Anna: The Faithful Witness

"Coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord." Luke 2:38

 

She gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. — Luke 2:38 NKJV

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.

Daniel’s famous prophecy about “Messiah the Prince” (Daniel 9:24-27 NKJV) had practically set the date. Daniel wrote, “Seventy weeks are determined… Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks.” If Daniel’s “weeks” (literally, “sevens” in the Hebrew) are understood as seven-year periods, Daniel is describing a period of 483 years total: “seven weeks” (forty-nine years) plus “sixty-two weeks” (434 years). “The command to restore and build Jerusalem” seems to be a reference to the decree of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 2:1-8), which was issued in 444 or 445 BC. If the years are reckoned by a lunar calendar of 360 days, Daniel’s timetable would put the appearance of “Messiah the Prince” around AD 30, which was the year of His triumphal entry.

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)

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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.

“SHE WAS A PROPHETESS”

Luke introduced her this way: “There was one, Anna, a prophetess” (Luke 2:36 NKJV).

What did Luke mean by prophetess? He was not suggesting that Anna predicted the future. She was not a fortune-teller. He didn’t necessarily even suggest that she received special revelation from God. The word prophetess simply designated a woman who spoke the Word of God. Any preacher who faithfully proclaims the Word of God would be a “prophet” in the general biblical sense. And a prophetess would be a woman uniquely devoted to declaring the Word of God.

Anna may have been a teacher of the Old Testament to other women. Or she may have simply had a private ministry there in the temple offering words of encouragement and instruction from the Hebrew Scriptures to other women who came to worship. Nothing suggests that she was a source of revelation, or that any special revelation ever came to her directly. Even her realization that Jesus was the Messiah seemed to have come from the revelation given to Simeon and subsequently overheard by her. She is nonetheless called a prophetess because it was her habit to declare the truth of God’s Word to others. This gift for proclaiming God’s truth ultimately played a major role in the ministry she is still best remembered for.

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“WHO DID NOT DEPART FROM THE TEMPLE”

Luke gave another significant detail about Anna: “[She] did not depart from the temple” (Luke 2:37 NKJV). That’s an emphatic statement, which suggests that Luke meant it in a literal sense. Evidently, Anna lived right there on the temple grounds. There were some apartments in the outer courts (Nehemiah 13:7-9). These were modest chambers, probably used as temporary dwelling places for priests who lived on the temple grounds while doing their two weeks’ annual service.

Perhaps because of her long faithfulness, her obvious spiritual gifts, her steadfast devotion to the Lord, and her constant commitment to her ministry of prayer and fasting, temple officials had given her a small chamber. She was now too old to be employed as a caretaker, but perhaps she had once served in that capacity, and her living quarters had been given to her for life. In any case, it was ultimately the Lord who had graciously provided her a place in His house and sovereignly orchestrated whatever arrangement she might have had with the temple custodians.

It is obvious that Anna was a most extraordinary woman in the eyes of everyone who knew her. She lived the simplest kind of life. She could always be found at the temple. She was singularly and completely devoted to the service and worship of God — mostly through her prayers and fasting.

The manner of her praying, accompanied by fasting, speaks of her own self-denial and sincerity. Fasting by itself is not a particularly useful exercise. Abstaining from food per se has no mystical effect on anything spiritual. But fasting with prayer reveals a heart so consumed with praying, and so eager to receive the blessing being sought, that the person simply has no interest in eating. That is when fasting has real value.

Anna apparently had been doing this as a pattern for sixty-four years or longer. Here was a passionate woman! What do you think Anna had been praying about? She surely prayed about many things, but there is little doubt that one of the main subjects of her prayers was an earnest plea for the very same thing Simeon was so eager for: “the Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25 NKJV). Her hope, like Eve’s, was for the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head. Her longing, like Sarah’s, was for the Seed of Abraham, who would bless all the nations of the world. She was praying that God would soon send the promised deliverer, the Messiah.

Anna’s amazing faith stemmed from the fact that she believed all the promises that filled the Old Testament. She took the Word of God seriously. She knew in her heart that the Messiah was coming, and without any doubt whatsoever her first and foremost prayer was that it would happen soon.

I’m convinced that Anna had a remarkable knowledge of spiritual truth.

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She truly loved her God. She understood His heart and mind. She genuinely believed His Word. She was a wonderfully remarkable woman indeed — perhaps one of the most devout people we meet anywhere on the pages of Scripture. No one else comes to mind who fasted and prayed faithfully for more than sixty years!

God was about to give her an answer to her prayers in the most dramatic fashion. Verse 38 says that just when Simeon pronounced his prophetic blessing on the infant Christ and His earthly parents, “in that instant” (NKJV), she came along. Now, Herod’s temple was a massive building, and the temple complex was huge, surrounded by a courtyard with thousands of people milling around at almost any given time.

Joseph and Mary did not know Simeon, but by God’s providence and through the sovereign direction of His Spirit, He had brought them together (Luke 2:27). At that very instant, just while Simeon was blessing the child with inspired words of prophecy, the Spirit of God providentially led this elderly woman to a place where she was within earshot. Luke’s description is typically understated:

Coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord. — Luke 2:38 NKJV

Suddenly everything she had been praying and fasting for was right there in front of her face, wrapped in a little bundle in Simeon’s arms. By faith, she knew instantly that Simeon’s prophecy was true and that God had answered her prayers. She immediately began giving thanks to God, and all those many, many years of petition turned to praise.

We can only imagine how Anna felt after long decades of focused prayer and fasting, yearning for God to reveal His glory again, praying and fasting for the salvation of Israel, and beseeching God to send the Messiah. Finally, the answer to her prayers had come in flesh and blood.

“SHE… SPOKE OF HIM TO ALL”

Suddenly Anna’s prophetic giftedness came boldly to the forefront:

[She] spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. — Luke 2:38 NKJV

The verb tense signifies continuous action. It literally means that she continually spoke of Him to all who were looking for the Redeemer. This became her one message for the rest of her life.

Notice that Anna knew who the believing remnant were. She could identify the true worshipers — the ones who, like her, were expectantly awaiting the Messiah. She sought such people out, and at every opportunity from then on, she spoke to them about Him.

That is how this dear woman who had spent so many years mostly talking to God became best known for talking to people about Christ. The Messiah had finally come, and Anna was one of the very first to know who He was. She could not keep that news to herself. She thus became one of the very first and most enduring witnesses of Christ.

What became of Anna after this is not recorded. She was undoubtedly in Heaven by the time Christ began His public ministry some thirty years later. The day of His dedication was probably her one and only glimpse of Him. But it was enough for her. She literally could not stop talking about Him.

And that is the most endearing part of this wonderful woman’s extraordinary legacy.

Excerpted with permission from Twelve Extraordinary Women by John MacArthur, copyright John MacArthur.

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Your Turn

Anna had suffered in life tragedy after trauma. Her life was simple, humble, and in many ways hard. But, she honored the Lord, dedicated her life to prayer and fasting, and boy did the Father honor her! She will be remembered forever for being one of the few who held baby Jesus knowing who He was! Amazing! ~ Devotionals Daily

John MacArthur

John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, president of the Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry. In more than four decades of ministry, John has written dozens of bestselling books, including The MacArthur Study Bible, The Gospel According to Jesus, and Slave. He and his wife, Patricia, have four married children and fifteen grandchildren.

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