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Missional and Formational: Factors in the Formation of Jesus

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, June 26, 2009

Part 3 of series: Missional and Formational?
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It’s always risky to try and speak of the forces that formed Jesus and his ministry. Partly we face the problem of his uniqueness as someone who was both fully human and fully God. But efforts to account for Jesus’ own formation necessarily stumble over the lack of historical evidence for his life before his ministry. The gospels provide us with so little to go on here. (To be accurate, I should say that the canonical gospels offer scanty information on the early life of Jesus. The so-called “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” fills in the blanks for us. But, unfortunately, most of what we read in this gospel is more legendary than historical.)

For the most part, the early life of Jesus is best left to fictional attempts, such as the fine efforts by Anne Rice (Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana is her latest) or the wildly inventive, funny, and profane novel by Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Most serious scholars realize that the early years of Jesus are inaccessible, and therefore shouldn’t receive undue attention.

Nevertheless, we can know some things about Jesus’ experience prior to the launch of his ministry at around thirty years of age. And we can speculate about how this experience might have formed him as a man and also his ministry as the kingdom-inaugurating Son of Man/Messiah. As long as we recognize that our speculations are, well, speculative, then I think it’s both safe and worthwhile to think of Jesus’ own formation and its relationship to his mission.

We do know that Jesus was born into a Jewish family that observed the Torah carefully. He and his parents, along with siblings (or half-siblings) would, for example, have been faithful in praying daily prayers, attending the synagogue, keeping the Sabbath, and making occasional trips to Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifices in the temple.

We also know that Jesus had a rather outstanding mother. No doubt she was chosen as the mother of the Son of God because of her character and faith. Surely she had a major role in helping Jesus to know who he was and what his life was all about.

We know relatively little about Joseph, Jesus’ human father. From the story of the conception of Jesus, we know that Joseph was a righteous and compassionate man. We also can see that he was willing to risk his honor and even his life to follow God’s call. Joseph was a carpenter, as was Jesus, who followed in his father’s footsteps. Jesus no doubt was apprenticed to Joseph, learning his father’s trade by countless hours at his Joseph’s side. It’s quite likely that when Jesus spoke of making disciples, his own experience as Joseph’s apprentice shaped his understanding and practice.

We can only wonder how Jesus’ years as an apprentice and then carpenter formed both his own personality and his ministry. A successful carpenter needs to be exacting and careful. “Measure twice, cut once,” my grandfather used to say. A skillful carpenter sees in a pile of wood a table or chair, much as a sculptor sees a masterpiece in a block of marble. As a craftsman in Nazareth, Jesus would have needed to operate with exemplary integrity as a businessman. Moreover, it’s like that his work brought him into contact with people from Sepphoris, the nearby city with strong Roman influence. Though he lived in a small village, Jesus was aware of the wider world, including the might of Rome.

I’ll have more to say about Nazareth and Jesus in my next post in this series.

Topics: Missional and Formational |

4 Responses to “Missional and Formational: Factors in the Formation of Jesus”

  1. Bill Goff from St. Petersburg, Russia Says:
    June 26th, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    I’ve always been impressed by the description of Jesus’ early education. When he was twelve years old his parents found him in the Temple in Jerusalem sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46). Whatever else spiritual formation is, it must certainly involve the simple disciplines of sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. (By the way, I think the above painting of Jesus in the Temple is misleading. In the painting Jesus is standing and it looks like his mother is interrupting his lecture to the very old men nearby. Also I don’t think Jesus would be dressed in white like a young rock star. More likely he would be dressed like every other twelve year old).

  2. jacob Says:
    June 26th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    I thought you might be interested in learning about OUR Jewish traditions, one which has embraced the real Christ of the gospel, the Law and the prophets.

    If this doesn’t interest you, I apologize in advance.

    If you are interested let me tell you that we are the Frankist Association of America. One of our members has a new book out:

    I am not trying to sell you something. We are not ’some kind of cult’ (like Jews could ever take orders from someone!). We’re just a tradition which has lasted for centuries and I think we might be able to teach you a thing or too about that messianic tradition you … ah … stole from us and continue to misrepresent.

    If you’re interested, you’re interested. If you’re not, you’re not. No big deal.

    If you can’t afford the book you can see the website of one of our living teachers –

    I just wanted to let you and the scholarly world that there have always been more than one type of Judaism in the world at any one time. Some forms of the faith had to learn to hide their beliefs in order to survive and perpetuate themselves.

    Shalom, God Bless
    Everything is perfected in God’s glory (and a rotten, stinking pile of something without)

    Beth El Jacob Frank

  3. Gary Crosbie Says:
    March 3rd, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    I am astounded that you could recommend “Lamb”. It portrays Christ as a liar, deceiver, someone imperfect like his friends. A book about his early life could indeed be humorous but this is such anti-Christ material that there can be no explanation for referencing it as you have.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    March 3rd, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Gary: Actually, I did not recommend Lamb, but mentioned it as “wildly inventive, funny, and profane.” You don’t think it’s funny, and that’s fine. But you seem to agree that it’s “wildly inventive” and “profane.” Yes? “Profane” means “blasphemous” or “obscene.” Isn’t that pretty much what you have said about the book? I did not include among the “fine efforts” of Anne Rice. I don’t think it is a fine effort.


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