I feel a little sheepish asking this question. I am not eager to join the club of writers who claim Jesus for their particular cause or agenda. You can find books that identify Jesus as a CEO, the world’s greatest therapist, an excellent manager, a revolutionary, a free-market capitalist, and, well, you name it. I once had a student who wrote a serious term paper on the theme, “Jesus as a Gentleman.” Generally, the authors of these works exaggerate certain elements of Jesus’s life while neglecting those that don’t fit their schema. What emerges is usually a distorted Jesus.
Nevertheless, I think it’s worth considering whether or not Jesus was an entrepreneur. By doing so, we can learn some things about Jesus, some things about God, and some things about our own work.
We don’t know much about Jesus’s working life. Matthew 13:55 refers to him as “the carpenter’s son.” Mark 6:3 identifies Jesus as “the carpenter.” The Greek original of both passages uses the word tektōn. A tektōn built things out of physical materials. “Carpenter” is one possible translation. But a tektōn could also work with other elements, such as stone or metal. (Some ancient Christian writers believed Jesus was a stone mason or a smith.) “Craftsman” may be a more accurate translation than “carpenter.” Today, we might call Jesus an “artisan.”
In Jesus’s time and culture, it was common for a son to follow in his father’s occupational footsteps. Since Joseph was a craftsman, it makes sense for Jesus, as Joseph’s oldest son, to have been one as well. Jesus would have been an apprentice to his father, learning the family business by his father’s side. And, given the likelihood that Joseph died before Jesus began his messianic work, it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus managed the business for some time.
Does it make sense to think of Jesus, the craftsman, as an entrepreneur? This is a bit of a stretch. Entrepreneurs generally start businesses; they don’t inherit them. They take on considerable risk in order to build a business from scratch. No doubt there was some financial risk in Jesus’s construction business, but it’s probably more accurate to think of him as a small business owner rather than as an entrepreneur. (However, though Jesus lived in the small village of Nazareth, it’s possible that he worked at times in the nearby city of Sepphoris, perhaps engaging in marketing and taking on more financial risk to build the family business. These things are possible, but we just don’t have enough information about Jesus’s life to know if they are true.)
Therefore, I’m not inclined to think of Jesus as an entrepreneur. “Small business owner” is a more accurate description of his professional life, in addition to craftsman.
Of course, when we consider the astounding career change Jesus took on when he was around thirty, we certainly see plenty of his entrepreneurial attributes. Though his messianic work wasn’t really a business venture, it certainly required plenty of vision, hard work, strategic choices, and risk taking. Still, I’m hesitant to call Jesus an “entrepreneurial messiah.”
I do want to reflect a bit further on his work as a small business owner, however. There is something here that has profound implications for our understanding of God and our work.
At around twelve years of age, Jesus became Joseph’s apprentice. From that point onward he spent most of his waking hours learning his father’s trade and engaging in the work of a craftsman. Then, when his father died, Jesus, as the oldest son, took over the family business. Not only did he build things with his hands, but he also handled the financial affairs of the business.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was “about thirty years old when he began his ministry” (Luke 3:23). If we accept the traditional view that Jesus spent three years doing his messianic work, then we can conclude that he worked in his family business for about eighteen years, that is, 55% of his entire life, or about 85% of his life beyond boyhood. To put it simply, Jesus spent the majority of his life and the solid majority of his adult life as a craftsman and small business owner.
I find this most curious, even disruptive. I believe that Jesus was (and is) God Incarnate. In Jesus, God came to live on earth as a human being. Yes, Jesus preached and healed and did miracles and died and was raised from the dead. Thanks be to God! Yes, these are of extraordinary importance, the most important things ever done by a human being. Yet, I find it fascinating that for most of Jesus’s life on earth, he engaged in “ordinary” work. He built things with his hands and sold them. He managed the family business. He worked long hours, six days a week.
What does it say about “ordinary work” if Jesus, God in human flesh, spent most of his life doing it?
What does it say about God, if when God became human, he spent most of his adult life building furniture, homes, and walls?
What difference might it make in your life and work if you took seriously the fact that Jesus, God Incarnate, spent the bulk of his life working as a craftsman and small business owner?
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a small business owner, a clerk, a CEO, a teacher, or you name it, it’s worth thinking about how the working life of Jesus makes a difference for you.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director for the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. With years of experience as a pastor and non-profit leader as well as a mentor to leaders in business and other fields, Mark is deeply committed to helping the Church & Marketplace network serve leaders in the marketplace, education, government, non-profits, arts, family, and the church. Mark is married to Linda, a licensed therapist, spiritual director, and executive coach. Linda and Mark enjoy speaking together at churches and retreat centers on issues of discipleship, spiritual growth, leadership, and marriage. They have two children who are students on the East Coast.
Read Mark Roberts’s detailed bio here.