12–Year–Old Jesus

Sermon Series
Book of the Bible
Luke 2:39–52

12–Year–Old Jesus (Luke 2:39–52) from South Woods Baptist Church on Vimeo.

I won’t speak for all males, but I know one who can’t multi–task. A couple years ago, on a Sunday morning, I had 6–month–old Eden in her carrier walking through the hallways a little before Sunday School. I think I remember someone asking me a question, but after that it all gets a bit foggy until I rounded the corner by the men’s bathroom and saw Julie in the foyer. Her expression indicated something was up, but I didn’t immediately know what. So she said, “Where’s Eden?” My face confirmed what she already knew. I turned around and mall–walked back toward the Adult Sunday School hall. As I rounded the corner again, there were a group of ladies standing by the Ladies Sunday School room. As I recall, some of them were laughing. A few of them, like beloved Ms. Pernie, looked ready to have a word with me. They’d all arrived to their Sunday School classroom with a baby sitting outside the door. They’d picked her carrier up and took her into their classroom. I will say, in my defense, if there were a place to leave a 6 month old by herself, that was pretty strategic. To compound the guilt I felt, this all happened on Father’s Day 2015. That story was part sermon intro and part prayer request for the rest of my family.

If you’ve never seen a parent momentarily lose their kid, hang around after the service today and just pay attention. You’ll find one. And you probably won’t even have to ask, just look for the dad or the mom walking faster than everyone else with a look of panic.

Parents have been doing this for centuries, and one of the most famous of temporarily lost kids is the story in our text today. Luke includes it not as an interesting story, though it is that, but so we might see and hear how Mary and Joseph’s son grew up. And even more importantly, so we might note His self–awareness.

Luke 2:39–52 will show us that: as Jesus grew, while his understanding amazed some, others did not understand.

Jesus Grew Up

It’s likely that around the holidays you saw kids you haven’t seen in a year. We all say the same things over and over, “Wow, she’s really gotten tall!” Or, “What are you feeding this boy?” Subconsciously, we often think if we’re not there to watch something change, it doesn’t. Everything freezes the way we left it.

But, as far as I can tell, babies turn into 1 year olds. Then they move on to 2. Eventually they start school. Then, in our terms, they become tweens, then teenagers, then (we hope), they become men. It’s happened to everyone in the room. Though my children can hardly believe I was their age once and teenagers think, “Mom and Dad have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager!,” as far as I know, you can’t just skip to 20.

And this gradual growth is even true for Jesus of Nazareth. So because we spend a whole bunch of time thinking on Him as a baby in Bethlehem and even more time considering His life as an adult male, we might be tempted to think he transformed from one to the other. God flipped a switch and Jesus the baby was with John the Baptist getting baptized.

But that’s not what happened, of course. And Luke is the only Gospel writer who gives us a glimpse into the period between Bethlehem and the baptism.

v. 39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. We left last week’s text with a 40-day-old Jesus who’d just met Simeon and Anna. The other Gospels give us a few more details about things that happen shortly thereafter (the flight to Egypt, etc.), but Luke picks back up the narrative at the point when Jesus and his family return to Nazareth. As you recall, Nazareth was little more than a village. Most of us have places we grew up in and call our hometown; this would be Jesus’.

And what Luke does next is summarize 12 years in Nazareth in 1 verse: v. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

So, Jesus grew. Like us, in this 12-year span he grew from an infant to what we might call today a 7th or 8th grader. He was truly God. But He was also truly man. He had baby teeth; then he lost those. Eventually his voice would change. His parents could’ve marked the wall every 6 months and watched him grow taller little by little. Physically, he matured. As boys do, he increased in strength.
Now, I’m not with some of the uber–intense guys who put brass knuckles on Jesus and describe him like he did Galilean MMA. But, I’m almost more so against the paintings of the Messiah that intentionally make the Christ look frail and weak as long as he has that glowing halo.

Of course, none of us have a picture. But we do know that men in that era, in Joseph and Mary’s socio–economic bracket, couldn’t just sit on the couch. They wouldn’t survive if they did. It’s certainly not stretching the bounds of orthodoxy to say that Jesus wasn’t lazy. And he was a carpenter’s son. So he was a hard worker whose work required manual labor. Further, we can go with what the bible says, and the child grew and became strong. I imagine if he were on the under–30 team at Elder Burger, they might fare better at tug of war. The point is: I don’t think a strong wind would blow Him over. He grew from a baby to a young man.

Now, here’s where we might get uncomfortable. Not only did he grow physically, in His human nature, He grew intellectually. There was an old belief called Apollinarianism that said Jesus had the mind of God but the body of a man.[1] But that notion was deemed to be heretical. This is one of the mysteries of the incarnation, that in His human nature, Christ submitted himself to certain limitations during His life. Phil Ryken notes concerning His humanity, “Like his body, the mind of Christ had to develop.”[2] Let me read from R. C. Sproul, “In His human nature, He was not omniscient. His knowledge, though true and accurate as far as it went, was not infinite.”[3] We know He learned. None of us think that Jesus turned toward Mary in the manger and said, “No room in the inn, huh?” Like us, he learned to speak.

But here’s the key difference, among many. His development and growth was unhindered by depravity.[4] So, kids and teenagers, you’re in a stage of life intentionally devoted to learning. And it’s hard. You know why learning is hard? Because your mind has been affected by sin. That not only means you think on sinful things; it also means you don’t learn science quick enough. And you fail to have wisdom in life settings. Sin’s affected how you learn.

Jesus learned too, but without sin. His intellect advanced to its full capacity. I think that’s what Luke is describing. Here in v. 40 Jesus is said to be filled with wisdom. In verse 52 later on it says, strikingly, Jesus increased in wisdom.

And this “unaffected by sin” wisdom He obtained through learning sets up the next section.

His Understanding Amazed Some

We noted last week the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph as that text said repeatedly, “They did this according to the word of the Lord. They did that according to the Law of the Lord.” Even in v. 39 in today’s text, they did not return to Nazareth until, they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord. Luke continued to beat this faithfulness drum in verse 41, Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. There were 3 annual festivals Jewish men were required to keep: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacles. Women were not required to attend, hinting again at Mary’s faithfulness.[5] You have your yearly traditions. Every year, Joseph and Mary would travel the 80 or so miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover.

So, verse 42 is no surprise, And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. Some speculate that this is the first time Jesus went with them; we don’t know for sure. But we do know that he was reaching the age where Jesus would begin to be treated like a man. By Jewish standards, he was on the brink of adult life. That might be hard for us to understand for a 12–year–old, but actually our current culture’s emphasis on extended adolescence is something of an aberration in history. A satire article I saw a couple months back made the point. The title was this: “Dying woman sad she’ll never get to see 37–year–old son grow up.” In Jesus’ era, boys were expected to grow up. Why emphasize this? Is this a tangent? No, because Jesus is probably not a helpless 12 year old who’s never been asked to do something on his own. He’s on the cusp of being expected to act like a man.

And he sort of does here. At first glance, the next part of the story appears almost incredulous: v. 43: And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. But supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.

I was tempted to title this sermon “Temple Alone.” But Jesus isn’t in the attic when the family heads to vacation; He’s lost in a metropolis compared to Nazareth. Somehow, his parents don’t make sure he’s on the bus when they leave.

We’ve all grown up with this story, probably having certain presuppositions about it. For one, maybe we think, “Well, Mary and Joseph certainly were not guilty of being helicopter parents.” Or, conversely maybe we think, “Seriously, how hard is it to make sure all your kids made it on the bus?” That’s basic trip taking; you always count the kids when you get back in the car after Chick–fil–a. Also, how did no one notice that Jesus wasn’t with the group? Furthermore, not to show favoritism, but Mary isn’t this the kid Gabriel came to see you about? At the temple you were just at, didn’t Simeon tell you a few things about Him? If you’re going to misplace one, maybe not this one.

Those are some initial thoughts, and maybe you have more, but verse 44 gives us something of an explanation, but supposing him to be in the group. According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and other sources, we know the road back home from Jerusalem would’ve been a nice spot for robbers to hide out and attack.[6] So, Joseph and Mary traveled in a large group, or caravan, for protection.

So, first, imagine 12–year–old Jesus is considered to be mostly responsible for Himself. He’s not an adult just yet, but he’s getting close. Then, consider the dynamics of group travel and parenting. What I mean is this: often keeping up with a kid is easier when you’re one on one.
Generally the more adults around, the more those adults assume someone else is watching the kids. This is especially true when you’re at a family event. You might just have your two kids, but now you have aunts and uncles around, grandparents to help, etc. In those settings, because now it’s not entirely dependent on you, parents often let their guard down some. The problem is that everyone lets his or her guard down in a group, thinking, “There are 6 adults to 2 kids. We got this.” But what inevitably happens? Some version of this, “I thought you were watching him.”

That’s my sympathetic anecdotally–reinforced explanation of what happened. Here’s Darrell Bock’s more academic version of what I said: “it is credible that a trustworthy child was assumed to be with other family.”[7] That’s what the end of verse 44 hints at: they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances.

It’s also possible that some of these caravans split up the ladies and the men, so that Mary thought Jesus was with Joseph and Joseph thought he was with Mary. For their marriage’s sake, I hope that wasn’t the case. It’s so much easier for the blame to be a bit more vague.

Why did I just give a possible explanation for how they lost Jesus? Because some scholars find the story so incredulous they doubt the historicity of it. When I read those scholars, I assume two things: 1. You don’t want it to be true so you’re looking for an out. 2. You clearly don’t have kids.

Nonetheless, they went a day’s journey without him. After not finding him, they turn back toward Jerusalem. Can you imagine how icy the conversation was on the way back? Somebody is in serious trouble. Nonetheless, they make it back to Jerusalem and begin searching.

Verse 46 says, After three days they found him in the temple. On first read I wondered, “Why did it take them three days to go to the temple?” But the three days actually most likely refer to the time that elapsed from the moment he was not with them. I. Howard Marshall writes, “The first day would be that of the outward journey, the second day of the return to Jerusalem, and the third day that of the search for him.”[8]

In the same place that Simeon and Anna found the Christ, so did Mary and Joseph. This time he’s not being cradled and prophesied about; instead He’s learning. V. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

The teachers in this era would’ve sat while they taught. So Jesus sits with them. It’s interesting that Luke calls them teachers here. Later on they’ll be called the scribes. And because we’ve read the rest of the book, we know this won’t be Jesus’ final interaction with these men. And this will be one of the mildest.

He’s sitting with them, listening to them and asking them questions. Now, some popular portrayals of this story have, many scholars think, overemphasized the divine nature of this 12 year old and depicted him as if He were actually instructing the teachers. That’s a bit of a reach. Marshall writes, “There is no thought of his precociously teaching the experts.”[9] Darrell Bock agrees[10]

Rabbinic teaching at the time was not like the sage on a stage methodology, where one man lectured and everyone else passively listens. Instead, their teaching pedagogy employed the art of questioning, out of which discussion would hopefully come about.[11] So, likely, the Rabbis were asking questions of the group around them. Jesus probably would’ve answered some of them. The text says that Jesus asked questions too. So, because discussion would be common, it’s likely Jesus asked questions like, “So, if that means this, what about that?” Marshall notes that the questions Jesus uses were probably not just those of curiosity, but the probing kinds of questions “designed to elicit decisions.”[12]

About 7 or 8 years ago, I was teaching the 4 and 5 year old Sunday School class here. I think I was trying to make the point that God knew every hair on their heads. The big God of the Bible, I wanted these small kids to know, was not unaware of each one of them. To make my point about how big God was, I remember asking rhetorically, “Do you have any idea how many people are on the planet?” Almost immediately, a 5 year old answered, “6 billion.” You can ask Julie; I had to sit down. I’m regularly amazed by those I teach here, mainly because their parents have taught them well.

So recall again, Jesus is sitting here learning too, but He’s doing so without a sin nature. He’s not forgetting what the teacher said the day before about Isaiah 38–40, or about what Mary taught him from Psalm 2. It would’ve been common in that day for Jewish boys to memorize the Scriptures. It’s safe to assume no one memorized as much as Jesus.

So He’s in the temple, among the teachers. He never wasted a word. His questions were perfectly stated. While these teachers had probably met their share of 12 year olds, this was something different. And verse 47 tells us their response, And all who heard him were amazed at understanding and his answers. After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us Jesus’ teaching astonished the crowds. This is the trailer for that film to come. His understanding amazed some.

Now here’s the danger, you will remember that story and not remember why Luke included it. There’s very little from Mary and Joseph misplacing Jesus that contributes to the thrust Luke is aiming at. Luke’s trying to write an orderly account for Theophilus (Lk 1:1–4). And the purpose of this orderly account/Luke’s Gospel? That you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (1:4).
This text isn’t mainly about Jesus getting lost or him sitting with and amazing the teachers, it’s about what happens next.

Others Did Not Understand

Jesus is the only one whose learning is unaffected by sin. While these teachers were amazed at Jesus’ understanding, we’ll find that those closest to Him did not always understand.

Verse 48: And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. Bock says this astonishment was some combination of amazement and relief, something of a reaction to being overwhelmed by events.[13] You can understand this. 3 days probably felt like 3 years for Mary and Joseph. But there also seems to be some astonishment at finding Jesus where they did.[14]

Sinclair Ferguson’s church must be like ours. He gives a hypothetical of a parent rushing around the church building looking for little Johnny only to eventually find Johnny sitting by the pulpit asking Sinclair questions about Leviticus 14. No matter what Mary had been told by Gabriel and Simeon, no matter what Jesus’ first 12 years looked like on the obedience level, finding him there engaged in theological inquiry seems to have astonished Mary and Joseph somewhat.

Again, their thinking had been affected by sin; they were still learning the implications of what they’d been told about their son. So, Mary, probably a bit flustered and embarrassed, says to the Messiah, v.48 Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.

We’ve all heard this, “your father and I” bit. As I mentioned last week, the perfect child might not have been so easy to parent. Mary’s priorities wouldn’t be His. His aims wouldn’t always be hers. And the single–mindedness He’d have would bring all kinds of opposition. Jesus might not have always pleased Joseph, but that says more about Joseph than Him. So, here, they’re frustrated with Him.

And in verse 49, Jesus speaks. This is not only the first time he speaks in Luke’s Gospel, it’s the first recorded words we have from Him anywhere. None of the birth narratives include His coos or attempts to say mommy. Others have spoken about Him thus far, but now He speaks Himself. And this is why Luke includes this story in his orderly account: v. 49: And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?

Mary and Joseph seem to be astonished that Jesus is in the temple; Jesus is astonished they didn’t assume He’d be there.

In Pastor Phil’s introduction sermon to the book of Luke,[15] he noted Luke’s repeated use of the Greek word dei, meaning, “necessary, must, or ought.” Luke uses this word 18 times in his Gospel, each time as a marker. Darrell Bock explains that dei is “used strategically in the gospel where elements of Jesus’ mission are set forth.”[16]

For example, in 4:43 it was necessary that He “preach the kingdom of God.” In 9:22, it was necessary that He suffer, die, and be raised. In 13:33, it was necessary that He go to Jerusalem. In 17:25, He must suffer. In 22:37, He must, it was necessary that He, be reckoned with the criminals. And again in 24:7, He must suffer, die, and be raised.[17]

But here, in chapter 2:49, Jesus says it is necessary, He must be in my Father’s house. This is the only use of dei to refer to Jesus’ relationship with His Father. While referring to God as Father was relatively common in the OT, when it was used there the pronoun was different. The OT saints called the Lord “our” Father.[18] Here Jesus says something altogether more personal about His relationship. And it is something He’s saying about Himself.

It’s pretty common for teenagers and even 20–somethings to struggle with self–awareness. They think they’re good at this or that, but they’re not. They don’t think they’re good at this or that, but they actually are. They don’t quite know yet what they want to do with their life, or even many would say, who they are. They sometimes do things that make no sense, the kinds of things later in life they’ll say, “Why did I do that?” They’re just not comfortable in their own skin yet. All of us went through it to some degree. As we get older, the frontal lobe comes in fully, and we figure out a few more things. We’re more self–aware. We know better who we are and how we fit in the world that surrounds us.

12–year–old Jesus wasn’t still finding Himself. He knew exactly who He was. The temple, that which the OT repeatedly called the house of God, was His home. God the Father was His Father. He was indeed the Son of the Most High (1:32) As Gabriel promised Mary, the child to be born to you will be called holy––the Son of God (1:35). Gabriel announced it. Jesus knew it.

I imagine when you consider these first couple chapters of Luke, you think this or that story might be the high point. However, a number of scholars say this verse is the pinnacle. While we’ve had others tell us who this baby is, here Jesus introduces Himself––and His identity––to Luke’s readers for the first time.

Mary and Joseph heard it too. Luke continues. Verse 50: And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. Again, the magnitude of what Jesus just said about Himself can’t be overstated. Further, we shouldn’t miss how Jesus just redefined family for Mary too. She said to him, “your father and I have been searching for you.” He immediately responds: He was actually already with His Father. He was in His Father’s house.

This was more, in that moment, than Mary and Joseph could take in. They did not understand. I wonder if Luke included all the passages about how they faithfully followed the Lord to set us up for this moment. These were not half–hearted Jews, masquerading as followers of the Lord. They were serious–minded, yet struggled to quickly understand Jesus’ demand upon them. Marshall writes, “They are perplexed at the revelation of what divine Sonship implies.”[19]

You say, “How could they be confused? Didn’t Gabriel tell them?” We expect a lot from our bible characters. They wouldn’t be the last to misunderstand the implications. Or the last to struggle to apply that which they knew. In the chapters to come, we’ll see Jesus teach and spend His life with disciples who would be confused time after time about what Jesus’ mission demanded of Him and what it demanded of them.

So, Mary and Joseph’s confusion ought to encourage us. They struggled to always believe what Jesus said. So do we.

But, no matter how confused they might’ve been, or we can be, the point of the text is that He knew who He was. And He knew where He needed to be.

God understood, and was pleased

Though Mary and Joseph didn’t immediately understand, that didn’t mean they didn’t continue to consider it. The text continues, v. 51: And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.

This is not the main issue, but Jesus’ submission to His parents is noteworthy. One might wonder: how many times did Jesus know a better way to do something than His parents and yet still submit? One of the beauties of the incarnation is the truth that Jesus became man without ceasing to be who He was, that is, God. So, in our text we read of the creator and sustainer of the world submitting Himself to flawed parents. They might sin against Him; He would not reciprocate. In His human nature, He would help Joseph build. In His divine nature, He’d hold the world He built. This is someone worthy of your worship.

And what Jesus had done, what He said to Mary in the temple, stayed with her. Wouldn’t it you? v. 51b, And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. It’s likely that Luke is referring to more than the temple incident, but it would be included. Mary thought on it regularly. It’s not improbable that Luke learned this story from Mary or someone she told it to. That’s how it gets to us.

And we know that as she meditated on all that preceded, she would continue to be a faithful follower of Her Son. The temple doubt is just a snapshot; faith is seen in time. The teachers of the law who were so amazed by Him and His understanding would eventually turn on Him. His mother who initially was confused and did not understand would turn to Him.

After the temple incident, He went back to Nazareth with them and continued to grow up. V. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

So 12 year old Jesus would become 13 and 14 year old Jesus. He’d grow in wisdom perfectly. He’d grow in stature.

While our text’s story has seemed to mainly be about men noting this growth, Luke bookends the text noting God’s notice. Both in v.40 and here in v. 52 we read that the favor of God was upon him. Bock defines this favor this way: “Jesus is the object of God’s special attention.”[20] As you recall in verse 40, Luke is summarizing in one verse 12 years of Jesus’ life. And it concludes with, and the favor of God was upon him, meaning all of those years. God’s favor was on 5–day– old Jesus. His favor was on 5–year–old Jesus. He was pleased with 12–year–old Jesus in the temple and 20 year old Jesus. There was never a year that God the Father’s favor and pleasure wasn’t on His Son. And the glory of the gospel is this: all of that is in your account.

Not the wreck you were at this age or that age. If you’re in Christ, God sees Him. It’s as if you did it.

This wasn’t the final time Jesus would be in Jerusalem for Passover. He would come back later, bear the curse, so you might know God’s favor.

[1] See Phil Ryken, Luke, REC, 104ff for a good discussion of this idea.
[2] Ibid., 104.
[3] R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, 86.
[4] Ryken, 104.
[5] Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 264.
[6] Bock, 264.
[7] Bock, 261.
[8] I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 127.
[9] Marshall, 127.
[10] Bock, 267.
[11] Marshall, 127.
[12] Marshall, 127.
[13] Bock, 268
[14] Marshall, 128.
[15] “Why You Should Study Luke’s Gospel” http://www.southwoodsbc.org/sermons/why-you-should-study-lukes-gospel/
[16] Bock, 269.
[17] See Ibid. for more on this.
[18] Ryken, 110.
[19] Marshall, 129.
[20] Bock, 254.

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