And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
The first thirty years of Jesus’ life gets little attention in the gospels: the last three make up the bulk of the narrative. Jesus had a short life. What is recorded focuses on the purpose of his life, the work he had come to do, to preach the good news of the kingdom, and to perform the deeds which would make our entry into the kingdom possible – his death and resurrection. But ninety percent of Jesus’ life was preparation for this ministry phase, and apart from a few short verses we are not given much insight into that preparation. It is worthwhile just the same to reflect on that preparation, and this verse in Luke is one of the few that gives us something to reflect on. The story of Jesus remaining behind in the temple tells us a little about Jesus’ emergent identity. But what was Jesus’ early life really like? Preparation is after all important in the process of working out who we are and discovering our calling in life. What can we learn from this one verse about that time in Jesus’ life and what can it teach us about our own?
Jesus grew. The first thirty years of his life were about growing. And this verse clearly indicates that he grew in three ways: in wisdom, in stature and in favour. Wisdom speaks to me of knowledge, of discernment, of maturity, of the ability to make good choices. Stature seems to be about physical and intellectual growth and development. Favour surely refers to social growth, the development of interpersonal skills, relational ability. The result is a mature adult, a person who knows himself, who understands the world and the people in it, who cares enough for those around him to have earned their respect and love. This is the foundation from which Jesus launched out in his ministry.
Every phase of life has goals, milestones to be reached. Each stage is a preparation for the next and until the milestones have been reached it is hard to move on. This one verse shows that Jesus reached those milestones during his youth, and that when he was thirty he was ready. Some of us pass those milestones on the road to maturity in less than thirty years. Some of us take much longer. How quickly we arrive at our “life’s work” depends on the circumstances of our childhood, our personality, the ability of our parents to provide the emotional and material stability that are needed for us to grow and develop. We know very little of the circumstances of Jesus’ upbringing. The Bible gives us some insight into his mother Mary, a lot less into his father, Joseph. Luke’s writings indicate that he was not an only child but had a number of siblings (see for example Luke 8:19-20). In other places we learn that Joseph was a carpenter and we assume that Jesus learnt the same trade as his father, as was the tradition at that time. But details of his first thirty years are missing from the gospel accounts that have been handed down to us, although some of the “alternative gospels” which were rejected as unreliable by the early church, do contain some other stories.
But whatever the details of Jesus’ youth, we know from this verse in Luke that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man. He achieved the tasks of youth, he was given the foundations needed for the ministry that God had given him – preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons and ultimately dying – to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.
If we are young when we read this verse we are reminded of the real purpose of our youth: to gain the competency that we need to be able to carry out the ministry that God has called us to. Of course, one of the main tasks of youth is to work out what that ministry is. For Jesus this process seems to have begun in the temple when he was 12 years old. The words that the teachers of the law were speaking rung true in his heart and mind. He began to understand who he was and what he would do. In the 18 years that came after that we know only that he obeyed his parents and that he grew. Every one of us has at some stage recognised the Father’s voice, even if it may have only been a vague impression. We have been led on to belief and faith and the process of growth has begun. If we are to grow we need to find an environment where growth is possible. Some of us may have been blessed with such an environment in our family home. Others will have to seek it elsewhere.
If we are older when we read these verses we need to recognise that it is our responsibility to provide such an environment to the young that God has given us, whether they are our own flesh and blood, or simply children in the faith. We need to help them to recognise the words of God, we need to “take them to the temple” – to places that they can hear the voice of God and respond according to his Spirit at work in them. We need to provide the security and stability, the raw materials required for them to grow in wisdom and stature, and favour with God and men. We need to nurture them, encourage them, support them. We have a responsibility to see these children and young people grow physically and emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
It is interesting that there were only two phases in Jesus’ life – youth and maturity. The task of youth was preparation. The task of maturity was ministry. Then he died. Perhaps it is helpful for us all to understand our lives in these terms and not in the modern western pattern of three phases – youth, maturity and retirement. Retirement for the follower of Jesus comes after death, not before. Until the day we die we are to be involved in the ministry that God has given us, the good works he has given us to do. Much of the emphasis in the modern mind is on the accumulation and enjoyment of wealth. Youth is about preparation for acquiring wealth, adulthood is about getting as much stuff – money and possessions – as possible, and retirement is about enjoying the fruits of our labours. There is a different emphasis and a different pattern in the life of Jesus. Perhaps there needs to be a different emphasis and a different pattern also in ours.