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Jesus the Preteen (Matured - a study of Luke 2:41-52)

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

[Commentary on Luke 2:41-52] In our passage, Luke continues to paint the picture that Jesus was just like us and yet also someone very special. This particular story, Jesus being left in Jerusalem, shows an example of how Jesus could be a normal boy and yet not sin. And maybe it's a little comforting to see that parents aren't perfect.

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked them. “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:49

The Sundays around the New Year's holidays are generally low-key. The people who come to Bible study are pretty committed. So, because our passage if rather straightforward, I'm going to dive into all of the obscurities and let you sort through them as you will.

The Awfulness of a Child Going Missing

The central action of this week's passage is Mary and Joseph realizing that Jesus is not with them. Every parent has a moment like that. Many such stories I have heard (or experienced) involve the store or a mall, but some also revolve around a park or a stadium. The absolute worst involve the airport or the beach. Now - the reason we can think about those stories and nervously chuckle is that they turned out okay in the end. If you have parents in your group, you might share some of those stories to put everyone in the Mary-and-Joseph frame of mind.

[Aside about having discussions in groups. Always be mindful of the fact that the story you share might not have worked out as well for everyone else in the group. This is true of just about everything. Something that turned out okay for you might have turned out quite differently for someone else in your group in a similar situation. That doesn't mean you can't share your story! You do not have to apologize for being shown mercy. But you also don't have to brag about it. God's ways are inscrutable to us. The only thing I know for certain is that if something turned out well for you but not for someone else, it's not because God loves you more. Does that make sense? God loves us all equally. We are incapable of understanding how God is bringing about His perfect end for human history. So - share your story, but be sensitive to the situations of others in your group.]

The terrifying thing for every parent to come to grips with is that not all missing children are found. That's why we take this topic so seriously as a parent. Just a few months ago, the US Marshalls (Missing Child Unit) conducted a sting in Atlanta and Macon that rescued 39 children from human trafficking. (Note: human trafficking does not necessarily mean sex trafficking, but that doesn't make it any better.) It was called "Operation Not Forgotten", which is tremendous. This group has recovered more than 1,500 children since its foundation in 2005. There are more than 400,000 reports of missing children in the US every year (though most of them are found quickly).

[This gets deep and dark quickly, but I said I was going to investigate the obscurities of the passage. Here is a document from the Department of Justice giving definitions and statistics for missing children in the United States. All of that to say that this is a serious topic; us being aware of it might result in a child being rescued. Don't forget what our church has already learned about the child sex trafficking taking place on I-20 between Atlanta and Augusta!]

All of that to say - there's absolutely nothing funny about what Mary and Joseph experienced when they realized that Jesus wasn't with them.

Jesus as a Preteen

The internet can be a wonderful source of humor. There are so many clever people constantly producing quality jokes and quips. I love this comic about baby Moses getting a bath. With that in mind, I was going to show y'all some of the funny things the internet came up with about Jesus as a teen/preteen.

Nope. The internet failed.

I like to think that I can tolerate a wide range of attempts at humor (after all, most of the people who create it are not Christian), but this was just bad and offensive. My request to you: don't look up Jesus-as-a-boy humor on the internet. Let me spare you that. Apparently, the only humorous things teenagers do is misbehave and disobey. Obviously, that means even the "clean" Jesus comics are inappropriate and unbiblical. (Here are the only two comics I am willing to display, and they're basically to prove my point:)

So, backup topic.

Having the Perfect Older Sibling

Jesus never did anything wrong. He was never disobedient or rude or lazy or disrespectful. He was never selfish or self-serving or condescending or manipulative.

Imagine having that as your older brother.

The Gospels name four brothers (James, Joses, Judas, Simon - Mark 6:3) and acknowledge at least two sisters. Because Mary was a virgin, we know that Jesus was the oldest. I don't want to take any more space to describe sibling rivalry -- we all know it's a thing -- but I do encourage you, based on your experiences with your own siblings, to imagine what it might have been like to grow up with Jesus as your older brother.

Just a fun thought exercise.


This Week's Big Idea: Being a 12-yr-old Boy in Judea

Luke 2:42 says this event took place when Jesus was 12. According to other uses of age in Hebrew literature, this probably means "in Jesus' 12th year" which means He was between 11 and 12. Rabbinical literature from the first century gives this schedule for a boy's education:

  • Age 5 - begin studying (memorizing) the Torah (the first five books of our Bible)

  • Age 10 - begin studying the Mishnah (Jewish explanations of the Torah)

  • Age 13 - celebrate bar mitzvah, meaning being subject to the Torah

  • Age 15 - begin studying the Talmud (Jewish explanations of the Mishnah)

Much of this studying took place in the home. Boys learned to read by reading the Torah. Local synagogues also helped with learning to read. They would have much if not all of it memorized by their bar mitzvah. "Bar mitzvah" means "son of the commandment" and was a ceremony in which boys vowed to keep all of those commandments they had learned.

[Note: I've started putting up older lessons, which takes forever. When we studied Matthew, I called the Mishnah the rough equivalent of Jewish "case law" and the Midrash the rough equivalent of Jewish "summary judgments" of which the Talmud was a written compilation. It's important to know that these represented only one viewpoint within Jewish thought.]

The year before a boy turned 13 was generally devoted to preparation for bar mitzvah (and that may have been part of the wonder on the part of the Jewish teachers -- that a boy in his 12th year, as Jesus likely was, could already be so learned in the Torah). In many parts of Judea, boys who had turned 12 were treated as men with respect to the law in order to give them a year of "practice" being a Jewish man.

This was also about the time when a boy would start to learn a trade. The most advanced students might continue to study the Mishnah while also learning a trade, but very few actually left home to study with a famous rabbi. It was very expensive. The Apostle Paul (see Acts 22:3) is the example that comes to mind of someone who actually did that.

This is an imperfect analogy, but perhaps we can think of it like this: All the boys in Judea completed primary school (elementary/middle). Their bar mitzvah was the "graduation" from that. Most of the boys would go on to "trade school", although some of them also went to "high school" in their spare time. Very, very few went on to what we might think of as "university" with advanced studies in the law.

Jesus was approaching His bar mitzvah, so He would have been preparing for it at home. But we also know that He stayed home to train in becoming a carpenter.


More Big Ideas: The Passover in the Gospels

In this week's passage, the event that took Jesus' family to Jerusalem was Passover. The Passover was the first of three primary annual feasts that all Jewish males were expected to attend in Jerusalem. (In reality, few Jewish males who lived far away from Jerusalem actually did so; pointing out that Joseph did so was a subtle hint at his personal piety and his commitment to raising Jesus in the Jewish faith.)

[Aside on the Jewish feasts (also, "festivals"). Technically, "Passover" referred to the opening meal (the seder meal) of the week-long "Feast of Unleavened Bread", but the terms were often interchanged. The second primary feast was the "Feast of Weeks"; it was 50 days after Passover, hence the alternate name Pentecost. The third was the "Day of Atonement", which took place mid-fall. Two other feasts/festivals are "Feast of Tabernacles" and "Feast of Trumpets" which has evolved into Rosh Hashanah.]

Now, just because I know you're interested (or why else would you be reading a supplemental Bible study the week of the New Year holiday?), here's a little bit about the role of the Passover in the Gospels.

Of everything on the Jewish calendar (well, other than the weekly Sabbath), the Passover / Feast of Unleavened Bread took by far the most attention. In fact, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is the only festival mentioned. Here's a relatively simple thought exercise -- based on what you know about the Passover (you may want to read Exodus 12), why do you think Passover was the one most associated with Jesus? (Part of my question is -- why not the Day of Atonement? After all, Hebrews 9-10 clearly calls what Jesus did as the final atonement for sin. And, well, there's your answer. The Day of Atonement was all about sacrifices for sin and the holy of holiest and priests and washings, etc. Jesus did away with all of those things.) In summary, the Exodus from Egypt was the most important formative event for Israel (outside of receiving the law), and the Passover was the most important formative ritual associated with the Exodus. In creating a new, spiritual Israel (the church), Jesus kept the critical symbolism of the Passover but turned it into something new -- the Lord's Supper.

Think about it. It's possible that Jesus was born right before the Passover. (And even if the traditional December 25 date is correct, we still know that Jesus was early identified as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.) Our passage this week tells us that Jesus grew up going to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. In Jesus' 3-year ministry, He went to Jerusalem with His disciples each year for the Passover (which is when His temple cleansings would take place). And He died on the cross right after the Passover. At the very least, we know that Luke is quite intentionally bringing the Passover to the attention of his non-Jewish readers. My guess is that this would validate the Lord's Supper for the Gentile Christians reading Luke/Acts in the new churches around the empire.

And then there's the Gospel of John. Whereas Matthew and Mark only mention the final Passover of Jesus' life, and Luke adds the ones from His boyhood, John talks a lot about Passovers. Jesus clears the temple courts in His first year of ministry (John 2:23) during the Passover, which really impresses the Galileans, setting up a lot of His ministry there. John points out that the five thousand Jesus fed the following year was (likely) a group of pilgrims gathering to go to that year's Passover (John 6:4). John is the only one to mention a different feast, pointing out that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the subsequent Feast of Tabernacles (John 7), and again during the subsequent Feast of Dedication (now called Hanukah) (John 10:22). And then there's everything that happened in the final week of Jesus' earthly ministry -- what we call "Holy Week" -- which was precipitated by the Passover (John 12). All of this to say -- Passover is a big deal in the Gospels, which is why we still pay attention to it today (though mostly to help us better understand and appreciate the Lord's Supper!).


Our Context in Luke

This is the final passage in Luke before we get into Jesus' adult ministry. Luke is the only one who mentions this story. There seem to be three primary reasons for its inclusion:

  • To continue to humanize Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph are highlighted as humble, devout parents. Jesus is described as a regular (but special) boy.

  • To introduce more Jewish culture to Luke's Gentile audience. Here, we get a feel for Jewish festivals like Passover and why so many Jews might be in Jerusalem at one time. And we clearly see Jesus as somewhat "above" Jewish learning and thought.

  • To separate Jesus from John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a folk hero to many. This story puts a spotlight on Jesus' uniqueness that John the Baptist did not have -- the most important of which is His awareness of God as His Father.

[Also - because this happens right after Simeon's warning that Mary's soul would be "pierced" by her experiences with Jesus - I get the sense that Luke intended this as a foreshadowing. Jesus is not just "Mary's little boy".]

For our part, because we already know the rest of the story about Jesus, I see value in appreciating Mary and Joseph as parents -- how hard it must have been, but how genuinely they tried their best. Even their later "faults" (like in Mark 3) must be seen through the lens of them looking out for what they thought was best for Jesus. So, like this meme says (however clunky), we should be encouraged to continue to do the best we can raising the children God has given us, knowing that we won't always be right. And if you don't have children, then let this inform the relationship you have with your parents.

[Totally unnecessary aside: when poking around the internet for graphics, I discovered that Kevin Sorbo starred as Joseph in a 2016 direct-to-DVD movie about Mary and Joseph raising Jesus. I'm not saying I recommend it; I'm just saying that someone has indeed tried to make a movie out of this topic. And it starred Hercules. Something new every day.]


Part 1: Engaged (Luke 2:41-47)

41 Every year his parents traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the festival. 43 After those days were over, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming he was in the traveling party, they went a day’s journey. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days, they found him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all those who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

Because the story is not very complicated, I'll fill in some background. Pointing out that they made the trip annually is intended to highlight their faithfulness. It was a long trip, so count up food, lodging, and lost work. Here's that simplified map of Judea I showed a few weeks ago. Something that we noted when we studied Mark and Matthew in years past, most Jews traveling between Galilee and Judea would have followed the road along the Jordan River in order to avoid traveling through Samaria (they didn't like Samaritans, right?). That would have added another 40 miles or so to the 90 mile trip between Nazareth and Jerusalem. As this passage indicates, families would travel together to festivals in Jerusalem both for safety and to share costs. This would increase travel time to maybe even a full week one-way. They sometimes traveled in two groups -- the men and older boys toward the front, and the women and children toward the back (this gave the men time to talk to the boys about what was going to happen in Jerusalem). Because Jesus was in this "in-between" age, it only makes sense that both Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with the other group. There was absolutely no neglect involved; it's hard to even call this a mistake. It's just one of those things that has happened to parents in every generation. (And no, it's not like Home Alone; all of those movies are so utterly ridiculously contrived.)

Here's a map that highlights the tension Mary and Joseph must have felt. It's more than a 3,000 foot elevation drop from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, and although the road was well-worn, it was not easy, and it was dangerous (remember that this is the setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan). It would take about a day to go from Jerusalem to Jericho. So, when the party had camped for the night somewhere around Jericho, that's when Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus wasn't there. And they would have had to travel back up the Jericho road the next day -- probably just the two of them. It's stressful enough to walk a dangerous road once, but to do it twice and with extreme urgency? I'm sure Mary and Joseph would have been in a mood when they got back to Jerusalem! (What kind of mood, do you think? Remember that God chose them to be Jesus' parents . . .)

When verse 46 says "after 3 days", it likely means "in total". They weren't necessarily wandering around the streets of Jerusalem for three days! Day 1: down to Jericho. Day 2: back up to Jerusalem. Day 3: they eventually find Jesus in the temple.

And He's talking to the teachers. He's asking questions and giving answers that amazed (there's that word again) everyone around. I would so, so love to know what they were talking about. But, like the famous walk to Emmaus (Luke 24), Luke doesn't tell us. He didn't write this gospel to satisfy our curiosity; he wrote it to change our lives.

[Here's how I imagine this developed -- Jesus asked a passing rabbi a question. Because Jesus was of the age where He was probably preparing for His bar mitzvah, the rabbi gladly indulged. And then someone else overheard either Jesus' follow-up question or answer, realized that it was rather advanced for someone so young, and stopped in. This eventually turned into a real crowd. It's unknown if Jesus had this crowd the whole three days, or if it just came together here at the end.]

[And of course, we have to ask the question, WHAT WAS BOY JESUS DOING FOR THREE DAYS IN JERUSALEM??? WHERE DID HE SLEEP? WHAT DID HE EAT? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??!! The Bible doesn't say, and that's also not the point. I like to think that Anna was still alive and coming to the temple every day and brought Him home with her. Wouldn't that be a cool story twist?]


Aside: Was Jesus Being Disobedient?

In a little bit, we will ask the question if Jesus were being disrespectful. And obviously, the answer to both questions is No -- Jesus never sinned, and the Bible is clear that disobedience and disrespect to parents is a sin (see Rom 1:30).

So, how was Jesus staying in Jerusalem not being disobedient to His parents?

It's really simple. They forgot to tell Him that they were leaving. Just as they both thought He was with the other, they both thought the other had gotten Him for the return journey.

The Bible doesn't say that directly, but I think it's strongly implied.


Part 2: Questioned (Luke 2:48-50)

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.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked them. “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them.

Obviously, when they find Jesus, He is in the company of a group of Jewish teachers. So, equally obviously, two devout Jewish parents aren't going to blast Jesus in that setting, no matter how much they might want to. (Plus, I like to think that as they were walking back, they realized that they forgot to tell Him they were leaving, so they probably weren't exactly sure what to say.) (Oh! And how anticlimactic for them! I can imagine what doomsday scenarios they had cooked up in their minds during that too-long journey back. But then, there's Jesus, perfectly fine, sitting in the temple, surrounded by Jewish leaders. What do you even do with that as a parent? *walking through the temple courts* "There's a crowd of people over them. Let's ask them if they know anything. . . . Wait, is that? . . . No, it can't be . . . Yep, it's Jesus. Well, great, I guess?")

The words "astonish" and "understand" are very important in this context. Luke continues going to the well of wonder in trying to help his readers understand what it was like to be around Jesus (even from boyhood). And Mary's word for "anxious" is very strong, even indicating pain. Other words I've seen used to describe Mary's frame of mind -- "frenzied", "hysterical" (that's probably too strong), and "frantic".

Jesus' very calm response puts everything into a perspective that Mary and Joseph should have known (but who really understands this?). They should have known where He would be. But Jesus' answer is way more advanced than our English can do justice. He uses a Greek idiom that literally translates "it was necessary for me to be in the of My Father". Yes, there's a missing noun there. (That's why some translations say "in the business of My Father" rather than "house".) It establishes a connection that's not intended to be captured in one word, like today an idiom might be "I am all about My Father". For a physical location, the temple was a must. And while in the temple, He would be talking about and learning about the things of God. (And probably a lot more than that.)

(There's a lot of debate over this, but I do see a word choice intended to remind Mary and Joseph what was going on -- she had just (appropriately) called Joseph "your father"; Jesus comes back with a "My Father". It was done in a way that wouldn't have caused a commotion (unlike later in John 5:17 when the Jews realized that Jesus calling God "My Father" meant more than they were comfortable). But it got the point across.


Aside: Was Jesus Being Disrespectful?

On it's face, this might seem to be cheeky coming from Jesus. His parents have been frantically searching for Him, and He asks them why they were searching for Him? What did He expect His parents to be doing? Let's just say that I don't think I could get away with that answer to my mom in a similar situation.

But no, there's nothing disrespectful about this. After all, they had left Him in Jerusalem, had they not? "I went directly to the one place you should have expected Me to go." (Note: parents, this is why you always have "a plan" for when you get separated from your kids/grandkids. "If something happens and we get separated, let's meet at [x]." This also works for your evacuation plan if there's a fire in your home. Just a PSA for everyone.) So, really, we shouldn't read Jesus' response as "why were you searching?" as much as "why were you frantic?". Does that distinction make sense?


Part 3: Obedient (Luke 2:51-52)

51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother kept all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.

This is such a great verse. It's one of the few we have in the Bible to share with preteens about preteens. We're out of space, but let me assure that that 10-13 is such a very important age for kids and their development. Having a model of Jesus at that age is fantastic. Thank you, Luke.

These verses clarify that Jesus was neither being disrespectful nor disobedient. He was just a kid making the best of what could have been a disastrous situation.

As far as we can tell, Jesus had a normal childhood. He was not a "child superhero". (That concept makes for great movie fodder -- in just the past few years, we've had multiple Spiderman movies, a Teen Titans movie, a New Mutants movie, Shazaam, and all sorts of direct-to-tv cartoons. They are fish-out-of-water stories, and also don't-trust-the-authorities stories, and they have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus' childhood. He was a normal kid.)

Saying that Jesus "increased in wisdom" doesn't take away from His deity in any way. In Philippians 2, Paul explains that Jesus truly became a human and "emptied Himself" of the privileges of being God. For the purposes of this passage, it meant that He grew up like everyone else. As His body grew, He learned new skills. As His mind aged, His wisdom increased. We don't know what it means to be both God and human, so we will never be able to understand exactly what this verse means. And that's okay.

But how could Jesus grow "in favor with God"? Does that make any sense? Well, think of it this way. In Luke 3:22 (the baptism of Jesus), God says that He is "well pleased" with Jesus. I think that means Jesus truly became human. "Risk" is the wrong word because this was God's eternal plan, but Jesus becoming human has an element of real "effort". Jesus had to do the right things; they didn't just "happen" for Him. And as He continued to do those things, validating Himself before the people around Him, God also validated Him. I'm not sure if "proud father" is the exact analogy to use, but it's something like that.

As with the events at the manger (2:19), Mary kept these things in her heart. She didn't really understand them (hey -- we're in good company!), but they shaped her. I'm sure that after Jesus' death and resurrection, all of these memories enabled her to become a pillar in the early church, and they certainly shaped Luke's Gospel.

Also, this is the last mention we have of Joseph. This is why many scholars believe that sometime between here and Jesus' public ministry some 18 years later (that's a long time), Joseph likely died.

Happy 2021, by the way! 2020 wasn't a great year, but God still proved to be faithful to us. I pray that He continues to pour out His blessings on you in the year to come.


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