Devotional Lessons from Luke 2:39-52

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The subject of missing children is an alarming one. It’s far more alarming if you actually google the term “missing children.” The term “missing children in South Africa” returns over 5.5 million results in Google, containing all sorts of data, photographs and names. Attached to each photograph is a distraught family, and many cases are still pending after years. As you consider the data at hand, you wonder how on earth parents of missing children have coped.

In May 2007, the world’s attention was riveted when Madeleine McCann disappeared while on holiday with her parents. To this day, speculation abounds as to what happened to the little girl. Is she still alive? Will further details arise as the investigation continues? Will the case ever be solved?

As another example, consider the August 1980 death of Azaria Chamberlain. The claim of her parents that she had been dragged from their tent by a dingo while camping aroused suspicion. IN 1982, her mother was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her father received a suspended sentence for accessory after the fact. Her mother spent more than three years in prison before a chance discovery of a piece of Azaria’s clothes in an area full of dingo lairs exonerated her. She was released, and in 1985 all convictions against Azaria’s parents were unanimously overturned. Earlier this very year, a coroner’s report confirmed her parents’ story and an amended death certificate was immediately issued.

The fear of losing a child is universal to parents, and many parents have stories to tell of how they have had to frantically search for a child or children. I can recall such an incident in my own life in about 1995.

When our children were much younger, we made an annual visit to the Rand Easter Show. My son was about five, and was with us for most of the time there. Suddenly, we realised that he was no longer with us, and so we began the frantic search.  I could just see the headlines: “Irresponsible Parents Lose Child at Rand Show.” It was a terrible moment, and my wife and I scurried off to look for him. We later realised that we had forgotten we actually have two children, and as we hurried off in opposite directions we left our daughter behind. Thankfully, a stranger noticed that we had both hurried off and stayed with our daughter until we returned. By that time, we had found our son too.

The story ended well for us, but I am sure many parents can relate. A child goes missing and your heart goes cold. You imagine the worst, and even begin thinking of how you will explain it to the police investigators. Thankfully, most of these situations turn out well, and children are found. It is, nevertheless, a sobering experience.

This harrowing experience appears to form the heart of our text in Luke 2. While it is true that this text deals in large measure with the childhood disappearance of Jesus, there is actually far more below the surface for us to glean. I trust that we will be informed, encouraged and nourished as we consider this passage together.

You will recall from our previous study three scenes that unfolded in the temple during the infancy of our Lord Jesus. First, we saw Jesus’ parents fulfilling their parental responsibilities in the temple (vv. 22-24). Second, we saw the encounter between Jesus and aged Simeon, operating from a perspective of messianic anticipation and hope (vv. 25-35).  Third, we observed Anna, the contended worshipper, dealing with baby Jesus (vv. 36-38).

The story before us in our present text took place some twelve years later. We have very little information regarding the intervening years, other than Matthew’s record of the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12) and His years spent in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).

Many erroneously believe that the visit of the wise men took place on the night of Jesus’ birth, but several factors strongly suggest that this was not the case. In the first place, Jesus is referred to in the story of the wise men as a “child” rather than a baby. Second, when Herod learned of His birth, and had “ascertained from [the wise men] what time the star had appeared” (Matthew 2:7), he ordered the death of all male children under the age of two, which seems to suggest that the star had appeared some two years previously. Third, the wise men found Joseph, Mary and Jesus, not in a stable, but in a “house” (Matthew 2:11). Fourth, Luke 2 informs us that the sacrifice brought at the time of Jesus’ circumcision was the sacrifice of poverty (two turtledoves), but if Joseph and Mary had already received the wise men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they would certainly have been able to offer a more costly sacrifice.

But to return to our text, I think we find before us a drama with two bookends. The drama itself is found in vv. 41-51, while the bookends are respectively placed at vv. 39-40 and v. 52.

The Drama

The drama is one of Jesus being separated from His parents, and their frantic search for Him.

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 group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for 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 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 searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

(Luke 2:41-51)

We must note that the childhood years of the Lord Jesus are filled with much mystery. Other than Matthew’s account of the wise men and this account before us, we have no biographical information about the boy Jesus. The first thirty years of His earthly life are barely mentioned in the narrative of Scripture.

In our day, children are a huge part of our reality. Much marketing is geared toward children. All sorts of information is available on how children should be treated, and on what things from childhood can be potentially damaging to adults. A great deal of energy is put into schooling and education of children. And yet, in all of this, the Holy Spirit remained largely silent about the childhood years of the Lord Jesus. That in itself bears some consideration. We don’t have much, but what we do have is fascinating.

In our consideration of Jesus’ childhood, it would be helpful to bear in mind three different locations. We have, firstly, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Secondly, there is Jerusalem, which is where the temple was located. The events we considered in our previous study took place in the Jerusalem temple, and again in our present text we find Jesus and His parents in Jerusalem. But, thirdly, we have mention in our text of Nazareth, the place that became Jesus’ hometown. He would become known later as “the Nazarene,” a reference to His childhood and young adult years in Nazareth in the province of Galilee.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ “parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of Passover.” The Old Testament required all Jewish males to travel to Jerusalem three times a year (at the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles). We can therefore assume that at least Joseph went all three times, and that he later took his adult sons with him. However, the entire family went up at Passover. Of course, our present text is simply focusing on Passover, and does not necessary negate the possibility that the family travelled three times a year to Jerusalem. But at least once a year, they made a family trip to Jerusalem to worship.

We know, by the way, that Mary had other children, and if they were born at this stage, which they may well have been, they would have been included in this event. Our text does not, however, focus on any of Jesus’ siblings at this point.

Regardless, it is significant that we have a picture here of family worship. The family appears to have been very deliberate in its worship. It was their custom to go to Jerusalem once a year. It was never an issue that was discussed in order to decide whether or not they would do it. No doubt, Joseph and Mary discussed the matter with their children to explain why they did it, but it was assumed that every year at Passover the family would travel together to Jerusalem.

It is interesting that Luke specifies Jesus’ age at this point. At twelve, He was in the last year of childhood. At age thirteen, He would celebrate His Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual, at which point He would be culturally considered an adult. It would seem that His parents were very wisely schooling Him in Jewish religious practice. His Bar Mitzvah was less than a year away, and the responsibilities of adulthood would then be on His shoulders. As parents, they were responsible to school Him in Jewish religious observance, and they did so by taking Him with them to Jerusalem.

Wise parents coach their children. They always look ahead for opportunities to teach their children. They decipher the trends of the day and assess the needs of their children. That seems to be what was happening in the events recorded for us by Luke.

Christian parents are always doing either good or bad to their souls and to the souls of their children. They do good to one another as they work in cohesion for the good of their family. They undermine one another when they choose to work independently; the father doing one thing and the mother another. We see this sad reality around us all the time. Perhaps we will find a mother in church with her children while the father is off on the golf course; or the father in church with his children while the mother stays home to prepare Sunday lunch. This is not the way things ought to be. The more cohesion that we build into our homes, the better. This is what we find in the text before us.

Notice again that the journey to Jerusalem for family worship was custom in the family. It was not something that was decided every year. It was assumed. We would do well to take advice from this. Church attendance ought not to be something that is decided on a Saturday night (or, in the case of an evening service, on Sunday afternoon). We should build into our families the habit of corporate worship. Sundays ought to be known as the day on which we gather with the church for worship. Our children should know that.

We live in a day and age in which we are told that we must be spontaneous and do things with great variety. That is not necessarily the case. We can set certain habits and customs by which we operate as families. That is often a healthy thing to do. Yes, as our children grow older we can debate the pros and cons of our family customs and explain to our children why we do them, but we do not always have to be spontaneous. Popularity is not the end goal of parenting. Parents are prone to take the whims of their children to heart far too easily. We must parent the way God has told us to do so, and we should explain this to our children.

But notice, further, that in this drama there is an implied community. Jesus’ family did not go to Jerusalem alone. They travelled with many other families just like theirs, families that were committed to corporate worship. That was part of the way that Jesus got lost. Joseph and Mary assumed that He was with some other family, and only when they began looking for Him did they realise that He hadn’t left Jerusalem with them.

Community is the blessing of the local church. It is a wise thing for Christian parents to involve themselves heavily in the community of the local church. It helps parents to see that their experiences with their children, and the temptation to give in, are not unique. The struggles of your children are not unique to them. The blessing of community helps us to see this. It is biblical wisdom to get alongside other Christian families in the context of the local church. We can learn from others and partner with them in raising children in community. That is the blessing of the local church.

I know that my own children have benefitted immensely from the community at Brackenhurst Baptist Church. We must never despise the blessing of community. In our day of individualism, in which we seek to make our own mark in the world, we pay a great price for despising God’s gift of community. It is a good thing to bury ourselves in the community of the local church. This is God’s prescribed way.

Those parents who have shared something of Joseph and Mary’s angst can hardly imagine what it like to have had a child missing for three days! The account almost glosses over the time period, but we can ill afford to do so.

The Passover Feast lasted the duration of a week, but it was not always necessary to stay the entire week. Some people stayed for only a part of the time. At some point, Jesus’ parents began the journey back to Nazareth, assuming—incorrectly, as it turned out—that Jesus was somewhere with them.

It may seem somewhat strange to us to think of a family travelling from one city to another without realising that they had left someone behind. Did they not inform Him of their intention to leave? Was it not expected that He would stay with them. If we understand the custom of the day, it becomes a little easier to understand.

Ordinarily during these trips, families would not travel together. Joseph would have been travelling with the men and Mary with the women. They would have assumed that the children would have been together, and so it was probably not that unusual for each parent to assume individually that Jesus was with the other twelve-year-old boys in the group. Only when they set up camp for the night did they realise that both had assumed wrongly.

And so, after a full day’s journey, they were forced to acknowledge that they had left Him behind, and so they hurried back to Jerusalem to find Him. They had already travelled a full day from Jerusalem, and now it took them a second day to travel back. It would only be on the third day that they would finally locate Him in the bustling city.

We can well imagine what Joseph and Mary must have felt during this time. I know the fifteen minutes that we spent searching for my son at the Rand Easter Show were some of the longest minutes of my life. I was picturing every bad scenario I could, convinced that something terrible had happened to him. Joseph and Mary had three days to think about that! Herod the Great had tried to kill Jesus as a baby; had his successor now sent someone to finish the job? Had Jesus been abducted at some point? What would they find back in Jerusalem?

On the other hand, what was a twelve-year-old boy doing all this time? He was found eventually in theological discussion with religious teachers far more learned than He. But we cannot assume that that was where He was 24 hours a day for three days. People worshipped during the day and went to their residences at night. Where did a twelve-year-old boy stay at night? What did He eat? We aren’t told.

We are told that, when His parents located Him, He was “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Take note: He was “sitting among the teachers.” I the religious custom of the day, rabbis sat while their disciples stood to listen to them. But Jesus was not a disciple of these learned rabbis; He—a twelve-year-old boy—was their equal. In fact, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Psalm 119:99-100 might have been a prophecy of this event: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.”

As we think of this record, we begin unpacking for ourselves the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot think of Him as most twelve-year-olds that we know. He was not taken with video games, sport, adventure and fun. He was not taken with laziness, but with discipline and determination. This twelve-year-old read His Bible and was therefore a young man of great character.

We appreciate, of course, that He was the second person of the Godhead, and so we appreciate in some sense the unique ministry of the Holy Spirit in His life, teaching Him the things of God. Nevertheless, we appreciate also that He was fully human, and so He faced the same struggles and temptations that other twelve-year-old boys face. He was a young man of great discipline.

The result was that Jesus was able to hold His own in a group of schooled rabbis. He was not only listening and asking questions, but also being listened to and answering questions. He was involved in great discussion with those who were considered to be the teachers of the law. Is this not an amazing scene?

Think back to what you were like when you were twelve years old? Were you characterised by the same discipline and devotion? Were you characterised, as the text tells us, by “wisdom” (v. 52)? This should fire our hearts with affection and admiration. This was an amazing little boy, and what a man He became!

Consider, on the other hand, the response of the teachers here. They took note of this little boy, but evidently they did not follow it up. They were amazed, but then they let Him return with His parents to learn the trade of His father. They did not grab Him and place Him in a place of special religious instruction. They did not ask Him to come back to teach them more. They were momentarily intrigued, but it had no lasting effect. And yet it was all by God’s design. God designed that Jesus would amaze people as a twelve-year-old boy, but then vanish into relative obscurity in the little village of Nazareth.

I think that this account ought to be a great rebuke to us. We so often give our twelve-year-old children excuse to be lazy, forgetful and absent-minded. We allow them to be taken only with enjoyment and pleasure. That is certainly not to follow the example of Jesus. We ought to admire His specialness and seek to emulate it.

But as we continue to unpack this drama, let us also pause to consider the interaction between Jesus and His mother in vv. 48-49. We have in these verses the first recorded words of Jesus Christ.

Finally locating Him in the temple, Mary pulled Jesus aside and asked the question that had so burdened her: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”

You will notice that she did not come across in an accusatory manner. She asked a question, seeking to get to the bottom of Jesus’ behaviour. She did not fly off the handle or embarrass Him in public. She started a conversation with Him. She treated Him with dignity. We would do well to learn from her example.

This is not to suggest that we must treat our children as absolute equals. They are under our authority, and no one is pretending otherwise. But this does not give us the right to embitter our children by addressing them in an accusatory manner. We are not all-knowing. We do not know exactly what is going on in their hearts. Wise parents do well to take note of this.

Notice also that Jesus exhibited great self-control in response to His mother. He didn’t flare up and respond angrily, but said to her quite calmly, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Even as a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus realised that He had a destiny. He had been sent to earth for a purpose, and that purpose was beginning to unfold.

We wonder how Mary understood this response. She appears to have been quite happy with the answer. The discussion went no further. Was she now beginning to understand something of His mission? Were some things finally beginning to settle in her heart? Luke tells us that “his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.” We would do well to pause and ask all that that means. There is some mystery here, and we are privileged to try and unfold all that God has given to us.

Mary was a wise parent. Twice in this chapter, she pondered in her heart the things she heard of and from her Son (vv. 19, 50). Wise parents do that. They know that they are not omniscient, and they are interested in what they see in the lives of their children. They consider what they see, trying to understand what is happening in their children’s hearts and minds, and adjust their parenting accordingly.

The Bookends

And so we have the drama that unfolded in the life of twelve-year-old Jesus. But the real meat of our text is found in the bookends.

The first bookend is found in vv. 39-40: “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him.”

It seems that this description of Jesus was true of Him throughout His life thus far. As a four- and five-year-old, God’s favour was upon Him. As He matured into those preteen years, God’s favour was upon Him. Throughout this period, He grew and became strong. Throughout His childhood He was increasingly filled with wisdom.

Children, do you hear that? The child Jesus was “filled with wisdom.” Jesus wasn’t skilled in video gaming. He wasn’t known for His skateboarding ability. He didn’t know how to do all those fun things that childhood today is so taken with. No, He was “filled with wisdom.” He had a higher agenda than we have today.

Perhaps we would do well to ask, where are the little Christian children in our homes and churches that want to be filled with wisdom? Where are the children who want to emulate their Saviour? Do our children pray for wisdom? Are we as parents teaching them to do so? Are we praying it for them? Too many children—even Christian children—seem to have folly bound up in their heart, which needs to be driven out with the rod of discipline (Proverbs 22:15). Jesus never required the rod of discipline, for He did not have foolishness bound up in His heart. He was a child—and eventually a man—of wisdom.

For us as children, and for our children today, the wheat always grew up alongside the tares. We had good and bad in our hearts. Not so the Lord Jesus. He knew only wisdom and favour with God. There ought to be affection in our hearts toward the Lord Jesus for this, and a desire, surely, to emulate Him.

Understand that when we read of God’s favour upon Jesus, we are not reading a piece of interesting biographical information. We are reading, instead, the very heart of salvation. You see, Jesus did not come only to wash away our sins. He did that, but He came to do so much more. He came to secure God’s favour on our behalf. In our sin, we cannot earn God’s favour, but Christ did it for us. The heart of the gospel is this: Jesus came to weave a robe of righteousness, which is given to everyone who has faith in Him. It was necessary for Him to fulfil all righteousness, and He began to do so from birth. For 33 years—every minute of every day—He was fulfilling all righteousness. Every day, He was actively meriting God’s favour. And it is because of that merit that we, by faith in Him, can find favour with God.

When J. Gresham Machen was on his deathbed, a friend came to visit him. Beckoning his friend closer, he whispered in his ear, “I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.”

Theologians distinguish between the “active” and “passive” obedience of Christ. His death on Calvary was “passive” obedience. It was something that was done to Him (though, we understand, it could not have happened had He not actively laid down His life). But His life was one of “active” obedience. It was a life in which He daily, actively obeyed His Father. He actively merited His Father’s favour, and offers that merit to all who will come to Him by faith alone. His passive obedience took but a few hours; His active obedience lasted for 33 years.

J. Gresham Machen understood—and so should we—that salvation is achieved both by the active and by the passive obedience of Christ. Salvation is impossible apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is equally impossible without His perfect life. Had He sinned even once, His death would have proven ineffective. He had to merit God’s favour throughout His life in order for His sacrifice to be accepted. And He did so—even as a twelve-year-old boy!

You need more than your sins washed away. You need more than a clean slate. You need perfect holiness. But Christ provided that by living a life of perfect holiness Himself. Are you thankful for Christ’s active obedience?

If vv. 39-40 describe Jesus childhood years, it seems that v. 52—the second bookend—describes His adult life: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.” Is it not incredible that Jesus, the God-man, could “increase” in wisdom, stature, and favour with God and man? Here is the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus was fully God, but He was also fully man. He did not have a human body and a divine mind. He was fully man. Yes, He was a unique man, but a man nonetheless.

As you ask yourself why you love the Lord Jesus Christ, I trust that you love Him because He died. That is great cause to love Him. But I trust you love Him also because He lived. Do you see the full-orbed beauty of the salvation that Christ has brought for sinners? Do you appreciate, and are you thankful for His life?

Jesus grew in every way that a man grows. His mind developed intellectually (“wisdom”). He grew physically (“stature”). He grew in His relationship with His Father (“favour with God”). And He grew in His relationship with people (“favour . . . with man”). This is exactly how our children need to grow: in mind and body; in relationship with God and with man. That is the way in which Jesus developed, and it is the way in which we need to see our own children develop. We need to work and pray toward this end.

Wise parents look out for development in each of these areas. Are our children growing physically? Are they getting enough exercise? Do they switch off the computer and the television to actively play and exercise outside? Do our children play with balls? Are they learning to balance, ride bikes, climb ropes and swim? Our children must do these things.

Are our children growing intellectually? They must read and learn to think. They must concentrate on their school work and actively debate issues in their minds. We must know what they are learning at school and who is teaching it to them. We must be actively involved in their intellectual development.

Are our children growing spiritually? Are we teaching them to read their Bibles and to be people of prayer? Do we pray with our children? Do we help them to memorise Scripture? Do we encourage them to listen to their Sunday school teachers and to the pastor in the pulpit? Do we ask them questions and encourage them to ask us questions? Do we preach the gospel to them daily? We cannot expect our unsaved children to act like Christians. They cannot do so. We must help them to appreciate the gravity of their sin, which will drive them to the gospel.

Are our children growing relationally? Are they building healthy friendships? Are they growing in their ability to form relationships and to converse with others? Are they learning proper respect for their elders? Are they growing in their understanding of authority and accountability?

Our children must grow in these areas. If Jesus Christ developed this way, then surely we must monitor our children to see that they develop similarly.

These vital verses tell us about the mysterious unity of two natures in one man. The Lord Jesus Christ is the unique man. He is the worthy object of our most passionate and intense affections and hope. If you have been able to look at Jesus thus far as your Saviour simply because He died on the cross, know that there is far more truth than that, which will cement your affection and admiration for Him. Before He died He lived, and, oh, what a glorious life He lived! He deserves our thanks, praise and gratitude for the perfect life He lived, because therein alone lies our righteousness.

Do you deliberately appreciate Christ for the perfect life He lived on earth before He died to atone for our sins?

As you read that Jesus “increased . . . in favour with God,” you may be tempted to ask, how do I do the same? Let me answer that question with a caution: Stop trying to impress God! You will never do so. Instead, accept by faith the righteousness of Christ. His righteousness pleased His Father. If that righteousness is written to your account by faith, the Father will be pleased with you too. Under those circumstances, and those circumstances alone, you will receive the favour of God.

We have examined a drama that has involved the perfect performance of the Lord Jesus Christ, the unfolding script of God and the response of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Is that not what our life is about? Do we not spend life trying to discern God’s script for us, trying to understand everything that God is allowing to unfold for us? We want to grow in our submission and sanctification.

As we think upon these things in our lives, and do so by reflecting on the drama of the Lord Jesus as revealed in Holy Scripture, let us be thankful both for His life and His death. The blood and righteousness of Christ are our only hope. Let us embrace Him by faith alone, and rest secure in the favour of God that He achieved on our behalf.