Two weeks ago I wrote about the four Gospels and how they present a complete picture of Christ’s ministry on earth. Everything necessary for an individual to make an informed decision as to who Jesus was and why He came here is contained in the fascinating books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But when it comes to the years of His adolescence, teens and 20s we’re told next to nothing. However there are things we can gather intuitively, like with the world at large being too distracted to notice His long-awaited arrival. Right off this tells us a lot. Start with Bethlehem’s local hotel manager callously banishing His weary parents to the barn out back. What a lousy welcome for the Messiah! His mother “…gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). I’m sure the innkeeper had his reasons. Because of Caesar’s mandated census his place was packed and it was obvious (from their dusty attire) Joseph and his very pregnant wife had no money to bribe him with. James S. Stewart wrote, “At any rate, it’s worth noticing that the same motives still operate to close the door on Christ. Men are too busy; or they know that if Christ came in, certain other things would have to go; or they set their hearts on something different from one who was poor and lowly and despised and rejected, whose symbol was a cross.” How ironic that so many people missed the miracle they’d been praying for. “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:11).
Still, there were a few who did recognize that something astounding was happening in Bethlehem that night, not the least of whom was His mother, of course. While women in that era were deemed second-class citizens by society in general, motherhood was nonetheless revered in Jewish culture. (Yet, evidently, it wasn’t on this historic occasion.) Fittingly, the hotelier’s name got swept away in the winds of time while Christianity’s respect for Mary is topped only by that granted Jesus. God rewarded her for her dedicated devoutness by choosing her to be the one to raise His only begotten Son in a character-building environment. All believers love her for the dignity with which she shouldered the lifelong burden of having been given hints of the sorrows that lay in store for her and her son. Not to mention the faith-filled response she gave the archangel Gabriel when he delivered the incredible news of the pending virgin birth, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary may be the strongest, most resolute female who ever lived. Little wonder she’s so adored.
The delightfully prosaic Frederick Buechner, in his book The Magnificent Defeat, wrote this about Mary’s encounter with the angel: “She hears him say, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name.…’ But she knows His name before Gabriel says it, just as we also know His name, because the child who is going to be born is our child as He is her child. He is that which all the world’s history and all of our own inner histories have been laboring to bring forth. And it will be no ordinary birth but a virgin birth because the birth of righteousness and love in this stern world is always a virgin birth. It is never men nor the nations of men nor all the power and wisdom of men that bring it forth but always God, and that is why the angel says, ‘The child to be born will be called the Son of God.’” J.I. Packer argued for Christ’s unique birth thusly: “Virgin-born, He did not inherit the guilty twist called original sin: His manhood was untainted, and His acts, attitudes, motives and desires were consequently faultless. …Being sinless He could not be held by death once His sacrifice was done.” Belief in the Immaculate Conception is as essential as belief in the Resurrection. Both carry the same message – Jesus came from God and He returned to God.
The shepherds deserve their due, too. The “angel of the Lord” didn’t appear before the wealthy merchants or the conceited religious leaders in town to announce the birth of the Messiah. Rather, the glorious news got broadcast to a handful of poor sheep-tenders who lived their impoverished lives out under the sun and stars, exposed to the elements. How symbolic! In ancient Israel the thought was that a shepherd’s job was closely affiliated with what God did for His chosen people, as in the oft-quoted phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1). Notably, Jesus repeatedly alluded to His being humanity’s ultimate sheepherder throughout His astounding dressing-down of the jealous, skeptical Pharisees that’s recorded in John 10:1-18. We must never overlook the fact that despite the shepherds tending their flocks in the field being uneducated, illiterate men they reacted to the angel’s news with admirable childlike trust. They didn’t hesitate to drop everything to go witness a genuine miracle. “So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16). They’re to be commended.
Now, not all learned men of that day were uppity hypocrites. Some were truly “wise” as were the Magi who came to visit the King of kings. Scholars believe that one of them hailed from Africa while the other two were from separate regions of Mesopotamia. They represent the fact that the birth of the Savior wasn’t just a “Jewish thing”; that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). What the fearless trio of noblemen had in common with the shepherds is their undaunted faith. They weren’t afraid to embark on a long, risky trek to wherever the celestial signs they’d been observing took them. More Christians should aim to emulate those three. Jesus encourages all men and women to be brave, inquisitive adventurers who aren’t timid about using their God-given intellects; especially for confronting closed-minded secularists with the pure logic of Christianity. There’s so much wisdom to be gained by studying the Bible and by reading the insightful literary offerings of giants like C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Ravi Zacharias and so many other reputable Christian authors. Don’t remain uninformed simply because watching television is so much easier. Open a book already! Expand your mental horizons! Become wise.
And then there were Simeon and Anna. While they didn’t travel to visit the infant Messiah, they definitely welcomed Jesus graciously when His parents brought Him to the temple. In the Hebrew world it was righteous, devout folks like Simeon and Anna who’d kept the hope for a savior alive, “…looking for the restoration of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Simeon wasn’t a Pharisee whose faith was just skin deep. He wasn’t an overly-serious Scribe who’d let the fire of the spirit go out in his heart. He wasn’t a jaded Sadducee who didn’t trust in anything he couldn’t see or touch. Neither was he a Zealot who craved only revenge for the Roman occupation. No, Simeon was merely one of the few patient, prayerful members of the chosen race whom God had blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit who’d “revealed to him… that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Not surprisingly, when Simeon took the baby Jesus in his aging arms he knew his dreams had become a reality. He told Mary, “Listen carefully; This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-25). Simeon’s ominous statement provides further evidence of the heavy burden Mary would have to bear. The prophetess Anna was a temple regular who openly rejoiced at the sight of the infant, unashamedly identifying Him as the Messiah. The child’s purification rites completed, Joseph and Mary took their boy home to Nazareth where He “…grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).
The next three decades of our Lord’s life is a blank – save for one memorable incident. When Jesus was around the age of 12 He, like other Jewish boys, became a “Son of the Law.” This designation made Him eligible to attend the various religious festivals. In Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration/feast, the young Christ got so caught up asking questions of and discussing profound matters with the teachers in the temple courts He lost all track of time. His parents, who’d mistakenly assumed their boy was traveling back home with friends, rushed back to the city and issued an Amber Alert. After three frantic days they located Jesus in the temple and they let Him have an earful over His anxiety-causing stunt. His calm reply was, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). These are the first words of Christ we’re made privy to in the Bible but they’re crucial because, in a sense, they sum up His whole life in a soundbite. Yet we’re informed his parents didn’t really “get it”, thus marking the onset of Jesus’ frequent failures to be clearly understood by those closest to Him. Still, it’s remarkable He’d already become aware of who His real Father was so Joseph and Mary certainly deserve a lot of credit for raising Him right. As Stewart quipped, “Adolescence is God’s best chance with the soul.” What’s frustrating about this anecdote is that it’s the last we hear of our Savior for the next 18 years.
Again, there are things we can determine about Christ based solely on circumstantial evidence. For instance, we know He must’ve been influenced by His growing up in close proximity to nature because His teachings belie His pride concerning and love for what He’d created for all humans to enjoy. He mentioned blooming plants: “Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these!” (Matthew 6:28-29). He brought up the wonders of agriculture: “By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” (Mark 4:28). He referenced animals: “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4). Never forget that Jesus was a country boy at heart, having spent countless hours exploring the undefiled beauty that surrounded Him on all sides in rural Nazareth. Another kind of nature He became familiar with was human nature. We can deduce it from reports of His being anything but naïve or gullible in His dealings with people of all persuasions. John 2:25 confirms it succinctly: “He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” What’s amazing is that, even though He was well aware of the inherent wickedness of the human heart that showed its ugly colors all too often, He still loved all people as only a merciful, forgiving God could.
It’s also no stretch of the imagination to opine that Jesus knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards. While all good Jewish males were schooled to be, at a minimum, familiar with what was contained in the 39 canonical books of the sacred Hebrew texts, Jesus was, as one would expect, a bona fide genius. Therefore He was able to immediately counter Satan’s wilderness temptations using the undiluted power of God’s Holy Word despite being physically drained from lack of food and water. The New Testament figuratively overflows with His references to the utterings and writings of the prophets that He knew like the back of His hands. Thus, as every prophecy about Him unfolded and came to fruition, He was never caught off-guard, even as the day of His farce of a trial and His unconscionable murder grew nearer. His resolve to see His mission through to the bitter end by remaining obedient to His Father’s will didn’t waver for a moment. In addition we can safely surmise Jesus knew what hard work was all about. He was a skilled carpenter, a profession that requires strength and paying strict attention to details. Joseph had taught his boy the value of a job well done, the satisfaction that comes from taking the time to do each task right and the resulting personal integrity that comes with it. Stewart wrote, “Hence toil has been hallowed forever. The distinction between secular and sacred avocations vanishes. Hard work – whether manual labor or the duty of the businessman – is sacred when it’s done as under the eyes of God.”
Finally, we can see in the ministry of Jesus His placing immense importance on the home, reflecting the fact He was raised in a large, close-knit family. It’s implied that Joseph died at a relatively early age so it figures that Jesus, as the eldest male in the household, became the father figure for his many brothers and sisters. Those who speculate that Christ, having never married or siring offspring, doesn’t have a clue as to what being a “dad” entails couldn’t be more wrong. He was the family’s main breadwinner. To His siblings He became the rule-enforcer and the punishment-applier as well as their gentle counselor, dispute-settler and sage advice-giver. It goes without saying that we Christians have a “high priest” who knows firsthand how difficult and rewarding parenting can be. And one finds home references popping up in many of our Savior’s parables. A woman turns a room upside down looking for a coin hiding under some furniture. He speaks of carefully measuring flour and leaven when baking bread. An unexpected guest causes the head of the household to pester his neighbor for decent snacks in the middle of the night. The lighting of candles at dusk. He urged compassion for children despite their immature desires and demands. All these point back to the modest but loving home environment our Lord grew up in. He most definitely had learned what it’s like to exist on the edge of poverty but He’d also learned that the Heavenly Father will provide, that unconditional love can cure the most difficult and taxing of ills, and that God is forever in complete control whether we human beings realize it or not.