God could have sent a full-grown Christ. And from the beginning, he could have created a world of static existence without infants, children, awkward teens, middle-agers and declining seniors—just a race of young, spry, “mature” adults. But God didn’t do it that way. And he doesn’t do it that way today. He designed us for dynamic existence, for stages and seasons of life, for growth and development in body and in soul, both toward others and toward God.
The lion’s share of Jesus’ earthly life powerfully dignifies the everyday pains of maturity and growth common to humanity.
Jesus Grew in Stature
The ancient creed confesses his full humanity, in both body and inner person. Jesus is both “truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body” (Chalcedon, AD 451). Having a “true human body,” Jesus was born, he grew, he thirsted, he hungered, he wept, he slept, he sweated, he bled and he died.
All four Gospels unfold his three-year public ministry, and give nearly half their space to the final week of his life. But what was the God-man doing most of his earthly life? He was growing. What did he do for three decades between his celebrated birth and his unforgettable ministry? He walked the ordinary, unglamorous path of basic human growth and development. He grew.
The man Christ Jesus did not simply emerge from the wilderness preaching the kingdom. He learned to latch and crawl, to walk and talk. He scraped his knees. Perhaps he broke a finger or wrist. He fought off the common cold, suffered through sick days and navigated his way in the awkwardness of adolescence. He learned social graces and worked as a common laborer in relative obscurity more than half his earthly life.
Jesus Grew in Wisdom
But Jesus grew not only in body, but also in soul, like every other human, in wisdom and knowledge. Even by age 12, Luke could say Jesus was “filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), not because he got it all at once, or always had it, but because he was learning.
Through sustained effort and hard work, he came into mental acumen and emotional intelligence that he did not possess as a child. And he didn’t receive it all in one moment, but he grew in wisdom, through the painful steps of regular progress. His human mind and heart developed. He grew mentally and emotionally, just as he grew physically. As Donald Macleod captures it, “He was born with the mental equipment of a normal child, experienced the usual stimuli and went through the ordinary process of intellectual development” (The Person of Christ, 164).
Surely, we find extraordinary instances later in his life of supernatural knowledge, given by the Spirit, in the context of ministry. He knew Nathanael before he met him (John 1:47). But we shouldn’t confuse such supernatural knowledge, given by special revelation, with the hard-earned, infinite learning of his upbringing.
Jesus learned from the Scriptures and from his mother, in community and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and he increased in wisdom by carefully observing everyday life and how to navigate God’s world.
Jesus Learned Obedience
An essential aspect of his growth in stature and wisdom was his learning obedience, both to his earthly parents (he “was submissive to them,” Luke 2:51) and his heavenly Father.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7–9)
That he “learned obedience” does not mean that he began as disobedient, but that he began as unlearned and inexperienced, and the dynamic existence of human life gave him experience and know-how. That he was “made perfect” doesn’t mean that he began as sinful, but that he began in sinless immaturity and grew into maturity.