What to Expect From a 12-Year-Old
by Rich Murphy

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What do you expect from your children? If you're like most of us, you really don't expect much. Most of the time, we look at our children, and write off their mistakes by saying, "they're only kids." I submit to you that this is not a biblical attitude to take about our children.

The great purpose of childhood is not to play, but to learn. They go to school in order to learn, but the things they learn in school are not the main thing that our children need to learn. The greatest part of learning a child has to go through is learning how to be a responsible adult. That's what we, as parents, must work to teach our children.

It is interesting to note that the only place in the Bible where it talks about Jesus' childhood, other than His infancy, is when He was twelve years old. Other than this one time, we don't hear anything about Him from the time of his family's return from Egypt (Mt 2:23), until the commencement of His ministry at thirty years old.

In Luke chapter two, we see a glimpse into the childhood of Jesus. His parents took Him to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover, according to the law. This tells us that Mary and Joseph were good, law abiding, Jews, who took their faith in God seriously.

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. 43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. 44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. 45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. 48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? 50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. 51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

Luke 2:41-52

Why is this particular time of His life mentioned? Is it only because His parents left Him behind in Jerusalem? Could that be all that God wants to show us here? Or, is there a greater lesson in this story?

In the Jewish culture, the age of twelve is a very important time. We would call it the age of accountability for a child, when they are accountable before God for their own decision to accept or reject salvation. This is a time of life when a child makes the decisions that will form their whole life. They actually make the most important decisions of their lives at this age.

The decisions a child makes at twelve are those that form their future. At this age, they are accepting, or rejecting salvation; determining what types of friends they will have; deciding if they will be studious and hard working, or lazy; and whether they will live a life of rebellion, or submission. As parents, we influence those decisions, but the children make them for themselves.

To the Jews, this time is more than just a time when their children are making decisions, it is the time of their passage from childhood to adulthood.

The Jews hold a celebration for their boys on their twelfth birthday called the Bar Mitzvah. For the girls, the celebration is a thirteen, and called a Bat Mitzvah. This term literally means, "Son (or daughter) of the law." As part of this celebration, the young man would read the scripture text for the day in the synagogue, and give a speech which always starts out with the phrase, "Today I am a man."

From this celebration onward, they are no longer thought of as children, but as young adults. Jews don't have adolescents like we do, only children and adults. As young adults, they are expected to be responsible, know the Torah (the books of the law), be able to take care of themselves, and begin to answer God's call upon their lives.

There is a second stage that happens at thirty years old. At this point, they are considered mature adults, instead of young adults. One cannot be a teacher of the law until thirty. Although they are considered an adult at twelve, they are not considered mature enough to teach until thirty. This is why Jesus' ministry didn't start until He was thirty. Before that, nobody would be required to pay any attention to His teachings.

This attitude is vastly different from our culture, where we look at twelve year olds, and think of them as children. We don't expect them to be more, so they aren't.

Children will generally live up to the expectations of their parents. If we don't expect much of them, they won't do much. But, if we expect much, they will strive to attain that which we expect. Jewish children don't have any problem meeting their parents expectations of being an adult at twelve years of age, and neither would our children if we expected it of them.

In Jesus' time, twelve year old boys were apprenticed to learn a trade. Or, if they were learning from their father, would often start even younger. Most of us wouldn't trust our twelve year olds with tools for fear of them hurting themselves. Twelve year old girls already knew how to cook, sew, care for children, and were thinking about marriage. Most girls were married at thirteen to fourteen years old! More amazing was that they were ready, and responsible at that age. Ours are thinking about playing and avoiding their school work.

It isn't our children's fault that they are not ready to be responsible at twelve years old, it is ours as their parents. We live in a society that says twelve year old children can't be responsible, so we accept that as normal. Since we accept it as normal, we literally "train" our children to live up to that expectation.

Actually, most of the time, we train our children by not training them. Instead of giving them a biblical standard to live up to, we let the world give them their standard. Our children end up following that standard, instead of learning how to follow the Lord.

However, even within an ungodly society it is possible to provide a different standard for our own children. How? A godly standard must be modeled by godly people. Not just by the pastor, either, but by godly parents who love the Lord, and are living their lives for Him. When the parents model that type of life before their children and tell their children to do the same, the children will strive to become like their parents; living a godly life.

The other example our children need to see is the life of Jesus Himself. He is our example of the perfect Christian life. As adults, we should be striving to be like Him, and helping our children to become like Him. That's why the Lord included the example of this time of His life in the book of Luke; so that we could see what a godly child would be able to do at the age of twelve.

At twelve years old, Jesus underwent, what for that age, would be a great test of His character and maturity; He was left alone. His parents unknowingly left Him behind in Jerusalem, thinking that He was with others in the caravan. It wasn't until after a day's travel that they realized He wasn't with them. They then had to travel back and searched three days before finding Jesus in the temple, talking with the teachers of the law.

That makes a total of five days that Jesus was left alone. Not only alone, but alone in a strange town. That's not quite the same thing as being left alone at home for five days. He couldn't go ask the neighbors for help, nor could he eat the leftovers in the refrigerator.

Although I am sure that God the Father commanded His angels to watch over and protect His Son, I am also sure that He limited what they could do for Jesus to the same things that they can do for us. I am equally sure that Jesus didn't use His supernatural power to turn stones into bread. He was later tempted to do just that, and didn't. So, why would He have done it before He even started His ministry.

Jesus lived His life here upon the earth limited to the same things you and I are. Although He is God, He lived here on earth as a man. His ability to create out of nothing was the same as ours is. So, Jesus was required to take care of Himself the same way as one of our children would have to do in similar circumstances.

Obviously, Jesus knew how to take care of Himself at the age of twelve years. Somehow, He found food to eat, a place to sleep, and maybe even took a bath, or two during that time. All that without His mother there telling Him it was dinner time, bath time, or bed time.

I would say that there was a pretty good possibility that Jesus had some small amount of money with Him when He was left behind. Most twelve year olds have at least some money. But, I seriously doubt that He had enough money for a hotel room and eating in a restaurant for five days. Nor do I think that a bag of gold coins mysteriously dropped down from heaven right before Him on the street. He had to be resourceful and wise in the use of the money that He did have. He may even have had to work in some way to earn enough money to eat.

So, we can see from this that Jesus knew how to be a good steward of the things that He had.  He knew how to budget His money, how to buy things at a good price, and be responsible with His finances. There is also a very strong possibility that He knew how to work (if we assume that He had to work during this time). He may not have been highly skilled in a trade, but He did have the proper attitude towards working and doing a good job of it.

It's great that Jesus knew how to take care of Himself in the natural, but if that's all this Bible story is about why is it in the Bible? Let's focus on His spiritual condition at the age of twelve.

Remember, even though Jesus was, and is God, He came here as a human. His divinity didn't keep Him from being tempted, nor did it keep Him from being attacked by sickness. Likewise, He didn't start preaching in the manger. Jesus had to study the Word of God, and learn to apply it to His life, just like the rest of us do. It wasn't until He was baptized by John that the Holy Spirit came upon Him and anointed Him. Before that, He had to work under the same natural and spiritual laws as the rest of us.

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. 47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

Lk 2:45-46

The first thing we notice in these two verses, after finding out that they searched for Jesus for three days, is where they found Him. I don't think most parents would expect to find their children in the Temple, where Mary and Joseph found Jesus. Most would expect their kids to be out playing somewhere, or getting into trouble. Maybe that's why they had to spend three days looking for Him, because they didn't expect Him to be there either.

Jesus was at the temple, because He wanted to be where the presence of God was. This is the first, and most important sign of spiritual maturity. God has created us to be His children. As children, we must develop a desire to be in His presence.

As parents, it pleases us when our natural children desire to be with us. So too, with our Father God. He desires nothing more than our coming to spend time with Him. Too many believers are knocking on the gates of heaven, waiting for God to answer, instead of coming boldly before His throne. As children whom He loves, we don't have to knock, just come sit on His lap.

If you were in Wal-Mart, or the grocery store, and a strange child came up to you and said, "I want this thing, buy it for me." What would you do? I'm not talking about your own child, I'm talking about one you don't know. I don't know about you, but my response would be something like, "I don't know you, why should I buy it for you. Go talk to your own parents about buying it for you."

It's like that with many "believers." The only time they talk to Father God is when they need something from Him. But, they never spend any time building a relationship with Him. Why should He want to bless people who only come to Him when they want something?

As a twelve year old, Jesus understood the importance of an intimate relationship with the Father. He was in the temple because He wanted to maintain that relationship; not just in the time of His ministry, but throughout His life. Jesus' ministry came out of His godly life and intimacy with the Father, just as ours should. Without this intimacy, God the Father could never have said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22).

Jesus was with the doctors (or, teachers of the law) because He knew who to be with and who to avoid. I think most parents greatest fear in a similar situation would be not whether or not their children ate, but who they were hanging out with. All too often, the people our children "run into" are the people we'd rather them not meet. Yet, because of their innocence, our children don't recognize the danger of these relationships.

At twelve years old, Jesus knew the danger of "hanging out" with the wrong crowd. He didn't go looking for kids His own age to hang out with. He didn't even find the local church youth group. He found the most knowledgeable people in the Word of God to pass His time with. He kept Himself in a place where the people around Him would be a positive influence on His spirit, not a negative one. Where the focus would be on God, instead of the world.

Even within the temple, Jesus chose the best of the people to talk to. He didn't speak to people who were just there doing their "duty" to God. Instead, He chose to speak with the experts in the Word of God; those with whom He could carry out a deep biblical discussion.

This brings us to the next point, Jesus, as a child, was interested in the things of God. He took the time He was left behind in Jerusalem and used it to study the Word of God, instead of looking for other kids to hang out with, trying to find ways to have fun, or getting in trouble.

We once again come to the subject of expectations. As parents, many times we don't expect our children to become interested in the things of God. Many feel that children can't develop a true relationship with the Lord, or even get saved before they are adults. Yet, here we see a young Jesus so interested in the things of God that he spent His free time in the temple, talking with the doctors of the law.

Eighty percent, or more, of the people who accept Christ do so before the age of twelve. Eighty five percent of the missionaries currently on the missions field received their calling before the age of twelve as well. This is the time of life when it is the most critical to gain an interest in the Lord, and in His work.

If a person doesn't gain an interest in the things of God: His presence, His Word, and His work at a young age, there is very little chance he will do so later. One of the greatest gifts anyone can give their children is a relationship with the Lord.

It was also obvious that Jesus knew God's Word. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been astonished by His understanding and His answers. Now, I realize that Jesus is the Son of God, but remember, He came here as a man, not as God. So, I am sure that He studied the Word here on earth, and not just relied on His heavenly knowledge. In fact, the verse before the section I quoted at the beginning of this study tells us just that.

And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

Luke 2:40

This verse doesn't tell us that Jesus automatically was strong in spirit, and filled with wisdom; nor does it say that these were His by divine impartation. He had to study in order to become strong in spirit and filled with wisdom. Jesus didn't operate under any special advantages. He limited Himself to what we, as humans, must go through.

In that time, it was normal for Jewish boys to memorize the Torah (law), which is the first five books of the Bible, by the age of twelve. That's only 5936 verses. Orthodox Jews still do this today. However, memorizing something doesn't necessarily mean that it is understood.

Many people memorize verses because they think they should. These people can stand up in church and quote any of a number of verses easily. It appears, on the surface, that they know the Word of God, because they can quote it so freely. But this isn't necessarily so. I recently heard an American woman sing a song in Spanish. The only reason she knew what the words meant was that she knew the same song in English. But, other than that, she had no idea what she was singing. If the Spanish version of the song had a different line than the English, she wouldn't be able to tell, because she didn't speak Spanish.

God has never suggested to us that we simply memorize the Bible. Nor has He suggested that we read it. His instructions to Joshua, which apply equally to us today were:

This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

Joshua 1:8

This is an interesting verse in its literal meaning. The first thing that the verse says is to not let the writings of the Torah depart from your mouth. It then goes on to say "meditate on them day and night." This word mediate literally means to murmur, or mutter. The image is of someone who is constantly going around speaking to themselves, under their breath, as if they were trying to find the solution to a great riddle, or problem.

People who are geniuses are generally known to be eccentric. The talk to themselves, forget to do simple things, and generally ignore those around them. Why? Because their mind is focused on some problem or other. They are "meditating" on that problem, in order to find understanding.

God instructed Joshua to act like one of these geniuses, talking to himself about the law. Why? To gain understanding of God's heart, His instructions, and the meaning behind those instructions. People who only read God's Word don't gain that understanding.

Paul puts God's instructions to Joshua this way:

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Tim 2:15

The word "study" at the beginning of that verse means, "to make earnest effort and diligence to labor, or study." The idea is basically the same as in Joshua. Don't simply do your "duty" of reading the Word of God, but put effort into gaining understanding by constantly meditating upon what it says.

As one meditates, a normal part of the process it to have questions. The Holy Spirit loves questions, because they show the heart of someone who truly wants to know. I'm not talking about questions of doubt and unbelief, but the "What? and "Why?" questions. "Why did God use this word here? Why did Jesus speak in this manner to this person? What does this mean?" Those questions are the ones which bring understanding, because the Holy Spirit brings answers to them.

This point is probably the most important part of what we see in Jesus' life at the age of twelve. It is obvious that He didn't only read the Tenach (Jewish version of the Old Testament) but also studied it and meditated upon it. His desire as a child was to gain an understanding of His Heavenly Father. By the time He was twelve, He had gained so much understanding that the most learned experts in the Tenach were astonished at how much understanding He had.

So, we see that Jesus, at the age of twelve sought to be in God's presence and know His Word. But that isn't enough in the life of a believer. We cannot only know God's Word, we must live God's Word. That brings us to the next point. Jesus was ready and willing to do God's will. Look at the answer He gave His parents when they questioned Him.

And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?

Luke 2:48-49

Even though it was before the time appointed for Jesus to enter into His ministry He had the desire to begin. Much later, at the wedding feast, when He turned the water to wine, He said to His mother, "my time has not yet come" (John 2:4). Obviously, if His time had not come at the wedding feast, it had not come at twelve, but the desire was there.

I'm sure Jesus was aware that it wasn't time for Him to start His earthly ministry. But, I'm also sure that this event was representative of His life. His childhood and young adulthood were probably full of instances where He took the opportunity to teach the law of God to those around Him.

In my own life, I knew that I was called to the ministry years before the Lord sent me out to start that ministry. Many, many times, a pastor, or other leader in the church told me to wait for God's timing. That was difficult to do. I had the desire to do God's will and thought I knew what it was (even though I didn't really know). Because of that desire I took every opportunity I could to share God's Word and pray for people. I wasn't in ministry yet, but I was sure trying to get there.

That desire is an important part of growing up. People who win medals in the Olympics without fail start their training at a young age. You don't hear of Olympic champions that started training at twenty years of age. No, what you hear of is those who start at five.

It's the same in the life of a believer. If our children don't gain a desire to do the things of God before they turn twelve, they probably never will.

There's one other area that we need to look at in this study. That's Jesus' relationship with His parents. On the surface, it appears that Jesus didn't honor and obey His parents when He stayed behind in Jerusalem. But, just as if God wanted to be sure we couldn't think that, scripture goes on to tell us that after this event, Jesus was obedient to His parents.

And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

Luke 2:51

If a child doesn't learn how to be obedient to his parents, he will never learn how to be obedient to God. Jesus couldn't have obeyed His Heavenly Father and gone to the cross if He hadn't learned first of all how to obey Joseph as His earthly father.

A twelve year old who doesn't know how to obey his parents will only become more and more rebellious as a teenager. Ultimately, this rebellion can lead to sin, crime, and even death.

As parents, our greatest responsibility is to bring our children to the Lord. Our second greatest is to teach them to obey Him. How? By teaching them to obey us as the authority that God has placed over their lives.

Proverbs tells us that "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom..." (Prov 1:7a). That word "fear" isn't telling us to be afraid of God, but is better understood as "reverence." Without reverence towards God, we won't obey Him; nor will our children. The second part of this verse is just as revealing, it says, "…but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov 1:7b). The contrast is obvious, reverence of God is wisdom, but lack of reverence is foolishness. Those who are foolish will never desire wisdom and will not desire to know God's Word.

Chapter two in Luke ends with by telling us that "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:25). Why did he increase in wisdom and favor? Because He was obedient to His parents; because He meditated upon God's Word, and because He sought to do God's will.

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