Toward Wisdom, Stature, and Favor: Part Two

The twelve-year-old Jesus of Nazareth was on his own in the great city of Jerusalem, without his immediate or extended family or even friends. For more than three days, he had choices to make about where he would go, what he would do, and with whom he would spend his time. Luke’s gospel account tells us that when his parents returned to Jerusalem looking for him, they found the young Lord Jesus “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
In the Temple Courts

The strong feelings that Jesus had for his Heavenly Father’s house are well documented in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John), where he boldly casts the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple. It appears that this took place twice – once at the beginning of his public ministry and once at the commencement of the week of his passion. The Apostle John records that at the first temple incident his disciples were reminded of the messianic Scripture reference in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” But here in the Gospel of Luke we are provided with insight into Christ’s zeal for the courts of the Lord when he was yet just a boy.

Though he was God in the flesh, the Creator of all things, and one day to be Judge of all the earth, Jesus had “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7). He was subject to the human developmental process, to temptation, even to death. He had choices to make, and he had to contend with the confliction of his human will with his will as God (see Matthew 26:39). Alone in Jerusalem as a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus was faced with decisions which perhaps prompted a similar wrestling of wills within him. What he chose was to be “in the temple courts.” What he chose was to identify with the community of faith, the community of God’s people.

Identification, or identity, is a familiar term in the lexicon of developmental psychology concerning young people, particularly during puberty. To the developmentalist, identity formation is the key issue of “adolescence.” Developmental psychology does not articulate a perspective on identity formation that is consistent with God’s Word. It is nonetheless true that God has designed us in such a way that we are particularly impressionable during childhood and youth, and that associations we make and identifications we embrace can powerfully shape our character. What then are the major influences on the identity formation of our youth? What are the key associations that our young people seek out for themselves? With what and whom do our children most identify, and in what ways do they choose to identify themselves?

It is not the purpose of this article to assert an authoritative answer to questions such as these, though the questions themselves are well worth asking, and for some, will be cause for consternation. The purpose of this article is, however, to highlight the character and behavior of the young Lord Jesus as the example for Christian parents seeking to train their children in the way they should go and for young people in whom God’s Spirit is at work conforming them to the likeness of His Son.

Many have misunderstood the gospel account of the youthful Lord’s lingering in the Temple, thinking it reveals that he was there teaching. They are mistaken. However, Jesus’ actions those days in the Temple can be very instructive to us. Jesus, as a twelve-year-old, chose to be “in the temple courts.” He sought to associate with the people of God. He put himself under the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. He submitted to the authority, wisdom, and spiritual leadership of the “teachers.” With his actions, Jesus identified with the community of faith; with his words – “I must be about my Father’s business” – he identified with the Person and purpose of God. This is the pattern for Christ-likeness for a young person. If he has the Spirit of Christ in him, a young person has not only the pattern, but also the power for Christ-likeness. If, by God’s grace and God’s initiative, he has been identified with Christ in death and resurrection, the Father’s continuing work in a young person is to cause him to identify with Christ in character.

As we shepherd the growth process of our children from childhood to adulthood, are we seeing them identify with and develop the character of Christ or the character of the youth culture? Are they choosing to identify with the community of faith as a whole or simply within the context of their peer group? Are we doing more in our churches for our young people than merely reinforcing the peer culture as the primary influence in their identity formation? Are they learning what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ or merely a youthful appendage disconnected from the whole? Can we say of our young people that they truly and deeply desire to be “in the (Temple) courts” of the Lord, as did their Lord Jesus, or do they just want courts of the Lord that they can “relate to”?

Sitting Among the Teachers

There is a dramatic difference between the description of Jesus in the Luke 2 account and the warning the Apostle Paul addresses to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3, 4. In Luke 2 we are told that Jesus was “sitting among the teachers.” In his second letter to Timothy, Paul cautions, “… to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Which of these better describes the youth of our culture, even in the churches?

The clear implication of Jesus’ actions is that he sought out the teachers. He went to where he could find them. He put himself in a position to learn from them. Although Jesus was certainly not like every other Jewish boy in that he was fully God and fully man, and though he was perhaps exceptional in his pursuit of spiritual knowledge, Jesus was not out of the ordinary in “sitting among the teachers.” It was part of the Jewish culture for boys, even as young as Jesus was, to participate in the lectures and discussions led by the rabbis in the Temple courts. In the famous Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character sings a humorous song titled, “If I Were a Rich Man.” There is one verse of the song that is not intended to be funny, but rather wistfully expresses the spiritual heart longings of a man who must constantly labor to provide for the needs of his impoverished family. Tevya sings,

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I like to sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy Books with the learned men seven hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.

The Jewish people – even in early twentieth century Russia – maintained a cultural context in which men came together to hear and discuss the Scriptures; the kind of context in which men, old and young, were a part of one people of faith seeking deep, spiritual insight. It was in this kind of context that the young Lord Jesus found himself “sitting among the teachers.”

The young person who would be like Jesus should seek to do as Jesus did. He should have the desire to sit under the teaching of the Word of God, to learn God’s Word and God’s ways, to discuss them and understand them. As a member of the Body of Christ, he should recognize that Christ “gave some to be …apostles …prophets …evangelists …and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature…” He should value the insights and authority of these spiritual leaders, and he should seek them out, go to where they can be found, put himself in a position to learn from them as Jesus did.

What “teachers” are our young people seeking out for themselves? Where are they going and to what lengths do they go to hear from their “teachers”? In the Church, have we provided an inter-generational context in which young people are encouraged to put themselves in a position to learn from spiritual elders, or have we embraced a youth-focused, peer-oriented model where young people “to suit their own desires …will gather around them … teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”?

Listening to Them

There is a natural progression to Luke’s account of the activities of the twelve-year-old Jesus. We read that he was “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them…” Having gone to the place where spiritual insight was pursued and seated himself among those from whom he could learn, it was logical for the boy Jesus to listen to those in spiritual authority. He did this, as he later explained to his parents, because he had to be “about (his) Father’s business.” In other words, it was to suit his heavenly Father’s desires. This, of course, pre-figures his later expression of this very motive, “not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).

Again we see the clear contrast between the character of the Lord Jesus and the prophetic warning from Paul to Timothy previously referenced: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Here is a picture of those who begin with their own self-centered desires. Instead of seeking wisdom through the God-appointed sources of spiritual authority, the only “teachers” they will permit are those who will tell them only what they want to hear. This leads them to an aversion to hearing the truth.

There is extremely important teaching in the Scriptures about hearing. The Apostle Paul tells us that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Jesus himself spoke about hearing significantly. The famous Parable of the Sower speaks very little about the sower. Likewise, the focus does not seem to be the seed. The parable reveals most about the soil, and Jesus’ explanation of the parable points to his purpose in contrasting responses to the Word of God. Jesus punctuates the telling of this parable with the words, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). He continues by pronouncing blessing on the ears of those who hear (Matthew 13:16). In his explanatory description of each of the various soils in which the seed is sown, Jesus speaks of the hearing of the message of the Kingdom, the Word of God (Matthew 13:18 – 23). The Gospel of John records these words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” Both the Parable of the Sower and this teaching of Jesus speak about the importance of hearing in the conversion of the “dead” to life. Yet another message from the Lord conveys the importance of hearing in the repentance of a believer and his restoration to right fellowship with Christ: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:19, 20).

While it is by God’s grace alone that anyone is saved much less hears and understands the Gospel, in light of the verses we have just examined, one cannot help but ask, “What kind of a listener am I?”

In Ephesians 6:1, we are instructed, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” Interestingly, the Greek word here translated obey, more literally means “to listen, to attend” (pay attention to). Not coincidentally, the Hebrew word most often translated obey also means “to hear.” Without more extensive exegesis, it is reasonable to say simply that hearing/listening is a key factor in the learning and practice of obedience. The young Jesus purposed to listen to the teachers in the Temple. He listened to the Old Testament Scriptures and learned them. He listened to his heavenly Father and perfectly obeyed, even to the point of death. This Christ-like listening, that is the substance of early obedience and leads to a more mature obedience, should be a characteristic of the young person who has received the Spirit of Christ and is desirous of following the Lord Jesus.

Asking Them Questions

Along with listening to the teachers in the Temple courts, Luke tells us that Jesus was “asking them questions.” It may be presumed that he sometimes wanted them to clarify what they were saying or wanted to be sure that he had understood them correctly. Perhaps he was occasionally asking them about something he did not know or did not yet understand. Maybe there were times when he was appealing to them to re-evaluate a point that he did not feel was expressed correctly. Certainly, he was asking them questions because, developmentally, he was yet only a twelve-year-old boy and wanted to learn and grow in his knowledge and understanding of the Word of God and the ways of God.

The Scriptures are filled with exhortations to seek the knowledge of God. The Book of Proverbs, in particular, instructs the young person to pursue wisdom and to pursue it through attentiveness and obedience to the instruction of parents and teachers. This is the pattern for learning ordained of God and clearly expressed in his Word and ideally exemplified at a key time of impressionable development in the life of our Lord. Surely Jesus, as an older teen and young adult, had a lot of insight and knowledge and would have been a good communicator of the truths and character of God. But, it must be noted, he did not begin his teaching ministry until he was thirty years of age. So revered was the role of teacher among God’s people that it was not until he had reached adult maturity that a man would be respected as a teacher (at thirty years, one is fit for authority and at forty, for discernment – according to the Mishnah). According to Alfred Edersheim in Sketches of Jewish Social Life, experience was always considered a better qualification than “mere acquirements” of academic knowledge. The young Jesus understood and followed the course that God had ordained for the spiritual instruction of young people. He asked questions in the right place, at the right time, and he asked them to the correct spiritual authorities.

There is a great difference between asking questions and questioning. We live in a culture and time in which young people have learned to question rather than to ask questions. With regard to government, parents, teachers, employers, elders, ministers, religious doctrine, social mores, spiritual morality, police, sports officials/referees, etc., American (and Western) young people value the liberty to call authority into question above the pursuit of wisdom. Rather than seeking out age and experience as God-given sources of wisdom, they are dismissed as not to be trusted, out-of-touch, irrelevant. The education of youth is pursued in an environment where the greatest influence is the peer group, and so in a way, young people are taught to diminish teachers and elevate the youth culture. Even youth ministry is often designed so to “relate” to the youth culture that it fails to draw young people to an inquiry into things beyond themselves.

Not so the culture in which Jesus was raised, and not so the character of the One of whom it is written: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

The study of this passage will continue in the next e-pistle entry.