January 11, 1981 (Evening)
Bethlehem Baptist Church
THE SON OF GOD AT 12 YEARS OLD
John Piper, Pastor
(Luke 2:41-52) "Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the
feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up according
to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus
stayed behind in Jerusalem.
His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went
a day's journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances;
and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening
to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his
understanding and his answers.
And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him 'Son,
why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for
you anxiously.' And he said to them, 'How is it that you sought me? Did you
now know that I must be in my Father's house?' And they did not understand the
saying which he spoke to them.
And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and
his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and grew in favor with God and
This is the only story in the gospels about Jesus between His infancy and His
public ministry as a man. Some have argued that the story is a legend created
by the early church to fill in some of the gaps in their knowledge of Jesus'
life. What shall we say to this claim?
First of all we should be aware that in the second and third
centuries many legends arose about the boy Jesus and were put into numerous
apocryphal gospels --accounts of Jesus which the early church rejected as not
having the authority of the four earliest gospels which we have in the New Testament.
Two things speak for the wisdom of the church in recognizing the authority of
only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One is that there are so few stories about
Jesus' childhood in them it is clear that the writers were not interested in
feeding the pious curiosity of the church with legends about Jesus' childhood.
They are content to leave almost 30 years of blank space in Jesus' life because
their interest was on the heart of the gospel not peripheral matters.
The other thing is that the one story which Luke does include there in 2:41-52
is so reserved that it is very unlike most of the legends of Jesus' childhood.
It does not portray Him as doing any supernatural deed or speaking in an unduly
The story reaches its climax and main point not in a supernatural feat but
in the sentence: "I must be about my Father's business (or in my Father's
house)" (v.49). Contrast this with some of the legends which grew up later
on. From the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2nd century):
"When this boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the ford
of a brook, and he gathered together into pools the water that flowed by, and
made it at once clean, and commanded it by his word alone. But the son of Annas
the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a branch of a willow
and (with it) dispersed the water which Jesus had gathered together. When Jesus
saw what he had done he was enraged and said to him: 'You insolent godless dunderhead,
what harm did the pools and the water do to you? See, now you also shall wither
like a tree and shall bear neither leaves nor root nor fruit.' And immediately
that lad withered up completely; and Jesus departed and went into Joseph's house.
But the parents of him that was withered took him away, bewailing his youth,
and brought him to Joseph and reproached him: 'What a child you have who does
such things.' After this again he went through the village, and a lad ran and
knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was exasperated and said to him: 'You shall
not go further on your way,' and the child immediately fell down and died. But
some, who saw what took place, said: "From where does this child spring,
since every word is an accomplished deed?"'
Here is one more example from the Arabic Infancy Gospel:
"One day, when Jesus was running about and playing with some children,
he passed by the workshop of a dyer called Salem. They had in the workshop many
cloths which he had to dye. The Lord Jesus went into the dyer's workshop, took
all these cloths and put them into a cauldron full of indigo. When Salem came
and saw that the cloths were spoiled, he began to cry aloud and asked the Lord
Jesus, saying: 'What have you done to me, son of Mary? You have ruined my reputation
in the eyes of all the people of the city; for everyone orders a suitable colour
for himself, but you have come and spoiled everything.' And the Lord Jesus replied:
'I will change for you the colour of any cloth which you wish to be changed;
and he immediately began to take the cloths out of the cauldron, each of them
dyed as the dyer wished, until he had taken them all out. When the Jews saw
this miracle and wonder, they praised God."
After such stories the account in Luke 2:41-52 seems a bit drab--and that is
precisely what speaks in favor of its authenticity. It does not appear to be
motivated by a desire to overplay Jesus' uniqueness. The claim to uniqueness
is much more subtle and that accords with the way Jesus acted most of the time.
In addition the Greek language of the story is almost certainly a translation
of the semitic language of Palestine which means that it was not created, like
many of the legends, in Greek-speaking areas far removed from the land of the
eyewitnesses. On the contrary, it is Jewish in content and language and therefore
probably originated in Palestine; and the most likely source for the story is
We know from 1:2 that Luke puts a high premium on eyewitness confirmation.
We also know from Acts that while Paul was imprisoned for two years in Jerusalem
and in Caesarea, his sidekick Luke was probably roaming around Jerusalem interviewing
old-timers and collecting information for his gospel.
And finally we have seen three times so far in Luke's gospel that he mentioned
people keeping experiences in their hearts, that is, remembering them. In 1:66
he said that all who heard how John the Baptist was born "laid it up in
their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?"' In 2:19 after
the shepherds had come to Bethlehem Luke says, "But Mary kept all these
things, pondering them in her heart." And then here at the end of our text
in 2:51 it says, "And His mother kept all these things in her heart."
Isn't the most likely reason for mentioning this storing up of memories to give
Theophilus and us a clue as to how he, a gentle foreigner, was able to write
as much as he did about Jesus' childhood.
Therefore, in view of how few are the gospel narratives of the child Jesus,
and how much more reserved they are than the apocryphal legends, and how great
Luke's concern is to trace things out carefully and confirm it with eyewitnesses,
and how Jewish the setting and language is, and how easily available Mary probably
was, it seems to me that the claim that this story in Luke 2:41-52 is legendary
is wrong and probably stems from an unwillingness to own up to the main point
of the story, namely, that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God.
Now let's read through the narrative making some comments as we go to see if
we can hit on the main point and any lessons there are for our lives.
Verse 41: "Now his parents went up to Jerusalem every year at the feast
of the Passover." Here Luke stresses again how devout and law-abiding Jesus'
We saw in 2:22, 23, 24, 39 how Mary and Joseph did all that the Mosaic law required.
By stressing this Luke tries to help Theophilus accept the fact that, although
Jesus was killed by Jewish teachers, it was not really because he was outside
the Jewish faith. Jesus' parents, and now we will see Jesus himself, were devoted
to the law of Moses.
They loved it, studied it, obeyed it. Luke will show very soon (in chapter 4)
the real reason why he, a devout Jew, could be rejected and killed by his own
Verse 42: "And when he was 12 years old they went up according to the custom."
The fact that this incident happened when Jesus was 12 is probably significant.
The 12th year was the final year of preparation for a lad before he entered
full participation in the religious life of the synagogue. Up until that time
his parents, especially his father, were teaching him the commandments of the
law, but at the end of the 12th year the child goes through a ceremony by which
he formally takes on the yoke of the law and becomes a bar mitzvah or "son
of the commandment." This was the year Jesus chose to stay behind in the
Perhaps, at this crucial turning point in every Jewish boy's life, Jesus wanted
to demonstrate subtlety for those who had eyes to see that he would be more
than an ordinary Jewish bar mitzvah; his insight into the commandment was more
profound than ordinary men and his relation to God was unique. Both of these
will be evident in a moment.
Verses 43, 44: "And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the
boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing
him to be in the company they went a day's journey." That's like driving
from Minneapolis to Chicago and realizing you left your child and having to
drive back again. Only it's worse: they were probably walking.
Two things stand out here and they seem inconsistent.
First, there is Jesus' apparent disregard for his parents'
time and feelings.
Second, there is implicit faith Mary and Joseph have in their
12 year old son. If he had been an irresponsible child his parents would never
have gone a whole day without knowing his whereabouts. They trusted him and
knew he had good judgment. This suggests that Jesus' motive in staying behind
was not carelessness or disrespect. Evidently he intentionally let them go in
order to demonstrate something more forcefully.
Verse 43-46: They sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when
they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem seeking him. After three days
they found him in the temple." There is no way to know whether this means
three days since leaving Jerusalem (one out, one back and one in search) or
whether it means three days searching in Jerusalem. It's hard to imagine three
days searching in Jerusalem because probably Jesus and his parents would have
gone to the same place to spend the night. How Mary and Joseph and Jesus feel
about this search comes out later in verses 48 and 49.
Verses 46-47: "They found him in the temple sitting among the teachers
listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed
at his understanding and his answers." This sentence sets my mind to thinking
about all sorts of things I'd love to talk about for hours. One is the relationship
between teachers and students and the role of listening, querying and answering.
Another is the mystery of how the divine and human natures unite in the one
person, Jesus. If he is God how can he increase in wisdom as verse 52 says he
does? Finally this sentence sparks in my mind a scene 18 years later when perhaps
some of these very same teachers would gnash their teeth at this boy's wisdom
and want to kill him. Let me make just a few observations about each of these
First, Theophilus should understand that Jesus knew and loved the law from an
early age and that in the very city where he was lynched 20 years later, he
was approved at the age of 12. Or perhaps he wasn't approved. You can be astonished
at something you don't like. Maybe the teachers of the law did not care for
the implications of Jesus' answers; but then a 12 year old is no threat. They
can pat him on the head and say, "Smart kid," and return to their
hair splitting and their hypocrisy.
There's an analogy of that in our experience. A young lad gets saved, say at
camp, and he returns to his unbelieving home and tells dad about Jesus. The
dad smiles condescendingly as if to say that's nice for kids. But then the boy
grows into a man and is aflame with the Spirit and the issues sharpen and the
different destinies come into focus and the dad can't be indifferent any more.
And the crisis comes: conversion or alienation. "He who is not with me
is against me" (Matthew 12:30).
Second, our text has important implications for understanding the divinity of
Christ. It helps us understand what Paul meant when he said, "Though he
was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:6,7).
One of the things Christ emptied himself of was omniscience. He said concerning
the time of his return (Matthew 24:36), "Of that day and hour no one knows,
not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father only." Similarly,
here in our text Jesus is not just playing games with the scribes. His questions
aim to gain insight for verse 52 says "He increased in wisdom."
But it is not easy to imagine how Christ can be God and not be omniscient.
Evidently the incarnate Christ was able somehow to bracket or limit the actual
exercise of his divine powers so that he had the personality of God (basically,
the motives and will of God) but the powers of knowing all and the infinite
strength of God he somehow restrained. They were his potentially and thus he
was God; but he surrendered their use absolutely and so he was man.
Therefore the child standing before us here in the temple is not so different
that he can't serve as an example for us and our children.
This brings us to the third topic triggered by verses 46 and 47: I think we
can learn something here from the way Jesus related with these teachers.
There are four things to see:
1) he sought out teachers and sat in their midst;
2) he listened;
3) he asked questions;
and 4) he gave answers.
I infer from this that if the Son of God sought out teachers, listened, asked
questions and gave answers about the things of God, therefore so ought his people
to seek understanding, especially those preparing for the ministry.
If I learned one thing from my 6 years of theological education and 6 years
of teaching at Bethel it is that most people are not eager to understand more
about God than they already understand. I would say less than a tenth of all
the students I ever taught were hungry to see how reality fits together and
eager to drink at history's great wells of wisdom. This is bad enough in our
churches and colleges but the tragedy reaches its crescendo when we see it so
prevalent in our divinity schools where the pastor-teachers are being trained.
How little zeal there is to tackle the glorious revelation of God in the Bible
and understand it from cover to cover --- how it all fits together into a grand
Richard Baxter, the 17th century English pastor who wrote the great classic
The Reformed Pastor said (p.68):
"Take heed to yourselves that you want not the qualifications necessary
to your work. He must not be himself a babe in knowledge, that will teach men
all those mysterious things which must be known in order to salvation.
O what qualifications are necessary for a man who hath such a charge upon him
as we have! How many difficulties in divinity to be solved! And these too about
the fundamental principles of religion! How many obscure texts of scripture
to be expounded!
I feel tremendously challenged by the example of Jesus and the admonition of
Baxter to strive for increased wisdom and understanding of Scripture. And I
urge all of you, especially those in or on their way to seminary: find yourself
a wise teacher who loves the whole counsel of God, listen to him, ask him questions
and keep asking until it all begins to fit together and have him ask you questions
and give him your answers. If Jesus did it we should do it.
"And when they (his parents) saw him they were astonished; and his mother
said to him, 'Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have
been looking for you anxiously (literally: in pain). And he said to them: 'Why
is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house
(or about his business). And they did not understand the saying which he spoke
The last statement --- that they did not understand Jesus---is Luke's way of
saying to us the reader: "there's more here than meets the eye.
This is the point, don't miss it" (cf. Luke 18:34).
They were searching and searching and finally they turn him up at the temple.
Where did they search?
In the playground,
the local swimming hole,
in the shops,
at the bakery?
Jesus answers: you shouldn't have had to seek at all. For you know, don't you,
that there is laid on me an inner necessity to be in my Father's house (or about
his business--either translation is possible)?
The main point of the whole passage probably lies in the contrast between "your
father" and "my father." Mary says, "Your father and I have
been searching for you." Jesus answers, "You should have known I would
be at the house of my Father." In other words, Jesus has chosen this crucial
stage in His life on he brink of manhood to tell his parents in an unforgettable
way that he now knows who his real Father is and what it will mean for his mission.
It will mean, as Simeon said in Luke 2:35, "a sword will pierce through
your own soul also, Mary." The time will come when Jesus will be killed
at Jerusalem and after 3 days rise from the dead and that will be a great pain
And is not this 3-day vigil of Mary and Joseph a foreshadowing of that experience?
She said, "Your father and I have been seeking you in pain."
So it seems to me that the main teaching of the passage is that Jesus now recognizes
his unique sonship to God and that his mission will require of him a devotion
to God's purposes so great that it takes precedence over the closest family
He must follow his calling even if it brings pain and misunderstanding. In this
way Luke sets the stage for the adult ministry of the Son of God. And to that
we'll turn in chapter three about 18 years later.
© COPYRIGHT 1981, 1997 John Piper.
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