It is truly remarkable that when Jesus was born, so few people in Israel recognized their Messiah. It was not as if no one was watching for Him. Messianic expectation in the early first century was running at an all-time high.
Scripture records that when John the Baptist began his ministry, “The people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not” (Luke 3:15 NKJV). As a matter of fact, several of the disciples first encountered Christ for the very reason that they were watching expectantly for Him to appear, and they came to John the Baptist, who pointed the way to Christ (John 1:27–37).
The fact is, virtually all faithful believers in Israel were already expectantly awaiting the Messiah and looking diligently for Him at the exact time Jesus was born. The irony is that so very few recognized Him, because He met none of their expectations. They were looking for a mighty political and military leader who would become a conquering king; He was born into a peasant family. They probably anticipated that He would arrive with great fanfare and pageantry; He was born in a stable, almost in secret.
The only people in Israel who did recognize Christ at His birth were humble, unremarkable people. The Magi of Matthew 2:1–12, of course, were foreigners and Gentiles, and they were very rich, powerful, and influential men in their own culture. But the only Israelites who understood that Jesus was the Messiah at His birth were Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. All of them were basically nobodies. All of them recognized Him because they were told who He was by angels, or by some other form of special revelation. Luke recounts all their stories in succession, as if he is calling multiple witnesses, one at a time, to establish the matter.
The final witness he calls is Anna. Everything Scripture has to say about her is contained in just three verses: Luke 2:36–38. She is never mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. But these three verses are enough to establish her reputation as a genuinely extraordinary woman:
Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (NKJV)
The scene is vivid in Luke’s gospel. Simeon had just picked up the infant Jesus and pronounced a prophetic blessing on Him. “In that instant,” Luke says, Anna happened by and immediately understood what was going on and who Christ was. Perhaps she overheard Simeon’s blessing. She probably already knew Simeon personally. Anna herself was clearly a fixture in the temple, and Simeon was described as “just and devout” (v. 25 NKJV). Both were very old. It seems unlikely that their paths had never crossed. Probably knowing Simeon’s reputation as a righteous man whose one expectation in life was to see “the Consolation of Israel” with his own eyes before dying, Anna stopped and took notice when she heard the joyous blessing he pronounced on Jesus.
Like many of the extraordinary women throughout Scripture, Anna’s hopes and dreams were full of messianic expectation. She knew the Old Testament promises, and she understood that salvation from sin and the future blessing of Israel depended on the coming of the Messiah. Her longing to see Him was suddenly and surprisingly fulfilled one day as she went about her normal routine in the temple.
Anna appears only in a very brief vignette of Luke’s gospel, but her inclusion there elevates the importance of her life and testimony. She was blessed by God to be one of a handful of key witnesses who knew and understood the significance of Jesus’ birth. And she made no attempt to keep it a secret. Thus she became one of the first and most enduring witnesses to Christ. No doubt wherever Luke’s gospel is proclaimed, her testimony is still bringing others to the Savior. Thus she deserves a prominent place in any list of extraordinary women.
Actually, quite a lot about Anna’s extraordinary life can be gleaned from the three brief verses of Scripture that are devoted to her story. Luke’s narrative is loaded with key phrases that give us a surprisingly rich understanding of Anna’s life and character.
In the days ahead we’ll consider what Scripture reveals to us about this faithful witness, and what we can learn from her godly example.