Session One: Work & The Biblical Narrative

The FaithWork Initiative was birthed out of a desire to equip the church to do the work of the ministry as God commands in Ephesians 4.12. It may seem strange that we want to connect work and ministry, but that is exactly our aim. We want to reiterate at the beginning of our journey that we believe the realm of faith and the realm of work do not stand apart and separate. Biblically, our work in God’s world is to be faithful worship of God.

So then, the stated vision of the FaithWork Initiative is “to affirm the innate goodness of work and to aide in directing the telos of work to join in God’s cosmic program of redemption.” Again, there is a lot here that deserves explanation, but hopefully some of this language will make sense as we seek to connect the realm of our work and the realm of our faith together. I’ve quoted this before, but it’s worth quoting again. Dorothy Sayers:

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

As we will see, God demands we be at work in His world. To forgo our call to work is disobedience. Our call to work is not a burden we must endure. It is not a means to some other end like a paycheck or even evangelism. Our work is not accidental or incidental in God’s kingdom economy. Our work—our labor within God’s world to bring out the potential of God’s creation and to place it in the service of God and neighbor—is intrinsically valuable and essentially necessary. Because of this, we pray FaithWork Initiative will equip you to labor all more eagerly in your work for the glory of God and the good of your neighbor.

WHAT IS WORK?

It is tempting to think we understand what we are talking about when we speak of “work.” But we need to take a few minutes and arrive at a common understanding of work. So, what is work?

I want to offer this definition of work: work, especially Christian work, is our employment of the fullness of our God-imaging capacities in our engagement of God’s creation in accordance with God’s design for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor. That sounds really complicated, but the essence of that definition is that work is anything and everything we do as we relate to God, others and the created order. We relate to God by imaging and reflecting Him, acting as His vice regents in the world. We relate to the created order by bring out its potential, by stewarding and keeping it. We relate to others by placing the fruit of our labors into their service for their benefit. We are going to unpack this idea in particular in Session Two. We will attempt to answer this morning the related questions—why do we work and does our work matter to God?—by surveying the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation.

THE UNDERCURRENT OF DUALISM & THE DOWNFALL OF WORK

Before we get to our survey of the biblical narrative, I think it is necessary to understand the undercurrents of thought that have persuaded us, even in the church, in our view of work. Without realizing it, the church has adopted a form of dualism that elevates the spiritual over and against the material. In Greek philosophy, the gods were thought to be free from the burdensome, sub-human task of labor in the material world. The Greek gods were understood to spend their days in the liberation of contemplation—the realm of the immaterial. While this concept may seem strange, the reality is that the church’s theology has been stained and harmed by it. This is seen most starkly in the church’s truncation of the gospel to the good news that Jesus died for our sins so that we can go to heaven and not to hell when we die. While this certainly true, it is incomplete. While we may not explicitly say so, as we articulate this reduced version of the gospel, we are agreeing with the Greeks of old that what really matters are spiritual things—praying, reading your Bible, sharing your faith—and that the material and physical world does not have any real value, so we are to simply endure it or escape it until we fly away to a spiritual existence in heaven. Such a view has truncated the mission of the church to saving souls, which, while noble and right, is also incomplete. Consequently, work then is reduced to simply a means to endure the world by providing provisions necessary for life or a means to evangelism so that others can escape the world by placing their faith in Jesus. Contrary to this view, the testimony of Scripture does not view the physical and material world as an evil to be endured or escaped. No, this present world, in all brokenness, is not to be escaped or simply endured, but redeemed. The God who made all things—including the physical and material world and our work within it—has begun the renewal of all things held captive by sin’s corrupting reign in the work of Christ and will complete the renewal of all things when Christ comes again to reign on the renewed earth. The end, like the beginning in the garden, for the people of God is not an ethereal, disembodied, spiritual existence in heaven. It is a physical habitation of the earth when God’s kingdom at last comes on earth as it is in heaven. And as we will see, one of the primary ways through which God offers a foretaste of the renewal of His kingdom to the world is through the work of His people. For this reason among others, work is intrinsically valuable. The undercurrent of dualism devalues work. But contrary to the dualism that marks the church’s understanding of the world and our work within it, the Bible offers a more compelling and dignifying view of our work within the world.

THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE & THE GOODNESS OF WORK

When the curtain is pulled back on the biblical narrative, we meet God at work. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  That God is revealed as a worker in the opening act of the biblical narrative is massively important for developing a biblical understanding of work. First, out of the constancy and perfection of God’s character, He works. Therefore, work must be good since work is a manifestation of the character of the eternally good God. Second, God’s work is a Trinitarian (or communal) activity. We see even in the Trinitarian work of creation the single work of God carried out in various vocations by the members of the Trinity. The Father wills to create by means of the Son and effect that work by the Spirit. In God’s economy, work occurs in the context of a community of vocations. Work is both with and for community. The Trinity works with one another and for one another.  The biblical view of work from the beginning sees no hierarchy of vocations and dignifies all vocations in God’s economy of work. Third, that God is himself a worker bestows dignity and value on our work.  It must not be under emphasized that the God of the Bible is set to reveal himself as a worker. And He summons us, His image bearers, to be at work in His world. If then, God is a worker, the question arises—to what end does God work? The answer to this question is critical to developing a biblical doctrine of work because God’s work serves to pattern and direct the work to which He calls us.

GOD’S WORK DIRECTS MAN’S WORK

The end or direction towards which God works is the missio Dei—the mission of God. The mission of God is to fill the earth with a people who love Him and love one another. This is the great end for which God created in the beginning and commanded Adam and Eve in Genesis 1.28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Notice that God does not intend to act alone in accomplishing His mission. Genesis 1.28 is not simply an announcement of God’s intentions for the world but a gracious invitation to join Him, to co-labor with Him in His mission. But how were Adam and Eve to co-labor with God? God implanted in His creation the potential for the full array of human culture and civilization—architecture, economics, politics, technology and government. And God created man and woman “in his own image” (Gen. 1.27), creative workers like their Creator, commanded them to “fill the earth” (Gen. 1.28) and “put [them] in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2.15), to bring out the potential of His world. Upon his entrance into the biblical narrative, man knew of nothing but his Creator and the work of His hands. He was immediately immersed in the good work of the Creator and commanded to go and work likewise. In other words, as God had created the garden, Adam and Eve were called to extend God’s work throughout all of creation. So we see in God’s calling man to work that intrinsic to bearing the image of God, intrinsic to our humanity is a summons to work like Him and with Him. Therefore all vocations—whether teaching or accounting or homemaking—are meaningful as they bring out the potential of God’s creation and place the fruit of their labor in the service of God and of others.

GOD’S WORK PATTERNS MAN’S WORK

As mentioned previously, God’s work not only aims and directs man’s work, it also establishes the pattern for man’s work. God’s work to create the heavens and the earth is laced with beautiful, even poetic, rhythm. “God said… And it was so… It was good” (Gen. 1.9-10) is the repeated refrain of the first chapter of Genesis. Three days He creates the realms of creation and three days He fills those realms. Six days He works and one day He rests. There is order and structure to His work. In the language of Proverbs, “The Lord possessed [wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (Prv. 8.22). The rhythm and structure of the Lord’s wisdom is inscribed and etched into creation—the whole of creation, work included. This wisdom is not reserved for the spiritual realm. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice” (Prv. 1.20). Wisdom’s cadence echoes in every sphere of creation. And as we are attune and obedient to the rhythm of God’s wisdom in the sphere of work, our work will produce a flourishing of love of God and love of neighbor.

JESUS IS THE TRUE CO-LABORER WITH GOD

As our survey moves into the New Testament, we find that God’s work is unchanged from the creation of all things in the beginning to the re-creation of all things in Christ. He is still at work to fill His world with people who love Him and love one another. This is a concept we will explore more in session two, but where sin has brought frustration and even futility to work, God is at work to renew and restore all things, including work, through Christ. And as we will see, His incarnation, death and resurrection make possible and secure the fulfillment of God’s work of creation by establishing a new humanity whom He calls to join with Him in the power of His Spirit to work towards the renewal and restoration of all things.

Jesus’ incarnation in flesh and blood into the physical and material creation is evidence of God’s concern for His creation. It initiated God’s work of re-creation. God does not wish to abandon His creation or His purpose for it. Instead, He wills and delights to redeem and renew it in and through Jesus. As the apostle Paul notes: “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:19-20a). Surely “all things” includes our work. Jesus himself engaged in work as a carpenter, and nowhere in the New Testament is work itself questioned or condemned. Rather, the New Testament embraces work as a normative, even essential, pattern of human life. Further, and most significantly, the New Testament presents Jesus as the One whose work perfectly participates with God in His work. Jesus declared to his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). The work of Jesus is the work of God—to fill the earth with a people who love God and love one another.

If the incarnation of Jesus initiated God’s work of re-creation, the resurrection of Jesus secured it. Jesus’ resurrection in flesh and blood into the physical and material creation again affirms once and for all God’s concern for the whole of His creation—not simply individual souls but the entire fabric of creation’s tapestry including our work. In Jesus’ resurrection, a portal into eternity opened offering a glimpse of a grand reality—work done in this life lasts into the eschatological future. Paul notes to the church at Corinth, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). To the church at Colossae he writes of the resurrected Jesus, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18b). By Jesus’ resurrection, God has secured the re-creation of everything—the whole of the created order and the whole of the human experience—and has set Jesus as the head of a new humanity whom He summons to join with Him in the power of His Spirit in making all things new.

THE CHURCH IS CO-LABORERS WITH JESUS

And the New Testament declares that work is necessary for this mission—not only vocational work, but certainly not less. God is restoring a people to full humanity in Jesus. As God unites people by faith to Jesus, they are themselves a new creation and bear a renewed imago Dei. Recovering the imago Dei means not only a recovery of the centrality of work to our nature but a redirecting of the end and purpose of our work as well. Where sin has misdirected our work to build and serve our kingdom, in Christ, we can now redirect our work to build and serve His kingdom. Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28.19a) is really a reiteration of God’s command to Adam and Eve in the garden. As we have already mentioned, in light of the whole biblical narrative, making disciples cannot be reduced to saving souls. Making disciples mean calling people up into a redeemed humanity and to live in the world in such a way that the redemption they have in Christ overflows to the world around them.

So we must also expand our narrowed understanding of the “good works” to which the New Testament exhorts us to encompass our work along with the whole of life. Too long has the church thought the only works to which we are called, the only “good works” are deeds of piety—Bible reading, prayer, evangelism and giving. Vocation has been a mere deed of necessity—a necessary means to some other end—but not essential. The New Testament demands that such a false dichotomy be collapsed into a single aim of working in all of life, our vocations included, to manifest and multiply love of God and love of neighbor. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For you are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). The whole of the Christian life should be participating in the work of God. Additionally, at the end of his powerful and poetic treatment of the resurrection, Paul commands the Corinthians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Paul understands that those who are in Christ have been re-created to join in God’s work of filling the earth with a people who love Him and love one another. Thus our vocations are one of the primary ways through which God works to bring His work to completion, in part now and perfectly in the eschatological future that is to come when Christ returns to reign on the earth.

It is important to understand, however, that our work does not cease with the arrival of the eschatological future to come—new heavens and new earth. We will at last see the fruit of our work that was aimed at love of God and love of neighbor, but we will also have new work. God’s people will inherit the earth and perfectly assume responsibility to work and keep it—and such work will again be our faithful worship of God.

A BIBLICAL SUMMARY OF WORK

Having surveyed the biblical treatment of work, I want to briefly offer five points in summary.

First, God is a worker. This is the great foundation upon which a biblical doctrine of vocation stands. If God is not Himself a worker, and if He is not working to some end, there is no enduring reason for man to labor. However, the biblical narrative opens its drama with the revelation of God at work to fill the earth with a people who love him and love one another. Work, therefore, is inherently good as it arises out of the constancy of the manifold perfections of the Creator.

Second, God’s call upon man is to work to cultivate the earth. Man’s work to cultivate the earth extends beyond vocations like agriculture or construction. God embedded His creation with the potential for the full array of human culture and civilization—economic structures, social and familial relationships, political organizations, financial institutions and artistic expression—and He calls man to bring out this potential and place it in service of his God and his neighbor.

Third, all vocations are dignified in God’s economy of work.  God accomplishes His work by filling the earth with a people who bear His image and who work in various vocational capacities—accounting, homemaking, teaching and engineering—to bring out the potential of creation. There is no hierarchy of vocation in God’s economy.

Fourth, labor in vocation flourishes when attuned to the rhythms and patterns for work God has established, and Jesus alone worked in perfect cadence with God’s design. Adam and Eve’s sin against God in the garden brought frustration to work. Yet there still remains a structure and order to work which, despite the frustration of the process of work, can redirect work rightly to love of God and love of neighbor. Ultimately, Jesus worked perfectly in step with the rhythm assigned by God. In and through Him, all work is swept up into God’s work of making all things new.

Fifth, the good works to which Christians have been called include vocational endeavors that will endure into the new earth. The dichotomy between deeds of piety and deeds of necessity must be collapsed into a single work. Our vocations are one of the primary ways through which God works to bring His work to completion, in part now and perfectly in the eschatological future. As work manifests and multiplies love of God and love of neighbor, it will endure into the eschatological future and adorn the new earth.

HOW THEN SHOULD WE WORK?

So, we must ask how the biblical view of work informs our life individually and our life corporately. I want to offer four points in summary and briefly discuss how they bear weight on the life of the Christian individually and the life of the church corporately.

First, a biblical doctrine of work parlays into mission. Like any biblical doctrine, a doctrine of work is meant to inform the way we think and live. When we speak of work in the ways we have this morning, it is not a mere academic exercise. It is meant to transform our work—why we work, how we work and the end for which we work. Whether working as an accountant, lawyer, teacher, pharmacist, project manager, architect, engineer, homemaker, banker, student or volunteer, all of our work is to be aimed at manifesting and multiplying love of God and love of neighbor.

Second, God has called the church to work in a diversity of vocations for the good of His people and His world. This means we should not all seek to be at work “in the church” as pastors and missionaries. We should be eager to be at work in the world for the sake of weaving thread of redemption into our work. Further, the community of the church is often harmed by the divisiveness of culturally assigned values given to various vocations. We praise the professional athlete but ignore the sanitation work. We dignify the doctor but disregard the grocery bagger. As a result, even in the community of the church, a stay-at-home mother and homemaker may feel she has less value than the woman who has climbed the corporate ladder and holds an executive level position. A pastor may feel he is more godly than a janitor. The elites of six-figure salaries may feel more vital than minimum-wage workers. Such feelings can easily deconstruct the community of the church. The church must recover a doctrine of work that rightly dignifies all work as it participates with God in His work, so that unity and love might reign in the body of Christ.

Third, a biblical understanding of work frees us from the fruitless search to find identity in our work. A biblical doctrine of work comforts the exhausted with appropriate rest from work, reminding them of their identity in Christ who worked on their behalf, and it also encourages the frustrated with a grander vision of work, reminding them that in Christ, all labors aimed at loving God and loving neighbor are not in vain but are being used by God to display a foretaste of His kingdom in the world.

Finally, because God is at work to fill the earth with a people, our work cannot happen in the isolation of individualism. Work is a Trinitarian activity. The call to manifest and multiply love of God and love of neighbor requires the presence of community. At this point, work for the Christian becomes discipleship. The church must recover this vision for work. Disconnected from community, we will continue to suffer from a shortsighted understanding of work that is blind to the future reality to come. We must labor together to manifest and multiply love of God and love of neighbor through our vocations as we work with God in His world towards the restoration and renewal of all things that is to come once and for all when Christ comes again. Until then, may God empower the work of His people to which He has called us—to manifest and multiply love of God and love of neighbor through our work in His world.