Chapter two of The Gospel According to Luke records the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. It is a familiar and beloved account because it is the only Biblical glimpse we have into the youth of our Lord. Yet, in spite of its familiarity, there is often a great deal of misunderstanding about this episode in the life of Jesus. Asked what Jesus was doing in the temple at twelve years of age, many will respond that he was teaching. In fact, the activities in which Jesus was engaged that day did not include teaching. However, what Jesus did do is very instructive.
We are told that it was Mary and Joseph’s yearly practice to travel to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, and that they made the journey again when Jesus was twelve-years-old. On their return to Nazareth, his parents did not think it was odd that Jesus was not with them. He was no longer a child over whom they needed to keep a constant watch. Reasoning that he was with friends and relatives in their caravan, they began to look for him, and when they could not find him, Jesus’ parents returned to Jerusalem.
After three days of searching, we are told that “they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” The account continues by telling us that his parents expressed to him their grave concern over him while they anxiously searched. Jesus’ much quoted and much debated response was, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” At this point, Luke adds that his parents did not understand what Jesus was saying to them.
Many questions have been raised about the nature of Jesus’ response to his parents in this passage. But taking into account the whole counsel of Scripture which records that Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15b), it is not worth the time to debate the question of whether or not Jesus was exhibiting some sort of pre-teen rebellion. Of greater import and value are some things which have been obscured by such fruitless arguments as the one to which we have alluded above.
“I Must Be About My Father’s Business”
Jesus had been “about” his earthly father’s business since he was a small child. At this time in his life in which he was moving from childhood to adulthood, it is likely that the Lord was formally apprenticed in the trade of his father, Joseph. In addition, Jesus probably continued in that profession for many years after the time of this account, perhaps even up to the beginning of his ministry at thirty years of age. In his adulthood, Jesus was known not only as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55), but also as “the carpenter” (Mk. 6:3).
This is clearly not a rejection of the authority of his earthly parents. Instead, what we have here is the first declaration from the Lord of his understanding of his mature priorities. The heavenly Father’s business comes first. In his statement, Jesus expresses his ownership of the truth he would later reveal was the summation of all the Law and the Prophets (all of Scripture) – “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22:37, 38). This mature recognition takes place in the life of our Lord at the logical time developmentally – at the beginning of his maturation from childhood into adulthood.
It is not being argued that Jesus was fully adult at the age of twelve. He did after all go through eighteen more years of preparation before he began his ministry. But according to the traditions of God’s people, Jesus was “of age” and, by God’s design, the period of puberty is the transition from childhood to adulthood. So this was the natural progression of Jesus’ spiritual maturation as a man, and it stands as the ideal for young people in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells.
For those of us seeking to bring up our children in the training and instruction of the Lord, this example from the youth of Christ Jesus raises this compelling question: As our children grow from childhood into adulthood (during puberty), are they experiencing the natural spiritual progression evidenced in the example of their youthful Lord? The answer to this question will of course vary widely from person to person. However, in the Body of Christ as a whole, what do we see taking place?
On the one hand, we find confirmation of this God-designed spiritual development process in the observation that, historically, a vast majority (over 75% by some accounts) of those who make professions of faith do so before the age of eighteen (most of these between the ages of 11 and 14). In addition, research exists that supports the claim that those making professions of faith in childhood or in their youth are significantly more likely to maintain a strong commitment to their faith in adult life. While there is wholesale dismissal of early teens in American culture as rebellious and irresponsible by nature, this is not the picture that is revealed through observation of God’s dealings with young people. Instead, this critical developmental period may be seen as the key time spiritually in the life of a child being raised in the training and instruction of the Lord.
On the other hand, developments in American culture and in the church present some significant challenges. Recent studies reveal trends that indicate that the average age of profession of faith is rising dramatically. An informal observation of the climate among youth in the church might suggest that it is more common for young people to express “ownership” of their faith in their early to middle twenties – if at all - rather than in their early teens as we see in the example of the Lord Jesus. The reasons for these changes may be many and varied, and it is not the purpose of this article to suggest any one in particular. But perhaps we have bought into the developmental psychology of “adolescence” rather than embracing the example of Jesus Christ as a youth. Do we think that believing teens are simply embarked on the great worldly search to discover who they are, or do we believe that this is the time period for them to pursue the Truth of God’s Word and His ways and come to understand, in that light, WHOSE they are?
What difference would it make in our families and in our churches and in the world for the sake of Christ if our young people once again were challenged with the conviction in their early teens that they must be about their Father’s business? The answer to that question can be found in the lives of Joseph, Joshua, Samuel, Josiah, Daniel, Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), Azariah (Abednego), Mary the mother of our Lord, and countless others throughout history. Most importantly, the life of our Lord Jesus should stand as the ideal example. Our children and young people who have the Spirit of Christ in them must be challenged and encouraged to follow the example of Christ instead of yielding to the spirit of the world, the spirit of the American youth culture. How marvelous it is for them and for us that we have a record of his example not only when he was fully matured and beginning his life of self-sacrificing service, but also when he was young, recognizing mature spiritual priorities, and declaring his understanding that he must be about his Father’s business!
The study of this passage will continue in the next e-pistle entry.