Jesus Before His Public Ministry
Last week we began a series we’re calling “The Essential Jesus” – a survey of the key events in Jesus’ life and key aspects of His public ministry. I spent most of last week making the case that the four New Testament accounts provide us with an accurate historical picture of the real Jesus, while the other later works are unreliable (MORE TODAY).
This morning we will survey Jesus’ life before His public ministry – over 30 years or 85% of His earthly life. The New Testament authors cover this period very briefly because they are not writing standard biographies of His life, but rather accounts of His saving activity (why 90% covers His public ministry and 25% - 35% covers His last week). We will draw from Luke’s account, who evidently interviewed Mary (inferred from 2:19,51). We will also distill from Mary and Jesus some application for our own lives.
Most Americans are still familiar with the basic elements of Jesus’ actual birth (Christmas plays, songs, etc.). Jesus was born in Bethlehem (suburb 5 miles east of Jerusalem), in a stable (because all the hotels were “No Vacancy”). They were visited at His birth by shepherds (poor reputation), and later by magi (Persian astrologers/political advisors). Because King Herod sought to kill Jesus, they had to flee to Egypt until he died, after which they settled in Nazareth. (This means that our calendars are off by a few years – Jesus was born 4-6 BC, because King Herod died in March, 4 BC.) Let’s focus on a key event prior to Jesus’ birth – His conception.
Read 1:26,27. Note Luke’s emphasis that event is history, not myth. He notes both the location (Nazareth of Galilee) and the time (6th month of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy). An angelic messenger intervened at a real time and in a real place.
Mary probably would be a mid-teen, because this is when most Jewish girls became betrothed. Betrothed couples were required to be sexually chaste and live with their parents until their marriage. Betrothal was binding and could be dissolved only by divorce because of serious breach of trust (like sexual infidelity).
Read 1:28-33. Through Gabriel, God reveals that He wants Mary to be the mother of the Messiah – the fulfillment of the promise God made to David 1000 years earlier (read 2 Sam. 7:16). His title (“Son of the Most High”) and His unending reign imply His deity, which Isaiah predicted 800 years earlier (read Isa. 9:6,7). God also predicted that the Messiah would be conceived by a virgin (read Isa. 7:14). Earlier key biblical figures had supernatural conceptions (e.g., Isaac, Samson, Samuel) – but this Child’s unique identity will involve a unique conception.
Read 1:34. Mary, a health class graduate, wonders aloud how this is possible. Gabriel provides her with a solid rationale for this miracle – read 1:35-37. No, virgins don’t normally get pregnant. Yes, this is a violation of the laws of nature. But God, who created and upholds the laws of nature, can and occasionally does suspend them to fulfill His redemptive plan. In fact, He has recently done something similar with Elizabeth.
So God has revealed His will for Mary, and now we come to the climax of this passage – Mary’s response. But before we read it, let’s consider how she could have responded.
She could have declined this opportunity by offering any one of a number of excuses: “No thanks, ____.” (I’m too busy preparing my wedding; I’m afraid of what my parents/Joseph/my friends will think; my friend Ariel is more spiritual, etc.)
Or – especially if she was Type A– she could have agreed, and tried to perform God’s will in her own way: “I’ll take it from here . . .” (enlisting Joseph’s help now; insisting on waiting until the wedding; etc.).
But Mary responds in a different way. Read 1:38. Elizabeth calls her response “believing” or “faith” (1:45). All through the Bible God states that this is the response He wants from all of us (Heb. 11:6). Note carefully the two complementary features of her faith:
“Behold, the bond-servant of the Lord . . .” On the one hand, she responds actively. She doesn’t shrug and say “Whatever.”); she personally embraces God’s will, even though it is contrary to her plans and convenience.
On the other hand, her response has a passive dimension – “. . . be it done to me according to Your word.” She affirms her complete inability to conceive as a virgin, and presents herself to God for Him to do His will through her.
So Mary’s response gives us a working definition of biblical faith: Embracing God’s will, depending on Him to do it in you. On one level, this event with Mary is unique and unrepeatable. But on another level, it is a beautiful illustration of how God approaches every one of us and of how He wants us to respond to Him. The pattern is always the same: God initiates revealing His will for us, we choose whether to respond by faith or not – and then certain significant results flow from our response. Here’s one example . . .
Just as God told Mary that He wanted to supernaturally conceive his Son in her womb, God tells us that He wants to supernaturally “conceive” Christ’s life in each of our hearts (read 1 Jn. 5:11). God says that while we are physically alive, we are spiritually dead because of our sins – alienated from Him and unable to experience His life-changing love. But God wants to change this, and He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins in order to make this possible.
There is no “sort of pregnant” or “process of becoming pregnant.” There was a moment in time before which Mary wasn’t pregnant, and there was a moment in time after which Mary became pregnant. And the moment that separated those two states was the moment of Mary’s decision to give herself in faith to God according to this promise. In the same way, the Bible says that no one is “sort of spiritually alive,” nor is the conception of spiritual life a gradual process (read 1 Jn. 5:12). There is a moment before which you are spiritually dead, and there is a moment after which you are spiritually alive. And the moment that separates those two states is the moment of your decision to respond to God’s offer with faith.
So how will you respond to God’s offer to conceive Christ’s life in your heart?
Will you respond by trying to perform this conception on your own? This is the response of RELIGION: “I’ll earn Your life by my good works and religious observances.” “I’ll generate my own spiritual life by performing spiritual disciplines.” This is as impossible as it would have been for Mary to conceive Jesus by herself! You have to humbly admit you cannot do this.
Will you respond by declining His invitation? “No thanks, I’m ___ (too busy; don’t feel I need it; afraid of how my life might change).” (By the way, no answer is declining.) Jesus will not force His gift on you; He respects the free will He gave you. But until you respond to His invitation, you will miss out on experiencing a personal love-relationship with God. And if you decline for your whole life, then you will miss out for all eternity (Jn. 3:36).
Or will you respond with faith (read Jn. 3:16)? Will you say: “Jesus, I want this spiritual life, and I ask You to give it to me now according to Your promise.” In that moment, He will give you spiritual life – and you will never regret this decision. It’s your move!
Jesus’ childhood & early adulthood
The gospels say very little about this long period – just a few summary statements, a couple of specific events, and some inferences from other earlier and later passages.
Jesus during developed childhood physically and intellectually like other children (read 2:40).
He evidently performed no miracles until His public ministry (Jn. 2:11). This contradicts the “precocious Super-brat” accounts of later pseudo-gospels.
By the age of twelve, Jesus realized His unique identity as the Son of God (explain setting & read 2:48,49). Note Jesus’ deliberate play on words in His response to Mary’s “your father . . .” He reminds Mary of what she already knew – that His real Father is God, and that therefore He must be involved in His affairs, even if that disrupts her life.
Even though Jesus knew His unique identity and mission, He spent His teen years and early adulthood in quiet, undramatic preparation (read 2:51,52). From this passage and others, we can distill three elements of development that are applicable to us:
Being subject to God by being appropriately subject to other people, instead of insisting on “doing His own thing.”
He subjected Himself to Mary and Joseph (2:51), even though He was superior to them. Instead of chafing against them as limitations that prevented His own self-authentication, He embraced His role as a Servant of His Father (Phil. 2:6-8a), and lived out His conviction that greatness is Servanthood (Mk. 10:43).
Do you see subjection to God as a good thing, or as a threat to your freedom? Do you view appropriate subjection to other people as part of your subjection to God, or as a necessary evil to be avoided at all costs? Super-spiritual Christians often say: “I don’t mind submitting to God, but I don’t submit to other people.” There is a place for this, but often this is rationalization that betrays a lack of subjection to God.
Learning and internalizing God’s Word. The “wisdom” in 2:40,52 is the result of understanding and obeying God’s Word. Jesus’ later teaching ministry reveals a deep familiarity with and understanding of the Old Testament.
He would have been trained to memorize the Old Testament by His mother and in the Nazareth’s “House of the Book” school from ages 6-10. He had to read and memorize, just like we do. He also meditated on what he memorized. The One who knew how to give God’s Word so effectively to others learned this by meditating on it day by day (Isa. 50:4).
Do you “keep increasing” in biblical wisdom – or have you plateaued or regressed? Do you value God’s Word as your greatest knowledge treasure – or do you view other information (e.g., news; celebrity gossip; etc.) as more important? Do you expose yourself to God’s Word more than this to this other information?
Allowing God to shape Him through the many sufferings of life in a fallen world, instead of shielding Himself from them. Isa. 53:3 says that “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
He lived in a large family (at least 8 – Mk. 6:2), probably in relative poverty, in an obscure village. He experienced the loss of loved ones (Joseph’s probable premature death). He experienced the pain of unjust treatment (illegitimacy rumors – Jn. 8:41,48). He knew the burden of hard work (carpenter, apprenticed under Joseph – Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:2), and presumably had to support the family when Joseph died. He experienced the exploitation of Roman occupation. Through these sufferings, He developed the profound compassion that characterized His public ministry (e.g., Matt. 9:36 – most frequent description of His emotional life).
Do you have a greater goal for sufferings than just to avoid them and/or escape them as soon as possible? Do you resent them and let them make you bitter, or do you ask God to use them to form Christ’s compassion and character?
SUMMARIZE: May God help us to embrace these same developmental priorities as keys to a meaningful life!!
 The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (mid-third century AD) records various alleged incidents in Jesus' early childhood. “(After 5-year-old Jesus dammed up a creek) the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a willow branch, and let out the waters which Jesus had collected. And Jesus, seeing what was done, was angry, and said to him: ‘O wicked, impious, and foolish! What harm did the pools and the waters do to you? Behold, even now you shall be dried up like a tree, and you shall not bring forth either leaves, or root, or fruit.’ And immediately that boy was withered up.” (2:1; 3:1-3) “After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: ‘You shall not go back the way you came!’ And immediately he fell down dead.” (4:1) “(Jesus’) teacher was provoked and hit him on the head. And (Jesus) . . . cursed him, and immediately he fainted and fell to the ground on his face. And (Jesus) returned home; and Joseph was grieved and commanded his mother: “Don’t let him out of the house, because he kills everyone who angers him.” (14:2,3)