Jesus at 12, as imagine by Franco Zeffirelli's 1977's "Jesus of Nazareth."  We doubt He really had blue eyes.

Jesus at 12, as imagined by Franco Zeffirelli in 1977’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” We doubt He really had blue eyes.

Luke 2:39—51

It would be a tragedy if you reached the end of your life only to discover it was a life filled with error, failure, and sin. It is possible – and it probably happens often – for the saving light of the Gospel to shine on a lost sinner in his final moments. When that happens, heaven may be his new destination, but in the glare of God’s light, his life is revealed to have been a failure. C.T. Studd, English missionary to China and other places, as well as a world-class cricketer, famously wrote:

Only one life, ’twill soon be past,

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

C.T. was right. You may build a busy and successful life. You may amass fortunes and friends. You may pass on a legacy to your family. But if everything you built in life was without Jesus Christ, whatever you leave behind will amount to virtually nothing.

1. Setting the Scene, 2:39, 40

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Luke omits a lot of material in his “birth narrative.” In his summary, our physician/historian summarizes years of living, leaving out everything Matthew tells us: the visit of the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the probable years in Egypt (see Matthew 2). Luke does not contradict Matthew, he merely omits events another historian included. This was not an uncommon practice, and you can see it often comparing, for example, passages in Acts to the letters written by Paul (see especially Acts 9:25, 26, where it sounds like Paul went to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion, but in Galatians 1:17, 18, we find out three years passed before Paul back). The Biblical writers did this, not because they didn’t respect history or even know it, but because whatever events they omitted simply did not fit into their purposes.

We know from other accounts that a dozen years elapse in these two verses. In those years, Jesus grew like any boy would grow. He learned. He grew physically. He enjoyed the grace of God. Here’s a great lesson about the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Even though He was fully man, He was also fully God, yet His divine nature never interfered with the normal development of His human nature. What a wonderful Savior we serve and what a wonderful plan of redemption He was a part of!

As our story opens, it was an eventful and busy day in the life of Jesus when He went to His very first Passover at Jerusalem at 12 years of age.

2. The discovery

After the Feast 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. (verses 43, 44)

To be fair, we have no idea how many Passovers the family went to during Jesus’ 12 years. Many scholars think this was the first one, after having returned from their time in Egypt. But this is conjecture. Others are sure that Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem every Passover to fulfill Jewish tradition, but this was the first time they brought Jesus with them. Again, this is conjecture. Luke chooses to record the events of this particular Passover because they teach his reader something important. The fact that Jesus was 12 is of no significance. In fact, it was His 13th year, not His 12th, that Jesus would become one of the “sons of the Law,” celebrating His bar mitzvah.

The Feast lasted a week. Jesus must have had considerable freedom to wander around the Temple grounds during that week. He was 12, a young, responsible adult, probably far more mature at 12 than most Americans that age. He would have known his parent’s plans.

But the really interesting people in this story are His parents and their reaction. Luke tells us that they were actually on the road for an entire day, heading back home, before they realized Jesus was missing. The custom of the day said that the women and children would have traveled in front, with the men and young men bringing up the rear. At 12, Jesus was both a child and a young man, so it’s hard to say exactly where he would have traveled within the caravan. No wonder they didn’t notice He was missing!

But there’s an application hidden here that, if we can pull it out, might help you see why Luke included this incident in history of Jesus. What happened to Mary and Joseph happens to many people familiar with Jesus: they’ve heard all about Him, they say they love Him, but they don’t notice He’s not with them. Is it possible to know all about Jesus, fellowship with His people, but not have a relationship with Him? Yes! Just ask most people in almost any church in America! Matthew 13 talks all about this phenomenon, but how could such a thing happen? Let’s look at Mary and Joseph.

They thought Jesus was with them.

Thinking Jesus is with you is not evidence that He is. America is full of people who think Jesus is with them but they are, in fact, living a Christless life, thinking everything is all right when everything is really all wrong.

They were busy with other people.

In that caravan, with other families tripping all over themselves, it would be easy for one parent to think Jesus was with the other. It’s possible to be so busy in life that Jesus just slips away. A clergyman can get so busy doing “the work of the Lord” that he doesn’t even notice Jesus has stepped back. A parent can be so engrossed in raising their children that they neglect Jesus to the point that they no longer feel His presence.

3. The Search

One day without Jesus resulted in a three day, gut wrenching search for Him. They looked all over the caravan for Him. It took a full day to get back to Jerusalem to look for Him there. And another stress-filled day would pass before finding Jesus. As A.T. Robertson wrote: “One day out, one day back, one day finding Him.”

Can you imagine the panic they felt when they realized they’d left their Son behind? This is the right way to feel when you discover you aren’t in a proper relationship with Jesus Christ! You should be panicked when you’ve dissed the Savior of your soul and you should do exactly what Mary and Joseph did: go and make it right.

They sought out Jesus. Some scholars teach that the couple looked all over Jerusalem for Jesus, finally finding Him in the Temple. But that is not at all what the text says. The Temple was a big place; it would have easily taken them a day’s searching to find Him there. They knew exactly where to find Jesus.

4. The Finding

After desperately seeking Jesus, Mary and Joseph found Him. This reminds us of what the Lord said in Jeremiah 29:13-

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

That’s a principle that works for all people, of all dispensations. If you seek the Lord, you will find Him. There is no doubt about it.

Seek the Lord while he may be found;call on him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6)


They found Jesus in the Temple, in the House of Prayer. Where do you find Jesus? He will always be found when you seek Him in the quiet place of prayer.


It took a full three days. What do you think of in connection with “three days” in relation to Jesus? His resurrection, of course! Jesus said of Himself:

Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19)

It is not a dead Jesus people seek, but a living Jesus! The one we’ve all sought and found is the One enthroned in Heaven at the Father’s right hand.


What was Jesus doing when His parents finally found Him? He wasn’t playing jacks with other kids. He wasn’t playing video games.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46)

This situation wasn’t as uncommon as you might think. It wasn’t unusual for students to ask questions. In fact, this was a favorite method of teaching among the Jews. What was unusual, though, was the fact that One so young was asking such probing questions and giving such profound answers. All who were there were astonished that this young man had such a grasp on spiritual matters. Whenever He spoke, even at 12 years of age, Jesus was the center of attention. However, Jesus was not the teacher here; He was the learner. But what a learner!

His parents must have felt a sense of relief when they found Jesus, and they were astonished. But what astonished them this time? It was not His wisdom or knowledge of spiritual matters, it was that He, their Son, would rather stay at the Temple than travel back home with His family. What 12 year old would want that? To this He famously replied:

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (verse 49)

Notice the contrast between verse 49 and 48:

Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you. (verse 48)

“Your father” and “my father.” Jesus, even at 12, knew the whole story! He was clearly conscious of the unique relationship between Himself and the Father. To His earthly parents, though, He asked, “Why were you (plural) searching for me? Didn’t you (plural) know I had to be in my (singular) Father’s house?” He opposed Mary’s astonishment with astonishment of His own. He answered her question with a question of His own. Was Jesus being a smart aleck 12 year old, mouthing off at His mother? Not at all! Jesus understood His mission in life far better than she did. Mary thought Jesus had been forgetful or thoughtless of His parents; but in fact Jesus knew He had a higher responsibility to a much, much higher Parent.

In fact, “higher responsibility” isn’t nearly strong enough. Jesus’ words were: “I had to be in my Father’s house.” Even this young, Jesus’ life was in control by “the divine imperative.” The Gospels are full of this “I must,” this imperative, a keen sense of His responsibility to do the work of Kingdom.

5. The Following

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51)

Jesus was a good Son, both to His heavenly Father and to His earthly parents. Notice, Jesus left His Father’s house to “go down” to His parents home in Nazareth. The fifth commandment was no less binding on Jesus than any other child. In fact, as far as Jesus was concerned, the fifth commandment meant even more. In terms of the Law, Jesus Christ honored His earthly parents by completely humbling Himself and subjugating Himself to their wishes. But He also understood His mission on Earth. It was His heavenly Father’s will that His Son should walk the same path in life as those He came to save.

This is the last we read of Joseph. We have no reason to think that he passed from the scene any time soon. But once again, Mary is seen “treasuring these things in heart.” As she had done 12 years earlier, Mary had a lot to think and pray about. She had been upset with Jesus because, in her mind, he had been thoughtless. Yet it was she, who had been thoughtless. She forgot what the angel Gabriel had told her that night over a dozen years ago.

But we, like Mary, treat Jesus with thoughtlessness too often. It’s not that we dislike Him, but we, also like Mary, become so familiar with Him. We just assume He’s always lurking close by, regardless of where we are or what we’re getting into. Those of us who really do love Jesus and really do have a relationship with Him may not be guilty of supposing He is with us, but we may be very guilty of neglecting Him. 

And who wants to get to the end of their life, look over their shoulder at the years gone by only to discover that Jesus really wasn’t there?

May this be our prayer:

Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. (Psalm 86:11)


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