Among all the miracles and surprises surrounding God himself becoming man, Luke 2:51 may sound the most unexpected note of all: Jesus “went down [from Jerusalem] with [Joseph and Mary] and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.”
God submitted to man. The God-child obeyed his mere human parents. And in doing so, he dignified the most basic, and enduring, of everyday relational dynamics. In our modern age, taught to despise the ideas of submission and obedience, the Son of God himself, worthy of limitless worship and praise, shatters our shallow conceptions of value and worth. Jesus’s obedience to his parents challenges the insecurities in us that often make us averse to submit and obey.
God himself in human flesh subjected himself to two average, ordinary, inexperienced parents in an obscure, backwater town called Nazareth.
Jesus obeyed his parents.
Who’s Afraid to Submit?
By the end of Luke 2, we’re no longer dealing with baby Jesus. He is 12 years old (Luke 2:42), on the cusp of adulthood in the ancient world. Joseph and Mary are the proper recipients of Jesus’s submission, even when he was old enough to stand on his own two feet, because of God’s calling on them as parents, not because of their competencies.
Jesus is likely already more competent in the faith than his parents. After all, he is not only “filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40) but also “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He not only sits with the nation’s teachers and formulates appropriate questions, but “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). That he eclipsed his parents in spiritual and theological competency didn’t put him in charge, however. Not yet. How impressive would his emerging understanding have been if he had overlooked one of Moses’s ten clearest words, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12)?
Here Jesus, at age 12, teaches us an essential lesson for any age: godly submission, in whatever context, does not stem from lack of competency. We are never too smart, too skilled, too experienced, or too spiritual for God-given submission.
None of this means Jesus’s human obedience was automatic. How else would he learn it than from godly parents who taught it and required it? Godly submission doesn’t happen without effort (from parents and from child). It is learned. Just as Jesus “learned obedience [to his heavenly Father] through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), so he also learned it by Joseph’s patience and care.
Limits of Earthly Submission
His submission to his parents did have limits. His Father in heaven was the sole recipient of his absolute allegiance, even as his father and mother on earth received his real and substantial respect. We come within earshot of the tension. When Mary finally finds her 12-year-old after three days, she says, exasperated, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48). Jesus responds, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His parents don’t understand at the time (Luke 2:50), but “the saying” shouldn’t be lost on us now.
His highest and final submission was in heaven. Submission on earth, however proper, would not keep him from obeying his Father, dwelling in his Father’s house, or even parting from his parents for three days. His ultimate submission was to God; his second submission, to Joseph and Mary. Because his Father said, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Glimpses of God and Man
Yet the place in the story where we most glimpse the 12-year-old Christ’s “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies,” as Jonathan Edwards put it, may be in Luke 2:46–47:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
This is no small tribute to both his parents’ diligence and the Spirit’s power. We see his true humanness as he listens and asks questions. He has questions because he is human. He’s growing. He’s learning. He’s humble enough to listen, and to admit what he doesn’t know by asking questions. And in it all, he is stunningly submissive.
But he doesn’t only have questions. He has enough backbone to speak. And when he does, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He spoke up because his Father has spoken. God has revealed many precious truths about himself, and even preserved them in writing. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1). The Father has not been silent, and so the Son (and we ourselves, if we’ve listened) is not without understanding and answers.
Not So Among You
A day was coming when all things would be subjected to him (1 Corinthians 15:28), but first his Father would have him learn what it meant to be subject himself. First, he would learn “from the bottom” the beauty and joy of God-designed submission. Then he would know, and display, “from the top” the true heart of leading like his Father: not lording it over those in his charge (Mark 10:42; 2 Corinthians 1:24), not being served but serving (Mark 10:44–45), not squashing his subjects but working with them for their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; Hebrews 13:17).
The God-man will lead as one who knows what it’s like to follow. He will wield all authority in heaven and on earth as one who knows what it means to submit, on earth, to his fellow man. He learns first to obey his parents before others will be called to obey him. So also his people — Christians, little christs — he will call, under his lordship, to be “submissive to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1, 5; 1 Peter 2:13), and in church life, to “be subject to the elders” (1 Peter 5:5). As Jesus’s submission prepares him to shepherd, so also his flock. Angels, and the world to come, will be subject to his sheep (1 Corinthians 6:3; Hebrews 2:5).
One Step at a Time
At age 12, Jesus is not yet carrying his own crossbeam to Golgotha, but as he obeys his parents, he walks the path that will eventually lead him up the hill. His own self-humbling — which began in coming as an infant and now extends in submitting to his parents — will culminate “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Mary says she has been searching for him “in great distress” (Luke 2:48). Twelve years prior, in that same city, Simeon had prophesied to her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Also. She would not be the only one pierced. Indeed he would be more than pierced. And as her son goes down with her from Jerusalem, and comes to Nazareth, and is submissive to her and Joseph, he walks the terrifying and glorious path that lies before him, one act of obedience at a time.
Where Obedience Leads
Jesus’s obedience to his parents is the crowning jewel of a threefold humbling in Luke 2:51: down from the big city, to the small town, under his parents’ authority. Another threefold descension will come on the night before he dies: he will rise from supper, strap on a towel, and wash his disciples’ feet (John 13:3–5). This, and more, will fulfill the great threefold humbling of his incarnation: he empties himself, becomes a servant, and is obedient to death (Philippians 2:6–8).
But under his Father’s strong hand, the descension never ends at stage three. The Father will not leave his Son stuck at 12, or with a towel around his waist, or dead in the grave. He will highly exalt him (Philippians 2:9). This is where godly obedience always leads, in God’s good timing. In obeying his earthly parents, Jesus humbles himself under the mighty hand of his heavenly Father, and at the proper time, God will raise him up (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10).
Jesus’s obedience will not spell the end of his happiness. Rather, it will be the death of everything that would have kept him from full and lasting joy.