The historian Luke, in his gospel, records the only words spoken by Jesus as a child that we are privy to in God’s inspired word. The conversation, between Jesus and his parents, is found in the latter part of the second chapter of the book.
Luke records the devotion of Joseph and Mary, indicating that they went to Jerusalem every year to observe the Passover. When Jesus was twelve years old he was included in the traveling party. When the feast was finished, and Mary and Joseph together with other family members began the trip home, we are told that Jesus, “lingered behind in Jerusalem.”
You can imagine their state of mind as they sought Jesus. It was three days (vs. 46) before they found him. He was in the temple, listening to the teachers there and asking them questions. We are not privy to what Jesus said to these important men, but we are told they “were astonished at His understanding and answers.”
When Mary and Joseph found Jesus, they were astonished as well, but for a different reason. Mary said, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” Jesus’ answer, (the only recorded words we have, until near the beginning of his ministry as a grown man), was not what would be expected of a twelve year old boy. He answered, “Why do you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”
Some preliminary things must be disposed of here. First, we must speculate a bit to know the tone of Mary in her statement to Jesus. Was the tone one of puzzlement? Was it one of rebuke? The words themselves can be taken several ways. Though we can be sure that both Mary and Joseph were worried and anxious, it is only speculation that would lead us to believe that they were angry, or stern in their rebuke.
Consider that Mary and Joseph knew who Jesus was. Joseph was told such in his dream before Jesus’ birth (cf. Matthew 1:20-21), and all of those events from conception to birth, Mary “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Statements concerning Jesus’ childhood before this occasion (2:40) and after (2:51-52) indicate that Jesus was an obedient and exceptional child. Joseph and Mary knew it was not characteristic of Jesus to act in any inappropriate way, and the question of Mary, though coming from an anxious and confused mind, was answered by Jesus with explanation rather than apology. Because of who He was and what He was doing, there was no reason to apologize because He had done nothing wrong.
We are told that Joseph and Mary “did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.” With hindsight, the import of his words is clearly known to us. That is the primary concern of this article.
“Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” These striking words from the young child indicate that Jesus was always aware of His purpose in life. Some seem to believe that Jesus was limited by His humanity. Some speak of confusion, weakness, or doubt during various occasions in His life. They are wrong. As the text indicates, Jesus always knew who He was, and why He was on earth. His hour had not yet come (cf. John 2:4), but He was aware of his purpose. As He later stated, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).
The word “must,” is a word Jesus often used in reference to the work He had been given to do. When Jesus taught his disciples, we are told, “Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribed, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matthew 16:21). In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
Luke 2:48 contains the last reference to Joseph as being Jesus’ father. Though Joseph was a godly man, who excelled as a caretaker of the child; Jesus, the Son of God always knew who His Father truly was. And, even at such a young age, He was focused on the work that the Father had given Him to do. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).