Luke 2:39–52

When Jesus was 12 years old, He was brought to Jerusalem, where He entered deep conversations with the teachers in the temple. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke to explain what Jesus’ profound wisdom at this young age teaches us about the incarnation of Christ.


We’re going to continue our study this morning of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re in Luke 2:39–52.

So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”

And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.

Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

This is a wonderful narrative that Luke provides for us, and I pray that the truth found in it will be meaningful to you as you contemplate it this day. Let us pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we ask that You would stoop to our weakness. The frailty of our understanding is complex. We need Your help. So please send Your Spirit to us this morning, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jesus’ Childhood

Luke gives us more information about Jesus’ birth and infancy than any other gospel writer, and we’ve been looking at that information for several weeks. Last week, we looked at His presentation in the temple when He was about six weeks old. Then there’s a gap from six weeks old to twelve years old, where we hear this narrative that I just read to you. After that, we have another gap from age twelve to about age thirty, when Jesus appears to begin His public ministry.

We’ve often wondered why the gospel writers don’t fill us in with details of Jesus’ childhood. The fraudulent writings of the second-century Gnostics in the so-called apocryphal gospels attempted to do that. They told fanciful stories of the child Jesus being lonely as He was playing in the dirt, so He shaped figures of birds with mud, then did hocus-pocus and turned these dirt birds into living birds to play with. Such nonsense really did not add any honor to the understanding of Jesus. All we’re told in this text initially is that from the time He was presented in the temple until the time He appeared again at age twelve, He grew, became strong in spirit, became filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him.

It’s probable that Jewish young men became sons of the law or experienced what they called bar mitzvah at age thirteen. It was the custom of the Jews at that time that a year before bar mitzvah, when the boy reached the age of twelve, the parents would take him to Jerusalem and show him all around the temple and the different sites around the Holy City to prepare him for the following year’s ceremony of bar mitzvah. That’s probably why Jesus’ parents brought Him along to Jerusalem for this feast of the Passover.

Jesus Goes Missing

Luke tells us that when the time was finished for the celebration of the Passover, the pilgrims returned to their homes. The custom in the day was to travel by caravan. The caravan would be quite big, including the immediate family, aunts, uncles, and cousins, the extended family, and neighbors from the village and adjoining villages. In this case, you would have all the family and friends from Nazareth and probably from Cana, Capernaum, and the other cities nearby.

The custom in these caravans was that the women and the children would be at the front, and the men and the young men at the back. Jesus was on the threshold between child and young man, so I think it’s safe for us to assume that Mary assumed that Jesus was at the back of the caravan with Joseph, because she realized He certainly wasn’t with her.

In like manner, Joseph was coming up at the rear of the caravan with other men and young men and noticed that Jesus wasn’t with him, and so he probably assumed Jesus must be with his mother. Safe assumption, but unfortunately, he was wrong.

At the end of the day, they would pitch their camp, and all the friends and relatives would get together around the campfire and spend time talking about their experiences in Jerusalem. It was at that point that Mary and Joseph realized their son was missing.

The question that filled them with anxiety was simply: “Where’s Jesus? Where’s Jesus? Where’s my son?” “I thought he was with you,” Joseph said. “No, no, no, I thought he was with you,” Mary said. They looked all through the caravan, and they couldn’t find Him. Dreadfully frightened and anxious, Mary and Joseph alone began the day-long journey back to Jerusalem, and all along the road they were hollering for Jesus and looking for Jesus. They couldn’t find their son.

Around forty years ago, when I was working at a church in Cincinnati, we came home from church—Vesta, me, and our daughter Sherrie. We got home and realized that R.C. Jr. wasn’t with us. We realized that we had forgotten him and left him back at church. So, I turned around and drove all the way back to the church, and I found him dazed, frightened, and walking around wondering why his parents had gone without him. Friends, it’s one thing to forget R.C. Jr., but to forget Jesus, that’s another story altogether.

Mary and Joseph came back to Jerusalem, spending a whole day on the journey. When they arrived, Jesus wasn’t waiting for them at the front gate of the city. They scoured the city, looking at the bazaar and all the shops that dotted the streets even in those days. They went to the playground to see if He was playing with some of the other children. They spent the whole day scouring the city of Jerusalem, and they couldn’t find Him.

Jesus Confounds the Rabbis

The last place Mary and Joseph expected to find Jesus was in the temple. But finally, in desperation, they went into the temple. It was the custom at that time that after the celebration of the Passover, the visiting rabbis and scholars, the theologians of the day—the PhDs of Israel—stayed around the city. This was one of the few times during the year that they had the opportunity to sit down and discuss matters of theology.

These men were buzzing back and forth, talking about their theological theories. To Mary and Joseph’s astonishment, they find Jesus sitting among these doctors, participating in the theological dialogue. He was twelve years old, and not only was He participating, but it’s not like these elders were saying, “Go away son, you’re bothering me;” they were even more astonished than Mary and Joseph. They couldn’t believe the insight and provocative questions coming from the mouth of this twelve-year-old boy. He was obviously a child prodigy, but a child prodigy of such advanced learning that they had never ever witnessed anything like this in their lives. They saw clearly that this child knew more than they did at every point.

The question for this morning is this: How did He know so much? How is it possible for this twelve-year-old boy, Jesus, to confound the experts in the Law and the Scriptures? Many people give one particularly quick and simple answer that I think is patently incorrect.

People often look at this event and say: “Why wouldn’t Jesus know all this? He is God incarnate, and God is omniscient. God doesn’t have to be taught by the scholars. God is not in need of learning from anybody, because He is omniscient. He knows everything. If Jesus is God incarnate, doesn’t that mean that He knew everything?” Well, yes and no.

Two Fifth-Century Heresies

As we consider this, we bump right up against one of the greatest mysteries, as well as one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith—the mystery of the incarnation of Christ. We confess Him to be the God-Man, and we profess that He was in fact the very incarnation of God.

During the fifth century A.D., the church faced one of the most critical crises it had endured yet with the rise of two distinct and separate heresies at the same time, both of which seriously threatened the well-being of the church.

The first heresy was called the Monophysite heresy, which had been advanced by a man by the name of Eutyches. The Monophysite heresy taught that, if Jesus was one person, He must have only had one nature, like every other person. It’s one-to-a-customer when it comes to humanity. So, if Jesus was a single individual, He must have had a single nature. Mono, which is the prefix of the word Monophysite, means “one.” The root of this word, physis, is the word from which we get “physics,” the study of substance, the study of nature.

The Monophysites, like Eutyches, believed that Jesus only had one nature. So, if He only had one nature, was it divine or was it human? If you would ask a Monophysite, “Was Jesus’ single nature divine or was it human?” he would answer, “Yes.” He would say that Christ’s one nature was a blend, a mixture between deity and humanity.

Here’s a fifty-cent word for you: the Monophysites called Jesus’ nature the one theanthropic nature. Is that a great word or what? That is one of these words that we call a “bastard word.” It’s a word whose parents are questionable. It’s an attempt to take two distinct words and jam them together to create this bastardized word, theanthropic. Theos means God, anthropos means man, and so they say one theanthropic nature means Jesus that had one nature, a divinely human nature, or was it a humanly divine nature?

Under analysis, the church looked at that closely at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and they said: “In this idea you have Jesus, whose one nature is both human and divine, but really it is neither. If His human nature has been deified, then it’s no longer human. If His divine nature has been humanized, then it’s no longer divine.” So, the church said “absolutely no” to the Monophysite heresy.

From the other aisle came the Nestorians, who said that if Christ has two natures, a human nature and a divine nature, then He must be two people. It’s just like we have people today who don’t understand the Trinity, so instead of teaching the Trinity, they teach tritheism, or the idea of three gods. No—God is one in essence, three in person. Jesus is just the opposite. He’s one in person, two in essence.

The Four Negatives of Chalcedon

The Council at Chalcedon first made a positive affirmation. They said that Jesus, in the mystery of the incarnation, is vere homo, vere Deus, “truly man and truly God.” We must affirm both the true humanity of Jesus in the incarnation and affirm His true deity. Then, they produced the famous four “negatives” of Chalcedon.

At this point, the church very wisely didn’t totally unpack the mystery of the incarnation. They didn’t answer all the questions. Instead, they set the borders, a border on one side and a border on the other side. They defined the incarnation in terms of what it was not, with these four negatives. They said that Jesus is truly human, truly divine, with two natures perfectly united, but without mixture or confusion: “You hear that you Monophysites? No mixture, no confusion, no blending.” Then they continued, saying that Jesus’ two natures are also without separation or division: “Do you hear that you Nestorians over there?”

A pox on both houses was pronounced at Chalcedon. They said that however we understand the incarnation, we can’t understand it in terms of a mixture or blend of deity and humanity, nor can we understand it in terms of a separation or division between the two natures. After the comma, Chalcedon went on to say, “each nature retains its own attributes.”

That simple theological affirmation, “each nature retained its own attributes,” has been trampled on and brutally violated throughout church history and even today. If we could just get those four negatives and “each nature retained its own attributes,” we would spare ourselves so much grief in trying to understand the God-Man.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who became the dean of Yale Theological Seminary. When we were studying the Council of Chalcedon, he said about these four negatives, no mixture, no confusion, no separation, no division: “Gentlemen, if you want to go over the border, pick your heresy, because you’re going to be in one of them one way or another.” I’ve never forgotten that statement.

Distinct, Not Separate

So, how did Jesus know all these things in the temple? Those that say that He knew all of it because of His divine nature are saying that, because the divine nature is omniscient, then the human nature must be omniscient, too. In answer to this, we can’t divide the two natures, but we must distinguish them.

When Jesus walked down the street, He had physical legs, physical arms, fingers, and toes, and I’m going to ask you this: Were His legs and arms and fingers and toes a manifestation of His deity? Of course not. God is not physical. The divine nature doesn’t have legs. It doesn’t have arms, it doesn’t have fingers, it doesn’t have toes. How about when Jesus got hungry or thirsty? Did that show forth His deity or His humanity?

I’m distinguishing, not separating. Even when He was thirsty in His human nature, His thirsty human nature was still perfectly united to His divine nature, but it wasn’t the divine nature that was thirsty. God never gets thirsty, but humans get thirsty. That’s easy enough to understand when we’re talking about flesh and blood, getting thirsty and hungry. But what about when it comes to knowledge?

One of the things that drove the great theologian Thomas Aquinas to distraction was the problem in Mark’s gospel, where at the end of His life, the disciples ask Jesus, “When are You coming back?” He gave some general answers to the question, and He said, “But of the day and of the hour, no man knows, only the Father and not even the Son” (Mark 13:32). Thomas Aquinas said: “That can’t be. Jesus had to know the day and the hour. He was God incarnate.” Aquinas was saying, “Certainly, the divine nature knew, and if they were perfectly united, then the human nature had to know, too.” You say: “No, Thomas. Jesus’ human knowledge was as limited as anybody else’s human knowledge, unless the divine nature communicated information to the human nature.”

We know, for example, in the Old Testament, that there were prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, who had supernatural knowledge of the future. Did they gain that knowledge out of their own insight, or from going to synagogue school? No, they gained that knowledge because God revealed it to them. Just like Jesus said, touching His humanity, “I say nothing on My own authority, but only what the Father teaches Me.”

The Communication of Attributes

There were times where Jesus displayed supernatural knowledge, such as when He knew Nathaniel before He ever met him, or when He knew all about the woman at the well. But again, that didn’t rise from Jesus’ reservoir of human knowledge, but the Father or the divine nature revealed it to Him on that occasion.

It’s possible that when Jesus was at the temple, the divine nature whispered into His human ear and gave Him all the answers for the questions posed by the rabbis. But I don’t think it’s necessary for us to speculate that Jesus showed such prodigious knowledge at age twelve because the divine nature was giving Him this insight.

Another heresy in the history of the church that Rome and some Protestants embrace relates to the communication of attributes. This heresy says that in the incarnation, not only is knowledge communicated from the divine to the human, but the very substance of deity can be communicated from the divine to the human. That takes us right back to the Monophysites, because now you have that blending and mixing of the divine and the human, so we deny that line of thinking. The divine nature could communicate information, but it couldn’t communicate a divine attribute to the human nature. The divine attribute of omniscience belongs to the divine nature, not to the human nature.

Jesus’ Sinless Mind

If it wasn’t the divine nature whispering in the ear of the human nature, how was Jesus able to amaze the PhDs in the temple with His prodigious knowledge? If I would have been there that day, I know I would have been put to shame by this twelve-year-old boy’s knowledge of theology. He was twelve and I’m about to be seventy-three. I’ve been studying theology seriously for well over fifty years, but I would have been confounded by the twelve-year-old Jesus. In His human nature, by the time He was twelve, He knew an awful lot more about theology than I know today. Why?

The great commandment is that we’re to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our might and all of our minds. I have a confession to make to you that should be obvious: I haven’t loved God with all of my mind for one minute in my life. The ravages of sin that fall upon humanity from the fall don’t just affect the body and the will, but they also have a terrible effect on the mind.

When we reject God, which is our nature, our foolish minds are darkened. We’re still able to add two and two and to come up with four. We’re still able to follow a logical argument sometimes, but we make all kinds of errors in math and logic even after much education because our minds have been weakened by the influence of sin.

I’m embarrassed to stand before my Lord at the end of my day and have revealed how much I don’t know about the Bible and how much I don’t know about the things of God that I would know if I would have applied myself more seriously and ardently throughout my lifetime. I said that to a group of men in a Bible study recently, and after I confessed that what I fear the most at the judgment day is my lack of theological knowledge, one of them said, “If that’s the case, I’m doomed.” We may all be doomed.

Can you imagine a twelve-year-old boy who didn’t have the slightest influence of original sin in his life, whose thinking was for not one second ever clouded by darkness, that for every second of his twelve years loved the Lord his God with his entire mind? You want to see a child prodigy that would turn the world upside down? Find a perfect human being and see what they can learn in twelve years.

Jesus didn’t have to rely on His divine nature to astound anybody. He could do it with His hands tied behind His back in His perfect humanity. This wasn’t really like great musicians watching a five-year-old Mozart amaze them with his prodigious skill, because Mozart was fallen. He had to deal with the ravages of sin, and Jesus didn’t. He knew His Father like no twelve-year-old had ever known before.

Now think about this: it kept getting better for the next eighteen years. He was growing in His wisdom. He was growing in His knowledge. By the time Jesus was thirty, the people would say: “This man speaks like no other man we’ve ever heard. He speaks as one having authority, not like the scribes and the Pharisees.” If He was amazing everybody with His knowledge at twelve, what was He like at age thirty? In any case, Mary and Joseph were amazed, but not as amazed as the scholars who were there. So, Mary came up to Jesus and said to Him, “Son, why have you done this to us?”

Jesus Teaches His Parents

This may have the first time in His twelve years that Mary had to correct Jesus for anything: “Why have you done this to us? What kind of a son are you that hangs back in Jerusalem? Didn’t you know we would be worried to death? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously.” So, she asked Him, “Why?”

Jesus answered a question with a question. He asked them: “Why did you seek Me? What are you so anxious about? Why was I so hard for you to find? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house? Didn’t you understand it, mother, that I wasn’t here trying to be defiant to your authority? I was here because I’m compelled to be in my Father’s house. I’m not talking about Joseph’s house; I’m talking about God’s house. Mother, I had to be here because this is where my Heavenly Father wanted me to be.”

We are never to disobey our parents unless our parents command us to do something God forbids or forbid us from doing something God commands. So, Jesus not only had to teach the teachers, but He had to teach His parents about the truth of God. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on a wall for that exchange?

“Then,” Luke tells us, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them,” that is, to Mary and Joseph, “but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with men.” The next time we see Him is when He comes to be baptized by John. Let’s pray.

Father, help us to be amazed at what perfect humanity looks like, what sinlessness acts like, that we may not be surprised at the prodigious wisdom and knowledge that our Lord displayed in His humanity at so young an age. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.