By Klaus Issler
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 issue being discussed: What life experiences would best prepare Jesus for his later public ministry, for his distinctive divine-human role as Messiah and Savior of the world?
We might think being born into a priest’s family would provide an excellent heritage for the Messiah, which was the life situation for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer (Luke 1:5–17). Days could be devoted to studying Scripture, prayer and daily access to the temple precincts. Yet Jesus came into a layperson’s family, devoting the bulk of his young adult years to working at a “secular” job.
That seems surprising — particularly in today’s culture, which has widely viewed secular work as less, well, Christian than “full-time vocational ministry.” But as I’ve taken a deeper look at Jesus’ teachings and his own work experience prior to his public ministry, I’ve come to understand that business played a significant role in his life, and continues to play a vital role in God’s ongoing work today. As it turns out, secular work isn’t for second-class Christians after all.
How Did Business Shape Jesus’ Life?
As was customary for boys in that day, Jesus was probably apprenticed alongside his father Joseph by age 12. Since Jesus began his public ministry about age 30 (Luke 3:23), he would have worked at a trade for 18 years. That’s six times as long as his three-year public ministry.
His former neighbors recognized Jesus by his previous occupation: “Isn’t this the tektōn?” (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55). Tektōn has been rendered as “carpenter” since William Tyndale’s English Bible translation (1526). Yet scholar Ken Campbell suggests “builder” as a more accurate translation, writing, “In the context of first-century Israel, the tektōn was a general craftsman who worked with stone, wood, and sometimes metal in large and small building projects.”
For Jesus’ family to work in a trade indicates they were part of what we’d call the lower middle-income class of that day. Furthermore, tradition suggests that his father Joseph died a few years prior to Jesus entering public ministry. If that were the case, Jesus as the eldest son was the one primarily responsible to see family living expenses were met through his and his brothers’ work as day laborers (Matt. 13:55–56).
If Jesus spent much of his earlier years as a builder, I wondered if his work experience might show up in his teachings. Based on my review, 50 percent of Jesus’ parables have some kind of a “business setting” (17 of 32). Did some aspects of these stories have a personal connection? The parable of the two builders and two houses (Matt. 7:24–27) concludes the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine young Jesus working with his father, digging a foundation for a house near the sea. Jesus asks, “Is this trench deep enough, dad?” Joseph replies, “Have you hit rock yet?” “No.” “Then keep on digging, son.” Regarding his teaching on the cost of discipleship, Jesus mentions one should have the funds at the start to complete a tower (Luke 14:28). Might Jesus have built a tower for a customer but was never paid?
These “business situated” parables offer a continuing reminder of Jesus’ hidden years that don’t get much attention. And consider that — unless there was an infusion of moral virtue when Jesus was a baby — we can infer that Jesus’ day job, where he interacted with people and the elements of nature, played a key role in his own character formation to become the kind of person the Gospels portray (cf. Luke 2:52, Heb. 5:8).
Does Jesus genuinely understand the business world as an insider? He probably worked alongside other artisans, completing projects and handling finances — negotiating bids, securing supplies and contributing to family living expenses. During his young adult years Jesus worked with his hands in masonry and carpentry, in good and bad weather, getting paid and not getting paid. Jesus can identify with the ups and downs of a business workday. For a few years, he had responsibilities for day-to-day operations of running what we’d call a small “secular” business.
Let’s consider some implications from Jesus’ life regarding “secular” work. Our vocational callings range across a wide spectrum, usually classified today into three main working sectors: public (working for government), private not-for-profit (civic, moral and religious organizations that rely on donations for all or part of their operating budgets) and private for-profit (various small and large businesses in the marketplace). Table A provides estimates of the percentages of the 2010 U.S. total workforce. It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of Americans — and by inference, Christians — work in the business sector as Jesus did.
Note that Jesus affirmed each sector. He implicitly acknowledged the political government has a legitimate role, by paying taxes himself (Matt. 17:24 –27; see also 22:21) and by not requiring Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector to change his profession (Luke 19:2–10). Regarding the private, not-for-profit sector, Jesus lived on the donations of others during his three years of public ministry (Luke 8:3, Mark 15:41, John 12:6). Finally, Jesus labored in the building trade for 18 years in what we’d call the for-profit sector. Since Jesus acknowledges the value of each of these three working sectors, can we affirm that Christians are able to seek God’s kingdom values and the common good through a good job within any sector?
The “Sunday–Monday” Gap
What is the connection between our worship of God on Sunday and our “secular” job on Monday? Sadly, business has not been highly valued by most clergy.
“Many business people are hungry to know how to integrate their faith into work,” said David Miller, who currently serves as director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative, in a 2007 interview with Christianity Today. “Unfortunately, most clergy don’t know how to help these parishioners, and they often show benign neglect, or even outright hostility, toward the marketplace.”
Biola professor Scott Rae and alumnus Kenman Wong (’86) make a similar observation in their business ethics textbook, Beyond Integrity, noting, “The weight of historical Christian thought seems to lean against wholehearted participation in business.”
As a result, many who work in “secular” careers end up with a sense that their vocations are less valuable in the eyes of God.
“For years, I thought my involvement in business was a second-class endeavor — necessary to put bread on the table, but somehow less noble than more sacred pursuits like being a minister or a missionary,” writes John Beckett, chairman of R. W. Beckett, in his book Loving Monday. “The clear impression was that to truly serve God, one must leave business and go into ‘full-time Christian service.’ Over the years, I have met countless other business people who feel the same way.”
A.W. Tozer, writing in The Pursuit of God, clarifies that “one of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas, the sacred and the secular … so that we live a divided instead of a unified life.” This false dichotomy between sacred and secular has become entrenched in an institutional way in the church. A “calling” to so-called “full-time Christian ministry” (missions, pastoring, teaching at a seminary) is often perceived as having greater value to God than those roles without this “calling” (e.g., business owner, plumber, homemaker). Sadly, such hierarchical valuing negatively impacts believers in business.
As a card-carrying member of this “higher order” class, only late in life did I become aware of how my views had been skewed. All of my adult life I‘ve been employed in the not-for profit sector. I went to seminary, served on the pastoral staffs of a few churches, and have been a seminary professor at a few seminaries — 20 years now at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. I confess that I bought into this received view within my own Christian culture that “vocational full-time ministry” was a higher calling than other endeavors. For example, when a person moved from being a pastor to the marketplace, he or she was considered to have “left the ministry.”
About eight years ago, God set me on a journey — not of my choosing — to expose me to the business sector, while I remained (and remain) a seminary professor. I had to read John Schneider’s The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth as a comprehensive examination item for one of my doctoral students. A perspective shift began taking place. Two years later, with some men from a Bible study, I joined an LLC that purchased a commercial real estate investment, which we later learned was also a business to manage. After five years, we sold that albatross. I gained experience while losing money on the deal — the usual tuition of a hands-on business education in first attempts.
During these years I examined Scripture with fresh eyes, read Christian business books, and attended business seminars with my brother, Bill, who owns FabSuite software company. Because of this perspective-shifting journey, I’ve come to appreciate the value of good business for God’s kingdom purposes. Based on the New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), can we acknowledge that — regardless of which sector we labor in — Jesus expects all of us to engage in full-time Christian service (Matt. 28:18–20)?
Cooperating with God at Work
Christians desire guidance for how to integrate their God life with their work life — especially those in the business sector. In his book The Integrated Life, Christian businessman and philanthropist Ken Eldred suggests one integrative model that highlights a three-fold Christian ministry focus at the office:
- A ministry at work: pointing those around us to God;
- A ministry of work: serving and creating via work itself;
- A ministry to work: redeeming the practices, policies and structures of institutions.
Pointing others to God has been a traditional and important idea. Let’s also expand our horizons to include the other two, of doing our own work well and also improving our work environments. Not only does the job get done, but we can also manifest Jesus’ peace to dissolve the frustration and anxiety others may carry, serving kingdom purposes by improving the relational interactions at work.
For example, Bill Heatley, an IT professional, invited God to operate in and through him. Specifically one way to do this was by looking for ways to appreciate and support his fellow colleagues, providing space for God’s love. Heatley was involved in a project in which two departments were coordinating aspects of the project. His counterpart from the other department was a woman who was well prepared and “sweating the details,” so he could anticipate a productive meeting for the project. The only problem was that these two groups had an 18-month history of feuding and Heatley was new on the job. In light of this history, he did three simple things.
“I prayed for her. I thanked the management in another meeting, and I sent an email to her boss expressing my appreciation for her hard work,” he writes in The Gift of Work. The results were surprising — “the effect was immediate and beyond any reasonable explanations from my efforts,” he writes. Tension was eased and greater cooperation became evident between the two departments. As a result of this powerful experience, Heatley confessed, his God-confidence increased, encouraging him to look for more opportunities to make room for God at work.
Each day we can cooperate with God, fulfilling our design and destiny at work. Work is a permanent feature of God’s plan, not the result of the Fall into sin. Work was initiated in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1:28, 2:15) and it will continue into the next age, as we serve and reign with God forever (Rev. 22:3, 5).
Regardless of our occupations as plumber, trash collector, teacher, mechanic or pastor, we cooperate with God in doing good work, as Jesus exemplified. One motivation to work is to make money to provide for material needs and share with others (Eph. 4:28; 2 Thess. 3:6–13). But there is much more. If we wish to bring all of our life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ then our day job must be included too (Luke 9:23–26). And, pastoral responsibility for preparing “God’s people for the works of service” (Eph. 4:12) includes teaching the wide range of ministries Eldred noted above to be kingdom representatives at work.
As John Knapp challenges in How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It), “Equipping Christians for vigorous discipleship in public life may be the church’s best hope for bringing the gospel to a world desperately in need of God’s love.”
Klaus Issler is professor of Christian education and theology in the Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs in educational studies at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. This article is an adapted excerpt from his latest book, Living into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character, and is used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515, www.ivpress.com.