Childhood of the King
The birth of Jesus Christ was planned from eternity, prophesied centuries in advance. The light of the Christmas star shone down on the stable of Bethlehem and immediately a battle began.
Prophecy and Persecution (Luke 2:21-38)
After giving birth to Jesus, Mary, as with all Jewish mothers giving birth to sons under the Law of Moses, was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days (a longer season if the child was female). This was God’s way of communicating the reality that both mother and new born child were sinners in need of cleansing. At the end of this season, in obedience to the Law, husband and wife were to bring a sacrifice into the temple. This sacrificial act of purification was God’s provision for humanity’s need for cleansing from sin. The death of the sacrifice represented the truth that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and pointed ahead to the future day when Christ, the Lamb of God, would be offered for the sins of the world.
According to Leviticus 12:6, that sacrifice was to be “a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.” The Law also said, “But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtle doves or two young pigeons,” (Lev. 12:8).
Joseph and Mary brought either “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” (Luke 2:24). This reveals that they were poor. No doubt the journey from Nazareth and the extended stay in Bethlehem had strained their finances. (And obviously, they had not yet been visited by the Magi from the east with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.) We see in this the righteous faith of Joseph and Mary. Though they had limited means, they still worshipped God in obedience to the Law.
But we might ask, “Why did Joseph and Mary need to offer a sacrifice for Jesus, since He was sinless?” Paul reminds us that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the Law so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).
In order to redeem fallen humanity, all of whom have sinned and stand condemned before God’s standard of justice, Jesus was born under obligation to the Law of Moses and lived in submission to the Law. Because He kept the Law perfectly, He was therefore qualified to redeem those who were condemned by the Law. As He said to John the Baptist when He submitted to baptism, He came “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Only then could He offer Himself as the holy Substitute for sinners. In the ceremonial cleansing forty days after His birth and in His baptism, Jesus identified with sinners whom He came to redeem.
The Law also called for the first born son to be dedicated to the Lord. Thus it was that when Joseph and Mary brought their sacrifice, they also brought the child “to present Him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). There was a man in the temple named Simeon, described as righteous and devout. He was “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), which is a way of saying that he was waiting and hoping for the Messiah (the Christ). It had been promised to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (2:26). By God’s providential appointment, he was led by the Spirit into the temple as Joseph and Mary were bringing the child (2:27).
Simeon instantly recognized the child as the long awaited One and took Jesus in his arms and blessed God (2:28-32). In his prayer of blessing, he declared Jesus to be, “A light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel,” (Luke 2:32).
What a wonderful gospel sermon: “Here is the Messiah and He will be a light for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.” Simeon was paraphrasing Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 which declared that the coming Messiah would not only offer salvation to the Jews but also to the nations of the world.
Although many Jews had not accepted this truth, that the Messiah would be a light for all the world, Jesus demonstrated it in His commission to the disciples, “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He included the entire world in His commission. This offended many Jews. It still offends those who would limit the church, who would imprison the church in stained glass vaults.
Simeon then blessed the parents of Jesus and said, “This Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed” (Luke 2:34).
How is Jesus appointed for the fall and rise of many? He is the Messiah, the One who brings us the good news of salvation and makes that salvation possible through His atoning death and resurrection. As Peter points out (in I Peter 2:6-8), Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s redemptive purpose. But He is also a rock of offense — some will stumble upon the rock through disobedience, through rejection of God’s means of salvation. Those who reject Him will fall. Those who surrender to His Lordship will rise into everlasting life.
As the Apostle Paul said, “But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles, foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” ( I Cor. 1:23,24). Only Jesus can lift us out of the depths of sin, out of the miry clay, from death into everlasting life, if we do not stumble over God’s means of salvation — a crucified Savior.
Simeon said that Jesus will be a sign to be opposed (or spoken against, denied) and surely that became true. There was furious opposition to the ministry of Christ which only increased until the authorities finally put Him to death, just as there has been violent opposition to the church and the Gospel throughout the centuries. There is no neutral position regarding Jesus. He is the Light of the world and we are either living in the light or dying in the darkness. He is the resurrection and the life and we are either rising into eternal life with Him or falling into everlasting death apart from Him.
Simeon then spoke to Mary, “And a sword will pierce even your own soul,” (Luke 2:35). Surely that was true, as in later years she watched the opposition and hatred intensify toward her Son; then as she wept before the cross, as she watched His lifeless body being carried away for burial.
Simeon also prophesied that the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed through this Child (2:35). Surely this has been so, as Jesus, the Light of the world, reveals with perfect clarity the reality of the human heart.
Soon after Simeon departed, an eighty-four year old widow named Anna, approached. She, like Simeon, was part of the righteous remnant, waiting and watching for the Messiah. She was in the temple continually, “Serving night and day with fastings and prayers,” (Luke 2:37). By divine appointment she encountered the young father and mother with the child and she “began giving thanks to God,” (2:38).
Anna then began “to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel,” (2:38). She was one of the first evangelists, proclaiming glad tidings to the faithful.
Interesting that Simeon could see the Light of the world in that little baby, long before that light was visible to anyone else. Interesting that Anna could see the redemption of Israel in that little baby, long before the Redeemer began His ministry. They remind me of Elijah who went up to Mt. Carmel to pray for rain and said to King Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of the roar of a heavy shower” (I Kings 18:41). This is during that three and one half year drought and when Elijah sent his servant to the top of the mountain to look for rain, the servant saw nothing, not even a cloud. There were no clouds but the prophet heard the roar of a heavy shower. Elijah then prayed until the rain manifested but he heard it long before it appeared. Such was the prophetic ear of Elijah. Simeon and Anna shared that same prophetic anointing.
Why didn’t the priests hear about this? They knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem but chose not to travel the several miles. Evidently, they were too complacent to make the journey. But now, they don’t have to go anywhere. Simeon and Anna recognized, worshipped and proclaimed the presence of the Messiah there in the temple! The priests were responsible to point people toward God, leading in worship, in prayers, in the rituals of sacrifice and cleansing. How could they not be aware that the Messiah was present or at least hear the good news?
Evidently, there were people in the temple not looking for the kingdom of God, as there are many in the cathedrals of our generation who are not looking for the kingdom of God. It’s not enough to be religious. Many religious people have missed the Messiah for all eternity.
Visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12)
After the dedication in the temple, Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem to rest for what they assumed would be their return to Nazareth. Possibly Joseph found employment there and they extended their stay. Several weeks or months or possibly as much as two years later, Magi from the east visited (Matt. 2:1-12). It may well have been the later time, since Herod, when he heard of the birth of a king, gave orders to kill all male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger. This implies that the Magi had seen and followed the star for up to two years.
These wise men brought gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). Their gifts are representative of the day when all the nations will come and worship the Messiah in Jerusalem. And these gifts were prophetic. Gold is what an ambassador might bring to a king. Frankincense was used in the worship of deity. Myrrh was used in the embalming of bodies. In these gifts, the Magi, without knowing, were proclaiming Jesus as the King who will rule, the Lord who will be worshipped and the Lamb who would die for the sins of the world. Without knowing, they worshipped Jesus as King, Lord and Lamb!
There is an important lesson here for each of us. All the Magi did was to follow the light they had and share there gifts. When they did, God used them far beyond their knowing. So with us — if we will follow the light we have and be available to share our gifts, God can use us in ways we may never see or understand in this life.
The gifts of the Magi also provided the necessary expenses for the unexpected flight to Egypt. Herod, enraged and terrified at the news of a royal birth, gave orders to slaughter all male children in and around Bethlehem, up to the age of two. An angel warned Joseph in a dream and the family fled persecution (Matt. 2:13,14).
The King of kings and His parents fled for their lives in the predawn dark. Soon after, Herod’s soldiers launched their murderous rampage through the town (2:16-18). This is shocking to us, that Herod would send soldiers to kill the holy Child. Who was really behind this? The prince of this world, the fallen archangel Satan, once one of the highest of angels. But he rebelled against God, vainly sought to dethrone God and was cast out of heaven (Isa. 14:13-15).
From that time on, Satan has sought to incarnate his wicked, violent, rebellious spirit in the hearts of men and women who then incarnate satanic values in the institutions which they construct. The Son of God was born in human form on earth and as soon as He was recognized and worshipped, the prince of this world sought to destroy this threat to his kingdom of darkness.
Joseph and Mary fled with their child, hours or perhaps minutes ahead of the soldiers. Jesus may have been two years old or months or weeks old. But already the war had begun. Can the church expect persecution? Jesus said that the servant is not greater than his master. So it is that His church has been persecuted throughout the centuries.
Has persecution prevented the Gospel from being preached? No. Persecution has caused the Gospel to spread. Has persecution weakened the church? No. Persecution has served to purify the church. The church has been most glorious in times of persecution. The blood of the martyrs has prepared the ground for the greatest harvests.
Why does God allow the righteous to be persecuted? Why not send an army of angels to defend the church and destroy the persecutors? God sent an angel to guide and protect the family of Joseph and Mary. But God did not send an angel to conquer Herod or his army. Only Jesus can conquer the human heart and He did so with the gift of His life, on a cross.
Who knows if later some of those soldiers, living to an old age, heard Jesus preach and repented of their sin? Other soldiers at the cross, and certainly the Roman officer, appear to have confessed true faith as Jesus died (Matt. 27:54, Luke 23:47). If God had destroyed them earlier in life, they would not have had that opportunity for salvation.
We read in Acts that “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). If God had destroyed the priests who were mocking Jesus at Calvary, it is possible that some of the priests who later believed would have died before they came to faith.
Why didn’t God send an angel to deliver Stephen from martyrdom? Because one of the young men present at Stephen’s death later came to faith. Though at the time he was known as Saul, he was later known by his Greek name, Paul, the greatest apostle of all.
We know nothing of the time that Joseph, Mary and Jesus spent in Egypt. Eventually an angel directed them to return home (Matt 2:19-22). They returned to Nazareth and Jesus remained there until He was 30 years old. It was God’s will for His Son to taste human life in every detail. He evidently did not attract attention, lived a normal childhood as other boys except that He never sinned. His family was poor by our standards but no different from their neighbors.
At eight Jesus would have attended the local synagogue school where He would have learned to read Scripture and write. He must have been an excellent student, possessing a mind unaffected by sin. We read in Luke 2:40 that, “The child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”
As He read the Law, the psalms and the prophets, Jesus must have begun to develop a keen sense of His identity and purpose. Yet even as He grew in holy wisdom, He would have, at some point, become an apprentice in His father’s carpenter shop. There He learned the ways of a working man. There, and in the little village, He was exposed to all the temptations that a fallen world offers, as we read in Hebrews, “Tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin,” (Hebr. 4:15).
About My Father’s Business (Luke 2:41-52)
There were 2 major events in the childhood of Jesus.
1. The first one we don’t read about in the Gospels but we do have information from the recorded history of that time. There was a revolt in a town three miles away from Nazareth. The Roman soldiers crushed it ruthlessly. Thousands were killed, many others sold into slavery. The town was then burned to the ground. The people of Nazareth might have gathered on the hilltop that night to watch the flames. They would have discussed the coming of the Messiah someday and how he would drive the hated Romans out of the land.
Jesus, though only a boy, was already reading the prophets. He might have sensed, even at that young age, that the Messiah would be far different from the common expectation.
2. The second incident occurred when Jesus was twelve as He accompanied His family to Jerusalem for the Passover. Joseph and Mary were a devout couple and so we read that, “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast” (Luke 2:41,42). At age of twelve, a Jewish boy passed through an important milestone — he became a “son of the law.” He could go with His parents to Jerusalem and celebrate Passover with them and so it was with Jesus.
It was a ninety mile journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. The family probably traveled in a large caravan of friends and relatives. Jesus would have gone to the temple with Joseph and stood in the outer court while Joseph took the lamb up to the altar. They might have stayed about two days. When the caravan started back to Nazareth, Jesus became separated from His family (2:43). In the crowded city He waited at the safest place for their return — the temple. His parents would not have noticed His absence until night because the women traveled ahead of the men and each parent assumed that Jesus was with the other.
They had traveled about a day’s journey when they discovered He was missing (2:44). Imagine their anxiety, knowing they were commissioned with the care and keeping of this special Child. It would have taken them a day to travel back. After a day of searching (on the third day, 2:46), they found Him in the temple, listening to the teachers, asking questions, absorbed in the discussion of God’s holy Word (2:46,47).
It was a Passover custom for teachers to gather in the temple and discuss important matters of the Scriptures. We can only imagine Jesus’ questions. Was He already curious about Isaiah 53, the description of the servant of God who would take the sins of the world upon Himself? Did He already understand that the Messiah would be both David’s son and David’s Lord (Ps. 110:1)? “And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers,” (Luke 2:47).
Upon finding Jesus, Mary said, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you,” (2:48). Jesus, gently and with a maturity far beyond His twelve years, asked, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (2:49). (This phrase, in My Father’s house, may also be translated about My Father’s business.)
Jesus’ response was not arrogant or disrespectful. His separation from His parents was not purposeful. But with wisdom far beyond His age, He transferred the word Father to its rightful person. This may have been the Passover when Jesus began to realize His true identity. He was passing from childhood into the realization of His Messianic calling. Yet He returned home to spend the next eighteen years in submission to gentle Mary and hard working Joseph, obediently working in the carpenter shop.
Since we never read of Joseph in Jesus’ later years, we know that somewhere during those eighteen years Jesus came home from the carpenter shop to find Joseph ill. Then Joseph died. Jesus learned about sorrow and grief, He who will someday destroy death. He also became the sole support of His family, being the oldest son of a large family.
He had to learn how to put His whole trust in God. He later taught, “Do not worry, then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be aded to you,” (Matt 6:31-33). This wisdom and faith was born out of Christ’s own experience in the carpenter shop, supporting His family.
He lived the life of His village. His later parables and illustrations were drawn from village life. He saw women grinding grain and baking bread, heard the shepherds calling to their sheep, saw the vine dressers pruning branches, observed farmers plowing and casting seed into the ground.
There must have been great love in their family. We see in later years Mary following her Son and struggling to understand His ministry. We see Jesus caring for her even in the agony of the cross, commending her into the care and keeping of John.
It is obvious from His knowledge of Scriptures that He spent much time reading and meditating on them. He would have learned that Jewish expectations of the Messiah and the Biblical portrait of the Messiah were vastly different.
We know that His mother and father were humble, devout, faithful, so He would have spent much time in the synagogue. With His sharp perception untainted by sin He would have noticed the disconnect between outward ritual and inner coldness toward God, so characteristic of some in His synagogue. At some point He would have realized that before the kingdom of God can come on earth, it must be born in the human heart.
Somewhere, possibly walking the fields and hills around Nazareth, or kneeling in prayer before a morning’s work, the realization would have dawned in His heart that the God His people worshipped is a loving Father who desires communion with His children. He would have understood how sin had broken that communion. This revelation must have grieved Him deeply.
It is quite possible that while Jesus and Joseph worked side by side in the carpenter shop, Joseph would have shared the visitation when the angel announced, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). There would have been this dawning realization in the heart of Jesus that He had come to set people free, as He later said, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” (John 8:36).
Early on He understood that the freedom He would offer was not from the Roman occupiers. Rather, He came to set people free from the tyranny of sin that had captured and enslaved the human heart, the sin that had separated them from their loving Heavenly Father.
As He grew, Mary would have shared with Him the marvelous stories of the angel visitor, announcing His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His identity, “Son of God” (Luke 1:35). She would have told Him of the shepherds and their angelic messengers proclaiming that a Savior was born in Bethlehem. She would have told Him of the Magi who worshipped Him with gifts fit for a King, a God and One would die.
He would continue to be the Son of Mary, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Yet during those eighteen years, as the Child became the Man, He came to understand His unique relationship with the God of Israel. He truly was the Son of God.
Twenty-one years after waiting for His parents in the temple, He would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, cleanse that same temple where He once had amazed the teachers, and then as our great High Priest, present Himself on Calvary as the Lamb slain for the sins of the world.
Why so many years of preparation for three years of ministry? Today we emphasize action, results. God emphasizes patient preparation, humble obedience. In Galatians 4:4 we read that in the fulness of time, Christ was born. And we may be certain, it was in the fulness of time that He entered into ministry.
Jesus’ childhood began with angel choirs, worshipping shepherds and wise men bearing gifts, brutal soldiers and a hasty, dangerous journey to Egypt. Childhood matured into Manhood in the dust and sweat of a carpenter shop.
The servant is not greater than his Master. Yes, God desires to use each of us in ministry but we must submit to the shaping, the preparation. We sing, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” We must also be willing to sing, “Have Thine Own Way Lord.”
The Lord desires to shape each of us into vessels fit for the Master’s use. He is the Master Carpenter and Paul reminds us, “For we are His workmanship (craftsmanship, poiema), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). God has purposed each of us to be a presentation of His art. But we must submit to the process of crafting by the Master Artisan.
When we study the childhood of our King, we see that this was necessary in Jesus’ life and we are not greater than He.
1. What did Simeon mean when he said, “This Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed”? (Luke 2:34).
2. What is the significance of the three gifts of the Magi? (Matt. 2:1-12).