The Hidden Years

We must clearly understand that man can only enter the life of Jesus by the way of His death; that death being the gate, not only to eternal life, as it stretches beyond this place and time of conflict, but also to the eternal life which we live today, in direct and positive communion with Him.

Having known Him as the Saviour and having at the Cross found our way into the realm of life, He then becomes our example, and all that He is in the revelation of the fourfold Gospel, marks His intention for His people, for He wills that they should be like Him.

It is not given to every man or woman to serve God in public places; the great majority must live their lives outside any prominent sphere, and as part of a very small circle of relatives and acquaintances. I want to know what there is in the life of Jesus helpful to the individuals that compose these crowds.

We are accustomed to think of Him as one in public ministry, as the man of the marketplace and the crowd, but the greater part of His life was not lived in those places where we have grown most familiar with Him, but in that quiet seclusion, where the great crowd of men and women will always live. Yet how little we know concerning that period, how meager is the biblical information. I do not say it is not enough. I believe it is enough, but in the mere matter of words, how small it is. I have the story of His birth, and then I lose sight of Him for twelve years. Then I see Him again going out to His Jewish confirmation, asking questions of the doctors and hearing them. A wonderful glimpse, a glittering flash, and then I lose Him again for eighteen years, at the end of which time He comes to be baptized of John in Jordan, and begins His public ministry.

What of those eighteen years? Where was He, and what was He doing? Let us try and see Him in those hidden years. Take these two statements: “Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased”; and “Is not this the carpenter?” These two passages supply the story of the eighteen years. Jesus was a carpenter pleasing God. But is it fair to put them together like that? I think you will see that it is. Upon what occasion did that Divine voice speak? On the occasion of the baptism. Jesus had left behind all the doings of those quiet, peaceful years, and was at the dividing line between private and public life. And there, at the parting of the ways, God lit up all the years that had gone with the sweet words of approval, “Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased.” Whatever else I know, or do not know, about the hidden years of the life of Jesus, this one thing is certain, that through them all He pleased God. After that pronouncement, He went to the wilderness and was tempted, and after that He went to Nazareth, the place where He had been brought up. It was a small town, a kind of hamlet on the hillside, of perhaps three thousand inhabitants.

This young man comes back to His boyhood’s home, where everyone knows Him. He goes to the synagogue as was His custom on the Sabbath day, and reads out of the book, and then He talks to the assembled people, and they look at Him, and listen, wonder depicted on their faces. Can you not see the picture? That little synagogue, the old Jewish people, with keen faces watching the speaker, and then turning to each other, saying, “Whence hath this man these things? We know Him perfectly well; He is the carpenter.” Yes, they know Him; they have watched Him toiling day after day, month after month, in the workshop, bending over the bench with the tools of His craft in His hand. They cannot account for Him as a teacher because they did not account for Him as a toiler.

Mark then tells what these people said about Him. Other men made the blunder of saying He was the son of the carpenter, but these men light up for us the eighteen years by asking, “Is not this the carpenter?” I have now two facts concerning this period. I have the testimony of the men who knew Him best, and the testimony of God who knew Him better even than they. Let us first take the human declaration, “Is not this the carpenter?” and hold it in the light of the Divine, “In Thee I am well pleased”; and then let us take the divine revelation, “Thou art My beloved Son,” and hold it in the light of the human, “Is not this the carpenter?”

For the greater part of the life of Jesus, He worked with His own hands for His own living. That brings the Son of God, in living, pulsating life, close to every man who works. Oh! that we may derive the strength and comfort from this fact which it is calculated to afford. Businessmen, you who have been at work all the week, and have been harassed by daily labors, and are weary and tired, and seeking for new inspiration, this Jesus, was not a king upon a throne; He was not for the greater part of His life a teacher, with the thrill and excitement of public life to buoy Him up. No, the long years ran on, and He was doing what some of you speak of as “the daily round, the common task.” The man Jesus rose at daybreak, and, picking up His tools, made yokes and tables in order that He might have something to eat, and that, not for a brief period, but for eighteen years. He was an apprentice boy, a young man improving His craft, a master in His little shop, with the shavings round Him and the tools about Him.

That is the human picture. But that human picture becomes supremely precious to me as the light of the Divine falls upon it. The eighteen years are over, the tools are laid aside, His feet will no more make music as He walks among the rustling shavings. God says, “I am pleased.” It meant that Jesus had never done in that carpenter’s shop a piece of shoddy work. When Jesus sent out yokes that the farmers would use, they were so fashioned that they would gall no ox. “Take My yoke upon you” gathers force as an illustration from the fidelity of the carpenter’s shop. Sometimes we have overshadowed the carpenter’s shop with Calvary’s cross. We have no right to do it. We have come to forget the fidelity of the Son of God in the little details of life, as we have gazed upon His magnificent triumphs in the places of passion and conflict. We should ever remember that the final triumph was the natural outcome of the victories won in little things.

Who is this coming up out of the waters of baptism, upon whom the dove hovers and settles, and concerning whom Heaven’s voice is heard to speak? God marks Him out here from all His fellowmen: “Thou art My beloved Son.” He is the anointed of God. He is the one personage who is charged with the great mission of restoring the Kingdom of God. God marks Him in that great word as His appointed Messiah, as Shiloh, as the Daysman from on high, as the Day-spring. And now He is standing on the banks of Jordan, and we look upon Him for the first time with amazement and astonishment, and wonder if this be the beloved Son of God, what has He been doing, where has He been in the years preceding this public manifestation? Come back again to the question, “Is not this the carpenter?” and the wonder is presented from a new standpoint. The Son of God, charged with the greatest commission that any being in heaven or earth has ever had to bear, was for eighteen years at work in a carpenter’s shop. Now, we hardly see the wonder of this thing until we look more closely at it. I may be speaking to some young man upon whose heart is lying the burden of India, the need of China, of Africa. You are touched with the sacrificial passion of the Son of God to go, and yet God has shut you up here at home. You have to live and care for a sick one; you cannot go. The desire is there, but the door is not open. Now, it is only those who know something of what that experience is who can understand the strange marvel of the Son of God, commissioned to do the work that precedes your passion, the infinitely greater work, and yet with that passion upon Him, every morning He goes to the carpenter’s shop, every night goes home to rest. What does it mean? How is it that He, the beloved of God, the anointed of God, can be — there is no irreverence in saying it — content? Now the answer is here. Jesus lived in the power of the truth which we are so slow to learn, that there is something infinitely better than doing a great thing for God — to be where God wants us to be, to do what God wants us to do, and to have no will apart from His. Jesus understood that. The carpenter’s shop was the will of God for Him. Now do not misunderstand me. From the illustration I used a moment ago, you may come to think that I intend to say Jesus did it as a duty while He longed for the cross. Nothing of the kind. “I delight to do Thy will, O My God.”

I am going to ask you to press this question a little further. Was this a capricious matter, this will of God for Jesus? Does it not look hard and arbitrary that God should have put Him to such common labor? Why not let Him face the conflict and get the victory, and return to heaven? There was a deep necessity in the whole arrangement. In that carpenter’s shop He fought my battles. My hardest fight is never fought when there is a crowd to applaud or oppose, but when I am alone. Now that was what Jesus was doing for eighteen years. There was no crowd to sing “Hosanna”; no other crowd to cry, “Crucify Him.” Alone He did His work and faced all the subtle forms of temptation that beset humankind, and one by one He put His conquering foot upon the neck of them, until the last was baffled and beaten, and His enemies were palsied by the strong stroke of His pure right arm. That is what He was doing.

I never come back to this story of the early years of Christ and read what these men of Nazareth said about Him without learning how dangerous a thing it is to pronounce my little sentence upon any single human life.

Oh! men of Nazareth, down in that carpenter’s shop that you pass and repass, where you sometimes pause and look in and see Him at His work, there is the One who spoke and it was done, who put His compass upon the deep, who fashioned all things by the word of His power, and you have never seen Him, and never known Him, and your estimate of Him is that He is one of you — only a carpenter. Job’s judges and Christ’s critics are on a level, and they are on a level with everyone of us who tries to pass his sentences upon his fellow men.

But I gather not only this relative lesson; there are personal lessons. The first is this: the phrase “common task” should be struck out of every life. Jesus taught us that all toil is holy, if the toiler be holy. Not for the sake of controversy, but as a protest against a misconception of human life, I tell you that no man has any right, simply because he preaches or performs certain functions, to speak of himself as a man in “holy orders.” The man who goes out to work tomorrow morning with his bag on his back, and his tools in it, if he be a holy man, has claims to that distinction, and if that man goes down into the carpenter’s shop and saws a piece of timber, the saw is a vessel of the sanctuary of God if the man is a priest who uses it. All service is sacred service. I want you to carry this thought of the working Christ into all the days of the coming week, behind the counter and in the office, and, beloved sisters, if I may say so, in the home also. If every businessman wrote his letters as though Jesus would have to look over them, what lovely letters we should have. I do not know that they would have tracts in them; that is not my point, but they would be true, robust, honest letters. Oh! you men, won’t you do your business for Christ? Sisters, won’t you take the home and make it a holy place for the shining of the Shekinah? If Christ lived the larger part of His life working, then our work is lit with a new beauty.

I learn this lesson also, that no man is fit for the great places of service who has not fitted himself by fidelity in obscurity. You want, you tell me, to preach the Gospel in China. Are you living it at home? God does not want men or women to preach His Gospel anywhere who have not made it shine in their own homes. I do not ask, “Can you do the great work that hangs upon your hearts?” but “Are you doing the present work faithfully?” What we want is to feel that if we are to do a big thing in the public service, we must be true in the small things of life. The Carpenter’s shop made Calvary not a battlefield merely, but a day of triumph that lit heaven and earth with hope, and if you and I would triumph when our crisis comes, we must triumph in the little things of the common hours.