The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:39-52)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 2:39-52

[39] When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. [40] And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

[41] Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. [42] When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. [43] After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. [44] Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. [45] When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. [46] After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. [47] Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. [48] When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

[49] "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" [50] But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

[51] Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. [52] And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.  


Exposition

What was it like to raise Jesus the Messiah? Was he a perfect child? Did he ever make mistakes? Did he ever have to learn anything? Questions like these and dozens more have occurred to Christians.

Some apocryphal writings, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, have the child Jesus doing all sorts of fanciful miracles and vindictive acts. But the Bible itself is silent about Jesus' childhood years, except for this one brief account in Luke. It must have been a story that Mary told about Jesus' childhood, for it bears the marks of authenticity within it. As we read it as disciples, let's look for lessons we can learn about growing in spiritual maturity ourselves.

Infused with the Grace of God (2:39-40)

"When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him." (2:40)

Luke doesn't mention -- or perhaps isn't aware of -- the Holy Family's trip from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the Great against Jesus (Matthew 2:13-23). Rather, Luke focuses on Jesus' gradual growth to maturity in Nazareth.

Two verbs describe this growth. "Grew," the Greek verb auxano, "to become greater, grow, increase."[1] "Become strong" (NIV) or "wax strong" (KJV) is the Greek verb krataioo, "become strong." It can refer to physical strength, as it probably does here, as well as psychological and spiritual strength.[2]

Jesus grew, but did he learn? He didn't start out from infancy with all knowledge -- he had "emptied himself" of omniscience when he became a man (Philippians 2:7). We humans learn as toddlers by observing, trial and error. We learn language by imitation and correction. We learn responsibility by parental rules and enforcement until those rules -- and eventually those values -- become internalized. Did Jesus learn this way, too? I expect so.

Believing that Jesus learned like any other human child doesn't conflict with our belief in his sinlessness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 7:26; 1 John 3:5).

Though Jesus had to learn like the rest of us, he was specially gifted by God. This verse tells us that he was "filled with wisdom" and that "the grace of God was upon him" -- that is, God blessed him in what he was doing. Here, the common Greek noun charis, "grace" seems to mean "a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill."[3]

Annual Trip to Jerusalem for Passover (2:41)

"Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover." (2:41)

Theoretically, Jewish men were required to go to three feasts in Jerusalem each year -- Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles -- though only the Passover was strictly observed. Those at some distance, especially the poor, could not attend all the feasts. But women -- and sometimes children -- might attend, too.[4] Passover celebrated God delivering the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and pilgrims to the feast would stay a minimum of two days, sometimes longer.

Left Behind at 12 Years of Age (2:42-45)

Jesus was twelve years old at this Passover, just on the brink of manhood. During a boy's twelfth year he was prepared for his induction as a full member of the religious community which took place when he was thirteen.[5] This year he is described in verse 43 by the Greek noun pais, "boy, youth, child, a young person normally below the age of puberty."[6] Next year, as a man, Jesus will be required to attend Passover; this year he is learning what is involved. That doesn't mean, however, that he had never traveled to Jerusalem for Passover with his family. The scripture just doesn't say.

"When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him." (2:42-45)

 Pilgrims to the feast in Jerusalem usually traveled in a large party or caravan (Greek sunodia), since a person traveling by himself was in danger from bandits who could swoop down on lone travelers. The caravan was made up of many of Mary and Joseph's friends and relatives from Galilee, and they naturally supposed that Jesus was somewhere in the crowd. No doubt when they camped for the night and Jesus was nowhere to be seen, they became alarmed. By this time they were probably 20 to 25 miles north of Jerusalem.

First, they searched among the campers in their company. "To look for" (NIV) or "seeking" (KJV) in verses 44 and 45 is the Greek verb anazeteo, "to try to locate by search, look, search for someone." It is used in early papyrus documents of searching for criminals and fugitive slaves, or for a lost work of literature.[7] When they inquired and discovered that no one had seen Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem, probably leaving early the next morning and arriving in the city about nightfall.

Sitting Among the Teachers in the Temple (2:46-47)

"After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers." (2:46-47)

"After three days" probably means "on the third day" -- one day traveling north to Galilee by caravan, one day returning south to Jerusalem, and then the third day searching until they found Jesus.

And where was he? Deeply engrossed in discussion with the learned teachers. "Teachers" (NIV) or "doctors" (KJV) is the common Greek noun didaskalos, "teachers." Here it refers to "scripture scholars."[8] Edersheim observes:

"The members of the Temple-Sanhedrin, who on ordinary days sat as a Court of Appeal, from the close of the Morning Sacrifice to the time of the Evening Sacrifice, were wont on Sabbaths and feast-days to come out upon 'the Terrace' of the Temple, and there to teach."[9]

Sometimes we hear this passage explained as if Jesus were teaching the teachers, but that misunderstands the context. The listeners would be sitting on the ground at the feet of the teachers, who were also seated. The rabbinical style of teaching used questions on the part of the students, from which discussion would rise.[10]

In the course of the discussion, this intense boy of twelve was both listening and asking probing, insightful questions that indicated to all his depth of understanding. "Understanding" is the Greek noun sunesis, "the faculty of comprehension, intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness."[11] Everyone who heard Jesus on this occasion was struck by his understanding. The Greek noun is existemi, "be amazed, be astonished, of the feeling of astonishment mingled with fear, caused by events which are miraculous, extraordinary, or difficult to understand."[12]

At age twelve, Jesus is listening to teaching in the temple during Passover. But 20 years or so later, he is the Teacher in these same courts, and his many, many hearers are still struck with his insight and authority.

Rebuked by His Mother (2:48)

Jesus is so engaged when his parents finally spot him. They are beside themselves with worry, as any parents would be.

"When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, 'Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.'" (2:48)

Luke describes Mary's and Joseph's reaction to finding him among the teachers in the temple as being "astonished" (NIV) or "amazed" (KJV). The Greek verb is ekplesso, "to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed," here "be amazed, overwhelmed, dumbfounded."[13]

But once Mary sees that Jesus is safe, her mother instinct takes over. She asks him -- not too gently, I suppose -- "Why did you do this to us?" She interprets the event in terms of how it has worried and inconvenienced her and Joseph. She talks about their sorrow and anxiety, expressed by the Greek verb odunao, "to experience mental and spiritual pain, be pained, distressed."[14]

Jesus' Reply: My Father's House (2:49-50)

'Why were you searching for me?' he asked. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?' But they did not understand what he was saying to them." (2:49-50)

When you first read Jesus' reply to his mother, you almost want to speak to him about talking back to his mother. But before you jump to a conclusion, look further.

Children can be perverse, deceitful, and manipulative. But I don't think that is what we see here. I believe we see a somewhat naive, twelve-year-old, who is so engrossed in discussing and learning the Scriptures that he hasn't realized the caravan had left without him. He has found a place to sleep, perhaps, with friends who hadn't gone home so early. Perhaps he didn't believe that his parents would have gone home without him -- that they must still be in Jerusalem. Maybe, when he discovered they had already left, he decided to stay put where they could find him. And, surely, they should know where to find him -- in the Temple, in his Father's house.

"Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" is more than a boy's somewhat naive question. This is a turning point in Jesus' life. Mary speaks about "your father and I" in verse 48. But in verse 49, Jesus takes the word "father" and applies it to the God of the Temple.

The personal intimacy of the phrase "my Father" referring to God is unprecedented in Jewish literature, where it might be expressed as "in heaven" or "our Father."[15] It is this amazing claim of intimate filial relationship to the Father that gets him accused of blasphemy later in life (John 10:29-39).

The boy Jesus seems a bit surprised that his parents had to search for him at all. Shouldn't they understand where he would be? The KJV states Jesus' second question as, "Wist (know) ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" (2:49) The word rendered "business" (KJV) or "house" (NIV, RSV, etc.) is actually a pronoun. While the KJV translation is possible, the context suggests a place. In fact, the Greek pronoun represents a common Greek idiom referring to one's house.[16] "In my Father's house" is preferable.

The tension Jesus is facing is whether he should obey his heavenly Father or his earthly father. This passage gives us a glimpse that at age twelve Jesus is feeling a necessity, a compulsion, to do the Father's will. The Greek word translated "had to be" (NIV) or "must be" (KJV) is the Greek infinitive dei, "to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to, denoting compulsion of any kind."[17] We see this word used a number of times in Luke to indicate Jesus' inner compulsion to seek out his destiny (4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 19:5; 22:37; 24:7; 24:26; 24:44; 24:46). Jesus must be in his Father's house. He must be learning so that he might teach. He must!

In his child's confidence that this ought to be crystal clear, Jesus explains his reasoning, but to no avail. "They did not understand what he was saying to them" (2:50).

Obeying His Parents (2:51a)

Jesus was sensing his call to obey the Father. But part of that obedience involved submitting to his parents: "Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them" (2:51a).

From the elevation of Jerusalem at 2,400 feet above sea level, nearly everything -- including Nazareth (1,300 feet elevation) -- was thought of as "down."

Many of us have learned that it is difficult to submit to those who aren't as intelligent as we are, or as spiritually acute. It can be hard. It can be grating. But it is also necessary -- at least for a time -- so that God can work on other things in our lives. It was necessary for Jesus at this time. The call was there, but it was not yet time to fulfill it. He must wait, learn, grow, and prepare himself for that time when he will enter into his ministry.

Mary Treasures these Incidents in her Heart (2:51)

"But his mother treasured all these things in her heart." (2:51)

Throughout the infancy narratives, Mary has been trying desperately to understand, to make sense of what she is seeing in her son. Gabriel's announcement, Elizabeth's and Zechariah's prophecies, the shepherds' story of an angelic declaration of his birth, Simeon's and Anna's words and blessing in the temple, and this incident in the temple when Jesus is twelve.

How do you raise a son whom you believe to be the Messiah? That would be hard enough. But how can she understand that she is raising the Son of God himself? A boy, who, when he calls God his Father, means it literally? Mary cannot take all this in. Perhaps if she had, she would have been completely paralyzed by self-consciousness. But she treasures these moments and ponders them in her heart.

Growing in Wisdom, Stature, and Favor (2:52)

"And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." (2:51-52)

Jesus is "filled with wisdom" (2:40), and yet he still grows in wisdom (2:52). This passage covers the next two decades from age twelve until he is about 30 years of age and enters upon his public ministry. Jesus "grew" (NIV) or "increased in" (KJV). This Greek verb is different than in verse 40: prokopto, "to move forward to an improved state, progress advance."[18]

Notice the three areas of growth:

  1. wisdom, spiritual insight,
  2. stature, physical size, and
  3. favor with God and man.

Unlike John the Baptist, whose rough manner wasn't particularly attractive, Jesus gained favor with people. They liked him. They were attracted to him. "Favor" is the same word, charis, that is translated "grace" in verse 40. But Jesus also was favored by God, his Father. Unique in all time and history, Jesus is the mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5).

Lessons for Disciples

There is probably much more in this passage, but I see four major lessons for modern-day disciples:

  1. Growth takes time. Jesus went through the same period of childhood and adolescence that we must. Sometimes we're in so much of a hurry to get on with life, that we are tempted to skip the growing up part. We're "twelve going on twenty." God is not in such a hurry. He is more interested in the process of spiritual growth than just its eventual achievement. He is with you, training you, parenting you, helping you as you grow in Him.
  2. We experience a tension between our responsibilities to God and to our fellow men. Sometimes those responsibilities conflict so much that we must choose one or the other. Jesus experienced the same tension and there were times that he had to choose to serve God rather than man. Ultimately, Jesus makes very clear where our ultimate allegiance must lie: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple" (14:26).
  3. We must often submit to those who are our inferiors. It is rather amazing that Jesus would return home to Nazareth and submit to parents who, though they loved him, had no real grasp of who he was and what he was called to do. Yet he did submit and obey them because that was God's plan for the present. Don't be surprised if you are called to submit to an employer, patriarch, spouse, or military commander who is your spiritual, mental, or moral inferior. That, too, is part of Christian discipleship.
  4. We need God's grace upon us. Ultimately, we are not dependent upon our skills or our wits, but God's grace. We can go far in this world on our native, God-given abilities. But to succeed in the Kingdom we need -- we must have -- God's favor upon us. His charis, his anointing, his gifting. As Moses said to the Lord in the wilderness,

    "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Exodus 33:15-16)


We must have God's favor and grace upon us or we are nothing and will amount to nothing.


Prayer

Father, we can see in Jesus the same tension that we sometimes feel -- to follow your call as well as to please the important people in our lives. Sometimes we can't do both. Give us wisdom and favor with God and man. Help us live out our lives before you and people on earth with integrity. Most of all, we thank you for your grace and ask for the continuing unmerited gift of your favor upon our lives. We need you so much! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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  1. Since Jesus was already the Son of God, why did he have to "grow" in understanding and wisdom? (2:40, 52)
  2. How do you evaluate Jesus' carelessness in not going home with his parents when they left Jerusalem? (2:43-44) Was Jesus at fault or they? What is the difference between an error in judgment and sin, if any?
  3. Why was Jesus so engrossed in the Temple? (2:46-49) How was this interaction with Jerusalem's top teachers important for his own development? How did this represent something that was absolutely necessary for him to do? How did this relate to his calling?
  4. Why did Jesus have to obey parents who were his spiritual inferiors? (2:51) How can our inability to submit to authority be crucial in our spiritual relationship with God?
  5. What does it mean that "the grace of God was upon him"? (2:40) Why was this necessary for Jesus? Why is it necessary for us?
  6. Why was it important for Jesus -- and for us -- to grow "in favor with God and men" (2:52)? How is our relationship with people vital to our spiritual growth?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 151.
  2. BDAG 564.
  3. BDAG 1079, 2.a.
  4. Marshall, p. 126, cites Exodus 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Deuteronomy 16:16; 1 Samuel 1:7, 21; 2:19; Josephus, Vita 2; Strack and Billerback II, 141f. See also Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 76, who cites M. Hag i.1.
  5. Marshall, p. 126 cites P. Aboth 5:21; and Strack and Billerback II, 144-147.
  6. BDAG 750-751.
  7. BDAG 62.
  8. BDAG 241.
  9. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:247, citing Sanh. 88b. Marshall says "Teaching by the rabbis may have taken place within the temple precincts or a neighboring synagogue, p. 127, citing Yoma 7:1; Strack and Billerback II, 150.
  10. Marshall, p. 127.
  11. BDAG 970.
  12. BDAG 350.
  13. BDAG 308.
  14. BDAG 692.
  15. Leon Morris, Luke, p. 92, citing G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus (Edinburgh, 1902), pp. 184-194.
  16. Marshall, p. 129; Robertson, Word Pictures in the NT, q.v. BDAG 689, z.g. where several examples from classical and koine Greek are given.
  17. BDAG 213-214.
  18. BDAG 871.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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