Boy in the Temple

Boy in the Temple

Boy in the Temple.

“Jesus is our childhood pattern; Day by day, like us he grew.” (C.F. Alexander, 1874).

(Luke 2:39-51).

Many of us believers are doing our best to follow Jesus, to love and to trust in him. But we actually don’t know much about his life. His first twelve years are a mystery, and then the next 18 years are void of information as well. Those are two big gaps in Jesus’ life. We don’t know about his boyhood friendships. We don’t know about his carpenter’s work. We don’t know about his daily life, and how he received a dawning revelation that he was indeed the Messiah. Because the chore of growing up is so difficult for all of us, I’ve always wondered at those glaring gaps in Jesus life. Somehow, a few more details might have been helpful. Call me curious. On the other hand, perhaps we know what we need to know.

We can, though, make strong educated guesses at his home life growing up. We know that Joseph and Mary were faithful Jewish parents who “performed all things according to the law of the Lord.” (Luke 2:39). Knowing what is expected of parents according to Mosaic law, that verse is quite a mouthful. Orthodox Jewish teaching is very clear: Parents are the child’s first and primary teachers and pastors. For God’s chosen people, faith development was largely at home, in their domestic church. Parents were to teach their children the righteous words of Scripture and the defining events in Jewish history. They were to intentionally and practically remind their children of God’s presence and power. Twice a day, morning and evening, the parents were to recite aloud in the home the central fact of their faith, the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength!” That statement was Lesson One for the faithful Jewish parents, the statement that Jesus later called “the first and greatest commandment.” In case they missed it, parents were then told by Moses to “Impress these commands that I give you today on your children... ” (Deut. 6:7-9). Highlighting the importance of home-pastoring, Moses said these words on the day before he died, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of the law. They are not idle words for you – They are your life.” (Deut. 32:45-47).

Without a doubt, Joseph and Mary faithfully raised Jesus according to the Hebrew Bible. The Faith was not just an academic duty or religious exercise, it was a family concern. The Faith was their life, and Scripture was the trademark of the home. So they reenacted biblical events in the home through scripted ceremonies; they celebrated the Jewish feast and fasts throughout the year, whether in Jerusalem or in the home; they celebrated the weekly sabbath meal and blessing around the family table; they placed visual items around the home for biblical reminders; they had roundtable discussions and regular readings of the Bible; they played games and sang songs and enjoyed dances around the house as they worshiped.

The Jews were always the most literate, intellectually astute, and spiritually inspired people around as long as they did what Moses said to do, which is what Joseph and Mary did. As faithful parents, they taught Jesus to read at a young age. They made him memorize large chunks of Scripture. They kept the Faith as the centerpiece of the home, the organizing principle of daily life.

One very important family faith event was their yearly trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast. And now we finally get a glimpse of Jesus during his growing up years. In his first twelve years, we are told that he “grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40). Apparently, Joseph and Mary were effective parents. Jesus was growing in wisdom, and wisdom is the goal in every parent’s mind, is it not? Every believing parent wants their children to grow in wisdom, to live skillfully with discernment, to be able to apply one’s faith practically and with understanding, to make good choices, to live life the way God intended us to.

So we find Jesus at twelve years of age, experiencing normal human development, physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially. But all this time Jesus is also experiencing something at a deeper level within him, what the Orthodox Church calls “the special overshadowing grace of God.” He is a young mystery, even to his parents, a growing boy who is also the Son of God. He is growing through every stage of human life, increasing in grace and wisdom, which are qualities which are somehow already fully his in his divine nature. Jesus is making progress in something that is already true. Being filled with the Holy Spirit since conception, he was graced with a unique spiritual blessing over his life. And yet, he was still a normal boy.

So here we are in Jerusalem at the most important Feast of the year. The streets are crowded with Jewish pilgrims, there are people everywhere. This is an exciting time for a twelve year old boy, watching and taking in all the activity. He is now called a “son of the law” in Jewish eyes, which means he is approaching the adult benchmark of thirteen years. Jewish boys didn’t enjoy an extended adolescence. Boys became men rather quickly.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus celebrate Passover as usual, and nothing seems amiss. Suddenly Joseph and Mary notice the absence of their boy Jesus in their traveling party headed back to Nazareth. They looked at each other… “I thought you had him!” “No, I thought you had him!” Think of their panic once it occurs to them that Jesus is long gone. They are both highly aware of the responsibility God has given to them. They both know Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. They both know about the singing angels in the sky and the visit of the Magi. They both remember the old prophet Simeon at Jesus’ dedication in the Temple, and how he spoke about the child as being a salvation and a light. Surely Joseph and Mary both recalled the prophetess Anna as she prayed and spoke about Jesus and his role in redemption. This is all going through Joseph and Mary’s minds as they frantically search around Jerusalem for their special son Jesus. They can be forgiven for their panic. In their minds, they lost the Messiah!

To their profound relief, they finally found Jesus in the safest place in Jerusalem… the Temple. There he is in one of the covered porches within the inside walls of the Temple. Maybe he was even in Solomon’s Portico, we don’t know. But these porches attracted all the greatest rabbis of the day during Passover. They came from all over the Roman empire during the Feast so they could teach and discuss Torah at the Temple. These porches were famous as places of high learning. And there was Jesus, in the thick of the action. Our hearts and minds would have been on fire if we were listening in on the discussion. One of the topics was certainly the coming of the Messiah, since so many Jews were expecting him to arrive soon. Messiah was a number one topic among Jewish circles in the first century. So think of it. There was the young Messiah, who was waiting for the right time to begin his ministry, and he was discussing with learned rabbis the coming of the Messiah! An interesting conversation, to say the least. According to observers at the scene, the air was crackling there in the Temple portico. And Jesus was right in the center of the action. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:47).

In the Temple among the rabbis we see Jesus as he reveals how Jewish boys were trained to learn about Scripture. He is showing us what it takes to learn, to grow in wisdom. This is a good glimpse of Jesus growing up and becoming a learner. He sits, listens, asks, and responds.

  1. Jesus Sits. This is the traditional posture of a willing student, a sign that reveals respect and honor for the teacher. This is the position of humility, a willingness to accept the leadership, experience and knowledge of the teacher. Sitting at their feet, Jesus was humble enough to know that there was still more to be known.
  2. Jesus Listens. Because of his humility, Jesus placed himself in a position to keep an open mind in an attitude of receptivity. He showed an attentive interest in what is being offered by his elders. He wanted to grow in knowledge and wisdom, so Jesus was all ears.
  3. Jesus Asks. Learning is inevitable with an active curiosity, a strong desire to probe knowledge and engage the teachers. Earnest questions reveal that a learner cares, is personally interested, and wants to learn more. There is no such thing as passive learning.
  4. Jesus Responds. Jesus gathered the courage to voice his thoughts and respond to the knowledge being offered. He wasn’t afraid to think out loud. He risked the critique of the elders. He learned by verbally processing what was being discussed. Jesus was learning to think for himself in the company of others.

One could say these are the four ancient tools of learning. This is one aspect of the Lord’s childhood pattern, and it needs to be taken to heart by parents and children and teachers. Jesus provides for us a fascinating picture of a student for the ages: humble and respectful; open and receptive; curious; willing to respond thoughtfully. Joseph and Mary and the rabbis taught him well.

The final scene of this defining episode in Jesus’ young life now begins to happen. Joseph and Mary confront their son about his unexpected absence, as parents should. They demand to know how he could have been so absorbed in the Temple that he let time slip away from him. Wringing her hands, Mary’s first words were, “Why do you treat us like this? You have worried us sick!” Like an anxious momma, Mary scolds Jesus for being so unaware of his actions. And true to form, Joseph is somewhere in the background, stewing and brooding. And now we find the first recorded words of Jesus. What does he say? He acknowledges that he is the Son of God by referring to his Father’s house. It is dawning on Jesus that it is right to be about his Father’s business. Joseph and Mary knew in their hearts that their son was somehow the Messiah, but they didn’t know what that would look like as Jesus grows up. They didn’t understand what Jesus said to them there  in Jerusalem, but Mary wisely “kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51).


  1. Is it possible in this day and age for a parent(s) to do in the home what the faithful Jews did? What would that look like?
  2. Are Christian parents delegating too much of the faith development of their children to Sunday School, church, Christian schools?
  3. In a society with very little respect for authority, how can we encourage this quality in our children?
  4. Is there anything in our society that makes it difficult for our children to be humble; to stubbornly close their ears; to lose their curiosity; to keep them from thinking for themselves with their peers?
  5. If wisdom is the main goal of a child’s faith development, how do we make that happen as we raise our children?