Before Jesus was known as the Christ, he was known as a carpenter.
Consider the significance of that statement. Though the Scriptures tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ life as a carpenter, it is nevertheless a significant part of who Jesus was for the better part of his life on earth.
At least three things are noteworthy about Jesus as carpenter.
1. Jesus was blue-collar.
First, Jesus experienced what we would call a blue-collar life. He could relate to the majority of first-century folk in Nazareth. He knew what it was like to “punch a clock,” to pull splinters from his palms and nurse scabs that turned to calluses. He understood the daily grind of manual labor, the exchange of goods and services with customers and the important balance of quality and efficiency.
Have you ever imagined a table built by Jesus? How beautiful it would be, how precise its dimensions, and how perfect its function. How many flaws would you expect to find? The question sounds almost absurd, doesn’t it? This is precisely the line of thinking taken by Dorothy Sayers in her essay “Why Work?,” in which she considers what the Christian religion has to say about our work. She writes,
But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly — but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
Sayers’ words are haunting for Christian workers today. Whether carpenter, cab driver or candlestick maker, we must work true: Our work agrees with the truth that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth and God is at work through his people making all things new — even in our table-making.
No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth.
2. Jesus had a physical body.
Second, Jesus came in flesh and blood, just like us. This may seem far too obvious, but it is important to mention since many Christians live as though the only important dimension of reality is the spiritual dimension. To be sure, the Bible teaches that there is a spiritual side of God’s world — the spirit of human beings, for example — but nowhere does the Bible teach that the spiritual dimension is superior to the material dimension. Instead, the two are necessary and equal parts of creation that have different functions. Indeed, the bodily birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus (not to mention his carpentry profession) testify to the significance of the material world in proper relationship with the spiritual.
In light of this, Christians should be careful of prioritizing the spiritual over the physical. This often happens, for example, in our missions efforts. When we end with evangelism, rather than beginning with it, we assume that securing the soul’s salvation is all that matters instead of recognizing that salvation is the beginning of a person’s walk with the Savior who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Further, when we reduce the Christian disciplines to “spiritual” disciplines, we neglect the opportunity — indeed, the responsibility — to keep and cultivate the garden that is God’s world. When we neglect the material realm, we reinforce the lie that this aspect of God’s creation is no longer good and perhaps no longer his at all. I suspect that the “meek” who “shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) would beg to differ.
Jesus’ “blue-collar” experience set him on common ground with the people.
3. Jesus talked about (and to) workers.
Third, work and workers were often on Jesus’ mind, and they held a central place in his teaching — especially his parables. His “blue-collar” experience set him on common ground with the people rather than on a perch of privilege from which to talk down to them like the religious leaders did. Of course, even some of the commoners resisted Jesus’ teaching and authority. As he said, it’s hard to be a prophet in one’s hometown. Nonetheless, workers and their work were never far from Jesus’ mind and thus never far from his teaching.
Thus while we remember Jesus as Christ, we must also remember him as carpenter.
Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?,” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004), 131-32.