Young Jesus Asks a Question

Even at the age of twelve, Jesus demonstrated remarkable insight into his mission.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Three times each year all Hebrew males were required to appear before the Lord in the great festivals of the Jewish religion (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23; Deut.16:16).

These festivals were: Passover (Lev. 23:5); Pentecost (Lev. 23:15-22); and Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34-43). The Old Testament Law anticipated the celebration of these feasts at Jerusalem (cf. Ex. 34: 23, 24, “when thou goest up to appear before Jehovah”).

And so, Luke the historian informs us that Joseph and Mary “went every year to Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover” (Lk. 2:41).

As a side note, it is significant that Mary accompanied her husband on these trips from Nazareth to Jerusalem. She was not required to do so, but it is a token of the spirituality characteristic of our Lord’s godly mother.

At any rate, Joseph and Mary attended the feast, accompanied by the boy Jesus, who was twelve years of age.

Let us look briefly at this account.

The Missing Boy Jesus

When the days of festivity were fulfilled, the Lord’s parents (Joseph, by adoption) began their homeward trip.

After traveling about a day’s journey, it was discovered that the boy Jesus was not in the traveling group. It was probably quite a large company of travelers.

With urgency, Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem to search for the lost son. After three days, they finally found Jesus “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions” (Lk. 2:46).

Not only was Jesus respectful of those teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, but he also stunned them. The text says: “all who heard him were amazed [the imperfect tense stressed their repeated astonishment) at his understanding and his answers.”

When Joseph and Mary came upon Jesus among the scholars, Luke says “they were astonished.” Literally, they were struck with amazement. Not even they had fully realized the depth of his divine brilliance.

Mary asked: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”

In response to that anguished question. we have the first recorded words of the Lord Jesus. They are in the form of a question, which would become one of the Savior’s powerful teaching tools.

The King James Version renders the Lord’s question:

“How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

The American Standard Version has it: “knew ye not that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The Greek text literally expresses it: “I must be in the things [en tois – neuter, plural) of my Father.”

Plummer notes that “Engaged in My Father’s business” is a possible translation, but “in My Father’s house” is more probably the meaning in this context (77; cf. Arndt & Gingrich, 554).

There is, perhaps, not a whole lot of difference ultimately except for the fact that the concept of location best fits the immediate context.

Be that as it may, there are three points of interest upon which we will now focus.

Jesus Early Understanding of His True Father

Did you notice that Jesus did not say, “our Father”? Even though Joseph and Mary were in some sense children of God, Jesus from an early age recognized the unique sense of his relationship with God.

As you study the New Testament, you will be impressed with the fact that Jesus never puts himself in the same class with others with respect to their relationship to the heavenly Father.

For instance, there is the case of John 5. A certain man, who had been afflicted with an incapacitating infirmity for thirty-eight years, was instructed by Christ to, “Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.”

Immediately the man was restored to health and he took up his bed and walked (8, 9).

Since this incident occurred on the Sabbath day. the gnat-straining Jews attempted to charge the Lord with violating the Sabbath. It has always amazed me that these Jews could be wholly unimpressed with the miracle and focus on Christ’s alleged violation of the Sabbath.

But in answer to their charge, Jesus said, “My Father works even until now, and I work” (Jn. 5:17).

There is that “my Father” phraseology again. He was suggesting that he shared a nature with the Father that was unlike anyone else.

And the Jews understood perfectly well what he was saying. John, the author of this narrative, nails it down for us.

“For this cause therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only brake the sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18).

Modern scholars who attempt to water-down the force of the Lord’s claim are perverting the word of God! (See Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Doctrine of the Deity of Christ.)

There is another dramatic usage of this type of language that we need to mention.

On the day of his resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus confronted the weeping Mary Magdalene near the empty tomb.

At first, Mary did not recognize him, but after a brief conversation, she realized who he was and caught hold of the Lord. The risen Christ responded: “Touch me not” (Jn. 20:17), or literally, “Stop clinging to me,” as expressed in the Greek Testament.

Though he had not as yet ascended unto the Father, he instructs Mary,

“Go unto my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.”

There is an obvious contrast between the my and your in both instances.

Now, this brings us back to Luke 2:49. By using the phrase “my Father” with his parents, we must conclude that even at the tender age of twelve, Jesus already had a consciousness of his unique relationship to the Father.

But exactly when did this awareness come to him? We cannot, of course, answer that.

Later, Christ reveals that he had knowledge of having shared the glory of God before the world even existed (Jn. 17:5), and yet, the Bible indicates that Jesus developed mentally even as other children do. (Lk. 2:40, 52).

Be that as it may, at least by the age of twelve, the boy Jesus knew of his special relationship to God.

The Temple, His Father’s House

The great truth that we have just emphasized is further born out by the fact that Jesus, in the temple (Lk. 2:46), was “about the things” or “in the house” of his Father.

God’s house was his house too! And this could only be true because he was the Son of God.

There is an interesting account near the close of Jesus’ ministry that highlights this narrative in a wonderful way.

When the Lord and his disciples came to Capernaum, a seaside city on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, some Jewish officials approached Peter and asked, with obviously suspect motives:

“Does your teacher not pay the half-shekel?” (Mt. 17:24).

Now this half-shekel (Greek – didrachma) was worth two day’s wages for a working man. It was the tax that every Israelite, twenty years of age and older, was required to pay for the maintenance of the temple (Ex. 30:12-14; 38:26; 2 Chron. 24:6, 9).

The apostle replied that Jesus did pay the tax, and he went into the house where the Master was teaching.

Undoubtedly Jesus surprised Peter when he revealed that he knew the nature of the conversation that had been conducted outside.

Christ asked: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”

The apostle correctly responded that toll is received from foreigners, not sons.

The Lord then replied:

Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself" (Mt. 17:26-27).

Do you see the Lord’s argument?

A son is not required to pay tax to his father. The temple is God’s house. Thus, his Son would not be obligated to pay the tax to maintain it.

But Jesus was God’s Son! Hence, was free from the payment obligation.

Nevertheless, to prevent their stumbling, he paid anyhow!

Yes, when Christ was in the temple, he was in his Father’s house.

And that is why he could, with perfect justification, cleanse the temple of those unscrupulous money-changers declaring, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (Jn. 2:16).

The Lord’s connection with the temple is a demonstration of his deity.

In this connection, we feel compelled to make one more observation.

A few days before his crucifixion. in a blistering sermon of rebuke, Christ said to the Jews: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Mt. 23: 38).

Though the term “house” in this passage likely encompasses the whole of Jerusalem, it certainly includes the temple.

But notice how now it is now “your house.” That has a very ominous ring to it, and it previews the wrath of God that is to be visited on these rebellious Jews.

They were rejecting Heaven’s Gift, namely, the Son himself (cf. Mt. 24:1, 2). God would, therefore, reject them.

The dispensational premillennialists, who allege that God will rebuild that temple during the so-called “tribulation period”, ought to learn something from this verse!

Jesus Must ... Be About His Father’s Business

We cannot ignore the sense of urgent destiny that Jesus had even in his youth and which remained with him all his earthly days.

To his parents, the remarkable boy said, “I must be.” The word “must” translates the Greek term dei, which frequently denotes “that constraint which arises from divine appointment” (Thayer, 126).

In his gospel account, Luke especially employs this word, again and again, to suggest that the events and activities in the life of Christ were not those of mere accident or fate. Rather, he was carrying out a divine program (cf. Brown, II.665).

Observe the following incidents.

Jesus Must Preach Good Tidings

In Luke 4:31ff, Jesus performs many astonishing miracles in the city of Capernaum.

The fame of his miracles rapidly spread throughout the area so that the multitudes sought after the Lord and attempted to detain him, but he declared:

“I must preach the good tidings of the kingdom of God to the other cities also: for therefore was I sent” (Lk. 4:43).

Compelled by the sad plight of lost men, the Lord urgently proclaimed the good news of the corning reign of God.

Can we not catch the spirit of that pressing need? Like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to have burning hearts that cannot contain the word of God (Jer. 20:9)

Jesus Must Love the Lost

As Jesus passed through Jericho toward Jerusalem and his appointment with Calvary, he encountered a rich chief publican. The man was small of stature and had climbed a tree to catch a better glimpse of the passing Christ.

When the Lord came to the place where he was, he looked up and said.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (Lk. 19:5)

But why must he? Surely there was no physical necessity for it.

No, but there was a spiritual urgency involved.

As a chief publican (i.e., tax collector employed by the Romans), Zacchaeus was a social outcast as viewed by the Jews. In his encounter with the man, the Lord must emphasize, as he had so often done, that God’s love and grace must be extended to all segments of society.

This is stressed repeatedly in Luke’s gospel (cf. Lk. 5:29-32; 15:1ff).

In this connection, we are reminded of an important circumstance in John 4. This chapter largely deals with a great evangelistic effort that the Savior wrought among the Samaritans. John informs us that the Jews had no dealings with those people (Jn. 4:9).

Well, the apostle commences this chapter by observing that the Lord departed from Judea toward Galilee, and “he must needs pass through Samaria” (Jn. 4:3, 4).

But there was no geographical necessity to go through Samaria. In fact, Jews normally detoured around Samaria by way of the Jordan Valley to avoid the dreaded Samaritans.

I am persuaded that this in another of those divine compulsions to reveal the universal love of God!

Jesus Must Suffer Many Things

As his ministry matured, the Son of God progressively employed those urgent “musts” with reference to his impending suffering and death:

“The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up” (Lk,9:22; cf.22:37; 24:7; 24:26; Jn.3:14).

What we are saying by all of this, of course, is simply this. From at least the time that he was twelve years of age until he left this earth, the Lord Jesus Christ was conscious that he was operating according to a heavenly plan.

He was implementing a divine agenda. His role in all of this was most assuredly a matter of his own voluntary will.

He emptied himself in becoming a man (Phil. 2:7). No one took his life from him. He had the power to resist if he so chose. But no, he laid down his life willingly (Jn. 10:17, 18; Gal. 1:4).

He followed the plan that had been determined before the foundation of the world (cf. Acts 2:23: 1 Pet. 1:20). The Savior’s delight in doing his Father’s will (Psa. 40:7).

And that delight was translated into an ever-present sense of urgency.


Perhaps we may raise this thought in conclusion.

Is it possible for us to believe that God has a special role for us in his divine scheme?

Is he working providentially to enhance your service in his kingdom today?

Can we catch the spirit of history and so be impelled by a “must-do” attitude of accomplishing his will?

  • Arndt, William & Gingrich, F. W. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Brown, Collin. 1976. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Exeter: Paternoster Press.
  • Plummer, Alfred. 1922. “Luke,” International Critical Commentary. Fifth Ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.