Out of the entire recorded life of Jesus, there is only one written account of anything between his first year and when he began his public ministry at age 30. This one brief glimpse of Jesus as a pre-teen gives us insight into his childhood but also provides an important lesson about what it means to be a Godly man. Yet, remarkably, the story begins when Jesus’ earthly parents lose their son on a road trip for three days because he didn’t stay with them as he was expected to.
The story is recorded in Luke 2:41-51. To me, there are three remarkable things about this story. First, he was missing for three days; second, he was amazing the teachers of the law by age 12, and finally, his startling reaction and words spoken to his mother.
The first surprising observation in this story can quickly be explained through historical context. In our day, the thought of a child being missing from his or her family for three days sends chills down our spines. We would have certainly had an Amber Alert issued and the FBI on the case within the first few hours and been absolutely frantic to find our lost child. But in the time and place of Christ’s childhood, people traveled in large, extended family groups of many members. Children would have typically traveled and lived together for extended periods. It was the custom at the time for the men and women to travel separately, so it’s also possible that Mary and Joseph each thought their son was with the other parent. The text says that they noticed his absence after the first day, but didn’t find him until the third day. Apparently their first thought was not to go look for him in the temple back in Jerusalem, but more on that in a second.
The next aspect is a little more remarkable, at least until we remember who Jesus was in his incarnation. Jesus had remained behind the rest of his family to worship, learn, and perhaps even teach in the temple. At only age twelve, he was “astounding” the teachers of the law with both his questions and his answers. It would be very impressive for most twelve year olds in our day to impress scholars and professional religious teachers, but of course, Jesus was no ordinary boy. In addition to having a human nature, he was also still fully God. He knew the scriptures inside and out because, as God, he had divinely inspired their writing. Besides, as the eternal God, he had been there for every historical event recorded in the Old Testament, from before creation, through the whole history of Israel, through every prophet who often foretold of – Him!
Still the Jewish leaders at the time certainly did not yet realize that this small boy was the Messiah in their midst. He had not yet been baptized by John and the Holy Spirit. He had not performed his first miracle or preached his first public sermon. To anyone witnessing this scene, including even Mary and Joseph, he was simply the most remarkable boy they had ever witnessed.
Thus, the most amazing and startling element of this story is how the boy Jesus reacts and responds to his earthly parents, especially his beloved and loving mother. At first glance, it might seem that he may even be a little harsh with his mother. After all, he had been missing from them for days. Who knows what could have happened in that time. Any parent who has ever lost their child, even for just a few minutes, knows the panic and fear that immediately overwhelms you. I still remember losing my youngest son at Disney World, probably for no more than ten minutes, but the fear was immediate and intense. You can hear this in Mary’s question to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” A mother today might have said it as “Where were you? Don’t you know we were worried sick?” We might think as parents, yikes, give poor Mary a break, she was terrified.
Yet, when Mary confronts her son about his absence, Jesus almost seems to rebuke her, and certainly offers no apology, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”
How are we to take this? Was Jesus rude or insensitive to his own mother? Was he wrong to have left them for so long? Even if he wasn’t, shouldn’t he have at least shown his parents a little sympathy and remorse for what they had just gone through?
The Bible clearly answers these questions for us. First, we know that Jesus never sinned, not even as a child. So we can set aside the question of whether Jesus was wrong or disobedient to be gone or even in his response to his parents. Second, we also know that Jesus loved his mother (we’ll assume Joseph too even if it’s not stated so in scripture). Jesus apparently took care of his mother as an adult (perhaps after Joseph died). His last earthly act of love and honor to his mother was when he delegated her ongoing care to John, the disciple whom he loved. Finally, we know that God (Jesus included in the Trinity) exulted and honored Mary and spoke blessing to her through the angel Gabriel, a ministering servant of Christ.
So Jesus didn’t disobey his parents and wasn’t unloving or disrespectful to them. So why do we still have that initial reaction when we read this story? Because in our sin, and in our misplaced priorities, we still value pleasing people more than pleasing and obeying God. But Christ, as God himself, did not struggle with this. He was perfect in his priorities, and thus (the point I’m finally getting to) is that Jesus was a perfect model of a godly man, even as a twelve year old boy.
Jesus put his obedience to his Heavenly Father above even the quite appropriate and moral obligation to honor and obey his earthly parents. I suppose we can still ask why he didn’t at least tell his parents that he was staying behind, because the Bible doesn’t explain this. But the real confrontation only begins after he is found and his mother questions him in her heightened emotions of fear, relief, anger, and bewilderment. It is here that Jesus gives his mother, and us, a lesson in priorities. We would be wise, as Mary was, to listen and learn from the Master.
Jesus stated that he must be in his Father’s house. He states this as a given assumption, as if his parents should have known where he’d be, where his priorities were. Once he presents this as a moral choice, to please his parents wishes or obey his Heavenly Father, he again acts as if it’s a given what he would do. He didn’t even offer an apology for his absence. For Christ, the perfect man even as a boy, there wasn’t really a conflict or choice to make. He would be obedient to God. His parents, I suppose, should have known this.
But for us, we are faced with choices like this all the time. We choose whether to go to church or sleep in. We choose whether to speak up for God or keep quiet. We choose whether to tithe or keep “our” money. We choose whether to live like Christ or live like the world. For most of us, it’s anything but a given that we’ll be obeying God in all things.
For men, we are often vulnerable to a more subtle but powerful temptation in this area. When we love a woman, initially our mothers but later our girlfriends and wives, we can be tempted to put pleasing them ahead of pleasing God. For me in my first marriage, this was my greatest failure and a large part of why we ended up divorced. From our earliest dating period through most of our entire relationship (almost 20 years), I often put trying to keep my wife happy ahead of obeying God. As a result, we fell into sin, she lost all respect for me, and the relationship eventually degraded into contempt, mistrust, and misery.
Fellow men, ever since our brother Adam in the garden, our greatest temptation and potential failure as men is often to make our wives into idols. An idol is anything or anyone we serve and aim to please more than God. Of course we’re called to love and cherish our wives, even as Christ loved the church. But when we put pleasing them at all costs ahead of pleasing God, we are doomed to fail on both accounts. We will not please God, and in sad irony, we won’t even please the woman we spend our lives trying to keep happy.
Thank God that Jesus, even as a young boy gives us a wonderful example of how to be a man with our priorities in line. He put pleasing and obeying his Heavenly Father ahead of all earthly relationships, even above the woman he loved the most on earth. And women, praise God for the wise example he gave you in Mary, who after having very natural and understandable feelings (and I know how much you all feel), had the Godly attitude and insight to “treasure up all these things in her heart.” When Godly men put God above all else in their lives, Godly women will respect them and treasure it in their hearts.