As I finished New Year’s week reflecting on Jesus’s early life, I came across a passage about Jesus at the age of twelve. Hoping to take something away from it into my new year, I asked “What was Jesus like at the age of twelve?”
Wasn’t Jesus human too?
One of the striking things about Jesus that is often overlooked is the way the New Testament authors deal with Jesus’s humanity.
Any attempt to understand or embrace the incarnation (God becoming a human being), you still have to deal with the fact that, although God, Jesus was also a human being. Saying as much is not a way of discounting or pushing aside the incarnation (in other words, suggesting that if Jesus was God he could not also be a man or visa versa), but it is to say that Jesus’s humanity, as well as his divinity, must be understood as a deeply Biblical tradition. The New Testament authors don’t ever move away from this point.
Many of us who have been part of Christian community since we were young, however, were led to believe that the incarnation automatically made Jesus fully God-like in terms of being fully all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere at once during his earthly life.
The problem is, that’s not the way the Gospel writers present Jesus to us (give The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John a good read through).
Jesus was a human like everyone else. As a young baby and later as a young child, Jesus depended on his parents for food, shelter and guidance like every child does.
This meant that Jesus had to learn things like every child learns. This also meant that Jesus had to grow up and mature from childhood into adulthood, and this process must have included all aspects of human maturity (physical, mental and spiritual growth).
This suggestion couldn’t be more present than in the passage I am looking at today, (Luke chapter 2: 39-52), about Jesus at the age of twelve. As we look at the passage, let’s consider the following questions, “What was Jesus like at the age of twelve? And, are there things we might learn from him (@ age 12) that actually speak into our lives today?
Jesus needed to learn things and grow (go figure)
While the New Testament doesn’t say a lot about Jesus’s early life, it does say something, and what it says is very significant. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus was a child he “grew and became strong, and was full of wisdom, and God’s grace was upon him” (Luke 2:40). If Jesus “grew and became strong,” that means he was not as grown up or strong at some point prior. It’s makes sense to say then that the “wisdom” and “grace” from God following that phrase can easily be understood as the natural byproduct of growing and becoming strong (or possibly the manner by which he grew and became strong).
Jesus “listened” and “asked questions” (kind of a big deal)
Scroll down from verse 40 of Luke 2 and read through verse 47. Jesus’s parents had taken a yearly trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Festival. Taking this pilgrimage was something many Jews at this point in history did yearly, and when they traveled they’d likely travel with a caravan of family and friends. According to Luke’s account, Joseph, Mary and Jesus traveled with a large party from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Jesus was twelve years old.
After the festival was over, it seems that the traveling party had gone to the Temple earlier that day but had left without Jesus. While leaving your child behind when traveling from city to city might seem a bit insane to parents today, it was very likely that they had seen Jesus earlier with some of his relatives and thought that when the caravan was leaving, he was with them (I know, I couldn’t help but think Home Alone too).
The story goes on to say that Jesus had not returned home with the traveling party but had staid at the Temple listening to some of the Temple teachers (perhaps some of the priests among the Sadducees or other teachers of Torah). He was also asking them questions.
The story continues stating that “Everyone who heard him [meaning Jesus] was astonished at his understanding and his answers.”
A number of Bible teachers and interpreters read this and go “Oh, that’s because Jesus is God so he of course he spoke God’s Word and truth to them.”
Yes and no.
Yes, if you hold to the incarnation like me then yes, Jesus was (and remains) God as well as human, however, attributing Jesus’s intelligence and or maturity simply to his incarnation is not how the writer of Luke’s Gospel puts it.
It reads suggesting that as a young Jewish boy of twelve, Jesus was eager to learn from those who taught from the Hebrew Bible, and the way he did this was by “listening” and “asking questions.”
This does not mean Jesus, as a young boy, didn’t have or couldn’t have had wisdom beyond his years. In fact, the passage does suggest he did (read verses 47-52). And while the passage states that the Temple teachers were “astonished” with his answers, it was not without first praising the way he listened and asked questions.
What if we listened and asked more questions?
Over the span of forty years of church involvement, I have discovered that the practice of listening well and asking meaningful questions has not been a lifestyle habit that’s been praised or cultivated well in too many churches. Not only as it relates to the attention we bring to the Bible or Christian discussion, but also to how we engage in friendship and relationship with people in the Christian community.
Knowing people, just as knowing God, involves learning how to cultivate habits of listening well and engaging them in meaningful questions. Without listening and asking questions, friendship with others simply doesn’t happen. Shallow or surfacy relationships can exist of course, but not anything meaningful or authentic.
Some people might say, “Ok, but what do the quality of our relationships have to do with the passage in Luke we just looked at? Jesus was not praised for how he got to know people, but for listening and asking questions about his Bible.”
Yes and no.
Yes, while it’s true that Jesus was likely asking questions about the Bible since that’s what the Teachers would have been discussing, who’s to say his questions were not communal or relational-focused related to the teaching he was hearing from them?
Jesus’s later ministry in his 30’s indicated that he was often attempting to connect Torah (God’s Law) to the everyday ups and downs people experience in relationship to others.
The older I get the more clear it is that the way we listen (or don’t listen) to people and the way we ask questions (or don’t ask questions) has a lot to say about how we engage in authentic relationship with others. And the way we engage (or don’t engage) in authentic relationship with people has a lot to say about how we engage with the Bible honestly and vulnerably (via a sermon or personal Bible reading or whatever way you engage with Jesus’s teaching).
People of faith who routinely listen well and ask engaging questions of people are more likely to engage in honest and transparent readings, meditations and discussions of the Bible.
In other words, when we don’t listen well and ask meaningful questions of others, we will likely not listen to and ask meaningful questions when engaging with the Bible.
Question: How would your life change for the better if you followed Jesus’s example (@12) in learning how to listen to people well and ask meaningful questions? Not just as it relates to Biblical engagement but as it relates to all of life.
How would our churches, Bible colleges, seminaries, home groups, and other faith organizations be impacted if they simply followed the ancient practice of listening and asking questions as a way of experiencing true Christ-centered fellowship/relationship/friendship with others and as a way of growing in our understanding of what the Biblical text says and how it might apply to our lives today?
If you think about it, if we really want our lives to in any sense follow and imitate the 30 year old Jesus who laid his life down for others, wouldn’t it also make sense to cultivate the holy habit of the 12 year old Jesus who listened well and asked questions.
May God give us the grace to listen more intently and the courage to ask questions.