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Not Just a Carpenter

It’s easy to forget that Jesus spent the vast majority of his earthly life in a backwoods village of Galilee called Nazareth. It was such an insignificant little settlement that when one claimed Nazareth as one’s hometown, even Galileans wondered if anything good could come from there (John 1:46; 21:2). Yet, these were the people whom Jesus rubbed shoulders with on a day-to-day basis. The Nazarenes were everyday folk and they were Jesus’ friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family. When entering upon his fulltime itinerant ministry, it seems only natural that Jesus wanted to return to his hometown so that he could preach the gospel to those near and dear.

According to Mark 6:1-6, Jesus did just that. It is there we read that the Nazarenes “took offence at him.” The original language is much more alarming and actually uses the word scandalon, from which we get our English word ‘scandal.’ In other words, the hometown folk considered it scandalous to believe in Jesus as the Messiah to the extent that Jesus actually became a stumbling block of offense for them. I’ve read this story many times over the years and have always been dogged with the question of why those who knew Jesus so well, who saw him grow in “wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52),” would reject him.

I believe that part of the answer lies neatly tucked away in this pericope. However, before we can appreciate the import of why the Nazarenes rejected Jesus, it’s crucial to place this story in the context of Jesus’ chronological narrative. Mark’s version of the story is actually the second time Jesus returned to share the good news with those on the home front. But what about the first visit back home?

Not too long after he began his traveling ministry, Jesus decided to go home and see his family and friends. I can only imagine that Jesus was looking forward to his homecoming. According to Luke 4, the people of Nazareth initially seemed excited to see Jesus. They gave him a warm welcome and on the Sabbath invited him to share in the scripture reading. Jesus stood up to read and opened the scroll of Isaiah. The Bible says that when Jesus read that passage of holy writ the people were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips (Lk. 4:22, TNIV).” There was power in his words, for Jesus wasn’t reading about God as a dry theory or an ancient creed; he was speaking about himself. I can imagine those in attendance got to thinking that the Messiah’s time had come and deliverance was nigh. After reading, Jesus sat down and essentially testified that the Messiah whom he read about in Isaiah 61, was he.[1]

Suddenly the atmosphere shifted from heightened anticipation to an awkward silence. Before Jesus could finish his sermon he was dragged out of the synagogue by bearded, pious men whose eyes spoke nothing but rage. With hearts filled with murder, the Nazarenes likely traveled more than a Sabbath day’s journey to a precarious precipice over two miles outside the village. Seeking to rid their conscience of this self-proclaimed deliverer’s convicting message, the rocky cliff was robbed of its blunt force. Luke records what happened next, Jesus simply “passed through the midst of them (Luke 4:30).” It’s unclear exactly what occurred, but if one does not rule out the supernatural the imagination is free to speculate. Perhaps Jesus vanished into thin air like Philip after talking with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:39, 40). Whatever all happened, we know that “his time had not yet come.” Thus, the maddened mob left scratching their heads wondering where Jesus had gone.

The gospel authors continue the narrative of Jesus’ life informing us that Jesus didn’t let his first homecoming to Nazareth deter him. He continued to proclaim the gospel to those who had ears to hear. It wasn’t long until word got back to the Nazarenes that this Jesus, whom they wanted to kill, was actually being hailed as the Messiah—the very one he claimed to be in their midst! However, instead of casting him to the rocks, these believers sought him as the bread of life. Thousands thronged to him, hanging on his every word and reaching out for the hope of healing. What’s more is that Jesus took twelve everyday people, the kind of people whom he might have grown up with in Nazareth, and sent them out to proclaim the good news. He also gave them authority to heal people from diseases and demon possession (Matthew 10:1).

One day Jesus told his disciples that they were going back to Nazareth. It’s for that very reason we can all be thankful that Jesus isn’t like most of us. You couldn’t have paid me enough money to return to Nazareth, and I would need more than twelve disciples untrained in the art of war to accompany me—even if one of them was packin’ a sword (e.g., Peter, in John 18:10). I would want a battalion of Spartan soldiers. But Jesus stops at nothing to bring us into the kingdom of God. What we see in this second return to Nazareth is a microcosm of the Triune effort, in the person of Jesus, to do the same thing for the entire human race. The apostle Paul wrote:

Although He existed in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8, NASB).

When Jesus returned to Nazareth the second time he again preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. But once again the people of Nazareth rejected him, and I can only imagine that Jesus’ heart was broken. According to one psychologist and author, the most painful rejection is that which is inflicted by those closest to us. “They are the people whose love, approval, and acceptance you treasure. They are the ones you’ve shared the most intimate facts of who you are. What’s more, you do not expect them to hurt you.”[2] Jesus knows the sting of rejection, and is keenly aware of what it’s like to be hurt by those closest to you, “for he came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11).

Still, the question with which we began this article persists: “Why would the Nazarenes reject Jesus?” There are many answers that could be given. However, continuing with the text in Mark 6, I’d like to highlight just one of them. According to Mk. 6:3, the Nazarenes rejected Jesus, in part, because he was a “carpenter.” A carpenter essentially does two things. First, a carpenter takes a medium, primarily wood, and shapes it, forms it, and transforms it into something with purpose. Second, the carpenter takes something that is decrepit and rebuilds it, thereby transforming it into something useful again.

This description of our Savior planing wood possesses an earthy quality. Perhaps this is why the second-century Greek philosopher, Celsus, used Jesus’ carpenter status as an argument against Christianity.[3] No one laying claim to divinity would entangle himself with such lowly aspects of humanity. Nevertheless, in Jewish society practicing a trade was not considered any sort of personal blemish.[4] Therefore, Jesus was not rejected simply because he could swing a hammer. More specifically, the Nazarenes had difficulty reconciling the fact he was a known carpenter in their beloved village with the claim and mounting evidence that he was also the Messiah. They stood at the crossroads of belief.

If there’s anything we learn from the Nazarene’s predicament it’s that faith often arises out of conflict. For those aspiring to follow Jesus, reason and empirical experience can only take a person so far. It is in the midst of such conflicts that faith must take over. Unfortunately, when presented with the evidence and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, the Nazarenes didn’t cross over the chasm of unbelief to the land of faith. With their true spiritual condition set before them, their pride exposed in the person of Jesus, “They would not admit that He who had sprung from poverty and lowliness was other than a common man.”[5] Instead, they chose to reject him, and not once but twice. Such rejection ultimately culminated in the mother of all rejections—joining the ranks of a maddened mob that yelled, “Crucify him!” In their rejection the Nazarenes assented to having their carpenter nailed to his wood.

At first glance it does not appear that the scandal of the cross was the motivating factor for the Nazarene’s rejection of Jesus. The prophetic pattern of rejection, suffering, and violent death that Jesus laid out for his concept of the Messiah did not seem to be the source for their disdain.[6] However, clothed in the garb of a humble carpenter, the character of the cross still lingers in the background. As a means of salvation, the cross was lunacy for the Roman and ignominious for the Jew. Thus, for the Nazarenes to follow their carpenter would be to go completely against the grain of society.

[Yet] it was precisely in his humiliation and exaltation that Jesus exemplified the nature of salvation and made salvation available for those of ‘humble circumstances’—the hungry, the powerless, the lost, the marginal. Jesus’ death thus occupied the central ground in the divine-human struggle over how life was to be lived, whether in humility or self-glorification.[7]

This is why Paul says the cross is foolishness and will never make sense to the unconverted mind (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

What was needed from the Nazarenes was an admission that they were the ones of “humble circumstances”; they were in fact prisoners in need of deliverance from the power of evil.[8] In essence, they needed one who was more than a carpenter, for no mere carpenter could take three nails, two boards, and with his own life build a bridge from earth to heaven. And this is exactly what he was offering to them, and what he offers to us. For Jesus did not come back to Nazareth to build cabinets or refurbish homely dwellings; he came to rebuild and transform our lives.

Erik Carter, D.Min., is working on a Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Claremont School of Theology.


[1] According to the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956), 5:730, “In the days of Christ the Jews understood Isa. 61:1, 2 as a clear Messianic prophecy.”

[2] Sidney B. and Suzanne Simon, Forgiveness: How To Make Peace with Your Past and Get on With Your Life (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1990), 39.

[3] Origen, Contra Celsum 6.34-36.

[4] Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 3:342.

[5] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940), 239.

[6] Joel. B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 13.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] White, 237.

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