A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

The Word’s First Words

Rudolf Stier wrote nine volumes (4500 pages) of detailed commentary on every word spoken by Jesus and recorded in the Bible. You might imagine how seriously such an author would take the very first words spoken by Jesus, hearing in them the deep implications of what it means for God to speak in the flesh. Those very first words are recorded in Luke 2:49 “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The first recorded words of Jesus are addressed to Mary, and he is asking her a pair of questions.

In these words, Jesus “begins to find out His own mystery, and it is not merely a first word to His parents and to us, but also a first word of the Eternal Spirit in the human spirit of the person of the God man.” Stier thinks that since Mary and Joseph “did not understand” what his words to them meant (verse 50), these words were probably “the first ‘My Father’ which had fallen from the lips of the child.” (18) That is, Mary suggests to him the theme of fatherhood by saying “your father and I have been searching for you,” and Jesus replies, to her surprise and to their bewilderment, with a question that presupposes a deeper and higher sense of fatherhood than Mary’s opening gambit had offered. “My father? Let me tell you about my father.” Stier says, “The opposition between His own ” My Father” and Mary’s “thy father,” referring to Joseph, is very distinct.” (22) But Jesus offers his counter-question less as a rebuke than as a boost: He takes the theme of fatherhood and raises it to the ultimate eminence: “The great truth rises before Him out of Joseph’s name of father, that His own true Father is He, whom no one in Israel had ever addressed by that name, and Himself never till now : He, in whose house and Temple He now stands.” (22)

“Yet He does not simply say, in my Father’s house, but according to the more extensive and undefined en tois of the Greek, in my Father’s matters.” (23) Stier finds several layers of meaning in Jesus’ elliptical “that which has to do with my Father.”

First, it does mean his Father’s house: that place where Mary and Joseph should have known that he would be. Second, though, it also means “in my Fathers will, by His guidance and inward direction.” This would have been “a conclusive justification of His remaining behind in the temple without reference to His parents’ knowledge and permission.” Where Jesus customarily submitted to his earthly parents, he has now reached the age when submission to his heavenly Father will emancipate him and make his path of life distinct from theirs. And third, “that which is of his Father” must mean a profound and compelling immersion in the very subject-matter, the essential reality of God’s ways:

To be in anything (sein in etwas), as a proverbial expression among men, denotes the occupation of the whole life in it, the being wholly given up to it. Viewed thus, it gives a yet further answer, how it came to pass that He remained behind, and is a disclosure of the most secret self-justifying reason of the circumstance:—I thought of nothing else, it was my meat, the instinctive aim and impulse of my being, that higher law within me, by obeying which I was not disobedient to you,—I must! Here already is the germ of that sacred must, which the Lord so often utters in the subsequent way of His obedience. (23)

To bring out the contrast, Stier indulges in a little imaginative exploration of what could reasonably be expected from the average twelve-year-old on a road trip to Jerusalem: “dissipating attention to the wonders of the great city, visitations among friends and acquaintances, thoughts about the journey and the return.” But Jesus was focused: “the thoughts and actions of the Holy Child were entirely absorbed and wrapped up in this one thing.” (23)

Fourth, in this first recorded saying, Jesus declares that he had to be in another thing of his Father’s, and that is his Father’s school. Stier gets to this insight by inquiring “what drew and impelled Him as the youth…to the Father?” What drew him so magnetically was the place where learning and inquiring after God could take place; “the place where God’s word was to be learned.” His question “didn’t you know” has the force of an assertion: “I am in my Father’s school for my own instruction.” Young Jesus is not just a temple bird, but a Bible boy:

Inasmuch as He does not say, among the doctors, masters, and wise men, but instead of them names only the Father; His word may be regarded as containing that great and weighty disclosure of His own previous and subsequent inner education, for the sake of which principally this record is given to us. Just now, when He begins to be a ” son of the law,” He first calls God His Father—His master, teacher, educator. Jesus was most inwardly taught of the Father, although not without external and human instrumentality. Life, instruction, holy writ, awakened what was within Him ; He seeks His God in the temple, in order to find Him as His Father; among the masters in Israel He asks questions, in order that through them He may receive from on high the true answers; and the Father’s inner guidance even connects itself with the custom to take the youth of twelve years’ old first up to the feast to present them before the Lord. Thus it was the Father alone who taught Him when his mother early recited or read to Him out of Scripture ; and not otherwise was it with the youth, the young man, and the man in the Synagogue at Nazareth. (24)

Stier considers how Jesus must have traced God’s ways and words through all of the Old Testament, and seen how the covenants and dispensations, promises and prophesies, all converged toward the declaration “thou art my Son.” And in light of that self-perception, Jesus asks Mary and Joseph about another thing, a fifth thing of his Father’s that it was necessary for him to be in: his “Father’s hand, and guidance, and protection.”

Stier has some interesting insights into the fact that Jesus was not seated as one with authority, as if teaching and instructing his elders. Instead he was humbly listening to them, and asking questions. This is important and well noted, but it needs to be squared with the text’s description of him as “sitting among the teachers” (2:46). And Jesus’ questioning also needs to be reconciled with the result that those who heard him were “amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (2:47) Apparently Jesus was both asking and answering, inquiring and demonstrating understanding, in a complex way. Stier’s emphasis is on the fact that Jesus was not yet speaking with his full authority in this isolated glimpse we have into his youth. But what we do see is a glimmer of the glory that is to come: “the seat of the learner predicts the future throne of the teacher.” (19)

These are the first words of Jesus to be recorded. Stier considers them as a consummating interpretation of Jesus looking back on the meaning of his own childhood, and as a prophetic description of his course of life looking forward:

His word contains an impressive reference to the Past, in order to point the view to the Future ; an explanation concerning the whole life of the child, and its development into the youth, the young man, the man. Not as if the mind of the child had specifically conceived all which we deduce from His word, but He speaks prophetically of Himself. The Spirit of Christ in Himself spreads its wings, and that word which spontaneously gushed from the deepest source of His life in the Father, becomes to the Son a holy text, which He, too, may search into yet more diligently (1 Pet. i. 11). Yet is it a pure and genuine child-word, the immediate and unstudied utterance, on the border of childhood, of child-like simplicity; and thus it discloses the first independent acting of Him who, passing the limit of childhood, abides still in His Father’s business. (26)

I have tried to paraphrase and summarize Stier on these words, but I see that I have ended by block-quoting him quite a bit. His style is sometimes a bit fulsome (“the Spirit of Christ in Himself spread its wings”), but it often rises to the high occasion of attending to divine speech, and it certainly expresses his singular personality. Consider this aside in which he takes a swat at self-confident Bible commentators and critics:

Even Mary herself, like the rest, appears not yet to understand, before the day of Pentecost, the mystery of the person of Jesus—and who is there below that fully understands it ? Thou, vain expositor, hast not the heart of Mary, probably nothing of the Pentecostal spirit; and yet art thou so ready to cry out—I understand the words which He has spoken? (26)

Stier concludes his discussion by noting that Jesus’ first words here declare the independence of the Son of God from his earthly family, but are spoken at age twelve of something that will still be eighteen more years in the coming. Luke tells us that Jesus continued to be in submission “to them,” that is, to both Mary his mother and to Joseph whose familial relation of fatherhood he had just radically relativized. Indeed, since the Father’s way was a training in obedience, we might say that Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father by submitting to his earthly family.

And finally, in this first word, “about my Father’s business,” we hear the same note as in his corresponding final words before death, “Father, into thy hands.”

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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