Luke 2:39–52 . . . Bible Study Summary with Photos

   Jesus, Gone AWOL?

Jesus Christ is the only one ever to live a sinless, perfect life. As our Savior, he's our primary example for godly living, having lived in perfect dependence on the Father, always obedient to his will. This was true beginning in his youth. In today's passage, we have the only reference in Scripture to the years between Jesus' birth and the beginning of his ministry at about age 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 clay birds and they come to life and fly away; while a child, he touches a faulty plow of Joseph's and repairs it instantly.

After such tales, today's account of Jesus getting left behind at the temple is tame. But that argues for its authenticity. Most likely, Luke got this material from Mary (v. 51, shown below). We might wish that more was written in the Bible about Jesus' childhood years. Luke includes the story primarily to show us that Jesus is the unique Son of God.

Jesus' Absence, as Told by Luke

There are four significant facts about Luke's account.

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him (Luke 2:40)Painting by Simon Dewey

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First: Realize that this is the only inspired, biblically recorded incident covering the youthful years of our Lord. Likely, Luke felt that this story was very important; indeed, it's the only childhood account reported in his gospel.

Second: Note that Luke has recorded the very first words of our Lord Jesus; very important words, indeed.

Third: This is the last time that Joseph is mentioned in the life of our Lord.

Fourth: The actions of our Lord appeared to be wrong, that is, in the minds of his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, who convey a gentle, but obvious rebuke.

Jesus' Disappearance, Discovery, and Declaration

The story is really very simple. The parents of our Lord (at age 12) had gone up to Jerusalem to observe the Passover Feast, as they'd done yearly (vv. 41–42). The pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem and back often traveled together in caravans. At the conclusion of the Feast, the caravan began its journey home; among them were Mary and Joseph but not Jesus; he wasn't immediately discovered "missing." When his absence was noted, and after searching unsuccessfully for him, Mary and Joseph went back to Jerusalem, which could have been a day's travel.

For three days they searched for the boy. Such a long, intense search would lead to growing concern, frustration, and consternation, as shown in the parents' first response to Jesus when found (v. 48). Finally, the parents looked for and found Jesus in the temple, sitting in the midst of teachers, busily engaged in conversation. His role was principally that of a learner and a listener, who asked pertinent and penetrating questions. Evidently, he also gave responses; those nearby who overheard him marveled at his answers.

Then, Mary may have almost entirely forgotten that Jesus was different from other children. All the strange and wonderful things she'd seen and had been told, the things she "treasured in her heart," were probably momentarily overshadowed by her frustration. Upon hearing Mary's, How could you have done this to us, Jesus? . . . you might have expected the lad to have looked downward, stung by her rebuke and his foolishness and thoughtlessness. Such is not the case, however, for Jesus' response shifts the focus from his error to his parents' error. Responding to his mother's rebuke, there's the gentle rebuke of his own question: "Why were you searching for me?" He seems to have added: Why didn't you realize that this is where I'd have to be? Perhaps pointedly, Jesus stated that he was in his Father's house, just where the Son should have been.

There was no resolution. Neither Mary nor Joseph grasped what was essentially happening, nor what "their" Son — our Lord — had said. The incident ends with Mary (along with Joseph) again perplexed at the events occurring in her life related to her child. If the memory of the mysterious events of Jesus' birth had begun to fade in the minds of Mary and Joseph, this AWOL incident would once again bring them vividly to mind.

The matter ended quickly. Jesus returned to Nazareth with them to live with them in submission to their authority. Nevertheless, things would never be quite the same. Jesus continued to grow, physically, spiritually, and socially. Years would pass until Jesus' public ministry would begin; but during this time, Jesus continued to grow, being prepared always for the day of his public appearance as Israel's Messiah. His sense of purpose and calling toward this destiny can be seen, even in this childhood incident.

The Meaning of This Story

It's tempting to look at this text casually, without grasping its meaning. Remember, this isn't just one of many stories of a misplaced child; it's the only account of an event in the Messiah's growing-up years. There are several ways to explain this story. Let's consider our options and then try to determine the meaning of Luke's text.

Option 1  A first option, though unacceptable, is to understand that Jesus was wrong to remain behind in Jerusalem, at least without informing his parents of what he was about to do. Since Jesus was the Son of God, in whom there was no sin, he couldn't have done wrong here, even as a child.

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52).

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Option 2  A second option is to view Jesus as a kind of "absent-minded" Messiah, so preoccupied with the temple and Scriptures that he simply missed the caravan's departure and was left behind. Jesus, it's suggested, was caught up with "his Father's business"; and the rebuke of His parents came as a shock. An "absent-minded Jesus" story isn't fitting, especially after Luke's comment that Jesus was filled with wisdom (v. 40). Jesus' words indicate that he purposefully remained in Jerusalem (i.e., "I had to be in my Father's house," v. 49).

Also, when his first day in the temple ended, it was obvious that he was separated from his parents; yet he showed no concern, didn't try to rejoin them, and wasn't apparently looking for them. There's no evidence here of Jesus' being absent-minded.

Option 3  Consider the option that Jesus' parents were negligent, solely responsible for leaving Jerusalem without Jesus. This doesn't square with the story. If Jesus had made this trip with his parents before (cf. v. 41), he must have been accustomed to how it was done, having proven himself capable on previous trips. An oversight of the parents' doesn't explain the purposefulness of our Lord in remaining behind. He intended to stay behind without asking their permission or informing them of his intentions.

Option 4  The fourth option is that Jesus was right in what he did, and his parents were wrong in being angry with him and rebuking him. Jesus intentionally stayed in Jerusalem, without his parents' knowledge and permission.

Was Jesus AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave)? Certainly not! Jesus' heavenly Father — God — officially permitted his staying, learning, and teaching in the temple.





It Makes You Wonder . . . .

  • Q. 1  What makes Jesus' AWOL actions proper, when they wouldn't have been for other 12 year-olds?
  • Q. 2  If you were one of Jesus' parents at this point, would you have been angry upon finding him, three days later, talking in the temple?



This Week's Passage
Luke 2:39–52

New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 2.]

You can also watch this passage-specific video clip from the "Jesus" film.


39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

The Boy Jesus at the Temple

They were amazed (Luke 2:41-52).

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41Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

49"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.