Growing Up: Jesus’ Youth and Early Adulthood

In an earlier post, “A Surprise Birth” (April 11, 2011) that describes the miraculous birth of Jesus, I comment that the “God of the Bible is a God of surprises. The God of the Bible is not predictable and rarely does things the way I would do them!” As I study the four Gospels and reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the same thoughts come to mind.

“The Flight Into Egypt,”
Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1515)

I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, but many times I wonder why God chose to have its writers include some events and ignore others. For example, only two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) even describe the birth and childhood of Jesus and there is very little information at all about his first thirty years. Why is that the case? And what is the significance of the few events that are recorded?

Following Jesus’ birth, we know that his parents faithfully followed Jewish religious practices. We know from the second chapter of Luke that Joseph and Mary had Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth and gave him the name that the angel told to Joseph and Mary. Then, forty days later after his birth, the parents returned to the Temple where they offered a sacrifice for Mary’s “purification” and then dedicated their son to the Lord. Two separate trips to Jerusalem and three religious rituals – all diligently carried out according to Jewish religious requirements.

Then there is a silence about Jesus’ life for 12 years. The only thing we know about this early period in Jesus’ life is recorded in Matthew, who shares the story of a visit by an angel to Joseph in a dream, instructing him to take his wife and young son and flee to Egypt because Herod the Great is searching for Jesus in order to kill him.

We don’t know how long Joseph, Mary and Jesus were exiled in Egypt, but after Herod died an angel once again appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him he could now return to Israel. Once again, I wonder why this exile of Jesus isn’t even mentioned by the other Gospel writers. Of course we don’t know the answer to this question, but it does explain to me part of the reason why the Christian faith is spreading rapidly in the developing world where poor people are often forced to flee their home country and can identify with Jesus and his parents as they faced the same desperate situation.

Jesus grew up in an obscure town in Galilee, Nazareth – a town never even mentioned in the Old Testament. Matthew breaks off his brief story of Jesus’ youth and early adulthood after their return to Galilee, but Luke adds one other famous story – Jesus’ visit to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Luke makes it clear that Jesus’ parents were very conscientious Jewish believers who went from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year for the Feast of the Passover. When Jesus was twelve years old, he was now of the age when he could begin participating in this religious festival.

“Jesus Among the Teachers,”
Vasiliy Polenov (c. 1896)

I think many of you know this story. As the religious ceremonies come to an end, Mary and Joseph start on their way back to Nazareth assuming Jesus is with their family and friends who travel together as a community. When they discover Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him in the Temple listening to the rabbis and asking them questions.

In Michael Card’s commentary on Luke, he points out that many Renaissance paintings of this famous scene lead you to believe that this precocious boy Jesus is doing all the teaching! Luke doesn’t say this, although he does highlight the fact that the participants were “amazed at his understanding and his answers” and his parents were “astonished.” (Luke 2:47-48).

Following this one event in Jesus’ life, his teenage years and early adulthood are simply ignored by all the Gospel writers. Now, for another eighteen years, Jesus’ personal history disappears from the Biblical story. The only new thing we learn is Luke’s comment that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

This leaves a great deal of mystery about Jesus’ youth and early adulthood, about his family, his siblings, his work and his own understanding of his mission. The conversation in the Temple, when Jesus tells his parents he is in “my Father’s house,” gives us some sense that he is becoming aware of his role.

Why the “God of surprises” chose to reveal to us only limited knowledge of Jesus’ early life is a mystery – one of many in Scripture. What seems to be clear, however, is that Jesus’ parents raised him in a deeply religious home and that he was thoroughly grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So What?

  • While we don’t know much about Jesus’ early history, we do have some understanding of the context of his life in first century Palestine. It may be hard for us in the West to identify with this kind of life, but many people in the developing world surely can!
  • The fourfold description that Luke gives us about how “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52) is a great way to think about a balanced life – the intellectual, physical, spiritual and social dimensions. Marge and I took a year-long Sunday School on these four facets of human development based on this passage and it served us very well in parenting our large family and keeping these in mind as we set goals for them. By the way, these four dimensions are also highlighted in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Habit #7: “Sharpening the Saw.”