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The Life of Jesus - Series 1: Episode 13

Jesus in Jerusalem as a boy

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 2:39-52

Jesus is taken to Jerusalem at Passover but goes missing on the return journey. His parents re-trace their steps to the Temple where he is conversing with spiritual leaders. He shows an awareness of his true identity and his knowledge of the Scriptures. He is obedient and grows up in the family.

Jesus is taken to Jerusalem at Passover but goes missing on the return journey. His parents re-trace their steps to the Temple where he is conversing with spiritual leaders. He shows an awareness of his true identity and his knowledge of the Scriptures. He is obedient and grows up in the family.


Hello and welcome to Series 1, Episode 13: 'Jesus in Jerusalem as a Boy.'

Introduction and Recap

This is the last study in our first series which deals with the childhood of Jesus and his growing up years. The episode that we are looking at now takes place when Jesus is 12 years old. It is the only incident that is recorded of Jesus' growing up years (everything beforehand is to do with his infancy and very early childhood). What happened immediately before the episode we are going to study today, was the situation where Jesus, having been born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem, had to be taken away, very hurriedly, by Joseph and Mary because Herod the Great (the King at the time) took offence to Jesus' birth and the possible threats to his status - having been born in Bethlehem as predicted by the prophet Micah and we read in Matthew's Gospel that he wanted to kill all the infant children in the Bethlehem area, in order to assassinate the baby Jesus right from the very early days. As Matthew tells us, an angel warned Joseph in a dream that this was going to happen and Joseph and Mary fled south to Egypt, where they stayed for a number of years before returning to their home-town, Nazareth in Galilee, after Herod the Great had died and the political situation had changed somewhat. That concludes the stories about Jesus' infancy, his very early years.

There is only one story told of Jesus as a young boy, aged 12, and it is Luke who recounts this story. That is the subject of today's study. Luke 2: 39 - 52:

“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 on him. Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival 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. 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. 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.” “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. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Luke 2:39-52, NIV

This is a very remarkable story. In an earlier episode I described how Luke wrote his Gospel and how he sought eyewitness testimony. I described the fact that he probably had access to members of Jesus' family, and certainly to his local community in and around Nazareth, when he went back to do some research some years later. He may even have met Mary herself, we don't know for certain. What we do know is that Luke got a lot of very specific information about Jesus' infancy and he had access to this remarkable story - which isn't reproduced in any of the other Gospels. It is a very poignant, and personal story, about the developing relationships between parents and a growing adolescent boy that speaks very much to the heart, in terms of how relationships change in families as the years pass. This had a number of particular dimensions to it which, of course, were unique as we are going to find out in just a few moments.

Passover in Jerusalem

Let us set the scene: Joseph, like many Jews of his time, took seriously the obligation under the Law of Moses that men, in particular, and families if possible, should travel from their home towns and villages to the Temple in Jerusalem for some or all of the major religious festivals - notably Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Perhaps of these three festivals, the festival of Passover was considered the most important by many ordinary Jewish people. It appears that Joseph regularly travelled from Nazareth, up to Jerusalem for this festival. It was a long journey. We have previously described the journey between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem. Depending on which road you take, it can be a hundred kilometres or a hundred and fifty kilometres journey, several days of travelling. The festival itself lasted quite a number of days and so the whole journey could take perhaps two weeks, if you stayed for the whole festival. It was a very major undertaking and, presumably as children got older, then they were more likely to go with their parents, and other relatives and friends, up to these festivals in Jerusalem. As Luke tells the story here there seems to be quite a significant family group travelling - friends and relatives are described by Luke in the travelling party. They go up to the Passover and they would have to find accommodation in a very crowded city of Jerusalem.

They would participate in th is particular festival which recalls the Exodus from Egypt: the passing over of the Jews from Egypt into the wilderness (the Sinai Desert) through the Red Sea; the escape from slavery and the mighty deliverance that God brought for them; and the way that he protected them from judgement as the Egyptians were judged and the Israelites escaped. This was the central theme of the Passover: a recollection of God's deliverance and calling in the past; a recollection also of the sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of a lamb at the feast: and then the eating of that animal in a special family meal - the Passover meal, which we will talk about a lot more later on in the series when we come to the Last Supper which is a Passover meal.

The Return Journey

This was the festival to which Jesus came, aged 12, with his mother, his stepfather Joseph, other family members and relatives. The unusual thing, of course, and the surprise, is what happened at the end. The city was very crowded and, probably, they stayed outside the city, or nearby. The family group was large and so when it came for the journey to commence to go back home, there would be quite a number of people to account for and, for some reason, Mary and Joseph were not aware of the fact that Jesus wasn't in the party and they travelled a whole day before they realised it. The timing of this is quite significant because there is a whole day before they realise what has happened, then they returned to the city with some degree of anxiety. Luke says it took another three days to actually find Jesus - they had no idea where he was. He had left no messages with anyone; he hadn't gone back, presumably, to the accommodation they had been in. All we know is that he was difficult to find - and the last place they thought of looking, presumably, was right in the centre of the Temple compound where the senior religious leaders met and discussed matters and took places of prominence as thousands of pilgrims came in and made their sacrifices. The religious leaders and teachers would be prominent, respected people visible in the Temple compound. The story goes, as we read just a few moments ago, Mary and Joseph to their amazement find that their son, Jesus, is sitting there talking to the most respected senior teachers of the Jewish religion in the whole country. Right there in the Temple compound.

There are a number of things that are surprising about this. The first one is that it wouldn't be customary to talk to someone who was not considered an adult yet but just on the verge of adulthood - maybe 13, 14, 15 would be considered the time for Jewish young men. They are talking to him, and they appear to be talking on equal terms. These religious teachers have a huge amount of knowledge and understanding and Jesus is just a country boy, who has been brought up in the local village synagogue, working with his stepfather and his family in the carpentry and woodworking and building trade. It is an astonishing sight! Mary and Joseph are completely taken aback by what they see. They obviously knew and understood the destiny of their son, Jesus, They knew that. It had been very clearly revealed to both of them, individually, by angelic visitation and divine revelation. They knew that he was the Messiah; they knew that he was the Son of God. They knew that he was born by a miraculous conception in the womb of Mary (before Joseph and Mary were married or had any sexual relationship). They knew all these things but, suddenly, the story of Jesus moves into a different gear because he is beginning to pursue his destiny in an individual way in this episode. As we read in verse 48:

‘When his parents saw him, they were astonished. (and) His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”’

Luke 2:48, NIV

His Father's House

The mother's heart is clearly expressed here but Jesus' response is what I want to give a little attention to for a moment. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn't you know (that) I had to be in my Father's house?” His question, “Why are you searching for me?” seems very puzzling to us - pretty obvious why they were searching for him! They had lost their son, they had huge parental responsibility, a tremendous sense of anxiety - what had happened to him? Anything could have happened to him! Jesus pointed them to a transitional moment in his life - “didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?” Here we have the transition of him identifying his heavenly Father as the one who determines his destiny and is calling him into the ministry that he will have in the future. There is a differentiation here between the human family and the divine calling. There are two fathers mentioned here: there is Joseph, technically the stepfather, who is looking for his stepson; and then there is the heavenly Father who is calling Jesus. This event, I think, is to help prepare Joseph and Mary for the fact that Jesus' calling is going to take him away from the family, away from the family business, away from the family location, from Nazareth, from the community. His Father is calling him to a unique ministry, a unique work of salvation that's going to take him all over the country and to a very different destiny to any other member of the family. There is a certain prophetic nature to what is happening here but also an insight into Jesus' spiritual development; he has a very strong understanding, aged 12, of his identity as the unique Son of God.

He stands in the Temple on equal terms with the senior rabbis and teachers, not because of any education, not because of age, not because of community respect, not because he had been in the Temple, not because he was from the priestly tribe (which he wasn't); but because he was divinely called by his Father. His knowledge that enabled him to relate on equal terms to these religious leaders would have come by a combination of two sources. One, he would have studied, diligently, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. He would have gone to the synagogue and learnt obediently and diligently. Secondly, and more importantly, divine revelation from the Holy Spirit was showing him, even as a young age, what his destiny and his identity was. He was very learned in the Scriptures, even at the age of 12. A very remarkable event took place on that day.

Jesus Growing Up

As we come to the end of the passage, we see a summary statement from Luke about the rest of Jesus' growing up years. That is all we know of the years from the age of 12 through to adulthood. It is beautiful and wonderful statement:

‘Then he went down to Nazareth with them(that's his parents)and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.’

Luke 2:51-52, NIV

Jesus' decision to stay in the Temple and talk to the rabbis and teachers wasn't an act of wilful, adolescent rebellion. It was an assertion of his calling and identity. Very respectfully and very clearly, he was making a point about where he was going but it didn't represent any form of rebellion. In fact, Luke makes the point very clearly that Jesus had a very humble attitude to his human family and his human parents - his mother and his stepfather. He was obedient to them and so he served in the family. We know from other texts, that Jesus had at least four other brothers (four brothers are named) and at least two sisters (who are not named, but there could have been more than two). All of whom would have been younger than him because he was the firstborn. So he was the firstborn of a family of at least seven children. Therefore he had a position of particular responsibility in Jewish society, because the oldest son was responsible to work closely with his father and to develop the skills of farming, or trade (whatever trade the father may have) - which is exactly what Jesus did - and also to look after the younger children and to respect his mother. Jesus fulfilled all these demands of their society, without any difficulty, He was obedient to his parents and respectful of them. In fact, it is interesting to note that later on in the Gospels, when his family is mentioned during his period a public ministry, Joseph isn't mentioned - Mary and brothers and sisters are mentioned on a number of occasions. It is possible, therefore, that Joseph may have died by the time that Jesus was in ministry, around the age of 30. In which case, Jesus would have an even greater responsibility to his mother. Luke observes that he grew in wisdom (that is in knowledge and understanding), in stature (that is in maturity as a person), in favour with people (so his character was positive) and in favour with his Father through ongoing obedience.

We can picture Jesus, as the Son of God, following a path of obedience to the revelation that his heavenly Father gives him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, all the way through his childhood to the extent that he was conscious, and made decisions of obedience to his heavenly Father and obedience to his parents. This is unlike any other human childhood and the reason is simple: Jesus was not tainted by sin. He developed all the way from infancy, all the way through to adulthood. He went through the adolescent period, as we might describe it, but he didn't go through any adolescent rebellion. What he did go through in adolescence was the natural process of his identity becoming more and more separate from his parents - and that is right at the centre of the story that we have been discussing in this episode. It is a wonderful story and gives you a very touching insight into the togetherness, and yet the complexity, of Jesus' family. Mary had to negotiate this as Jesus' mother; she had to work out how to be a good mother to him and it says here that she ‘treasured all these things in her heart.’ She remembered them, she thought about them because she realised that, in a unique way, she was going to have to let her son go to his destiny, and that destiny was going to separate him from her (and the family and the family business) in a way that she could not prevent or restrict. It was her maternal duty, as mother, to release her son to his unique, divine calling. It says something of Mary's astonishing character that she did that with such grace and humility; and is another reason why we should commend Mary as a wonderful example of motherhood.


Let me give you some reflections on this story in conclusion. It is not a story that is often discussed in Christian teaching but I think it is a very important story for a number of reasons. First of all, Jesus' divine identity is clearly revealed. The created tension between human parents and divine Father is explicitly brought to our attention through the discussion between Mary and Jesus in the Temple (When she says, “Why has he not been with the parents?” and he said, “Didn't you know that I need to be in my Father's house?”) His identity is clearly revealed in this episode, as in many other episodes in the Gospels.

A second point of reflection is that respect and obedience for parents, in Christian families particularly, is an important principle of the New Testament. Jesus' story is followed up by Paul in his teaching, for example, in Ephesians 6: 1 - 3:

‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—“so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” (verse 4) Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’

Ephesians 6:1-4, NIV

Family life is complex. Parents, even in Church or Christian families, make mistakes, get things wrong. If we are brought up - as many of us will be, will have been, or are now - in families that are not Christian families - that becomes even more complex. The principle of humility and respect for your parents and those who are older than you in the family is one that many societies affirm, very strongly. It is one that we do find very clearly in the Bible and Jesus exemplifies it in his own life. This is a point of reflection that may be important for us.

A third reflection would be that this is our only glimpse into the adolescence of Jesus - the growing up years. We don't find rebellion here, as I have stated, but we do find the assertion of his unique identity. That is a process we should always encourage. If you are a parent and you are reading this - or have any parental responsibility, or grand parental responsibility - helping young people to find their identity in God is a very important responsibility - not an identity that serves our needs as parents particularly, but one which releases them to be fruitful in their lives.

My fourth reflection from this is the vital importance of parenting. Parenting is discussed in a number of contexts in the New Testament; families are very important units in the church and should be seen with the highest of respect. Here is a story that parents can learn from. You can see the reactions of Joseph and Mary; you can see their responsibilities, the challenges that they face with their parenting situation, with a variety of children to look after and Jesus' rather unique situation but can I commend to you that in this passage parenting is valued and is seen as important. Jesus is obedient to his parents; he supports his family, he works within his family business in his growing up years. I want to encourage those with parenting responsibilities to take some inspiration from the grace with which Joseph and Mary handled the ever-changing situation as Jesus grew up.

In conclusion, is a brief reflection on the Jewish Temple, which is obviously at the centre of this particular story. I will be talking about the Temple again and again because so much of the action takes place around the Temple. John's Gospel highlights this, particularly, and the period at the end of Jesus' life highlights this as well. The Temple was the representation of the whole of Judaism at the time. It was the place where Jews considered that God met mankind on earth. It was the meeting place between earth and heaven: a sacred place, which God had chosen, right in the centre of his city of Jerusalem; the place where the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was carried out; the place where festivals were carried out; and where worship was continually upheld by the priests ( we saw that when we looked at the story of John the Baptist's parents and his father Zechariah, who served as a Levite supporting the priesthood in the Temple). It is a very important central institution and it is going to experience a lot of change when Jesus comes. Take note of the Temple and take note of the Teachers of the Law who are mentioned here. They become very prominent in our story later on. There is going to be much challenge and change coming for the Jewish Temple as the New Covenant comes, as Jesus' sacrifice comes, as the Church is born, as the Holy Spirit is poured out. Everything is going to change but here at the very beginning of Jesus' life, here as an adolescent before he was even in ministry, and he is engaging with the Temple and its authorities. He will be doing that very substantially throughout the course of his ministry.

Thank you for reading this final episode in series 1 and I hope you will join us again as we move next time to Series 2.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Look at this account from the parents’ point of view - and then from Jesus’ point of view.
    2. Jesus has a strong relationship with God, his heavenly Father, throughout his life. What is your relationship with God the Father?
  • Discipleship
    1. Respect and obedience for parents, in Christian families particularly, is important in the New Testament. Pray for families you know.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging ‘God - the Father’ to find out more about this.
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