Luke 2 offers us an extremely unique glimpse into the life of Jesus that is not found in any of the other gospels. Both Matthew and Luke offer infancy narratives, and of course, all four gospels talk about Jesus’ life as an adult. But only the gospel of Luke says anything at all about Jesus as a young boy, and that information is contained in the last 12 verses of Luke 2.
These verses can show us a lot about what Jesus was like as a 12 year old boy, and they certainly show us that even at a young age he was clear as to the purpose of his mission: to be doing everything the Father told him to do. As believers, we can and should follow the example of 12-year-old Jesus and take seriously the call upon our lives to “be about our Father’s business,” and to not allow other competing desires draw us away from that call. Listen to the sermon on this passage here.
But at the same time, the boyhood narrative of Jesus in Luke 2 raises some interesting – and perhaps hard to answer – questions. The purpose of this blog post is to ask and hopefully answer two of those questions.
1. Was Jesus disobedient to his parents?
The whole narrative described in Luke 2.41-52 is set up by Jesus and his parents being in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. After the celebration is over, his family packs up and begins to go home, but after a time they realize their son is not with them. They end up having to go back to Jerusalem and look for him for three days.
Now, any parent who has had small children know what it’s like to – even momentarily – lose track of your child. It can be a scary few seconds to not know where your young child is and what has happened to them. But that’s usually all it is – a few seconds – because we are usually able to locate the missing child quickly and determine that they are safe and unharmed. This was not the case for Mary and Joseph, however. They called Jesus’ name over and over to no response. They checked with friends and family members, but no one had seen him. They searched all over the city of Jerusalem to no avail. Finally, they find him in the temple, dialoguing with the rabbis about deep theological subjects.
And it goes without saying that when they do finally find the boy Jesus, they are relieved – but also angry. “Son, why have you treated us so?” asked his mother. “Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” The implication of these questions asked by Mary is that Jesus is in the wrong for doing what he has done by staying behind in Jerusalem to wax theological with the local rabbis. The implication here is that Jesus has sinned against his mother and father.
But how can that be? Doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus was perfect in everything – that he never sinned? After all, that’s also why the Bible says that his eventual self-sacrifice was sufficient – because he was perfect. But how can he be perfect if he violated the fifth commandment and did not honor his mother and his father?
We can say with certainty that Jesus did not sin against his parents by remaining behind in Jerusalem to engage with the rabbis, and the reason for this comes from a proper understanding of his life’s mission. When Mary and Joseph expressed anger that Jesus had remained in Jerusalem, he responds to their feelings with surprise, saying to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Where else would I be?” as though this were something that Mary and Joseph should have known about him. The most important thing that Jesus (or you or I, for that matter) could ever be doing is to do what the Father wants him to do. This trumps all other obligations, commitments, and relationships. But at the same time, it does not give us license to be rude or discourteous to others or to treat them badly. Since the Bible tells us that Jesus was indeed perfect in all his actions throughout his life, we must therefore conclude that in this instance Jesus’ obedience to the mission the Father gave him was his primary obligation, and that, by being obedient to his heavenly Father, he was not subsequently disobedient to his earthly parents. In fact, to disregard his heavenly mission by not staying in Jerusalem but to instead leave with his parents would have been sinful, since his primary obligation is obedience to God.
2. What did Jesus know as a child? Was he omniscient? Did he learn just like everyone else?
Luke 2.46-47 states: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Moreover, verse 52 says that over time Jesus “grew in wisdom.” These verses seem to imply that the boy Jesus was with the rabbis and dialoguing with them on theological topics as a student would with a teacher. The main form of Jewish instruction in the first century was structured in a question/answer format. In other words, teachers and students asked questions of one another and then formulated answers to the questions using scripture, theology, and wisdom as their foundation. But why would Jesus need to ask questions and think through the answers if he were the all-knowing God? If he is learning from rabbis at the temple, then doesn’t that mean that he is not omniscient?
These verses present to us one of the dichotomies of the Incarnation that seek to understand how the all-knowing God can become limited in his knowledge, or how the ever-present God limits himself to space and time in the form of a human body. In a mysterious way that we will never understand this side of heaven, God the Son self-concealed the full extent of his power and understanding when he came in human form (see, for example, Mark 13.32).
For example, Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb with the ability to walk, talk, and use the bathroom for himself. He had to learn those things, because although he was fully God, he was also fully human. To have those abilities as a result of his divine nature would undercut his humanity. Again, this interplay between the divine and the material is one that we will never fully be able to grasp. I would also imagine that as a human being, he would likewise learn about circumstances that brought about pain or discomfort (such as when a child puts a hand on a hot stove, he or she has learned that stoves are hot and not to be touched).
So then, what was there for Jesus to “learn” from the rabbis at the temple? Apparently not much, as it seems that his expressed understanding of theological matters was off the charts (hence Luke 2.46-47). I imagine that the questions he asked the rabbis at this time were very similar to those he asked the religious leaders in passages like Matthew 21.23-27, and 22.41-46, etc. The boy Jesus probably was asking questions that no one was able to answer.
So did Jesus learn? Was he omniscient, even as a 12 year-old? What we can say for sure is that Jesus was as knowledgeable as a 12 year-old fully God, fully human person could be. Did he have to learn things? Yes. He had to learn what a fully God, fully human person would have to learn. What were those things? I have no idea!
What we can say for certain is this: even at 12 years old, Jesus had a clear knowledge of his mission and purpose in life, which was to be about his Father’s business, and he conducted himself in a way that demonstrated that he was committed to his mission. This should be our focus as well.