The Obedient Child: Did He Know? (Luke 2:41-52)
Rev. David French

If you were here last week, you also know that the subtitle for this series is Advent Answers to Hard Questions Hardly Anybody Is Asking. And one of the questions that led to this series was, “When Jesus was twelve, did he know that he was God?” We’ll find the answer to that question as we look at a young Jesus in the temple.

Now Jesus’s earthly parents did what parents should do to be sure their children know God. Beyond the miracle and majesty of his birth, the truth is we don’t know a lot about the boy Jesus. But, we do know from the verses immediately before our text that Joseph and Mary were faithful parents and in obedience to the Law. They dutifully had Jesus circumcised when he was eight days old and brought him back to the temple when he was forty days old for the rite of purification. Following that rite of God’s Law, we know that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to flee for some time to Egypt, but eventually returned to their hometown of Nazareth where “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.” On the side, the specific words used for the “favor of God,” the same words used when said to Mary, very much carry the idea that there’s something special going on, and it’s about to unfold through the miraculous birth and life of this child. 

To be sure, the baby doesn’t stay a baby forever. A baby grows, toddles, walks, talks, and learns to read and write. So did Jesus. Throughout each of those stages, it’s simply amazing as we watch our children and grandchildren grow. And what we know about Jesus was that he was hearty and healthy in body, mind, and spirit. Not all of us have that same blessing for our children. So, Jesus lived a normal life … whatever that meant in his day. We do, at least, know how crazy that can be in our society in these days!

And then we meet the 12 year old Jesus again in the temple. You heard the story, and I’d guess you have all sorts of questions. Like, if Jesus was such an obedient child, then why didn’t he stay with the rest of the extended family returning from Jerusalem to Nazareth? If Jesus was such an obedient child, as verse 51 of our text indicates, then why did he cause such worry for three days? Can you imagine how you’d feel if you were the parent or grandparent who couldn’t find your child for three days? 

If Jesus was such an obedient child, then why did He do that? Is that the kind of behavior we’d expect to see if Jesus knew he was God? Did Jesus’s parents know he was God, as together they were trying to raise this child in the law and tradition of their faith? The angel had told Mary he would be called the Son of God. But did Mary really understand “what child is this”? Do any of us, when our children are growing, have the vaguest idea of what kind of an adult they’ll be? 

It’s not coincidental, that twice in Luke 2 Mary, first on the evening of Jesus’s birth and then after the occasion at the temple twelve years later, is said to have “treasured” or “pondered” those things in her heart. And I’d bet that her mind wandered back to that time when the angel visited her, and that time when she gave birth to her firstborn child, and those years when he was growing, and that time in the temple, and she wondered, and she treasured just the thought about not just what this child would do … but even who he really was! 

Did she remember correctly? Was her knowledge incomplete? No doubt. Even years later, when this child had grown to be a man, when everybody was asking, “Could this really be the Messiah?” Even then, his own disciples and followers didn’t fully understand who he was. Scripture says of Mary that she at one time tried to keep her adult son from his mission, that she had said, in essence, He was out of His mind. So surely at some point, Mary and Joseph, no doubt, were less than all in on the idea that Jesus was the Son of God.

So, back to the original question, “When Jesus was growing up, did he know that he was God?” Did this young boy know what he was doing and what was in store for him? Did he know that he would fulfill the prophets of the Old Testament, that he was, indeed, the promised Messiah? If so, wouldn’t that be a burden on any twelve-year-old’s shoulders?

And from a sinful human perspective, I would say yes. But when it comes to God, what good is a sinful perspective? Listen again to what Jesus says about himself, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He told his human parents that was why he was at the temple. So yes, Jesus knew who He was. In the temple He was reminding his earthly parents who He was, that he was the Son of God and that he must be about his Father’s business. Jesus knew that he had come to this earth on a mission of salvation and that he was the only one uniquely qualified to accomplish that task because he was truly a human boy and truly eternal God. And that explains why we might question his apparent disobedient behavior. He was obedient to his parents—respectful, our text says “submissive.” Certainly, they assumed, incorrectly it turns out, that Jesus would naturally be leaving Jerusalem with the crowds. But Jesus knew he had a job to do that was centered in the temple.

Yes, Jesus was not only always God, but, because he’s God, he’s also omniscient; he knows everything. Jesus absolutely knew he was God. And that makes the fact that Jesus still learned things truly mind numbing or beyond our understanding. We understand the basic idea that while Jesus was always omniscient, during his time on earth, in what we learned as his “state of humiliation,” Jesus didn’t always or fully use his divine powers, including his power to know everything. You see, Jesus only used his divine powers when it served the purpose of saving us, never to make things easy for himself. That’s why we see him today in the temple asking the teachers questions. Jesus learned the very same way we do, by studying and asking questions about Holy Scripture.

And from the Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus learned one thing especially. Hebrews says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Jesus “became obedient to death, even death on a cross, as full and final payment for the sins of the world.” That, above all else, is what the Scriptures promised the Messiah would do, and Jesus learned his lesson well.

When Jesus was a boy, did he know that he was God? Absolutely, and so do we, for this is Advent, and the Advent message of the same Holy Scriptures is that God became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

In His name, Amen.