Blue Collar Work: Theological Literature ReviewAcademic Paper / Produced by partner of TOW
Perhaps no single subject dominates the personal landscape of Americans more than workplace concerns. Frustrations with hours, assignments, and expectations, the challenges and rewards of co-worker relationships, anxieties regarding job security, the delights of career advancement, or concern over lack of the same, and even worries about retirement capture the attention of Americans while both on and off the clock. Many workers despise their jobs while other workers delight in them. A few even seem to experience both responses simultaneously.
Christians often ponder the same questions and experience the same challenges. Believers commonly struggle with questions of faith and the workplace. Many see no real connection between the place of employment and the house of worship, no association between the daily devotion and the daily grind. Scripture, however, reveals a strong and significant relationship between the workplace and faith, addressing work-related questions and concerns with answers that often contrast conventional wisdom.
Three key passages form the basis of a solid biblical-theological framework for discerning biblical answers to work-related questions. This chapter will examine these passages and suggest that work be ultimately understood as imputed through creation, informed by rest, empowered by the Spirit, and fueled by anticipation. Such an understanding holds potential to transform the worker, the workplace, and the world by equipping the Christian worker to engage his or her work responsibilities as an opportunity for kingdom- advancing service.
Imputed Through Creation
The language of Genesis 1 invites the reader to marvel as God’s creation of the heavens and the earth unfolds. The Scriptures establish clearly the pattern for how God works; He speaks, and life results. This happens verse by verse, like the growing refrain of a great concerto’s musical theme. At God’s voice, light fills the darkness, vegetation fills the land, fish fill the oceans, creatures fill the forests, and birds fill the air.1
In Genesis 1:26, however, the Divine Composer introduces a new motif and a new instrument through which to sound it: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”2 This straightforward declaration and the verses that surround it begin the biblical revelation that shapes a Christian perspective on work.
God as Worker and Humanity in His Image
The Scriptures declare humanity as formed “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26), a quality unique among all created entities. Fundamentally, no more powerful statement about humanity’s place in created order exists. “By the doctrine of the image of God, Genesis affirms the dignity and worth of man, and elevates all men—not just kings or nobles—to the highest status conceivable, short of complete divinization.”3
Although the implications of this statement have been understood in various ways over the years, 4 David J. A. Clines argues convincingly that Genesis 1:26 reveals God’s original intention of all humanity serving as His representatives throughout the earth.
Specifically, Clines observes that, like Genesis, the literature of both ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia also uses the phrase “the image of god.” These references describe each nation’s king, but only the king as the one chosen to rule as that god’s singular representative over the land.5 In contrast to those ancient Near Eastern accounts, however, Genesis expands God’s commission to include “[hu]mankind generally, without distinction between king and commoner, man and woman, or Israelite and non-Israelite.”6
Scripture confirms the representative nature of humanity with the phrase “and let them rule” (Gen. 1:26). This duty, although not the same as formation in the image of God, links inseparably to it and connects humanity’s leadership in the earth to God’s authority over the earth. Indeed, “Genesis 1:26 may well be rendered: ‘Let us make man as our image… so that they may rule.’”7 Ultimately, Clines suggests, “the image … comes to expression not in the nature of man so much as in his activity and function. This function is to represent God’s lordship to the lower orders of creation.”8
That function finds expression through humanity’s work. Scripture declares humanity formed in the image of God as part of a broader passage revealing God as Worker. “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:2-3). “Work” appears three times in two verses. It translates mela’ka, a word used to describe God’s work only four times in the entire Old Testament, yet with three of those four uses here. Elsewhere, the Old Testament uses mela’ka 151 times, each time describing ordinary human work. By repeatedly using a common word for human labor to describe the work of God and connecting that emphasis contextually with humanity’s formation in the image of God, Scripture inextricably ties humanity’s work to God’s work.9
Indeed, the work assigned to humanity both assumes God’s imputed dominion and achieves it. God commands male and female to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). God places the man in the Garden “to work it and take care of it” (2:15). As Ian Hart observes, Adam’s work in the garden fulfills God’s command to subdue the earth “because it is making the soil produce what you need it to produce rather than simply taking what happens to grow there.”10 Adam’s task of tending the garden replicates God’s work in forming the garden, expressing and extending God’s dominion over creation.
Ben Witherington, referencing Terence Fretheim’s discussion of creation, notes that the verb “subdue” as used in Genesis 1:27 suggests “a built-in wildness to [creation], and various kinds of inherent potential for growth and development.”11 Adam’s assignment may have included even the expansion of the garden to include increasing areas of the earth. Of course, such an understanding would illuminate the need to “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28) in order to subdue it. All this activity reflects humanity’s creation in the image of the God who expresses His dominion through His work.
The revelation of God as Worker stretches far beyond the creation account. The Old Testament repeatedly portrays God’s redemptive activity toward Israel using the language of labor: “… the refiner’s fire, the metal worker’s forge, irrigation, bleaching, building, pottery, forestry and threshing.”12 In the New Testament, Jesus describes God as characteristically working: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). Indeed, Jesus exhorts His disciples to join in the work of the Father: “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me” (9:4).
Jesus’ words echo Genesis 2:15 and serve as a clear invitation to work with God, extending His creative acts. Interestingly, this invitation to partnership with God stands in stark contrast to other creation accounts birthed in the Ancient Near East. The Babylonian creation myth, Enûma Eliš, for example, suggests humanity’s creation so that the gods might be relieved of their work and appears designed to underscore “in the minds of its celebrants that they were slaves.”13 A Sumerian text provides a similar motive among the Sumerian gods with “Nammu, the primordial sea-goddess, urging her son Enki, god of wisdom and water, to create men to relieve the gods from their toil.”14 The Atrahasis Epic offers a Mesopotamian perspective:
- Create a human to bear the yoke.
- Let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil, Let man carry the load of the gods.15
- In each contrasting account, the gods form humanity for tasks of which the gods want no part. In Genesis, God invites humanity to share in His labor and leadership.
Even in forming Adam, God works: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Here Scripture relies again on the language of labor, picturing God’s hands-on activity through the use of the Hebrew word yāsar. Throughout the Old Testament, yāsar conveys the activity of a craftsman and, most frequently, the work of a potter forming the clay.16
The creation account, then, reveals God as Worker and celebrates humanity as formed in God’s image for the express purpose of carrying out His reign on the earth, intricately tying those responsibilities to human labor. Through creation, God imputes to humanity His nature as Worker.
Work as God’s Gift, Not Humanity’s Curse
Some people, misinterpreting Genesis 3:17-19, have mistakenly understood labor as nothing more than part of the curse that results from Adam’s sin. But a closer look at the creation account reveals that work clearly existed before the Fall, not only as part of God’s nature imputed to humanity but also as part of the perfect environment gifted by God to humanity. Having created a well-watered garden full of “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen. 2:9), the Scriptures announce, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (v. 15). Eden, although likely the name of a specific place, means “delight.”17 The word itself suggests a joy for Adam in pursuing the tasks at hand. This was no servile assignment to backbreaking toil, but rather, the opportunity to reign with God over all the earth under the most ideal conditions.18 Like everything else about the Garden of Eden, work flowed from God’s nature as His blessing to humanity.
Specifically, Adam’s task was to “work” and “take care of” the garden. The author of Genesis chose two verbs, shamar, keep/work, and abad, serve, used consistently throughout the Pentateuch in describing the ministry offered by Israel’s priests. This priestly language suggests the Garden of Eden as a type of sanctuary,19 and hints at Adam’s labor in the garden as an act “of spiritual service of the Lord.”20
G. Charles Aalders suggests that “caring for” the Garden included defending it against “hostile forces.”21 Bruce Waltke agrees: “As priest and guardians of the garden, Adam and Eve should have driven out the serpent.”22 Adam’s responsibilities in the garden, then, included not only the cultivation of the ground but also the defense of God’s territory. As Walter Brueggemann notes, “From the beginning the human creature is called, given a vocation, and expected to share in God’s work.”23
The confusion regarding the nature of work as God’s gift generally rises from the narrative that unfolds beginning with Genesis 2:4. Here the attention of Scripture shifts from the majestic creation of the cosmos to “human persons as the glory and central problem of creation.”24 Although formed in the image of God, Adam and Eve succumb to deception and violate God’s singular command. In judgment, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17).
God’s straightforward declaration reveals the impact of Adam’s rebellion on the character of humanity’s work. “Man’s sin does not only affect himself, his relationship with God and with others, but it also affects the natural order.”25 Although the exact nature of this impact is disputed,26 clearly work takes on a more difficult and burdensome quality as a result of Adam’s transgression. Such remains the case today, with work sometimes both frustrating and fruitless. Edward Veith describes the tension: “Work can indeed be satisfying, since it is what we were made for, but it can also be frustrating, pointless, and exhausting.
Work is a virtue … tainted by sin.”27 But the nature of work as a gift from God intrinsic to the created order continues—a created order God himself repeatedly pronounced “good.”28 “It is not work itself but the toilsomeness of work that was added to the equation as a result of the curse involved in the Fall.”29
Work, then, stands as God’s territory, begun at His initiative, consistent with His nature, and blessed with His authority and purpose. Formed in His image, human beings stand privileged to continue the work of God as revealed and rooted in creation itself.
Although impacted by humanity’s rebellion, work remains God’s gift as part of a creation declared good by a perfect God and promised restoration through Jesus Christ.
Informed By Rest
For all the value the Scriptures give it, work never stands complete in and of itself. Biblical work, imputed through creation, must also be informed by biblical rest—a ceasing from the kind of labor that suggests human self-sufficiency and a celebration of the completed work of Christ.
God at Rest and Humanity in His Image
In the first glimpse of the God who works, creating all that is, Scripture also reveals a God who rests. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:2-3). By observing the seventh day as a day of rest, God establishes a pattern for living that includes recurring rest. The triplicate mention of the seventh day highlights its significance in relation to the others. Ironically, even in resting, God still accomplishes: “In the first six days,” says Waltke, “space is subdued; on the seventh, time is sanctified.”30
“Rested” in Genesis 2:2-3 translates the Hebrew word shabbat, meaning to “stop working” or “make rest.”31 Perhaps closer to “cease” in meaning than to “rest” as understood today; “it is not a word that refers to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work.
Rather, it describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.”32 Interestingly, Genesis 2:2-3 contains no requirement of any kind of religious observance concurrent with the Sabbath rest of God. Still, such observances eventually take on a primary significance in the cultic life of Israel as the people of God. The priestly Decalogue in Exodus 20 explicitly connects Sabbath observance and religious worship, describing the seventh day as “a sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:10). By that point, some understanding of Sabbath observance must have already existed in the experience of the Israelites, as a Sabbath-keeping command had previously been invoked in association with the collection of manna in Exodus 16.
Throughout the Old Testament, Sabbath observance ties together four biblical emphases. First, the command to abstain from work reminds the participant of his or her continuing dependence upon God:
The principle involved here in deciding what is work is not so much the physical nature of an activity but its purpose. If its intent signifies human power over nature, if it shows human mastery of the world by the purposeful and constructive exercise of intelligence and skill, then it is [work] that violates the restful intent of Sabbath time to recognize our dependence on God as ultimate Creator-Sustainer.33
The prohibition against work, then, reminds the person who has been formed to reign as God’s representative that he or she does not act independently but, rather, representatively in caring for the garden (Gen. 2:21). The commission and authority to act flow from God, who both commands His representatives to rest and who has set the example by doing so himself. This understanding lies behind Moses’ command in Exodus 20, which cites for its basis God’s rest upon the completion of creation: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exod. 20:10).
Second, the command in Deuteronomy 5 expands Sabbath observance to include the celebration of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Pinchas Kahn believes that this text reflects Moses’ Deuteronomic interpretation of Exodus 20:10, linking together God’s creative and redemptive acts: “Sabbath represents not merely a cyclical order of nature, but rather the order of creation caught up in the dynamic movement of salvation history.”34
Third, Sabbath observance serves as continuing evidence of the Israelites’ unique standing in the world as chosen by God for covenant with Him: “This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Exod. 31:13). Through this correlation, “the creation story is particularized into the creation of a people.”35 Just as created order declares “the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), bearing witness to His voice and activity, so Israel bears witness to His call and redemption through Sabbath observance.
Fourth, as Israel fails to fully conquer the land of Canaan and ultimately suffers exile from it, the Sabbath takes on the quality of a future rest yet to be entered. Israel’s prophets infuse the Sabbath with eschatological significance. This theme emerges in the New Testament, as well, with Hebrews 4 exhorting the reader that “the promise of entering his rest still stands” (Heb. 4:1). Harold Dressler sees this projection toward end-time fulfillment as the primary function of the Sabbath even at its introduction in Genesis 2:2-3. God sanctifies the seventh day as “an eschatological, proleptic sign indicating some future rest.”36For Dressler, more than any other element, God’s Sabbath rest stands as the apex of God’s created order.
By observing the Sabbath, then, the participant remembers and testifies to his or her formation not “independent of” but “in the image of” God and, equally, God’s redemption of the same through His continuing salvific activity. For Israel in particular, Sabbath observance also serves as evidence of her unique position as God’s chosen people (Exod. 31:13, 17).
Ultimately, the Sabbath takes on the eschatological character of a rest not yet achieved but still available to be experienced. For the worker busy expressing the image of God, each of these perspectives carries rich significance.
Rest and False Identity
Schedules only intensify with each passing year. “We live in multiple calendars simultaneously, compartmentalizing and juggling the differing rhythms as everyday life demands.”37 Without some built-in mechanism demanding rest, activity only accelerates.
Moreover, perhaps as a distortion of humanity’s God-given propensity toward work, the increasing pace of life and expanding pressure toward achievement often become addictive.38 David Jensen notes this susceptibility within American culture specifically: “Descartes’ mantra,” he writes, “appears to have modified somewhat since the Enlightenment. American workers, consciously or not, embody the slogan, ‘I am busy, therefore I am.’”39 For some, the ever-expanding responsibilities and obligations associated with workplace success develop into the primary source of personal identity. Steven Tuell warns eager workers to examine honestly their motivation. “Perhaps … our feverish need for busyness demonstrates not zeal, but anxiety; our drive to be constantly involved may actually reflect our need to be in control.”40 Sabbath rest challenges such false presumptions and faulty motivations.
Life does not consist of work alone. “The person who always works,” writes Elton Trueblood, “is missing the good life as truly as does the person who never works.”41 The Scriptural invitation to Sabbath rest serves to counteract this destructive temptation, giving the subject regular opportunity for turning back toward God and the completeness found only in relationship with Him. Only when work stands informed by such rest does the worker recognize that “identity is not created by our labors, but given by the God who works in Jesus Christ on behalf of creation.”42
Certainly identity and work intersect, both for good and for evil. Work often serves as a means to self-actualization because of the personal development it fosters. Equally, work sometimes functions as a detriment to self-actualization because of the alienation it involves. Without a doubt, then, work impacts human identity. But biblical rest reminds the participant that work must not become the source of identity. Miroslav Volf highlights the necessity of finding identity in Christ alone when he writes, “While we must affirm that human beings can and do develop through work, we must firmly deny that as human beings they are constituted through their work. If God’s relation to human beings is the key to their humanness, then their communion with God is the key to their true identity.”43 Without Sabbath rest, workers risk seeking identity through labor and achievement. Sabbath rest facilitates an identity rooted in relationship with God.
Rest and Self-sufficiency
When God delivered the Hebrew people from the horrors of Egyptian slavery, He commanded that they should both work and rest. Most notably, Israel was called to strictly observe a weekly Sabbath. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Deut. 5:13). Likewise, through the festival days and convocations that marked Israel’s annual calendar, Israelites were invited to prioritize relationship with one another and with the God who was the source of their true identity. The Israelites were certainly called to productivity, but also reminded each week and on additional feast days throughout the year that they were more than what they might produce. They were God’s holy people by virtue of their relationship with Him, having been liberated by Him and called to rest in Him. The Israelites’ Sabbath commandment points to how biblical rest invites the grounding of human identity not in the self-sufficiency of human achievement but in the mutual dependency of a community’s relationship with God.
Israel’s observance of Sabbath rest tangibly declared her faith in God’s sufficiency, particularly given that its observance occurred regardless of season. To cease on the seventh day when crops stood in the field ready for harvest definitively announced Israelite confidence that God, not human labor, supplied every need. To “let the land lie unplowed and unused” (Exod. 23:11) every seventh year testified to the same. Indeed, in the exactness of God, over the full seven years the land then enjoyed the same amount of rest as God’s people enjoyed through their weekly observance of the Sabbath.
Specifically, biblical rest gives opportunity for worship, celebrating in the present that ultimate work previously completed by Christ on the cross. Rest from human labor declares the sufficiency of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work” (Heb. 4:10). Through worship facilitated by rest, redeemed humanity declares that “we are justified by grace through faith, not because of the work we do. The measure of our personhood is not the labor we undertake … Rather, our measure is that God has already adopted us as children.”44
Properly understood, then, rest serves as a prophylaxis against damning self- sufficiency. Just as some misunderstand work as something accursed and therefore despise it,
others misunderstand work as salvific and therefore worship it. Scripture, in contrast, identifies work as God’s gift to His creation while announcing humanity’s liberty to cease work by virtue of His redemptive provision in Christ. Sabbath rest results.
Such rest must not be confused with contemporary understandings of leisure. “Leisure,” writes Mark Buchanan writes, “is Sabbath bereft of the sacred.”45 Volf describes rest as having been “driven from leisure.”46 Jensen affirms this assessment, observing that “vacation spots near the beach and mountains are now littered with outlet malls, as if the pleasure of swimming in the ocean or hiking an alpine trail were not enough. Leisure,” he writes, “has become something that Americans commodify and sell.”47 Biblical rest counteracts such fruitless pursuits, encouraging participants to reject the frantic quest for leisure in favor of that ceasing that honors and celebrates God’s redemptive gift. Rest must inform work.
Empowered by the Spirit
The Pattern of Christ and the Scriptures
Although perhaps less familiar than the Genesis creation account, the Scriptures also make significant declarations regarding the relationship between work and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Scriptures, of course, the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit stands synonymous with God’s activity among and through His people. From “the Spirit of the Lord … hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2) in the opening verses of Scripture to “the Spirit and the bride” (Rev. 22:17) echoing God’s welcome in the closing verses, everywhere that God works in and through His people, the Holy Spirit serves an empowering role.
The New Testament in particular emphasizes the necessity of Holy Spirit empowerment for every believer’s life. For this, Jesus himself serves as humanity’s defining model. Perhaps the Gospel of Luke and its companion volume, the book of Acts, accentuate this need most clearly through the repeated prominence Luke gives to the activity of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Christ. In his Gospel’s opening chapter, for example, Luke affirms Jesus’ divine nature as “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35) but underscores the essential role of the Spirit in the Incarnation itself. Although Luke notes some rather exceptional occurrences during Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2), like the other Gospel writers he offers no evidence of any public ministry by Jesus until after the Spirit anoints Jesus at His baptism in the Jordon (3:21-22).48
Additionally, Luke emphasizes the Spirit’s strong leadership both in Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2) and in the launch of His ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14). Perhaps most telling, when Jesus defines himself and His ministry by reading Scripture at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Luke records how Jesus chose verses that focused on the role of the Spirit’s empowerment upon Him as opposed to any reference suggesting reliance upon His divine nature. Specifically, given the opportunity to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Luke reports that Jesus
found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:17-19).
By recording Jesus’ choice of this definitive passage, Luke highlights both Jesus’ understanding of His mission and Jesus’ insight into the means by which that mission would be accomplished: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” With the record of the Holy Spirit’s descent at Jesus’ baptism and the absence of any public ministry prior to that, with the stress placed on the leadership of the Spirit in Jesus’ temptation experience and subsequent ministry visit to Galilee, and with the record of Jesus’ intentional selection of Isaiah 61:1-2 for public reading at the launch of His ministry, Luke paints a clear picture of Jesus as One who carries out His ministry not by virtue of His divine nature but by means of the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon Him.
Jesus’ absolute dependence upon the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in every ministry context serves as a pattern for Jesus’ disciples. Luke records Jesus’ instruction regarding the necessity of Holy Spirit empowerment both at the close of his Gospel (Luke 24:49) and again in the opening chapter of the book of Acts (e.g., Acts 1:4-5, 7-8). Jesus’ directive is clear: Just as He engaged in no public ministry before the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him at His baptism, so the disciples were instructed, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts 1:4). Once given, the Person of the Holy Spirit becomes the source behind and orchestrator of the explosive growth of Christian faith as recorded in the book of Acts.
The anointing of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus—not His nature as the divine Son of God—stands central to His ministry as introduced in the Gospels and as continued through the Church in the book of Acts. Given the sense of necessity and urgency attributed to Holy Spirit empowerment in the Scriptures, any biblical understanding of work must engage the priority of the Spirit in relation to work, regardless of the relative scarcity or abundance of biblical texts that seem to directly address the matter.
One key text actually appears comparatively early in the biblical record. As part of the covenant entered into by Israel at Mt. Sinai, God reveals to Moses detailed plans for an elaborate portable tabernacle. God then identifies for Moses the craftsmen He has chosen to lead in the construction of the structure. God chooses and fills with His Spirit a workman by the name of Bezalel in order that the task of tabernacle construction might be accomplished with proper craftsmanship:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you” (Exod. 31:1-6).
Little is known of Bezalel and even less of Oholiab. Bezalel descended from Caleb (1 Chron. 2:19), and Oholiab, as the Exodus text declares, came from the tribe of Dan. The names of Bezalel and Oholiab, however, may have significance: Bezalel probably means “in the shadow/protection of El [‘el, a name for God].”49 Oholiab’s name means “‘tent of the father’ or ‘the (divine) father is my tent.’”50 The names of these craftsmen, then, may allude to the tabernacle God had commissioned them to construct and, by extension, the covering that Israel’s special relationship with God provides for them.
Although the phrase “the Spirit of God” occurs three other places later in the Pentateuch, God’s filling of Bezalel stands as the first mention of such a moment anywhere in the Scriptures. Its use twice in this section of Exodus (31:3; 35:31) connects the work of Bezalel to the creative activity of the Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2.51 Richard Hess sees particular significance in parallel language fond in Genesis 1 and Exodus 31. Filled52 with the Spirit of God, Bezalel and Oholiab “correspond to the word of God that becomes the agent for separation and creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1.”53 David Williams strikes a similar chord, hinting that the order the Spirit brings to creation in Genesis 1, specifically through differentiating and relating matter, echoed in the work of Bezalel and Oholiab through the shaping and assembling of raw materials to create the tabernacle.54 Wilf Hildebrant notes that, beyond empowerment for the task of building, this filling of the Spirit also equipped Bezalel and Oholiab for the task of instructing others in the tasks necessary for this significant project.55
Further consideration of this text yields three qualities characteristic of Spirit- empowered labor. First, in Spirit-empowered labor, God himself chooses workers and divinely equips them for their assigned tasks. Second, God equips those laborers bountifully, operating, himself, out of abundance, not lack. Third, God establishes work not as an isolated duty but as a community experience. Spirit-empowered work, then, stands shaped by calling, rooted in bounty, and expressed in community.
Shaped by Calling
Since the Protestant Reformation, the predominant work-related theme among theologians has been the concept of work as a calling—specifically, the doctrine of vocation, a term that comes from the Latin word for “calling.” This doctrine comes into prominence of necessity, addressing the interplay between the Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the non-clerical pursuits of ordinary workers. As a doctrine, vocation recognizes God’s creative activity in the formation of every person, encouraging “attention to each individual’s uniqueness, talents, and personality. These are valued as gifts from God, who creates and equips each person in a different way for the calling He has in mind for that person’s life.”57 Bezalel, Oholiab, and all the skilled workers referenced in Exodus 31 function in the context of vocation, operating in the gifts of God, working on tasks that carry spiritual significance specifically because God ordained them.
In this way, the doctrine of vocation sacralizes even the most ordinary and mundane work. Rather than “make everyone into church workers; … it turn[s] every kind of work into a sacred calling.”58 Vocation recognizes that God continues to act creatively in His world through the various gifts and calls He extends to those He creates. As a result, even given humanity’s broken relationship with God and resultant expulsion from the Garden of Eden, through vocation people continue on some level to function in authority over the earth as God’s representatives, carrying out His creative work. “God did not exhaust creativity in the first week of the world,” Fretheim asserts. “God continues to create and uses creatures in a vocation that involves the becoming of creation.”59 Through vocation, then, believers continue God’s creative act.
Moreover, Spirit-empowered workers pursue their vocations in keeping with God’s unique design for them, recognizing that God holds the highest authority and, with it, freedom to direct the paths of His followers as He sees fit. They acknowledge that certain things are beyond understanding and even knowing. They present themselves as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1), submitting themselves for God’s use as He made them, believing that He wisely and purposely “formed them in the womb” (Jer. 1:5). In doing so, they recognize the limitations inherent in human wisdom and seek to capitalize on the gifts and abilities they have received to the glory of God. “Human beings were intended to work, and not just to do any kind of work, but to do good works, doing them in accord with the way we have been fashioned, the abilities we have been given, and therefore the vocations for which we are best suited.”60 Through vocation, then, believers rest in God’s unique design.
Some contemporary thinkers, however, suggest the historical doctrine of vocation hints too strongly of resignation or even fatalism. Jensen identifies one such limitation, arguing that “the language may exhibit socially conservative tendencies that encourage one to stay in one’s place. [But] if we are to claim that God calls persons uniquely,” he counters, “then we must also recognize that the human propensity for order may obstruct the transformative call of God’s grace.”61 Witherington distinguishes between calling and vocation, suggesting that “call is the divine initiative. Vocation happens when we respond to the call.”62 Volf goes further, arguing that Martin Luther’s understanding of work as vocation remains (1) indifferent toward alienation in work, (2) dangerously ambiguous in defining “calling,” (3) easily misused ideologically to ennoble dehumanizing work rather than improve working conditions and systems of employment, (4) not applicable to increasingly mobile industrial and information-based societies, (5) not applicable to the variety of jobs, work schedules, and career field changes that characterize contemporary employment, and (6) deficient in reducing vocation to employment, inadvertently elevating work to the status of religion. “The religious pursuit of work,” he writes, “plays havoc with the working individual, his fellow human beings, and nature.”63
The doctrine of vocation, then, reflects the experience of Bezalel, Oholiab, and their co-workers in Exodus 31. Vocation fills otherwise ordinary labor with significance and sheds light on understanding work as God’s gift. Vocational work continues God’s commitment to forming and filling a shapeless and empty world as in the beginning. God’s calling helps the individual identify and engage in his or her particular role in partnership with God and as part of God’s master plan for the advancement of His creation.
Rooted in Bounty
Abundance characterizes Spirit-empowered work. Filled with the Spirit of God, Bezalel receives wisdom, understanding, knowledge and “all kinds of skills” (Exod. 31:3), including the ability “to engage in all kinds of crafts” (v. 4). God gives Bezalel an assistant, Oholiab, and provides “ability to all the skilled workers to make everything” He had commanded (v. 6). Exodus 36 describes every worker as “willing to come and do the work” (36:2). R. Paul Stevens explains here that “the Hebrew literally means that their hearts were lifted up to become involved in this work”64 (emphasis added)—the language of abundance. Moreover, all of this takes place in the context of such generous giving on the part of God’s people that Moses must instruct the people to stop bringing offerings for the building of the Tabernacle “because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work” (36:7).
Such abundance exists repeatedly in Scripture where the Spirit of God reigns. In the creation account, Adam receives “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen. 1:29).65 Following the flood, Noah hears, “Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (9:3). Abram’s conversation with God includes this promise: “Look around … . All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever” (13:14-15). When Jesus feeds five-thousand with five loaves and two fishes (Mark 6:34-44), twelve baskets remain leftover. In Acts, because of the generosity of the followers of Christ, “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). The New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 is marked by such abundance that “the nations … walk by its light and the kings of the earth … bring their splendor into it” (Rev. 21:24).
All this reflects and flows from the nature of God himself. God acts on creation’s behalf not because lack requires it, but because bounty compels it. Ephesians 2, for example, describes God as “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) and further identifies God’s abundance as the motivation behind His redemptive activity. Specifically, “because of his great love for us,” Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ” (vv. 4-5). In other words, although humanity certainly stands in need before God, His actions toward His creation do not flow out of their need but out of His greatness. Even within the Trinity itself, perichoresis exists not because Father, Son, or Holy Spirit lacks in any way but because each abounds in every way. Additionally, as Jensen observes, “the divine persons are what they are only within this eternal relationship”66 This intrinsic abundance within the Godhead results in generosity toward human beings, as God “shares creativity and power with those he works with, choosing to work in community.”67 The Apostle John affirms this when he writes, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16).
Presupposing that out of and because of His abundance God has supplied everything needed allows for a generosity regarding work and its fruits that corresponds, then, to God’s generosity of grace toward us. As Jensen observes, “Whereas current patterns of work imply scarcity and competition, the divine work operates out of abundance, generosity, and freedom.”68 When confidence rests in God’s abundance, work becomes God’s gift to generously share not a commodity to battle over. Resources become evidences of God’s grace to utilize for the benefit of the whole, not possessions to hoard. By implication, enough wealth-creating work exists within the realm of God’s creation to engage gainfully all willing people. Enough divine abundance exists to supply every need.
Current economic presumptions generally assume limitations, not sufficiency. A scarcity mindset, however, impacts the human thought process negatively, leaving people preoccupied with what they do not have and minimizing their capacity for fruitful decisions regarding what they do have. In their recent book, Sendhill Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir examine how even the perception of scarcity captures the mind and restricts human percipience. Concern over insufficiency, whether genuine or only imagined, left subjects robbed of “cognitive capacity and executive control”69—essentially, the mental ability and human willpower required for productive assessment and action.
By contrast, presupposing the abundance and generosity of God leads to different conclusions not only about the nature and purpose of work but also about broader economic realities. As Jensen explains, “What differentiates reigning economic assumptions from their ecclesial counterparts is that sharing in the former is needed as an exigency amid scarcity. In the church’s economy, however, the world already has all it needs, and the desire is that all should participate in fullness.”70 Knowledge of that fullness—the fullness of the triune God who created and redeems all that exists—must transform humanity’s understanding of work into God’s grace-based and sufficient gift.
Part of the challenge lies in the believer’s inclination to limit the effective sphere of the grace of God. Quoting A. I. C. Heron, Volf suggests that most Protestant theology has been “inclined to restrict the activity of the Spirit to the spiritual, psychological, moral or religious life of the individual.”71 Volf expounds, suggesting, “first, the activity of the Spirit was limited to the sphere of salvation, and second, the locus of the present realization of salvation was limited to the human spirit.”72 The Scriptures paint a different picture, suggesting that the activity of the Spirit is not bound to such limitations and, indeed, has liberty to engage the whole person and the entire world, including every laborer’s task and every economic system extant on the planet.
Expressed in Community
When people see lack and deficiency as abnormal and, instead, see gracious supply from a generous God as typical, relational paradigms shift, as well. Rapport replaces rivalry and interaction supplants isolation. Where resources are more than adequate, others become partners, not competitors. As Jensen asserts, “The divine economy underscores primacy of relation and the priority of persons over labor.”73 This prioritizing of relationships moves people toward alignment with the Trinitarian reality in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternally harmonious relationship. Equally, this reflects the warm invitation Jesus extended to weary laborers: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Indeed, Jesus calls His closest disciples first into relationship— “that they might be with him”—and only after that toward productivity—“that he might send them out to preach and have power to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15).
The Trinitarian Godhead’s example of and invitation to the prioritization of relationship stands in stark contrast to the overarching emphasis on individualism in contemporary culture. People obsess over individual rights and individual preferences. But “in the process of individualization,” writes Witherington, “we lost contact with the biblical notion of collective personality—that is, how we get our true identity through the group we belong to, in this case, the body of Christ.”74 Michael Matheson Miller agrees, shattering the myth of the isolated individual by announcing “individualism is a myth … there are no individuals.”75 Further reflection suggests this is not far from the truth. Humans have identity not in isolation but only in relationship, as no one exists apart from relationship. From the moment of conception, every person is “son” or “daughter”—a statement of relationship. The same stands true for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who eternally exist only in relationship with one another. Because of this, stresses Greg Forster, “we need to see the work of everyone around us and understand the vast cultural system of economic exchange through which we all serve one another as independent co-stewards.”76 Apart from such an understanding, human labor lacks the relational context God intends.
Biblical work, then, which with the appearing of Jesus becomes more specifically the work of the kingdom of God, is characteristically shared labor that grows from God’s abundance. God models this from the beginning, “shar[ing] creativity and power with those he works with, choosing to work in community, from the dawn of Creation when he says, ‘Let us make man …’ and on an ongoing basis ever since.”77 Shared labor characterizes all truly biblical labor.
Moreover, Scripture presents shared prosperity—generosity—as a primary motivation behind biblical work. Paul instructs the Ephesian believers, for example, that “he who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28). Notice that Paul intends not simply for believers to live within the law, or even be gainfully employed, but that they practice both those disciplines so that they might also practice generosity. The New Testament strongly and repeatedly encourages generosity, particularly toward the needy.78
Generosity, then, reflects the heart of God while testifying to God’s intent behind work. It stands in stark contrast to the spirit of this age where “consumption has become the stimulus for work. In a society that prizes acquisition, consumption, and disposable commodities, work is not valued in itself, but because work creates the means for devouring more products.”79 Biblical work recognizes the need to provide for one’s family (1 Tim. 5:8), but also embraces God’s heart for those in need, aware of the abundance that marks the character of God.
This sense of partnership and community in human work stretches beyond relationship with God and relationship with others to include the whole of “non-human creation.”80 Humanity is created “from the earth,” anticipating their inherent connection with labor, but also “in the image of God,” clarifying that their identity grows out of relationship with the One who formed them. “It is not just that we work on the earth or in the earth; it is that we work with the earth, and as our home and habitat we need to treat it with respect. … Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.”81 Rightly understood, the communal quality of human labor stretches to include all non-human creation, also.
The implications of such an understanding run deep, suggesting that every time a mechanic turns a wrench or a waitress delivers a meal, every time a surgeon makes an incision or a CEO makes a decision, that worker does so in response to and as an expression of the abounding grace of God, not in isolation, but in partnership—with God, with others, and with the world itself.
Fueled By Anticipation
A biblical understanding of work, then, grounds work in the goodness of creation, informs work through the practice of Sabbath rest, and accomplishes work in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. A fully Pentecostal understanding of work, however, also celebrates work as both a present and anticipatory expression of the eschatological reign of Christ. Biblically, the Spirit-empowered believer works in cooperation with God toward God’s consummative act as declared in Revelation. Properly understood, then, humanity’s relationship to work stands rooted in the past activity of creation and the present reality of redemption. But the panoramic significance of work remains incomplete without considering the connection between work and God’s Kingdom both present and coming.
Living the Future Now
From the moment sin fractured the world in the Garden of Eden, anticipation of the world’s healing began. Beginning with the blood sacrifice required in order to supply Adam and Eve with “garments of skin” (Gen. 3:21) extending to the blood sacrifices demanded of Israel’s covenant, God repeatedly foreshadowed an altogether righteous sacrifice capable of making humanity whole. Likewise, from the warning to the serpent regarding one of Eve’s descendants—“He will crush your head” (v. 15)—to the multiple prophetic declarations promising a righteous Kingdom ruled by a righteous king,82 God made clear His commitment to restore not just broken people but broken creation.
God’s plan for creation’s redemption advances powerfully through the ministry of Christ. Fulfilling God’s prophetic promises, Jesus evidences through His ministry heaven’s invasion of this earthly realm. He draws to himself disciples who share His mission, teaching them to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) and to work for the same. Ultimately, following His death, resurrection, and exaltation, that same eternal Spirit by which Jesus ministered is generously poured out on all flesh, and the age to come continues its aggressive invasion of this present age. Life becomes, for a rapidly expanding number of redeemed people, a present experience of eternal realities. “The unprecedented aspect of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom,” writes Graham Cray, “was that the future rule of God was in some sense present now.”83
Jesus’ resurrection serves as “an anticipation of the new creation [with] eschatological consequences for the new heavens and the new earth.”84 The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shatters the barrier between “this age” and “the age to come.”85 Eternity now continuously invades time through the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in the earth. Indeed, as “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:14), the activity of the Holy Spirit is, by definition, eschatological—offering a present expression of a promised future. Spirit empowered believers live the future now.
All of this powerfully impacts a Christian understanding of the role and significance of work. Indeed, for Volf, no more significant factor exists. “At its core,” he writes, “Christian faith is eschatological. Christian life is life in the Spirit of the new creation or it is not Christian life at all. … Christian work must, therefore, be done under the inspiration of the Spirit and in light of the coming new creation.”86 Although work may be intrinsic to human nature by virtue of humanity’s creation in the image of God and transformed into something bountiful and communal through humanity’s redemption by the grace of God, the most compelling characteristic of truly biblical work now emerges as its eschatological character imputed by the Spirit of God.
Striving for His Kingdom Come
For Volf, God’s coming Kingdom establishes the pattern toward which all Christian activity must aim. Concern for current realities holds significance primarily in terms of its contrast with future realities as promised in Christ and the new creation. Articulating these contrasts provides the foundation for understanding the goal of Christian service. The purpose behind any theology of work, indeed behind work itself, must stand as “ever greater correspondence with the coming new creation.”87
Amy Sherman develops this theme at length, declaring that “the consummated kingdom is marked by two major, closely related features: justice and shalom.”88 Justice, for Sherman, breaks down into rescue, equity, and restoration. “The justice of God,” she writes, “is all about restoring wholeness in relationships—with God and with other human beings.”89 Shalom finds expression in four quadrants of peace: peace with God, self, others, and creation.
These two qualities of justice and shalom provide a basic framework for Christian labor. Such efforts often falter, however, when Christians (1) understand the gospel too narrowly, concentrating on the individual and the past; (2) understand heaven too inadequately, divorcing eternity from the here and now; (3) lack accountability regarding the implementation of personal faith; and (4) live in a homogenous culture, insulated from other social classes and ethnicities.90 Sherman warns the Church not to “shrinkwrap the kingdom down to this limited scope of activity.”91 “If anything,” she writes, “this gospel is about heaven coming to earth, not us going to heaven.”92
N. T. Wright sheds further light on the conversation with his challenge toward “imagining the Kingdom.”93 Wright argues that biblical scholarship has historically failed to see the story of Jesus as “the continuation and climax of the ancient story of Israel.”94 The Gospels, he suggests, stand in contrast to the contemporary narrative of the rise of Augustus, the Roman emperor, and declare “how Israel’s God becomes king of the whole world.”95 Unlike a gospel, then, in which “the purpose of the whole thing is ‘to go to heaven when you die,’”96 the biblical Gospels invite us to imagine “the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and [work] for that end.”97
Perhaps Paul’s words in Colossians 3:22-24 provide the most directly illuminating New Testament passage regarding the eschatological character of work. Collectively, Colossians 3:18-4:1 expound on Paul’s previous exhortation that the believer should put both heart and mind on things above (Col. 3:1, 2), put to death that which belongs to the earthly nature (v. 5), and live as one who has “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (v. 10). Colossians 3:18 through 4:1 ultimately extrapolates what it means to “do … all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 3:17).
Martin Luther described Colossians 3:18-4:1 as a Haustafel, meaning “a list of rules for the household.”98 The list defines the ethical responsibilities relative to various positions within a domestic unit. In each case, the passage identifies the party being addressed, commands a certain course of action, and provides a motivating statement for the specified behavior.99 The structure suggests a “literary independence”100 from both what precedes and what follows it. Indeed, some scholars suggest the verses addressing wives and husbands and children and parents reflect roots in pre-Christian ethical instruction. O’Brien, however, argues that verses 22-24 appear unique to Paul. “Even those commentators who have asserted most forcefully that Paul took over and Christianized material from Hellenism or Hellenistic Judaism in the household tables concede that [the injunctions given slaves and masters] have been newly formulated as specifically Christian instructions.”101
Given that slaves constituted as much as one-half the population of the Roman Empire,102 Paul may have developed and included this material at this point in hopes of diffusing any concern from outside Christianity over the threat of social upheaval inherent in the pronunciation of equality made in 3:11.103 Still, part of the assurance of Colossians 3:22- 24 as distinctly Christian instruction grows from the status given slaves by the passage. “Contemporary non-Christian writings, both pagan and Jewish, do not ordinarily address, or refer to, slaves as morally responsible persons.”104 Indeed, the contemporary culture made no distinction between slaves and any other piece of production equipment. “The Roman Varro classified farm implements into three classes: the articulate, the inarticulate, and the mute— the articulate being slaves.”105 Paul erases such distinctions and affirms strongly the equality of all humanity in Christ.
Equality brings responsibility, however. In contrast to earlier codes that may have contributed to what Paul has written, he treats each individual as a responsible moral agent in his or her own right.106 Indeed, Angela Standhartinger argues that isotes (fair) in 4:1 serves as an “interpretive key to reading the [household] code”107 and is designed to ultimately undermine the “unambiguously oppressive ethics”108 reflected in 3:18-4:1. Susan Henderson’s language uses less inflammatory language, suggesting that the author encourages the Colossians to “transform [existing cultural] values by means of the distinctive ‘grace’ that derives from new life in Christ.”109
Significantly in regard to work, the passage frames human labor in uniquely Christian parameters, even labor offered under the most distressing circumstances. Although Paul directs these words of exhortation to slaves, the principles revealed remain pertinent today.
Indeed, these words may hold particular significance for the contemporary blue-collar or pink-collar worker whose employment obligations provide limited opportunity for any kind of autonomy or self-direction on the job. Paul writes:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven (Col. 3:22-4:1).
Colossians 3:22 exhorts slaves to “obey … earthly masters in everything.” The phrase “earthly masters” translates kata sarxa and hints that some other “Master” may be involved. Paul warns against “eye-service” only, using ophthalmodoulia, a word found here for the first time in Greek literature and perhaps a word coined by Paul himself.110 Paul invites, instead, labor offered with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (Col. 3:22). “Sincerity of heart” (haplotes kardias) reflects “a singleness of intention, a focus of purpose, springing from the center of motivation and concern.”111 Such intentionality should couple with “reverence for the Lord,” an emphasis reminiscent of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
The eschatological character of Paul’s exhortation comes to the forefront in Colossians 3:23 where Paul promises sincere, reverent, full-hearted laborers “an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” “Inheritance” translates kleronomias, a word appearing fourteen times in the New Testament. More than just the forgiveness experienced at salvation,112 the word carries eschatological dimensions, ultimately connecting God’s redemptive action with “future fulfillment at the end of time.”113 Scholars disagree on the voice of the final sentence: although, as above, many translate in the indicative voice, others argue for the imperative, “Serve the Lord Christ.” The voice of the latter matches the previous imperative for “work” and may align better with the section’s concluding verse: “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism” (Col. 3:25), especially with the inclusion of the debated textual variant gar.114
Any biblical perspective on human work must embrace this scriptural promise of an inheritance from Christ. Certainly, the first-century slave “could expect neither ‘recompense nor inheritance’”115 for labor diligently offered. Indeed, in other New Testament passages, the Scriptures highlight the lack of any standing on the part of the slave.116 In Colossians 3:24-25, however, the Christ-pleasing laborer is assured both that “the Lord would take care of any indignities suffered in the role imposed upon him [and that] in the Kingdom he could expect the same lot as his master, the eternal ‘inheritance.’”117
“Working for the Lord” (Col. 3:23) certainly involves exhibiting the kind of character qualities that Paul describes in the preceding section of Scripture, Colossians 3:1-17. The eschatological promise of Colossians 3:24, however, stretches the implications for biblical work beyond those desirable traits to include an understanding of human labor as a means of anticipating and expressing God’s coming Kingdom in the here and now. “With this ‘new creation’ orientation, work becomes a type of eschatological mandate rather than simply a creation mandate.”118 Biblical work anticipates and strives toward the realization of the Kingdom of heaven on earth. “Work … from a Christian perspective, is not just viewed in light of the original creation order, much less in light of the Fall. It is primarily viewed in the light of the Christ event, and it looks forward to the completion of that event when Christ returns.”119 Colossians 3:22-4:1 expands the timeline of work’s significance from creation’s beginnings forward into eternity yet to come.
Expecting Eternal Results
For some, an eschatological concept of work raises questions of the validity of such work, and specifically whether any benefit accrues from such work given the brokenness of this world until the return of Christ. A common Christian understanding presumes the annihilation of this world, although not the annihilation of its human inhabitants, and the eternal experience of “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). Indeed, the Apostle Peter declares, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (v. 10). Taken alone, these verses suggest that “since everything will be destroyed in this way” (v. 11), investment in advancing the Kingdom of heaven on earth results in only temporary impact at best.120
Without detracting from the return of Christ or the ultimate destruction of that built with “wood, hay, or straw” (1 Cor. 3:12), Volf argues that the liberation of creation, as described in Romans 8:21, “cannot occur through its destruction but only through its transformation.”121 The continuity evident in the pre- and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus provides a biblical precedent. “As the resurrection of Christ shows,” says Volf, “… the new creation is a reaffirmation of the first.”122 The way in which the resurrection body of Christ ties to the natural body of Christ suggests something about how the liberated creation ties to the historical creation. “The resurrection body demands a corresponding, glorified but nevertheless material, environment.”123
This understanding of redeemed humanity’s eternal experience as something earthy and palpable challenges much conventional thought. However, as Andrew Shepherd declares, “Paul’s understanding of the ‘gospel’ could not be further removed from the appalling belief held by many Christians that creation will be destroyed by God and that our eternal future consists of some sort of disembodied state with other souls in a place called ‘heaven.’”124 Indeed, the creation account itself demands something different. The “concept of human holiness,” writes Carol Wiseman, “has its origins in creation. God is holy; therefore all that He created was holy.”125 Christians should reexamine their presumptions regarding the eternal destiny of God’s once-entirely-holy creation in view of Christ’s resurrection and the biblical promise of creation’s liberation.
When believers integrate the liberation of creation itself and the resurrection of their own bodies into their understanding of life eternal, present Kingdom-advancing labors take on entirely new dimensions. Murray Dempster describes such efforts as “kingdom-signifying deeds of anticipatory transformation” and declares that these “are the kinds of human effort that God preserves, sanctifies and directs teleologically toward the future age of God's redemptive reign.”126 Today’s work holds rich potential for bearing fruit of eternal value.
Indeed, biblical texts promise a rich and eternal prize specifically as a reward for diligent earthly labor. The Parable of the Talents stands as a prime example. The servant who did no work in his master’s absence finds himself cast into outer darkness. “In that place,” Jesus says, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). But those servants who labored faithfully and fruitfully find abundant reward: “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, 23). The Apostle Paul anticipates such a reward, declaring, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8). Finally, John echoes this theme in Revelation, where “the one who is victorious and does my [Jesus’] will to the end” (Rev. 2:26) is promised authority over the nations—a promise reflected in the repeated references to the new role of the redeemed as kings and priests (5:10; 20:6; 22:5).
Fundamentally, then, “all present activity is a convergence of creation and hope, integrating the creation order with the perfect order of the age the come.”127 An eschatological perspective on work recognizes that believers live the future now and rightly strive to work in such a way that advances God’s heavenly Kingdom on the earth, confident of results that will endure on that day when God’s consuming “fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor. 3:13).
The Scriptures stand replete with insight for the contemporary worker. Work is no curse but rather God’s gift. Humanity’s propensity for work reflects creation in the image of God. Rest provides a necessary balance to work, challenging the worker to find his or her identity not in labor or labor’s results but in the finished work of Christ. Work and its products are not commodities to fight over but gifts from an abundant God to share in community as graciously as He has shared himself with humanity. Indeed, beyond salvation He has gifted and enabled every human in order that His creative acts might continue to unfold through humanity as part of His plan for eternity. All of this expresses and anticipates that future day when the Father brings “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:10), and a redeemed humanity participates in “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).