JESUS STAYED at the school in the village church until he was twelve years old. By that time he could read and write and could also repeat many verses. But as his reading book and spelling book and copy book and memory verses were all in the Bible, and as he heard long readings from its books at the church service, we may be sure that he knew quite well all the best things in that best of all books, the Bible. One proof of this is that in later years, when anyone tried to puzzle him with a hard question, he often answered promptly with a sentence from the Bible.
A Jewish boy generally left school at the age of twelve, unless he wished to become a rabbi, which was the name among the Jews for a teacher of their law. If that was his wish or the purpose of his parents, he was sent up to Jerusalem to study in the college held by the scribes or teachers in the Temple. Saul of Tarsus, a boy about four years younger than Jesus, whom we know as Paul the Apostle, was a student in the Temple college, but Jesus was not. While the young Saul was studying in Jerusalem, Jesus as a young man was working in the carpenter shop at Nazareth.
When Jesus was twelve years old he was taken on his first journey from Nazareth up to Jerusalem to attend the great feast of the Passover. Three great feasts were held during the year. The feast of the Passover was in the early spring, and kept in mind the great day when the Israelites went out of Egypt, no longer slaves but free men. The feast of the Pentecost was held, in the late spring, just fifty days after the Passoverthe word “pentecost” meaning “fifty days”and reminded the people that fifty days after their fathers went out of Egypt, God gave them their law amid lightning and thunder on Mount Sinai. The feast of the Tabernacles, or “feast of tents” (for that is the meaning of the word tabernacles), was held in the fall; and at this time the people built for themselves huts of green branches, ate in them and slept in them for a week, to show the outdoor life of the early days in the wilderness, while they were marching to Canaan, the Promised Land. These three great feasts were held in Jerusalem, and from every part of the land the people came up to the city to attend them.
It was a great event when the boy Jesus for the first time went on this journey to Jerusalem. The younger children were left at home, under the care of some friend, for a boy did not begin attending these feasts until he was twelve years old. Of course, Joseph and Mary knew all about this journey, for they had made it many times. They went in the caravan or company from Nazareth, following the road that Joseph and .Mary had taken on their way to Bethlehem, twelve years before. As they journeyed, Mary seated on the ass, Joseph and the boy Jesus walking beside her, they would talk about the places which they passed, and the stories of old times told about them. Jesus knew all those stories, for every Jewish boy had heard them, over and over.
As they paused on the top of the hill beside Nazareth, below them was spread out the great plain of Esdraelon, and they would say, “That mountain by the Great Sea on the west is Mount Carmel, where Elijah built his altar and made his great offering, when in answer to his prayer the fire came down from heaven and burned up the bullock laid on the altar. Do you see that road running across the plain? On that road Elijah ran in front of King Ahab’s chariot, after the long drought, when the rain was coming. And then, this plain! Over it from Mount Tabor, there on the left, Deborah and Barak chased the flying Canaanites across the plain. Do you see that second mountain beyond Tabor? That is Mount Gilboa; and at its foot Gideon with his brave three hundred frightened at night the Midianite host and won a great victory.”
They went down into the Jordan valley and walked. southward by the Roman road, following the Jordan River. At one place the mountains on either side came down close to the river, and there was barely room for the road between the foaming stream on one side and the steep rocks on the other.
“Look,” said Joseph, “this is the place where the waters rose up and stood in a heap when our fathers under Joshua were about to cross the river, thirty miles below.”
They crossed a brook which fell into the river; and Joseph said, “Do you see this brook? Up there among the mountains was the place where the prophet Elijah was fed by the ravens; for this is the brook Cherith.”
They came to the place just above Jericho where under Joshua the Israelites walked across the dry bed of the river, the holy ark carried by the priests in front and the people following in a long procession. There the river is very wide and quite shallow, so that people walk across, except in the early spring, when it is swollen by the rains and the melting snow on the high mountains far to the north.
There they would point out across the river Mount Nebo, where Moses stood looking upon the land and then all alone lay down and died. They stopped for a rest at Jericho, where were stories to tell of the walls that fell down when the Israelites marched around them, and the priests blew their ram’s-horn trumpets. Perhaps they stopped and drank at the great spring near Jericho where the water was made pure by Elisha the prophet. And after a climb up to the mountains, at the end of six days or a week, they came to Jerusalem, the end of their journey, and the place called by the people “the holy city.”
And then, there was the splendid Temple of God! How the boy’s heart was stirred as he walked over the bridge leading from Mount Zion to Mount Moriah! They went into the great outside court, the court of the Gentiles, the only place in the Temple where foreigners were allowed to enter; and the boy Jesus was shocked to see that it had been turned into a market, where cattle and sheep and doves were sold, and where tables stood around for the men who changed foreign money into ‘Jewish shekels.
Over the eastern wall and the Golden Gate, they saw the Mount of Olives, then covered to the top with vineyards and olive trees and gardens. They climbed up a flight of steps and passed through a gate called “the Beautiful Gate,” into a smaller court, like the outer court open to the sky. This was named “The Court of the Women” because from its lattice-covered gallery the women looked down on the altar and the services of worship. Jesus noticed that in this Court of the Women were many classes of young men studying, seated in a circle, listening to their teachers. How he longed to sit down among them and listen to these wise scholars; for though only a boy, he had thought deeply on many things which he had read, and many questions had come to his mind which he greatly desired to have answered. He saw the sacrifice offerings laid on the altar and burned, while trumpets sounded and censers of incense were waved and the priests chanted the psalms of David.
While the family were in Jerusalem they found friends with whom they stayed, and in their house the Passover feast was eaten. It was a very simple meal, just a roasted lamb, some vegetables and bread made without yeast, in thin cakes, like soda biscuit, only larger. They ate the meal lying down on couches around the table, their heads toward the table, their feet away from it. It was the custom or rule of the Jews, at this feast, to have the story of the first Passover. Perhaps Joseph said to Jesus:
“My son, you know what took place when this passover was eaten for the first time. Tell us the story.”
Then the boy Jesus told of the terrible plagues that fell upon the land of Egypt; of the last and greatest sorrow, the death of the oldest son in every house; how the Israelites sprinkled their door-posts with the blood of the slain lamb and were passed over by this death-angel; how they ate the lamb on that night, dressed for, their journey; and how they went out of Egypt and marched through the Red Sea.
The family were in Jerusalem for a week, and every day Jesus went up to the Temple to worship in its services and to learn what he could from its teachers. The last day of their visit came, and at its close the families going to Galilee met together for their homeward journey. A horn was blown and the caravan or company started northward. Mary missed her son, but thought that he was somewhere in the crowd, talking with other boys of his own age. But when night came, the company stopped to rest and Jesus did not appear. Mary was alarmed. They looked through all the crowd, but no Jesus was to be found.
Then in great trouble, Joseph and Mary hastened back to Jerusalem, looking for their boy. They asked for him among the friends at whose house they had stayed, but he had not been there. They wandered up and down the narrow streets, but while they saw many groups of boys, their boy was not among them. At last, on the third day, they looked for him in the Temple. In one of its courts a crowd of people were listening to the teachers who seemed to be talking with someone. They drew near, and Mary’s heart began to beat as she suddenly heard a boy’s voice sounding from the middle of the throng. She knew that voice, in its clear, rich, honest tone! She pressed her way in; and there stood her boy, the center of a company of the learned scholars. He was asking questions of these men, and they in their answers were asking him questions in turn, while all around were people . listening and wondering at this boy’s deep knowledge of the truth.
Mary hastily rushed up to Jesus, and said:
“My son, why have you treated us so unkindly? Your father and I have been looking for you, in great trouble, for three days!”
Jesus looked up at his mother’s face, with surprise, and said:
“Why should you look for me? Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?”
Evidently on the last day of their stay, he had slipped away for one more visit to the Temple; and once there his mind and heart had been so full that no thought of the home-going had come to him. He had just stayed there in the courts of the Lord’s house without a thought of the outside world.
Where had he slept on those two nights? Who had given him food during those three days? He might have lain down, as thousands did during the feast, under the olive trees on the Mount of Olives. Some stranger may have seen him and invited him to a meal. But it would not be strange if in his deep, whole-souled interest, he had never thought of food and had eaten nothing during those three days.
But without a word he took his mother’s hand and walked out of the Temple. He made the journey home to Nazareth, saying little but thinking much of all that he had seen and heard. One great, precious truth at least had come home to his heart. He felt that the Lord God of Israel was his own Father and he could trust fully the Father God.