May 13, 2014 Broadcast

Boy Jesus in the Temple

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The New Testament tells us very little about the years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of His ministry. The Gospel of Luke contains the one significant account that exists—the story of Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of twelve. In this lecture, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains what we can learn about the person and work of Christ from this brief narrative.

From the series: What Did Jesus Do?: Understanding the Work of Christ

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Greater than the Temple

  2. article

    Obedient Unto Death

  3. article

    Jesus’ Childhood

Greater than the Temple

Christ’s call for the heavy-laden to come to Him for rest (Matt. 11:28–30) provides an excellent backdrop for today’s passage on the Sabbath, the day of rest prescribed in the Old Testament (Ex. 20:8–11). If Jesus gives rest to His people, His view of the Sabbath helps us understand the nature of His respite.

Judah’s failure to keep the Sabbath was one reason God sent the nation into exile in 586 b.c. (2 Chron. 36:11–21; Jer. 17:27). After the people returned to Palestine (2 Chron. 36:22–23), many religious leaders worked to ensure the Sabbath would be kept so that they would not be kicked out of their land again. They built a “fence” around the Torah — God’s law through Moses — out of various oral traditions, reasoning that the people, in keeping the oral laws, would also obey the letter of the Law protected by the fence. So tenuous was the tie between the oral dos and don’ts and the Word of God that some said the traditions were like mountains hanging by a hair (scant biblical foundation).

The disciples’ failure to keep the oral laws explains the complaint of the Pharisees in today’s passage (Matt. 12:1–2). Plucking grain on the Sabbath is forbidden according to these traditions. Jesus’ response reveals that the Pharisees are misguided. God’s law is not always to be applied woodenly; occasionally, someone may seem to break the letter of the Law and yet not be guilty of transgression (Matt. 12:3–5). David, on the run from Saul, freely ate the bread normally reserved only for the priests (Lev. 24:5–9; 1 Sam. 21:1–9). Without sinning, the priests do the work required for the worship of God on the Sabbath (Lev. 24:8; 1 Chron. 23:24–32). In their zeal to obey the letter of the Law, the Pharisees have not kept its spirit, which calls for mercy to supersede ceremonial regulation when the two seem to be in conflict to us (Matt. 12:7). As Matthew Henry comments, “The works of necessity and mercy are lawful on the Sabbath.”

Ultimately, Christ justifies His disciples’ actions not only with an appeal to Old Testament principles, He also appeals to His own authority. If temple service permits the priests to “break” the Sabbath, how much more is Christ, who is greater than the temple (v. 6), able to ignore the customs of men?  

Obedient Unto Death

Nicholas Needham

“Passive” is not a complimentary word to apply to someone these days. It suggests an inert, sluggish, withdrawn soul that is lost in daydreams. So perhaps it sounds like a contradiction to speak of “passive obedience.” How can obedience be passive?

I suppose if someone in authority commands you to be inert, sluggish, withdrawn, and lost in daydreams, then your passivity will be an act of obedience — although we are now descending into wild paradox with our talk of a “passive act”!

The passive obedience of Christ, however, doesn’t involve these contradictions and paradoxes. The word “passive” here suggests the older meaning of “suffering.” There was an aspect to Christ’s obedience to the will of His Father that embraced suffering, a submission to affliction and infliction. Hence the term “the Passion” is used to describe the last hours of the Savior’s life, from Gethsemane onwards.

The counterpart to Christ’s obedience-as-suffering is His “active obedience.” This refers to the way He positively embodied in His character and deeds His Father’s precepts for human life. Since Christ is the True Man, and since God’s will for humanity is expressed in the Moral Law, Christ’s active obedience is His fulfillment of that Law. If we want to see the meaning of the Ten Commandments fleshed out in a human life, we must look at Christ.

It’s quite common today to find people rejecting this distinction between Christ’s “active” and “passive” obedience as artificial. But it would only be artificial if we said that Christ’s active obedience was everything He did prior to Gethsemane, and His passive obedience was everything that happened afterwards. That won’t work, because Christ suffered prior to Gethsemane (think of the inner pain He must have experienced every day, as He witnessed human sin and the wreck it makes of lives created for God). And of course, Christ kept on obeying His Father’s precepts during the whole course of the Passion. So we must not make that pre- and post-Gethsemane kind of distinction.

What theologians are trying to do when they distinguish between the active and passive obedience of Christ is point to a very real distinction between different aspects, or different dimensions, of the one life of Christ. Throughout His entire life, Christ fulfilled the Moral Law. But so would Adam have done if sin had not entered the world when he sinned. It’s the entrance of sin that brings in a new, darker dimension to the obedience required of Man: he must now submit to God’s holy judgment as a result of his transgression.

So when Christ comes as the Second Adam, it won’t suffice for Him simply to live the holy life that unfallen Adam ought to have lived. The Second Adam’s obedience also means submitting humbly to the awesome divine verdict on human sin. He was submissive throughout His life as He underwent all the hardships and sorrows of a sinless man in a fallen world. But His submission to His Father’s judgment on our sin reached its apex on the cross. Prior to this, Christ had only walked in the outer shadow of judgment, so to speak, still enjoying the light of His Father’s face. On Skull Hill, He entered the innermost darkness when He cried out, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Yet still He embraced the darkness with a submissive spirit — a Son obeying His Father’s purpose, at one with the Father in His redemptive design.

By calling this submission of Christ a passive “obedience,” theologians are highlighting two hugely important points. First, the Passion didn’t fall on an unwilling Savior. The Lamb of God wasn’t dragged to the altar of Calvary kicking and screaming.He was, as John Milton puts it, “a sacrifice glad to be offered.” Anything else would have destroyed the revelatory nature of the Cross as the supreme display of love. We couldn’t really say, “See how much Christ loved me: He suffered for me most unwillingly!”

Second, suffering by itself isn’t enough to atone for sin. Atonement concerns giving God what we owe Him. Since we sinners don’t (and can’t) give God what we owe Him, God does something staggering. He Himself on our behalf gives to Himself what we owe, as God the Son becomes Man and deals with His Father in humanity’s name. But one of the things we owe God is submission to His holy verdict on our sin. Not just suffering the verdict, but also submitting to it, with a full confession of our sin, and a full acknowledgment of God’s holiness in judging our sin. After all, if it’s a mere question of suffering, the lost are going to suffer God’s judgment. But that won’t atone for their sin. Hell isn’t purgatory.

So if we sinners are to give God what we owe, then the great representative of sinners, Christ the God-Man, must do two things for us. He must endure the penalty of sin, and in the midst of that endurance, from His heart of consuming fire, He must also sing a hymn of praise to the divine holiness and justice that judge the sinner. He must suffer, and He must submit perfectly to the suffering. That alone will suffice to make full atonement for human transgression; that alone will give God what we owe Him. And that is what Christ has done for us. His Passion took Him to the heights of holy obedience. The incarnate Son of God freely submitted on our behalf, from the core of His being, to His Father’s holy death-sentence on our old Adamic humanity in all its vile unholiness. Here was “passive obedience” indeed. Was Christ ever more gloriously obedient to His Father’s will than when He willingly endured the Cross?

This surely accounts for the Bible’s emphasis on the voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John10:17–18). “He gave himself for our sins” (Gal.1:4). “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). “He made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant ... He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:7–8). “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us” (Tit. 2:13–14).

Pause, then, and contemplate. The eternal Son of God, Creator of the universe, worshiped and adored by angels and archangels, has offered Himself in your place. He has offered Himself freely, willingly, and gladly, to endure the judgment that your sin deserves, and to endure it in a holy way — saying the perfect “Yea and Amen!” to the holiness of the judgment, which your corrupt heart could never have said. As far as atoning for your sins is concerned, the only thing you owe God is endless gratitude. And, to quote John Milton again, “a grateful mind by owing owes not, but still pays, at once indebted and discharged; what burden then?”

May God crown all the immensity of His grace in Jesus Christ with the gift of an unburdened, grateful heart.

Jesus’ Childhood

Jerry Bridges

Matthew 2, along with a few verses in Luke 2, provides all the historical data we have concerning the early childhood of Jesus. And since the writers of the Gospels were masters of brevity and understatement, Matthew 2 fairly bristles with questions we long to have answered. Among them we’d like to know more about the wise men, the star they saw, and how they connected it to the one who was born king of the Jews. Obviously, if the Holy Spirit had wanted us to have more information, He would have guided Matthew to include it. So rather than being distracted by unanswered questions, we should look for the main purpose of the passage. What does the Holy Spirit want us to learn? 

First, Jesus was sent, not only to be king of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. The wise men were prestigious and wealthy members of their Gentile society, so it was fitting that our Lord’s birth would be announced to them as king of the Jews. This announcement anticipated the glorious day when the great commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) would be fulfilled and “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps. 22:27). 

To the Gentiles He is announced as king and to the shepherds as Savior. Perhaps this was God’s way of announcing that Jesus was sent to be both Savior and king to both Jews and Gentiles, and to all levels of society from the lowest to the greatest.

But before the throne there would be the cross. And before the cross there would be a lifetime of suffering and humiliation. The wise men who worshiped Jesus had no sooner left than Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to flee to Egypt to escape the sword of Herod. And when they did return to Israel, the town of Bethlehem was still not safe, forcing them to return to the city of Nazareth. So, instead of being known as a child of the royal city of King David’s Bethlehem, Jesus grew up to be known as a Nazarene. Being called a Nazarene was not just a means of geographical identification, such as being called a New Englander. It was actually a demeaning term since Nazareth apparently had a bad reputation as evidenced by Nathaniel’s sincere question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Being called a Nazarene then was like saying he came from “the other side of the tracks.” Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy that “he was despised and rejected by men…he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3) began to be fulfilled even in His childhood. 

Matthew records four specific incidents from the early childhood of Jesus, and he is careful to point out that all four incidents — the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the flight of the family to Egypt, the killing of the small boys and the final settlement of the family in Nazareth — occurred in fulfillment of prophetic utterances (see Matt. 2:5–6, 15–17, 23). Though Matthew’s purpose at the time was to prove that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations concerning the Messiah, these prophecies should also give us confidence in God’s prophetic promises about events yet to unfold, such as the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth. What God has predicted prophetically, He will certainly bring to pass in His time. 

The details of the actual fulfillment of the four prophecies concerning Jesus would have surprised us all. Who would have imagined that Joseph and Mary would journey all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to a Roman decree so that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem — not Nazareth where he was conceived? Who would have guessed that Hosea 11:1, which referred originally to the exodus from Egypt, would have a further fulfillment in the life of Jesus? Or that Jeremiah 31:15 written at the time of the Babylonian exile would be fulfilled in the killing of the small boys of Bethlehem. Who could have predicted the events that caused Joseph finally to settle in Nazareth in fulfillment of Scripture?

So let us hold our various views of end time events with humility. That those events will occur is something we can be certain of. But our views as to how those events will unfold are, for the most part, only speculation. So let’s hold our views with humility and practice love and acceptance toward those who hold other views.

A good rule for us all would be to focus not on the more speculative parts of the Bible such as unanswered questions and unfulfilled prophecy, but on that which is clearly taught — that Christ is both Savior and king. As Savior He was despised and rejected and crucified for our sins, and as king He is to rule in each of our lives as both Savior and Lord.  

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