Back to Bible Basics - Young Jesus

Luke 2:41-52

Jesus in the temple at Passover

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers.48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.

His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them.

51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart.52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.



Thoughts on the passage:

Of the 3,779 verses in the four gospels only these 12 verses talk at all about the life of Jesus between age 2 where the birth narrative leaves off in Matthew and the suggested age of 30 when Jesus begins his public ministry with his baptism in the Jordon River. The bulk of his life remains unrecorded except this one story. What is it about this story that it was remembered and captured unlike any others from this time? What can it tell us about Jesus? What does it tell us about ourselves? As we go back to these basic Sunday school stories it is my hope that we can learn something new from this seemingly simple story of a young precocious Jesus.

When we are reading the scriptures, it is always good to ask ourselves what sort of text we are looking at. Poetry, like the Psalms, is meant to be read differently than history like First and Second Chronicles. Even the gospels which tell the story of Jesus are a mixture of teachings and parables, historical genealogies, and stories like this one. Each one is meant to be read a little differently. With all of them it is good ask why is it that the author, Luke in this case, sought to include this part of Jesus’ life in his gospel.

Luke, who is thought to have been writing likely one hundred years after these events, is capturing a story that has been passed on, likely from Mary to others, over the course of several retellings. As such, it is probably good not to get caught up on details, like exactly how much time elapsed between when Jesus was left behind and when he was reunited with his parents. Instead, we are meant to ask ourselves, what can we learn about Jesus, the Son of God, from this experience in his early life. What does this story tell us about the nature of God and the nature of Jesus?

The most obvious theme of this story is that Jesus was an exceptional child. Even at age 12 he had a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, such that he was willing and able to sit and learn from the great teachers in the Temple. Not only was this wisdom present at this point in his life, we know from the last verse that it only began to grow after this point. This further serves to underscore the idea that Jesus was possessed of a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, something that is abundantly clear to all of us who have read through the gospels and been challenged by his parables and teachings.

Just underscoring the wisdom and exceptional nature of Jesus has some rhetorical value. Since Luke is writing at a time when people would not have known Jesus personally, he is trying to capture for them a sense of just how special a person Jesus was. Rather than just tell us that Jesus was the Son of God, Luke is using this story to illustrate this point. As the son of God, Jesus was possessed of a wisdom and knowledge far beyond his years. Luke is fortifying his claim about Jesus’ divinity with this story about how exceptional he was.

I do not think that this is the only reason this story has value. In fact, I think there is more in what Jesus says to Mary that offers us an insight into his nature. One of the less-explored aspects of scripture is exactly how Jesus’ dual nature as fully human and fully divine plays out. As fully divine, does Jesus have access to all that God knows? As fully human, is Jesus forced to learn about the world as each of us? I think this passage from Luke sheds some insight onto this question. It underscores the growing and evolving nature of Jesus’ humanity. Unlike say Athena, the Greek goddess who supposedly sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus, Jesus comes into the world as a tiny baby and grows to adulthood in the same way that you or I do it, learning and growing along the way. This story reminds us that while Jesus was an exceptional child, he was a child none the less.

There is another facet of this story that I want to highlight. When Jesus is questioned by his mother about his actions, he gives the answer “Didn’t you know it was necessary to be in my father’s house?” Other translations substitute the word business for house. In doing so I think we see something of an underlying imperative that is already forming for Jesus. Even at the age of 12 he already has a clear sense of calling. While he could have been going with his parents, Jesus feels that his place already is with the teachers in the Temple, learning about God and growing in knowledge and wisdom. He is already focused on preparing himself for what is ahead.

We do not know at what age Jesus becomes aware of his nature and calling but it is clear by age 12 that it has developed. This is important because it gives us a context for the public realization of his call, which occurs during his baptism in the Jordan River. While that moment seems to launch his ministry in both Mark and John, it is clear from reading Luke, that long before he was baptized, Jesus was already aware of his special nature and his calling.

So, what does this all mean for us today? For theologians and philosophers like me, it can be fun to think about what this says about the dual nature of Christ. What does it offer the rest of us who might not get as much pleasure about such metaphysical speculations? That is where this last point I made grows in its importance. While it might seem vain to think of it this way, we are all like Jesus. We all have a special calling that God has placed on our hearts. We are all specially created for different tasks and we all have a purpose based on our gifts and talents. Like Jesus, there are things we must do because it is fundamentally who we are. Even though Jesus is a good son who honors and obeys his parents, he must remain in the Temple so he can learn about God and grow in wisdom and respect. The message of this story is that each of us has a similar calling in our lives.

When we talk about a call, we often think of a call to ministry. We think about how someone is called to use their gifts in several specific ways, but I think we need to see calling as something more than that. Each of us is a beautiful and unique individual, we are all created different and given a different purpose by God based on those gifts. I might be called to ministry, but that call looks very different than others, even those with a similar call. When I was doing my psychological assessment as a part of the ordination process, I learned that the assessment thought the best job for me was to be an actuary. I bring a love of numbers and an attention to strategy and vision to my call to ministry. By contrast, Pastor Marianne has a deep passion and gift for teaching that is part of how she lives out her call to pastoral ministry. Pastor Dennis has an amazing gift for relationships and visits that I often envy. Each of us felt the same calling by God to serve as pastors and yet God equipped each of us with different gifts to live into that calling.

I believe the same is true for everyone of us. Sometimes our calling is rooted in our employment and sometimes it is not. There are some people who work in a job because it gives them the financial resources to do what it really is that they feel called to do. There are others who are lucky that someone is willing to pay them to do what they would already want to be doing. I know people who are natural teachers and whether or not they were employed as such, they would find a way to be a teacher to those around them. God has blessed them with gifts and abilities that they cannot help but share.

What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be? These can seem like daunting questions and yet I think we can look to Jesus for some insights in how to answer these questions. Jesus tells Mary that there is really no where else that he could be except in his Father’s house. What is that thing that we just default to doing? Are you the one that is always naturally offering to host events and provide food, maybe part of your calling is the gift of hospitality? Are you the one that is always thinking about the details, attending to the schedule, or thinking ahead to what will be need next? Maybe God has given you the gift to be an organizer. The question is not what is it that you are good at, the question is what is that you naturally want to do. I think our calling is not about our technical skills, those can be developed. Instead it is about our nature, how God created us, and that is something that was set in place a long time ago.

When we read this story of Jesus in the Temple, we are reminded that even as a child, Jesus already had a sense of God’s calling and purpose for his life. God has a calling and purpose for us too. It is our challenge to spend that time in prayer and reflection to find that calling. It is our challenge to then embrace that calling and live into it as Jesus did. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What activities do you naturally gravitate towards?

Do you feel like there is something that God is calling you to do or be?

Who is someone you know who has embraced the calling that God has given them and is living out their purpose?


God, we give you thanks for creating each of us as wonderful, special people. Help us to see the beauty in your creation and your intentionality in who we each are. Help us to listen to the calling you have given to each one of us. Open our ears to hear your voice, open our eyes to follow your spirit, and give us the courage to embrace what you want for us. Amen