Just One Verse (J1V): Luke 2:52
“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
This verse bothers me because I hold an ideal of Jesus where He’s the eternal, uncreated, and perfect One. Saying that He grew suggests that He had moments of imperfection, or, at least, incompleteness. A seemingly incomplete Jesus does not fit in my box, and that really bugs me. “Ah,” you say, “but that was when Jesus was only 12 years old, and He needed to grow in maturity and become a man,” to which I say “you’re projecting your youthful foolishness on the Messiah, and I don’t like it, not one bit.” I’m still not sure which of us is truly being naive.
As a Pastor, I often remind the people I serve that God wanted to create us, which is completely different from God needing to create us. Want and need are two different motivators. I need to eat in order to stay alive and relatively healthy. My body is counting on me doing the work of selecting, preparing, serving, and chewing, and in return I get to stay alive and run and go bowling. This is something I need to do because my body needs to convert nutrition into fuel. I need food to stay alive, but I want one of those Reese’s Peanut Butter things, gargantuan and slovenly, two “servings” in one sitting (who eats only half at a time?) Love it as I do, the ministry of peanut butter plus chocolate isn’t a good exclusive meal, lest I want to never leave home. To put it plainly: there would be a revolt. Need and want are different. Need is necessity, want is desire. Need is non-negotiable, want is take-it-or-leave-it and it’ll work either way. In other words, God was complete before our creation and will always be complete, regardless of our relationship with Him. The fact that He wants us to exist and wants us to know Him is nothing short of a miracle, and I’m not talking about the magical combination of extruded peanut butter and ill-gained chocolate.
If anyone comes along and says that God was lonely, and that’s why He created us, then politely offer them a cookie but don’t listen too closely. To suggest that God was incomplete until He made us says that He’s not God and that we’ve wasted our time worshipping a codependent god which we’ve created in our own graven image. God saved me, not because He needed to but because He wants (present tense) to do so. This is what make the gospel amazing. He has nothing to gain, yet, without His grace, we have everything to lose.
But anyway, back to the troublesome verse in Luke. The bible can be such an incessant, mysterious troublemaker that ends up reading us as we’re reading it, since the Word is living and active, not dead like every other kind of medium. In the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, Dr. Egon Spangler plainly said that “print is dead” as he’s connecting a dot-matrix printer to the receptionist’s computer. The words of scripture may be on a screen or bound in a book, but these words are different than any other because 1) the author bothers us with things and 2) it reads us because it is actually a He and His name is Jesus.
Outstanding, this canon of ours. They should put it in hotel nightstands and make it readily available in hundreds of translations, sweepable by the fingertips of billions of people around the globe who are looking for answers to the deepest mysteries of life and they address the echo chamber of the soul.
Or, we could binge Netflix.
Anyway, Luke 2:52 is a troublesome verse because it challenges our assumptions and preoccupations with Jesus, namely that He’s always been perfect. He has been, He will be, He was, He is, yet… He grew. The unchanging One who changes us… changed. Can you grow without changing? Impossible! When I was in Kindergarten, I spent most of the academic year writing my name wrong. The teacher wanted me to write it a certain way, and I did it my way (to quote Sinatra.) Mrs. Downing, 103 years young, would write “Adam” on the top line and ask me to write it in three spots below: here, here, and here. Little red ink asterisks on each line. And, like the daily clockwork of everything else in public school, I sat at my table and wrote ADAM on the first line, ADAM on the second line, and ADAM on the third line. Mrs. Downing looked at the paper and said it was wrong and that we’d try tomorrow. It wasn’t until spring of my Kindergarten career that I properly wrote “Adam” — observing the proper distinction between upper and lower case letters — that I got my golden star. She hugged and kissed me, Mrs. Downing did, and I felt accomplished and frustrated. I felt accomplished because I finally made her happy instead of more upset and wrinkled. I felt frustrated because she never told me that was the problem and instead left it to my own discovery. Whether or not that was the best teaching method is a question I stopped asking years ago. I can now say that I learned two things that day: first, how to write my name without the caps lock, and second, how self discovery is an excellent mode of learning. All in all, I think she did the right thing, and I’m better for it because it was an epiphany that I experienced on my own, and with a 7 month build up, it was quite a eureka moment for me.
If we’re reading Luke 2:52, do we rightly assume that Jesus had eureka moments? How much did He know from day one? If Jesus is and always has been perfect, He must’ve known everything, right? And what a pesky student He must’ve been, since every time the Rabbi made a declarative statement, Jesus could pipe up with a jovial Yep, I know! Already knew that. I’m the Messiah, and you’re thinking about taking early retirement right now!
That’s a frightening thought. Can you imagine being Jesus’ teacher? Or how about His parents?
I have the privilege of raising three kids, and I must say that being a dad is one of the best things to ever happen to me. I revel in it, amazed at how much our children can absorb, how much more articulate and aware they are becoming, and how quickly they’re growing up. I like to pick up our 11 year old and toss him around (in a good, loving dad, wrestling in the living room kind of way) as I remember that he once fit on my arm span between the middle of my hand and my elbow. The truth is that he’ll be as big as me, if not bigger, and my days of beating him in sock wrestling championship or even a wry game of Connect Four are numbered. It’s such a privilege to watch our kids grow up, and the lessons I’ve learned about how God the Father views us are ever flowing and often overwhelming. Occasionally I’ll catch a whisper that says “I love you like that, but even more” and it moves me.
But here’s what bothers me about this verse (I haven’t forgotten about it, don’t worry.) It says that Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature. Mary and Joseph watched this happen just as my wife and I watch our kids grow up. And, though I’d rarely even say this out loud, our kids aren’t perfect. And I back that statement up with by saying that they get their imperfection from their parents. It’s strange, however, to think of Jesus being an incomplete child, yet unfinished and proving it by His growth. How could perfection, clothed in human form, be imperfect?
It bothered me enough to start digging. As it turns out, the original Greek sheds some light on this for us. For example, the word translated grew is a Greek word that sounds kinda like prokopto, which means, among other things, “to lengthen by hammering, as a smith forges metals.” It’s a word that denotes the unfolding of an existing material, not the changing of material. Did Jesus grow? Maybe a better way of saying it is that Jesus expanded as planned. Perhaps growing has less to do with changing who/what we are and more to do with realizing what’s already in there. I know that sounds very new-age, like the first rung on the Self-Actualization stepladder, but think about this for a second. Jesus grew by becoming who He was destined to be, and what He was destined to be is what He already was. It’s just that He’s wearing flesh now. Flesh grows, per the instruction of DNA. Wisdom grows, per the instruction of the Holy Spirit to the human soul.
Jesus models for us what it is to be hammered out to reach our God-given potential. He doesn’t just model it or teach it, He endures it. Jesus put up with the long, arduous process of growth, not because He had to but because He wanted to. His atonement would be incomplete if He wasn’t “tempted in every way, yet remained without sin.” Jesus grew up, both physically and spiritually, all while retaining His full divinity. Somehow who He is expanded fully into His humanity, and, therefore, into our humanity. Without a doubt, this blows my mind.
There is something in our created image that longs for growth. We are born restless, and we don’t find peace until we find our Creator, who is God, brought to hopeful possibility by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who is the perfect One who yet grew while on earth. And now that I’ve arrived here, this little troublesome verse needles me less. I’m still restless. Why?
Because I want to grow. I want to be strong in body, in mind, and in soul. Jesus grew. How’d He do it? That’s what I’d like to know. How about you?
We read that Jesus grew in wisdom. He was able to make knowledge practical and applicable to everyday life. He didn’t cheat. Jesus got wisdom the same way you and I can: through paying attention throughout His earthly experience, all while listening closely to His Father. Paying attention to the crossroads between life and God’s Kingdom work. This is how we grow in wisdom, just as Jesus did.
We read that Jesus grew in stature. Nothing replaces the passing of time to make sure the concrete cures into the right shape and function. The fact that Jesus didn’t push the boundaries, itching to start His ministry at the age of 15 or 21 but instead waiting until age 30, tells me that I need to proceed at the right time in the wise way, which is made most clear by the direction of God the Father. Along the way, it’s important that I make sure my stature stays healthy — that is, my physical body — so that I can capably do the will of the Father in the limited time I have here.
We read that Jesus grew in favor with God. What else could this mean than exactly what it says? The Messiah didn’t take His position for granted. Instead, He pursued the Heavenly Father in the same way you and I should (and usually don’t — personal confession.) Jesus made sure that His first and foremost priority was seeking God. From at least age 12 to age 30, Jesus grew in His relationship with the Father. This means that He spent 18 years practicing some kind of spiritual discipline, the fruit of which didn’t become readily apparent to the world until His final days on earth. So much for expecting spiritual fireworks after every quiet time!
We read that Jesus grew in favor with people. Aren’t you glad that the Incarnate One took His Incarnation seriously enough to be approachable and likable? People were drawn to Jesus because He was authentic, wise, joyful, Holy, yet fully present. I’d like to think He pulled His fair share of pranks, told hilarious jokes without using the phrase knock, knock, and somehow managed to get invited to every party on the block. This doesn’t come from being pious and unapproachable. He took His connection with humans seriously enough to grow those relationships organically.
I think I know the real reason this verse bothers me. Because I see that it’s a model for spiritual formation, which is the ongoing process of change and growth into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Jesus grew and so should I. Now to put this in my New Year’s Resolution pipe and smoke it. What a timely reminder of Truth, here on this New Year’s eve eve eve. It bothers me because I know God is speaking to me about this, and it won’t be easy. Growth never is.
Just ask Jesus. He knows.