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Lesson 10: Imitating Jesus (Luke 2:39-52)

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Each month over a million bracelets are being sold with the letters WWJD on them. It stands for, “What would Jesus do?” Some young people report that wearing the bracelet makes them stop and think so that they do not rent an R-rated video or engage in other sinful behavior. As long as you answer the question based on Scripture, rather than your own ideas, it’s a good question to ask yourself often: “What would Jesus do?”

Jesus Christ is the only one ever to live a sinlessly perfect life. First and foremost, we must come to know Him as our Savior, but in addition to that, He is our primary example for godly living. He lived in perfect dependence on the Father, always obedient to His will. This was true not only after He began His public ministry, but also from His youth up.

In Luke 2:39-52, we have the only reference in Scripture to the years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of His ministry when He was about 30. Some of the apocryphal gospels that circulated in the early centuries of the church contain fanciful and miraculous legends from Jesus’ childhood. He touches some clay birds and they come to life and fly away. He touches a plow that Joseph had botched up and it is instantly made right. Some other legends are more disturbing: The young Jesus curses some bothersome children who immediately wither up or drop dead.

After such fanciful tales, the account in Luke of Jesus getting left behind at the temple sounds pretty tame! But that argues for its authenticity. Most likely Luke got this material from Mary (2:51). We might wish that there was more given in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood years. But Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible, [Zondervan], 12:269) notes, “There is little related of him to gratify our curiosity, but enough to regulate our conduct.” Luke includes the story primarily to show us who Jesus is as the unique Son of God, but also so that we will imitate Him in our conduct.

We should imitate Jesus, the Son of God, in spiritual growth, in routine faithfulness, and in commitment to God’s purpose.

Before we look at how we should imitate Jesus, we must be clear on the matter of who He is.

1. The Jesus whom we should imitate is the unique Son of God.

Have you ever put yourself in Joseph and Mary’s sandals, and thought about what it would be like to be the parents of a perfect child? Some of you are thinking, “I would like to have that problem!” But it must have been a difficult role at times! Keep in mind that Joseph and Mary did not have the Gospel accounts to read when they were raising Jesus. It must have been like putting a puzzle together without the picture on the box to look at. They would get a piece here and another piece there, and slowly it began to take shape. But it wasn’t always clear what the final picture would be. This is the second time that Luke has said that Mary treasured all these things in her heart (2:19, 51). She must have often wondered, “Who is this unique Son of mine?” The story of the boy Jesus being left behind at the temple gave her another piece of that puzzle.

The Old Testament prescribed that every Jewish man should appear before the Lord for three feasts each year: Unleavened Bread (Passover), Weeks (Pentecost), and Booths (Deut. 16:16). By Jesus’ time, it was customary for those some distance from Jerusalem to attend only one feast. Joseph and Mary’s custom was to make the 80 mile journey from Nazareth each year for the Passover. This incident happened when Jesus was 12. We don’t know whether this was the first time He went with them, but it must have been the most exciting time of the year, to leave the small town and go to the capital for this celebration that drew thousands of worshipers.

Joseph and Mary stayed for the whole week of festivities and then started back in the caravan. Probably Joseph thought that Jesus was with Mary and she thought he was with Joseph. The fact that they had not checked to make sure probably reflects the fact that they trusted Jesus and knew that He was responsible enough to be where He was supposed to be. When evening came and the caravan stopped for the night, they discovered that Jesus was not with the group.

If you have ever had a child get lost, you can identify with the panic that gripped these conscientious parents. We once lost Chris­ta at Disneyland when she was seven. One minute she was standing next to us, the next minute she was gone. We went through about ten minutes of terror that seemed like ten hours before we found her! You always think worst case scenario—she was kidnapped by a child molester and we’ll never see her again. Joseph and Mary had a lot more time to think the worst than we did. Three days (2:46) probably means one day traveling, a second day returning to Jerusalem, and on the third day they found Him. Given the amount of time, you can appreciate Mary’s emotional words, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.”

Jesus responded, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?" (The Greek text is elliptical and could mean, “about the things of My Father,” but in light of the question of His whereabouts, “in My Father’s house” is the best translation.)

Although neither Joseph nor Mary understood Jesus’ words at the time, she treasured them in her heart and later they bore fruit. When we encounter the mysteries of Scripture, we should do the same. This story and especially Jesus’ answer show us that He came as true man, and yet as more than man, as the unique Son of God, to do the will of His Father.

         Jesus was fully, truly human. In Luke 2:40, we have a summary of Jesus’ life from infancy to age 12: Physically He grew stronger. Intellectually and spiritually He grew in wisdom and the grace of God was on Him. Then, in verses 41-51 we have the single incident from Jesus’ twelfth year. In verse 52 we have a summary of His life from 12 until adulthood: He kept making progress in wisdom and in normal physical development (“stature”) and in favor with God and men. The references to God’s grace and favor do not mean His undeserved favor, in the sense that the words are used with sinners. Rather, it means that God’s special hand of blessing was on Jesus in a way that was obvious to everyone.

You may wonder how Jesus, who is eternal God, could grow in wisdom and in favor with God and men. If He is perfect, why did He need to grow? Alfred Plummer explains (The Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 79): “At each stage He was perfect for that stage, but the perfection of a child is inferior to the perfection of a man; it is the difference between perfect innocence and perfect holiness.” In His humanity, He submitted to His parents. Though in His deity Jesus knew all things, in His humanity He had to grow in godly wisdom and in understanding of His divine calling and mission. The point is, Jesus was truly human.

In early church history, several different heresies denied the true humanity of Jesus. Some said that He was just a spirit or that He seemed human, but was not actually so. The apostle John was battling some such heresy when he wrote that his own hands had handled Jesus and that “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 1:1; 4:2). We need to be careful in emphasizing Jesus’ deity not to slight His humanity. If Jesus was not fully human, then we do not have a Savior, since only a man can save humans from their sin. Nor would we have a Savior who can identify with our weaknesses.

         Jesus was fully, truly God. This is the implication of Jesus’ question to His parents. Mary has just mentioned how she and Jesus’ father were anxiously looking for Him. In response, Jesus draws a gentle, but distinct, line between Joseph as His earthly father and God as His true Father. He is showing that the latter relationship has priority over the former. Plummer (pp. 77-78) comments,

It is notable that the first recorded words of the Messiah are an expression of His Divine Sonship as man … These first recorded words are the kernel of the whole narrative, and the cause of its having been preserved. They must mean more than that Jesus is just a son of Abraham, and therefore has God as His Father. His parents would easily have understood so simple a statement as that.

Jesus’ words confirm what the angel had told Mary, as recorded by Luke in 1:32, 35, that her child would be called “Son of the Most High,” and that “the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.” This title was also affirmed at Jesus’ baptism, when God’s voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22). Later Jesus’ Jewish opponents understood His claim to have God as His Father to be a claim to equality with God, and in responding to them, Jesus clearly confirmed their understanding (John 5:18-47).

In our day, several prominent cults deny the true deity of Jesus. If He is not eternal God, we have no Savior, because His death on the cross had no merit beyond Himself. So we must affirm both the true humanity of Jesus (apart from sin) along with His true and undiminished deity. He is fully God and fully man in one unique Person. When He took on human flesh, He voluntarily laid aside the use of some of His divine attributes and took on the form of a servant for the sake of our salvation (Phil. 2:5-12). As a man, Jesus showed us how human life is to be lived in constant dependence on the Father and obedience to His will. The Jesus whom we should imitate is none other than the unique Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity in human flesh.

2. We should imitate Jesus, the Son of God, in spiritual growth.

There is an unexplainable mystery here, in that although Jesus was fully God, yet as a man He had to grow spiritually. He increased in wisdom between birth and age 12 (2:40) and He made more progress in wisdom between age 12 and adulthood (2:52). Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures comes from a word meaning “skill.” The artisans who worked to build the Tabernacle had the God-given skill to take raw materials and form them into a beautiful finished product. Spiritually the wise man or woman takes the circumstances of life and weaves them into a beautiful finished product that gives glory to God.

The Word of God is the blueprint He has given us to follow if we want to construct a life that gives glory to Him and brings satisfaction and blessing to us. If you’ve ever built a home, you wouldn’t want to hire a contractor who showed up on the job with a bunch of lumber and started nailing it helter-skelter, grabbing whatever piece was close at hand. When you asked him about the plans, he laughed and said, “I never use plans. They’re too restrictive. I just go with the spirit of whatever seems right.”

And yet many Christians construct their lives in that fashion! They’ve hardly ever glanced at God’s blueprint, much less studied it so that they know how He wants them to live. If you challenge them about their haphazard ways, they accuse you of being legalistic and say that they just follow the Spirit. The fact that Jesus as a 12-year-old boy could intelligently interact with these Jewish teachers shows that He was already quite knowledgeable in the Scriptures. He was growing in wisdom, which implies applying God’s Word to daily life. Note four things about such growth:

         Spiritual growth takes time, but we must actively engage in the process. The fact that Jesus was growing in wisdom and still increasing more in wisdom (2:40, 52) shows that it is a lifelong process. But it is not automatic. Jesus hungered and thirsted after such wisdom so much that He set aside some of the “normal” things children like to do so that He could learn the Scriptures. Joseph and Mary also show us that growth is a process. They did not yet understand exactly who Jesus was, but they were growing in that understanding. The question you must ask yourself is, “What am I doing to grow in the things of God?” Do you have a regular time in His Word and in prayer? Are you reading solid books that instruct you in the faith? Do you engage in spiritual discussions with other like-minded believers?

         Spiritual growth involves an active interest in the Word of God. Think of all the interesting things in this bustling capital city that could have captivated the interest of a 12-year-old boy from the country. He could have been in the marketplace, watching the vendors haggling over prices with their customers. He could have been fascinated with the architecture of the palace and temple, or with the great walls of that ancient city. He could have joined with other boys in pretending that they were the great generals, defending those walls. He could have explored Hezekiah’s famous water tunnel, or any number of other interesting historical sites. He could have been watching the throngs of interesting people. Yet his parents found Him in the temple with the teachers, listening, asking intelligent questions, and giving answers that displayed unusual understanding (2:46, 47). If you want to grow in the things of God, like Jesus you must have a thirst for spiritual truth, demonstrated by listening to those who teach the Word, asking questions, and interacting on these great truths.

         Spiritual growth should be focused in two directions: Toward God and toward others. Jesus grew “in favor with God and men” (2:52). These directions reflect the two great commandments, which are summaries of the two tables of the Ten Commandments, to love God with your total being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. In his introduction to Calvin’s Institutes, John McNeill quotes A. Mitchell Hunter who says, “Piety was the keynote of his character. He was a God-possessed soul. Theology was no concern to him as a study in itself; he devoted himself to it as a framework for the support of all that religion meant to him.” McNeill goes on to observe that “in Calvin’s pages we are everywhere confronting God, not toying with ideas or balancing opinions about him” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster], 1:lii). Calvin rightly saw sound theology as the necessary foundation, but he argued that such doctrine “must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (ibid., 3.6.4). Always study the Word with a view to knowing and loving God and loving others.

         Spiritual growth can get off track if we are not on guard. Here I am not looking at the example of Jesus, but at Joseph and Mary. They both meant well when they supposed that Jesus was with them in the caravan, but they were mistaken. And, neither of them understood Jesus’ gentle words of correction. This shows us that even godly people who mean well can be mistaken. Joseph and Mary’s failure to grasp the nature of Jesus’ mission and calling will later be matched by the disciples, who did not understand the necessity of the cross. This shows that we all must maintain teachable hearts and be willing to change our views when we have gotten off track. I regret that I used to teach much of the self-esteem errors that currently flood the church. God used Calvin’s Institutes to show me where I was wrong. Joseph and Mary were humble enough to receive correction from their 12-year-old Son. We must be teachable enough to receive correction from wherever God kindly brings it. We should imitate Jesus in spiritual growth.

3. We should imitate Jesus, the Son of God, in routine faithfulness.

This time in the temple, interacting on the things of God with these teachers, was undoubtedly the high point of Jesus’ life to this time. Then we read, “He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them” (2:51). What a letdown that must have been! To go back to boring Nazareth after the excitement of Jerusalem! To go back to the daily chores of carrying water and cleaning up in the carpenter shop after discussing theology with the leading rabbis in the temple! Yet Jesus went back and in the daily routine He continued to make progress “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

Note also the routine faithfulness of Joseph and Mary. Luke 2:22 mentions their obedience to the Law of Moses in dedicating Jesus and in observing the purification laws. Verse 39 states how they performed everything according to the Law of the Lord. Verse 41 mentions their custom in going to the Feast of the Passover each year. This couple lived quietly in routine faithfulness to the commandments of God. If we had a son like Jesus, we would have said, “This kid is going to be a success some day! Did you see how the rabbis were amazed at His answers? Let’s enroll Him in the advanced track school for future rabbis. Let’s move to Jerusalem where He can be discovered by the leaders. The kid has a future!” But they took Him back to Nazareth and modeled for Him routine faithfulness in the things of God.

One of the chief concerns that parents should have is the welfare of their children’s souls. And one of the main ways you can help them spiritually is to live before them each day in routine faithfulness in the things of God—reading your Bible, prayer, regular church attendance, honesty, kindness toward one another in the family, concern for the lost. We should imitate Jesus and Joseph and Mary in routine faithfulness.

4. We should imitate Jesus, the Son of God, in commitment to God’s purpose above all else.

Even at age 12, Jesus was clear on the priority of His commitment to God’s purpose: “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (2:49). Jesus here sets the priority of His commitment to the Heavenly Father even above His love for His parents. While we must love our family members, love for Jesus must take precedence if a conflict arises (Luke 14:26).

The word translated had to be means it is necessary. It is a term Luke often uses to set forth Jesus’ mission: “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose” (4:43). “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (9:22). (See also, 13:33 [go to Jerusalem]; 17:25 [suffer]; 19:5 [remain with Zaccheus]; 22:37 [be numbered with transgressors]; 24:7 [suffer, die, be raised]; 24:26 [suffer and come into glory]; and, 24:44 [Scripture about Him must be fulfilled].) This repeated word shows that Jesus did not come to do His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him.

Even so, if Jesus has redeemed us, we are not our own. He saved us for a purpose, and He gifted us so that we can spend our lives serving and glorifying Him. While not all are called into the pastorate or to go to a foreign culture with the gospel, every Christian is called to serve God in some capacity. If you don’t have a sense of mission and you are not engaged in fulfilling that mission, you are probably living for yourself. But the Bible calls us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:15). We should imitate Jesus in our unswerving commitment to God’s purpose above all else.


An Irish legend tells of a king who disguised himself and went into the banquet hall of one of his barons. He was escorted to a lowly place among the throng who sat at the feast. The brilliance of his conversation and the nobility of his manner soon attracted the attention of someone with sufficient authority to escort him to a higher table. The same thing occurred once more, and soon he was seated among the nobles of the land. After a display of great wisdom, one of the lords spoke out, “In truth, sir, you speak like a king. If you are not a king, you deserve to be.” Then the king removed his disguise and took his rightful place among his subjects.

That is what should have happened when the Lord Jesus Christ came to this earth. Although he was “disguised” as a lowly carpenter from Nazareth, He was the King of kings and Lord of lords. But His subjects were so blinded by their own pride and sin that they were not willing to bow before Him, even though He stated repeatedly and gave sufficient proof that He was the eternal God come down to redeem them. (Adapted from Donald Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], pp. 180, 181.)

Do you recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as your Savior and Lord? If not, ask God to open your eyes to who Jesus is so that you can receive Him. If He is your Savior, imitate Him in spiritual growth, in routine faithfulness, and in commitment to God’s purpose for your life.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it essential to affirm both the true humanity and deity of Jesus Christ? Can a person be truly saved who denies either?
  2. How can a Christian develop and maintain a hunger and thirst for the things of God?
  3. Why is sound doctrine the necessary foundation for sound living? How is this being attacked in our day?
  4. How can a Christian discover God’s special purpose for his or her life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Discipleship, Spiritual Formation

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