Imagine for a moment that you have been charged with coming up with a life plan for the most important person in all of human history. The Messiah, the Son of God, will soon come to earth and will remain here for just over 30 years. He will be fully man, so you will need to plan accordingly, giving him time to grow from infancy to maturity, ensuring he has times of devotion to refresh his soul and of sleep to refresh his body. But he will also be fully God, so you will need to ensure he uses his perfect knowledge to explain the will of God and his perfect power to perform incredible miracles. It is up to you to plan the time between his birth and death.
If you were given such a task, you would most likely plan for Jesus to live as much of his life as possible in the public eye. You would want him to preach every sermon he possibly could, to perform every miracle, to tell every parable, to exorcise every demon. You would plan for him to grow up quickly so he could minister as publicly as possible for as long as possible. After all, you wouldn’t want him to waste any of these precious years.
The Messiah, the Son of God, really did come to earth. But it fell to God—not you or me—to set the course for his life, and God planned it very differently. Jesus lived for around 33 years, but his entire public ministry fit into just the final three. He spent 90 percent of his life in obscurity and only 10 percent in the public eye. For every one year that was recorded, there were 10 that were not. God arranged the itinerary, and he chose to have Jesus spend 30 years in quiet preparation for his three years of public activity.
It should be both comforting and challenging to consider that the perfect, sinless Son of God celebrated his 30th birthday without any major accomplishments to his credit. To that point, his actions and achievements had been so unremarkable that his family and neighbors were flabbergasted when he at last began his public ministry. When he began to teach with authority and to perform great miracles, his neighbors sneered, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” while his embarrassed family tried to hustle him away. Yet his silent years were not wasted years. His years between childhood and full adulthood were purposeful, and he used them to accomplish great things, even if they were invisible things. He lived these years so well that God himself would speak from the skies to commend him.
In our series, “Advance!” we are discussing priorities for young Christians. The title and structure are drawn from the life of Jesus, from the words of one of his biographers who, in a sentence, summarizes Jesus’ teens and 20s: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). In this article, we are going to consider that simple word “increased” and how it challenges young Christians to one key pursuit.
One Key Pursuit
Embedded deep within the modern Western ethos is the idea that life never gets better than the teens and 20s. This trope is at the heart of a thousand Hollywood productions and cheesy pop songs. These are the years when you are most carefree, when expectation is low, when responsibility is minimal. These are the years when you are unrestrained by career, marriage, and children. According to this ethos, these years are best used to indulge in every desire, every freedom, and every fantasy, before you are at last forced to surrender to the inevitable and settle down into a humdrum adulthood.
Many Christians have pushed back by teaching young believers to embrace these years for higher purposes and nobler pursuits. Rightly, they teach that the very activities the world advocates are the ones that will actually stain the years and squander them. They replace the low expectations of the world with the high expectations of God’s Word. Well and good. Yet while this is a healthy reorientation, it may lead young Christians to believe that in order to make the most of their teens and 20s, they must have accomplishments that can be displayed—they must have written a book, or spoken at a conference, or founded a charity. They must have something that has earned accolades and garnered the praise and respect of others. At the very least, they may think the people who can display such accomplishments are the ones who have been most pleasing to God, the ones who are living best before him.
I have deep admiration for young Christians who want to make a difference in their church, in their community, and in their world. I would never wish to replace enthusiasm with apathy. However, I do need to raise the matter of priorities and insist that the most important priority for the teens and 20s is not external accomplishments but internal ones. The number one priority for young Christians is to advance in character. Life is not over at 30 but just beginning. The teens and 20s are not the time to live a whole life but to prepare for a whole life. In these years, young Christians need to prepare themselves for the rest of life by laying a foundation of godly character that will sustain them for the many years to come.
This does not mean that young Christians ought to substitute painstaking external accomplishments for more leisurely work on their character. Jesus’ advancement in his character during his teens and 20s was far from easy. We know this because the word translated “increase” in Luke 2:52 carries the sense of advancing against obstacles and impediments. It is not the word for a leisurely stroll in the park but the word for blazing a trail in the woods. Jesus models the most strenuous, demanding kind of work for young Christians: the work of developing character.
Jesus himself needed time to prepare for public ministry. If Jesus needed time to prepare for his life’s work, isn’t it worth considering that perhaps you do, too? If even he was willing to put aside external accomplishments to focus first on internal achievements, shouldn’t you be willing to do the same? Even Jesus had to be before he could do, to develop his character before he could minister effectively. In the end, Jesus used 90 percent of his life in preparation! Yet these years of preparation did not frustrate God or thwart his purposes. Rather, they pleased God and fulfilled his purposes.
Jesus’ public ministry began with his baptism. His cousin John had gone “into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). He warned people to turn away from their sin and to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah. Crowds were flocking to John to hear his message and to respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. So many came that Matthew says that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him” (Matthew 3:5). Genuine revival was stirring.
Then one day Jesus shows up. When he is around 30, he comes from Galilee to the Jordan and asks John to baptize him just like everyone else. John knows Jesus’ true identity and is shocked and offended by the very notion of baptizing him. “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me’” (Matthew 3:14). But Jesus insists, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (15). John consents and lowers his cousin into the water.
As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River, something remarkable happens. “The heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22). God the Father tells God the Son of his delight in him, of his satisfaction in the life he has lived. “I take pleasure in you. I approve of who you are. I am satisfied in all you have accomplished.”
What has Jesus accomplished? As far as we know, up until this point, Jesus has a one-line resume: carpenter. He has not yet preached his first sermon, told his first parable, exorcised his first demon, or performed his first miracle. He has no medals to hang around his neck, no awards to pin on his chest, no accolades to trim from the local newspaper and carefully glue into his scrapbook.
The one thing he does have to his credit is character. He has carefully, deliberately, substantially advanced in character. And that is enough. It is more than enough for God, his Father. He has done the very thing God has called him to do for 30 years. He has advanced in obedience, in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man. He has prepared himself in obscurity for a ministry he will fulfill with great publicity. He has obeyed God. He is prepared for what God has for him.
Young Christian, look to Jesus and see that the most important advances you can make in your teens and 20s are advances in character. It is in these years that you will lay a foundation of godly character capable of guiding and sustaining you for a lifetime. Your one key pursuit for teens and 20s must be to advance. Follow after your Savior and advance in godly character, advance in obedience, advance in wisdom, advance in favor with God and man.