Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

12. Twelve Years Old (Luke 2:40-52)*

All that is known about Jesus up to the age of twelve is covered by one verse: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” (Lk. 2:40). Each separate phrase here calls for careful evaluation.

All children grow as they get older. So if Luke is careful to mention this about Jesus it must be because in his early years he was above average height, a fact which the gospel writer underlines later on.

Some manuscripts omit the words “in spirit”, thus inviting the reader to take the words ‘he waxed strong” as having reference to physical development; in other words, that Jesus was not only tall for his age but muscular. The weight of evidence, however, would include the words. They are to be read along with the next phrase with reference to his mental development. He was an able boy mentally, “filling himself with wisdom” (Ps.22: 10). This is probably how the translation should go. It presents a picture of a boy with a lively mind, eager in the acquisition of knowledge. And since the word “wisdom” can have reference to nothing but the divine wisdom of the Scriptures (for there is no other wisdom), it means that as soon as he could read Jesus was avid for the Word of God.

It is no wild speculation to envisage that one of the uses to which Joseph and Mary put the gold brought by the wise men was to equip the boy Jesus with his own set of scrolls of Law and Prophets and “the Writings”. In later years, before his public ministry began, he would thoughtfully and carefully write his own copy of the Law, for had not Moses laid this duty on every king of the Jews (Dt. 17:18-20)?

The Special Blessing of Heaven

“And the grace of God was upon him.” In the New Testament this word carries a much more precise meaning than that which is generally associated with it in modern times. Mostly it means either the forgiveness of sins (a meaning not possible here), or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This second idea also presents difficulties, for was not the Holy Spirit bestowed on Jesus at the time of his baptism years later? Here it is necessary to note the distinction between “the Holy spirit in him” and “upon him”. The former would imply possession of the heavenly gift, with control of the wondrous powers it could impart. The latter phrase, used here, probably indicated a divine guidance and control in the circumstances of life such as is possible in the life of any saint of God. The idea is well and aptly i covered by that splendid phrase: “the ways of.’ Providence”. Many who read these words have had personal experience of this grace of God. It would be strange indeed if the same divine direction, through apparently natural causes;’ and imperceptible to those unequipped with the spectacles of faith, was not constantly at work in the expanding life of this divine child. For example: “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps.119:18) is a Scripture which must have been exemplified a thousand times during these early’ years of the boy Jesus.

One Memory out of Many

From the intimately personal character of’ those first two chapters, it is evident that Luke’ knew Mary personally. How else could he learn 1 that “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart”, that she was “troubled” at’; Gabriel’s greeting and “cast in her mind” concerning this salutation, that the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that as a boy and youth “he was subject unto them”? . Then it may be surmised with every confidence that Mary had many many wonderful memories to share concerning those early days. There are few mothers who cannot talk happily for hours about their firstborn. Yet inspiration guided; Luke to record just this one story as a sample of nearly thirty years’ growth and way of life.” From this, learn all!

A Son of the Law

There came the first Passover after Jesus’ bar-’ mitzvah (a son of the commandment), when he” accompanied his parents to Jerusalem for the feast.

“Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord God” (Ex.23: 17). It was not obligatory for women or children to attend the feasts. But Mary did so, with Joseph, “every year”. It is in itself an indication of the devout character of the family. No doubt Jesus also had regularly accompanied them. But now he was with them as a member of “the congregation of the Lord.”

Today, a Jewish boy’s bar-mitzvah comes at the age of fourteen; but from post-Captivity days (1 Esdras 5:41 with Ezra 2:64), and almost certainly in the time of Jesus, the proper age was twelve. It is possible that the change (whenever it happened) was dictated by a Jewish desire to label Jesus of Nazareth a bastard, since the age has also been kept at twelve for such; for, over the centuries, nothing has excited Jewish feeling against Jesus more than the claim that his origin was divine.

The Homeward Journey

Passover is followed by the seven days of unleavened bread, and since attendance at this was not obligatory, many returned home immediately after the Passover sabbath. But not so the family of Jesus. They “fulfilled the days”.

During this period it was apparently customary for leading rabbis to hold seminars in the temple court, that any who wished might take advantage of their instruction. Of course the boy Jesus was eager to make the most of such opportunities. So much so that when his parents joined the party travelling back to Galilee, Jesus hung on still in Jerusalem, so fascinated by this wonderful opportunity that he had no thought at all for his parents’ departure.

It was only at the end of the first day’s journey that he was missed. If the suggestion is true that the women and children travelled in separate parties from the men, then probably Mary assumed7 that Jesus was with Joseph, and Joseph similarly assumed the he was with Mary. In any case their lack of concern about him is a testimony to the degree of confidence that they had in him.

Found at Last!

It would mean a sleepless night for Mary when at the end of the day increasingly anxious search ended in failure. There was doubtless a hurried return to Jerusalem next morning, or even during the second half of the night, by the light of a half-moon. Then followed a frantic weary searching during which anxiety and reassurance that all would yet turn out well continually struggled for the mastery in their minds. The home of every relation and friend in the city was visited, but fruitlessly. Then-in the night, probably, in the midst of earnest importunity for guidance and for his safety-it dawned on Mary where was the obvious place to seek him. And, sure enough, there next morning he was found in the midst of the learned men, eager as ever in his attention and questioning.

Jerusalem Bible School

It is not an unworthy enquiry to speculate where Jesus ate and slept during those two days and nights. Had he gone to the home of some friend of the family, Joseph and Mary would have found him ere this. The most likely explanation is that some priest, fascinated and delighted by his thirst for knowledge of the Scriptures, took him to his own quarters; or one of those learned rabbis took him to his home in the city. It is interesting to consider that amongst those whom Jesus heard discourse during that week there may have been Simeon or Gamaliel or Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea - any of these!

Had those Passover instruction sessions continued past their normal duration, of the seven days because of the avid interest of this boy from Galilee? Or had Jesus found his way into a class attached to the rabbinic school in the: temple? If the latter, then he was by far the youngest present, for the age-limit is known to have been fifteen. But that he sat “in the midst” of the teachers seems to suggest the former explanation—namely, that they found his insight and eagerness such a stimulus (for there is nothing a teacher likes better than a responsive pupil) that they were glad to re-convene informally for his sake.

It is a mistake to imagine, as some have, that Jesus was arguing on level terms with these men of the Law and confounding and confuting them by his superior knowledge. One of the late apocryphal gospels, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, has him not only expounding deep matters out of Law and Prophets but also all kinds of msyteriea and difficulties of science and medicine! But Luke says he was “hearing them, and asking them questions” (2:46). What sort of questions?

Did he peradventure ask: “What think ye of the Christ? Whose son is he?” And, “If David call him Lord, how is he then his son?” (Ps. 110:1).

The Greek text seems to imply that not only did Jesus ask question after question but also that they were thrown back at him, for him to supply the answers.

“The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding . . . the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord” (Is. 11:2,3).

“What mean ye”?

One enquiry, for certain, must have been prominent in that discussion. It was Passover time, when, according to the commandment of Exodus 12:26 and according to universal Jewish custom through many centuries, the firstborn of each family put the question at the Passover meal: “What mean ye by this service?” Here, then, was God’s Firstborn in His House at Passover, asking the same question.

The answer which Scripture supplied was: “It is the sacrifice (of a specially selected Lamb) of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt.” This passing over was a protection, the Lord “not suffering the destroyer to come in unto the houses” of His people covered by the blood of the Lamb (Ex. 12:27,23). With what mixed feelings was this growing boy now learning the fuller meaning behind that divine deliverance! A poignant psalm of Messiah’s sufferings has these words: “I am afflicted and ready to die from a boy” (Ps. 88:15).

Now, if not earlier, the cross was already casting its shadow across his path. Some readers will recall the famous picture by Holman Hunt. Justin Martyr says that the Jews had a belief that the Messiah will not be aware of his Messiahship until he is anointed by Elijah. Holman Hunt was nearer the truth than the rabbis were.

Rebuke or Surprise?

It was with amazement that his parents came upon him there. Motherly anxiety and relief drove Mary, unabashed, to interrupt these learned men: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?” There is reproach in the words, but also a pardonable pride: ‘This is my boy whom you elders find it worthwhile to discuss Scripture with!’

“Behold, thy father and I were seeking thee sorrowing”-(the same Greek word describes the rich man suffering “torments” in hell-Lk. 16:23,24). The reply of Jesus is to be taken as an expression of surprise rather than reproof: “How is it that ye had to keep on seeking me? Wist ye not that it is necessary for me to be among my Father’s men?”—as who should say: ‘My Father has not been seeking me. I’ve been with Him all the time. Isn’t this the obvious place to look for me?’

Members of Christ’s family still need to learn that lesson, that if they would find him they can hardly do better than look for him in the symbolism of Temple and Passover and in the wisdom of “his Father’s men”.

The rather vague Greek phrase has been variously translated, but “in my Father’s house” is the favourite rendering, following Irenaeus and one or two other “Fathers”. But the commentators seem to have overlooked that the alternative proposed here—”among my Father’s men”—is just as possible and is inherently much more probable.

“My Father”

The Greek expression is interesting in another way as being the first illustration of the Lord’s uniform practice later in life of using the definite article with “my Father”, whereas at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer he taught his disciples to say “Our Father” without the use of the Greek definite article. This is to be expected, for there is a large difference between God’s Fatherhood of Jesus and His Fatherhood of the disciple. Hence the distinction in the words of the risen Lord: “I ascend to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17). Here in the temple the allusion to “my Father” was a gentle correction of Mary’s words: “thy father and I”. From this day forward she must never forget her son’s higher loyalty.

These first recorded works of Jesus contain an implied rebuke couched in the form of a question. It was to be his standard method of administering correction. The gospels have many an example of this.

Every spoken word of Jesus on this and all occasions such as this Mary treasured up in a tenacious memory, often pondering the meaning of them and what they should portend. The words with which Luke describes her reverent eagerness are the very words used of Jacob’s serious concern for Joseph and his meaningful dreams (Gen.37:11).
Nevertheless, until the call came, there in Nazareth he was content to be “subject unto them”, even though now a “son of the commandment” with more understanding than his parents. And how right it was that he should be subject, for “every fatherhood in heaven and in earth” is named from the higher relationship of the Heavenly Father and His Son (Eph. 3:14,15). Furthermore, as a son of the Law the fifth commandment was as much an obligation as any other: “Honour thy father and thy mother. . .that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth (Eph.6: 2,3). Never, it may be assumed, was this commandment so fully observed (offer the first four) as during these early years of Jesus; and none deserves so much as he to “live long on the earth”.

The Hidden Years

The next eighteen years are covered by one short verse: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (2:52). It has been proposed to read “age” in place of stature, but this is palpably absurd, for of course Jesus increased in age. Luke did not need to record that fact. The word translated “increased” means “to forge ahead of the rest’. Jesus’ outstanding wisdom is to be expected, because of his parentage and because of his evident devotion to the Word of God. Physically, also, he was outstanding. Somehow, this too is to be expected-that the Son of God should be in all respects a fine and wholesome example of what the human race can achieve in its present weakness.

Attempts have been made to represent Jesus as physically puny and unattractive. The “evidence” is detailed here so that readers may estimate its quality.

  1. Lk. 19:3 “Zacchaeus sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he (Jesus!) was little of stature.” The Greek will stand this reading, but it is not certain.
  2. Mt. 21:5: Jesus rode the foal of an ass, so he must have been well below average weight.
  3. Jn. 20:15: Mary’s willingness to carry away the body of Jesus argues the same conclusion.
  4. Mk. 15:21: Jesus needed help with the carrying of the cross.
  5. Is. 53:2: “There is no beauty that we should desire him.”
There is an indirectness (or an alternative interpretation) about all this evidence which must give way before the explicit words of Luke 2:52.

Growth, Progress

So Jesus grew, blessed by God and man alike, according to the peerless principle of the Book of Proverbs: “Let not mercy and truth (the promises of God) forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: so shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (3:3,4).

It is interesting to note the contrast with John the Baptist. He, too, grew and waxed strong in spirit” (Lk. 1:80), but there was no outstanding favour in the sight of men-because he was ‘in the deserts”, and in any case his austerity of life would hardly make a wide appeal. But Jesus lived as a carpenter in Nazareth (Mk. 6:3). This fact is the only other glimpse of his life until the time came for his public ministry to begin.

The Apocrypha (Ecclus. 38:25,27,33) speaks very bluntly about the inferior quality of carpenters and other craftsmen. Yet Jesus was content to continue in the workshop at Nazareth. For so highly intelligent a boy what a bore many of the routine jobs must have been. Yet he quietly put up with the drudgery. And through it all he was building up a tough physical constitution that was to stand him in good stead in days to come.


As the years went by and he passed the age of twenty, twenty-five, and was coming up to thirty, this would be a trying time indeed. His steadily growing understanding and the superb vigour of life which pulsed in his veins would make it difficult past description for him to continue in a life of quiet service and obscurity when he felt that there was so much of his Father’s work to be done. But instead he learned and practised his trade as an ordinary carpenter, whilst patiently, patiently, he awaited the sign of the appearance of his forerunner.

And away in the wilderness another young man was similarly straining at the leash, eager to be out and busy calling a wayward nation back to its God. Trying years, truly!

Notes: Luke 2:40-52

The grace of God means: (a) the forgiveness of sins: Rom. 3:24; 5:17,20,21; 6:1; Eph. 1:6,7; 2:5,7,8; Tit. 2:11; Heb.2: 9; Jn. 1:14-17. (b) a Holy Spirit gift: Rom. 12:3,6; 1 Cor. 1:4,7; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:10; Lk. 4:22. Also, occasionally, grace = thanks for a gift; e.g. 1 Pet. 2:19,20.
His parents. Naturally Jesus was commonly thought of and spoken of as the son of Joseph; 4: 22;Jn. 1:45; 6:42,

Every year. A further indication of their intrinsic godliness—for there was a growing family of small children. Passover. Josephus, always given to wild exaggeration when dealing with numbers, says (B.J.6.9.3) that in one year 256,500 lambs were offered –which is absurd.
Joseph and his mother. The texts are fairly evenly balanced between this reading and “his parents”.
There is an impressive collection of continuous verbs here: sitting, hearing, asking, astonished.
Bombastically Josephus relates that when he was fourteen the chief priests were glad to refer to him all kinds of tricky questions in the Law of Moses! How different with Jesus!
Amazed. If it were not so utterly unsuitable, “struck daft” would not be too inaccurate a translation.
My Father’s business. The next best alternative is to read: “the things of my Father”, with reference to Ps. 40:7,8. My Father. A quiet correction of “thy father and I”. And what a change from “Despot” (v.29) and “most High” (1:76).
Went down. He attempted no insistence on staying longer in this absorbing ploy.
Increased in wisdom. The Nicene fathers, in a fix with this phrase, make it mean ‘increased in manifestation of wisdom. . .’Grasp the truth about the nature of Christ, and there is no difficulty. He increased in wisdom by such means as Dt. 11:18,19.Cp. also 1 Sam. 2:26.

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