In most English translations of the Bible, Jesus is referred to as a carpenter. Looking at the Greek term tektōn (τέκτων), it is more accurately translated as an artisan/craftsman, a builder. This involved working with His hands to create. Out of stone, wood, or metal, He made places for people to live, eat, worship, and fellowship. A place to be with one’s family and friends. Since there were not the equivalent of hospitals of today, these were also places to be born and to die.
In today’s culture, we often differentiate “fine art” from “crafts” or “artisans.” The fine art crowd is often considered superior since they make art for art’s sake. They often have more formal training and thought of as gifted. When Western scholars look at the art of other cultures such as African cultures, they often remark the effort they put into making artistic renditions of ordinary objects. Clearly, they imply, this is the result of a less developed mind!! Especially since to them, all the objects look the same, as if made by some stereotypical framework and thus not true art.
But here we have Jesus laboring in these less prestigious arts. Making things people need, housing, with great skill and an eye toward beauty. Before I discuss the profound symbolism of His career, first let’s look at two Bible passages about artisans.
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Look, I have specifically chosen Bezalel son of Uri, grandson of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 I have filled him with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, ability, and expertise in all kinds of crafts. 4 He is a master craftsman (artisan), expert in working with gold, silver, and bronze. 5 He is skilled in engraving and mounting gemstones and in carving wood. He is a master at every craft! (Exodus 31, ESV)
The reason I have included such a long verse is to drive home the point of the detail of God, the God given beauty of artisan work. If you just skimmed it before, read it now again and fully take in the detail. Such building detail is in other Bible verses including Ezekiel 40:20, Ezekiel 41:12-15, Ezekiel 42:2, 1 Kings 7:2, 1 Kings 7:6, and 2 Chronicles 3:3-4., Genesis 6:14-16. If the Bible is about big themes such as loving each other, why does the Bible dedicate so many words and verses to such details? Details only an accountant or engineer could truly love. Because things worth doing are worth doing with precision. Such work glorifies God. Another important lesson here is the sheer number of DIFFERENT artisans that were needed to do such work. Building requires people who are skilled at working with wood, working with gold, working with silver. These descriptions require seamstresses, weavers, and sculptors. Those who know how to embroider. With such specific measurements, they needed builders and those who understood math, geometry, and physics. Its specificity requires an organized plan, and structured discipline to complete. And they have to all work together, or else nothing comes together as planned. One group gets jealous of another or belittles the work of another as not as important as his or hers and the project fails. It requires supreme intelligence. It requires God.
Think of all the business success books and well-paid lecturers and consultants on strategy. What kinds of things do they all have in common? Must have a shared vision, everyone must have equal and strong stake in this vision. Must have a vision so strong that will not compromise it even for short term gain. Must have a vision so strong that it will persist over a long period of time. Must be an audacious goal or not worth starting. Must pay attention to the details of each phase of the plan or it will fail. Must have defined roles for each person to fulfill the plan. Must have a detailed timeline. Must have someone overseeing the plan. Must determine the skills required to complete the plan and find necessary personnel, and these people should have a natural affinity toward their assignment. Must respect all the members of the team who contribute to the plan. Once again, humans manage to come up with a secular way of functioning, not knowing often that these ways are already laid out in the Bible. Why was Jesus not born of royal blood or the lines of the great rabbinical families? Why such a “simple” job, a laborer, a builder, and artisan? Because of the importance God places on doing, on building, on working as a community of people with different skills, to build things of function AND beauty. The world around is beautiful, but it also works perfectly. In photosynthesis, plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to create oxygen which animals breathe. We breathe in oxygen and expire carbon dioxide, plants breathe in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. The sun is the perfect distance from us to keep us warm without burning us up. The sun itself is a marvel of engineering, a self-perpetuating energy source. God created and thus one of the many high callings of humans is to create. It is why we have a creative impulse in the first place. Why not just make all houses the same, all chairs the same- they would still function. And this does not just apply to the arts. An entrepreneur is also a creative force. A teacher can be a creative force. Anyone trying to make something that does not exist or to improve something for the purpose of the betterment of people is a creator.
Jesus was given the earthly Father He had for a reason. Joseph was an artisan, a builder. Joseph thus taught his son his craft. Jesus learned to work with others toward a goal and thus modelled that behavior for us. There were those skeptical of Jesus being the Son of God because he came from such “low” pedigree, a common builder. God is showing us that all work is holy, if it is done with diligence, planning, dedication, pride in one’s work, and toward a goal of excellence. Work should be done communally with other people of different spiritual gifts to produce the best outcome for us all. Just as God is willing to directly work with us for our betterment. Jesus worked with people, not the boss over them, commanding others to do the work while he just oversaw it. Jesus wants not to command us but to work with us, so with him we can build a better physical world, a better Christian community, and a better us. God creates; His son created here on earth. God created the beauty of the universe; His son created beauty in the buildings on earth he created. God worked systematically and with intelligence to build the universe; His son worked systematically and with intelligence in his job as an artisan. God continues to work with us even when there are difficulties and setbacks; His son labored in his craft which also had to have setbacks and things that did not work out perfectly to plan.
God is an artist. Jesus is an artist. God invented science. Jesus used science in His building. God is everywhere, Jesus is everywhere.