2 Ways Jesus’ childhood can teach us about effective discipleship

Often in conversations where people speak of Jesus, it seems like Jesus’ lifestyle and behaviours were effortless to Him, downloaded as it where. Now while that might be an attractive idea for our current instantaneous generation, I actually believe the gospels and our own lives in Christ indicate to us that Jesus in fact apprehended his behaviours through much of the same resistance and effort that we engage in to see transformation.

I don’t mean to say that Jesus in any way attempting to earn salvation or strive in ways that were sourced from an insecurity within, but that in fact the very nature of humanity is that we are potential that needs to be cultivated, even before our falleness.

Certainly for us, our fallenness creates barriers to transformation that require the grace of God, namely the indwelling presence of God, but that too requires our participation and the ordering of our desires. This, as anyone who has ever tried can attest, is simply hard work. It is good work, but it is hard work.

So, what might Jesus’ learning and growing phases of his life looked like?1 Well, while there are only fleeting glimpses of his childhood collected in the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels such as the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ paint fanciful and falsified pictures of Jesus’ childhood2, we are left to make projections based on the shape of 1st century jewish education that we can know from other sources and make some informed projections from there.

1. Jesus learned in family

Whilst there are many passing remarks based on a presumption that Jesus would have been involved in some formal rabbinnic schooling, there is actually very little evidence that there was formalised school systems for all. Especially someone of Jesus’ status could have very well been schooled almost entirely at home by his mother and father in torah, vocation (likely some kind of builder) and the work of everyday sustenance.

The shape and size of this educational environment is something I think is worth reflecting on and thinking about it’s implications for modern discipleship. Education here is not simply a transferance of information but a participation in a relational group which passed on knowledge on interpretation (both of torah, surrounding events) and living (putting the knowledge into practise in observing ritual and living a set apart life). This is a key way that we as humans are made to learn, amongst knowing, nurturing, and practising relational groups.

Some implications for discipleship

It is very easy to get drawn into arguments on whether the size of churches matter, and I don’t think that there is inherent worth in whether a faith community is large or small. What I am assured of though is that we only grow through a relational participation of life within a group that resembles the size of a nuclear or slightly larger family. So, no matter whether your overall church size is 5 or 5000, within those numbers there needs to be a group that you are truly living life alongside.

We are shaped by and bear fruit in the relationships that are nearest to us, which is why, although I listen to lots of teaching and training through the internet, I don’t check if I am bearing the fruit through the internet, I have it reflected to me by the people in closest relational and geographical community with me.

Now I know many of us, myself included at times, will want to resist that. We have been taught, predominantly through our interactions with technology that we can trascend our physicality and our geographies. This particularly serves us well when our physicality and geography causes us pain, becomes uncomfortable, offends our feelings or simply do not reflect to us our sense of importance. But, as obvious as it sounds to say, we can be nowhere other than where we actually are.

I don’t mean to throw out the many benefits of friends and mentors that might live at distance to you, but too often it is easy to project a onesided editorial of our lives in ways that communicate that we are the victor or victim when in fact those around us and close enough to us can observe that as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said;

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

We need family, we need neighbours, and we need people who can reflect the true shape of our lives back to us. The most powerful transformation, for both good and bad comes from family and family-level relationships.

2. Jesus learned through the mundane

Life in the 1st century near east was extremely different to 21st century life. I know that seems like an obvious thing to say, but just consider it for a moment.

We live in an automated and information economy but in 1st century palestine there wasn’t running water or supermarkets. I don’t just mean that they didn’t have schools, hospital or the internet, but things we consider basic and archaic technology like good water, sanitation, food and fire were the jobs of every person in the family unit.

Most 1st century palestinians like Jesus had a huge variety of now-forgotten skills just to sustain their lives. Collecting water, building fires, killing and preparing animals, preparing grain, constructing implements and buildings, delivering babies, cleaning, and almost everything imaginable that we now take for granted were piece-meal skills that were crafted through necessity. As a jewish boy Jesus would have been involved in serving the running of his family life through mundane tasks seemingly disconnected from his own upbringing for the sake of his family and community.

These days, especially in the west, the only serving children do is for parents to keep them occupied, entertained or to grow them in character. Households no longer regularly rely on child-labour to get daily necessities done. We are not talking here about industrial revolution-style child labour, of getting children up into chimneys or in factories, but the mundane mechanics of 1st century life like preparing food and cleaning.

Some implications for discipleship – part 2

So what does this have to do with Discipleship? Well, in our automation of modern life, we have much to be thankful for. I am grateful that I did not have to risk my life or miss out on an education to sustain my family during my childhood. It is easy to over-romanticise historical times without recognising that there existed a harshness that we are delivered from in modern times and I don’t want to do that here. But all of our automating of actvities for sustenance gives us a hierarchy of activity;

We have activities we want to do, and activities we have to do and we far prefer the former. The problem with getting to do all the things we want to do scarcely needs describing, but a consistent diet of comfort ends up leaving us numb. Numb to the cost of our comfort, to the pain of others, and ourselves. The seeming mundane can teach us the disciplines, the trustworthyness and stick-ability that is required to truly thrive as people made in the image of God.

It is in the midst of the mundane that God works out our salvtion, where our character grows slowly like an oak tree rather than a fibre-optic 3 second download. Yes, God meets us in the moments but faith is expectation, over time; faithfullness. We need both the seemingly special and the seemingly mundane to grow us up in God.

  1. Much of the historical basis for my projections on the childhood of Jesus came from this teaching from NT scholar Scot McKnights short treatment on what 1st century jewish education might have looked like. You can listen to that here 
  2. these were created to further a divisive theological interpretation in the early church rather than to give faithful account. 

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