Among history’s most fascinating mysteries is the Bible’s silence about Jesus Christ’s early life. In the gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus springs into the story as a thirty-year-old man being baptized and beginning His life’s work of preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The apostle John’s account is not so abrupt, although he, too, glosses over the first three decades of Christ’s life in a matter of a few dozen—albeit doctrinally rich—verses. As his book opens, the beloved disciple immediately hits the reader with the astounding fact of Jesus’ identity as the Word of God, the pre-incarnate Creator God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Then, like Mark, John skips to the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism.
Matthew and Luke, however, tantalize us with a scene or two of His early years, but hardly enough to satisfy enquiring minds. Both of these gospel writers record accounts of events surrounding His birth, from the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would have a Son conceived of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-38) to the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod’s murderous anger (Matthew 2:13-21).
At this point, both Matthew and Luke mention that Nazareth became His home:
But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
Luke simply says that “they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Evidently, Joseph, knowing what the angel had told him and Mary about their divine Son, had considered raising Jesus in Bethlehem, the home city of David, but God warned him that his residence in Nazareth was a far safer alternative. Besides, that Jesus would hail from this tiny Galilean town fulfilled an unwritten prophecy passed down from ancient times that the Messiah would be called a “Nazarene,” that is, an inhabitant of Nazareth (as opposed to a “Nazirite,” a person who has taken a vow of separation to God; see Numbers 6:1-21).
Luke mentions in Luke 2:40, “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” His intention here is to show that Jesus, unlike the gods and demigods of paganism, experienced the normal process of growth—both physically and mentally—that every human does. In other words, He did not suddenly appear out of heaven as a mature individual. Also, Luke’s pointing out that He was “filled with wisdom” suggests that young Jesus spoke and behaved properly in everything—which is utterly miraculous in a little child. He did, though, have the favor of God from the first instant of human life, so His maturity was certainly noteworthy, especially as it centered on His spiritual development.
Only one other scene of His early years is recorded: the occasion when, at twelve years old, He remained behind at the Temple in Jerusalem to listen to and question the teachers there (Luke 2:41-50). The large company of His relatives travel for a whole day before Joseph and Mary realize Jesus is not among them. They hurry back to Jerusalem, and once they find Him, scold Him for scaring them. “And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’” (verse 49).
Luke probably includes this vignette for several reasons: 1) to relate Jesus’ upbringing as normal, loving, public, and religious; 2) to illustrate Him as a prodigy, able even as a Boy to amaze the learned with His intellect; and 3) to show that He was aware early on of both His mission and His true ancestry. We should remember that Luke is writing to explain Jesus, the Perfect Man, to a Gentile audience, so he often blends the mundane with the astonishing to create a true impression in the reader of Jesus being just like us but so much more.
Following this, Luke provides another insight or two: “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” (Luke 2:51-52). Perhaps worried that the reader might take Jesus’ comment to His parents as the response of a smart-aleck, Luke assures us that He was obedient to His parents. He was not the typical child prodigy, spoiled and rebellious, throwing tantrums to get His own way. Quite the opposite, Jesus was submissive and pleasant, a joy for His parents to raise. Observing His perfection, His mother cherished these episodes and patiently waited to see where they would lead her Son.
In the next verse, Luke notes again that Jesus continued to mature. It is as if he is telling us, “Despite confounding the rabbis at age twelve, Jesus only became smarter, wiser, bigger, and stronger, and on top of all that, everyone—and I mean everyone—loved Him!” The beloved physician leaves us with the sense that Jesus’ early years were pleasant, exciting, and full of experiences designed to bring Him to maturity in every facet of life.
Finally, the gospel writers drop incidental details about His family and life before His ministry. For instance, Matthew 13:55-56 contains the puzzled questions of Nazarenes dumbfounded by Christ’s preaching: “Is this not the carpenter’s Son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?”
Joseph’s normal occupation, then, was as a carpenter, a builder, probably one who worked in both stone and wood. Jesus, as most firstborn sons, would likely follow in His father’s trade. As such, He was undoubtedly a well-formed, strong, and fit Man, used to the heavy toil of construction. The villagers’ wonder regarding Jesus teaching and works also hint that He had not flaunted His wisdom, lineage, or power during His youth, or the small-town gossips would have spread it about.
These verses also reveal that He and His family were well known in the town, to the point that everyone knew their names. In addition, His family was a large one: He had four half-brothers that we know of and at least two half-sisters. The natural reading of the Greek is that these were real brothers and sisters, children of Joseph and Mary, not cousins or older children of Joseph by an unknown first wife. Besides, that Jesus is called “her [Mary’s] firstborn Son (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7) suggests that she had additional children.
Very little outside of late tradition and supposition can be ascertained about Jesus’ early years. Yet, what little is known points to a thorough preparation for His wonderful ministry and supreme act of redemption.