A group of American young people on a missions trip to Africa
The teenage years are referred to as the “formative years”—the development and maturing of adolescence (Latin:adolescere meaning “to grow up”). The teenage years are years of adventure, exploration, and learning. But they are also years of struggle, often torturous and painful, as the young person tries to process information, find his/her feet, choose a career, prove him/herself, or discover where he/she fits in the world. It is that awkward age when the boy/girl is too young to be given responsibility but old enough to know when they’re not trusted—for many teenagers, these are years of discontent, pride, and rebellion.
In very general terms, but crucially important, the Lord has placed the Christian teenager into two spheres of development—life at home and life in the Church. These are years when a teenager most needs parental guidance, and parents need to spend time watching, talking to, and thinking about what their child needs, and how they should respond to the circumstances of life. The Church also, during these adolescent years, needs to make sure that the Christian young person is brought into the body of believers to be mentored and shaped by watching and listening to and interacting with more mature believers.
When we point the young person to Scripture, it might surprise us to learn that there are no teen biographies. In the few biographies that we have—Joseph, David, Samuel, and perhaps Miriam and Daniel—with the exception perhaps of Joseph, age is ignored. Even more surprising is the fact that when we go to the life of Jesus in the four gospels, we have no record at all of the teenage years of Christ. There are eighteen years of absolute silence veiling that time which, by all accounts, is considered the most difficult period of life—the “formative years.”
The Bible is not age-specific. It forces us to search for the biblical principles that apply to the different circumstances of life at any age and in any generation. So, when we look to Jesus for lessons from his teenage years, we have to scratch beneath the surface of the four biographies.
We need to understand that the life of Jesus was like any other life on earth. He was born into a poor home and raised in the backwater village of Nazareth during a time when Israel was experiencing political unrest and economic hardships. It would appear that Joseph, his stepfather, was dead before Jesus began his ministry (according to tradition he died when Jesus we eighteen). Jesus went through his childhood and adolescence within the limits of humanity—he grew and developed like each of us does today. As a child he played on the floor of his Nazareth home and ran in the streets with other boys and girls, he experienced all of the emotions of humanity. He knew what it was to fear, love, pity, and even be angry—but without sin.
The first and clearest lesson from the childhood of Jesus is obedience to his parents. The single recorded glimpse into His childhood (almost teenager) shows Jesus in the same tension, misunderstanding, and mistrust that all teenagers experience. To Jesus, it was a natural thing to be in the temple learning from the teachers and he was surprised that his parents did not know this (Luke 2:49). Jesus expected his parents to understand him, but he was misunderstood and mistrusted and sharply rebuked by his mother. The sequel to this incident is amazing and written for twelve-year-olds and teenagers today. Despite the fact that He was right and they wrong, the Bible says that Jesus went back to Nazareth“and was submissive to them” (Luke 2:51).
Second, Jesus displayed the dignity of humility. No doubt Jesus knew that his parents were descendants of the royal line of David—he was of royal blood. If circumstances had been normal, Jesus would have been brought up in the palace. The sneering words of the synagogue crowd, however, “is not this the carpenter” (Mark 6:3) show us that Jesus continued in the family trade, doing business in the community as a carpenter. In this Christ added dignity to manual and menial work by his diligence and contentment.
In a world where peer pressure is powerful, and perhaps parental pressure is exerted, and in a world of extreme social media pressure, it is easy for a young Christian to get overwhelmed, discouraged and discontent with his/her own lot in life. Remember Christian teenager, that Jesus was “just” a carpenter—and despised for it, but it was the will of his father to do it and it was with this trade that he labored in obscurity for over 15 years. Like Moses, before him, many years of silence and insignificance would open out into great work. The eighteen silent years were not spent in idle frustration and impatience but in humble activity and preparation.
Third, Jesus learned well. As a poor carpenter and a despised “Nazarene,” Jesus, whose native language was Aramaic, would not have been expected to read or write. We know that he did not attend the schools in Jerusalem. The Jews were surprised at his learning; “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” (John 7:15).
Despite his “informal” learning, Jesus was educated, either at home or in the village synagogue. In the years of his ministry, he quoted directly from the Hebrew Scriptures, wrote “with his finger on the ground,” conversed with the Roman centurion, most likely in Greek, and was familiar with different interpretations of the Old Testament. Furthermore, he often argued with the educated Sadducees and Pharisees with the caustic words “have you not read?” I should point out here that this impressive academic ability was not acquired miraculously—he “increased in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52), naturally, as you and I do. We can safely assume then, that his teenage years were not wasted in frivolous pursuits, but in reading and learning from the Scriptures.
One final thought about our Lord’s teenage years is his hidden life of prayer. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that in his humanity (“the days of his flesh”) Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears.” Now, let me pause here and point out that it does not say, “during his years of ministry…” It says “in his humanity…” which includes his teenage years.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah (50:7) Jesus knew that “the Lord God will help me.” He depended on help from his Father. He knew that his ability to overcome temptation, to suffer, to escape the wiles of the devil, and to conquer his enemies, depended on asking for that help (i.e. on prayer). He remembered the promise of the Father, “ask of me …”(Psalm 2:8) and this is what Christ did—“with strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). As a teenager, Jesus was a man of suffering and acquainted with grief, he was “tempted in all points like as we are” and “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” Christ prayed then, as a teenager, because he needed help from the Father.
We ought to be encouraged to pray with the confidence of being heard in Christ, as Christ was heard. Here is the confidence that we need to come to God’s throne of Grace, here is the confidence we need to bring our public life into the secret place and lay it before God knowing the “the Lord God will help me.” Christ presents this life of dignified humility, growing in wisdom, and prayerful faithfulness to the Father to you today, not simply as an exhortation to follow Him, but more urgently as a glorious substitute for all your youthful follies and failures and inadequacies.
In Jesus, the teenager has a faithful friend and sympathizing counselor and confidant and a model to admire and follow.