Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 36


The Early Development of Jesus

Preached November 14, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

"And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him.” - Luke 2:40


The ecclesiastical year begins with Advent, then comes Christmas-day. The first day of the natural year begins with the infancy of the Son of Man. To-day the Gospel proceeds with the brief account of the early years of Jesus.

The infinite significance of the life of Christ is not exhausted by saying that He was a perfect man. The notion of the earlier Socinians that He was a pattern man, commissioned from Heaven with a message to teach men how to live, and supernaturally empowered to live in that perfect way Himself, is immeasurably short of truth. For perfection merely human does not attract; rather it repels. It may be copied in form: it can not be imitated in spirit-for men only imitate that from which enthusiasm and life are caught-for it does not inspire nor fire with love.

Faultless men and pattern children-you may admire them, but you admire coldly. Praise them as you will, no one is better for their example. No one blames them, and no one loves them: they kindle no enthusiasm; they create no likeness of themselves: they never reproduce themselves in other lives-the true prerogative of all original life.

If Christ had been only a faultless being, He would never have set up in the world a new type of character which at the end of two thousand years is fresh and life-giving and inspiring still. He never would have regenerated the world. He never would have “drawn all men unto Him,” by being lifted up a self-sacrifice, making self-devotion beautiful. In Christ the divine and human blended: immutability joined itself to mutability. There was in Him the divine which remained fixed; the human which was constantly developing. One uniform idea and purpose characterized His whole life, with a divine immutable unity throughout, but it was subject to the laws of human growth. For the soul of Christ was not cast down upon this world a perfect thing at once. Spotless?-yes. Faultless?-yes. Tempted, yet in all points without sin ?-yes. But perfection is more than faultlessness. All Scripture coincides in telling us that the ripe perfection of His manhood was reached step by step. There was a power and a life within Him which were to be developed, which could only be developed, like all human strength and goodness, by toil of brain and heart. Life up-hill all the way: and every foot- print by which He climbed left behind for us, petrified on the hard rock, and indurated into history forever, to show us when, and where, and how He toiled and won.

Take a few passages to prove that His perfection was gained by degrees. “It became Him for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Again, “Behold, I cast out devils, and do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.” “Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience.” And in the context, “Jesus increased. . . .”

Now see the result of this aspect of His perfectibility. In that changeless element of His being which beneath all the varying phases of growth remained divinely faultless, we see that which we can adore. In the ever-changing, ever-growing, subject therefore to feebleness and endearing mutability, we see that which brings Him near to us: makes Him lovable, at the same time that it interprets us to ourselves.

Our subject is the early development of Jesus. In this text we read of a threefold growth.


I. In strength.

II. In wisdom.

III. In grace.


First, it speaks to us simply of his early development, “The child grew.”

In the case of all rare excellence that is merely human, it is the first object of the biographer of a marvellous man to seek for surprising stories of his early life. The appetite for the marvellous in this matter is almost instinctive and invariable. Almost all men love to discover the early wonders which were prophetic of after-greatness. Apparently the reason is that we are unwilling to believe that wondrous excellence was attained by slow, patient labor. We get an excuse for our own slowness and stunted growth, by settling it once for all, that the original differences between such men and us were immeasurable. Therefore it is, I conceive, that we seek so eagerly for anecdotes of early precocity.

In this spirit the fathers of the primitive Church collected legends of the early life of Christ, stories of superhuman infancy: what the infant and the child said and did. Many of these legends are absurd: all, as resting on no authority, are rejected.

Very different from this is the spirit of the Bible narrative. It records no marvellous stories of infantine sagacity or miraculous power, to feed a prurient curiosity. Both in what it tells and in what it does not tell, one thing is plain, that the human life of the Son of God was natural. There was first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn. In what it does not say: because, had there been any thing preternatural to record, no doubt it would have been recorded. In what it does say: because that little is all unaffectedly simple. One anecdote, and two verses of general description, that is all which is told us of the Redeemer’s childhood.

The Child, it is written, grew. Two pregnant facts. He was a child, and a child that grew in heart, in intellect, in size, in grace, in favor with God. Not a man in child’s years. No hotbed precocity marked the holiest of infancies. The Son of Man grew up in the quiet valley of existence-in shadow, not in sunshine, not forced. No unnatural, stimulating culture had developed the mind or feelings: no public flattery: no sunning of His infantine perfections in the glare of the world’s show, had brought the temptation of the wilderness, with which His manhood grappled, too early on His soul. We know that He was childlike as other children: for in after years His brethren thought His fame strange, and His townsmen rejected Him. They could not believe that one who had gone in and out, ate and drank and worked among them, was He whose name is Wonderful. The proverb, true of others, was true of Him: “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” You know Him in a picture at once, by the halo round His brow. There was no glory in His real life to mark Him. He was in the world, and the world knew Him not. Gradually and gently He woke to consciousness of life and its manifold meaning; found Himself in possession of a self; by degrees opened His eyes upon this outer world, and drank in its beauty. Early He felt the lily of the field discourse to Him of the Invisible Loveliness, and the ravens tell of God His Father. Gradually and not at once, He embraced the sphere of human duties, and He woke to His earthly relationships one by one-the son-the brother-the citizen-the master.

It is a very deep and beautiful and precious truth that the Eternal Son had a human and progressive childhood. Happy the child who is suffered to be and content to be what God meant it to be-a child while childhood lasts. Happy the parent who does not force artificial manners, precocious feeling, premature religion. Our age is one of stimulus and high pressure. We live, as it were, our lives out fast. Effect is every thing. We require results produced at once: something to show and something that may tell. The folio of patient years is replaced by the pamphlet that stirs men’s curiosity to-day, and to-morrow is forgotten. “Plain living and high thinking are no more.” The town, with its fever and its excitements, and its collision of mind with mind, has spread over the country: and there is no country, scarcely home. To men who traverse England in a few hours and spend only a portion of the year in one place, home is becoming a vocable of past ages.

The result is, that heart and brain, which were given to last for seventy years, wear out before their time. W e have our exhausted men of twenty-five, and our old men of forty. Heart and brain give way: the heart hardens and the brain grows soft.

Brethren! the Son of God lived till thirty in an obscure village of Judea, unknown: then came forth a matured and perfect man-with mind, and heart, and frame in perfect balance of humanity. It is a Divine lesson! I would I could say as strongly as I feel deeply. Our stimulating artificial culture destroys depth. Our competition, our nights turned into days by pleasure, leave no time for earnestness. We are superficial men. Character in the world wants root. England has gained much: she has lost also much. The world wants what has passed away, and which until we secure, we shall remain the clever shallow men we are: a childhood and a youth spent in the shade-a home.


Now this growth of Jesus took place in three particulars.

1. In spiritual strength. “The child waxed strong, in spirit.” Spiritual strength consists of two things-power of will, and power of self-restraint. It requires two things, therefore, for its existence-strong feelings and strong command over them.

Now it is here we make a great mistake: we mistake strong feelings for strong character. A man who bears all before him-before whose frown domestics tremble, and whose bursts of fury make the children of the house quake-because he has his will obeyed and his own way in all things we call him a strong man. The truth is, that is the weak man; it is his passions that are strong: he, mastered by them, is weak. You must measure the strength of a man by the power of the feelings which he subdues, not by the power of those which subdue him.

And hence composure is very often the highest result of strength. Did we never see a man receive a flagrant insult, and only grow a little pale, and then reply quietly? That was a man spiritually strong. Or did we never see a man in anguish stand as if carved out of solid rock, mastering himself? or one bearing a hopeless daily trial remain silent, and never tell the world what it was that cankered his homepeace? That is strength. He who with strong passions remains chaste: he who, keenly sensitive, with manly power of indignation in him, can be provoked and yet refrain himself, and forgive these are strong men, spiritual heroes.

The Child waxed strong. Spiritual strength is reached by successive steps; fresh strength is got by every mastery of self. It is the belief of the savage that the spirit of every enemy he slays enters into him and becomes added to his own, accumulating a warrior’s strength for the day of battle: therefore he slays all be can. It is true in the spiritual warfare. Every sin you slay-the spirit of that sin passes into you transformed into strength: every passion, not merely kept in abeyance by asceticism, but subdued by a higher impulse, is so much character strengthened. The strength of the passion not expended is yours still. Understand then, you are not a man of spiritual power because your impulses are irresistible. They sweep over your soul like a tornado-lay all flat before them; whereupon you feel a secret pride of strength. Last week men saw a vessel on this coast borne headlong on the breakers, and dashing itself with terrific force against the shore. It embedded itself, a miserable wreck, deep in sand and shingle. Was that brig in her convulsive throes strong? or was it powerless and helpless?

No, my brethren: God’s spirit in the soul-an inward power of doing the thing we will and ought-that is strength, nothing else. All other force in us is only our weakness, the violence of driving passion. “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me:” this is Christian strength. “I can not do the things I would:” that is the weakness of an unredeemed slave.

I instance one single evidence of strength in the early years of Jesus: I find it in that calm, long waiting of thirty years before He began his work. And yet all the evils he was to redress were there, provoking indignation, crying, for interference-the hollowness of social life-the misinterpretations of Scripture-the forms of worship and phraseology which had hidden moral truth-the injustice-the priestcraft-the cowardice-the hypocrisies: He had long seen them all.

All those years His soul burned within Him with a Divine zeal and heavenly indignation. A mere man-a weak, emotional man of spasmodic feeling-a hot enthusiast, would have spoken out at once, and at once been crushed. The Everlasting Word incarnate bided his own time: “Mine hour is not yet come”-matured His energies, condensed them by repression-and then went forth to speak and do and suffer-His hour was come. This is strength: the power of a divine silence: the strong will to keep force till it is wanted: the Power to wait God’s time. “He that believeth,” said the wise prophet, “shall not make haste.”


II. Growth in wisdom-“Filled with wisdom.”

Let us distinguish wisdom from two things. From informa tion, first. It is one thing to be well-informed, it is another thing to be wise. Many books read, innumerable facts hived up inn a capacious memory, this does not constitute wisdom. Books give it not: sometimes the bitterest experience gives it not. Many a heart-break may have come as the result of life-errors and life-mistakes; and yet men may be no wiser than before. Before the same temptations they fall again in the self-same way they fell before. Where they erred in youth they err still in age. A mournful truth! “Ever learning,” said St. Paul, “and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Distinguish wisdom, again, from talent. Brilliancy of powers is not the wisdom for which Solomon prayed. Wisdom is of the heart rather than the intellect: the harvest of moral thoughtfulness, patiently reaped in through years. Two things are required-earnestness and love. First that rare thing earnestness-the earnestness which looks on life practically. Some of the wisest of the race have been men who have scarcely stirred beyond home, read little, felt and thought much. “Give me,” said Solomon, “a wise and understanding heart.” A heart which ponders upon life, trying to understand its mystery, not in order to talk about it like an orator, nor in order to theorize about it like a philosopher; but in order to know how to live and how to die.

And, besides this, love is required for wisdom-the love which opens the heart and makes it generous, and reveals secrets deeper than prudence or political economy teaches; for example, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Prudence did not calculate that, love revealed it. No man can be wise without love. Prudent: cunning: yes; but not wise. Whoever has closed his heart to love has got wisdom at one entrance quite shut out. A large, genial, loving heart-with that we have known a ploughman wise; without it we know a hundred men of statesmanlike sagacity fools-profound, but not wise. There was a man who pulled down his barns and built greater, a most sagacious man, getting on in life, acquiring, amassing, and all for self. The men of that generation called him, no doubt, wise-God said, “Thou fool.”

Speaking humanly, the steps by which the wisdom of Jesus was acquired were two.

1. The habit of inquiry.

2. The collision of mind with other minds.

Both these we find in this anecdote: His parents found Him with the doctors in the temple, both hearing and asking them questions. For the mind of man left to itself is unproductive: alone in the wild woods he becomes a savage. ‘Taken away from school early, and sent to the plough, the country boy loses by degrees that which distinguishes him from the cattle that he drives, and over his very features and looks the low animal expressions creep. Mind is necessary for mind. The mediatorial system extends through all God’s dealings with us. The higher man is the mediator between God and the lower man: only through man can man receive development. For these reasons, we call this event at Jerusalem a crisis or turning-point in the history of Him who was truly man.

He had come from Nazareth’s quiet valley and green slopes on the hillsides, where hill and valley, and cloud and wind, and day and night, had nourished His child’s heart-from communion with minds proverbially low, for the adage was.. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”-to the capital of His country, to converse with the highest and most cultivated intellects. He had many a question to ask, and many a difficulty to solve. As for instance, such as this: How could the religion accredited in Jerusalem-a religion of long prayers and church services, and phylacteries, and rigorous sabbaths-be reconciled with the stern, manly righteousness of which He had read in the old prophets: a righteousness not of litany-makers, but of men with swords in their hands and zeal in their hearts, setting up God’s kingdom upon earth? a kingdom of truth, and justice, and realities-were they bringing in that kingdom?-And if not, who should? Such questions had to be felt, and asked, and pondered on. Thenceforth we say therefore, in all reverence, dated the intellectual life of Jesus. From that time “Jesus increased in wisdom.”

Not that they, the doctors of the temple, contributed much. Those ecclesiastical pedants had not much to tell Him that was worth the telling They were thinking about theology, He about religion. They about rubrics and church services, He about God His Father, and His will. And yet He gained more from them than they from Him. Have we never observed that the deepest revelations of ourselves are often made to us by trifling remarks met with here and there in conversation and books, sparks which set a whole train of thoughts on fire? Nay, that a false view given by an inferior mind has led us to a true one, and that conversations from which we had expected much light, turning out unsatisfactorily, have thrown us upon ourselves and God, and so become almost the birth-times of the soul? The truth is, it is not the amount which is poured in that gives wisdom: but the amount of creative mind and heart working on and stirred by what is so poured in. That conversation with miserable priests and formalists called into activity the One Creative Mind which was to fertilize the whole spiritual life of man to the end of time: and Jesus grew in wisdom by a conversation with pedants of the law.

What Jerusalem was to Him a town life is to us. Knowledge develops itself in the heated atmosphere of town life. Where men meet, and thought clashes with thought-where workmen sit round a board at work, intellectual irritability must be stirred more than where men live. and work alone. The march of mind, as they call it, must go on. Whatever evils there may be in our excited, feverish, modern life, it is quite certain that we know through it more than our forefathers knew. The workman knows more of foreign politics than most statesmen knew two centuries ago. The child is versed in theological questions which only occupied masterminds once. But the question is, whether, like the Divine Child in the Temple, we are turning knowledge into wisdom, and whether, understanding more of the mysteries of life, we are feeling more of its sacred law; and whether, having left behind the priests, and the scribes, and the doctors, and the fathers, we are about our Father’s business, and becoming wise to God.


III. Growth in grace-“the grace of God was upon Him.” And this in three points:

1. The exchange of an earthly for a heavenly home.

2. Of an earthly for a heavenly parent.

3. The reconciliation of domestic duties.

First step: Exchange of an earthly for a heavenly home. Jesus was in the temple for the first time. That which was dull routine to others through dead habit, was full of vivid impression, fresh life, and God to Him. “My Father’s business”-“My Father’s house.” How different the meaning of these expressions now from what it had been before! Before all was limited to the cottage of the carpenter: now it extended to the temple. He had felt the sanctities of a new home. In after-life the phrase which He had learned by earthly experience obtained a divine significance. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”

Our first life is spontaneous and instinctive. Our second life is reflective. There is a moment when the life spontaneous passes into the life reflective. We live at first by instinct; then we look in, feel ourselves, ask what we are and whence we came, and whither we are bound, In an awful new world of mystery, and destinies, and duties, we feel God, and know that our true home is our Father’s house which has many mansions.

Those are fearful, solitary moments; in which the heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joys. Father-mother-can not share these; and to share is to intrude. The soul first meets God alone. So with Jacob when he saw the dream-ladder: so with Samuel when the voice called him: so with Christ. So with every son of man, God visits the soul in secrecy, in silence, and in solitariness. And the danger and duty of a teacher is twofold. 1st. To avoid hastening that feeling, hurrying that crisis-moment which some call conversion. 2d. To avoid crushing it. I have said that first religion is a kind of instinct; and if a child does not exhibit strong religious sensibilities, if he seem “heedless, untouched by awe or serious thought,” still it is wiser not to interfere. He may be still at home with God: be may be worshipping at home; as has been said with not less truth than beauty, he may be

“Lying in Abraham’s bosom all the year,

And worship at the temple’s inner shrine,”

God being with him when he knew it not. Very mysterious, and beautiful, and wonderful, is God’s communing with the unconscious soul before reflection comes. The second caution is not to quench the feeling. Joseph and the Virgin chid the Child for His absence: “Why hast thou dealt so with us?” They could not understand His altered ways: His neglect of apparent duties: His indifference to usual pursuits. They mourned over the change. And this reminds us of the way in which affection’s voice itself ministers to ruin. When God comes to the heart, and His presence is shown by thoughtfulness, and seriousness, and distaste to common business, and loneliness. and solitary musings, and a certain tone of melancholy, straightway we set ourselves to expostulate, to rebuke, to cheer, to prescribe amusement and gayeties, as the cure for seriousness which seems out of place. Some of us have seen that tried; and more fearful still, seen it succeed. And we have seen the spirit of frivolity and thoughtlessness, which had been banished for a time, come back again with seven spirits of evil more mighty than himself, and the last state of that person worse than the first. And we have watched the still small voice of God in the soul silenced. And we have seen the spirit of the world get its victim back again; and incipient goodness dried up like morning dew upon the heart. And they that loved him did it-his parents-his teachers. They quenched the smoking flax, and turned out the lamp of God lighted in the soul!

The last step was reconciliation to domestic duties. He went down to Nazareth, and was subject unto them. The first step in spirituality is to get a distaste for common duties. There is a time when creeds, ceremonies, services, are distasteful; when the conventional arrangements of society are intolerable burdens; and when, aspiring with a sense of vague longing after a goodness which shall be immeasurable, a duty which shall transcend mere law, a something which we can not put in words-all restraints of rule and habit gall the spirit. But the last and highest step in spirituality is made in feeling these common duties again to be divine and holy. This is the true liberty of Christ, when a free man binds himself in love to duty. Not in shrinking from our distasteful occupations, but in fulfilling them, do we realize our high origin. And this is the blessed, second childhood of Christian life. All the several stages towards it seem to be shadowed forth with accurate truthfulness in the narrative of the Messiah’s infancy. First the quiet, unpretending, unconscious obedience and innocence of home. Then the crisis of inquiry: new strange thoughts, entrance upon a new world, hopeless seeking of truth from those who can not teach it, hearing many teachers and questioning all: thence bewilderment and bitterness, loss of relish for former duties: and small consolation to a man in knowing that he is farther off from heaven than when he was a boy. And then, lastly, the true reconciliation and atonement of our souls to God-a second springtide of life-a second faith deeper than that of childhood-not instinctive but conscious trust-childlike love come back again-childlike wonder-childlike implicitness of obedience-only deeper than childhood ever knew; when life has got a new meaning, when “old things are passed away, and all things are become new;” when earth has become irradiate with the feeling of our Father’s business and our Father’s home.