Yesterday I read my wife the first two chapters of Luke, covering the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and then of Jesus, and ending with Jesus, at twelve years of age, discussing theology with the teachers in the temple area. The chapters are full of amazing facts, and they end with a succinct summary of the life of the growing Jesus, between this episode at the temple and the time when he begins his earthly ministry almost twenty years later. Says the historian Luke: “And Jesus grew is wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (v. 52).
I think that we can basically understand what it means that Jesus grew in stature and in favor with man. He was, after all, human, and grew up in the normal way. He matured physically and over time would have earned the respect of those who knew him. But what does it mean to say that Jesus, the perfect one, the Son of God, grew in wisdom or that he grew in favor with God? We must conclude that the incarnate divine Son who never sinned nevertheless matured not only physically but spiritually. It is a striking realization. This cannot mean, of course, that Jesus had to be sanctified in his behavior and learn to reign in and diminish his sin. Nor can it mean that Jesus ever acted foolishly and had to grow in wisdom in the sense of correcting his folly—as we do. Jesus was never foolish or sinful. But the statement remains: he grew in wisdom and favor with God.
He Grew in Wisdom
Jesus grew up in a God-fearing home, with godly parents. God made sure that this would be the case. Mary certainly was specially chosen by God and serves us well as an example of one fully committed to trusting obedience even in the most awkward and difficult of circumstances. Joseph also was chosen by God. Matthew 1:19 informs us that he was “faithful to the law” (NIV), or “a just man” (ESV). We can be sure that Jesus was taught the scriptures his whole childhood. There is the temptation to think that Jesus had a supernatural insight into the meaning of Scripture. I don’t believe that is the case. I think that Jesus learned the Scripture by the same means as anyone else: study and meditation, believing in the holiness of Scripture and depending on God’s Spirit for help in understanding, and that by these ordinary means he gained the wisdom contained in God’s word. In Luke 2:46, when Jesus’ parents find him in the temple courts, the boy Jesus is not teaching the teachers. Not yet. Instead, he is “listening to them and asking them questions.” He is learning. Now certainly, he had learned a remarkable deal for his age, as those present were also “amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was ahead of the curve, as we might expect. But I do not think this is because he was being beamed the answers from heaven. Jesus loved the scriptures because they were the Word of God. He was committed to seeking the wisdom, the understanding, and the will of God as contained in the scriptures. He did this his whole life. When he is grown, we still see him in the synagogue on the Sabbath (as in Mark 1:21). At that point, he is teaching. He had been doing this regularly, probably for years. In Luke 4, we see that going to the synagogue to read and discuss the scriptures was Jesus’ custom, his routine. If Jesus simply had the scripture in his mind by virtue of his divine nature, habitual scripture reading at the synagogue would hardly have been necessary. But Jesus was not operating on earth as his divine nature would have allowed. He emptied himself in the incarnation. He operated as a man, a man of God. Part of this was the fact that he was not born wise. He, like we, had to grow in wisdom. But he, unlike we, never failed to use the means or revelation God has given us to grab hold of the wisdom God wants us to pursue. He always understood that “the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Pr 2:6). As Jesus got older, he also internalized the truths of what God had revealed. Jesus also put these truths into practice, so that as he grew up, he was also growing in wisdom.
He Grew in Favor with God
For those who affirm the sinless perfection of the holy, glorious, and eternally existing Son of God, the idea that Jesus grew in favor with God may be even more puzzling than the idea that he grew in wisdom. Can this mean that Jesus was ever out of favor with God? Certainly not. Rather, one of the best insights I was ever given regarding this statement is that it reflects covenantal language and speaks of Jesus’ active obedience on our behalf. Sometimes we talk about Jesus’ “passive obedience,” which is his obedience in being willingly subjected to the cross, and his “active obedience,” which refers to his life of positive obedience to the Law of God.
This obedience to the Law is sometimes overlooked but is actually extremely important for Jesus’ role as our Savior. Adam and Eve related to God in a covenant of works—that is, a covenant in which they had to follow the terms set out by God, with blessing promised for obedience and curses promised for disobedience. Adam sinned and violated the covenant. He failed. And we with him, as he was the representative of the human race. Jesus comes to us as the second Adam, that is, a second representative of all who are united to him. We are all united to Adam by birth. We are united to Jesus by faith and rebirth. The covenant given on Mt. Sinai is a recapitulation of the covenant of works. This is important, because for Jesus to redeem us from the curse of the Law, he must bear up under the weight of the Law where Adam stumbled. He must keep the terms of a covenant of works where Adam failed to keep such terms. And he must represent a people as Adam does, so that we can cease to be “in,” or represented by, Adam, and begin to be “in,” or represented by a new head, who fulfilled the law and earned God’s blessing rather than God’s curse. In God’s long script of redemption, Moses gave a covenant of works, with blessings and curses attached, so that a thousand years later, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Ga 4:4, 5). Since no one is able to obey the terms of the covenant, Moses’ ministry is called a “ministry that [brings] death” (2 Cor 3:7). In the New Covenant, Jesus’ law keeping is credited to us through simple faith, making Jesus’ ministry a “ministry that brings righteousness!”
To go back to Jesus’ childhood, we see right before our statement at the end of Luke 2 that Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and “was obedient to them.” Jesus was obedient to his parents and to God all his life. As he grows up, he continues to keep the terms of the Law. He continues to succeed in obeying the Law. So when it comes time for Jesus to be ordained for his earthly ministry in verse 22 of the next chapter, God the Father can review Jesus’ life and say to him, “with you I am well pleased.”
Even up to the time of the cross, Jesus was going through a process. The writer of Hebrews gives us an insight in chapter 5 of his letter. He says:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him and was designated by God to be High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Strange though it may seem, Jesus underwent a learning process during the time of his first advent. He was born a man, a boy. He was born under the Law of the Old Covenant. He had to grow and develop and learn. By living a life pleasing to God, by submitting to God, by humbling himself and becoming obedient (Phil 2:8) he grew in favor with God, since God “therefore” (that is, due to his obedience) exalted him to the highest place. That’s the language of covenant keeping.