Alfred Place Baptist Church

2:51,52 The true nature of Christian nurture

Luke 2:51&52 “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.”

You might have thought that Jesus, having spent twelve years in Nazareth, would now graduate from this junior school and spend the next eighteen years of preparation for his public ministry by studying under the teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem. He has just shown his family his brilliance as he asks the teachers’ questions and answers theirs. His parents can no longer understand him. Consider all the advantages of Jerusalem, its history, law courts, libraries and the leaders who lived there. We would have urged his parents to quit Nazareth and live in Jerusalem or send their son to a kind of boarding school in the capital visiting him when they went to the Passover.

There is nothing like that. We are told that Jesus returned home, that he “went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” (v.51). What humility! What humiliation! Nazareth in the southern part of Galilee was a despised town, unimportant and obscure in the eyes of the leaders of the day. When Nathanael asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth that was not some sarcasm. No one would ever expect the Messiah to come from Nazareth. It would be like a man claiming to be the Son of God today and acknowledging sheepishly that he came from somewhere like Splott in Cardiff, or Lower Cwmtwrch, or Balham in London, or Tipperary in Ireland, or Wigan, or Blackpool in Lanchashire. They are decent places, but jokes are made about them, and they are connected with certain images – maybe unkind and unchristian images, whatever. They wouldn’t encourage people into believing that these would be the kind of places from which God the Son would spring forth. The isolated scattering of little houses on a thornbush covered hill called Nazareth was like that in Jesus’ days. Anyway, the Scripture said that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem and that ended the argument.

Christ was obedient to Joseph and Mary. He was the incarnate God, the Word made flesh and he submitted to a man and woman. The Creator becoming subject to creatures; the Holy One being obedient to sinners; the one who was in the beginning with God became submissive to a young couple. You see how this magnifies the fifth commandment don’t you? He honoured them; he really did. He did not give a show of respect; he did not pretend to be obedient. In his whole daily life while he lived under their roof, he was under their authority, in all the ordinary details of family life, he ran errands for them and did as he was told. Jesus was subject to his Dad and Mum, ‘and he is our childhood pattern.’

But this passage goes on to tell us of the four-fold development of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a broad summary of what he did during the thirty silent years he was in Nazareth. He went through all the successive stages of human development, spiritual, intellectual, physical and social. Our text is telling us not only that Jesus lived in isolated Nazareth, and was subject to his mother and father, but that while he was there he developed in these various ways. If Elizabeth periodically came visiting Mary across the years, and she hadn’t seen Jesus for a couple of years, she’d say, “Hasn’t he grown? And such a nice boy.” My point here is that these words are set before us as an example of how all human beings ought to develop. These are the goals of Christian nurture for every home and for all boys and girls in each part of the world, at home and at school, and it will be the divine standard for children everywhere until the end of time. As we train our children in the way that they should go then this is to be our overall goal, the broad philosophy of Christian education that God lays down for us in the Bible. This is the kind of development to look for in children.

As we are involved in the education of children at lots of different levels, merely through being grandparents, through paying taxes, through being models or spectators, being a part of the whole education movement, formally and informally, we are to keep this divine exemplar found in our text constantly in our minds. Everything in the education process, formally and informally, is to be subservient to this fourfold goal. Everything else is to be secondary. One great test of someone being an educated person is whether he or she has been carried along and deposited at this goal. He has grown in wisdom, and in stature, in favour with God and with men. This is the goal of Christian nurture; this is the criterion of Christian methods, and their success. So as we approach this let us ask ourselves whether our children are getting a proper Christian upbringing.

JESUS INCREASED IN STATURE.
He grew physically, infancy, childhood, adolescence and manhood; Jesus’ growth was not stunted at any stage of his development. Parents can make an immense contribution to their children’s health. The most elementary beginning is teaching a child where its daily bread comes from, a loving heavenly Father. Children recognize this in every grace they hear before meals, and every time they remember the Lord’s Prayer where its first petition is asking God to “give us this day our daily bread.” In other words God creates a concern for the physical side of life, for our bodies, our health and our food.

We teach children that God expects them to glorify him in their bodies, that they present their very bodies as living sacrifices to God. One day we hope that our children’s bodies will be temples of the Holy Ghost, that God the Spirit will take up his residence within them, that he will visit them in regenerating power and energy giving them another birth and make them new creations. We pray that he will enable them to yield the members of their bodies as instruments of righteousness to God. We long for their strength, stamina, and resilience to be dedicated to God’s glory, and so every parent has a concern for the physical side of his child’s development.

It also has some reference to proper nutrition, and being aware of the dangers of obesity, of healthy food and ensuring children have a balanced diet. That might be fairly easy to establish as a goal, though implementing it varies so much from child to child. What is more important than that is to instill into children a certain attitude to their bodies. What is a child’s attitude going to be? Is it going to be ashamed of its body, immodest about it and prudish? Will it be pensive about its body, or pamper it, or discipline it? Will it harm its own body, or the other extreme, idolize it? Will it care for its body?

We are surrounded by hideous influences that say, “If your body has certain appetites and hungers and desires then all that is perfectly natural. Go ahead! Satisfy them! If you like the taste drink it. If you like the dream world then smoke it. If you like the buzz snort it. If you like the ecstasy then swallow it. If you like the mood change inject it. If a person likes it, then do it! If both persons like it then let them both do it.” There is no other criterion but your likes. That attitude dominates our relativistic culture, but the word of God stands over such hedonism and indulgence. It says certain experiences might be beautiful to you but self denial and cross bearing is more beautiful still. It says, “Glorify God with your bodies. Serve him cheerfully with your energy at every age from the dash of youth to the more sedate pace of old age. Satisfy your bodies in their God-designed functions and you will learn solid joy and lasting pleasure. Maintain purity before marriage and faithfulness within it. We have to answer at the judgment day for the deeds done in the body. Make sure your body is the temple of the Spirit.

Again we can say this, that there are many physical and manual skills our children need to acquire, in using their hands and gaining proficiency in basic abilities. For example, they need to be encouraged to have neat handwriting even though much of their written communication is bound to be via a computer. They say that doctors have the worst handwriting so that you can never understand the prescriptions they have written out for you. Every Jewish child learned a trade. Saul of Tarsus learned how to make tents and it became very useful to him as a Christian. He never knew when growing up how indispensable his skill in this trade would prove to be. It kept him alive and independent of anyone’s charity. He never begged. We have lost sight of the advantages of having a manual skill.

In our town we are living under the shadow of a university. We mustn’t be intimidated by that. I was talking last week to a new preacher who has come to town, and he was comparing his last congregation to his present one. He was one of the most qualified men in his last rural congregation, but here he is one of the least qualified men in the church. He was laughing about it; he had enough confidence in his gift and calling and in the affection of his people not to let his lack of post-graduate degrees get him down. University is not the goal for every child. Eden was not a university; it was a garden. With all his spiritual and mental activity Adam found delight and expressed himself in manual labour. We are to impress on our children the dignity, importance and necessity of elementary manual skills – homecraft, maintenance, gardening, do it yourself. John Murray would return every two years to the farm on which he was born by the side of Loch Migdale in Sutherland and soon he would be planting trees, and digging ditches, and herding sheep as he did before he went to fight in the first World War. Parents will teach their children such skills, and then they in turn will teach us how to operate computers. It is essential these days for men and women to learn computing.

I am saying that a child can use his body in the service of his God and Saviour. Let his strength be used first of all in loving his neighbour as himself. Let his dexterity and co-ordination be given in loving God and loving others more and more. Think of a very superior athlete who is also a Christian. Consider, for example, Eric Liddell who won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. He was encouraged in his running by another Christian who was his headmaster. In that school the head saw it as a normal part of human development – even indispensable – to take some part in physical education. Eric Liddell’s sister Jenny was portrayed in his film Chariots of Fire as a frumpish, disapproving, pursed-lipped opponent of her brother’s running, and that that is the authentic voice of true Christianity, and that Eric’s athletic skills was some kind of aberration and rather dangerous. What a cruel distortion it all is. Jenny said, “We were all thrilled about his running.” Of course. Remember all the metaphors about running a race and winning the prize both in Old Testament and in the New. That metaphor would not have been used by the Spirit if athletics were a sinful pursuit. There is only one justification for a man running, or a child playing, and that is that God has given him a body, and beyond that it needs no defence.

I do not need to encourage any Christian to get more involved in playing sport. Today we are surrounded by multitudes who live for sport. They virtually worship sport; this is what they talk about. These are their heroes; this is how they spend their evenings watching other men playing football on television or reading about their exploits in the papers. Today the great need is for Christian sportsmen to say, “Sport is not my god; success and winning is not my god. I am not living for soccer, or rugby or tennis.”

I am simply saying now that it is deemed sufficiently important for the Holy Spirit and Luke to tell us here that God the Son increased in stature. In his strength, co-ordination, balance, manual skills and dexterity he developed. He was a useful assistant to Joseph in the carpenter’s shop. He had such phenomenal physical energy, and endurance later on during those years of his ministry. He could travel, and preach for hours, while having no home to retire to at the end of the day for rest and seclusion, not even a cubby hole he could call his own. He would rise early to pray and stay awake late at night, and heal at much cost to himself when virtue went out of him so that though he was super-strong he was often exhausted. There was one occasion when he slept on a little pillow on the hard planks of a fishing boat in a storm. But he was able to do all that he needed to do, and finish every task he was given. I am saying that one reason for this tremendous achievement of our strong young Saviour was that he had a right attitude to his own body, and that that wholesome Biblical attitude must be ours too.

JESUS INCREASED IN WISDOM.
There was intellectual development. There was an increase in understanding and comprehension; Jesus’ mind grew. He asked “Why?” and his father and mother explained things to him. He resolutely gathered information; he made the connections; his vocabulary grew. The body of factual knowledge in his possession increased. He learned about himself, about his whole environment, about his history and about the background of his own nation. He learned more and more about the contents of the word of God – the mind of our Lord was absolutely saturated in Scripture. You remember what we are told of Timothy, that from a child he knew the Holy Scriptures; Jesus was like that. How can a young man cleanse his way? It is by taking heed to God’s Word. So we read the Scriptures at the table, and we encourage children to read the Bible for themselves with children’s helps. We take them to a Bible-centred church where they soon sense the power of the Word in the preaching.

We also want them to know what the Son of God has done in making our world, the vastness of outer space and the tiny world of the atom; science and the arts; the world of farming and heavy industry, and also the world of theory where the laws of physics and mathematics are important. Christ made it all; Christ is relevant to it all. Everything around Jesus in Nazareth was the expression of his own mind. So this little boy set out on a voyage of discovery which was also a voyage of self-discovery within his own creation, admiring it and glorying in it. Everything he met around about him in Nazareth, and in the heavens above the village, was absolutely consistent with every one of his own great perfections. There was nothing he ever met that jarred within his soul, which was in contradiction to and violation of his nature as the eternal Son of God made flesh. It was all in fact an expression of his own mind and nature. All its matter, logic, rationality, explorableness, organisableness, admission to the possibility of technology derived from the fact that it was Jesus’ own end product as the Son of God. It was replete with his own understanding. The whole Nazareth development of our Lord can be compared to a composer who in his brilliant youth had written a wonderful symphony, but he had laid it aside for fifty years, and then as an old man rediscovered it and poured over its pages, seeing that early creativity and sense of beauty and harmony and challenge and mystery, and weeping in delight at what he himself had done. Christ’s looking at the brook and the hawk and the goldsmith at his furnace and the snow falling and the sunset made him cry out thankfully, “How excellent is the name of the Son of God in all the earth.”

So we encourage our children to set out on the same voyage of discovery confident that they can meet no booby traps anywhere; nothing that can blow up in their faces; no area of knowledge which can be anti-Christ, or unChristlike whatsoever, because our Lord Jesus made it all. It is in complete harmony with his nature and filled with his wisdom. There can be lots of theories masquerading as facts; there can be lots of speculations that are anti-Christ and atheistic, but nothing in creation itself can be antithetical to the Lord Jesus, because he designed the atom, and gravity, and the gene, and the woodworm, and the whale, and the galaxy. He plotted the trajectory of the comet. All our research and all our technology is only an approximation of Christ’s own understanding of the wisdom which he has imposed upon this world

I say that a consequence of this is that part of our vocation as parents is to do all in our power to put within the reach of our children this great body of fascinating factual knowledge and to encourage them in every possible way to explore their own total environment. Much of it can be learned from books, but more of it, perhaps the most important part of it, cannot. Yet God has placed them in a world that is the expression of God’s own infinite mind, in all the depths of its complexity and beauty. Let the child probe it; let him understand it; let him search it; let him know his past; let him know his nation’s past; let him know above all the contents of the Bible. He must have this body of factual knowledge, and he must be able to recall it, and apply it day by day.

That’s the factor we’ve lost. It’s something we have discarded almost deliberately because those who form the theories of contemporary education have been depreciating this. They say memorization is no long important. It is evident that earlier generations which did not have our kind of media, our ways of storing knowledge, carried about with them as a matter of course, tremendous masses of information. That is why, for example, we have the gospels, because behind them there was a great oral tradition. Men who had seen and heard the Lord charged their memories with storing that knowledge, and their memories obeyed. We ought to make the point of training our own memories to retain useful information. So they have to acquire it, they have to retain it, they have to be able to recall it, and above all they have got to be able to apply it, to use it effectively in argument and persuasion.

The emphasis here isn’t on intelligence; the emphasis is on wisdom, and that is divine knowledge applied. Now it may be that each of us is born with only a certain intelligence potential. That may be, but the point here is not one’s I.Q. The point here is one’s common sense and practical sagacity, and in many ways, short of grace, it is the most important gift we can give to our children, by example and by education. We will encourage them to apply as much as they know in a way dictated by conscience and prudence and humanity. Rabbi Duncan said that there were three requirements for the ministry, Grace, Greek and Gumption. Then he added this that if a man lacked gumption even the Lord could not give it to him. Now that is bad theology, and bad education. Your child may be still be silly as a teenager, but there is no reason why anyone should accept fatalistically that he will always be silly. “Get wisdom and get understanding,” God says, and let’s listen to God and obey him. We are to make conscience of the intellectual side of our child’s development.

So Jesus grew in wisdom in Nazareth. He had no Gamaliel figure to instruct him. He sat at the feet of no great teacher. He was self-taught; he was Bible taught. The fact that he displayed such incredible wisdom while coming from a nowhere place like Nazareth created perplexity in his hearers during his public ministry, and it became an offence to the people of Nazareth. They said, “He’s not fooling us. We know all about him,” and they repelled him because he was from the same insignificant place as themselves. They thought he was ‘putting it all on.’ He returned on one occasion to Nazareth where, “he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’” (Matt. 13:57).

JESUS INCREASED IN HIS SOCIAL SKILLS.
We are told that he increased in favour with men, in other words, our Lord got on with people; he was interested in them; he was well disposed to them; he was, in today’s tired cliché, a good communicator. He is set before us quite deliberately by Luke as a social and sociable being. It is tremendously important because here is something that we commonly tend to depreciate. It is in fact a skill which some religious people conspicuously lack, yet our Lord had this graciousness, so that we can say that people in Nazareth spoke well of him as a boy, and as a teenager and as a man. He was the one who fixed their doors and put in their rafters and beams and repaired the wheels of their carts. They enjoyed him calling and working in their homes and on their smallholdings. He was highly esteemed by the people; he had a definite affability; there was social ease and grace in this all-round portrait of our Lord.

As we read on into the next chapter we meet a deliberate contrast with John the Baptist who was a hermit and a recluse, who spent his life in the wilderness and was unsociable. He was stern and forbidding to an eminent and high degree. This is quite deliberately set out by Luke to show that Christ was not like that. The problem can arise when John the Baptist is made the model for religious men as if they ought to be detached and remote, as if they were to live their lives in isolation. It seems to me to be tremendously important that we face up to this and make sure that such an unsociable spirit – which is so alien to the ethos of our own congregation – should be refused a toehold here. There are those who rarely smile, who do not join in the hymn-singing, who are so critical of anything of which they disapprove, showing it in their stony faces and downcast eyes. Our Lord is set before us as one who got on with people.

Now I’ve got to qualify that quite obviously because the day came when they despised and loathed him. The hour arrived when the mob chanted, “Crucify! Crucify!” How do I explain that? I say it is taught here very plainly that it was not because our Lord was deficient in humaneness, in humanity, in courtesy, in kindness, in social skills and graces. It was not for any of those reasons that men shouted, “Away with him! Release unto us Barabbas.” But a day came when it was incidental to his pubic ministry that he must tread upon the prejudices of men. He must condemn, and he must expose their sins, and it is at that point that his social grace was insufficient to get him immunity from their hatred and barbarism.

Now Peter raises the same problem when he says to his readers, men may be persecuting and ill treating you and despising you. Be sure that it is not because you are an evil doer. Be sure that it is not because you are discourteous, a hard-liner, a self-appointed judge, selfish, rough, crude, unthinking and unfeeling. Be sure that you are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the Christ-like spirit you are showing. Be sure of that. As the writer to the Hebrews exhorts them to follow peace with all men, and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. Follow peace; be on the best terms possible with your fellow men, and the limiting condition is holiness. Don’t follow peace to the extent that holiness is compromised. Don’t cultivate social graces and the favour of men beyond the point where you are embarrassed to do what you are doing in the presence of the Holy One.

So it is important to instill in our children social skills so that they can mix freely, communicate and form stable relationships. They must learn to co-operate with others, to lead, to tolerate and to function as members of a team, to control their egotism and aggression without losing a normal drive and competitiveness, to compete fairly, to lose graciously and to win magnanimously, and to do all that without compromise in a moral or spiritual sense. They must have cultivated in them from the earliest age an interest in other people, a concern for other people which submits their own interests to the interests of others, other children and adults. Our only grand-daughter was saying good-bye to her grandparent, and she left the house after farewell were said in order to get into the car taking her to school. Then she remembered something. She hurried back to her grandmother for a moment and she said to her gravely, “God’s blessing be upon you,” and then she ran back to the car. It was very touching. The Rev. Alexander Stewart of Cromarty would lament his lack of social skills. He said, “I feel as if destitute of the faculties for dealing with men. I ought to have been a monk in a cloister dealing with books and systems; living among people I feel myself powerless as a child.” I think he was underestimating his graces. We are under obligation to grow in social skills.

JESUS INCREASED IN FAVOUR WITH GOD.
What does it mean for us as parents? That we consciously dedicate our children to God. You remember that Hannah went to the temple with the child Samuel and that she gave him back to God, and as we stand over the wonder of an infant life, its perfection, its complexity and potential, let us adopt the same attitude. Let us say to God, “We want to him to grow in favour with you. We want him to be your child. We want him to serve you, and love you, and honour and obey you. We want to burn for you. We want him to be yours.” I do not mean in the sense of full time temple service. I do not mean that we dedicate him to the mission field or the ministry but that we say before God in all sincerity, “Lord, my heart’s desire and prayer to you for this child is that he be yours, that he knows you, and serves you, and honours you and is useful in your service, an ornament and pillar in the church.” It has nothing to do with office or gifts. Above everything else we want our child to be God’s child. We dedicate him to the Lord. We encourage our children to pray, “Show me my sin and show my Saviour,” and not to cease that kind of praying until he knows that God has answered him.

We are to be instructing him in all the truth, implanting and imparting wonderful information to him, just like Timothy was taught by his mother and his grandmother from the earliest age. That is a model for our instruction in the history of God’s dealings, and his great redemptive acts. I know we have to ask ourselves how we can do that relevantly. It must certainly be related to the child’s stage of development and intellect and attainments. We have no right to underestimate the church, or to abstain from what the Lord has told us to do, but we are to instruct our children pleading that he who has promised to reveal his truth and power to babes should not keep it hidden from our little ones.

Jesus developed religiously. In many ways that is a fascinating statement, that the Son of God increased in favour with God. In his first years it was only the religion of a child. It was no more fully grown than his body. It is no more to be judged in adult terms – in terms of its maturity – than his physical stature. We speak to children and we urge them to remember the God who made them, to speak to him, to thank him for the blessings great and small, to ask him for forgiveness at every point when we do things he has told us not to do. We must learn to praise him for the glory of what he is, and for all things wise and wonderful which were all made by the Lord God. It is imperative that before their God children are taught to bow the knee, and you will see this, that they can deal with God as they deal with every other part of their environment. From the same age as they become conscious of their father and mother and the great objective world around them, from that age they become conscious that this is God’s world. But remember theirs are infantile religious impressions, and childish religious impressions the same as everything about them is childish. My grandchildren’s impressions of me are childish, and their religion is the religion of a child. We can err when we expect religion to be excepted from the ordinary course of development. A child’s grasp of truth and theology and devotion and ethics is not yet mature but it may be tremendously real and glorious, notwithstanding. There has to be infantile religion, and if I were to be converted as an old man I would begin my journey in grace as a child in grace, and I might well learn the children’s catechism in the seventies: “Who made me?” “God made me.” “What else did God make?” “God made all things.” “Why did God make all things?” “For his own glory.”

We ought not to make it a criterion when we evaluate the religion of a child that it looks like an adult’s in its grasp and in the maturity of its devotions. Nor should we expect them to give up their love for the things of a child, its toys and games. We shouldn’t expect those who are born again in their tenderest years to free themselves from the paraphernalia of childhood. Let the religion of a child be a childish religion, and that of a teenager and student be a student’s religion, full of turmoil and questions. But let a man’s religion be a man’s religion, not blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Let us commend the Christian faith to our children, not dispassionately but with the zeal of an advocate, that we present it in all its glory in order that they receive the truth and love of it. I don’t see why the Christian Union in presenting the faith of the Bible to students on the campus should not do so earnestly and passionately to get people to believe and become Christians, just like the mountaineering society, and the folk music society, and the French Society presents France, and folk music and mountain-climbing enthusiastically so that students will love France and mountains and folk music. We want children to love the word of God and we have failed if they are not enthralled and captivated by the teaching of the Bible. When Timothy was taught the word of God from childhood I am sure his mother did not brainwash him, and pressurize him in any way, but I am sure she taught it to him lovingly and ardently and wisely in such a way as to commend it to him. We commend our Lord and Saviour so as to instill Christian faith and a life long response of discipleship in our children.

But there was a great difference in the religion of Jesus and ourselves; ours is the religion of sinners, but his was not. Our religion means at the end of every day we say, “Sorry Father for the sins of today. Forgive me through Jesus Christ.” Our Lord in Nazareth and on until he entered the presence of God never needed to plead for forgiveness because every day he, as a man, increased in understanding what God desired from him, how he should live before him, what he should believe and how he should behave, and then at every level he did what he grasped. You and I need an experience of which Jesus Christ was a complete stranger, that we should be born again, that our stony hearts should be removed, that we should know a broken and a contrite heart, and that we should cleansed from our sins and clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

This is the fourfold demand God makes on every parent to be our children’s educators. We have not been delivered by Caesar from the responsibility of training them in this definitive way. We have not and cannot delegate our children’s education to any institution. Fathers, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Fathers, the word of God is directed to you. To God we answer as parents, and it is tremendously important to train our children in all these ways. God has given us this obligation and with every obligation he also gives us the grace to do his will. God never gives us children without also giving us grace to raise them.

28th October 2007 GEOFF THOMAS