The Gospels don’t tell us much about Jesus’ childhood, but they do give us some details. What can we learn from what we do know about Jesus as a boy?
In our last article, we explored the birth and early childhood years of Jesus. We looked at the few details we have about Jesus’ birth and His family’s relocation to Egypt to escape Herod’s efforts to kill Him. Jesus was likely just a toddler during that time.
After Herod was dead and the threat was gone, an angel directed Joseph to move his small family back to his homeland. So they returned and settled in the Galilean town of Nazareth, west of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 2:23).
Is there anything else we can learn about Jesus’ early years as a boy growing up in a small town?
An exceptional young Man
The next detail Luke gives us about the young Jesus is a summary statement of His character: “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40).
This is the kind of description that is easy to read right over, but let’s ponder what Luke is telling us about the young Jesus.
First, Jesus became “strong in spirit.” Jesus grew into a young person of strength. Physically, of course, but spiritually even more.
Sometimes in modern society, being religious is thought of as something that makes one weak. But true spiritual character is something that takes strength. To make right decisions and conduct oneself with integrity require grit, backbone and courage. Jesus had all three.
Second, Jesus was “filled with wisdom.” Wisdom is essentially learning what is right and then practically applying that knowledge to everyday life. This tells us that Jesus not only applied Himself to learning, but practiced wisdom in His life even as a child. As we study His life during His ministry, we see many and various instances when He exercised perfect wisdom. That wisdom didn’t magically appear when He became an adult; it was carefully built in His life from childhood.
Third, “the grace of God was upon Him.” That can sound like just religious jargon—but we shouldn’t read over it. Grace, in this context, refers to God’s favor and blessings. This statement means that He received the Father’s favor, blessings and protection from a young age.
Luke’s three-point description of Jesus’ youth provides a blueprint for us today—especially for young people. From an early age, a person can develop strength of character, learn and practice wisdom, and position himself or herself to be blessed by God (Psalm 128:1; Proverbs 10:6).
Jesus set the perfect example of putting Solomon’s wise advice into practice: “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Jesus’ example proved that this is not an impossible ideal.
Can young people follow Jesus’ example today?
If you’re a young person reading this article, you can follow Christ’s example. The book of Proverbs is a good place to start building practical wisdom. Study it daily and think deeply about how you can apply its many nuggets of wisdom to your life.
It’s also important to consider that striving to be a young person like Jesus doesn’t mean you have to be a self-righteous religious kid that most people will want to avoid. Jesus was not this way. In His later life we see that many types of people—even of different backgrounds—were comfortable around Him (Mark 2:15; Luke 7:36). Though, of course, some people didn’t like Him, there’s no reason to believe He wasn’t a genuinely likable person as a child, a teenager and a young adult.
He was approachable, easy to get along with and probably had a great sense of humor. He always made right decisions and stood for the right thing, but didn’t obnoxiously wear His righteousness on His sleeve or make people feel guilty by just being in His presence. He was a balanced person—exercising perfect character but not conducting Himself in a self-righteous way that repelled people.
A story about Jesus at the age of 12
So, here you have a 12-year-old Boy who was surrounded by rabbis and apparently analyzing their teachings and asking heavy and complex questions. But these teachers also asked Him questions and listened to His answers. Luke records that “all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.”The next detail we have of Jesus’ younger years occurred in the spring of the year when He was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-49).
Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem with His family for the spring festivals, which would have included the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus observed the “feasts of the LORD” (found in Leviticus 23) throughout His life—an important example we will revisit later in this series.
The group He traveled with would have been much larger than Jesus and His parents. By this time, He probably had multiple siblings, and it’s likely that the group also included His extended family—Jesus’ uncles, aunts and cousins. The group could also have included others from Nazareth, so the group Jesus traveled with could have numbered over 100 people.
When groups travel like this, they often naturally segregate themselves by age, so the 12-year-old Jesus was likely walking with His peers, not His parents. This reinforces that He was likely a sociable boy who got along well with others His age. He wasn’t constantly with His parents.
After the festival, when it was time to leave Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary left for home, assuming their 12-year-old Son was traveling with the group. But after a day of walking, they discovered that Jesus was not with them!
You can imagine the worry His parents must have felt! They probably worried that this special Child—the Messiah—that they had been tasked by God to care for was in some kind of danger. After all, they had already dealt with the threat of King Herod years earlier, so the fear that Jesus had been discovered and snatched by another evil leader who wanted Him dead may have weighed on their minds as they frantically searched for Him.
They returned to Jerusalem and, after scouring the busy metropolis, finally found Him in the last place they might have expected a 12-year-old to be. “They found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).
So, here you have a 12-year-old Boy who was surrounded by rabbis (likely Pharisees) and apparently analyzing their teachings and asking heavy and complex questions. But these teachers also asked Him questions and listened to His answers. Luke records that “all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers” (verse 47).
His words and conduct must have been very mature for Him to earn the respect of these men and have them engage in this kind of theological dialogue with a 12-year-old boy.
As we covered above, that wisdom came because He applied Himself to study and learning. Young people can follow this example and apply themselves to studying and considering the bigger questions in life from a young age—while still being kids and enjoying the fun and simplicity of youth. It is all about balance.
When His parents questioned Him about why He had stayed back at the temple, Jesus answered, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (verse 49). We shouldn’t read this as a snarky answer. Jesus didn’t have a bad attitude. He was genuinely telling His parents that He was already starting to fulfill the mission He had come to do.
After this episode, we are told that Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (verse 51). What can we learn from this? Obviously, it means Jesus obeyed the Fifth Commandment to honor His parents (Exodus 20:12). But perhaps it also shows us He was sensitive to the fear and anxiety this incident had caused them, and He was careful not to do anything that would worry them like that again.
Jesus kept growing
After Luke’s account of the young Jesus in the temple, we aren’t given more specific details about Him until He began His public ministry about 18 years later.
But we are told that He continued to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Jesus was never stagnant—He continued to grow and develop Himself. His growth not only pleased God, but also gained Him favor with other people. He could relate to all kinds of people, was easy to get along with, worked hard and made good decisions—without being self-righteous.
You can be the same kind of person—whether you are a teenager, young adult or are well-seasoned in life.
So, keep growing and striving to walk as He walked.