Luke records the only adolescent account we have about Jesus between his birth and public ministry (Lk 2.41-51). Joseph and Mary were faithful Jews (cf. Lk 2.21-24, 39) who loved Torah and “went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (Lk 2.41). The year Jesus turned twelve was no different, at least for Joseph and Mary.
Jewish tradition dictated a boy became personally responsible to Torah when he turned thirteen (girls at twelve). This coming into manhood (or womanhood) coincided with puberty and all the biological abilities/responsibilities that come with it. Manhood began with the first facial hair. Womanhood began at the first “time of the month.”
The ability to reproduce carried with it the responsibilities of adulthood (unlike our modern idea of the “teenager”). If one was able to make a Jew then he/she had better be ready to live like one. Conjugation demanded obligation. Though Joseph and Mary were probably in their teens themselves when Jesus was born, they were nevertheless considered adults in terms of covenantal responsibility (cf. Mt 1.19). Therefore, when a boy turned thirteen he was held accountable to Torah and should prepare for marriage.
When a boy turned twelve years old his “vows” would be examined before they became “valid” at thirteen. For the year leading up to his vows, the rabbis would make sure a Jewish man was in the making. They made sure the boy would know/love his Torah when he got his first razor.
When a 12-year-old Jesus was “caught” in the temple he was doing exactly what every 12-year-old Jewish boy should be doing. He is listening to and asking of his teachers (v46). He was not proudly assuming the rabbi’s seat teaching the leaders. He was asking questions, listening and being questioned. Joseph and Mary would have known that, or at least should have (Lk 2.49-50). He was not doing anything his parents told him not to do. In fact, faithful Jewish parents should expect their first 12-year-old son to be exactly what he was doing. Only Jesus did it on his own!
Luke hints that Jesus sensed his purpose when he called the temple “My Father’s” house (v49). What must’ve Joseph thought? Jesus set himself to take on his father’s business but it would not be carpentry.
Yet you are He who brought me forth from the womb; you made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; you have been my God from my mother’s womb” (Ps 22.9-10).
That was difficult to understand (v50). Already we see a Jesus who is peculiarly prepared and preparing in ways beyond his own brothers (cf. Jn 7.5). He “kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (v52). Jesus was the oldest brother in every biblical sense of the word, far beyond merely being Mary’s first son.
Joseph and Mary commanded Jesus to get back in the car (v51). Nazareth was a long way and Joseph had orders to fill. Jesus obeyed and “continued in subjection to them.” When his parents commanded him, he obeyed. The one to whom all the worlds would be subjected (Eph 1.22) continued in subjection to his parents. Jesus would always honor his mother (Jn 2.1-11; 19.26f.) and she never forgot that (Lk 2.51).
Jesus did not disobey his parents. If anything, his faithful Torah-loving parents prepared him for that day in Jerusalem. He knew that and they would one day know the same (Mk 3.31-35).
The Wisdom of the world (Prov 8) grew in wisdom. The Powerful One grew in stature. The eternally-beloved of the Father grew in favor with God. The Answer of the ages was being questioned.
No, that was no rebellious 12-year-old in church that day. It was the Creator of the world. And he was humbling himself to the very world he created, even unto death. The day has begun when he is through asking questions and will command the worlds to answer to him.