“A professor, a rabbi and a tradesman walk into a….” That sounds like the beginning of a really lame joke. But all three are a description of the apostle Paul. We know from his wide knowledge of Greek and Roman authors (see Acts 17, and Titus 1), and from his expert use of rhetoric (especially before Agrippa in Acts 26) that he had a fine classical education. He could have been a teacher of rhetoric himself had he chosen that path. We know from the autobiographical information he gives us in Colossians 1 and Philippians 3 that he was educated as a rabbi at the finest school in Judaism, the Temple school, and that his mentor was Gamaliel, one of the greatest scholars in the history of Judaism. He was at the top of his class, he tells us, advancing beyond any of his peers. This was his career path of choice, until Jesus informed Paul on the road to Damascus that He had other plans for him.
He was also given a vocational education. He had a trade. Our English translations call him a “tent-maker” (Acts 18.1-3). He was trained to work in large pieces of leather and cloth, making tents and awnings. He was a tradesman. This training proved fortunate for him, because it brought Priscilla and Aquila into his life, and allowed him to support himself throughout his missionary journeys. Paul was a professor, a rabbi, and a tradesman.
When he wrote to Timothy, his son “in the faith”, he described the work in which they were both engaged in terms of one of his three fields of training. One might think that a man employed in the work of sharing the Gospel would be compared to a professor, or a rabbi. Both are concerned with sharing information, and with using that information as a means of formation – of changing an individual life with the message shared. But no – when Paul tells Timothy what the work of an evangelist is, he says the evangelist is a tradesman.
Work very hard to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, expertly handling the word of truth. II Timothy 2.15
The word translated “expertly handling” means “to cut a straight line.” Paul knew all about measuring twice and cutting once, making sure the cut is straight. Jesus, himself, was a tradesman. Our English translations call Him a carpenter (Mark 6.3). More precisely, He was someone skilled at building with hard materials –mostly stone. He knew about measuring twice and cutting a straight line too.
I’m a working class kid. I grew up around men who went to work, accomplished something tangible, and went home after eight hours. Some of them built railroad cars, worked in steel mills, bottling plants, bakeries, paint factories, or oil refineries. They were mechanics, pipe-fitters, electricians, glass blowers, plumbers, and welders. What each of them could do, at the end of the day, is say what they did (or did not) accomplish. None of what they did was theoretical or abstract. It was hands-on and personal.
Paul says using the Bible properly - as a student, a teacher, a preacher – is the job of a working man. Someone who wants to use the Bible to take flights allegorical and theoretical is misusing the Word altogether. Floating away among the clouds and cutting a straight line here on earth are opposite endeavors.
Every time I read those great one-liners from Jesus, whether He is answering the difficult questions of His day (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead); or teaching us how to live (“Love your enemies,” “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness”) I see Him cut a straight line, the way a skilled builder would.
When we open the word, may we strive to do the same – to cut a straight line - to listen well, to think, to pray, to compare, to comprehend, to apply, and to act.