Re-post: When Jesus Was Twelve

Boy in suit. Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via once said to my grandson, Zachary, when he was twelve years old, “Let’s go for a walk.” We started together down his lane and by the time we got to the sidewalk 300 yards away we were moving at a brisk pace, side by side. I looked down and suddenly realized that Zach was self-consciously matching my strides step for step. That had never happened before. I knew it was an early sign of approaching manhood.

We don’t make much of the age twelve in our culture. Sixteen is an important birthday because in many jurisdictions it means a person that age has the legal right to drive a car. Eighteen in some states means one is old enough to drink alcohol within the law. And 21 has long been regarded as the age of full maturity. Each is an important year, but not twelve.

It was different in Jesus’ culture. St. Luke tells us much about the birth of Jesus. Then he reports in great detail about his public appearances approximately 30 years later. As for the years between, they are sometimes called the silent years — except for one event. St. Luke breaks into the gap to report that Jesus attended his first passover in Jerusalem when he reached the age of twelve. Why does he tell us details of this and no other event during those years?

During Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (bar mitzvah) at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah. The same transition to manhood is celebrated in some branches of Judaism in our day. The lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some say he has even reached the minimum age to marry. In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old, standing at the threshold of manhood, could attend his first passover in Jerusalem.

Despite the long years of silence, we can fill in some of the gaps about Jesus’ life by inference. We know God chose a devout young woman, Mary, to be his mother. When she received from the angel, Gabriel, the news of the coming miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, she responded, “I belong to the Lord body and soul, let it happen as you say.” At the home of her cousin Elizabeth this expectant mother sang a song laced with Old Testament content: “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …” She was in all likelihood not yet out of her teens when she gave birth to the baby Jesus.

And Joseph, the man who was to be Jesus’ earthly father, was a “righteous man,” a man of character. When he learned of Mary’s curious pregnant condition his first impulse was to cancel the engagement — actually to divorce her, though in a way that would not embarrass her unduly. However, an angel intervened and Joseph, apparently the kind of man who was open to the spiritual realm, got the angel’s message: It’s okay; God is in this.

We know that Mary and Joseph were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. They brought the baby Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It was a ritual duty. Moreover, they made a trek of 70 or so miles from Nazareth to get Jesus to that first passover in Jerusalem. As well, they had an ordered family life in which, we are told, Jesus as a teen was obedient to them. And Luke tells us that many years later as an adult, Jesus went to the synagogue to worship on the sabbath, “as was his custom.” We can be quite sure he had been taught the custom in his home.

And as for his first Passover in Jerusalem, we learn something very important about Jesus. Recall that his parents were alarmed, at the end of their first day of trekking back to Nazareth, to discover that he was not among the pilgrim band of relatives and friends. They had to return to Jerusalem to search for him, finding the lad in the temple. What was he doing there? Listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Onlookers were amazed at his “understanding and his answers.”

Was this knowledge supernatural, setting Jesus apart from all other Jewish boys? Is that what it meant for him to be “the Incarnate God”? A passage in the ancient Jewish Talmud may hint at the answer. The essence of this passage reaches back before the times of Jesus, and it lays down these stages of a Jewish boy’s development: “At five he must begin the sacred studies; at ten he must set himself to learning the tradition; at thirteen he must know the whole of the law of Yahweh and practice its requirements . . .”

For Jesus to be in every respect human as well as in every respect divine he had to experience growing up as other boys of his times did. Twelve years of age must have been the time when he began to be aware of his unique relationship to his Heavenly Father. When he sat at the feet of the teachers he obviously surprised onlookers by his knowledge of the Jewish faith — likely learned in his home and from instruction at the local synagogue school.

How did Jesus respond when his parents finally found him in the temple and chided him for the inconvenience he had caused? In surprise he asks, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Think of it: All this at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way! It makes one think of the capacity a twelve-year-old must have for religious knowledge, understanding, and the experience of God! I surely think of it. I think of it when I recall that memorable walk with my twelve-year-old grandson and how he walked with me on the verge of his own manhood.

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Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via

3 thoughts on “Re-post: When Jesus Was Twelve

  1. Our Lord’s Bar Mitzvah has been a favourite subject for Western painters since the Rennaissance.In these paintings,this event is variouskly entitled ‘Christ among the Doctors’ or The Finding in the Temple’ or The Disputation’.,

    Luke 2:41 – 52 has always held a special fascination for me. As you say,Pastor ,it is the only glimpse the Gospels offer of Jesus in the period from His infancy ,until His baptism.That’s one reason it fascinates me.

    Furthermore,it makes me feel that Jesus had begun to comprehend His divine nature ,as well as his human nature.For it seems to me Jesus knows God not only to be our Father,the Father of all creation,but also as His Father in a unique way.

    Did His mother,Mary,tell him,for she knew.Did His father tell Him,for he knew.The Angel Gabriel told Mary at The Annunciation.An Angel,perhaps the same one,told Joseph too,later,because God wanted Joseph to accept Mary and not mistrust her..

    I wonder if by the age of 12 ,Jesus ,during prayer,had gotten some direct knowledge that He was the only Son of God.Did God tell Him privately?

    Of course,as a gifted student of the Jewish Scriptures,with all it’s Messianic prophesies,Jesus could have learned from the Scriptures and all the corresponding details of His life history ,that He,Jesus ,was the prophesied Messiah.

    I don’t know if I’m wide of the mark,but Jesus could have known He was the only Son of God in several ways,by age 12.Mary could have told Him.Joseph could have told Him.God could have told Him directly.Jesus could have worked it out logically from the Scriptures with their abundance of detailed Messianic prophecies.Or He could have known directly through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.Which is of course,another way of learning the truth directly from God.

    Maybe Jersus knew through all these ways,by the time of His Bar Mitzvah.

    Another reason I love this Bible episode is that it reminds us Jesus was a Jew.It seems to me that we can only fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’ life and crucifixion in the context of His Jewish religion,a religion that worshipped the one true God .Whom Jesus Himself enabled all of us to know,gentile as well as Jew.

    Only by realizing Jesus’ Jewishness can we understand the significance of the Paschal Lamb,Bethlehem,the Passover,Pontius Pilate examining the Lamb and finding the Lamb without fault,then washing his hands before the Lamb is sacrificed.Only then can we fully understand why Jesus entered Jerusalem by that particular gate on Palm Sunday

    All prophecies were fulfilled to the letter and spirit, by our Lord..

    I remember being intrigued by the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book ‘God is not a Christian and other Provocations’.Desmond Tutu’s book certainly provoked me to think deeply about it.Of course,I realized,Jesu sis wholly God and was not a Christian.He was THE Christ.He was a Jewish teacher and the Son of God,the Messiah.He was the Jewish Messiah and is our Christ,our Saviour.Even we gentiles
    .I find the NIV bible very clear in conveying this moment in Jesus’ life.

    ‘’ 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?”[a] 5But 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.’’

    Luke 2 : 41-52

    Every detail fills my heart with wonder.And also explains a lot to me of what life was like in Jesus’ time.
    Jesus was an obedient son.Mary treasures these things in her heart.Jesus grows in in wisdom and stature and in God and man’s favour. I love these words.
    When I first read this part of Luke ,I wondered how on earth could Mary and Joseph not realize their son was with them after travelling for a whole day.I asked and asked folk who’d long studied the Bible..I gather the Passover pilgrimage involved a huge number of people,almost like a travelling small city.Mary and Joseph may have assumed Jesus was walking with other boys His own age,other Bar Mitzvah boys.Or with their many relatives and friends as the verses indicate. I can imagine them asking round and poor Mary’s horror when no one had seen her boy.Joseph ,her staunch husband ,comforting her and taking practical steps.Walking back,retracing their steps to find Jesus.All the way back to Jerusalem.

    Finding Jesus in the temple,they understandably remonstrated with their son.How could He give them such a scare.Every psarents nightmar !.But Jesus calmly tells them ,of couse they should have known He was in His Father’s House.These words give me the same goosebumps as when Jesus tells Lazarus to get up .For the Bible is saying clearly – look ,this is God.Jesus is God ! And Jesus knows this and takes it as given.

    Jesus doesn’t say’ our Father’s house’,like we say’ Our Father who art in Heaven’.Jesus says’ MY Father’s House’.his is an electrigying moment like the raising of Lazarus or the Trinity appearing complete,at Christ’s baptism,when the Dove descends .

    Another thing about this event.Jesus is separate from His parents fo 3 days,probably the longest He’s been separate from them all His life.He’s come of age.This is His first tase of independence.Fulfilled ,now He settles to being a supportive obedient son once more.

    One more thing makes this episode of the Bible very special.It is ,I believe,the last time we see Joseph.At some time between this Passover and Jesus’ baptism,Joseph passes from Earth.Then Jesus must have become the head of the family,the bradwinner,fully a man, looking after His mother.
    Jesus is growing up.He seems to have had the first glimpse of His true nature and His destiny.For He knows the prophecies.Next step will be Baptism.

    This is a coming of age story.Like your memorable walk with Zachary aged 12,your grandson,Pastor.How gratifying when the Bible has reflections in our lives.

    • Hello, Francis. Greetings across the waves. Your response to the piece on Jesus at twelve is again reflective and actually expansive. Thanks for it. We are never done pondering the meaning of our Lord’s earthly life. I believe Jesus’ awareness of who he was and what his real mission in life was was gradual bloomed at 12. And with all boys entering puberty 12 is a rich time to become aware of accountability to the Father. The practice of bar mitzvah has always interested me. Don Basitan

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