Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
The story of 12-year-old Jesus disputing with the elders in the Temple is occasionally cited to show the precocious genius of Christ as a child holding his own with learned Jewish scholars, and to remind children that even Jesus ended up obeying his parents (at least, after giving them a scare that Passover). But when we come at this passage in the light of Epiphany, its primary thrust of unveiling Jesus’ divine identity shines through.
In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the unveiling of God’s action in Christmas. The implications of the birth of the Messiah, who will be a light to the nations, are worked out. The reaction to God’s presence by the forces of evil are clearly seen. The role of the Messiah, as the substitute for Israel and the representative of a new humanity, is foreshadowed.
Luke 2 continues this unveiling. Luke 2 subtly shows that the light of the nations, who will drive out the forces of darkness, is not only a substitute who stands in for Israel and a new representative for humanity–instead, this “new Adam” and “true Israelite” also shares the divine identity with the God of Israel, YHWH. Provocatively, to some foolishly, Luke 2 sets us on the path toward recognizing that Jesus is God.
In Luke’s Gospel story, Jesus’ miraculous birth and messianic role were explained to Mary before she conceived in Luke 1. Earlier in Luke 2, Joseph and Mary hear both Simeon and Anna praise God and prophesy because the child Jesus will grow up to be the Messiah.
But it is clear that Mary and Joseph had no belief in Jesus being the Son of God in the sense that he was the Second Person of the Trinity. In fact, any conception of Trinity would challenge Jewish monotheism.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the phrase Son of God referred to the Messiah descended from the line of David; it was not understood to mean equivalence with the God of Israel, YHWH. This is why Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus when he said, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
I want to reflect on how culturally disturbing and alien it would be for 12-year-old Jesus to call the God of Israel his Father.
At the age of 12, Jesus would already have been through much training in Torah and synagogue practices, at the instruction of both his parents and especially by his father Joseph. The 12th year was the final year of preparation before he fully entered into adult religious maturity as bar mitzvah or “son of the commandment.” In this final year, it would be Joseph’s special obligation to pass on to Jesus the ways of their Israelite ancestors. This adds special poignancy to Mary’s complaint, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
But Jesus’ answer, that he must be in His Father’s house, suggests that he was already conscious not only of his messianic vocation, but also his divine identity. He had a personal awareness of a special relationship with God that was so intimate that he did not think it inappropriate to call the Holy Creator of the Universe his Father.
For Christians, it is easy for us to read into the text our confessed (and true!) understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we have to remember that while there were a number of ways Jews of this time period expressed the presence and identity of God (Torah, Temple, Presence, Glory, Wisdom), all of these expressions were fundamentally viewed through the framework of Jewish monotheism.
Richard Bauckham explores the features of Jewish monotheism in his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, where he identifies 3 key distinctives: The God of Israel is the sole Creator of the world (creational), the God of Israel will one day bring His Kingdom over all the nations (eschatological), and the God of Israel alone deserves worship (cultic).
We see that the early church re-works each of these distinctive features in and around Jesus. The apostles write of Jesus as the agent and telos, or purpose, of Creation (John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:17). The apostles testify that Christ has been given authority over the nations to establish God’s reign (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). And from the early beginning of the church, worship of the One God was reoriented around Jesus (Luke 24:51-53, Philippians 2:5-11).
Further, NT Wright explores the theme of God coming in person to redeem His Covenant with Israel in Scripture, writing in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that:
Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return. He would return in person. He would return in glory. He would return to judge and save. He would return to bring about the new Exodus, overthrowing the enemies that had enslaved his people. He would return to establish his glorious, tabernacling presence in their midst. He would return to rule over the whole world. He would come back to be king.
Jesus’ repeated reference to God as “Father”and his need to be at the Temple reveals that even at the age of 12, he had an understanding that he would be continuing and bringing to fulfillment the work of Israel’s God in establishing God’s glorious, personal, and royal presence over the whole world.
The story of Jesus disputing with the elders at the Temple is an early clue in the Gospel of Luke that the birth of the Messiah was also the Incarnation of God. Incarnation, the embodiment of a pure and holy God in carnal flesh. Jesus was not just a great prophet or the new Davidic king–he was the true Son who was God Himself, come to complete His Redemptive Project of Reconciliation. And he embodies that reconciliation even at the level of his own flesh and blood.
We can’t know what was going on in Jesus’ mind at the age of 12. But Presbyterian minister Tim Keller goes so far as to suggest (starting at 25:24) that at the same time Joseph was training up his son in the vocation of faithful Jewishness, God was training up His Son in the divine vocation:
It’s hard for me to imagine that Jesus would have stayed behind, would have been able to contend with those folks, would have stayed in the Temple courts, unless something happened besides Joseph walking him around Jerusalem and telling him who he’s going to be. See Joseph was going around saying you’re going to be a carpenter, see Joseph was going around saying ‘You’re going to be a faithful Jew and you’re going to go to the Temple and you’re going to do the Passover, and this is what these things mean.’ But what if, what if –and Jesus virtually hints at this–his Real Father was doing that too. What if his Real Father was walking him around Jerusalem and going about a million levels deeper. And that when he went to the Temple, his Real Father says ‘You’re the new Temple, and you’re going to make this place obsolete.’ And when he walked around the streets of Jerusalem, his Father said ‘You’re going to be walking on these streets, but you’re going to be carrying a Cross.’ But certainly, almost certainly, that when he sat down at the Passover and he looked at the lamb, his Real Father said, ‘You’re going to be the Lamb.’
Though it sounds foolish and remains a stumbling block for many, the apostles confess that Jesus was not just a special or especially good person–Jesus is God. He shows God’s character, He fulfills God’s purposes, and He shares God’s Identity.