In Luke 2, we see 12-year-old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem for three days without telling his parents. They leave to head back home after celebrating the Passover Feast, thinking he is a part of their caravan of relatives and friends, only to discover at the end of the day that he is not with them. It’s every parent’s nightmare, and Jesus deliberately put them through it. Luke’s account says that his parents were panicked and in great distress. It took them another two days to finally locate Jesus, and when they did find him in the temple, Jesus (seemingly nonchalantly) says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Did Jesus dishonor his parents by doing this? Did he disobey them? Isn’t is a bad thing for a child to deliberately stay behind when his parents are expecting him to go back home with them? On the surface, it looks like 12-year-old Jesus may have committed a sin toward his parents. But the Scriptures later confirm that Jesus was without sin. So what’s the deal?
The “deal” is in the context. One has to wonder why Luke included only this event from Jesus’ childhood. In the episode before this event, Jesus is an infant. In the episode after this event, Jesus is 29 years old. So why did Luke include only this event among all the other things that Jesus did growing up? Maybe it’s because Luke saw this event as being pivotal to the developing revelation of who Jesus really was.
In the infant episode Luke records right before this, Simeon and Anna declare Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. In the episode following this (Luke 3), Luke introduces us to John the Baptist – who was appointed by God to ready Israel for the coming of Jesus. John declares that Jesus is the Messiah and will soon come on the scene.
The temple episode is also one where Luke reveals Jesus’ Messiahship, but it takes a little work to see it. But, when we see Jesus’ actions in the context of his Messiahship, then we see that he in fact did not sin against his parents.
Twelve-year-old Jesus was making a point. He was in his final year of studies before he would go through his bar mitzvah and become an adult in the Jewish community. He was beginning the process of pulling away from his earthly parents (as all Jewish boys that age would be doing), but for Jesus, this process would have been even more heightened by the fact that his “real” Father is God – not Joseph. He was breaking away from his earthly parents and transitioning into a relationship of submission to his heavenly Father. As an adult, Jesus would say, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38) The temple episode is the beginning of this transition. It’s no wonder Luke records that his parents didn’t understand what Jesus was doing.
Jesus was giving them (and us) a glimpse into his true identity as Messiah – even at this young age. As one scholar puts it, “This event was a temporary unveiling of Jesus’ relationship with his Father. It remained a secret epiphany, a momentary glimpse through a curtain into a private room.” (Commentary on Luke by Howard Marshall, pg. 129)
So, did young Jesus sin? No. Did what Jesus did confuse and scare his parents half-to-death? Yes. Does what Jesus did require an understanding of context for us to be assured that he did not sin? Yes – at least for me.
Luke records that upon being found by his parents, Jesus went home with them and “was submissive to them.” What a fascinating childhood Jesus must have lived! Fully man (or should I say “fully boy”) and fully God. There were probably a lot of things he did that confused his parents, relatives, and peers. I wish more about his childhood would have been recorded, but Luke – and the other Gospel writers – chose not to. The temple episode, then, was so significant that it was the only glimpse into his childhood we get.
Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah, the glory of Israel and a light of salvation for the rest of us.