coming of Jesus, 84-year-old Anna shows us that the Old Covenant system is complete. Before Jesus, tribal associations are important. The Gospels record the genealogies of both Joseph and Mary, and they both go back to Abraham, Joseph’s even to Adam. From now on, Jesus replaces the genealogies. What matters is no longer what tribe you are from, but if you are born of Jesus. Tribes find embodiment in Jesus Christ. So Jesus comes, and Anna turns 84. Both these events signal the completion and fulfilment of the old covenant in the Christ. Now, Jesus brings in a New Covenant. He will destroy the old Temple and build a new one. Anna’s age represents the completion of God’s chosen people.
Anna was a widow. She is a humble widow, so in her humility, she was able to see Jesus. Even many important Jewish leaders in her day could not recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but Anna saw Him and spread the word to the faithful Jews awaiting their Messiah. God exalts the humble but opposes the proud, does He not?
Zion herself is like a widow among the nations, lonely and bitter (Lamentations 1:1). So Anna shares the same condition as Zion. An 84-year-old widow like Anna symbolizes Zion, who is being renewed. The widow of Israel is giving proof that her dead husband is coming back to her again. She’s making a confession of salvation. As a representative for the fullness of all the twelve tribes, which becomes the new Kingdom of Jesus, Anna confesses Jesus as the Christ. Her testimony is the witness of the Church.
Luke’s next sentence instructs us, She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. Anna was a faithful and godly Jew who received Jesus. She never departed from the Temple. Like the last verse in Luke, after Jesus ascends, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:53). Both Anna and the disciples give us a lesson of how godly people worship together in the house of God.
In Anna’s days, there were plenty of reasons for her to avoid going to the Temple. Her fasting and prayers speak to a dilemma in her day. Anna’s fasting recognizes the need for a redeemer. She’s removing herself from the desecration, the leaven of self-righteousness all too common, the distraction of people who want the Temple to serve their purposes rather than God’s, a distraction even today found among the halls of God’s house. This behaviour, fasting and praying, is Anna’s elegy of her situation in order to provoke God to act on her behalf. She fasts from food, becomes physically hungry, and this physical hunger reminds her of her hunger for God to whom she prays for relief. Anna’s plea is for God to bring about the redemption of Jerusalem. We join her ranks when we pray “Lord, rescue your people from our enemies encircling us all around.”
Anna’s fast makes a statement against the sinful activities hindering the activity of God among His people, and she prays to God for salvation. But she does not give up the ground of the Temple to God’s foes, gathered around her as they are. Too often, withdraw from the Church is the response of people who recognize its flaws. No, but Anna is faithful to meet God at His place and pray for redemption. She witnesses injustice, but her faithful prayers – night and day – are heard. The Redeemer of Israel has arrived.
Dave Shaw is a student at Beeson Divinity School and a pastoral intern at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama.