The Gospels don’t say much about the first 30 years of Jesus’ life. But they give us a few details. What can we learn from Jesus’ birth and early childhood?
The four Gospel accounts overwhelmingly focus on Jesus’ public ministry—the period of His life from about age 30 to 33. We have many details from those 3½ years He spent preaching and performing miracles up and down Galilee and Judea.
However, we know little about the first 30 years of His physical life. We are only given a few small glimpses into those early years.
Unfortunately, some have tried to fill in this gap. Some of the so-called “lost gospels” include strange stories about Jesus’ youth—undoubtedly contrived from the imaginations of men. Sometimes movies about Jesus will take artistic license with this mysterious period of His life.
We caution our readers to be skeptical of any source that promotes invented ideas about Jesus’ early years. Discerning Christians should rely on the inspired Scriptures.
So, what does the Bible tell us about Jesus’ early years? Does this period of His life offer any lessons to help us walk as He walked?
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem
Jesus’ birth is only mentioned by two of the four Gospel writers: Matthew and Luke.
Luke, by far, gives the most detail. Since he wasn’t present for Jesus’ birth, Luke likely interviewed some of the individuals who were present—perhaps Mary herself or some of the shepherds who came after Jesus was born.
Luke describes Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem (near Jerusalem) to be registered in a mandatory Roman census (Luke 2:1-2). Many incorrectly believe this took place in late December. But it is unlikely that the Romans—who were some of the most efficient administrators in the history of empires—would have scheduled a major census during the rainy winter season, when travel was more difficult. The fact that the shepherds were in the fields at night also refutes a December birth (Luke 2:8). Though we can’t know the exact date, there are reasons to believe Jesus was likely born around the fall of 4 B.C.
During their stay in Bethlehem, “the days were completed for her to be delivered” (Luke 2:6). This is Luke’s way of saying Mary went into labor. Luke continues, “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
Yes, God in the flesh spent His first night sleeping in a feeding trough and His last night washing the dirty feet of 12 grown men. That’s just who He was and how He lived His life.People often mistakenly say, “Jesus was born in a manger.” But it says He was laid in a manger. A manger is simply an animal feeding trough. It was typically made from a small hollowed-out block of limestone. The manger served as a makeshift crib for the infant Jesus.
Luke then goes on to describe how the birth of the Christ—the One destined to eventually rule over the entire earth—was recognized and honored by a group of shepherds working nearby (Luke 2:8-20).
Typically, the birth of a future king would have been celebrated with great pomp and fanfare. But not this future King. Instead of being laid in a plush cradle in a fancy palace, this future King was laid in a feeding trough and welcomed into the world only by a carpenter, his young bride, and a group of shepherds working the night shift.
Many incorrectly believe that three wise men, or kings, were also there that night. However, a close reading reveals the wise men (the Bible doesn’t say how many there were) didn’t arrive until much later, likely months after Jesus’ birth.
The meager and humble circumstances of Christ’s birth foreshadowed how He would live His entire physical life. He personified humility and was entirely focused on serving others. About 33½ years later, on the eve of His crucifixion, He underscored the importance of this lesson by getting down on His knees and washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:2-17).
Yes, God in the flesh spent His first night sleeping in a feeding trough and His last night washing the dirty feet of 12 grown men. That’s just who He was and how He lived His life. Not only should that deepen our love and appreciation for Him—but it should also motivate us to live the same way (Matthew 23:12; Romans 12:16; Philippians 2:5).
Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt
Some time after Jesus’ birth, an angel warned Joseph to temporarily relocate his family to Egypt. This was to keep the young Christ safe from King Herod, who was trying to find and kill Him (Matthew 2:13).
Joseph heeded the warning and hastily fled with his family to Egypt. Egypt was a safe place since it was outside Herod’s jurisdiction, was well-secured by Rome, and had a large Jewish community they could blend in with. The family lived in Egypt until after Herod’s death. They may have been there a few months or perhaps even a year or two.
Joseph then settled his family in the Galilean town of Nazareth (Luke 2:23). Many in the region viewed Nazarenes as backward and uneducated, and at times, some even questioned Jesus’ legitimacy because of His hometown (John 1:46; 7:41, 52). As an aside, we should all avoid judging anyone for where he or she came from.
Joseph’s actions—heeding the angel and moving his family to avoid danger—provide an important lesson in obedience and wisdom. Joseph humbly obeyed the warning God gave him through the angel. The angelic warning urged him to avoid danger. According to Proverbs 22:3, “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.”
Foreseeing danger and taking precautions to avoid it is a major element of wisdom. God expects us to wisely exercise caution in the matters we can control, while overall trusting God to provide protection in areas only He can.
Do we know anything more about Jesus’ first 30 years?
As stated earlier, the Gospel writers provide very few details of this early period of Jesus’ life. However, there are still a few more details we are given to explore. We’ll examine those details, and the lessons they teach us, in our next issue.
In the meantime, keep striving to walk as He walked.
To learn more about the myths surrounding Jesus’ birth, read “The Birth of Jesus: Myths and Misperceptions.”
Sidebar: Was Jesus’ Birth “the Christmas Story”?
The story of Jesus’ birth is often called “the Christmas story.” But this title is one of the most egregious misnomers in history.
Jesus’ birth has absolutely no connection with Christmas. The first mention of the Christmas holiday doesn’t appear in recorded history until the year A.D. 336—about 340 years after the actual birth of Christ.
Many historical sources identify the Christmas holiday as an outgrowth of various pagan celebrations that occurred in late December in the Greco-Roman religious world. Most of these celebrations were centered on the worship of the sun and held in late December to coincide with the winter solstice. Since the winter solstice marks the transition from shortening daylight to lengthening daylight, many pagan cultures celebrated the death and rebirth of the sun during this time.
In Rome, the two primary December celebrations were the birthday feast of Sol Invictus (Latin for “the Unconquered Sun”) on Dec. 25 and the Saturnalia, a seven-day festival honoring the god Saturn, celebrated from Dec. 17-23. At the same time, there were also festivals to celebrate the birth of Mithra, a Persian sun god that had a cult following in Rome.
As Christianity grew in numbers and prominence in Rome, the leaders of the Roman church took a very pragmatic approach to easing the pagan masses into its ranks. Instead of preaching and promoting repentance or change from their pagan ways to biblical ways, the Roman leaders essentially rebranded many of the celebrations and practices, as well as much of the imagery, of the Greco-Roman world as “Christian.” The idea was to make the transition from paganism to Christianity easier.
Christmas is a prime example of this approach. The winter solstice celebrations were rebranded as the nativity celebration of Jesus. The birth of the sun god was easily adjusted to the birth of the Son of God.
This should raise giant red flags for discerning Christians trying to walk as He walked. Throughout the Old Testament, God told His people to completely avoid the worship practices of pagan religions (Deuteronomy 12:29-31; Jeremiah 10:1-5). He told them to be careful and diligent to worship Him only in the ways He had commanded (Deuteronomy 12:32).
To learn about these myths and the many problems with Christmas, download our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.