In the last essay we studied Luke 2:21-40, in which we saw the circumcision and presentation of Jesus. In this essay we are studying 2:41-52. It is the only story in the New Testament about Jesus’ youth.
The Passover was one of three major feasts of the Jews. The other two were Pentecost and Tabernacles. These three feasts are called pilgrim feasts, because the law required Jews living within a certain distance of the temple to attend in person. However, not everyone could manage to afford three festivals a year. If families could only afford to go once a year, they normally would go at Passover.
This story has to do with a Passover visit to Jerusalem by Jesus’ family when he was twelve years old (vv. 41-42). Jewish boys became adults at age twelve, and they began to receive religious instruction. Since family groups and their neighbors tended to travel to and from the Passover feast together in fairly large groups, it would not have been unusual for Joseph and Mary to assume that Jesus, at his age, was somewhere in the caravan when they left Jerusalem to return home (v. 43).
As you see, Joseph and Mary discovered Jesus’ absence when the group, after a day’s travel, camped for the night. So Joseph and Mary did what any loving parents would do. They returned to Jerusalem to look for Jesus (vv. 44-45). Verse 46 tells us, “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” The phrase “after three days” suggests one day of travel away from Jerusalem, one day of travel back to the city, and one day to find Jesus.
Rabbis evidently taught their students in the temple precincts; and in verses 47-50 we see that Jesus apparently entered uninvited into the discussions. You might think that the rabbis would not have looked on that with favor. But Jesus obviously made such an immediate, amazing impression that they welcomed him (v. 47), because they wanted to hear what he had to say. We have no way of knowing whether or not Jesus stayed in the temple the entire three days.
At any rate, when Joseph and Mary finally found Jesus in the temple, like everyone else, they were astonished by what was going on. They were amazed at Jesus’ questions and answers as he interacted with the rabbis. But they also were astonished at his behavior. There is reproach in Mary’s voice when she says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” This gives us some insight into the extreme anxiety that Joseph and Mary felt when they found Jesus missing. Something terrible easily could have happened to him.
Jesus deepened the mystery with his reply. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The last phrase could be translated “about my Father’s business” as well as “in my Father’s house.” But the context favors “in my Father’s house.”
Jesus’ point clearly was that the will of his heavenly Father was more important than that of his earthly parents. It is clear that Joseph and Mary did not fully understand what he meant. Despite all that had been revealed to them during the infancy of Jesus, they could not take all of this in. You will recall that, years later, during Jesus’ ministry, his family still didn’t understand him (Luke 8:19-21; John 7:1-5).
The incident obviously raised a real tension between Jesus and his parents. The content of verse 51 tells us that the tension between Jesus and his earthly parents was eased by Jesus’ obedience to them after their return to Nazareth. Once more Mary had things to treasure in her heart.
Verse 52 tells us that Jesus, during the period between the ages of twelve and about thirty (which was his age when he began his ministry), increased in wisdom, in “years” or “stature,” “and in divine and human favor.” So if we take this verse and verses 2:40 together, we see that Jesus developed physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually.
A question about what Jesus did during those approximately eighteen silent years naturally arises. And as you would expect, some early writers tried to fill in the uncertainties. As you may have heard, there are some so-called apocryphal gospels that tell outlandish stories of Jesus doing miraculous things as a boy. For example, one tells how he made mud-pie birds as he played in the mud. Then he turned them into real birds, and they flew off. Another tells that Jesus, in a dispute with a playmate, killed him. And then Jesus brought the playmate back to life.
The truth is we don’t have much information on what Jesus did during those years. He apparently lived a very normal life, because the people of Nazareth refused to believe in him. And the reason they refused to believe was because they had seen him grow up (Matt. 13:54-58). His brothers also didn’t believe in him while he was alive and in active ministry (John 7:5). And he was known in Nazareth, not as a special person, but as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55), so he probably worked with Joseph at their trade. All of this suggests that Jesus was a very normal boy and young man growing up. He apparently was known in Nazareth as a typical kid; and that’s why, when Jesus began his public ministry, his hometown folks had great difficulty believing he was the Messiah.
As we turn to application, there obviously is a point of application for youth. Jesus demonstrated how a young person should order priorities and live. First, even as a youth, he put God first. Someone might think that he couldn’t do anything else, since he was God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that he became a real human being, and was functioning as a real human being. So he could have failed to put God first.
Second, as we have seen in 2:40 and 52, Jesus came to human maturity in a balanced way. As he grew up, he didn’t neglect any aspect of his life, the physical, mental, social, or spiritual. He learned how to work; he learned how to listen to those who could teach him (2:46); he learned how to get along with others, including being obedient to his parents; and he kept his relationship with his heavenly Father primary.
Now then, for the rest of us, I suppose the application is much the same. We must put God first in our lives. That means not only that we must cultivate our relationship to God by devotion and worship; but we also must seek to minister to others in whatever ways God calls and gifts us to do. And like Jesus, we must not neglect the physical, mental, social, and spiritual aspects of our lives.