Labor Day Reflections on Work

Tomorrow we here in the United States celebrate Labor Day, a holiday originally created in the 1880s to commemorate the efforts of trade and labor organizations. Today, however, the day is largely seen as a final day of vacation that marks the end of the summer. People often celebrate with cookouts or road trips, all of which are great.

But this year Labor Day has provoked me to think about a Biblical view of labor/work. Here in the United States many people regard work as something to be avoided or endured until the next opportunity for recreation. This attitude has resulted in an unbiblical view of retirement as a time to indulge oneself with a life of comfort and leisure. Sadly, such flawed views of work have infiltrated the church, where many have the same view of work that our culture does.

So what then does a biblical understanding of work entail? A blog entry is no place for a fully developed treatment, so all I can offer here are a series of claims about the biblical nature of work that I regard as essential.

1. God created Adam and Eve to work in the Garden (Gen 2:15). Some Christians (whether consciously or unconsciously) have the impression that work is a result of the Fall rather than a part of the created order. But Gen 2:15 makes it clear that God placed Adam in the Garden to “cultivate and keep it” and then created Eve as his helper in the task (Gen 2:18). This work was part of Adam and Eve’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). So work is part of who God has made us to be; it is part of the original created order that God designated as “very good.”

2. Adam and Eve’s rebellion resulted in work becoming difficult (Gen 3:17-19). God curses the ground as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Suddenly work became difficult as the curse altered the created order. At the risk of repetition, it must be reiterated that work is not the result of the Fall; it is the difficulty of work in a fallen world that is emphasized.

3. God instructs his people to rest from work regularly (Exod 20:8-11). God establishes the pattern of our work by instructing his people to rest regularly from their work so that they may focus particularly on worshiping him. However one understands the Christian’s responsibility to keep the Sabbath, we can all agree that God enjoins his people to rest regularly from their work.

4. All work is to be done for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom (Gen 1:27-30; Exod 19:5-6; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:23). Although I think this is implied at several points in the OT (particularly the kingdom of priests notion), this principle is most clearly seen in the NT. In Gen 1:27-30, the idea that God creates man in his image is at least in part explain by the task he assigns them. This implies that reflecting God’s image is central to a biblical view of work. Paul applies this principle to tasks as mundane as eating and drinking in 1 Cor 10:31, while in Col 3:23 he exhorts his readers to do all work as to the Lord. If the ultimate goal of the kingdom is for the glory of the Lord to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14).

5. Christ through his active obedience perfectly accomplished the work the Father gave to him (John 17:4; 19:30). As the Son of God who obeyed where both Adam and Israel failed, Christ did everything his Father commanded. The climax of that work was his sacrificial crucifixion, triumphant resurrection, and glorious ascension that accomplished the redemption of his people and inaugurated his reign.

6. Christ commissioned his followers to work for the advancement of his kingdom until he returns (Matt 28:18-20; John 17:18; 1 Pet 2:9-10). Jesus stressed that he was sending his disciples into the world just as the Father had sent him. After his resurrection Jesus specified the nature of that commission as making disciples, while Peter applies the language of kingdom of priests to believers. These different perspectives all contribute to the reality that Christ commission his followers to work for the advancement of his kingdom in anticipation of his return.

7. In the new heavens and new earth God’s people will continue to work (Rev 22:3). In the final chapter of the Bible, John paints a stunning picture of the new heavens and the new earth. One of the lenses he uses is a new Eden. In that new Eden, God’s people will serve him. This may come as a shock to some Christians who perceive the eternal state as nothing but recreation. Part of what makes the new heavens and the new earth so beautiful is not the absence of work, but the absence of the curse that makes work difficult. Can you imagine being able to serve the Lord without any hindrance from sin, fatigue, frailty, or anything else that limits our ability to serve God?

I don’t claim that this is the last word on a biblical theology of work, but I trust that it may serve as a useful first word. May we all take seriously Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Cor 15:58)

6 thoughts on “Labor Day Reflections on Work”

  1. Great first word, Matt. When I read your topic, my first thought was “will he say that work isn’t a result of the fall”? And sure enough, that was point number 1. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who think work is a result of the curse. Certainly the fall made work “work,” but that’s point number 2.

    I would add another point regarding the purpose of work. It’s not to ACCUMULATE for ourselves, but rather that we “have something to share with one who has need” (Eph 4:28b).

    I would also like to see you develop your statement “This attitude has resulted in an unbiblical view of retirement as a time to indulge oneself with a life of comfort and leisure” into a full-fledged point in your theology of work.

    Great post! And Happy Labor Day!

  2. Gary,

    Thanks for chiming in. Your suggestion to add something regarding the necessity of sharing the fruits of our work with others is well-taken. Regarding retirement, I have more to say on the subject, but wanted to keep the post brief. But it may be worth separating the point out for its own consideration.

  3. I can’t wait to see what you have to say on retirement! It’s certainly an issue we wrestle with.

    BTW, feel free to stop by McDuda Land and let your voice be heard. I need all the feed back I can get!

  4. Just a thought – is there a difference between work, service and worship in the NT? Seems that D A Carson suggests there isn’t (somewhere but I can’t remember). I say this in response to point 3 “God establishes the pattern of our work by instructing his people to rest regularly from their work so that they may focus particularly on worshiping him.” I would say that that would be true in the sacred space of the Promised Land as the place of performance of the statutes and regulations that Moses gave the people was clearly the land. So I’m partly convinced already that discussing work, Sabbath and service have to take into consideration the theme of land in biblical theology to address this topic appropriately.

  5. And I think it would also have to take into consideration what differences there may be between the Old and New Covenants on the basis of Jesus Christ.

    You also raise a point that can lead to a conclusion that there is certain work that Christians should not do (Point 4). At first blush it sounds radical. But given more thought it may prove to be absolutely true. In which case I am quick to ask, can a Christian be held responsible for being part of an organization that may do things in such a way that would actually do violence to the gospel in the world (even unbeknownst to the Christian worker)? Say for instance you work for Chevron as a Christian and Chevron behaves very badly in Nigeria and poisons the water there and makes life for the Anglican Christians there very, very difficult. Is that worker giving glory to God? You know, just fulfilling any average role in the Chevron company in the US?

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