Did Jesus Have Teenage Rebellion?

Back in the day, growing up as an ultra-conservative homeschooler, I heard a lot of negative references about teenage rebellion. There are a couple that stick in my head.

The first, I believe, was in a magazine article. I’m not sure who the author was. But it stated something along these lines: “If teenage rebellion were normal, then Jesus would have rebelled.”

The second was from S. M. Davis’s message Changing the Heart of a Rebel (also published as How to Win the Heart of a Rebel or Winning the Heart of a Rebel). Dr. Davis stated:

If the destructive impact of lies could be compared to bombs, this one lie must have the destructive capability of a nuclear warhead. Yet this lie is believed and even joked about by many people. Here is the lie: “Some adolescent rebellion is normal and to be expected out of every teenager.” Since rebellion is normal and to be expected, then you don’t feel like you have to deal with it.

Rebellion is not normal!

Many people took this attitude to the point of saying that adolescence was essentially a man-made concept; that children should basically jump straight to adulthood without transition. At least, that was the implication. I remember one author (possibly the one I quoted at the beginning) quoting Paul’s statement, “When I became a man, I put away childish things”, as evidence that being a “teenager” was just a cultural construct. Indeed, some people loathed the very word “teenager”.

I certainly don’t believe that teenagers should be rebellious or engage in behaviors that are destructive to themselves or others. However, let’s look carefully at how we define “teenage rebellion”.

What did Jesus do?

Interestingly, we only have one Bible story about Jesus between the time of His birth and the time when he appeared to Israel as a teacher.

When [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn’t know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.

When they didn’t find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the middle of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.”

He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

They didn’t understand the saying which he spoke to them.

And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. (Luke 2:42-51)

An interesting story

We’ve heard this story many times. It’s easy for our eyes to glaze over and miss what it’s really saying. Let’s analyze it a little, shall we?

Jesus, after all, was God Himself in the flesh. He knew full well a) when Joseph and Mary were ready to leave; b) that if they left without Him, they would end up spending three days looking for him; and c) where they were the entire time they were looking for Him (and therefore could have taken the time to go find them and assure them that He was okay).

Instead, Jesus sat calmly in the temple, talking with the teachers, while Joseph and Mary anxiously looked for Him.

Now, imagine being Mary. It’s not hard to understand her reaction: “Son, why have you treated us this way?”

But at age twelve, Jesus was becoming an independent person. He was following his Heavenly Father’s direction, without input from Mary and Joseph.

Now, we should also note that when Jesus went home, it says that “he was subject to them”. He was not rebellious. However, we have to understand this “subject to them” in light of the story we just read!

Remember, Jesus was perfect. There was nothing wrong with what he did. Yet, he caused Joseph and Mary three days of anxious searching, as well as delaying their return to Nazareth. And when they finally found him, he showed no remorse, and gave an incomprehensible excuse.

How many parents would have labeled Jesus as “rebellious”?

Becoming like Jesus

S. M. Davis, who I quoted at the beginning, has also taught and written about “What to Expect From Your Twelve Year Old”. Based on the character and ability that Jesus showed at age 12, he teaches that we should expect similar things of every 12-year-old.

The first fallacy, of course, is that not every 12-year-old has the same mental, spiritual, or physical capabilities as Jesus. After all, none of us are God.

What I have experienced in my own life, however, is that the same sort of child training philosophy championed by Dr. Davis also prevents children from gaining the true maturity, freedom, independence, and responsibility that we see in young Jesus. If we want our children to act like Jesus, we must allow them to act like Jesus, which may include doing things that distress us and cause us to worry.

Maturity cannot come from parents controlling their children. They can make their children appear mature, but the truth is that control actually leaves the young person in a state of perpetual childhood. It violates the child’s personal boundaries.

Personal boundaries not only serve to show the child where they have freedom (i.e., they are not responsible for others’ responsibilities), but also show the child their own personal responsibilities (which fall within their own boundaries). Dr. Davis teaches that teenagers need to give their hearts to their parents; that parents need to win their teenagers’ hearts. Nowhere does the Bible teach us this. There is a difference between “turning the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6), which implies a deep relationship, and a parent owning the hearts of their children.

Some parents, especially, are not worthy of having their children’s hearts. (Should a Christian teen give her heart to her non-Christian parents?) But even the best of parents should be releasing their teens and giving them greater and greater independence as they mature. If they don’t, the teenagers will not truly mature.

I should know. Because I speak from personal experience.

Redefining “teenage rebellion”

In her interesting book Why I Didn’t Rebel, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach carefully chooses her definition of rebellion. Rather than defining it as rebelling against parents, she defines it as rebelling against God.

In the example of Jesus, who wasn’t even a teenager yet, He was actually walking in obedience to God. This obedience to God led Him to “rebel” against Joseph and Mary. I’m not saying it was actually rebellion, but certainly some parents would have labeled Him as rebellious.

Parents, you are not the voice of God to your children. As they grow up, you have to give them the freedom to serve God as He leads them. Sometimes, you might disagree or have deep concerns. But please learn from Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and recognize that they are responsible for obeying God—not you.

To all the young people out there, whatever age bracket you may fall under: you alone are responsible to follow God. It’s not your parents’ job to do it for you. Nor do your parents get to define God’s leading for you. Do listen to them and value their input. Seek their counsel and take their warnings to heart. But if God leads you differently than they do, Jesus shows you what choice you have to make.

“If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

“For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:35-37)


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