More than A Carpenter
In 1978 I was given two apologetics books by the late Fred E. Dennis, during one of my visits to the Dennis house on Cutler Street in Marietta, OH. The first book was God’s Incomparable Word, authored by Harold Lindsell a founder of Fuller Seminary who also served as Editor of Christianity Today. The second book was More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell, a popular apologist during that era. Fred Dennis was a preacher who was known by many during the 20th century. He died in 1983 at the age of 88. At his passing, a weekly publication of the Granny White Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, and “Home Congregation of Lipscomb [University] Students,” contained a front-page article concerning Fred Dennis. The article described him as “an outstanding preacher, holding fast to the ‘old paths’ . . . held in deep esteem . . . because of his consecration and sound preaching” (Hardy).
A half-dozen years before Dennis gave me those books, Providence had afforded me what remains one of the richest blessings of my life: Along with a number of other men, most of which were my age, I was blessed to study and learn apologetics under the teaching of Thomas B. Warren. Many of these classmates remain friends to this day and are supporters of Warren Apologetics Center. Dr. Warren ignited a flame of passion for the need of Christian apologetics that continues burning in many of us. Along came Fred E. Dennis stoking that flame through the gift of two apologetics books he had read and desired to share with a young preacher. At that time I had not yet even preached the gospel for ten years! He had preached for more than six decades! His generous deed made a profound impression on me. As a boy, I had looked up to Fred Dennis with childhood captivation. As a young preacher, it had matured into adult respect. This feeling has only deepened as 40 years have come and gone since that winter day, February 4, 1978.
McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter was published the year before Fred Dennis gave me his copy. I see the book at this moment on the desk from which I am writing these words. It triggers thoughts of those two great passages in the New Testament Scriptures where the word carpenter appears: Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3. In the former passage, Jesus is identified as “the carpenter’s son” and in the latter Jesus, Himself, is called ‘the carpenter.” In his Dialogue With Trypho, the mid-second century apologist, Justin Martyr wrote that Jesus was “making ploughs and yokes, and instructing us by such symbols of righteousness to avoid an inactive life” (Oden and Hall 79). John Stott suggests, “In addition to farm implements, it seems probable that he [Jesus] will have learned to make and repair household furniture like tables, chairs, beds, and cupboards” (129).
Jesus Learned the Work
Edersheim says Mark 6:3 enables us to “infer with great probability . . . [in conjunction with Matthew 13:55] that He [Jesus] had adopted the trade of Joseph. Among the Jews, the contempt for manual labor, which was one of the painful characteristics of heathenism, did not exist. . . . [I]t was deemed a religious duty . . . to learn some trade . . .” (252). Concerning the word translated carpenter, Hendriksen provides the following observations:
The word for “carpenter,” used in the original is tektōn, related to English “technician.” The cognate verb means to bear, give birth to, bring forth. The tektōn, accordingly, is basically any skilled workman, anyone who “brings forth,” “makes” or “creates” an object. One might say, any “craftsman” or “builder,” whether the materials he uses consist of wood, stone, metal, or anything else. In the present case we shall assume that “worker in wood,” “carpenter” (see quotation from Justin Martyr) is correct. It is worthy of note that here in Mark, Jesus himself is called “the carpenter,” whereas in Matt. 13:55 he is called “the son of the carpenter.” This cannot rightfully be called a discrepancy, since he may well have been called both. In times ancient and even comparatively recent a son would often, as to chosen occupation, follow in the footsteps of his father. (222)
Jesus learned to be a “builder, carpenter, woodworker, one who works with hard material” (Rogers and Rogers 78). Barclay called Him “a working-man. . . . [I]t means that God, when He came to earth, claimed no exemptions. He took on Himself this common life with all its common tasks” (Gospel, 139). Additionally, another reason for Jesus learning this work has been suggested in the following:
One thing more is to be added. Eighteen years [cf. Luke 2:42, 51-52; 3:23] is a long time to wait, and it may be that there was a very special reason for that delay. . . . Joseph vanishes from the narrative. Even as early as the marriage feast at Cana of Galilee there is no word of Joseph being there (John 2:1-11). By far the most likely explanation is that Joseph was dead, and that the young Jesus had to take upon his shoulders the family business and the support of his mother Mary and of his younger brothers and sisters (Mark 6:33), and that he had to stay in Nazareth until there was someone in the family old enough to take over the carpenter’s shop and earn a living for the family. (Barclay, Mind 14)
A decade following the release of his popular More Than a Carpenter book, Josh McDowell co-authored with his writer-researcher Bill Wilson, another book on the deity of Jesus Christ titled He Walked Among Us (1988). It was republished in 1993 as Evidence for the Historical Jesus. Discussing the historical presence of Jesus in time and space the volume provides evidence from “historical geography” in the form of incidents in Jesus’ life that connect with actual historical places and events. It is affirmed that Nazareth was “an area where people frowned on the use of wood as an exploitation of the land” and that tektōn (carpenter) can also be translated “stonemason.” Jesus may have done considerable stone construction as well as carpentry. “As a result, Jesus may have been very strong and powerful in appearance” (190).
Jesus Worked the Work
Labor (work) is a key constituent element in the Christian ethical system. Paul wrote, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote words of practical explanation that reminded them of the application of the Christian work ethic as exemplified in his (Paul’s) own life (2 Thessalonians 3:7-13).
As always, Jesus is the greatest example of the ethical system of Christianity. He not only learned a work, but He worked the work. Farrar, in writing of the life of Christ, penned a beautiful passage illustrating our Lord’s powerful commitment to the application of the virtuous work ethic:
Again, there has never been, in the unenlightened mind, a love of idleness; a tendency to regard it as a stamp of aristocracy; a desire to delegate labour to the lower and the weaker, and to brand it with the stigma of inferiority and contempt. But our Lord wished to show that labour is a pure and noble thing; it is the salt of life; it is the girdle of manliness; it saves the body from effeminate languor, and the soul from polluting thoughts. And therefore Christ labored, working with His own hands, and fashioned ploughs and yokes for those who needed them. The very scoff of Celsus against the possibility that He should have been a carpenter who came to save the world, shows how vastly the world has gained from this very circumstance—how gracious and how fitting was the example of such humility in One whose work it was to regenerate society, and to make all things new. (82-83)
The late British diplomat Sir John Glubb authored The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival in which he describes the stages by which nations (esp. super powers, empires, great nations) rise and fall. The last stage, according to Glubb, is the age of decadence marked by “defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, and influx of foreigners, the welfare state, and a weakening of religion,” and is due to “too long a period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money, and the loss of a sense of duty” (36). Much of this involves a loss of “energy . . . initiative . . . honesty and . . . dedication to survive” (53). This is directly connected to a weakening of the Judeo-Christian ethic of work as revealed in the Bible. The ethical system of Jesus Christ as set forth in the New Testament, as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, is superior to all other ethical systems. One of the constituent elements of the ethical system of Jesus Christ, as taught in the New Testament, is its perfect presentation of the value of honest work for the individual, the family, civil government, the nation, and the church. Individuals, families, businesses, governments, nations, and churches will not flourish to the ultimate degree without proper respect for, and application of, the Judeo-Christian work ethic.
Jesus Worked the Work Perfectly
Stott (131) referenced Ira Bosely in a very rare book, Christ the Carpenter, his trade and his teaching, which was dedicated to the “Worshipful Company of Carpenters.” Bosely portrayed Jesus as “the only perfect working man.” The description reminds one of the response of some to a mighty work performed by Jesus and recorded in Mark’s account shortly following the “Is not this the carpenter?” question (Mark 6:3). Mark wrote, “And they were beyond measure astonished saying, ‘He hath done all things well . . .” (Mark 7:37).
Jesus certainly did “all things well.” Such extended to His work in the carpenter trade as well as all “the works that the Father has given [Him] to accomplish . . . [that] bear witness about [Him]” (John 5:36). The very words of Christ provide sufficient evidence of His deity (cf. John 7:46; 14:10; et al.). However, if one does not recognize this, then it should be the case that “the works themselves” (John 14:11) produce faith in Him.
Here was perfect manhood doing perfect work. G. Campbell Morgan eloquently describes this in the following:
It follows that every piece of work that Jesus did in physical strength under the control of spiritual intelligence, was perfect work, and this because He perfectly understood His work, was perfectly able to do it, and rendered it in the perfect love of His heart to God. How delightful it is to meditate upon Him as he bent over His bench and made yokes and ploughs for the cultivation of the fields He so dearly loved, which stretched around the hamlet where He lived. It is worthy of remembrance that He used both plough and yoke as illustrations in His preaching. Think for a moment of the wonderful skill with which He would carry out His work. His knowledge of nature was such that He knew exactly the best wood to use for any given piece of work; and in the tree lying before Him, He read all the story of its growth, and knew the precision of its method, and so understood just how to cut it so as not to spoil it in the process. He knew, moreover, how to join it, so that in the joint of strength of each part should minister to the new strength of union, He was a perfect Workman, doing perfect work. (134-35)
This element of Christ as the perfect workman, in conjunction with the challenge from the apostle Peter that the Christian should remember Jesus’ perfect example and aim to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21) evidences the balance and practicality of Christian living. Paul wrote that “those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8, ESV). The marginal footnote in the American Standard Version (1901) reads as follows: “Or, profess honest occupations.” Such entails both profession in word, but also practice in deed. Barclay’s comment is powerful:
. . . The conviction of the Christian workman is that every single piece of work he produces must be good enough to show to God. The problem that the world has always faced, and that the world is facing acutely to-day, is not basically an economic problem at all; it is a religious problem. We will never make men good workmen by increasing pay, or bettering conditions, or heightening rewards. It is quite true that it is a Christian duty to see to these things; but they in themselves will never produce good work. Still less will we produce good work by intensifying threats and increasing oversight and multiplying punishments and penalties. The only secret of good workmanship is that it is done for God. It is only when a man is taking all his work and showing it to God that work can be good. (Letters, 215)
The late Jess W. Nutter (1911-1997) was one of my mentors. He was as honest and diligent in his work as anyone I have known. He worked, and he worked hard. From working at Taylor, Smith, and Taylor Pottery and Homer Laughlin China Company in the northern panhandle of West Virginia to his wood working and saw sharpening shop, he took great care to do his work with excellence. William McMahan, former elder in the church at Chester, WV, and a co-worker of Jess Nutter at the pottery once said, “He (Nutter) has told me that being a Christian caused him to make an extra swipe with a sponge on a piece of [pottery] ware many times.” In 1944 he quit the pottery to work full time as a preacher of the gospel of Christ. Jess Nutter brought to the ministry of the word the same aim for excellence that he had at the potter’s bench. He was striving to follow the Perfect Working Man (Jesus Christ).
He who was the carpenter, and the son of a carpenter was more than a carpenter! He is the Son of God. He was the perfect working man, because He was (is) the God-Man (cf. John 1:1-3, 14). He challenges humanity to labor with the undergirding virtue that “whatever [honorable work] your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10), and do it all to the glory of the Creator, but by the grace of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:10). Facing what His life on Earth was ultimately all about He prayed to His father: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). May men, women, boys, and girls everywhere be challenged by the greatest story ever to be told—the gospel of Jesus Christ, the carpenter, but more than a carpenter!
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13, ESV)
Charles C. Pugh III
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- - -. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 1954. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958.
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