The Messiah as a Boy


Luke 2:39-52

Text Comment

v.39     Luke makes no mention of the holy family’s flight to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of Herod. We read of that in Matthew 2. If we ask why he omitted that episode in the Lord’s early life, a period of time that may have been quite brief, we might just as well ask why the Gospel writers didn’t tell us so much more about the Lord’s life from his boyhood to his adulthood. John provides the explanation at the end of his Gospel (21:25). If they had told everything they might have, the world wouldn’t have been big enough to contain the books that would have had to have been written.

v.41     It was not required in the Law of Moses that women attend the three great feasts at Jerusalem every year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. To require the women would have required the entire family to make the trip, more difficult and certainly more expensive for the ordinary Israelite family. The commandments of God have never been a burden for the people of God. That Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem every year, at least at Passover, the greatest of the three feasts, says something of their piety. We have already read of their faithfulness in keeping the law. Here they go beyond the law for the sake of the love of God. Don’t you wonder if they ever wondered if in Jerusalem an angel might appear to them again?

v.42     Whether there is any significance to his being twelve and whether this was the first time he had gone to Passover in Jerusalem we have no way of knowing. It was at 13 that a boy became a full member of the synagogue and evidence for the Jewish rite of bar mitzvah is much later. So far as anyone knows bar mitzvah was not a feature of Jewish life in biblical times.

v.45     We may find it passing strange that parents would not know that they were missing one of their children when they set off on a journey and, even more, that they wouldn’t realize that he was not with them through a full day of traveling. I have to confess that I once reached home on a Sunday night without all of my children in tow and had to return to the church to pick one of them up. But if the family were larger, if other children had gone along as seems likely if both mother and father were present on the trip, if they were, part of a caravan returning to Galilee, it may well be that the women and men walked in separate groups as they often do today on the near east. It is possible that both Joseph and Mary assumed that Jesus was with the other. [Morris, 108] In any case, the children would be running around playing as children will do. These parents had certainly come to trust their son to do the right thing and be in the right place and so it was that they got that far away without realizing they were absent their oldest son.

v.46     In all likelihood the three days are not the length of time his parents searched for him in Jerusalem. The first day was the day of travel homeward, the second day was the day it took them to return to Jerusalem, and the third day they found him in the temple. [Bock, i, 266]

            We know that Jesus was sinless so the fact that he had been separated from his parents for three days cannot be laid upon him as a fault. How many times during your travels have you been separated from members of your party, especially before the advent of cell phones, and thought it best to remain where you were so that they could be sure to find you eventually, rather than to begin looking for them you know not where. As we will read in v. 49 Jesus assumed that his parents would know where to find him.

            The words “among the teachers” are the mathematical center of this 170 word paragraph. I’m not sure whether we ought to make anything of that, but if it is intentional – and biblical writers certainly sometimes did send signals in this way – the place of Jesus among the teachers would thus be indicated to be one of Luke’s emphases in the episode. [Green, 155]

v.47     You will sometimes see works of art which depict the boy Jesus in the temple and the title given to such works is often something like Christ Disputing with the Doctors. Several Italian Renaissance painters as well as Rembrandt have paintings with that name. The image conveyed both by the painting and the title is that of the boy Jesus putting these rabbis in their place and correcting their theological errors. In some of the apocryphal accounts Jesus was even teaching the rabbis about such subjects as medicine and astronomy! [Plummer, 76] But that isn’t what Luke says happened. Luke says that he listened and asked questions. He didn’t know enough yet to lecture a rabbi and, in any case, was a boy who had been taught by his parents to show deference to his elders. The rabbis apparently asked him some questions because they were amazed at the quality of his questions, but we should not think of this as some kind of theological debate.

v.48     With the previous history of their boy, we can well imagine that Joseph and Mary grew frantic as the hours and then days passed without their finding Jesus. Have we misplaced the savior of the world?

v.49     Their son’s reply does not amount to a rebuke of his parents for looking for him but surprise that they didn’t know where he was. Perhaps we might take his words to mean, “I assumed you would look first for me in the temple.”

v.50     There is, as we will see, something remarkable in the boy’s statement and Joseph and Mary did not grasp it.

v.51     A good, a righteous boy will be obedient to his parents, as we know from the Ten Commandments and a good many other statements of Holy Scripture. And so Jesus was.

            This is Luke’s last reference to Joseph. We do not know when he died; we know only that he lived long enough to beget a sizeable family. Mary may not have understood, but she didn’t forget; and she thought long and hard about the things she saw and the things she heard. She knew her son was someone very special, but not yet how special.

v.52     “Stature” is probably a reference to his physical development.

Now the question that faces any reader of the Gospels and the Gospel of Luke at this point is why this one anecdote from the boyhood and youth and young adulthood of the Lord Jesus. Apart from this one episode in the early life of Jesus we know absolutely nothing. Nothing is said in the Gospels about his early childhood, about his life as a teenager, or even of his life as a young man. He doesn’t appear again in the narrative until he is almost 30 years of age. Obviously he received some form of education but we don’t know what it was.

It is quite possible, indeed, that one of the attractions of the temple for the twelve-year-old Jesus was that there would have been few really good teachers in a small village like Nazareth and here he could make the most of his opportunity to listen and talk to learned men. Like many precocious children the teachers he had couldn’t satisfy his curiosity and when he encountered men who could he was enraptured.

Presumably at some point he began to work in his father’s trade, he formed friendships with others in the town his own age, he related every day to his brothers and sisters, but we are told nothing about any of that. What did others think of him, morally perfect as he was? Did they resent his goodness the way people will? How did he handle the death of his father? What was said about the fact that he was apparently not interested in marriage? These and many other questions must remain unanswered. We simply do not know because we are not told.

I can well imagine that James and Jude, the Lord’s brothers who became prominent leaders of the church after Pentecost, were constantly fielding questions about what life was like in their home in Nazareth as their elder brother Jesus was growing up. The subject is so fascinating that it was perhaps inevitable that later writers would attempt to fill in the gaps and in what is called the New Testament Apocrypha – that collection of non-biblical, non-authoritative writings about the Lord Jesus often passed off as though they had been written by some apostle – we have a collection of amazing and obviously fanciful stories about the Lord’s boyhood. But we have only one reliable account of a single episode in the Lord’s boyhood, that when he was 12 years of age.

So what are we to do with this single episode in the Lord’s early life? Why this one? What is the great lesson of this text? What does the Holy Spirit intend to teach us from it?

Well, we have learned through the years that in the Bible an author’s theme is often disclosed by one of several literary techniques that were commonly employed in the literature of the ancient world. This was a day before chapter headings or tables of contents, before indices, before italic print, before the development of footnotes, before any of the techniques employed today to identify an author’s theme or subject. So author’s signaled their intentions by other means. One of those techniques was inclusio, sometimes called “an envelope.”An inclusio is a statement at the beginning of a section that is repeated at the end of the section and so identifies the theme of the material in between. An inclusio, to be sure, doesn’t necessarily mean that the material in between the opening and closing statement has only one theme and only one emphasis. For example, earlier in this chapter v. 39 makes an inclusio with vv. 21-24, thus emphasizing the fidelity to the law of God on the part Jesus’ parents. By this we know that v. 39 actually concludes a section and v. 40 begins another. But there is more in the section between 2:21-24 and 2:39 than simply Joseph and Mary’s scrupulous obedience to the law of God. We have the prophecy of Simeon and the thanksgiving of Anna. Still, the inclusio provides a framework for the material and a thematic summary. A principal theme of that material in between those two statements is that Jesus was raised in a home where the law of God was revered and obeyed.

We have such an inclusio here. Perhaps you noticed it. In both v. 40 and v. 52 we read that the child Jesus grew in wisdom and that the favor of God was upon him. Favor is the Greek charis, the word for grace. This statement is like the one that Gabriel made to Mary when he told her that she had found favor with God. God was blessing his son, showing him his favor as he grew up. So at the beginning of the paragraph and at the end we read the same thing: Jesus grew physically, mentally, and spiritually and increased in wisdom and in the favor of God. It is much the same thing that we read of John the Baptist as a boy and young man in 1:80, though these statements about Jesus’ growth are more extensive and emphatic.

Another literary technique common to biblical literature, because common to ancient literature, we have learned to call the author’s evaluative viewpoint. No one wants or needs to listen to a pointless story so the author, in often subtle but no less powerful ways, indicates his point in telling that story. He has ways of letting his audience know why he is telling this story. He stops the action and focuses our attention on some aspect in order to bring out the point he wishes to make and to identify the meaning of the history he is relating. Sometimes the narrator himself will simply offer his own evaluation. It is Luke himself who gives us the summary statements in vv. 40 and 52. But often in the Bible , in fact, very often in the Bible, an author will reveal his particular interest in a body of material by the use of selective quotation, the words of one of the principals in an episode revealing the particular concern of the author or the point he wants to make. In this particular case we have not only a citation of the spoken word of Jesus, it is the very first words that he speaks in the Gospels and in the Gospel of Luke in particular. In fact it is the first time we see Jesus in an active role and not as a baby in arms.

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

There are several important lessons hidden in those words.

1. First, already at twelve years of age Jesus was aware of a special relationship that he had with his heavenly Father. Already at that young age he had a strong sense of identity with the Father and is committed to the mission of his life. “My Father,” was not a customary way in that time for Jews to speak of God and here it forms a striking contrast with Mary’s reference to Joseph as Jesus’ father in the previous verse. There is a relationship he recognizes already that takes precedence over that relationship he has with his parents; the relationship with God his father.

2. Second, the “must be” or “it is necessary,” the translation of a single Greek word, is used throughout the Gospel and Acts to refer to what was necessary for the outworking of salvation or necessary for the building of the kingdom of God. For example, in 4:43, the next time Jesus uses the word, we read:

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

And in 9:22 we hear him saying:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“It is necessary” or “must” is a term used strategically in the Gospel and Acts to set forth elements of Jesus’ mission. [Bock, i, 269] So its use here. It was necessary for our salvation, his mission demanded that Jesus be in his Father’s house.

The Gospels are narratives, an account of what happened. We see the life of Jesus unfolding before our eyes. We see him growing up, entering upon his ministry, healing the sick, teaching his disciples, preaching to the crowds, and all the rest. We see him in action. We witness his life. We grasp more of Jesus by observing him in action than we ever could through more abstract theological or philosophical categories or terms. What does it mean that Jesus was God the Son incarnate, in other words now also a human being? Well watch and learn. Like other holy books the Bible has laws and commandments, but unlike most holy books, the Bible is chock full of narrative. We learn of God and of his salvation and of the life we have been summoned to live by reading of the life and actions of others and especially of the Lord Jesus. Stories are a very effective form of communication and instruction. That is why there are so many of them in the Bible!

So what we have here is a revelation of Jesus Christ in narrative, in a story. We learn here of his growth, physically and spiritually, and of his precocity, already at 12 amazing the Jewish doctors by his curiosity and his knowledge. We learn of his conviction, already as a boy, that his relationship with his Father in heaven was to be the great business of his life.

But I want to pay particular attention to the matter of his growing up. We have that theme identified in the inclusio and perhaps as well in the choice of terms to describe him. In v. 16, much earlier in the chapter, Jesus is a “baby.” The term, the Greek word brephos, refers to a nursing infant. In v. 40 he is referred to as a child. The word is paidion, which can refer to an infant but can also refer to a little child. It is in fact the diminutive form of the word used to describe Jesus in v. 43, where the ESV translates the term “boy.” So, “little boy.” So note the progress through the chapter: baby, little boy or child, and finally boy. Jesus is growing up.

Now there is any number of fascinating and important implications of this growth that is emphasized in the narrative. For example, this paragraph reveals something to be sure about the nurture Jesus received in his home. Joseph and Mary have been presented to us throughout as faithful people, devoted to God and to his law, and, without doubt, we are to come away from this paragraph aware of how faithfully they had raised their firstborn son. He may have been precocious, even a prodigy, but most of what he knew his parents had taught him, and his sense of calling – formed so early in his life – was as well no doubt shaped by their instruction and their example. See him here in the temple and then imagine him sitting as a boy at his father’s knee and hearing of the exploits of Israel and of David the king, or sitting as a boy in the synagogue on the Lord’s Day concentrating on every word read from the Torah and every prayer that was prayed.

This is one of the great values of narrative. So much reality is compressed in stories that they can serve many purposes at once. This paragraph is a revelation of Jesus Christ, to be sure, but it is also a paragraph about Christian parents and a paragraph about Christian children.

In a famous passage in his great work Against Heresies, the early church father, Irenaeus, wrote this: [II, xxii, 4]

“[Jesus Christ did not evade]…but sanctified every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to himself. For he came to save all through means of himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and [the old]. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord.”

You parents are to see here what you ought to aspire to in every one of your children: their curiosity about the truth of God, their sense of intimate relationship with their heavenly Father, their sense of calling to be the Lord’s and to serve him as first and foremost. Jesus is showing us the calling of a Christian child, the life of a Christian child as it ought to be. And obviously, you Christian young people are to see yourselves in the Lord Jesus at twelve years of age and realize that he has, as the Apostle Peter put it, set you an example that you should follow in his steps. It is not enough to plan to be a serious Christian when you are older; it is never too early to be God’s boy or God’s girl and to learn, learn, learn what that means, to learn more of God’s greatness and love, and to grow in your love for him. If you are old enough to be interested in television or a story book, old enough to listen to the Narnia stories, or to read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, or the Call of the Wild or Jane Eyre, you are old enough to read the Bible with interest and enthusiasm. Jesus did. And you are old enough to begin speaking to God yourself and walking with your heavenly Father and serving him. Jesus did that also when he was just twelve.

As the children’s hymn has it, the prayer of Christian children should be:

Teach me how to grow in goodness
            Daily as I grow;
Thou hast been a child, and surely
            Thou dost know.

And parents when your children express curiosity about spiritual things, the last thing you should ever do is to snuff it out or squelch it. Too busy, too little interested, when your children come to you with a great question, like Jesus did in the temple, don’t brush it aside with a few ill-chosen and inadequate words. I fear that if Jesus had been raised by many Christian parents he would have, by the time he was twelve, been full of questions about the bazaar or the Roman legions, but empty of interest in the temple or the Word of God. He would have learned from their example how relatively unimportant the house of God really was; how lightly to take the teaching of God’s Word and the authority of God’s law.

All of that is certainly in this paragraph. But there is something more fundamental still.  I want us to concentrate on the inclusio and the emphasis on the Lord’s growing up. What is this but a magnificent demonstration of the Lord’s true humanity! We struggle with this; to come to terms with how genuinely the Lord lived the life of a human being. It is such a mystery, the divine nature and the human nature in a single person, and yet those natures remaining separate and distinct and undisturbed by the other, so much a mystery that without even thinking we are always collapsing the two in such a way as to make the Lord Jesus more comprehensible to us. But in doing so we imagine a Lord Jesus much less than what he actually was and is.  But get used to this. This paragraph is a stern reminder at the very beginning of the story of what we are to expect throughout the rest of the Gospel. Throughout the Gospel we are going to see Jesus the man, living a human life with those resources and only those resources that are available to us as human beings. He was sinless to be sure. And that must itself have made a tremendous difference. But otherwise he was a man. He was God but somehow, in some way, he was able to live his life not as God but as a man. He wasn’t omniscient or omnipotent in his human nature: he grew tired, he experienced fear, there were many things he didn’t know. His life as our Savior was the life of a human being. And great emphasis falls on that fact in the very first story we are told of his independent life.

He was growing up. Omnipotence never increases; omniscience never grows, eternity does not know the passage of time. The Lord’s divine nature was no different at 30 years than it had been at 12 or 2. But not so his human nature and his human life. As a baby he knew virtually nothing at all. As a child we read he knew more. As a boy he had learned much. And, as we read in both v. 40 and v. 52, he continued to grow, physically, mentally, and spiritually. What is even more remarkable and mysterious is that the Scripture teaches us here that Jesus increased in favor with God!

How could that be? How could the Son of God be more in God’s favor as the years of his life passed by, as he learned more and put his faith more and more into practice? A man can grow in the favor of God, but God the Son is already in infinite favor with his Father. So we are and must be talking about Jesus in his humanity as we will be throughout the rest of the Gospel. We will see Jesus in his deity but once in the Gospel of Luke. In every other part he is a man living as a man, thinking as a man, feeling as a man, and learning as a man. In Hebrews as well we read of his spiritual maturing through the experiences of his life. He learned obedience, we read there, through what he suffered. Remarkable! How could a sinless child be more obedient later in his life than he was early in his life? Only in the way of a man who is constantly learning, growing, and maturing.

Remember, as we are taught in Holy Scripture, to be our Savior he had to be made like us in every way. His life had to be like ours. And it was! Mystery of mysteries, Jesus’ life was like yours and mine. He grew up; he learned more and more from his parents and from his experiences, and perhaps from his teachers. Whether he knew of his special relationship with his Father intuitively at twelve, or whether he had learned it by hearing from his parents about the extraordinary events that accompanied his birth we do not know. We cannot say. But he learned it and as the years past he figured out more and more of what that calling would mean for him, just as we must learn more and more of what our calling as his followers must mean for us.

What a remarkable Savior we have. His life is so utterly mysterious that we cannot fathom it or explain it. Which is why the Bible makes no effort to explain it to us. But we know this: it was a life like ours, lived in all the limitations of our humanity. A boy growing up in a Galilean town learning more and more every day of what it meant to be his Father’s child. Extraordinary; because this same boy of 12 was at one and the same time also the Maker of Heaven and Earth. But the boy we see in the temple did not know that! He was a real boy, like you 12 year old boys here in the sanctuary this morning. He wanted to know more because there was so much he didn’t know. And so he peppered the rabbis with questions. He still had a lot to learn. God never learns. He knows all. But human beings have to learn and Jesus was a human being and he was committed to learning everything he could. He had to grow up; and he did.

What a Savior we have got in Jesus Christ!