The Growing Christ

During the Christmas season, we rightly focus our attention on the marvel of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God; then, we lag into the final days of the year with regrets about the many ways we failed to be the kind of person we set out to be at the beginning of the year. We reformulate certain goals and desires that we will have for ourselves as we enter a new year, and we repeat this cycle that we have adopted for the better part of our adult lives. Perhaps this year, we could continue focusing our attention on the incarnate Son of God--especially with respect to what the Scriptures tell us about his growth from an infant to a boy to an adult in his work as the Redeemer. 

Of the four Gospel records, only Luke's tells us about the days between the birth and infancy of Jesus and the inauguration of his public ministry when he was 30 years old. In just 4 verse (Luke 2:39-42), 12 years have passed from the birth of the Savior. The only things that we know about Jesus in this 12 years span is that he "grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom; and, the favor of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40, 52) and that he went with his parents to the Temple every year at the time of the passover (Luke 2:41-42) and that he was submissive to his parents (Luke 2:51). That's it! We don't hear about any miracles that he did as a boy (almost certainly because he did none until he started his public ministry). We don't hear about his interaction with his brothers and sisters (though he would have had many interactions). The thing that Luke, by the Holy Spirit, teaches us is that the eternal Son of God experienced sinless growth and development as a real human being. 

In his excellent article "The Human Development of Jesus," B.B. Warfield explained:

"There are no human traits lacking to the picture that is drawn of him: he was open to temptation; he was conscious of dependence on God; he was a man of prayer; he knew a "will" within him that might conceivably be opposed to the will of God; he exercised faith; he learned obedience by the things that he suffered. It was not merely the mind of a man that was in him, but the heart of a man as well, and the spirit of a man. In a word, he was all that a man -- a man without error and sin -- is, and must be conceived to have grown, as it is proper for a man to grow, not only during his youth, but continuously through life, not alone in knowledge, but in wisdom, and not alone in wisdom, but "in reverence and charity" -- in moral strength and in beauty of holiness alike. Indeed, we find it insufficient to say, as the writer whom we have just quoted' says, St. Luke places no limit to the statement that he increased in wisdom; and it seems, therefore, to be allowable to believe "that it continued until the great 'It is finished' on the cross." Of course; and even beyond that "It is finished": and that not only with reference to his wisdom, but also with reference to all the traits of his blessed humanity. For Christ, just because he is the risen Christ, is man and true man -- all that man is, with all that is involved in being man -- through all the ages and into the eternity of the eternities."

Warfield was, of course, building on Irenaeus of Lyons' teaching on anakephalaiosis (i.e. recapitulation). Irenaeus explained this in the following way:

"Jesus came to save all by means of himself-all, I say, who through him are born again unto God -- infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord." (Against Heresies book. 2.22.4)

Again Warfield explained that-with regard to His humanity-Jesus had sinless limitations. He wrote:

"Everywhere the man Christ Jesus is kept before our eyes, and every characteristic that belongs to a complete and perfect manhood is exhibited in his life as dramatized in the gospel story. All the limitations of humanity, therefore, remained his throughout. One fresh from reading the gospel narrative will certainly fail to understand the attitude of those, who we are told exist, who for example, "admit his growth in knowledge during childhood," "yet deny as intolerable the hypothesis of a limitation of his knowledge during his ministry." Surely Jesus himself has told us that he was ignorant of the time of the day of judgment (Mark xiii. 32); he repeatedly is represented as seeking knowledge through questions, which undoubtedly were not asked only to give the appearance of a dependence on information from without that was not real with him: he is made to express surprise; and to make trial of new circumstances; and the like."

This is, in no way, to deny that in His Divine nature, Jesus is omniscient. We must always keep in view that Jesus is  fully God and fully man. James Anderson explains the significance of both truths when he writes:

We're told that Jesus was omniscient (John 16:30) but also that he increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52). To be precise, however, we should say that Jesus was omniscient with respect to his divine nature and gained wisdom with respect to his human nature. On this basis, it seems natural to say that God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature. Since Jesus' death and resurrection pertained to his human nature, this standard Christological distinction suggests a way to reconcile the events of Jesus' life with the immutability of God. (see James Anderson, "Did God Change in the Incarnation".

It is also not to suggest that Jesus somehow lacked human consciousness that he was the eternal Son of God, Messiah and the Redeemer who would lay down His life a ransom for many. Geerhardus Vos rightly explained that Jesus' "destiny and conscious purpose were identical":

"Our Lord affirms that he came to give his life as a ransom. The verb 'came' belongs not merely to the first thing named--the ministering--but it belongs equally (as) much to the second thing named--the giving of the life by way of ransom: the Son of Man came to minister and to give. I beg you to notice this form of the statement sharply because many have tried to put upon it the weakening interpretation: Jesus came to serve and found, in the course of his life, that to serve to the full meant for him to die. But that merely makes the death the outcome of the service."

...Jesus did not live the greater part of his life in a naive ignorance and unconsciousness of the web of destiny that was being woven around him. In his case, as in no other case, destiny and conscious purpose were identical. Not only that he died, but that he meant to die for us, this constitutes the preciousness of the gospel story for everyone who reads it with the eye of faith." (Vos, "Sermon on Mark 10:45")

In order to be the Covenant-keeping, true Israelite and Redeemer of His people, Jesus had to learn more and more of His Father's revealed will in Scripture. He did so according to his human capacity at each age and stage of life in order to be equipped as a man to be the Redeemer of men. Jesus never studied in the Rabbinical schools like all the other religious leaders in Israel (John 7:15). But, we must conclude that Mary and Joseph faithfully taught Him the Scriptures from His earliest days. We know that He would have been in the synagogues often as a boy; and Luke tells us that He went with Mary and Joseph to the Temple every year. We find Him there as a 12 year old boy astonishing the teachers with His questions and answers about the Scriptures (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus almost certainly knew the Old Testament by heart. As I have explained elsewhere, Jesus read the Old Testament as the Covenant revelation of God written to Him and about Him. We have frequently rushed to this latter part and rightly rejoiced in the fact that Old Testament was written by and about Jesus, but have failed to see that, at the same time, it was written, first and foremost, to Jesus.

Foremost among those things that Jesus grew in his knowledge of through the Scriptures was that he had to suffer on behalf of his people. Jesus would have known that Isaiah 53 was speaking of him. When he met the two on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27). In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appealed to what the Scriptures said about his sufferings and subsequent glories. He had, no doubt, learned of them as he read God's covenant revelation throughout his life. 

This leads to one final thought about the human growth and development of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus "learned obedience by the things that he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). There was something in the experience of Jesus prior to his agony in the Garden and dereliction on the cross that he did not know prior to the experience of it. This does not intimate that there was any sinful imperfection in him. It merely means that he learned something by way of experience that he did not formerly know according to his human nature. John Owen captured the meaning of Hebrews 5:8-9 so well when he wrote:

"[Christ] can be said to learn obedience only on the account of having an experience of it in its exercise...This he could have no experience of, but by suffering the things he was to undergo, and the exercise of the graces mentioned therein. Thus learned he obedience, or experienced in himself what difficulty it is attended withal, especially in cases like his own. And this way of his learning obedience it is that is so useful unto us, and so full of consolation. For if he had only known obedience, though never so perfectly, in the notion of it, what relief could have accrued unto us thereby? how could it have been a spring of pity or compassion towards us?" 

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men by becoming what Adam, Israel and we have failed to be. He did this by constantly taking the word of God into his mind and heart, thereby learning to conform his human will to the divine will. He also grew in his capacity to obey on account of the experience of the sufferings he endured. By doing so, Jesus lived the life that we haven't lived so that he could die the death that we deserve to die. Jesus was obedient in all things--not least of which was his obedience to his Father in laying down his life for his people on the cross.