And Jesus Grew in Wisdom

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:46–47)

Jesus as a boy in the templeThe story of Jesus as a boy at the Temple in Luke 2:40–52 is the only biblical account we have of Jesus’ childhood. Even the story of his birth is told in only two of the four Gospels, Mark and Luke. And none of the other Gospels besides Luke have any stories of his childhood at all.

We do get a few hints of what he was doing as he grew up. In Mark 6:3 there is a reference to Jesus being a carpenter. In the parallel passage in Matthew 13:55 it is Joseph who is the carpenter. Apparently he learned his adoptive father’s trade—which would have been common for boys of that era. It appears that outwardly, Jesus was mostly just an ordinary craftsman, living like other boys and men of his time and culture.

If this were not so, more stories of Jesus’ childhood would have survived. It seems that what we have in the two birth stories and this one vignette of Jesus at the age of twelve are the only stories of the Lord’s young life that were noteworthy enough to have survived in people’s memories to be recorded later. The rest of our stories of Jesus all come from the few intense years of his public ministry, which began when he was about thirty years old (see Luke 3:23) and lasted only three years, until his death by crucifixion.

Jesus’ outer and inner life

What all this silence about the Lord’s upbringing, youth, and early adulthood suggests is that outwardly, Jesus’ life was not much different than anyone else’s. But the few hints and glimpses we do get tell us that within that unremarkable outward life, there was intense learning and growth going on in Jesus’ spirit. The story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple is bracketed by two statements that speak of this inner growth, and its outer effects:

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. (Luke 2:40)

And at the end of the story:

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:52)

This inner growth in wisdom and stature is shown in the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, as well as in the Lord’s public ministry, where he drew on all those years of study, learning, enlightenment, and spiritual growth to do his work of teaching, preaching, and healing.

The story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple tells us something else as well: at the tender age of twelve, Jesus already had a clear sense that he had come from God, and that his life’s work was to be the work of God. When Mary said to him, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you,” he reminded her of who his real father was: “Didn’t you know that I had to be doing my Father’s work?” (Luke 2:48–49). Even while learning the trade of carpentry, he was learning his true calling.

Abram in Egypt

Still, the New Testament gives us a very slim basis for any conclusions about the inner life of Jesus as he grew up. Let’s turn once again to the Old Testament, then, and to Swedenborg’s interpretation of it, to gain more insight.

The story of the Lord’s process of learning and growth in knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom is told spiritually in the account of Abram’s stay in Egypt:

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. (Genesis 12:10–20)

Let’s unpack some of the inner meaning of this story.

When the story begins, Abram is living in the southern part of the Holy Land. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, the Holy Land represents the spiritual side of our life. And as I also mentioned, in his infancy and early childhood Jesus was already feeling the promptings of spiritual and divine life within him. He had already felt God calling him, and in following that call, had traveled inwardly from a life focused on the outward things of this world to a life focused on the deeper things of the spirit.

Famine in the land

But it says, “There was a famine in the land.” Physically speaking, famines are a lack of food, usually brought about by a lack of water, causing crops to fail. Spiritual famines are a lack of “food” to nourish the mind and heart. In other words, they are a lack of knowledge, understanding, and in some cases, a lack of goodness and love. Here, though, the famine is a famine of the mind.

As this famine arrives within the Lord, he has already reached some level of spiritual awareness; he is already living in the Holy Land. And he has been traveling toward the south—toward a state of greater conscious enlightenment.

Yet he feels the pinch of famine: he realizes that he does not have the deeper, religious knowledge that he wants and needs to continue on his spiritual path. He is famished for want of inner nourishment: for want of the basic facts of spiritual life. He hungers for that knowledge so much that he leaves the Holy Land of life focused on spiritual things, and spends time in Egypt, which was the region’s granary, and which therefore represents our life stages of knowledge and learning.

The famines in our life

We ordinary mortals have a similar experience, both as young children and at the beginning of our spiritual life. As children, after our earliest years in which we are driven largely by promptings from within and responses to what happens around us, our thinking mind begins to wake up, and we hunger for knowledge. We want to know about everything around us. We begin asking question after question to anyone who will answer: “What’s that?” “How does this work?” “Why does it do that?” “What does this mean?” Our minds are like sponges, soaking up all the knowledge and experience we can get.

We go through a similar phase when we take our first conscious steps toward spiritual living. Having decided that we wish to refocus our life from outward accomplishments and pleasures to inward goals and spiritual growth, we quickly realize how little we know about God and spirit. And why would we know about them? Up to that point we had been pursuing the world and its knowledge. We therefore begin to feel “a famine not for food, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

In these early times in our intentional spiritual life, we eagerly seek out religious insight and knowledge. We read the Bible and other spiritual books; we attend lectures, services, and workshops; these days we do Internet searches and read or watch what pops up. We seek out sources of deeper knowledge and insight to feed our hunger. We eagerly soak up every spiritual fact we can get our hands on.

When we first start out on the path toward spiritual life, we are almost childlike in our desire and ablility to absorb new knowledge that will move us forward on our path toward God.

Our spiritual granary

And so we journey to our Egypt, our spiritual granary. If our path is a Christian one, that granary is especially the Word of God—the Old and New Testaments—where God has stored up an infinite supply of spiritual nourishment for us. When we start out as new Christians, we want to learn all about the life and teachings of Jesus. We may also want to learn the stories and teachings of the Old Testament, which at a deeper level tell us about our spiritual origins, and about the events and battles of our long spiritual journey toward enlightenment and love.

As a young child Jesus felt this famine—this desire for “hearing the words of the Lord”—very intensely. And so, amid the usual routines of daily life, he applied himself to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God spoke to the people of his culture, giving them the bread and water of spiritual life. Emanuel Swedenborg wrote:

During his childhood, the Lord wished to take in no other religious knowledge than what was found in the Word of God. And the Word was opened up to him from Jehovah himself, his Father, with whom he would be united and become one. That wish was even stronger because nothing is said in the Word that does not relate at its deepest level to God, and that did not originally come from God. (Arcana Coelestia #1461)

By the age of twelve, Jesus had already gained so much understanding and wisdom from his diligent and divinely inspired study of the Scriptures that when he was sitting among the teachers in the temple courts, both listening and asking questions, “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).

Abram’s sister-wife

However, it was not a smooth road going from “understanding and answers” to true inner wisdom. Once Abram reaches Egypt, we have the strange story of his instructing his wife Sarai, later renamed Sarah, to say that she was his sister. (And she was, in fact, his half-sister, as we learn in a parallel story in Genesis 20. See verse 12 there.)

Abram, fearful that the Egyptians would kill him for his beautiful (though over sixty-five-year-old!) wife Sarai, has her tell them that she is his sister. And they do claim her for Pharaoh, while making Abram rich in “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels” for her sake (Genesis 12:16).

What can this possibly mean? How can this story of deception and subterfuge tell us anything good about our spiritual life, let alone the inner life of Jesus—who was supposed to be the perfect, sinless human being (see Hebrews 4:15)?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Bible’s spiritual meaning is that it often tells a story very different—even opposite—from the literal meaning. Whenever the Bible mention’s “God’s wrath,” for example, Swedenborg interprets it instead as God’s love, which human evil is opposed to, and which is therefore experienced as wrath by those engaged in evil. (See: “What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?”)

However, in the case of Sarai as Abram’s sister and his wife, the spiritual meaning is not all that far from the literal—though of course, it is on the level of the mind instead of the level of the body.

Gender roles and reversals

In the Bible, men usually symbolize truth and understanding, while women symbolize love and motivation. However, when they are presented as husband and wife, the meaning often reverses: the husband stands for love, while the wife stands for truth.

This reversal is based on a vital facet of Swedenborg’s gender map that is too often overlooked or passed by in silence. Though outwardly intellect predominates in men, and feeling in women, inwardly this is reversed.

Men, who are outwardly truth, are inwardly love. We find, as we study the lives of men who were great physical and mental adventurers, that within their physical skills and intellectual achievements, there is a driving desire, a motivating force of love, pushing them along to their great achievements.

Meanwhile women, who are outwardly love, are inwardly truth. Outwardly women are much better than men at treading the maze of human relationships, forming close and warm friendships, and focusing on human feelings and the human heart. Yet this ability comes from an inner insight into the patterns of human life and spiritual existence that men rarely attain to.

Yin Yang in red and blueAnd so, like the ancient Eastern symbol of yin and yang, the love that outwardly characterizes women is the driving force within men, while the truth that men show outwardly is embedded deep within women. (See: “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?”)

Sarai: trophy wife or fruitful wife?

Accordingly, in the story of Abram and Sarai, Abram represents the heavenly and divine love and motivation that Jesus felt deep within himself—the divine love that was his inner self—while Sarai represents the divine knowledge and understanding that was growing and developing in his conscious, thinking mind.

And here was the contest taking place within the heart and mind of Jesus as he grew up, and that also takes place within us as we begin our spiritual life: will all the wonderful new spiritual insight we are gaining be a matter of mere intellectual knowledge, beautiful to contemplate, and a pleasure to claim as our own, but barren? (After all, by this time Sarai was well past her childbearing years.) Will our “Sarai” of spiritual understanding become a trophy wife for Pharoh?

In other words, will all the spiritual knowledge and understanding that we eagerly soak in when we first commit ourselves to a spiritual path become mere intellectual knowledge—symbolized by Egypt, and by Pharaoh, its monarch—to adorn our minds and give us the pleasure of intelligence, not to mention intellectual bragging rights, without bearing any fruit in our life?

Or will our inner “Sarai,” our understanding of spiritual life, remain married to our “Abram,” the spiritual love that it properly belongs with—a marriage that led to the miraculous birth of their son Isaac in their old age? (See Genesis 17:1–18:15; 21:1–7.)

Moving beyond brilliance to fruitfulness

As a young boy, Jesus felt the allure of being a brilliant intellect and a highly praised teacher. If he was already astounding the learned teachers of the Law at twelve, what dazzling heights of intellectual achievement could he have attained as a lifelong religious scholar taking a leading place among the scribes and Pharisees?

But that would have diverted him off his divine path of saving humankind, just as piling up more and more spiritual knowledge for its own sake would divert us off our spiritual path of loving our neighbor.

We are not given spiritual insights to be dazzled by their beauty, or to be caught up in our own brilliance. The Lord satisfies our hunger for understanding so that we may move beyond spiritual barrenness to rich fruitfulness.

Once we have sojourned in the granary of Egypt, and have been fed by the spiritual insights we gain there, it is time to return to the Holy Land of spiritual living.

In our life, when Sarai returns to her true husband Abram, it represents putting our newfound spiritual knowledge to work in living a fruitful life of love, kindness, and service to our fellow human beings every day. That’s what spiritual life is all about.

(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on January 18, 2004. For the next article in this series, please see: “Water and Spirit.” To start at the beginning of the series, please go to the article, “What Child Is This?”)

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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