The Christmas story is about Jesus being born into the family of Mary and Joseph. Have you ever considered what other options there were for which type of family Jesus could have been born into? We could explore these possibilities by asking, “What early life experiences do we think could best prepare Jesus for his later public ministry?” Let me suggest a context for this kind of musing. Imagine you were invited to observe that special planning session in eternity past when the Godhead considered creating this world and mapping out a plan for our redemption. Of course this couldn’t happen, but pretend this divine session was like one of our committee meetings. The topic on “today’s” agenda is “What is the best early life experience preparation for Jesus to be formed for his distinctive divine-human role as Messiah and Savior of the world?”
A few options come to mind. We might think that it would be important for the Messiah to grow up in a family that was closely associated with the Temple. What about a priestly family? Days could be devoted to studying Scripture, prayer, and daily access to the temple precincts. That was John the Baptizer’s heritage (Lk 1:5-17). And even though the parents of Old Testament Prophet Samuel were not priests, after Samuel was weaned, he grew up with Eli’s priestly family (1 Samuel 1:21-28, 2:11, 18-21). Or, perhaps the Messiah could be raised within a Pharisee’s family. This lay movement was highly devoted to God, zealous about the application of Old Testament Scriptures to daily living. That was the Apostle Paul's family background (Acts 23:6; Gal 1:14; “in regard to the law, a Pharisee,” Phil 3:5). Paul had also been trained as a tentmaker (Acts 18:2-3), earning his living expenses that way at times during his missionary travels (Acts 20:33-35; 2 Thes 3:7-10). But growing up in a Pharisee household was not the birthing placement for the Messiah.
Instead, our Christmas story declares that Jesus was divinely assigned to and born into a simple layperson’s family in which his earthly father was a “carpenter” (Matt 13:55), growing up far away from the Temple in Jerusalem. After returning from their brief sojourn in Egypt, Jesus’ family lived in the north, in Galilee, a couple days' journey from Jerusalem. During his youth Jesus probably only traveled to the Temple up to three times a year. It was the custom that men and boys attended the three major holy days/festivals in Jerusalem.
So, instead of being around the Temple on a daily basis, Jesus devoted the bulk of his young adult years working at a “secular” job in the building trade. Among the options available to contribute to the formation preparation for the Messiah, that seems surprising—particularly in today’s culture, which has widely viewed secular work as less, well, Christian than “full-time vocational ministry.” If Joseph followed the custom of the day, then Jesus would have begun working as his apprentice as a carpenter around the age of 12. Luke 3:23 informs us that Jesus began his ministry about the age of 30. Doing the math we see that Jesus worked at this “secular” job for about 18 years of his life—that’s six times as long as his public ministry, traditionally calculated as three years.
Can we imagine what those 18 years involved? Jesus worked with his hands in carpentry and probably masonry. He likely worked as a sub-contractor alongside other artisans, completing projects, and handling finances—negotiating bids, purchasing or bartering for supplies, and contributing to family living expenses. He labored in good weather and bad weather, getting paid and not getting paid. And consider that this day job—where he spent a good part of his young adult years—contributed to Jesus’ character formation to become the kind of person we read about in the Gospels.
The Christmas Story that did happen is that Jesus was born into a simple layperson’s family, with the implications that he would spend about 18 years at a “secular” job, before transitioning into his public ministry as the Priest (Heb 4:14-15), the Prophet (Acts 3:20-24, citing Deut 18:18), and the Anointed Messiah or Christ (Matt 16:16), who would save us (Matt 1:21-23). Today about 80% of the workforce in the U.S. labor in this “secular” marketplace. If we ponder Jesus’ background and preparation prior to launching his public ministry, we discern that Jesus can identify with the ups and downs of the vast majority of those who work at a “secular” job.
As I’ve considered these matters and taken a deeper look at Jesus’ teachings, I’ve come to understand that Jesus’ young adult work life played an important role in his public ministry. On occasion Jesus uses familiar business terms of his day in a figurative way to teach us insights about the dynamics of the Kingdom of God. For example, the Greek verb for “received” in “received their full reward in full” (Matt 6:2,5,16) meant to give a business receipt. Similarly, many of his parables are set within a marketplace context, such as the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), in which servants are required to do business and make a profit. Jesus relied on his “business” background to convey deep truths to the common folk of his day and to us today.
That’s one implication of the Christmas Story that did happen: The Son of God took on humanity and identified with us, working for many years at a “secular” job, one who knows our weaknesses and challenges. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15).
For more about “Jesus and work” see my article in Biola Magazine’s Summer 2012 issue: