17 YEARS A CARPENTER
Written by Doug Ponder on August 14, 2016
From 13 to 30—or 17 Years a Carpenter
We know that Jesus was about 30 years old when he started his public ministry of teaching and healing (Luke 3:23). We also know (from historical accounts of Jewish tradition) that a Jewish boy in Jesus’ day “graduated” to young man status at the age of 13, becoming responsible for obeying the commandments, growing in his knowledge of the Scriptures, and preparing for a future vocation (usually the trade of his father).
This means that like his adoptive father, Joseph, Jesus may have lived and worked as a carpenter for 17 years (Matt 13:55)—or about half his earthly life (since he was crucified about three years after beginning his public ministry).
Some people find this idea literally incredible, too difficult to believe. Many Christians would wonder with astonishment, “Why on earth would Jesus have spent half his life as a carpenter?!” It seems like a waste of his time. Surely the Son of God had more important things to do.
There are others who also find it impossible to imagine Jesus spending half his life (and almost all of his adult life) as a humble carpenter. These people are drawn to far-fetched and esoteric stories of a young Jewish boy supposedly spending time in the Far East learning Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian spirituality before returning to enlighten his Jewish homeland. (No serious scholars believe these accounts are accurate, nor do they associate this mythical figure with the historical Jesus of Nazareth.)
I think both of these groups, seemingly different on the surface, actually suffer from a similar problem: they cannot see the value in vocation, the spiritual act of service that is our daily sacrifice for the good of our neighbors.
What Vocation Is
The word “vocation” has been flattened to mean “your job,” which sounds like so much dull drudgery. But “vocation” comes from the Latin vocatio, which means calling, and that idea is right on the mark. A vocation is a job that provides for your needs, serves your neighbor, and uses your gifts to the glory of God.
Of course, lots of different “jobs” match that description—and that is exactly the point. Just think of how many vocations are needed to bring a loaf of bread to your table:
Start with a wheat farmer, a seed supplier who sold him the wheat, a real estate agent who sold him the farm, and a sales rep who sold him the tractors and other irrigation equipment, and the farmer’s workers. Then add the truck driver who delivers the harvested grain to a bakery, plus the manufacturers who in the auto plant who made the truck he drives, the people who built the machines used in the auto plant, the sales rep who sold the machines, and the real estate agent who sold the auto plant that piece of land etc. The same goes for the bakery and all its workers and every ingredient delivered to that store. And then another truck driver delivers the finished product to a grocery store, where the bread is unloaded, stocked, and rung up at the cash register. Not to mention all the employees who clean the store, fix things that break, work in administration, etc. On top of all this, you probably arrived at the store by means a vehicle you didn’t build, on roads you didn’t pave, benefitting from traffic signs you didn’t install… and on and on.
All these vocations come together for the making of even one loaf of bread!
Why Vocation Matters
Vocation is the ordinary means that God uses to bless the world. When God wants to clothe his people, for example, he uses tailors and sewing machine manufacturers and factory line workers. When God wants to feed his people, he uses farmers and bakers and butchers and grocery store workers to do so. He could make food fall from heaven (as he did during a special time of Israel’s history), but God has chosen to work through people instead of doing it all himself.
One of the main benefits of this is that it reminds us that no matter what our vocation is, we can (and should!) be blessing others and honoring Christ through our work. This is why Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as for the Lord and not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-25).
Jesus knew all this when he labored as a carpenter for 17 years. He knew how his work would bless others and honor God. He knew how God would use his labor to teach others the way he normally works in the world. He knew that God calls us to love our neighbors and use our gifts for his glory, and that these two converge in the calling that is our vocation. And Jesus also knew about the power of an ordinary life—even though the end of his life was anything but ordinary!
In short, vocation matters because all of creation—every square inch—belongs to God. Every good gift comes from his hand (Jas 1:17), even if it passes through the hands of fifty more people before it lands in yours. And when we grow to see how God works in us and through us—even working through the people who deny him or doubt his existence—the response of it all should lead us to extol the wondrous wisdom and kindness of God.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.