[Life of Christ] The Not-Really Lost Jesus

(Luke 2:40-52)

A Decade-Plus Summarized (Luke 2:40)

And the child grew, and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was on Him.

The growth of the Messiah

Like all humans (except Adam and Eve), Jesus had to start life as a baby, and then go through the growth process. When Luke tells us “the child grew,” first and foremost he means Jesus grew up physically. He basically skips twelve years of Jesus’ life in Nazareth. What transpired during those years, we aren’t told (though that didn’t stop some early writers from making up stories), except that He grew.

But it wasn’t just physically.

He became strong in spirit. Many modern translations, due to a Greek variant, are missing the words “in spirit.” But the majority of manuscripts contain these words.1  And it’s good that they do, because Luke isn’t telling us that Jesus became a muscular 12-year old. He is speaking of Jesus’ maturity, His self-control, His character.

He was filled with wisdom. The Greek word is sophia, from which we get our English word sophisticated (which means something that takes wisdom to understand). Jesus grew in knowledge, but also in understanding how to apply that knowledge. You can have a lot of experiences, and maybe even a lot of knowledge about different things, but you don’t have wisdom until you can take that knowledge base and learn lessons from it for your life (which could be as simple as don’t try to change a power receptacle without turning off the proper breakers first—don’t ask me how I know that…).

Wisdom is a sign of maturity. Kids may know all about their favorite YouTube personality, their favorite video game, or their favorite football team, but knowing those things doesn’t mean they are mature or wise. If, perhaps, they see their team’s quarterback retire early because of all the injuries he’s endured, and they take from that the lesson that what we do in life today will affect us years from now—and especially if they apply that lesson to their spiritual lives, not just their physical—that is wisdom. Jesus grew in this area, and all you have to do is look at His many farming metaphors (parables) to see He excelled in wisdom.

The favor of God was on Him.

Luke says the “grace” of God was on Him. Throughout my entire life, I’ve heard folks say the definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” But really, that isn’t the meaning. It really just means “favor.” It’s no surprise that some translations (probably because of our misguided definition) chose to use the word “favor” instead of “grace.”2

Certainly you can see the issue if we say God’s “unmerited favor” was on Jesus. Jesus actually merited God’s favor. And that’s exactly what this means. The Father looked at Jesus with gladness, with full approval of His words and deeds. Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” because of his actions. While not perfect, Noah was walking with God. And especially when compared to the rest of the world at the time, Noah was “perfect in his generations.” He stood out as one who was actively trying to do God’s will.3

Yes, it is true that none of us merit God’s favor, because “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”4 But none of us will receive God’s favor if we aren’t making the effort to walk in His paths, His light, His commands. We have to make the effort, for we will be judged on our works.5

Jesus, however, truly earned God’s favor. We could really paraphrase it this way: God was proud of Jesus.

Looking for the “Lost” Lord (Luke 2:41-45)

Now 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.

And when they fulfilled the days, when they returned, the child Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and his mother did not realize it. Instead they, supposing Him to have been with relatives, went a day’s journey. And they sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances.

And when they didn’t find Him, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him.

Another example of faithfulness

God chose Joseph and Mary for a reason. We’ve already seen Joseph’s faithfulness to God in how he responded to each dream God gave him (he got up and obeyed). We’ve seen Mary’s faithfulness (she said to Gabriel, “Behold, [I am] the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word”). And here we see their continued joint faithfulness. It wasn’t a question for either of them whether to go to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It was a given. They were going, because that is what God commanded. Oh that people today would have the same attitude!

So their travel to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old was not a new experience for them or for Jesus. They did this every year.

The family leaves Jerusalem—well, most of them do

At the end of the feast (notice they didn’t leave worship early…), they started the 80-mile trip back to Nazareth.6 They didn’t make the trip by themselves. There was a caravan. It is possible that most of Nazareth more or less travelled together. This had to be a big enough group that they assumed Jesus was somewhere among their family—but they couldn’t actually see Him. This group involved not just Joseph and Mary (and whatever other children they had by this point7), but extended family and friends—again, all pointing to a sizeable group.

Some have called Joseph and Mary bad parents for not knowing where their own Son was for a whole day. In today’s “helicopter parenting” age, many parents hover over their children so much they are never able to become independent. But that is a relatively new phenomenon. If you read biographies from the 1800s, you will often see children as young as eight and nine years old being sent on days-long trips on horseback to towns. They were raised up to be able to take care of themselves from an early age. Given Jesus’ growth and maturity (something sadly lacking in young people—and many older people too—today), it isn’t really concerning that they didn’t know exactly where He was.

They assumed He was with family or friends elsewhere in the caravan. Some have said the men traveled together and the women and children traveled together. If this be the case, Jesus at twelve might have been assumed by Mary to be with Joseph and the men, while Joseph might have assumed He was with Mary. If they traveled by families, they probably thought Jesus was with His cousins or other family members. They weren’t worried about Him not being right there within eyesight.

But when the caravan stopped travelling for the day (approximately 20 miles),8 they looked for Him, asked about Him, but couldn’t find Him. Eventually they realized Jesus wasn’t with them. They were worried, and turned back around to Jerusalem to find Him. We’re not told if anyone else joined them (family or friends) on this return trip, but it is at least possible that some did.

Jesus Appears after Three Days (Luke 2:46-51)

It happened that after three days, they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard Him were amazed at His understanding and answers.

And when they saw Him, they were amazed. And His mother said to Him, “Son, what have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been seeking you in distress.”

And He said to them, “Why were you seeking me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

And they didn’t understand the saying He spoke to them.

After three days…

Jesus is unseen by those who love Him most for three days, and then He is finally seen. 21 years later, Jesus dies and is buried, unseen by those who love Him most for three days, and then is final seen again (after the resurrection). It may only be a coincidence, but if it is, it is an interesting one.

Jesus in the temple

They found Jesus in the temple. Not the temple itself, but the temple complex, as only Levitical priests were allowed inside the temple itself. This is the third time Luke records important events taking place here (Zacharias and Gabriel; Simeon prophesying about baby Jesus; and now Jesus being found in the temple). This seems to be a theme for Luke.9

In this part of the temple, rabbis and experts gathered to teach and discuss the Law of Moses. Jesus was sitting with them, listening to them speak, but also asking questions. It is interesting to contemplate what kind of questions Jesus was asking. It doesn’t seem to be purely informational questions, because the teachers were astonished at His answers. It seems more likely that Jesus’ questions were along the lines of, “But what about…” and then quoting a Scripture. He used this approach during His ministry some 18 years later.10

Jesus’ wisdom and understanding was evident to the teachers. They could tell this kid took the Law of Moses seriously, and could talk about it on a highly intelligent level—challenging perhaps even some of their own understandings. According to the Mishnah, Jewish boys began their religious training at age 13. So Jesus having all this wisdom at twelve would have certainly shocked them. It was probably a very enjoyable time for the teachers to see one so young so interested. But when He grew up and continued to challenge them—let’s just say they weren’t fond of it anymore.

Why did you treat us this way?

Mary and Joseph were also amazed at the interaction between Jesus and the teachers of the Law. Partially they may have been amazed that Jesus was actually at the temple. Partially they may have almost given up hope of finding Him, so finding Him alive—and not seeming to be worried about His parents—might have amazed them. But there is no doubt they were amazed as well by Jesus interacting with the highest teachers of the Law of Moses—and amazing them!

But Mary’s main concern at the time wasn’t pride for her Son’s spiritual intelligence and wisdom. It was that she had finally found her Son. But it was her emotions, stewing for three days, that came out when she spoke to Him. “Why did you treat us this way?” She took Jesus’ staying behind as a personal affront to her and Joseph.

“Your father and I have been seeking you in distress.” The word “distress” means “intense pain.”11 Mary was worried sick. And she wanted Jesus to know how it affected her. But Jesus never apologized. Instead, He addressed her emotion with logic. It’s not always an effective tactic, but Jesus knew what He was doing.

Didn’t you know?

Jesus asked her, “Why were you seeking me? Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” This question is a lot deeper than it might first appear. Literally translated, Jesus says, “Because of what did you continually seeking me?” That is, Jesus seems almost perplexed that it took them so long to figure out where He would be.

Then He says (literally), “Because could you not see that in these of my Father I—I must be?” Some translations say, “Did you not know…” but Jesus says, “Because could you not see…” To Jesus, it should have been obvious where He would be.

Translations differ on whether it should read, “in my Father’s house” or “about my Father’s business.” Both of these are interpretations (and not without merit), and not translations. Jesus actually said, “in these of my Father…” So what are the “these” Jesus was talking about?

  • Perhaps it is the Old Testament Scriptures. If this is the case, Jesus is asking them, “Didn’t you realize that I would be where God’s laws are being studied and discussed?” If this is the case, then “about my Father’s business” makes the most sense.
  • Perhaps it is a reference to the many buildings of the temple complex. If this is the case, then “in my Father’s house” makes the most sense.

Ultimately, whichever option you choose (and perhaps there is another one as well), they all point to Jesus saying, You should have known I’d be here.

Why did Jesus say they should have known it? Because He had to be there. The word Jesus uses (translated “must”) means it was a moral necessity. He needed to be there.


Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Most likely, this means they didn’t understand why He thought they should have figured it out earlier instead of taking three days to finally look at the temple. I don’t think Luke means they didn’t understand what Jesus was referring to be “these of my Father.”

This might give us some encouragement, because sometimes we are slow to perceive what might be obvious to others. It doesn’t mean we are dumb, it just means we haven’t come to that understanding yet. It might be due to our circumstances, our emotions, or our background. But we can’t ever use those as an excuse to not seek to come to better understanding of God’s word.

So Jesus went back home with them to Nazareth, and was an obedient Son. But Mary never forgot what Jesus said to her that day. She “kept all these sayings in her heart.” Literally, she pondered them both intently and continually.12 Even though she knew Jesus was the Son of God, that He was born to be the Savior and King, and that it wasn’t going to be a pleasant role—Jesus was still her 12-year-old Son. She seems to be trying to come to grips with Jesus’ larger role.

Jesus Grows Some More (Luke 2:52)

Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.

Verse 40 reads very similarly, and covered approximately twelve years. Verse 52 covers eighteen years. Jesus got older, and got taller, and got wiser.

Jesus grew in wisdom—this is an incredible thought! Some have the mistaken idea that Jesus, even as a baby, had full knowledge of everything. But instead, by becoming a human, Jesus took on physical limitations. He “emptied Himself” of the limitless power of being God, and became a human—a human that needed to grow physically, to grow mentally, to grow spiritually. He increased in wisdom, He learned things.

If Jesus Himself—God in the flesh—needed to grow in wisdom, what does that say about us? Surely we need to do so even more, right? So why are there Christians who never study God’s word? Doesn’t this say (by their actions) that they think they have no more need to grow? That (by their actions) they are claiming to be more wise than even Jesus?

But Jesus also increased in favor with God. This is the same word translated “grace” in verse 40. Jesus, as He grew, gained more favor with God. He earned more favor with God. Why? Because He continued to obey God, continued to walk in the Light of God’s word.

The official doctrine of the Catholic Church is that Jesus was impeccable. That is, they say it was impossible for Jesus to sin. He could not have made the choice to sin. If that is the case, then Jesus wasn’t actually ever tempted, because He didn’t have the capability to sin. Yet the Bible holds out Jesus as an example of someone who was tempted, but didn’t give into the temptation. And if Jesus had no ability to choose to sin (if He had desired to), then there is no real reason for God to bestow His favor on Him—because Jesus wouldn’t have actually made the choice to do God’s will—He was (in essence) forced to. All this to say, the fact that Jesus increased in favor with God means Jesus was making the choice to do the Father’s will—and making the choice means He had the choice. And this is massively more impressive and meaningful to us as an example to follow.

He also grew in favor with man. How could He not? He was always truthful, upright, sincere, trustworthy, faithful… He was perfect. But therein came the problem once He began His ministry—the religious leaders didn’t want the truth spoken by faithful followers of God. They wanted… well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What Does This Mean for Us Today?

This passage makes a great outline. Burton Coffman shared this great note on this passage:

This passage formed the basis for many a great sermon of the Restoration, in which were these analogies: (1) Many continue along life’s way believing that Jesus is in their company, when actually he is not. (2) The search for Christ begins with kinsfolk and neighbors, but he is not with them either! (3) Then, let men return to Jerusalem, that is, to the gospel that was first preached in Jerusalem, to the true teachings of the New Testament. (4) Sure enough, Jesus was found in the temple, a figure of his church; and that is where he is found today.

Never be afraid to ask questions. Jesus was in the temple, listening and asking questions. He was still growing in wisdom, and this stop at the temple may have been a highlight of his childhood years, something He remembered fondly as an adult. When you don’t understand why we do things we do religiously, ask. When you don’t know how certain passages can be harmonized, ask. When you want to know what certain words, phrases, or even sections of Scripture mean, don’t be afraid to ask.

You need to grow in wisdom too. If Jesus needed it, you need it. Never stop studying God’s word!


1 “Most MSS (A Θ Ψ À1,13 33 œ) read πνεύματι (pneumati, “in spirit”) after “became strong,” but this looks like an assimilation to Luke 1:80. The better witnesses (א B D L N W pc lat co) lack the word.” –NET Bible footnote at this verse. What represents a “better witness” is a matter of debate, and I am not in agreement with their assertion, especially here.

2 ESV, RSV, NRSV, and MLV all use “favor,” while KJV, NKJV, NIV, and NASB all say “grace.” Alexander Campbell translated it “adorned with a divine gracefulness,” making it an attribute of Jesus’ character instead of how God viewed Him.

3 See Genesis 6:5-9.

4 Romans 3:23.

5 2 Corinthians 5:10.

6 This is assuming they followed the custom of many Galillean Jews to bypass Samaria.

7 Given James’ status as an “elder” in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15) approximately AD 51, he almost certainly couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than Jesus.

8 So claims the footnote in my Bible—The Open Bible: Expanded Edition, King James Version.. This is also the number mentioned by Ted Clarke in Preaching School Notes (Bible Institute of Missouri: 2008-2010) e-Sword version.

9 The establishment of the church in Acts 2 takes place at the temple as well—this also written by Luke.

10 John 10:33-35; Matthew 22:41-46.

11 Thayer’s definitions. E-Sword version.

12 This is a piece of evidence that Luke probably interviewed Mary prior to writing his Gospel account. Only Mary would know that she never forgot what Jesus said that day, or that she continually pondered it.

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